… i got your book A Girl Called Tim out of the library and i literally read the whole thing in one day because i just couldnt put it down … it was the first book i have ever read that describes exactly how i feel … i wish that every doctor would read your book then maybe they would start to properly understand and more people could get the help they need rather than go through this torment all day every day … Annabelle
The process of writing has many benefits, especially in communicating and making sense of the world, our world, and our life. Mostly, we write for ourselves, in a journal or diary, in e-mails or letters to friends. Going beyond that, to share experiences with a wider audience, involves a leap of faith. Many of you want to tell your story but don’t know where to start – I hope that this experience from writing my memoir, A Girl Called Tim, will provide food for thought:
* Why do I want to share my story?’ What is my main message?
By sharing my experiences in A Girl Called Tim I hoped to help ease the suffering of people living with an eating disorder. I had often felt isolated, misunderstood and alienated and wanted others to know that they were not alone, and could recover. I did not want them to suffer as long as me. I also wanted their families and friends to know what living with an eating disorder is like.
When a loved one develops an eating disorder the family and friends are affected too, and often feel very confused and afraid, and don’t know what to do or say. Also, I believed that writing a memoir would give purpose and meaning to my life. (Within months of my memoir’s release, it had enriched my life in ways I could never have dreamed possible).
For years, the desire to share my story was like a beacon, helping me to persevere in fighting my eating disorder. I was in my 30s when I knew I wanted to write a book, but I was in my late 50s when I did so. I wanted to regain my true sense of self before writing my story and this challenge took decades of struggle to achieve. In many ways, the book is my literary Everest – not only in writing but also in celebrating the recovery from my illness.
A Girl Called Tim reader reviews, such as that from Annabelle, surpassed expectations, with many expressing gratitude for giving hope. I had dreamed of helping one person to make my life worthwhile. To know that my book was helping many people, like brave Annabelle, was super wonderful.
Both a memoir and an autobiography are written about the author’s life by the author. I consider a memoir to be about one part or chapter of life, in my case, a mental illness and its effect on my life. For instance, I could have written a memoir on life as a working mother, or as a newspaper editor, the love of the land or, horrors upon horrors, how not to manage family farm succession. A memoir contains a special message or theme, a life lesson. A memoir is like a series of connecting stories, the events of which may read like fiction at times, and yet the facts and people are real. Personal diaries provide much of the content in A Girl Called Tim.
An autobiography is about the fullness of one’s life, to date, at least. It is like a record of life and its achievements.
Writing about emotionally painful experiences essentially requires ‘re-living’ them, at least in the mind, to put them on paper. This can be cathartic but also challenging. Are you prepared for the fallout?
To write my memoir I needed to read each page of my diaries, starting at age 12 when my anorexia was raging, and continuing through until age fifty-five, when I regained ‘me’.
The decades of my twenties, thirties and forties were particularly hard to re-live. I could see with great clarity the influence of my illness on my thoughts, feelings and behaviours. The illness dominated and manipulated the real ‘me’ during these decades and I felt sad for this young woman lost in the dark, dense forest of her mind, unable to find the way out. I had been suicidal, became divorced, and alienated from my parents and sister during those years. So yes, it was hard to be reminded of the pain and loss of this time. I grieved for the little girl lost.
The strangest immediate effect while writing my memoir was physical – I have a spinal injury, with limited neck movement, and for eight months I could not move my neck at all! This meant I could not drive my car. Living in a rural area with no public transport close by, I lost my independence. I felt like a bird without wings. Fortunately, a dear friend was happy to drive me anywhere, but he copped a lot of my frustration and was rewarded with little thanks!
Independence is important at any time but especially when healing from an eating disorder, and losing it in this way made me moody! However, I had plenty of support and had reconnected with my healthy self sufficiently to remain resilient and maintain recovery. I counted my blessings – and focused on being grateful for what I could do, rather than dwelling on what I could not do. I was especially grateful that I could walk. I considered that my ‘ED’ (eating disorder) was doing its best to sabotage and isolate me and prevent my memoir from being published. I became determined not to let it succeed. The writing became easier as I worked my way through the decades of diaries and found the way out of the dark maze that was my illness. My neurosurgeon, who had ordered all sorts of scans, had found nothing amiss physically. As soon as I had completed writing about the most painful parts of my journey, guess what? My neck movement returned, just like that!
None of us are an island. If we tell our story truthfully, others will be named. Have you thought about this? I strove to be respectful to others at all times but had to balance this with the need to maintain the truth as witnessed by my own experience. Some people live in denial – like it is a form of self-protection. I think that while facing the truth can be painful, it is also an opportunity to heal and grow. This was my experience.
