I recently heard a well-known author mention a newspaper article in which she and others were accused of monetising their tragedies and demons by writing books and giving talks on challenges such as alcoholism, infertility and divorce.
Somehow, I doubt making money is typically the main driver behind exposing the stickier parts of one’s life, even for the small minority who actually can make some serious cash from it. Being vulnerable takes courage and is uncomfortable, as I know only too well. There’s also immense value in doing so.
Not so long ago, it was the norm to keep experiences such as miscarriage, cancer or a mental illness almost entirely to yourself. Today, what was once shrouded in secrecy and even shame is far more likely to be openly discussed. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have no doubt helped normalise sharing intimate details of our lives. Even so, sometimes after I’ve written something personal on Instagram, such as how it felt to have a double mastectomy, or to conceive by IVF, I recoil and think, do I really want people to know that?
Writing was something I did only for myself at first. In 2002, before social media was even invented, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, at 31. Soon after, I began writing about it in the privacy of my journal. Its pages were a safe haven where I could offload the torrent of emotions I experienced after my shock transition from hard-working London architect longing to find a boyfriend to unemployed hairless cancer patient longing to live. I assumed my outpourings would remain forever hidden in my journal. After all, I’d barely even told anyone I had cancer.
But while I was sick, I voraciously read memoirs by people who’d been through cancer and other serious illnesses, especially at a young age. Surrounding myself with their stories helped me feel less alone. For in real life, I knew no-one going through anything similar. Those stories also gave me hope that surviving cancer was not the impossibility I’d initially assumed. That thriving again, one day, might even be possible. There was such power in knowing someone else had walked through a fire similar to my own and come out the other end.
After I finished treatment, I returned to my journals, now curious to explore whether I could sculpt their raw content into a story. Stories had been my steadfast companions through a tough time, and I had a longing to create something positive out of its wreckage. Plus, awful as cancer was, it wasn’t uninteresting: wearing a blue ice-cap as scarlet liquid, the colour of the spring tulips in the park, dripped into my body through a vein in my right hand, and I held an egg sandwich in my left. These surreal moments deserved to be documented.
The process of writing what was eventually published as a memoir had a degree of discomfort to it: in order to create something authentic and honest, I had to dive back into the emotions I’d experienced at the time. But the greater discomfort came when I shared my words. Did I really want people – particularly the ones who know me on a superficial level – to know about how I’d puked twenty-five times after my first chemo session, or about the huge fight I had with my mum one day when, in frustration, I hurled a saucepan at her?
And when I was single and dating online, did I really want potential boyfriends googling my name and finding articles I’d published about having breast cancer – something I’d of course have shared had a relationship become serious, but not on the first or perhaps even the fifth date. When one guy I’d been seeing for a few weeks, and who I really liked, suddenly dumped me, I became paranoid he’d read an article I’d published in The Telegraph and didn’t want to date someone who’d had cancer. I even asked the newspaper to take the article off their website, so as not to deter any future suitors!
In spite of any discomfort I feel about having bared all, I know it was the right thing for me to do, both because the creative process of turning those journals into prose was an enriching one, and because, twenty years on, my story does appear to have turned out to be one of survival and thriving again in the wake of challenge. For those stuck in the trenches right now, stories such as this can offer a chink of light in the darkness.
Many of us will, at some point, have to bear something really hard. Many will choose not to speak publicly about it. But when those of us who do feel moved to speak offer our stories, what we are saying is, yes, you are heard, you are not alone. I too have been here. And that in itself can be powerful medicine.