One of our anthology contributors, Rob True, who suffers from psychotic episodes, is also dyslexic, which went undetected as a child, so was slow to read and write. Here he tells us what writing now means to him. At the end you'll find one of his stories, I LIKE THIS ONE.
ROB TRUE: How I write
For the first couple of years of junior school, I couldn’t read at all while everyone else could. I did my best to avoid anything to do with reading and writing. I wasn’t unintelligent, because I also managed to avoid detection by reading the pictures. But I always had a feeling I was different. They showed me letters: A for apple, N for Nana. And I didn’t know what they were. I thought they were funny symbols. It was the 70s, and no one realised I was dyslexic until I was a teenager.
Around that time, I was also diagnosed with psychosis and personality disorder. When I was in my 20s I was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I still suffer from delusions and hallucinations. Someone told me I have psychotic episodes, and I said, what’s that? And they said: most of the time you’ll be all right and then you’ll suffer from delusions and hallucinations. The doctors said I wouldn’t be able to have relationships or hold down jobs. I’ve been married for 15 years.
It’s not been as severe as it was in my 20s. I used to get wrapped up in the delusions, but now I can shake myself out of it. Some are minor, some quite amusing, some enjoyable, some terrifying, some paranoid and bizarre. The challenge is realising it’s not reality, when it feels so real. These days, I manage to grab my sorry self by the scruff of the neck and yank him out of it. I’ve got an autistic son, and can’t indulge in my own problems anymore.
Episodes tend to begin with a euphoric rush of creativity, like a fever, followed by horror. I might believe that my friends have been replaced by androids and I’m possessed by supernatural beings, that there are creatures lurking in corners behind cars and trees waiting to take my soul. When I was growing up, I thought that images could come alive and do things to you; I’d turn books face down, so the images couldn’t escape.
This is how I started writing.
I was telling stories to people verbally, about my past, and my mad escapades, and my cousin said: Write them down. But I couldn’t really write. Apart from bad punctuation and spelling, what was on the page didn’t sound anything like the stories I was telling. So I thought to myself, for practice I’ll write a couple of short stories. I wrote one and sent it off to a writers’ forum where people comment on your work, and of course it got trashed. My wife was quite amused, because one of the comments was: Don’t be mean. I don’t think his first language is English. She thought that was hilarious. But there was one that was encouraging. It suggested, if you put the punctuation here, it’ll sounds all right, which gave me some encouragement. So my wife said, Read it back how you want it. Which I did, and she corrected what I’d written as we went along. She gradually taught me about punctuation, and paragraphs, and all that, and slowly I started learning. I was 38 years old.
Another friend, who’d been to university, introduced me to Bukowski, and showed me how writing is about finding your voice, using your own language, not someone else’s. This same friend buys me books for Christmas and my reading has improved massively.
Writing helps me work things out and make sense of my past. When you turn stuff that’s happened into stories, it makes them into something else. It helps me learn from my experiences, rather than running back into the same nightmares I used to. It helps me cope better with my illness, too. Heroin used to be my medicine. It was the only thing that quietened my mind. My biggest fear of getting clean was that I wouldn’t have that cushioning anymore. I still find it difficult after 18 years.
I’ve seen all this stuff on the internet about discipline, and how you need to write a certain number of words each day, and so on. For me, I get into a kind of craze. Like I’m zapped with an idea. It comes from heaven. And I roll down the hill with it, and it expands like a snowball, giving me such a thrill. That’s it, and I have to do it – sit down and grab that feeling. And when it goes, it’s gone.
I LIKE THIS ONE
by Rob True
I like this one. Feeds me the same old shit out of a can every day, but at least I eat regular. He lies down a lot. That’s what I like about him. I’ve seen him heating powder up in a spoon, with water. He draws it into a plastic tube, through a pin, ties his arm with a belt, smacks it a couple of times with his fingers and carefully pierces it with the pin. After that his face slackens and he slumps back. This is when he lies down. My favourite thing is to climb up and sit on his chest. So warm and tranquil. Once I know he’s drifting, I settle down all stretched out, with my face close to his.
