By Colin Gannon
Born there to Irish parents fifty years ago, London became a second home of sorts to Dubliner Arnold Thomas Fanning. In the past, the writer and playwright had an uncle among other family residing in the city.
As an open-eyed youngster, he excitedly frequented metropolitan museums and galleries, sensing a connection to the capital. After graduating college, he spent an optimistic summer there, alternately working in a small bookshop and waiting in restaurants, saving money as young people do.
Much later in life, though, London became shorthand in Fanning’s mind for hell.
During a devastating 10-year period moored in suffering in which he battled sporadic manic episodes, mental delusions, and extreme symptoms of bipolar disorder, he fell homeless in London — in the “depths of winter,” as he recalls — after fleeing there from Dublin facing an all-consuming paranoiac fear.
To anyone else except Fanning, his delusions would seem absurd and irrational; in the throes of mental suffering, they were anything but.
He would see people with rifles on the tops of buildings; believed himself to be a messiah figure born to save the world; and even understood himself to be a private detective whose job it was to save London from annihilation.
“I could feel it in my very muscles. It’s not like you’re standing back and watching something on TV and going, ‘That’s over there and that’s not real’,” he recounts. “This was very real to me — I thought somebody was going to kill me. I fled to London, and, very rapidly, with no support system, I ended up living rough. It was a relatively short period, but it was very intensely awful.”
Starting when he was just 29, this decade is re-lived — in granular detail — in his strikingly vivid memoir Mind On Fire, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Wellcome Book Prize last week. The award, whose 2019 winner will be announced on May 1st, celebrates literature in “the many ways that health, medicine and illness touch our lives”
The book jumps suddenly into a moment where his mindstate was cracking: Fanning is charging through Heathrow airport convinced he must help the victims of a tsunami and, because he will need equipment, he smashes the emergency glass box and steals an airport defibrillator. Just moments later, he embarks on another journey to join the British Army as a chaplain — it’s wild, throttling, chaotic and bracingly scattershot, an immediate immersion into his manic state-of-mind.
Mind on Fire’s has its origins in an essay titled Rough Sleeper which appeared in the literary journal The Dublin Review in 2017.
This moving depiction of his homelessness, Fanning tells me, was the first time he had written about his mental health journey in non-fiction form. Brendan Barrington, the editor of The Dublin Review, happily published the essay and recommended that he expand it into a book.
Drawing upon the sometimes vague recollections of this so-called lost decade, Fanning wrote what he calls a ‘memory draft’ — though he instinctively knew this wouldn’t bear enough detail to tell as convincing story as he desired.
Fanning took on the daunting mission of researching himself — medical records, police records, email exchanges with friends — and interviewed and talked to people, including family and friends. “What was your experience of me at that time?” he asked participants at the time.
Plugging the gaps in his memory with trenches of second-hand research — a “fascinating, appalling, terrifying” experience — clarified nebulous sketches of memories in his head. It also provided some brand new information to Fanning, things he had either forgotten or completely compartmentalised.
He had hazy rememberings of certain events, but research, and dredging through detailed medical records, helped crystallise elusive, amnesiac memories. Fanning recounts one such instance starkly: “I was admitted to hospital once and I remember going there, and being in the hospital, but I don’t remember exact words. The doctor said to me: How do you feel?”
“I remember feeling very agitated but the words they recorded were: I feel like my spine is whipping my legs to move. Which is an extraordinary thing to say. It reflects the speed of thought during mania and it’s quite wild speech. But it’s also very acrid and poetic — and that’s why it went into the book.”
Combining the memory draft with a research draft, Fanning encountered a fuller picture of a past self that he couldn’t possibly have imagined himself. It was upsetting writing certain passages, he says, but it allowed him to confront who he was at the time.
Research granted him objectivity. He learnt how “intolerable” he was to others and, as examined in the book, reflection allowed him to reevaluate his regrettable relationship with his father, who he felt bitter towards for large chunks of his life.
“I give a voice to him [in the book] which is sympathetic to what he went through,” he says. “He’s deceased now, but I’m now more at peace with someone who, for many years, I wasn’t at peace with.”
In the aftermath of the book’s completion, he felt transformed. There was a true sense of relief and catharsis, he says. Though the book wasn’t written as therapy, it was incredibly liberating — some closure to an intensely difficult period of his life.“I feel like I have put something to rest,” he says.
If London was rock bottom, the turning point came in 2005, after Fanning was hospitalised in an NHS hospital in Basingstoke. The staff there — who he describes as “warm, kind and excellent” — convinced him he needed help.
He was warned there that he needed to accept a diagnosis and medicate — and after years of refusing help, he gave in. He hasn’t been in a hospital since, he affirms proudly, with no moment of relapse, clinical depression or manic episodes, just occasional bouts of bad form.
Fearful of reverting back to unwellness, Fanning expends plenty of time practicing self-care: Monitoring his sleep patterns, keeping track of energy levels, eating well, exercising regularly. “It’s kind of extraordinary and I’m very grateful — in awe of — how I got through,” he says. “I don’t think it for granted.”
Professionally, his career has taken off, teaching creative writing across the country and relishing the success of the book; personally, he’s at peace with himself and his always in flux recovery.
In a previous job, his workplace held a subscription to The Dublin Review, and, upon receiving a copy of the magazine containing his essay, they learnt of his mental illness. “They never knew before that: I felt ashamed,” he says. “I always felt uncomfortable talking about being unwell in terms of mental distress.”
Fanning has taken pride in his new role was a spokesperson for mental health. Later this month, he will speak at a national mental health conference in Sligo organised by Ireland’s national health service; in the past few months, he has appeared on national radio telling his story.
He offers three lessons for those who face similar crises as him: “First of all, recovery is a process; secondly, it needs to be worked on; and thirdly, it’s possible to live a fulfilling life with the diagnosis of a serious mental illness.” It’s vital that stigmas surrounding mental health are broken down, he adds. “I do think my book has opened a dialogue, and a conversation, about mental health.”
Anecdotally and statistically, Ireland’s mental health services have been shown to be in dire need of resourcing.
Two recent national surveys in Ireland have indicated high levels of dissatisfaction with mental health services provided by the Health Service Executive (HSE) among users and families. Under one-third of service users reported they had a good experience of HSE mental health services, one survey showed, with 42 per cent saying their experience had been poor.
“What I really felt frustrated by was not being listened to, not being heard,” Fanning says. “That still concerns me when I see examples of people in the media who just clearly weren’t listened to or heard when experiencing mental distress. That upsets me a lot.”
Fanning, who is engaged to a “wonderful” woman who he will marry this summer, moved to Cork in January. He’s keeping busy: He works with Creative Writing students at University of Limerick and also teaches at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin among other education roles.
On the description of the book on the Wellcome Award website, it reads: “Very few people have gone through what Fanning went through and emerged alive, well, and capable of telling the tale with such skill and insight.”
Receiving critical appraisal is important in raising the book’s profile, Fanning admits, but it’s the intimate, private recognition that such a personal book garners which moves — and matters most to — him.
“Mental illness — distress, mental health issues — affect everybody,” he explains. “Nobody is not going to be affected by mental issues, touched in some way — in some degree of separation — by mental distress: It’s universal.”