A few months ago I received a message on twitter. As I don’t usually get messages on Twitter, this was rather exciting. A young man by the name of Aron Bennett wanted me to be part of one of the most wonderful projects I’ve ever heard of. The aim was to get over a hundred people with mental health issues to write a diary entry from their perspective, all based on one day: May 16th. These entries would then be combined into a book that (hopefully) would help other people suffering with poor mental health, make them feel that they are not alone. The date was chosen as it was the beginning of mental health awareness week in the UK, where Aron is based.
May 16th was a good day to choose for me, as it happened to be the day I had a break through with something that was bothering me terribly. Getting to write about it was surprisingly cathartic. All of these feelings and thoughts that I had no idea were so painful all came rushing to the surface, clamouring for release. It was a very emotional day, to say the least, but in a good way. I have never been one to keep a diary, but for the first time I could see the appeal. Writing won’t work for everyone, though; some people need to talk, some need to get physical and run it out on a treadmill, some need to be left alone to process things in their own time. What I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t matter how you let it out, as long as you get to express yourself in some way. Bottling it up and waiting for it to go away do more harm in the long term. Remember that you are not alone, and there is always someone who can relate to what you are going through, and most of the time they are closer than you think.
Aron was kind enough to answer some questions for me about the project, and about life in general:
Express: You have a book coming out. Can you tell us a bit more about the project? What inspired it?
Aron: The project came from two places really. The first was my fear that people’s voices – those experiencing mental illness, more specifically – were not being heard. Or at least, not heard by a particularly wide or varied audience. It is the sad reality of the publishing world that only famous people get to offload so prosperously and publicly. Yet it is of vital importance that people’s every-day experiences are well-documented if, as a society, we are to learn and become more compassionate.
The second was that, by all [contributors] writing on a single day, it would show not only how widespread and universal mental illness is, but [it] was also a display of glimmering solidarity.
Express: When I was working in research, recruitment is always the biggest worry. How did you recruit like-minded people?
Aron: There is no shortage of people wishing to speak out. The difficulty is their audiences are often limited, or otherwise negatively affected by the sheer saturation on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. In other words, they are lost in the millions of ego-casting voices. Sometimes, too many voices can have the opposite effect. Those individual voices get lost.
People have been writing, albeit anonymously, about mental illness for decades; centuries even. As one of my contributors pointed out “Who has heard of Currier and Ellis Bell? Writing under pen names they produced ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’, two of the best novels of all time.”
Perhaps the next stage in literature will be people writing unashamedly and autobiographically about their spiritual and educative experiences.
Express: When is it due out?
Aron: Hopefully November. Possibly early December.
Express: You have been quite open about your experiences with OCD. How do you feel about “coming out” as someone with mental illness?
Aron: As above, I wish to lift the lid on shame. I am confident writing autobiographically about my experiences because I do not see it as a character flaw or, even, a wilful subscription to a set of moral lifestyle choices. It is an illness. And there should be no stigma and shame in illness. On that basis, I hope that speaking openly and frankly will encourage openness and acceptance amongst others too.
Express: You’ve been a vocal activist for fighting the social stigma of mental illness. What are your thoughts on the perception of mental illness in society today?
One could be forgiven for thinking that the worst of the stigma has already been dealt with by virtue of a superabundance of literature on the topic, and that the zeitgeist – thanks to charities and left-wing campaign groups alike – is finally, finally, now starting to change. My advice is to simply start experimenting with the following unbosoming narratives and see how such divulgences leave you feeling or, rather, reeling. You will soon realise how far we have yet to go when you try; telling someone you can’t leave the house because you fear coming into contact with dirt or germs, that you think you might die prematurely from some form of a brain tumour despite starkly opposing medical diagnoses to the contrary, that you think the door might be unlocked, allowing easy access for potential burglars and rapists, despite having checked over fifty odd times that it is not so. And if all that isn’t squirm-inducing enough, now try some of these: try telling someone how every day you fear harming your own family, or that often you envision initiating sex with old people, children and animals. Try telling someone that you’re not convinced one hundred percent that you don’t fancy little boys and girls because they slightly resemble fully formed adults, and that this conundrum keeps you up at night as you try desperately to convince yourself by extensive ‘working out’ that you are not a paedophile. Not easy right? So easy to be misunderstood, dealt with as though our uncontrolled thoughts may in some way be ‘real’.
No… we still have some way to go I fear.
Express: What’s next for Aron Bennett?
Aron: Well if this book goes well, why not make more. New volumes. Let’s just keep talking!
Express: Is there anything else you’d like to say, to the readers of the Express or in general?
Aron: Hahaha – think I’ve covered it really. Hopefully.
Aron Bennett, originally from Essex, has lived with OCD for a number of years, later writing a book about his experiences. After graduating from Lancaster University with a degree in Law, Aron now lives in Norwich and volunteers with the charity ‘OCD Action’.
His two other books, “The Walking Worried; a young man’s journey with OCD” and “Anxiety2 or Essays in Obsessional thinking” are available from Amazon.com.
Aron’s current project, “A Day in my Head” is currently on track to be published in early December, with the proceeds going to charity.