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Aly Sidgwick by Nina Koldby Nauer

Mental illness in fiction: Guest post by Aly Sidgwick

I rediscovered writing at the age of twenty nine, whilst living in Sweden. Depression and anxiety have plagued me my whole life, but in 2009 things came to a head and I suffered a full blown nervous breakdown. Those first few weeks remain a blur to me. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t want to be awake. I just lay in the dark and tried to breathe. It was summertime, and my boyfriend thought the sunshine might help, but when we went outside it was even worse. I remember sitting on the grass in warm sun, staring at a daisy and just wanting to not be conscious.

In the end we went to Gothenburg hospital. After several visits I was given the choice of being admitted. I said no, out of fear, which in hindsight was probably a poor choice. My recovery was gradual, and for a period of 2 years (plus 1 year before the big crash) my anxiety levels were through the roof. Panic attacks came several times a day at some points, and I fainted in public on three separate occasions. A facial tic came and went, hindering the vision in my right eye, and I often had the feeling I was peering at the world through a long, fuzzy tube. This, coupled with the slight language/cultural barrier, made me feel severed from the outside world for long periods of time.

Lullaby GirlThen there were the meds, and hallucination-inducing sleeping pills, and all the crazy side effects. I retreated into myself, just to survive each day. In 2010 I split up with my boyfriend and moved into my own flat. For the first time in years I was living completely alone, and the urge to write was overwhelming. The words flew out of me, and in the beginning I didn’t tell a soul what I was up to. I didn’t even know if I could write, then, but suddenly I had a great deal of things to say, and it felt imperative to get them down. It was exciting to write fiction for the first time since my teens, but more than anything I think I was trying to make sense of what had happened to me. To create a character whose consciousness mirrored my own at that time. To push someone through similar mental and physical struggles, and watch from the outside. It did strike me that I had a unique viewpoint into mental illness… The thought processes you go through every day. The fear of stigma and miscomprehension. The hyper-sensitivity to everything around you, the constant dread of another panic attack, the temporary blindspots and obsessions and nightmares and short term memory loss. I wanted to record all of that, so it felt natural to create a character like Kathy.

Of course, that wasn’t my only motivation. I genuinely loved the writing process, and I wanted to tell a good story. But a lot of myself (my 2010-self) went into Kathy. More than any other character I’ve ever written. I knew what it felt like to be wiped utterly blank. I knew what it felt like to wake in freezing, sweat-drenched sheets. I knew what it felt like to be physically choked by fear. In fact, the original name of the book was In Fear of Fear. It came from a Panic Disorder pamphlet about learning not to live in fear of panic attacks. Of course, I took Kathy’s circumstances to the extreme. But my background meant I could write her character with very little research.

12I’m stable these days, having found meds that work for me, but those few years of hell will always be part of me. I know my illness will never go away, and that’s ok. It’s under control. It’s definitely shaped the way I write, in that I’m interested in the psychological above all else. The human mind is where true horror comes from, and that’s the kind of ‘darkness’ I like to explore. My characters live in their heads a lot, and they doubt, and they dread, and they’re imperfect. I’m endlessly fascinated by people who live on the margins of ‘conventional’ thought or behaviour- both in real life and in fiction. It’s the reason I love Shirley Jackson’s characters (Merricat! Orianna! Eleanor!) It’s the reason I love The Cement Garden and Heavenly Creatures. (Two of my favourite films.) Outcasts are my favourite characters, and I’m a sucker for an unhappy ending.

Anyway, I’m relieved to finally let Katherine go. She’s come to feel like a little sister over the last five years, and in creating her I’ve put my 2010-self to rest. She’s personally escorted me out of hell, and for that I am thankful.

About me…

I was born in Middlesbrough in 1978, and grew up on the edge of the North Yorskhire moors. Drawing and reading were my two loves as a child. I went on to study Illustration at Edinburgh College of Art, before becoming a tattoo artist and moving to Trondheim, Norway. After three years in Norway I moved to Sweden, and it was there that I started writing fiction for the first time since childhood. Four years later, homesickness got the better of me and I moved back to Scotland, along with the first draft of Lullaby Girl. I’m currently living in Edinburgh, whilst writing my second novel and riding my bicycle like a lunatic.

About Megan Leigh

Writer and editor of Pop Verse. Co-host of Breaking the Glass Slipper. My special interests include publishing, creative writing, and geekery.

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