I’m Lorraine Pestell, a 52-year-old Londoner now living in Melbourne, Australia. As a longstanding sufferer of clinical depression and anxiety, life has dealt me a series of challenging circumstances which led to in an initial diagnosis of chronic depersonalisation or dissociative disorder before a subsequent diagnosis of compound Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I committed suicide in 2003, unsuccessfully as I discovered to my extreme disappointment, “saved” by a friend who happened to check his e-mails in the dead of night. Given the devastating effect this episode had on my parents, I promised not to make another attempt until they had both passed away, which has left me stuck in no-man’s land for the foreseeable future.
Having followed all sage advice offered by psychiatrists, counsellors and do-gooders who think they know even better, I took up golf, became a runner and a gym junkie, joined a choir, changed jobs, got married again, moved state (twice) and so on and so forth, all to no avail. I am simply not meant to be happy, which is not so unusual across our modern population when up to 50% of us will experience depressive illness at some point in our lives.
My whole life has been spent acting happy. “Oh, get out of the doldrums,” a colleague once jeered. Did she really think people choose to be depressed? And on top of this dubious choice, would we choose to have its impact exaggerated still further by willingly attracting violence and abuse into our lives? Perhaps so, and this exactly why I began writing.
“Fake it ‘til you make it,” we hear regularly. No-one wants to spend time with a grump; not family, not co-workers and certainly not my partners, who have successively run for the hills! I plaster a smile on my face as I walk through my office entrance and crack jokes to entertain everyone, including myself. This phenomenon is also quite common among sufferers, recently drawing gasps of surprise from those unaware when the world woke up to Robin Williams’ death last year. How can someone so talented and funny be depressed? Well, it’s quite simple. This is the behaviour the world demands of us if we are to avoid stigma, ridicule and rejection.
Spending a good proportion of my waking hours pretending to be someone else is absolutely exhausting, and I have found only two antidotes for this: Nikki, my gorgeous rescued Belgian Shepherd dog (and others before her), and writing contemporary fiction. I have always been a keen writer, but this very solitary pursuit really came into its own as a therapeutic tool once I made the decision to publish my six-part novel serial, “A Life Singular” (http://www.ALifeSingular.com).
To explain further, this article shares various ways in which I believe creative writing can help certain people with PTSD. Of course, not everyone with mental illness enjoys writing, but writing is only one of many creative art-forms, and these tips are equally applicable to music, painting, sculpture, etc.
I must include a disclaimer here before I go further... I’m not a qualified psychologist or clinician, and cannot be seen to recommend specific treatments. These tricks work for me and are also corroborated by fellow sufferers, and I certainly do not wish to contradict any professional opinions or promise a miracle cure.
Therefore, in reverse order of effectiveness but all inextricably connected, here are my Top Ten ways that writing can alleviate the symptoms of PTSD:
Every artist needs a muse! Although writers are quite often loners who can spend extended periods in their own company without the need for external stimulation, PTSD sufferers need to force themselves to think beyond themselves and their symptoms in order to remain functional in society.
Psychologists recommend talking through our issues with counsellors (for a fee) or friends (for coffee or lunch). However, on those days when I can’t possibly bear to put on a brave face with other people and yet I know it would do me good to reach out, nothing beats sharing passages of my writing with Nikki. As long as it’s not at walk- or dinner-time, she always listens attentively and makes me feel very important and intelligent in my attempt to verbalise my thoughts. I’m sure if she could clap, she would.
Online writing community
Taking this vital need for external influence a step further, the Internet and an exploding online population of independent authors have provided me with a whole host of new kindred spirits, whether they’re writing novels or poetry, romance or horror, memoirs or sci-fi. Especially in recent years, since companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords have made it so simple to publish our work at very low cost, there are new writers springing up everywhere, most of whom are encouraging and helpful to each other.
Sufferers of mental health conditions such as PTSD, depression, bi-polar and anxiety find the safe distance offered between us and these “friends” by social media is so much more comfortable than having to interact with a real, live, opinionated person when we don’t have the stamina to defend ourselves. It’s much easier to walk away from the computer after an intolerant comment than it is to leave a restaurant table or office meeting.
Self-esteem / self-confidence
Bringing me neatly to my next item of therapeutic value... A typical effect of PTSD, particularly if triggered by any form of abuse, is that our sense of self-worth is at rock bottom. Our nagging irrational minds see ourselves as unlovable, useless and undeserving, even though in our rational moments we acknowledge this reaction as false.
In my experience, whether through ignorance or malevolence, managers and work colleagues often pick up on these insecurities and reinforce them, rather than trying to rebuild our self-confidence. This makes sufferers’ working environments feel far more hostile, and a vicious spiral develops where we perform at a lower level than we know we are capable of, simply because our mental state lacks resilience.
Writing is the perfect counterbalance for me, especially since my work is now published and I have received a number of complimentary reviews. We all need to feel vindicated, valued and occasionally victorious, and the journey I went on after deciding to release my story into the wild is helping to shore up some of the self-esteem at which other aspects of my life continually chip away. Hearing pleasing comments from a trusted friend or reading positive reviews from total strangers is edifying, going some way towards making tomorrow something to look forward to.
An element of control
Many victims of violent, abusive or narcissistic relationships find themselves with a life sentence of PTSD, and frequently develop strong co-dependence, i.e. they feel they cannot exist for themselves alone. Again from my own experience, these symptoms manifest in a desire for control. None of us should assume we can control how others behave towards us, and there is often an equal and opposing force in place between the abuser / confidence trickster / narcissist and the vulnerable PTSD sufferer.
