This extraordinary memoir opens at Heathrow Airport. At the height of a manic phase, the playwright, and debut writer, Arnold Thomas Fanning, rips a defibrillator off the wall, deciding he needs it for his imaginary journey to rescue the survivors of a Tsunami. Police remove him, but he returns, intent on yet another rescue mission. We live, precariously, with Arnold, through several terrifying days of delusion.
Depressed as a teenager, Arnold’s battles with his mental health escalated with the death of his mother. For a decade, from 1998 to 2008, he was often suicidal, and at times delusional. At his lowest point he lived on the streets of London and was lucky to escape with his life.
This stunning account of exactly how it feels to be mentally unsound, is based on the authors memories and diaries, backed up by his medical notes, and input from friends and professionals who knew him at his worst. It makes for the most compelling account of mental illness that I have ever read.
Ten years on, Arnold is happy. He’s cycled to the hotel from the Irish Writer’s Centre, where he works as administrator. He lives near the Phoenix Park and is in a great relationship.
“Tessa and I are very loving,” he says. “I have a job I enjoy. I love swimming in the sea, running and walking. I love music, and I regard all these things as a blessing. I’m managing my mental health very well. Being over-stimulated is a trigger for me, and when that happens it’s a real indicator that I might be unwell soon, so I slow myself down.”
Few people knew about Arnold’s decade of madness – he kept it to himself through shame – so why, when he’s so well recovered, did he revisit his illness in his writing?
“It started when my psychiatrist asked me to teach creative writing on a peer to peer pilot scheme for service users,” he says.
This was in 2016, when his latest play, McKenna’s Fort was being staged.
“The theme of the course was life writing. It was called, ‘Discover me; write your own story. Discover yourself.’ I jumped at the chance.”
The only problem was, that Arnold had never, seriously, tackled memoir in his writing.
“In creating the exercises, I thought, I can’t ask the participants to do something that I haven’t done. The exercises were things like, Your first home, or your first journey. I started writing and scraps of memories formed. I really enjoyed it.
“When the play finished – it had shown at The New Theatre and The Teacher’s Club and was very successful – I was exhausted. I’d produced it, and there was a lot of workshopping with the director and actor. It was artistically fulfilling but very gruelling. I decided to take a break from playwriting and write some prose.
“I started expanding the scraps of memoir into longer pieces. And then I decided to write the story of my being homeless in London. It was difficult. I knew it was a compelling story, but how could I show it to anybody when I still felt a residue of shame?”
Hearing about an open mic session centring on mental health issues, Arnold plucked up the courage to read his work.
“It got a great response from the audience, and my friends, and I decided to make it into a longer essay.”
The Dublin Review published it, as a 5,000-word piece, and the editor, Brendan Barrington, asked Arnold if he had ever considered writing a book. Unbeknownst to Arnold, Barrington is an editor at Penguin Ireland, and after some discussion, the idea for Mind on Fire crystallised.
The memoir makes for pretty painful reading. The most resonant scenes are those dealing with Arnold’s deepest period of depression. During this time, he not only contemplated suicide, but planned it, and at one stage, was literally a second, and a few inches away from the wheels of a speeding train. Writing those scenes was, surely, horrendous?
“Up to that point I had been writing the book in my house in Kilmainham. But I thought, I don’t want to write this stuff in the bedroom and then go to bed with all that energy in the room. Instead, I went out to a café down the road and wrote the three most painful chapters.
“I went back to the exact feeling; it’s like a memory felt in the body; like grieving. I thought, Oh My God, I’m re-experiencing the sense of depression. I wasn’t depressed, but I could really feel it. The energy of the café helped me. It was bright, and chatty. I could drink my coffee and leave the work behind me.”
After that, he found other places to write. There were the libraries in Inchicore and Pearse Street; and his hotel room at the John Hewitt Summer School in Armagh which he attended, last year, on a scholarship.
“I wrote every morning and broke through on a chapter I’d been stuck on. It was a fantastic week.”
It wasn’t just the writing that was difficult. The research could be pretty cringeworthy, too.
“I had forgotten some of it. For example, a nurse wrote, ‘Arnold is watching TV really loudly. The other patients are too terrified to ask him to turn it down. We won’t go in there and ask him, because he can be very challenging at these times.’
“Reading that was horrible! The doctors and nurses were the real heroes. They were so good to me, and I was awful to them.”
During his troubles, Arnold’s relationship with his father ranged from cold to violent. And the two, although partially reconciled, were still on bad terms when his father died. And that’s a sadness.
“I got so many positive things from my father like my love of cooking and love for classical music. He encouraged me to write, and when my stories were published, my sister tells me he was proud of me. If he’d been alive when I got to my point of recovery, I would have taken him to The New Theatre to watch my first play. It would have broken the ice.
“Writing the book, I was forced to see my father’s point of view. That made me feel more at peace with him, and also, I recently inherited his record collection. That reminded me of nice times when I was a child.”
As well as being quite beautifully written, the memoir is meticulously structured.
“As a playwright, I liked the idea of three acts, or in this case parts,” he says. “I hope I brought a lot of craft to the writing.”
We’re talking on publication day, and Arnold has just spied his book in a shop window.
“It feels strange,” he says. “The book’s been two years in the writing and I never thought I would see the day.”
He doesn’t fear the reaction – and has lost his fear of owning his illness.
“A removal man asked me what I was writing, and I told him it was my experience of bipolar disorder. His reaction was to tell me of his experience of living with mental health. That has happened several times.
“I hope the book can do the same thing. I hope it will break down shame and stigma and cause more conversation about treatment, and how we perceive mentally ill people.”
It’s certainly an extreme account. Arnold agrees when I say it’s miraculous that he survived that decade.
“It’s strange. By putting it all in the book I feel I’ve put the experience behind me. That was not my purpose in writing it, but I have left it all behind. And that,” he says, “is liberating.”
Mind on Fire. A Memoir of Madness and Recovery. Penguin Ireland: €17.99. Kindle: €5.66.
Published in The Irish Examiner on 11th August
© Sue Leonard. 2018.