HOW WRITING MY MEMOIR ALMOST KILLED ME
* Published in The Guardian
This month it will be ten years since my memoir, Grief Girl, was published and only now am I beginning to understand the havoc it wreaked upon my life.
Before writing a memoir about my parents dying in a road accident when I was 14 I went around saying, “So my parents died, what’s the big deal?” I wholeheartedly believed that I had come away unscathed. When the topic of parents came up in conversation I would say, “Oh, my parents are retired; they live up the coast.” I figured I wasn’t lying as they had retired, from life, and if you believe in life after death, which I do and don’t, depending on the day, they were living up from the coast, all coasts.
So, how did I go from death denier to published memoir writer? Quite by accident.
I had just turned thirty and was starting to remember things from before my parents’ accident. We hear so much about people repressing traumatic memories but we humans also tend to repress good ones if they serve to remind us of all that we’ve lost. So in fear of losing the memories again I started writing them down and turning them into stories for myself. I figured that if I lost them a second time I could just go back to what I had written.
As I recalled days at the beach, my father’s weird hobbies, and my mother dancing around the house to her Neil Diamond records, I started to feel compelled to also write about what life was like after they were gone. So I steeled myself and wrote about wearing a hot pink dress to my mother’s funeral. I wrote about the constant fear that my three-year-old brother would die if I took my eyes off him for just one moment when we were out in the world. I wrote about the night of my parents’ accident and being told my mother was dead.
After several weeks of this it occurred to me that I was writing the kind of stories I wished I’d had when I was in the midst of grief and thought I was losing my mind as I struggled to get up each day each day and go to school, and once there, try not to run from the classroom screaming. So, on I wrote.
After reading a few of my stories my husband suggested I write a book. This was the era of Angela’s Ashes and Running With Scissors and he jokingly said, “Hey, when it comes to sad stories two dead parents trumps them all.” He was wrong of course but thought it would urge me on.
I resisted for a long time but then wondered if I could write a raw and honest book about my own grief that might actually be of use to some people; maybe help them feel less alone than I did when I read grief books with covers photos of lavender fields and sunsets that told me grief came in five (only five?!) stages and that grief was like the rain. Grief is nothing like the f*cking rain, I thought. If anything, grief is like being lost at sea in a raging hurricane.
So to dispel those myths I decided to write a memoir about my experience and honestly believed I could “knock it out” in six months. How hard could it be? I’d been a journalist writing about other people, so writing about myself, a subject I knew well, would be a cinch.
How wrong I was, about the writing and about myself.
About a year into the writing I wondered why I was so tired all the time; why after writing for an hour or two all I would want to do was sleep. I thought I was just being lazy so I pushed myself harder.
Determined to remember as many details as possible I decided to bombard my senses. I bought CDs of the music from my childhood and items with familiar smells such as Play Doh, my dad’s Old Spice, Brut, my sister’s Charlie perfume, the 4711 cologne my mother used to wear, the brand of glue I used in grade school. And there I sat at my desk writing, sniffing and listening to Barry Manilow, Whitney Houston, The Police, Blondie, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Neil Diamond.
Not long after this I became itchy, literally. Large red hives started appearing all over my body. Convinced I was having some kind of allergic reaction I proceeded to change soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, and I stopped smelling the perfumes and aftershaves, but nothing worked. Then came the debilitating stomach pains, diarrhoea, and vomiting, which led me to hospital for a colonoscopy, which found nothing. I became listless, was crying on a daily basis, my hair became limp, my nails brittle, and eventually I had trouble getting out of bed. And yet, not once did I attribute any of this to what I was writing.
And then one night I decided I couldn’t go on and that my husband’s life would be more joyous without his sick, miserable wife. I had it all planned. I was going to write a note that said something along the lines of, ‘Babe, do not enter. Just call the police. I love you.’ This was going to be taped to the bathroom door before I locked it, sliced my wrists and laid in a warm bath and drifted away. But then I thought about grief, something that was on my mind daily. Could I put him through that? I tried to reason with myself, “But once the grief is gone, he can live a happy life”. But still… grief. Could I, of all people, cause the person I loved most in the world to experience what I had? No, I couldn’t. So the note was never written. Instead I put the razor away, collapsed on to our bed in a sobbing heap and wondered how I would go on. Somehow I did. And I kept writing, in shorter spurts now that my energy was so low.
As I sat at my desk one afternoon, staring out the window because I was too tired to do anything else, my teary-eyed husband, handed me a printout and said, “I think this might be you.” It was a ‘depression checklist’ that he’d found whilst doing some research for a photo series he was working on. And then it all made sense. I was depressed. How did I not see it?
We talked about me ceasing the writing but I explained that I couldn’t. I had come this far and it would all be for nothing if I didn’t finish. So we came up with a plan. I would only write for one hour a day and would go and see a psychologist to see is she could help me get through it. I also went on antidepressants which eventually lead to a host of physical and mental health issues that I am still recovering from.
(This past year I went through hell trying to ween off the drug Cymbalta)
So with a loving husband, psychologist, and pharmaceutical drugs in tow, I wrote and eventually finished my memoir. It would be a couple of years before I sold it to a publisher and had to go through the whole experience again during the editing process. By the time I was done I had relived the night of my parents’ accident on a daily basis for six years. I thought I was numbing myself but I have since discovered that I was actually rewiring my brain.
Studies have shown that replaying traumatic events over and over again is equivalent to living them, in your brain and your body. Your brain reads the information as though the event is happening in that instant. I recently read Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps The Score in which he says, “Flashbacks and reliving are in some ways worse than the trauma itself… a traumatic event has a beginning and an end” but a flashback can happen anywhere, anytime and for an indeterminable length of time.
Suddenly it all made sense. By writing my book I had unwittingly re-traumatised myself and have spent the past ten years trying to find my way back.
It’s funny, the main thing people say to me when discussing my book is how cathartic the writing must have been. I know they want me to say that it was, but I refuse to perpetuate the lie that writing about your pain is freeing when that is not always the case.
And now when people tell me they plan to write a memoir I want to caution them about the possible costs of such an endeavour. And yet, I want to be supportive, I don’t want to be the person who tries to kill a writer’s dreams.
Writing a book isn’t easy but dredging up your past and writing about it can be self-inflicted torture.
But who am I to tell you not to embark on that memoir? All I can say is: You’ve Been Warned.
* Photos by Adam Knott
* Published in The Guardian on April 11, 2017