I have found writing to be invaluable in breaking this co-dependent mentality. I am in almost total control of the words I type into my computer, the structure and plot of my books. Add to this the self-publishing process, which these days can be done without leaving my house and to fit in with my own timetable. Microsoft Word never criticises my mood, my chapters never complain they’re too long or too short and my computer hasn’t slapped me once…
I say “almost in control” though, because I’m frequently amazed at where my characters take me! Many a time, I have re-read a passage only to find that it bears little resemblance to my intended direction. That’s OK! My characters are part of me at this stage, which is probably why these meandering paths don’t mess with my control-freakiness!
Sense of achievement
And because I’m in control of my writing, the story itself, and how and when I make it available, there comes an enormous sense of achievement when it’s finished. I’m proud to say that I’ve so far published four books in the series, with no-one to blame but myself!
As a 30-year veteran of the IT industry, I left physical books behind several years ago in favour of my trusty e-reader. However, I was not prepared for the emotional boost I received when finally holding the first paperback copy of “A Life Singular – Part One” in my hands! It is difficult to gauge the size of a novel in e-book format, apart from the percent complete number in the corner. Feeling the weight and seeing the dimensions of my life’s work is truly satisfying.
Stream of consciousness
My creative writing output originated in my early teens as an introvert struggling with depression and feeling like a complete misfit. What started out as a typical adolescent romance between a pop star and a rock guitarist eventually became the “A Life Singular” serial. As I grew older and bumped into the nastier side of life, developing skills for my daily masquerade, I have always been fascinated by backstories. Rarely do we know the reasons why people behave the way they do.
Very much as therapy, I poured my frustrations out on paper initially, graduating to the computer in the late eighties, desperate to make sense of life. I explored mental illness thoroughly until I understood myself, in turn giving me huge empathy for others too. By 2008, when the story had already been in existence for over thirty years, I had amassed a whopping 1.5 million words!
Another acute symptom of PTSD is the regular sleepless nights; either an inability to fall asleep due to nagging fears or waking up after frequent nightmares. For sufferers who are trying to hold down full-time jobs, regular rest is essential.
I attended a workshop in which the lecturer described a technique for breaking writer’s block, suggesting we might write a letter from one character to the other. I adapted this technique as a cure for insomnia and as a way to relax after a violent dream, by letting my characters run wild in my mind. It’s not uncommon for me to wake up the following morning with six or seven yellow sticky-notes on my bedside table, covered on both sides with inspiration for new plotlines!
I have said many times that writing is the only place where I can truly be myself. Some PTSD and depression sufferers have a support network around them where they can relax and speak openly. With the exception of my dogs, I have not been fortunate in this regard, constantly needing to put on an act.
When I’m writing, I don’t have to worry about coming across as negative, dragging others down or steering clear of crowds. I don’t need to defend myself as to why I’m not wearing make-up, why I’m still single or why I’m not interested in cooking, clothes, shoes and everything else that people expect of women.
Not much in life brings me joy, hence my desire to cut it short as soon as possible. Writing and Nikki are the exceptions.
Create a world that I like
As a corollary to point 3, writing my fiction serial has allowed me to create a world where I’d love to live. As mentioned earlier, I am writing to increase general understanding of mental illness across as wide an audience as possible by using the universal theme of love and our endless fascination for celebrity to demonstrate how life might be if we all behaved more nicely with each other.
The story of “A Life Singular” follows a highly successful rock star as he writes his autobiography, after his soul-mate is killed by a bullet meant for him. Living out their grief in the public eye, he and his children look back through their spectacular life, cementing memories for themselves and their adoring fans.
My protagonist, Jeff Diamond, also suffers from PTSD after growing up in a violent gangland environment in western Sydney. He meets Lynn, a child-star from a privileged background who possesses the sensitivity to understand and support him in managing his symptoms. They go on to achieve great acclaim and devote themselves to helping others through similar struggles.
My ideal world would be one where all sufferers of depression-related illness can rely on someone to stick by them. By building awareness and tolerance of difference, we would greatly reduce the number of people who are afflicted by mental illness, and people like me would be able to relax and behave honestly without fear of stigmatisation.
Help and educate others
Most importantly, I hope my creative writing will make a difference. I have two main goals for my serial, apart from hopefully giving readers an enriching experience: first, to inspire fellow sufferers of mental illness to rise above their symptoms and make a success of their lives; and second, to encourage non-sufferers to understand, support and even love us in our quest for acceptance.
Many mentally-ill people never seek help for their symptoms, either because they fear a perception of weakness or purely through lack of knowledge. By presenting a leading character who is outwardly extremely handsome, successful and talented but who is imploding due to PTSD, I hope to encourage people to increase their understanding of themselves.
The situations Jeff finds himself in and the way he and Lynn deal with them are realistic, some from my own experience and others taken from work I have done mentoring young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Hopefully people will be able to recognise parallels with their own lives and learn from the story.
Similarly, the books describe Lynn’s own education about mental illness and the challenges she faces in coming to terms with having a partner with such severe symptoms. People with family members who suffer from mental illness can gain an insight into how to help them help themselves.
If my books can accomplish these goals, my life would finally feel worthwhile.
“A Life Singular” Parts One, Two and Three are available on my website (http://ALifeSingular.com), where sales proceeds go to two Australian charities that assist young people from disadvantaged families continue their education: The Smith Family (http://www.thesmithfamily.com.au) and the School Volunteer Program (http://www.svp.org.au). The books are also available on Amazon.
Part Four will be released in March 2015, with the final two books coming in the next 18 months. I tweet about mental illness and writing via @LorrainePestell, and my Facebook fan-page is http://www.facebook.com/ALifeSingular.