Portrait of the author as a madwoman*

by Abigail Freeman


The Chrysalid Years, a personal account of manic depression/schizo-affective disorder, made its public debut quietly in November. Quietly?  Well yes, here I am, a mental health advocate hiding behind a pen name and I don’t want too much publicity.  But I would like you to read my book, especially professionals who have trouble communicating with their clients and the uninformed public who are so afraid of mental illness. Not that it was written for you. It was really written for people like me, and here’s how I came to write it . . .  

“Aquaria tried to assess how much of her letter of complaint to which the nurse objected remained relevant in the light of his new information. It gradually dawned on her that none of it was relevant - everything had been a fabrication from her own mind. No wonder her husband and the nursing staff had not wanted her to contact other people to tell them of her discoveries!

At first it was scarcely credible that her brain could behave in that way. It had got to be true! And yet, thinking back to the reactions she had encountered before her hospitilisation and later, when she had made her phonecalls, the certainty grew that it was not. Surely something was true? But Aquaria knew now that it was not.

Where had the ideas come from? How could she live from day to day if she could not trust her brain? The shock of this discovery was as great as the shock of the original imprisonment. She had endured that, she had fought against it. She could endure and fight now.”


The shock awakening from a first psychosis. After the whirlwind had torn a trail of devastation through my life that summer, one certainty was left standing monumental in the debris. I would never work again. The inexplicable thing that had happened to my brain, causing the strangest experiences of my life, had been tidied up by the medical profession with two words - paranoid psychosis. No-one would employ a psychotic.

To outsiders that appeared a small loss. To them, getting back to normal meant looking after my family. My husband had a good job and I did not need to work. They had not witnessed most of the shockingly strange behaviour that accompanied the sudden illness and now that I was behaving ‘normally’, wanted to believe it would never happen again. In fact, to ensure it never happened again they thought I should avoid any unnecessary stress, and that included trying to work.

It is hard to experience the alienation of mental illness - not recognising or accepting the self I had become, not accepting the loss of the self I once was along with that self’s plans and dreams, or the changed family relationships following the trauma we had experienced. People around me, frightened and denying, created a prison in which it was necessary to pretend I still was the person I had been before the illness. There was no room to find out who I might be now, after the unspeakable episode that was better left unmentioned. Even my psychiatrist seemed reluctant to discuss it. I had not been myself, he said. Obediently, alone with my fear - who was I, then, if I wasn’t me? -  I ceased to mention the unmentionable.

Getting back to ‘normal’ was a pretence that succeeded for a long time. Occasionally I dipped into books searching for explanations but quickly dropped them, frightened of what I might find out. I had not been myself, it was best forgotten.  

At last, perhaps after the second episode, I realised that those three weeks - and the second three weeks - had been part of my life. Whoever I had been, it had been me.    

I wanted those three weeks back. They were mine. I would value them instead of pretending they had not happened. People around me saw only chaos and pain; there had been more.  I wanted a real explanation, not a biochemical one, for the intermingled delusional thinking and mystical experience. I began reading, and eventually - after yet another episode - I began to write. 

In my psychotic states it was vitally important to have pen and paper. I wrote constantly; it seemed essential to capture the wildly exciting essence of mania while it was happening. Later on, when the switchback effect became tiresome, I occupied myself by writing observations of the hospital staff who were observing me. 

Then I made writing part of my everyday life, along with other unacceptable things like saying what I really felt, and being angry. If the things I had the courage to do only when I was psychotic were part of my everyday life, then perhaps I would not need to become psychotic in order to do them.  

The Chrysalid Years was the result, taking two years to write and even longer to complete the word processing. Sometimes I spent three days a week on it, sometimes less. After the first six months I read through what I had written and discarded it - respectable, sanitizing, boring, unalive, it avoided the unacceptable things I really felt. So I began again. 

Much has been written on manic depression and schizophrenia. Schizo-affective disorder sometimes rates a paragraph or two squeezed in as a footnote. First-hand accounts of these illnesses seem rare. The few I found skated quickly past my area of interest. Where did all those thoughts come from and what did they mean? When asked to recommend reading my psychiatrist came up not with an academic text but a survivor account that indicated the situation was totally hopeless. I warned him when I returned it not to hand it to anyone who was severely depressed.  

In my account, I wanted to bring the reader inside the reality of a psychotic episode, to let people know how this experience feels that attracts so much prejudice and fear, and how detrimental those reactions can be. To those who already knew that reality, I wanted to share the hope I had found in despair.  

The Chrysalid Years is not a survivor account, because I did more than survive. I fought to maintain my place in the community and I fought with my psychiatrist. The greatest battle was the writing, to remember the leaden depression well enough to describe it and yet still be able to lift a pen. At times words flowed effortlessly onto the paper that surprised me when I read them back. I began every day revising what I had written the day before, polishing the prose into readable form, then wrote on capturing the content in clumsy phrasings for revision the next day. The greatest victory was learning to live my life in balance and to the full without becoming trapped in either euphoria or despair. For all these reasons I describe The Chrysalid Years as a veteran account of mental illness. 

I wrote it like a novel, adding and adjusting to add artistic form and to disguise situations for publication. This approach added sufficient distance to enable me to write about such painful times.   Completed in 1996, it is a snapshot of an earlier period. It is difficult to recognise myself as I was then, and others will find it difficult to recognise themselves as I saw them. We are all different people now.  