With A Girl Called Tim, I was propelled along by the greater good. I was sharing my life and needed to also touch on the lives of people close to me. I tried to protect them but at the same time needed to describe in some detail my perceptions of interactions with them. The emphasis here is ‘my perception’. This is ‘my experience’. We each have our own life experiences. Ten people may experience the same situation and each will remember and write about it differently. This is what makes the tapestry of life rich and colourful. I hope that people in ‘Tim’ appreciate the memoir’s capacity to help others and raise awareness of mental illness for the common good and that this compensates for any embarrassment or hurt felt as an individual.
Holding on to the thought ‘I will write a book about this’, can help sustain hope in the down moments of fighting a challenging illness or trauma. Some people want to start writing immediately. Thinking about this, and preparing for it by keeping a journal, can work wonders in accepting that this horrible experience that is happening will have a silver lining and that, beyond the hurt and pain, there will be a purpose. The suffering will pass and will not be in vain. The journey is as important as the destination. So when do you start writing? Now!
My desire to write a memoir developed in my thirties and although I did not achieve this goal until my late fifties, the passion never waned. My diaries, kept daily since the age of 12, were ample resources. Why did I wait so long? I wanted to reach the ‘Everest’ of my recovery. I wanted to feel that I was ‘whole’, that the ‘hole’ the ED had eaten within my soul was mended; that I had regained ‘me’, that I had escaped the ‘ED’ prison. This long-held desire, like a life raft tossing in a heavy sea, helped me over the line. I had to take care of myself first to be free to help others.
At age fifty-five, I climbed my ‘Everest’, and was ready to write about the young eleven-year-old girl. How could I bring her alive? How could I recall past feelings and perspectives?
Diaries made the writing about childhood and adolescence easy in terms of chronology. Also, memories, especially those of my illness, seemed to be trapped in a time capsule and remained crystal clear. Being recovered meant I could look at my life from ‘all sides’, inside and outside; I was able to feel sad for the young girl, the teenager, and the young mother, imprisoned by her illness for more than four decades, objectively, without triggering illness thoughts.
A Girl Called Tim is not only about me – it is also about people who loved and cared for me, even if they did not always understand. They are integral to my story.
The network of support by people who loved, cared for and believed in me was vital for survival, and recovery. My four children and their dad deserved gold medals for not giving up, and for loving me when my behaviour was anything but loveable!
Like many mental illnesses, an eating disorder appears to thrive on isolating, dividing and conquering relationships, as well as life. Fortunately, I met health professionals who believed in me – a GP, psychiatrist and eating disorder therapist. A small circle of close friends remained supportive. Often, they did not understand, but remained loyal; they remained ‘there’ for me. They were part of my journey too. So, I have these people, these pieces of the jigsaw that contribute to the representation of my life. Some pieces may need to be discarded because they don’t fit the picture. The challenge is to piece the many parts of the jigsaw together carefully and snugly, so the reader can identify with them, and relate to their own life in an enriching and inspirational way.
Start today! Carry a notebook at all times so that you can jot down ideas and memories as they occur. Decide what period of life you wish to cover and decide your main reason for writing.
Decide your audience – this could be yourself, your family or the world.
Often it helps to write for yourself in the first instance, and close others, and then think about the next step.
Be prepared to allow your story to evolve. Talk to people who know you well, do your research; listen to feedback.
If you seek a publisher, be prepared to write many drafts. Writing a memoir is like picking up a dusty stone off a gravel road, and shining it to reveal the gem within.
If you have kept a diary, you have a ready resource; if you haven’t kept a diary, you can draw on your memories,
memories of others, memorabilia of any sort, newspaper accounts, and so on. All that matters in the end is that your memoir is your story, told in your own words, from your own perspective. Your memoir is your truth.
Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone can write a memoir. Everyone’s life is worthwhile and has a purpose. The challenge sometimes is to find the courage to uncover and share this purpose. We can all learn from each other. This is what makes life worthwhile. This is about growth. When we share our thoughts and feelings, we permit others to share their thoughts and feelings too. My lifetime passion for writing helped to save my life. I encourage everyone to write!
Postscript: I first wrote this article in 2012. Since then, I’ve written more books, and thousands of blogs. I have become a mental health advocate and have graduated with a PhD in Creative Writing. Letting my inside story out in my memoir made all the difference. I encourage you to start writing your story today! For guidance, I recommend my self-paced life stories mentoring program.