• West Cork Literary Festival 2021

Writing for Therapy by Jonny McCambridge

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Jonny McCambridge

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In a complicated world, there are few things as complex, as saturated with hidden mysteries, unchartered depths and unexpected turns, as the human mind. And so, it follows, that when something goes wrong with the mind, finding a straight path back to peace and contentment can often prove frustratingly difficult.

This was the case in my long struggle with the debilitating impact of mental illness. Depression and anxiety had been with me for so long that I came to accept the abnormal as routine – that the darkness was just as much a part of me as my grey hairs. My understanding of the world included relentless thoughts of how I would end my existence within it.

The penance for such a condition was severe. It included a stay in hospital where I was treated as a suicide risk and where a nurse woke me up several times each night by shining a torch into my face to ensure I was still alive. Depression also destroyed my career in journalism and put unbearable strains on my family life. On the worst days, I found it impossible to summon the strength and will to get out of bed.

Throughout it all an array of medical professionals gamely tried to right me. I was prescribed countless antidepressants as doctors searched like alchemists for the elusive combination of chemicals which would correct what had gone awry within my brain.

Many hours were spent in therapy, talking to psychiatrists and counsellors about the origins of my problems. Cognitive behavioural therapy taught me to think in a different way, rewiring my thoughts like an electrical plug. Mindfulness taught me to pay more attention to my feelings and the world around me, and thus leave less room for the thoughts which terrified me.

All of these treatments were valuable to me and helped to knock the rough edges off some of my desperation. On occasional dark days, the simple fact that I had someone to talk to, some level of human contact and empathy, was enough to pull me back from a dangerous place. But, throughout it all, I could never quite shake the feeling that none of it was helping me to get better – that I hadn’t yet made my great leap forward.

In 2016 my illness forced me to abandon life as a working journalist and take on a new role as a stay-at-home daddy. When my son was in school I found, for the first time in decades, I had time on my hands. On one such day I was having a conversation with an author who suggested that I should try writing about what goes on in my head.

Like all the best ideas, it was so obvious that I couldn’t believe that it had never occurred to me before. I had always thought of myself as a writer (even if nobody else did) and this was to be my subject.

The process turned out to be revelatory for two reasons. First, turning my thoughts into a narrative enabled me to understand them better. It brought some coherence to the messy pulp of fears, despondency and projections of catastrophe which swirled inside my mind. More, I found that when the darkness became black words on a white page, it lost much of its hold over me. I became less scared of myself and even learnt to laugh at some of my afflictions.

Second, I discovered the wonderful solidarity of shared experience. I was unsure about going public with my writing at first. There is a long way to go in erasing the social stigma around mental illness and I knew that once I took that step I would be forever known as the ‘guy with depression’. Instead, the response was overwhelmingly positive (apart from the few social media trolls who labelled me ‘The Little Snowflake’). What I was unprepared for was the flood of respondents who would contact me to tell me that they had been through the same thing.

I had always assumed I was a man apart, that my thoughts and fears were individual to me. Now, I was dealing with scores of correspondences about careers and marriages wrecked, and, occasionally, lives lost, due to depression. The benefit of the contact for all was obvious – the load becomes that much lighter when it is shared among so many. This started the process that led to me writing my book ‘Afraid of the Dark’. It tells my story, how through finding new meaning in my role as a father, and by chronicling my experiences, I was able to heal my shattered nerves and discover a previously unknown joy in life. Writing did not heal me, but it did spark a process of reflection and discovery which led to a vital realisation – I love myself enough to stay alive.

I began this article by commenting on the individuality of the mind. What works for me may not do so for another. We all have to discover our own unique path to better mental health. That’s the conundrum. But, in my case, being able to write about the very worst of me may prove to be the best thing I will ever do.

(c) Jonny McCambridge

About Afraid of the Dark:

‘The bed is hard. I’m utterly exhausted but never has sleep seemed so far away. I lie there, terrified. How can I find a way back to any sort of life from this?

Soon a man in a blue uniform comes into the room. Softly he walks to the side of the bed and shines a torch into my eyes. At first, I’m confused, but then the awful realisation hits me – he’s checking to make sure I’m still alive. I am on suicide watch.’

In May 2013, 38-year-old journalist Jonny McCambridge seems to have the perfect life – a beautiful wife and a newborn son, a top job in local media and a bright future in the newspaper industry. But just four months later, in the early hours of a September morning, he finds himself in the acute ward of a Northern Ireland psychiatric hospital. It’s a voluntary admission – but only because a doctor insisted that the alternative was to have him forcibly sectioned.

How has his life so dramatically fallen apart? And how indeed will he be able to ‘find a way back . . . from this’?

This is Jonny’s heartfelt, viscerally honest account of his attempt to overcome the mental health demons which tormented him for decades and brought him dangerously close to the conclusion that life simply wasn’t worth living anymore. He embarks on a long and often bumpy road to recovery which sees him returning to work too soon and having to abandon his media career, then adjusting to a new life as a ‘stay-at-home’ dad, becoming the world’s least likely blogger and ultimately finding meaning and purpose in his role as a full-time father.

All the while, he struggles to better navigate the uncharted territory of his own mind and make sense of his emotions, shut down decades earlier by the expectations of a repressed society where boys don’t cry and men are supposed to be strong and silent.

By turns poignant, heartbreakingly sad and side-achingly funny, this is a book which will speak to anyone who struggles to articulate their own emotions or to make sense of all that life throws at them, as well as those who at times feel crushed by the challenges of new parenthood.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Jonny McCambridge was born in Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland in 1974. After completing a degree in history and politics at Queen’s University, he worked in the NI media industry for almost two decades, holding several senior editorial positions, including Deputy Editor at the Belfast Telegraph. In 2016, Jonny gave up daily newspaper journalism to concentrate on looking after his son. In 2017 he launched the popular blog, What’s a Daddy For? In 2020, he was appointed News Editor of the News Letter. Jonny currently lives in Hillsborough with his wife, Debs, also a journalist, and their seven-year-old son, James.

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