Sometimes, when he comes round a bit, he strokes me for ages, just the two of us lying there together, me purring and him breathing slowly. His hand, massive and firm, gently glides from head to tail. Ecstasy. In that state, he behaves a lot like me, staring into nothing and dozing off now and again. We’ve got a lot in common.
I hate it when he has to go out. I always know when it’s going to happen. That machine with the quiet voice makes a horrible repeating bleep, shattering our harmony, until he picks it up and says, “Hello.” Then I can hear a tiny voice talking and he always says, “Meet me at the same place, ring when you get there.” I watch him measure out small amounts of the same powder he puts in the spoon. He carefully places it in the centre of a little square of plastic torn from a carrier bag, brings the corners together above it and twists them to make a bulb with the powder in it. He heats the twist with a flame ’til it melts a bit. Sometimes he makes a few of these capsules, if the quiet talking machine bleeps and speaks with him more than once. I watch him put on his hat and coat and feel sad that he’s going.
When he returns, I know it won’t be long before he performs his ritual with the spoon, belt and pin again, so I can snuggle up with him another time. It happens several times a day. We lie like that for hours and hours of peace and I feel like I become a part of him, as though I melt into his chest, rising and falling slow and shallow. I watch his face turn pale, lips a bluish grey and his breathing seems to slow to nothing sometimes, and I wonder what would happen if it stopped?
Susie has been in our creative writing group from the very beginning. In early sessions she pulled out her bulging notebooks and told us how she writes to work things out. She apologised before she read out her writing, and made a point of telling us that it wasn't any good (this couldn't have been further from the truth). But as the groups progressed, so did her confidence, and at times we were spellbound by the quality of her writing. Susie has grown so much through this group, and is now teaching herself to type so we can see some of her excellent work in print. We are very honoured to have the following piece.
by Susannah Vernon-Hunt
I can hear them talking low behind the curtain as I lie on the hospital bed. ‘Well, she’s left half her knee dermis on a pavement somewhere. I don’t know what to stick on it.’ A chuckle. ‘I’ll call Dr Sangheev.’
And then they come. I am surprised. I don’t want hospital crying. These are angry oily little drops of tar. Maybelline Waterproof. I guess I’m not worth it.
I had just turned into a quiet little walkway, away from twisty traffic, the loving couples holding hands and walking the pavement as if it’s theirs, full tilt buggied families, urgent places to be. Airport drop-offs with push-me pull-me suitcases. Huge toothy smiles at mobile phones, held aloft. Solos like me, distracted and trying to radiate normality, but also at a little remove, the methamphetamined gangs of guys ’n’ dolls, gulping from bulging plastic bottles of sparkly Ice Dragon slayer. The dumpster detritus of the West End, laughing, shouting, circling the pavement.
In the walkway. Quieter now. I am grateful for this little space to check for messages on my phone.
He must be 16 at a push, but tall and lean. Sweet sticky-uppy corn twists; maybe his sister or old-school granny did them, lovingly. His eyes are wide and blinking.
‘Your phone. Now.’
‘I’m sorry. What?’
‘Your phone. Bitch. Gimme.’
I hold it close. ‘No.’
He moves in.
‘There are people. Look,’ I say and point to the street.
I am frightened.
He comes for my phone.
I swerve past him and the phone rotates fast away, doing a kind of pavement Frisbee.
‘Stupid fucking bitch.’
I’m past him but feel his full frustration in a deft and powerful kick into the low soft curve of my spine. I am crying silently, don’t hurt me, please, please don’t hurt me.
I fall onto all fours and rough skid along the road. My leggings rip clean at the knee. I stop, my head close to the pavement. I turn it slightly and, out of one eye corner, see him leap-run away, back into black.
Oh God. Thank you. Thank you.
I am quivering. Quick hot bursts of breath. The arm that must have broken my fall looks like a mangled bicycle spoke. The blood from my knee is spurting out.
Later, I am told, as well as the skin ripping off, it opened a main artery vein. Hence the blood spreading like a burst dam.
I am stuck on all fours. I cannot move. Humiliation creeps all around. I feel like pig woman waiting in my abattoir.
