For Mental Health Awareness Week, we spoke to mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin MBE, whose important and life-affirming memoir The Stranger on the Bridge (Bluebird) was released earlier this month.
The moving title chronicles the journey Benjamin undertook in 2014, to find and thank the stranger who stopped and saved his life, six years previously.
What inspired you to write The Stranger on the Bridge?
This year marks ten years since I had my first breakdown, received my diagnosis and went to the bridge to take my own life. Finally I am in a very different place and have learnt a great deal about my own mind and mental health in general over the past decade. It felt very timely to write about my journey now.
Have you always been interested in writing? How did it feel revisiting the childhood diaries that you sample throughout?
Writing has always been incredibly therapeutic for me. Growing up I found it difficult to express my mental health issues vocally, so writing became a key outlet. Revisiting my childhood diaries was a challenging but cathartic experience. I knew I’d been distressed throughout my youth, but I had forgotten just how much I was struggling in silence.
What was the most challenging part of the project?
I think the most challenging part of the project was finally letting the manuscript go and it being published for people to read. It is such a personal and intimate book, and there was a lot in there that people didn’t know about so I felt extremely nervous in the weeks leading up to publication. Now that people have started reading it though and the response has been overwhelmingly positive I feel much more relaxed.
What impact are you hoping the book will have on its readers?
I hope it will give the reader an insight into mental illness that perhaps they haven’t had before. More than anything, I would like the book to offer those that are struggling some hope that they can overcome the adversities they are experiencing.
What has the reaction been like since sharing your story?
The reaction has been so positive. Mental health is something that touches so many of us. For such a long time it has been a taboo, but finally the silence and the stigma attached to mental illness seems to be shifting.
You’re a passionate mental health campaigner – would you say that public perception of mental health has changed or evolved in recent years? What part do you think publishing plays in this?
Publishing can play a huge role in changing attitudes towards a topic like mental health. Matt Haig’s powerful bestseller Reasons To Stay Alive helped my Mum to understand and talk about mental illness with me for the first time.
It’s an exciting time in terms of publishing on this subject. I’m seeing more and more books focusing on this area. I’m particularly looking forward to reading Natasha Devon’s A Beginners Guide To Being Mental which is published later this month. I know that it’s going to be a groundbreaking book about mental health.
Do you think the industry has a responsibility to be sharing more stories like this?
For a long time we’ve only had the opportunity to read primarily challenging stories on mental health. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a prime example of this. It is a gripping story but ultimately it is one of despair and hopelessness.
I would love to see more stories on bookshelves that offer the reader hope, whilst remaining accurate and honest, of course. Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook is one such book which is hopeful and yet doesn’t shy away from the day to day, difficult reality of living with a mental illness.
Finally, are you working on anything new at the moment?
Myself and Britt Pflüger, who I co-wrote this first book with, are now working on our second book. It will be a tribute to overcoming adversity, with contributions from various individuals who have achieved it. I’m really looking forward to working on this book. Writing The Stranger On The Bridge was hard at times because of its content, but our new book will be much lighter and more positive.
Going forwards I think I would love to write books on mental health for children and young people. 75% of all mental health issues start in adolescence so it’s vital we address the subjects of mental illness and suicide from a young age. I know it would have made a real difference to me to have read a book on mental illness when I was suffering silently in my teenage years.
Link to The Bookseller here
In this candid extract from her posthumous memoirs, Sophie Reilly describes the reality of living with multiple mental health issues
‘A 10ft kangaroo with the face of Frank from the film Donnie Darko is always in my nightmares.’
On 1 August 2016, Sophie, then aged 21, took her life. Her brother, Samuel, has edited a book, Tigerish Waters: Selected Writings of Sophie Reilly, of her prose, poetry and drama, from which this article has been adapted. All profits from the book will be donated to the Scottish Association of Mental Health.
When I was admitted to hospital with psychosis, it was the most terrifying thing in the world. I thought I was the antichrist and possessed by the spirit of Anne Frank; the nurses were SS officers and they were trying to send me to the gas chambers. It took eight of them to restrain me. I heard voices chanting in German and the screeches of people being burnt. I could smell burning, and felt slimy hands touching me like seaweed.
We’re here, we’re crazy, get over it
And Skippy was back. He’s a 10ft kangaroo with the face of Frank from the film Donnie Darko who pops up when I least expect it. He’s always in my nightmares, but once psychosis blurs the line between dreams and reality, he stalks me constantly.
I think that a new movement needs to happen: Mental Health Pride. We’re here, we’re crazy, get over it. Some people have mental illness; it’s a fact of life, not a terrifying visualisation of straitjackets and gibbering lunatics. We’re all just normal people with families, life stories, loves, cares, desires and eccentricities, who happen to have a problem with their brain, whether that’s psychological trauma or physical trauma, such as the chemical imbalance of depleted serotonin in major depressive disorder, or the overactivity of the prefrontal cortex in schizophrenia.
We don’t post photos of our suffering, terror, paranoia, misery, suicidal feelings, mania, psychosis. We don’t get hundreds of comments saying “get well soon”, or the flowers from everyone, or the “you’re so brave fighting your illness!”
We are locked in loony bins and ignored until we get out, when we are expected to get on with it and get back to work.
We go through hell. We see terrifying visions of things that aren’t there – hallucinations of an attacker beating you, when in reality it’s you punching yourself in the face. We feel so low and lonely and despise our own flesh so much that we starve it, or cut it, or burn it, or make it vomit, or damage it with booze and drugs – or even kill it on purpose.
We go manic and lose all sense of reality and run around the country off our trolleys and nearly get killed, then crash and become consumed with guilt, like I did when I ruined my relationship with my boyfriend because I believed I was the daughter of God and he was beneath me. There’s a novel’s-worth of excoriating, humiliating, mortifying escapades. You crash further into depression until the guilt and lamentation leads you to attempt suicide.
But you survive. We are all survivors. We deal with our demons by swallowing pills, going to different therapies, spending half of our lives in community mental health team appointments and groups. And we get on with it.
Bent-double, like old beggars under sacks, knock-kneed, coughing like hags (from our 20 cigarettes a day habit), we curse through sludge.
We deserve anything but to be thought of as merely “crazy” or “mental” or “loopy” or “schizo” or “a screw loose” and never trusted, or taken seriously, as everyone’s too scared of us, or thinks we’re just broken or they plain don’t give a shit.
I’m hereby coming out as a mental case. I’m Sophie, I suffer from anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, bipolar affective disorder, emotionally unstable personality disorder – impulsive subtype, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But I’m also a qualified English teacher, a volunteer at Oxfam and in the elderly wards. I had to defer because I was very ill, but I’m going to St Andrews University next year to study theology and literature. Then maybe I’ll do a psychology module just because it’ll be a piece of piss. I’m an expert by experience!
I love Sam Cooke and the Beatles all the way through to Bruno Mars and the Arctic Monkeys. I like to map decades with the lyrics of their songs. I paint pastels when I can be bothered and can play The Sims 3 for a week straight. I smoke Camels when I can afford them and Amber Leaf when I can’t. I fancy the pants off Alex Vause in Orange is the New Black but it breaks my heart that she’s a scientologist in real life.
Without breaking the unwritten but holy confidentiality between patients, the stories these people in hospital tell can give you a stitch from laughing so much.
This is not me showing off or going on about how brilliant I am. I can be a royal pain in the ass. But I’m a person, just like you.
We are people, not diagnoses.
Link to original Guardian article here