A Kind of Magic by Anna Spargo Ryan
The best thing I can say about this book is that I have never related less to a story about mental illness.
As a mentally ill person I’ve read a lot of books about mental illness and about people with mental illness. And in reading A Kind of Magic I realised something. So many times mental illness is flattened out into simply, to put it very simply, having a hard time.
And it’s not that mental illness isn’t having a hard time. It is. I have a hard time. I’m having a hard time right now as I write this. A mentally ill kind of having a hard time.
But there are so many different ways of having a hard time and it’s too easy to assume that we know what somebody else’s having a hard time might mean. What it might look like. What it feels like. To think it’s probably not identical. But similar, probably. At least a bit like mine.
For a long time I thought I was on a journey away from my mental illness and toward some kind of mental wellness. But like many others I’ve found myself to be somehow seeing the same familiar landmarks again and again and hoping, desperately hoping, that I’m travelling in a circle and not spiraling slowly but surely toward my own extinction.
Depression. Anxiety. Having a hard time.
Sometimes I just can’t get out of bed. It’s all too hard. I just need a break from my life. I don’t eat. I lie down in the shower and pretend that I might drown. I’m not coping. I’m not fucking coping. Fuck. I need this to be over and I can only think of one way out.
When I’m in a new place my heart races. My palms sweat. My throat feels tight. And I can’t breathe. I can’t think. I can’t think. I can’t think I can’t decide I want to go home. I’m not coping. I’m not coping. I’m not fuck fuck coping fucking coping.
I’d already started to unpeel both of those labels to some extent, by the time I read A Kind of Magic. But it’s hard to feel certain about your own reality when the people who are supposed to be experts at these things are so certain that they know better. My thinking is distorted, apparently. And I couldn’t possibly know that. So it’s lucky, isn’t it, that somebody was able to tell me.
At some point I started to try to insist that none of the things people were suggesting were at at all helpful. That things were far worse than I was able to display. That when I say I’m not coping I mean I’m not FUCKING COPING FOR FUCKS SAKE.
Bipolar Disorder. Borderline Personality Disorder. Having a very hard time.
Something changed when I reached my thirties. I’d been seeing psychologists and psychiatrists and trying different medications and different therapies for more than half my life by then. And maybe I was older and doctors gave me a tiny bit more respect that I might know a little more about myself than they did. Or maybe I was finally confident enough to advocate for myself a little better. Or perhaps I just landed on the one doctor who actually listened. Or maybe it was that I decided I was just fucking sick of spending two months unpacking my abusive childhood every time I saw a new psychiatrist and I demanded that my new doctor treat me, this present me, and help me deal with now.
But somehow, sometimes, I still doubted. Maybe I’m making it up? Maybe I’m just trying to get away with being some kind of lazy fuck. Maybe my hard times aren’t as hard as I’ve made out and maybe I’m just the normal kind of mad.
And this week I read Anna Spargo-Ryan’s book about her mental illnesses. Spargo-Ryan’s deeply viscerally honest book about her brain and her relationship with herself struck me so deeply precisely because it is so unlike my own.
I suddenly am pretty sure that I’ve never been anxious in my entire life.
And I think perhaps that there is no normal kind of mad. That even when we use the same words to describe our inner worlds that maybe that’s just because we’re working from the same extremely limited dictionary.
That my unable to get out of bed isn’t your unable to get out of bed. That my can’t leave the house isn’t your can’t leave the house. That my breakdown in the pasta aisle isn’t your breakdown in the pasta aisle. We’re all having a hard time. But it’s not the same hard. And it’s not the same time.
And maybe that’s obvious to other people. But it gives me enormous hope and strength. To say, for sure, that you don’t know my experience better than me. Or even the same. That even my most distorted view of my reality is more authentic than anything you can see from outside.
My life is immeasurably easier since I was diagnosed with ADHD ten years ago and then Autism this year. It turns out that it’s much easier to get a handle on things when you know what those things are.
In some ways I’m less hopeful than I’ve ever been. I’m no longer on a journey. I’m not aiming for some kind of recovery. My neurodivergence is baked into my brain and probably my DNA. And I work, these days, on making life easier for myself instead of trying to get better at dealing with times being hard.
And it brings me immense comfort and confidence to be reminded, so clearly, that all of our experiences are our own.
I’ve spent so much of my life travelling endlessly in the same circle. screaming in frustration and terror when I see that tree again. You know. The one that means I might not get out of this alive. And a few years ago I decided to sit down by that tree and refuse to get up again. And sometimes I doubt myself. I think maybe I’m just giving up. I’m giving in to my illness. That I’m losing the battle. That maybe self acceptance is succumbing and my thoughts are once again distorted. That I’m just not thinking right. That if I really tried I could get there. That I’m not special and I’m not different. I’m just having a hard time.
But this week I was reminded that all of our illnesses are different. That if our journeys were the same the path would have been well-worn and signposted long before now.
That maybe you can strike off boldly in a new direction. That maybe I can just sit down here for a little while.
Because the traits and behaviours in the diagnostic manuals don’t tell us what we’re going through. That the disorders and categorisations don’t explain why or who or how we are.
And I think almost none of us have ever been able to explain, to fully communicate, what our hard times are.
This book isn’t special because Anna is brave. I no longer know what the word brave even means. I’ve been called that too many times for simply existing. And for admitting life is hard.
This book is special because Anna Spargo-Ryan’s mental illness isn’t mine. It is hers and nobody else could have written this book. It is visceral and honest and beautiful and heartbreaking and funny. And hers.
And it is so brightly her own, unique, magnificent story that it threw up shadows of the things which are uniquely, magnificently mine.
And while she and I and many others share what we have in common and share our words and stories with the world and with each other. We are not each other.
Anna’s book is so deeply not my story that in reading about her life I found pieces of myself in all of the ways we do not match.
The best thing that I can say about this book is that I have never related less to a story about mental illness. And the highest recommendation I can give is my hope that you won’t relate to it either.
Leave a Reply