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July 4 2014

My most personal - and political - novel to date

I never thought I’d see the day when I admitted to the Daily Mail I’ve experienced mental health problems, but a few weeks back I did. ‘Two years ago anxiety took a stranglehold on my life,’ I’m quoted as saying. ‘Normal tasks such as driving became overwhelming, I couldn’t make decisions and meeting up with friends felt too much to handle.’ Although my words are paraphrased, I was pleasantly surprised that the essence of my experience was conveyed accurately and sympathetically by a paper I feared would cruelly exaggerate my weaknesses, but more important to me by far was the overwhelming support I received in the feature’s wake.

It felt a bit like ‘coming out’

Friends, strangers and even other journalists were kind and encouraging. In the past week I’ve been interviewed several more times on the subject of anxiety and depression and whilst I don’t wish to make pat comparisons, I believe now I’ve some idea what it feels like to come ‘out’. For me the fear of going public with the admission was worse than actually doing it, and though it’s been very scary, it’s also a huge relief. Plus I’m only confessing what a lot of my friends and colleagues had already picked up years ago. The main reason I decided to speak out was because my new novel, Another Night, Another Day focuses on mental health. The three protagonists, Karen, Abby and Michael, meet in a psychiatric clinic and it touches on anxiety, depression, bi-polar illness – even suicide. And in publicising the book it’s the first question I’m asked: how much of the story is based on your own experience? Over the years readers have often asked if my novels reflect my own life and the honest answer is 'of course they do. That doesn't mean my books are autobiographical: they're not. My husband, Tom, didn't die on the train like Simon in One Moment, One Morning and I've never been through IVF like Lou and Cath in The Two Week Wait. Equally,my circumstances are not identical to those of Karen, Abby or Michael in this new novel.

 The Argus May 7 001

An article in my local paper, The Brighton Argus, this week 

‘Written from the heart’ said The Bookseller. (They weren't wrong there!)

However, I do have first-hand experience of crippling anxiety, and decided to be open about it with regard to Another Night, Another Day because it's what motivated me to write the book. I feel passionately that mental health should be taken as seriously as physical health because the problems of mental illness are very real and immensely painful. Yet by and large it isn't. Too often sufferers are told to pull themselves together or snap out of it. This is partly because the symptoms are often not visible, but also because the topic is still hard for many of us to talk about. And yet mental illness is something that touches all of us. Figures such as ‘1 in 4 suffer some kind of mental health problem’ are often bandied about and can be helpful in illustrating how widespread problems are. However to view mental illness as something you either have or don't have still boxes people off - and makes it easy for others to keep the lid on that box firmly closed. The result is we live in a world where suicide is rarely spoken of, much mental illness is surrounded by shame and blame and - here's where the personal becomes political - politicians can make cuts to services whilst we who voted for them turn a blind eye.

Lifting the lid on a taboo subject

Only two days ago the BBC reported that a lack of beds is forcing mental health patients to seek treatment in NHS facilities hundreds of miles away from where they live, for instance. Moreover, having researched the local situation to write my novel, I’m not surprised to hear that Kent and Sussex are amongst the worst-affected areas. In Kent 334 patients were sent out of the county last year at a cost of £5m, compared with just 20 people in 2011-12, at a cost of £141,000. In Another Night, Another Day, Michael’s experience of the system illustrates how dreadful the impact of cuts to our services can be.

I hope Another Night, Another Day helps illustrate my belief that ordinary people get mentally ill, and what happens to Karen, Abby and Michael could happen to any one of us. Instead of boxing off sufferers, I feel it's more helpful to see mental health as a continuum. No one is 100% healthy, no one 100% ill - and we all fall somewhere within this range. Moreover, individual mental health is dependent on many variables: age, physcial health, economic circumstance, relationship status - the list is endless and different for each of us. Also, where we fall on that continuum will change over time. Karen, Abby and Michael are not bad people because they experience anxiety and depression; they are just people. People on a continuum who I hope don't seem that different to you or me.

They laugh and cry.

Another Night Another Day in the rain

Tell jokes and get angry.

Support one another and learn to cope.

If reading about them helps lift the lid on the subject of mental health, just slightly, so a handful of people feel able to talk more freely, or others feel a touch more understanding, then the time I've spent writing the book will have been worthwhile.

You can buy it for £5.99 here, with free P&P if you live in the UK, or through Amazon.co.uk and all major booksellers.

Listen to Sarah talk about her new book here >


If you're interested in reading more of Sarah's blogs, she also writes for Psychology Today, and you can find her articles here.

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