And then you are there. You are hugely tall with a massive girth protruding over your belt. You have cement dust all over you and a neon yellow waistcoat. You are chuckling with dancing blue eyes. ‘Jesus, that’s a lot of claret, lady. I’m going to get you up, okay?’ You put both your arms under my armpits and pull me up. Your strength is magnificent.
‘I’m so sorry. Thank you. I’m so, so sorry. Thank you. Thank you.’
‘Darlin. No problem. I’ve been carrying metal in concrete all day. Can you walk?’
‘Yes. Yes. No problem, I can walk.’
I stand stock still. I do not want to bother him. I want to be alone.
‘Best phone someone, love, and probably get to hospital. You okay now, sure?’ You amble off with a wave and a thumbs-up.
I find my favourite cardy, soft as a newborn’s blanket, rolled carefully in my bag. I wrap it tight around my knee. Pain judders through me as I retrieve my stupid shit phone, lying by some bricks.
The taxi man lets me in, but soon realises his mistake. He turns towards me and stuffs a newspaper through the window gap. ‘Get that under your feet, quick. Don’t get blood on my floor. I just cleaned up a whole load of vomit last night.’ He has a face like the inside of a pork pie. I fucking hate him.
The name on the badge of the nurse is Delphine. Delphine has a soft voice and is kind to me. ‘We could only do three stitches and you’ll have a nasty scar.’ I’ve been collecting scars like pieces of bad art, one more for my collection. ‘Your x-ray shows a radial fracture in your arm. We can’t plaster it because it’ll mend stiff and you have to be free to rotate.’ Yes. Yes. I must be free to rotate.
The flat is empty. I lie down on the floor. I need somewhere hard to stop this whooshing vertigo. I feel I’m floating up and down, circling this way and that. I close my eyes. My body ripples from stomach to throat. But I don’t feel sick. I’ve got these convulsions going through me. What is the temperature of a single tear? Mine are scalding, rolling sideways down my face. Quicker than I thought possible. I am sobbing and the sound of it makes me feel sadder still. Wailing comes from the deepest well of me. From baby to woman, all of it.
They are not cries for my knee, for my splintered arm or my ruined cardigan. The cries are for you, Ma, when you did not know me anymore. The cries when Frances died and I could not call you back. The cries for James living with the unforgivable. The cries for my attacker, a man-boy lost, going back to attack. And now, here, cries for me. Here I am, pointless, in the land of Godlessness.
Take me to the shoreline
I will crawl there
Crawl into the waters
Letting waves and driftwood, seaweed and sand roll over me,
Let the pull-tide pull me out deeper
Take all these lesions and scars
Wash and wash tarry tears clean away
Take me low down
Into soft water
Take all of this, all that is me and of me
Take me slow and low
Let me forget.
My name is Susannah and I am 58. I believe in the old recovery maxim that only when you and you alone want to stop, then you can. I started in my twenties with heroin. It tracked through my thirties with some dreadful and desperate days, but times when I could also kick it and have fragments of a kind of life. After a stint in rehab I finally put down everything, and those were good times. But alcohol managed to trickle back and quite suddenly I was in full-blown alcoholism. Minus the drugs, but even more desperate. I found out about WDP through word of mouth. I hit the jackpot with my key worker. She challenged me in many ways, but mostly made me see that it was not too late. I began to come out of my isolation and take on life again. The Creative Writing sessions have been a huge help. It kind of blind-sided me; I did not for a moment think that it would have the impact that it did: a kind of fusion of being alcohol-free and really open to letting Lily’s sessions in. The sessions and the writing have both creative and cathartic elements. I don't really know where one begins and the other ends. Lily has given me real encouragement from the get go, and I feel really safe with my fellow writers in our room.
At our creative writing classes at St Mungo's, we teach writing skills but also dedicate a lot of our lesson time to the practice of writing. While it's important to teach the fundamentals of good writing, we also like to stress that there is no right way, particularly in that early stage of getting the words onto the page, and we do a lot of writing exercises that help override the critical part of the brain that might otherwise stop you in your tracks. We also like to have fun!