The finished text was long and I did not know how to shorten it without losing coherence and quality. I had been sharing short extracts with members of my family, and received encouragement from another writer whom I met at a writing workshop. I was the first psychiatric patient she had ever met, and once I had got over the hurdle of telling her what I was actually writing about her feedback became a yardstick. If she found my writing readable and educational then so would other uninformed members of the public. The Chrysalid Years might never have been completed without her. 

Gritting my teeth I allowed more friends to read it. Then realizing I needed impartial opinions, I approached people working in mental health who hardly knew me. Their feedback, when I read it, was valuable; the box containing the manuscript and the notes made by my first impartial reader remained unopened for two months. By that time I had enlisted a therapist to help me sort out some of the stresses in my life, and I opened the box to the accompaniment of his impressive Take-Your-Pick impersonations. 

The consensus was that some bits were so interesting that even more detail was needed, and other sections could easily be abbreviated. Unfortunately all the bits singled out for contraction covered topics that other readers asked me to expand. I let well alone, deciding that when I came to publish an editor would give experienced guidance.  

Then for a long time the manuscript gathered dust. Too much to do; I was studying; I no longer had a computer that could read my files: the excuses were numerous. I knew I had written something unusual, something that could encourage others who had suffered. It would challenge prevalent stereotypes of mental illness. It ought to be ‘out there’ where others could benefit from it, but ‘out there’ meant exposing my enormous achievement, not to mention my personal life, to criticism, censure, scorn, or worst of all indifference, misunderstanding and dismissal. Also, my enormous achievement included a lot of personal detail about my family. Should I publish it, even using a pen name? My family thought I should.  

Millennium year - a year for resolutions - ended without the manuscript being sent out. I had met Fran Francis, who a couple of years before had self-published her own book, Bereavement without Death.  Like The Chrysalid Years, this was not an academic text, but was written from personal experience to give others hope.  

Self-publishing allows authors to produce the book they want without having to fit in with a publisher’s requirements. This involves financial outlay and more work for the author - preparation and proofreading of the manuscript, deciding layout and fonts, cover design, publicity and distribution.  Crucially for me, now working almost full time and still studying, this work  would be scheduled  to fit in with my own timetable and deadlines could be extended if necessary.  It was enough of a challenge to get the book ‘out there’ without the stress of posting off a very personal manuscript and collecting rejection slips, never knowing when acceptance of the book might result in a flurry of work. Self-publishing would also keep to a minimum the number of people who knew the person behind the pen. 

I investigated Mind Millenium awards and self-publishing services. Quotes differed wildly, the cheapest being a quarter of the most expensive. Book quality and the services available also varied; some companies word process and edit and proof read the manuscript,  and design the covers. One of the self-publishing services was ASPEN, the Authors’ Self-Publishing Enterprise, run by Joe Sinclair.  Joe is a writer who has self-published several books.  He launched ASPEN in 1990.  I liked ASPEN’s stated aim: to help writers self-publish and empower them to sell their own works.  I also liked its publications list that included two books by Joe himself on neuro-linguistic programming and an autobiographical account by another writer.  The Chrysalid Years would not be out of place and Joe, with his therapy perspective, would have some tolerance for my awful jitters.  To overcome them I would need all the empowerment I could get. 

At the end of my visit to Joe Sinclair at ASPEN, I drove away with my head in a complete fog, unable to remember anything he had told me beyond the basic costs he had quoted. I had finally run out of excuses; with or without financial assistance I could get my book published. It was going to happen.  

ASPEN’s terms are simple - if you earn nothing, they earn nothing. The author pays for all the production and distribution costs, and pays Aspen a fee for each book sold. With careful marketing and pricing it is possible to sell most of a small initial print run in advance and recoup costs quickly before incurring more on a second print run. With the pressures of the day job and my head still in a fog due to the enormity of what I was undertaking, I never expected to reach that level of efficiency. It will be some time before Joe receives much financial recompense for the time he has spent organising me! 

I went ahead without the delay of applying for financial assistance.  A cover design that would do justice to the book was a headache until my daughter allowed me to use one of her paintings. Her figure would look good faded into a sea background. All it needed was a graphic designer to put it all together. This was the most frustrating part of the publishing process as it was difficult to communicate what I wanted.  

Joe and I worked together on press releases and the wording for the back cover, and he posted the foreword and afterword on the ASPEN website.  I edited the files again and Joe set them up for digital printing. .

Writers contemplating the self-publishing route should expect to do a great deal of work themselves, or to pay someone to do it for them. Some writers may want editorial advice on their work, and this is not always offered by self-publishing services. I kept my costs to a minimum by doing my own wordprocessing and proofreading and the basic design for the cover.   

After months of work the book went to the printers, then in no time Joe was on my doorstep with the boxes containing - at last - my book! The finished product was unexpectedly beautiful, far lovelier than the cover proof. I posted out the first copy two hours later - to the writer friend who had given me so much support. 

With several boxes under the spare bed (another reason for a small print run) the work is not over. Publicity is not easy as I do not wish to be identified; I am promoting the book long distance. As well as being of interest to the general public and to those directly affected by mental ill health, I expect excerpts to be useful in training nurses, doctors, advocates, and others working with mental health service users. 

* Originally published in Mental Health Today, April 2002. 

The Chrysalid Years is available from ASPEN at £9.99 post free