For Erica Crompton, writing is not just a source of income. It’s the ideal occupation for her unique situation, bringing her closer to others and helping her make sense of her schizophrenia.
The poet Dylan Thomas said, “A born writer is born scrofulous; his career is an accident dictated by physical or circumstantial disabilities.” This has always chimed with me. I’m a writer and I consider my schizophrenia a disability. It’s not hard to figure out why the quote makes me smile: through writing – not just about my disability but also art and travel – I’ve found a cathartic release that makes a little sense of my life and sickness.
The first time I wrote a first-person article about living with psychosis for a national newspaper I was stunned by the response. I received over 300 emails from others touched by the same illness, directly or through a loved one. People could relate to the struggles I detailed and said my article made them feel less alone.
Some simply wanted to give me a hug – I still have friends on Facebook who wanted to add me and keep in touch after reading my piece. Some even wanted to meet and buy me a drink.
That was in 2010. It seems that since then more and more people with complex illnesses, especially mental illnesses, are taking up writing as a way to cope with their condition. Writing appeals to creative types and at least for me, it’s a great way to channel my ‘flights of ideas’. It also feels cathartic to put my problems down on paper.
Catharsis and creativity
Plenty of academic papers argue that people with mental illnesses are more creative, and while I disagree that I am artistically superior, I do feel I am better creatively than mathematically. Others feel the same way, such as artist and filmmaker Alice Evans, who has schizoaffective disorder and says that her occupation helps her manage her condition.
Writing is a force for good, whether it’s journalism, writing my first book or leading writing workshops. I can write on my laptop in bed if I’m having a bad day, and it doesn’t have to be highbrow or highly expressive writing either.
For me, writing has been both emotionally and financially rewarding.
I’ve found journalism and blogging to be just as rewarding. Over time I have been documenting my life, which has allowed me to look at problems from a new light, receive feedback from strangers and interview psychiatrists. As I only get 15 minutes with my psychiatrist every three months, some advice or comments on a theme from a professional can really help my decision-making, which I struggle with.
For example, a number of psychiatrists gave me feedback on psychosis and pregnancy when I was writing about that in my mid-thirties. In lieu of time with my own care team, I could gather quotes and stories from professionals to help me decide that having children might not be right for me at the time. Plus, googling my own name is a great way to boost my memory, which also suffers under schizophrenia.
A force for good
In 2015 I volunteered as a writer-in-residence on a medium-secure psychiatric unit in Staffordshire, where I live. I explained to patients how I go about writing an article, from sourcing ideas in magazines to using short sentences and spellcheck.
The patients then produced newsletters for the wards where they lived, and the occupational therapist who helped set up the workshops saw a very real benefit. Once they had the newsletter to hand, and could see other patients reading and enjoying it, they felt a sense of achievement, which improved their self-esteem.
Patients reported the news on the ward, and one guy weighed up the upcoming smoke-free policy on all hospital premises and encouraged other smokers to start cutting down early. Communicating the smoking ban to others helped him work through how he would cope – by reducing the number of cigarettes he smoked each day. I could see the relief on his face once he’d drawn his conclusion.
I hoped the patients whose work was published in the newsletters might be able to show their writing skills to an employer, or maybe earn a freelancer’s fee writing about how it felt to stay on and be discharged from a psychiatric unit. Maybe they could experience the delight of 300 lovely emails like I did.
For me, writing has been both emotionally and financially rewarding. Because I have a paying vocation, I have been a homeowner for the last two years and no longer need housing benefit.
With Employment and Support Allowance, and Personal Independent Payments, you can still earn a little money on the side in a way that supports you, which is what I’ve been doing in and out of employment since that first newspaper article.
Flexibility and life balance
On a good day I can go for lunch or take my father for coffee. It’s a great feeling. And because I work freelance I can make my hours fit around my social life and make time for loved ones who have supported me through a suicide attempt and hospitalisation. Plus, a healthy work/life balance leaves me with the freedom to regularly attend the GP, therapy, psychiatrist and blood-test appointments that I need to help me stay well and sane.
Much of my twenties were spent in full-time office-based employment and my condition was hard to manage with so little free time to keep appointments, which, on the NHS, are only available during office hours. Managing psychosis can feel like having a part-time job – sometimes I spend at least five days a month traveling to and from appointments. All this makes a regular office job near impossible.
The only real drawback to all this is that I can sometimes struggle to get the best assignments with newspapers and magazines. While writing and journalism are perfect for me, the sedative effects of my medication can slow my brain down somewhat. That means I don’t always have the sharpest ideas, and a lot of them are rejected or ignored. I am also too tired to work a five-day week, so am not as fast or productive as a freelance journalist who doesn’t have an illness.
I feel this is OK, however, and I’m happy to be a small fish in a big pond, as it suits my lifestyle and unique needs so well. Some might say that schizophrenia makes me an inferior writer, not a better one. But writing is a vocation I get a lot out of in so many ways, and one that I enjoy very much.
About the author
Erica is a freelance writer with degrees in journalism and fine art. In March 2020 she published her first book, written with Professor Stephen Lawrie, ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Sanity’, a self-help guide for people with psychosis. As well as writing, she delivers keynotes on living with psychosis around the UK.