Wednesday 20 June 2018

Suicidal, homeless, paranoid and manic - playwright Arnold Thomas Fanning on writing about his lost decade

Suicidal, homeless, paranoid and manic, playwright Arnold Thomas Fanning's career was spiralling out of control. He tellsour reporter about the challenges of committing this lost decade of his life to print

Author Arnold Fanning. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Author Arnold Fanning. Photo: Doug O'Connor

Hilary A White

Every book project is going to involve varying degrees of research, but rarely is the process as gruelling as it was for Arnold Thomas Fanning.

In seeking to tell the story of an individual known to him who had undergone a terrifying descent into madness, the Dublin writer had to crawl his way through piles of police accounts, psychiatric hospital records and testimonies of doctors, family and friends. Being debriefed on the full litany of behaviours and episodes this person had inflicted on themselves and others while in the throes of a severe mental health collapse was distressing for Fanning. Especially as that person was him.

"I discovered things about myself that I had remembered differently," the 49-year-old says quietly. "People telling me I did this, that I actually said this. Some of it was disturbing. Was that really me?"

If he'd written Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery solely from the handwritten "memory dump" that began the book's germination, it would have been neither truthful nor compelling, he argues today. The mind can and does lie, not least one as scrambled and wrought as Fanning's was during his lost decade.

Told in tight and immediate first-person, and imbued with a startling momentum that ratchets unnervingly, Fanning's publishing debut - stage and screen have been where his writing energies have thrived up to now - is a significant achievement and should be a talking point in publishing this year. As John Connell's The Cow Book is showing, writers articulating the passage from darkness to light in familiar and mundane settings will never go out of fashion. Mind on Fire goes one further, however, bringing the tension of a thriller to a nuts-and-bolts insight into the practical manifestations of serious mental illness.

The book has become an integral part of moving on from that time, something to hold in the hand and bear the weight of that devastating era. But this was not the original intention. Writing, Fanning explains, is not therapy, as such. His psychoanalysis and psychotherapy sessions perform that vital role in his management of the bipolar disorder that at one point brought him close to the edge.

Fanning wrote the book not because he had mental illness but because he was a writer and writers tell stories. Mind on Fire came about after Fanning's essay 'Rough Sleeper' was published in The Dublin Review Winter 2016-17 edition. When editor Brendan Barrington saw the name, he got in touch to know if this was the noted playwright of the critically acclaimed Roger Casement drama McKenna's Fort. It was indeed, and after meeting to discuss the essay, Fanning was encouraged to expand it into book form.

The essay itself was the product of a peer-to-peer "life writing" course he'd given a group of psychiatric service users, an experience he found "transformative". Seeking a change of tempo after two rave-reviewed runs of McKenna's Fort, Fanning decided, sheepishly, to have a go himself.

Rewritten almost directly from the essay, 'Rough Sleeper' is one of three particularly harrowing chapters, along with 'The Railway Tracks' and 'The Outsider', that see Fanning spiralling out of control, suicidal, homeless, paranoid, manic and seemingly alone in the universe. Committing them to print was not without its challenges.

"I couldn't write in my house," he winces. "I went out to a local cafe to do it. I needed distance. I didn't want to be going back to my room with that energy of what I'd written remaining in the room. I definitely re-experienced the emotions of those sections. I could actually feel my breath going as I wrote one particular section. But I can remember finishing that section and looking around the café, and going, 'finish your coffee, it's okay, go back home, and leave it in the cafe'."

In 1998, Fanning's work was getting published in literary journals, funding was coming in for film projects he had scripted and he was being courted by a literary agent. The black dog had skulked nearby from age 19 when cancer had taken his mother, resulting in several spells of depression each year. Their passing would be met with a surging upswing. A stunted relationship with his father wasn't helped when financial issues forced him to move back to the family home. This came alongside the end of a long-term relationship and some questionable life choices.

It was during a writers retreat at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan, that Fanning's problems truly unravel. Flippantly, he stops taking the antidepressants he has recently been prescribed. So begins his descent, undulating in pace between free fall and gradual, over the course of an incredible saga.

While Fanning accepts that his background as a writer has equipped him to relate this series of events, the tale is more common than we think.

"There are various terms," he says. "One is 'the silent successful', those leading conventional, content lives but who are carrying a diagnosis of serious mental illness. We don't notice. We don't hear enough of those stories because unfortunately those people would be afraid to say, 'I'm paranoid schizophrenic/bipolar/borderline personality disorder, etc' because they're afraid of being judged or losing their insurance or not getting a promotion."

Fanning today wears an aura of hard-earned calm and wisdom. Happiness, he says carefully, is "the reality of ups and downs, the ebb and flow of a year and a day and a week". It is the banal joy of music, books and food. It is Tessa, his partner of five years and a fundamental part of his recovery. ("It sounds too simplistic, but a loving and supporting person, a giving-and-receiving relationship love, is so important.")

And it is routine. No more pendulum swings halting progress in a craft that requires a stable earthing. "There's a myth about the exuberance of bipolar giving you creativity. I've actually found my mental illness to be very disruptive. The majority of my experience of bipolar was depression, and when you're depressed you cannot do anything. To be a writer you need regularity, grind, discipline. You can't do that if you're lying on the floor, depressed, and you certainly can't if you're manic and your thoughts are racing. I've written a lot while manic, but it is nonsense for the most part."

There is a lot ahead, not least the interest this release is likely to arouse. Work continues at the Irish Writers Centre, and a recently caught teaching bug will be explored further. Most importantly, he'll keep writing, searching for more stories of outsiders such as Casement who he is understandably drawn to, those with a secret life lived in conflict with society.

"I was deeply ashamed for so many years of this diagnosis," he says. "I mean, going for job interviews - how do you explain the gaps in your CV? Or meeting friends and family who would've witnessed you acting strangely. But the 13 years since I was in hospital has helped because society is changing. The younger generation have a much more positive attitude towards people who are different. Less stigma has helped me become braver about talking about it."

Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery is published by Penguin Ireland. Arnold Thomas Fanning will be in conversation at Smock Alley Theatre tomorrow as part of International Literary Festival Dublin. See www.ilfdublin.com

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