The best kind of books are ones which resonate with you. Whether that’s because they make you laugh, cry, scream or learn something, the most successful ones leave a lasting impression long after you close the last page.
With ‘Loving The Life Less Lived: Living with Anxiety and how Acceptance has the power to Change your life’, it’s honest and frank approach to living with mental illness is refreshingly realistic; making you think “I can totally relate to that.”
Whether you are desperate for some inkling that someone else understand what you’re going through, looking for practical advice or just want to learn more about anxiety, give this book a read.
As part of Mental Health Awareness Month I spoke to author Gail Mitchell about the book and mental health. Here’s what she had to say:
1. The book’s title is ‘Loving the life less lived’. What does this mean for somebody who hasn’t read the book?
It means that even if life doesn’t turn out how you planned, if things go wrong or you’re ill or struggling you can still love your life, probably more so than if you never stopped to take stock. In today’s society we are fed a myth that we need to popular, rich and successful but often the greatest joys and happiness can come without all those things.
2. What inspired you to write this book?
The actual inspiration came when I saw an old school friend talking about everyone’s unique skills on Twitter. I was feeling very low at the time and I thought that the only thing I was good at was being anxious …. and writing, then the idea came to write about being anxious.
3. In the book you talk very openly about your experiences. How did this feel?
OK, writing about it was very cathartic. I think letting people read it was harder, especially people close to me. Even now I wonder what they will think when they read about my darkest moments. But my family and close friends have been wonderfully supportive.
4. How proud of the finished book are you?
I was really proud when I saw it on the shelf in Waterstones! It was a lifetime’s ambition come true. Now I feel a kind of pride when someone says the book has helped them, I think ‘yes, it was worth writing it’.
5. What, in summary, can people expect from this book? What do you hope people get from reading your book?
If you experience anxiety, depression or just sometimes find life a struggle I hope you will find it like a friend. As one reviewer wrote “it’s like a hug from a friend saying “I know what you’re going through”. That is the best praise I could have asked for! I’ve been more surprised by people with no experience of mental illness saying that it has opened their eyes to how debilitating it can be.
6. You talk a lot about your friend Kathryn and how she helps you. How much has her support meant to you?
Just to have someone who accepts you, just as you are, means the world and maybe is all any of us can ask? Knowing there is a safe place you can go and someone you can call is so reassuring. I also love her kids who have brought me so much joy, nothing can make you smile quite the way a toddler’s cuddle can. There’s a poem by Rudyard Kipling that says:
Nine hundred and ninety-nine depend
On what the world sees in you,
But the Thousandth Man will stand your friend
With the whole round world agin you
That’s Kathryn …. Except she isn’t a man…. Obviously!
7. Not everyone suffering with anxiety or mental health issues will have friends as understanding as Kathryn. What’s your advice for someone who feels there is no one who understands, or they can talk to?
I do know how that feels, I didn’t meet Kathryn until a few years after my first diagnosis, and that was in the days before the internet or before mental illness was so widely talked about. I think the first thing to do is ring the Samaritans. They are there 24/7 and it’s free to call.
There are loads of charities out there now that offer help and support, some local ones will offer classes and support groups but the two big ones that come to mind are Mental Health Foundation and Mind. You can find loads of information on there and stories about people just like yourself. Also social media is a great way to ‘meet’ people who understand. There are loads of mental health bloggers out their talking about their experiences.
8. You talk about music and books as a therapy. Do you think creative pursuits have a place in self-help?
Absolutely! Sometimes I am too anxious to sit still long enough to do anything creative however I firmly believe that writing/art/music/dance etc. are all great ways to maintain positive mental health. Apart from the fact that you can an endorphin rush from creating something, hobbies like that can be so absorbing that they distract you from the physical symptoms and mental thoughts that go with anxiety and depression.
9. Everyone has feelings of anxiety or worry at some point in their lives. How, and at what point, does anxiety become a mental health issue?
I think when it goes on a long time, when there is no obvious cause or when it starts to interfere with your normal life. Being anxious is draining physically, so even if you know the cause (e.g. a stressful job, an ill relative) self-care is really important as it can really deplete your immune system and reserves of stamina. We all have ‘mental health’ in the same way as we all have physical health, and as a society we need to put as much effort into maintaining a healthy mind and a healthy body. However at the moment I don’t see any ‘5-a-day’ type initiative to educate people about their mental health.
My advice would be to treat it the way you would a physical illness, if you are thinking ‘this isn’t normal’ or ‘I can’t cope with this anymore’ or ‘I need someone to help me deal with this’ then contact your GP. I long for a day when we don’t have ‘mental health issues’ any more than we have ‘physical health issues’ .
