Before deciding that I wanted to be a freelance journalist, I had been tormented by the ravages of mental health and psychosis. I really suffered as I tried to battle through each day amid a sea of delusions, hallucinations, and nightmares.
Those around me didn’t realise I had any illness as such, but considered I was just being ‘difficult’. I felt alienated from society and all relationships with family and friends broke down completely. My past had been littered with examples of considerable anxiety and the devastating pain of mental sickness. I was convinced that my future was hopeless and that I’d never return to normality.
- See also: 'An introduction to schizophrenia'
My experience of paranoid schizophrenia
At one stage, I had visions of being the anti-Christ and this tormented me no end. I believed that I could read people’s minds and that I was psychically connected to friends and family.
But beneath this anguish, I harboured a secret interest to write for a living, and I had often thought how nice it would be to emulate the life of Franz Kafka, the celebrated Czech writer, and that of George Orwell of ‘1984’ fame. Delusional as this may seem, I realised that while I would never reach the literary heights of such genius, I felt determined that I could hack a living as a journalist and author.
The fact was that following a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and prescribed by my consultant psychiatrist, injections of Clopixol (an anti-psychotic medication), the door was now opened to pursue an independent career, such as that of writing. I realised that the whole answer to life could not be found from a bimonthly injection but for me the depot really worked wonders. I still had some symptoms, for example, I could be on a bus and convinced that it would crash (I would alight early so my journey would take longer).
Becoming a journalist and an author whilst living with a mental health condition
Wind the clock forward, and I found that I can now look back on a career as an author and journalist. I have published 7 books and about 100 articles, including those in The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Times Educational Supplement, Who do you think you are? Magazine, and many more.
There was always a need to pace myself and not overdo it. Writing a mere 250 words per day was the way forward. Modest though this target may seem, it was for me, with a history of schizophrenia, something I could comfortably do. Once, when writing a book on the teaching profession, I wrote 2 thousand words in 2 hours. After this, my head felt like it was about to explode. I staggered to my bed and curled up like a plagued animal and for the rest of the day I stayed there. I felt absolutely destroyed. This episode was never repeated, as I stuck to the daily target of 250 words, and I chose not to work on Saturdays and Sundays, but just took things easy and rested on those days.
The message I want to get across is that, criticised as such medication is, if a doctor can prescribe the ‘right’ drug, and where there are no overbearing side effects, then the skies are the limit. A network of friends and family, with the addition of talking therapy, can do wonders too.
However, working as a journalist, as in the careers of so many other professions and occupations, is not free from all stresses and you have to do your best, and be brave should things not go your way. One editor refused to pay me for a commissioned piece, saying that his magazine had a cash-flow crisis. I did not want the pressure or expense of a court case, so I had no alternative but to forfeit the fee.
Yet the benefits really do outweigh the disadvantages. I went on to be paid very well by finance magazines. I have written elsewhere about military history, such as the role of the Australian armed forces in Vietnam, the Israeli six-day war, and military cyclists in the First World War. Other articles have focussed on family history, education and office technology. After initially carrying out a little research, using the Internet, it is surprising how much can be achieved.
My advice to budding journalists and writers with a condition
Those thinking of embarking on a career as a journalist and who receive benefits such as Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), should note that in some cases, the claimant can do what is known as ‘permitted work’, allowing him or her to earn an additional income of up to £143 per week.
Perhaps surprisingly, books tend to pay pro rata less money, and I have to admit that article writing has made more cash for me. A book can take ages to write, and publishers notoriously pay little in return, unless you are one in many millions such as the author JK Rowling, but never rule anything out. Be optimistic and think how her Harry Potter books were rejected by about 12 publishers before Bloomsbury showed her the green light! Schizophrenia need not therefore be a death knell and one only needs to read the list of famous writers and artists with mental health, such as Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and Vincent Van Gough, who through their creative works have enjoyed international fame.
The order of the day is not to give up. If you have an ambition to be a journalist or a writer, why not start by writing for free? Once you have built up a portfolio of two or three articles, try and search out editors who might be interested in your work and who can pay you for it. Journalism isn’t for everyone, but it can offer a great deal of satisfaction and delight to those of us who live with mental health.
Medication can play a central role in all of this and in my case paved the way for an engaging career that has been both psychologically and financially rewarding.