Write about what you know. That’s what fellow writers reckon. “Write about what you know” they say “Go on. It’ll be good, promise.” And if I’m ever unlucky enough to pick up a book on How to be a Writer or read something in the Guardian’s Review section about How to be a Writer it’s the same advice: Write about what you know. But it doesn’t stop there, it never does. “Write about what you know!” people shout at me in the street. At least I think they do. Yet when I go back and ask them: “Did you just tell me to write about what I know?” they go all quiet and claim they didn’t say anything.
Write about what you know. Problem is, I don’t know very much. I’m 35, an alcoholic, and I live in my Nan’s dining room. Unless Alcoholic, 35, And Living With Nan Magazine exists (and it doesn’t, I checked. If it did, I’d be a shoe-in for editor) then I’m a bit stumped.
But not that stumped. Recently I assembled and varnished a bird table for my Nan. This procedure began at the end of January and was completed yesterday. That’s a long time, you’re probably thinking, why did it take so long? The reason it took so long is that I had to attend to my job in Mayfair as a report writer where I spent a lot of time not writing reports and a lot of time smoking and working on my Daniel Plainview impression in the office toilets and practicing negative visualization. It was a heady month or two. Anyway, as I was applying my second coat of varnish yesterday it occurred to me that in my Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook there might well be some magazines about birds that I could pitch. So I checked and indeed there were: Bird Watching; Birding World; Birdwatch; and British Birds. What saucy titles, I thought, in a depressing 1970s kind of way.
Write about what you know, I thought, but then realized that just because I was varnishing a bird table, it didn’t really mean I knew about birds and the finer points of bird tables. A feature on “How to Assemble and Varnish a Bird Table Over a Seven Week Period” wouldn’t really cut it. Nor would “What is a Bird Table?” – I imagine the majority of readers would know that. Unless, perhaps, I went for “What is a Bird Table?” and approached the issue in a deeper, more philosophical sense. The thing is, I’ve never really approached anything in a deeper, more philosophical sense and if I were to ever begin approaching things in a deeper, more philosophical sense, my starting point wouldn’t be a bird table.
I do know about being nuts though. And I thought perhaps I could write about how this bird table (that I’m beginning to hate, beginning to hate more than writing ‘bird table’ all the time) has cured my alcoholism or night terrors or occasionally debilitating bouts of depression. Problem is, it hasn’t. Not yet anyway. But if it does then I thought I could adapt the below – something of mine published in the Guardian – and send it out to Bird Watching, Birding World, Birdwatch and British Birds. In fact, fuck it, I’m going to adapt it now.
Thanks for reading everyone.
I Convinced Myself I Was Going Mad
With hindsight, dosing my brain and liver with huge slugs of brandy or lighter fluid wasn’t the best way to deal with what I believed to be the onset of schizophrenia. But I had read that people suffering from psychotic illnesses tended to self-medicate, and anyway I was scared. Days spent in the pub – and later, as money became scarcer, the park – made me less scared.
The catalyst had been a panic attack one Sunday night two years earlier. Panic attacks were far less talked about back then, so I had no idea what was going on. Actually, that’s a lie: I had one idea about what was going on and that was I Am Going Mad. This one idea went mantra-like around my brain in the days after my first attack, so, perhaps predictably, I had my second, third and fourth attacks within a week of the first, which only reinforced the idea. Soon I found myself in a vicious circle.
Brief respite came from an unlikely source. Reading a discarded tabloid on the bus one evening, I came across a letter sent in to the medical expert, describing exactly the symptoms I had experienced: shortness of breath, palpitations, a feeling of losing control and losing my mind. I read the expert’s reply with relief: these feelings were quite possibly the result of a panic attack. They were harmless, common, could be treated easily and were not a sign of mental illness. This person was not to worry. I was not to worry.
I should have left it there, but I wanted to know more, so I turned to the family health encyclopedia. Again, I was comforted to read that these things were harmless and treatable, but then I came across the words that were to change my life for the next two years: “Less often [panic attacks] are part of schizophrenia.”
I flipped to schizophrenia. “Can begin insidiously,” I read. “Likely to occur in late teens or early 20s … individual becomes more withdrawn, loses motivation … outlook poor … relapse, neglect, vagrancy, prison.”
Had I been more withdrawn? What of the brighter colours and distorted appearance of people when I was in the throes of a panic attack; could these be the “visual distortions” mentioned? Of course they could.
Over an afternoon spent with the medical encyclopedia, I managed to convince myself I was suffering from schizophrenia. Now at least I had a new mantra: I Am Going Mad became I Am Schizophrenic.
Within a few months I had pretty much covered all the symptoms I’d read about: everything became drenched in meaning, I felt tingling sensations on my body, objects appeared larger or smaller than they were. Until I started hearing voices, though, there was still some hope.
This hope evaporated when, one grim night, I heard a voice in my head, whispering vague gibberish. Brandy shut it up for a while, but soon it became two voices (such third-person hallucination occurs “exclusively” in schizophrenia, apparently). I had the impression they were the two puppets on the balcony in the Muppet Show. Steadily they became nastier, less vague and more critical of my behaviour. Finally I found myself in A&E at five o’clock one morning and shortly after full of chlorpromazine (typically used for schizophrenia). I admitted myself to a psychiatric hospital.
Within hours I had checked myself out. Perhaps it was the relief of being able to share what had been going on without being labelled insane, perhaps it was seeing the far more serious condition of most of the people on my ward, or perhaps I was reacting particularly well to the pills that punctuated my days, but whatever the reason, I began to feel well. After a few months, I felt good enough to come off the medication.
Various diagnoses had been bandied about – depression, bipolar disorder, prolonged psychotic episode – but none stuck. I still don’t know what was wrong, but my favourite self-diagnosis is medical student syndrome: acute hypochondria affecting medical students or readers of health books. Basically, I tricked myself into having schizophrenia after reading about it. And telling myself hundreds of times a day I was going mad didn’t help.
Now, 10 years later, I am much better. I still have the occasional panic attack, but I have a new mantra now: I Am In Control. It seems to be working – except when I am doing too much and not sleeping enough. That’s when the two Muppets on the balcony come back.
At least they did come back until I erected a bird table and was cured by the sight of sparrows, blue tits, parrots – even the odd penguin or two – flocking to my back garden. Well, my Nan’s back garden.