Portrait of the author as a
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
published in Mental Health Today, April 2002.
The Chrysalid Years is available from ASPEN at £9.99 post free