One of the reasons I write self help books is because I couldn’t find ones that spoke to me.
Over ten years ago when my depression and anxiety peaked, I asked my psychiatrist in the hospital I was admitted in, where I could find an accessible, hopeful and funny book to guide my recovery. He said he never recommended books and I should just concentrate on taking my medication. However, the nurse who was also in my review meeting, told me about the library down the corridor.
This, ‘library’, was a converted cupboard with a torn, plastic easy chair and mostly dog eared copies of Danielle Steele novels. She also pointed out some books on CBT, all about five hundred pages long, tiny text, full of graphs & diagrams, step by step homework to do after each chapter and by some eminent professor/psychologist/idiot called Dr Winston Patronising who had never had a suicidal thought or a panic attack in his life. I looked at her, did she really think I could read one of these books when I could barely get to the shower to clean myself each day?
When I eventually got home, I went to my local library, still with lots of Danielle Steele novels but in much better condition and thankfully a much wider selection of mental health books. I looked through the shelves, feeling a bit more positive, but then I saw that actually they were all version of the same CBT book I looked at in hospital. Impenetrable, theoretical, boring (and that was just the authors) and completely irrelevant to me and my struggles with depression, anxiety, OCD, anorexia and PTSD. Admittedly, that’s a long list to cater for but still, you would have thought there would be something for me?
Disheartened, I thought that perhaps if I couldn’t find a book that could help me, I maybe had to write one. Now, I was having a lot of extreme thoughts at the time, so I didn’t pay too much attention to it but after a few months the thought had stuck. I’d always loved writing, I’d always loved books, I definitely had first hand experience of mental illness and I’d spent twenty years working in social care – could I do this?
Obviously, depression was telling me I was a fool (nothing new there), anxiety was making me feel nervous about the inevitable rejections I would get from publishers, OCD was gripping me and letting me know that if I would have to get constant five star reviews and PTSD was just chumming around with the others making me feel crap.
I’m now writing my sixth self help book about mental health, which I guess is a good example of not listening to the nonsense mental illnesses spouts at us, but also I believe the books work for a number of reasons.
They’re written by someone who gets mental illness. I don’t have a PHD in Premack’s Principle of Reinforcement, but I do know what works because I live with it, and I keep battling it - the immeasurable pain, the depths of darkness we sink to, the lack of hope. I don’t want to read a book by someone who might understand my illness on a theoretical and academic level but has never lived with it.
I don’t use big words, because I don’t know big words (unless I look them up) and therefore my books are accessible and easy to read. You don’t need a dictionary minimised on your laptop to understand them.
My books are also relatively short, not because I’m in a rush to get to the supermarket, but because I know that our concentration spans when we’re unwell are very limited. We have to take in information through small chunks when our minds are so preoccupied with processing intrusive thoughts and fluctuating moods. I write short chapters where the reader can understand what I’m writing about and not getting bogged down in verbose and obscure theories.
I try and make my books funny; I’m possibly only amusing myself, but humour helps the reader to actually get through the book; you need light relief when reading about your own pain.
I use metaphors and visual images which can often sum up our experience of mental illness succinctly and memorably. For example, I see depression as a cuckoo, it’s taken over my nest, unwanted and refusing to budge – until I punch it. It’s fine, it’s an imaginary cuckoo, you’re allowed to punch fictious birdlife.
The best self helps books are grounded in real, practical ways that you can directly and successfully apply to your mental health. You don’t need to go to Tahiti for a six month mindfulness colouring course and most importantly of all, you don’t need to go to the depths of the Cotswolds and spend £3,000 on a two day course on Premack’s bloody Principle of Reinforcement.
James Withey is a mental health author from Hove and a member of the Speakers Collective. His books are published by Little, Brown and include How to Tell Anxiety to Sod Off, How to Tell Depression to Piss Off, How to Get to Grips with Grief (July ’22), What I Do to Get Through and The Recovery Letters.