10. As you mention, there are many self-help books for people suffering with mental health issues. Did you worry yours wouldn’t stand out? What do you think separates it from the rest?
Yes and I still worry that! Especially as I’m with a small indie publisher and we don’t have a huge marketing budget like some of the big publishers. What makes it stand out is that it is real, honest and open. It is easy to read and people can relate to it. I love it when it gets a good review or when someone says it has helped them, it’s not about me having a successful book (although a six figure book deal would be a bonus!) It’s about making a difference and empowering other people to live full and rich lives with or without mental illness.
11. A stand out part for me was when you used a difficult journey on the M1 as a metaphor for life. What does recovery mean to you?
Any successful recovery includes set-backs. It’s not a straight fast road, it is a journey they takes rambling detours and U turns. I didn’t want to accept that for a long time. I used to think ‘I’m better now – that’ wasn’t the ‘real’ me’ but then I’d have some sort of relapse and I’d be more depressed, anxious and critical of my own failings than I ever was before.
Now I realise that we never truly go back to square one, we’ve always learnt something or progressed, it just feels like it at times.
12. What do you wish you knew in your darkest times that you know now?
That it will pass. It always passes. And often we come out stronger and wiser than we were before. Just hang on and keep hanging on because it will pass.
13. How did your family and friends react when you told them you were writing this book?
I’ve always written so they weren’t surprised. I think they were more surprised when they read it and found they quite enjoyed it! Everyone has been really supportive, more than I ever expected really. Loads of people came to the launch, I had imagined just me and my husband sitting there with a glass of wine but all my friends came out on a cold January evening just because they wanted to support me. People came up to Nottingham from London and Bristol as well.
14. Which is the chapter you are most proud of, or that you think is most important?
I think the most important chapter depends on who’s reading it. Different readers will take different things out of the book. As for most proud? I’m not sure but probably the last chapter. I changed the ending because something happened in my life after I’d finished the first draft which made me want to re-write the ending. It is quite emotional but because of that I think it is probably my favourite, the whole book is written from the heart but the final chapter even more so.
15. You’ve achieved a lot, personally and academically. What can you thank for this? What would you say to someone who feels too paralysed by anxiety to even aim for success?
Just take one small step – and then congratulate yourself for it. Then, when you are ready take another and another. Never forget to congratulate yourself for your progress and don’t rush it. I didn’t write a book, I wrote a sentence, then another, then I had an anecdote, then I had a chapter ….. then I was at Waterstones launching my first published book. I certainly didn’t get from being afraid to leave the house to flying around the world in one go – it took a lot of small steps when even the post box seemed too far. Don’t be put off by failures or setbacks either, they are all part of the process.
16. In the chapter, “People Who Inspire: You never know how far your influence will reach” you are very self-reflective. How did you learn to accept your strengths and downfalls?
Over a long period of time I guess. It was all part of the process of not trying to be perfect. I’m human and we all have weaknesses as well as strengths, I can’t quite remember when I started to see myself as a whole person but when I did it became a lot easier to accept my failings, and when I did that I stopped criticising myself and stopped trying to be something I’m not. It certainly makes life easier!
17. What practical advice do you have for people who want to make the first step in getting better?
See your GP if you haven’t already. That can be easier said than done but I give some advice about getting help from your GP in the book. Then do one self-care thing every day, go for a walk, contact an old friend, read a book, have a bubble bath. Then just take one step at a time … oh and read my book!
18. For mental health week people often talk a lot about stigma. Are stigmas still alive and well for mental health issues? Why do they matter?
Yes, although people who aren’t going through it don’t believe me on this. I think the media and employers are the worst culprits. If there is any sort of violent incident in the news the reporters either jump to the conclusion of terrorism or mental health. In fact people with mental illness are much less likely to commit violent crimes than the average person and much more likely to be the victim of them, but you wouldn’t know that from reading the papers or watching the news.
I’ve had some really supportive employers but I’ve also had some diabolical ones. Have a week off with flu and no one bats an eyelid but have a week of with anxiety and (some) employers treat you like a pariah. I’ve had an employer ringing me relentlessly the day I sent a sick note in, threatening disciplinary procedures and telling me I’d let myself down – would they do that if you had the flu?
19. Are you working on another book?
Yes, I’m writing a young adult novel with themes of suicide and self harm. I’d love to do a version of Loving the Life Less Lived aimed at children and young people because I think there is a huge epidemic of mental ill health among the young but for now I’m sticking to fiction.
Massive thank you to Gail Mitchell for sharing such honest replies, and to Red Door Publishing for supporting her book.