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Thoughts Inspired by going to the ScotsWrite Conference

Indisputable facts about me:

·       I’m five foot three

·       I have green eyes.

·       I’m clinically depressed.

There’s no causal connection. It’s simply the way things are. And on September 22nd I will be going to the Society of Authors in Scotland's first big conference. I am filled with trepidation to say the least. Let me put this in perspective.

As a teenager at university I suffered, on average, around twenty panic attacks a day. I didn’t so much have an archetypical ‘Black Dog’ following me around as a whole pack of attack Dobermans. But times change. Today, a mixture of therapy and medication mean the panic attacks are no more and my depression is managed – more or less.

If you met me, you’d never know that mental health is an issue in my life. I am – if I say so myself – quite funny, outgoing and friendly. I stand in front of anything from twenty to several hundred people, read my own work, teach workshops and do my best to entertain. (No rotten eggs so far)

You’ll never see me being depressed. That’s because only my partner and GP ever do. On days when the darkness descends I stay away from others if I can – and if I can’t? Well, I’ve become quite the actress over the years. So much so, I even tried it for a bit and have an entry on the film database IMDB as an actor.

I generally don’t talk about my mental health and how it remains a problem for me. But I’m writing about it here because I think my difficulties are not that unusual – especially among other creatives, like writers. I learnt very young that using my imagination rescued me from much of my despair and so my embryonic career as a writer was born.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in how I feel. Today, mental illness is spoken about much more openly. There’s a lot of comments on how you shouldn’t be ashamed about having an illness, but the reality is few of us openly admit our conditions. So, I’m adding my bit to the current campaign to bring this particular disease out of the dark and into the light. An issue the Society of Authors is also supporting.

A life where I can escape anxiety and depression by disappearing into imaginary worlds (and get paid for doing so) might sound like the perfect solution. But in some ways being a writer makes depression worse. Spending the majority of your time alone with your keyboard is not conducive to interacting with other people. In fact, if I’m not careful I can disappear down the dark spiral of utter misery because outside of my stories the world feels a bleak place where all too often humanity has turned to intolerance, anger, despair and violence.

But I believe my stories would be utterly stale and without meaning, if I never went out into that challenging world. Going out, meeting people, can be difficult when you’re depressed. But as most of us with the condition know, that’s exactly what you have to do to muzzle those snapping dogs. Irun two evening classes at my local university. I speak at events. I do signings and readings. I’m on the SOAIS committee. I make commitments that force me out of my comfort zone – and generally I will find myself thinking half way through an event, this is fun. Why don’t I do it more often?

So, this is where I urge two things. One, when you meet an author – hell, when you meet anyone, at a social event, be kind. You may never know how much courage it took to get them there. Two, if you are anything like me, set yourself some deadline events – push that comfort zone. Start small and work your way up to a string of events. You never know, your book sales might even go up.

Going alone to ScotsWrite will push me so far beyond my comfort zone it will be but a distant memory on the horizon. I’m even be co-running a workshop - bizarrely I feel totally comfortable about that! So, if you’re thinking about going and worried about how nervous the idea of even booking makes you feel, remember there will at least one writer there who’s even more nervous than you. Come up and say hi. I promise to be nice.

Caroline Dunford