How do you deal with the dirty secret of mental illness in a memoir?

Mental illness, these days it runs rife in all of our lives, if not most of our families and for some of us, it might even be a way of life. While it may be charming to write about Aunt Dot’s confusing a hat stand for a man, or mom’s forgetting for the second time that day where she left her keys (that would be me) it’s not really fun to document a person’s slide into the deep dark pits of mental illness.

A twisted road  Photo credit: Marc Nozell

A twisted road
Photo credit: Marc Nozell

Where days are spent under covers and when thoughts go to slicing through delicate wrist tissue.

Who wants to hear about that, right? Unless, of course, there is a message we can learn from it.

And yet, if, IF, there is a rise above that mental illness, we can often find ourselves with a new hero. Case in point, the book ; “Wild”, where a young confused woman eventually “finds” herself after completing a hiking challenge. Let’s face it everyone loves a hero who has risen from despair. Many people loved that author, warts and all.

It’s one thing if this is your mental illness and you are willing to share your story (assuming that it has a positive ending – remember no one wants to turn the final page on a book about losing anyone to the dark side) but what are you supposed to do if the mental illness is in a friend or a family member?

First of all, basic decency dictates that you are not allowed to give out anyone else’s diagnosis without their being aware.


That even includes a non-mental illnesses diagnosis.  Some (many) people know I have orthopedic problems as a result of being hit by a car when I was young, but that’s not how I introduce myself –

“Hi there, Wendy Thomas – on cold days I have difficulty walking and on those freezing  NH nights, that ‘ol electric blanket is my best friend. “

For the most part, I wait until it comes up in conversation or becomes apparent, as it did earlier this winter when I was having some difficulty on stairs. For me, that’s information I handle on a need to know basis. (Of which I obviously felt you needed to know in order to illustrate my point, but even still, I kept it vague – see what I did there?)

But, you say, I write about my and my children’s Lyme disease – why am I allowed to do that?

The reason is that I have the consent of my kids. They know that I am writing about our illness in order to help others. See, there’s that double edged sword in motion. Illness is sanctified if you rise above it, it’s okay to write about a medical situation if you can turn it around.

Of if you can teach others to avoid the mistakes that you’ve made in order to save someone else some pain.

But what if someone’s mental illness affects your story line? Again, you’ve got to go the decency route, you can document actions, you can relay conversations, but you can’t come right out and say “You are one screwed up person”, well actually you can say that, but you can’t say “you’ve got bipolar disorder” (the first was an opinion, the second a diagnosis.) Even if that person has hurt you as a direct result of that illness.

But feel free to document the hurt if it moves your story forward.

Years ago, we had some bored neighbor children leave a bomb on our front lawn addressed to my kids.

Did those children have mental illness? Don’t know, don’t care, it’s the impact of their *actions* on *my* life that made for an incredibly honest and agonizing piece I wrote about the guilt I felt that day sending my young daughters out to the yard to help by picking up our yard trash.

If they had found the bomb before I did – to this day, the “what if” makes me stop in my tracks – a deer in the headlights of a speeding Mac truck barreling down the road.

Through the description of the bombers’ actions that day, I was able to make it pretty clear that they were a few cards short of a full deck. No diagnosis was needed.

It’s the writer’s axiom of show and don’t tell that’s very important when you are writing about illness.

Mental or medical illness in a memoir is a tough call. If you are forced to move back to take care of your ailing parents, it’s probably prudent to mention the illness that may have called you home. Do you have to mention that your Dad now wears diapers?

I’d say no, unless it adds to your story – there may or may not be an amusing or trying story there.

When writing about others mental or medical illnesses, just proceed with caution and keep your story focused on you.

Because remember, ultimately it’s not so much how the storms hit your boat, but rather it’s about how *you* adjust your sails to those gale force winds that will end up being the story people will want to hear.


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). ( She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

24 thoughts on “How do you deal with the dirty secret of mental illness in a memoir?

  1. Wisdom indeed –
    I have found that writing about personal illness or mental health is therapeutic and often helps others- eg “But you don’t look sick” is a great outlet for sufferers of auto immune problems like Lupus to share on. It is good to know that others empathise.
    Mental illness is a tough one but it needs to be openly discussed- as you say it affects many families!
    I once wrote my memoirs but before I moved house I shredded the lot. It was extremely cathartic!

  2. What a great piece. I’ve recently started opening up on my blog about some of the issues I’m facing overcoming the last hurdles of anxiety and panic attacks as I tour Australia. It’s really difficult to find the right words and, as you say, it’s important only to give the information that is appropriate to what you want to say. Unfortunately it’s still a relatively taboo topic and people can react to certain facts or stories in a wide variety of ways. I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of private messages from people admitting and recognising some of the issues I’ve faced in themselves. I hope people continue to communicate about mental health problems in a way which helps both sufferers, carers, friends and family.

  3. Pingback: How do you deal with the dirty secret of mental illness in a memoir? | Raevenly Writes

  4. What a great post ! I love reading all of your posts, however, this one hits home. I am not a bad writer, however, when it comes to mental illness, I have a tough time writing about it, and it is about myself. I would be happy to perhaps help one person with something I say. That’s what happens to me. It is a touchy subject, however it is real, and as much as it is talked about, when there is a tragedy, it still is not taken seriously enough. Thanks for sharing! Look forward to your posts.

  5. Thank you for this well written, thought provoking post on writing about mental and medical illnesses. As writers it’s important to document our stories and find ways to communicate the struggles we share; however, human decency and a healthy respect for the privacy of all people is vitally important.

    While I think you’ve covered this topic rather succinctly regarding the health information for friends and relatives, I think it’s also important to be self-reflective regarding the right time to share our own stories. I agree that profound lessons can be learned by reading about another person’s struggles. It can also be healing to document our own stories and share those with others. The question we need to ask ourselves as writers is this: Has enough time elapsed for me to feel emotionally safe writing about and sharing this information with others? The urge to write about current crises can create a sense of urgency as we wade through the muck and try to make sense of situations that defy definition. Sometimes this works, but at other times, it just creates a sense of vulnerability that complicates the matter even more.

    Perhaps, that’s why you encourage people to write about something that has a “happy ending,” or at least an ending that inspires or helps others grow.

    Thanks again for this wonderful piece!

  6. Pingback: How do you deal with the dirty secret of mental illness in a memoir? | aroundthebound

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