Collaborative writing exercises are a great way to break down barriers and work on a project together. We found one such exercise in The Self on the Page: Theory and Practice of Creative Writing in Personal Development, edited by Celia Hunt and Fiona Sampson. It's called the Web of Words, and involves each student fishing out their keys and discussing what they mean to them, and then writing pieces inspired by their keys, key rings or words that they associate with key, like melody, for instance. The teacher then ties the piece together with a chorus, which binds all thoughts around this central theme. This exercises was so successful that we did it twice with two different groups. This is the first one.
THE WEB OF WORDS
A: Melody was in half-light, eyes dancing, yellow-stained fingers scratching her neck. He hadn’t noticed it before, but in this light and in this bar she seemed weightless and of the ether, tied to no one and desperately sad. ‘You look tired.’ She pretends she doesn’t hear him and slowly sips her drink. In three weeks he’ll be 39 and she won’t be there to celebrate. He feels nothing about this and doesn’t try. ‘Where you living?’ ‘Same place” ‘Oh.’ They meet at the same bar, at the same table, with the same tense faces, every year even if they don’t want to.
Chorus: This is our web of words. Real or imagined. Keynote, music, dance. We can choose what we do with it. We can see the walls or glimpse the sunset.
L: Togetherness is the mixing and merging of all lives; a life split this past year and multiplied. Such constriction, it seemed: a house and husband and two children, and then the door opened. The key fob grew. Bike locks accrued; the complications of cars and bikes half here, half there, in his front yard, in my hallway, scooters, too. Then there’s the extra lives, the extra keys to those hearts and minds. Two dog key rings bought in St Ives. He asked me to get him one, too, then gave me his spare, as he moves from old to new.
Chorus: This is our web of keys. Our web of words. It is both open and closed, both outgoing and inward, both separate and together. It is growth, it is renewal. We can decide.
R: Panic if I lost them or if my neighbour suddenly came up to me in the street again to warn me. He could grab them and get in my flat. I could try to scrape his face but who am I kidding? He’s much stronger than me, as he has proved. He would grab them and laugh and push me away. He would love using his power, as I am the ‘stupid cunt’ who can’t look after herself. Why did I get involved with him? My God, I must be so weak. I didn’t think I was that naïve. He used to laugh at my security ways and take the piss. He doesn’t need my keys to break in anyway. He can just wedge his way in when I open the door. I feel sick thinking about him. And I’m tired of having to be strong all the time. Life is too short for all this stress. I used to wish I could hire someone to seriously beat him up. I’ve fantasised about killing him. But I’ve been this way about home security since I left my childhood home. I hate the idea of someone ruining my things. Reminds me of another bastard – James – who I left all my belongings with ten years ago to get to safety. I’m finding it hard to feel optimistic about life in general. I feel like I’ve been used and abused most of my life.
Chorus: This is a troubled web. A web of frightened words, of fear and impending threat. We are on the outside, trying to get back to safety. But keys have their place, just as words help show how it feels. The keys will protect you, turned in the lock, held to a face. We weave this sticky web, or we push our fingers into it and rip it down.
S.V-H: Blue stone. Swimming
Hackney Lido Boy kick splashing in my face with wondrous smile. A little dive under plastic line-rope and up with hair utter sleek, back swimming and happy kicking. Aeroplane up there in the blue. Where are you going? Oh, take me with you. Girl gliding by: her elegant neck moving like a poem. Necklaces and sparks of water. I am swimming. Swimming. I love it. Drying time. Glimpse of face in steam of moody mirror. Look away. Look away. Flip flopping home. Hair all of a tangle now.
Chorus: Our web brings us out into the wild. In to the blue. The wondrous smile. We see it too. The woven, rippling web. Let it contain us, or release us free.
S: Lifeline It’s nice to get home from wherever I have been, to shut the door, never really thought about it before. Always good to be home when I see or come across people that are homeless on the street or in hostels. I realise how fortunate I am that I have somewhere that’s not just a building, it’s my home. When the rain is lashing down outside and everyone’s getting drenched, I feel quite lucky that I’m not out there, too.
Chorus: The web of keys. We are all in the web of keys and we express our lives through words. Keys open doors and open lives, but they also keep us in. Let us whisper these words. As long as they are heard.