‘Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery’ by Arnold Thomas Fanning

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Fanning writes so openly about depression and shame that it almost hurts to read his book, but it is so worth it! Fanning has bipolar disorder. Today he is able to manage the illness, but there was a ten year period after he was diagnosed in which he was constantly severely depressed or in the midst of psychosis. He tells us absolutely everything about that period – relationships, madness, homelessness and family life.

Arnold became first became ill when he was 28. At this point he had a girlfriend, a job in theatre that he loved and was trying get his short stories published and screenplays sold. He seemed to have a promising career and happy life ahead of him. Then the depression really kicks in, and then the mania and within weeks he is hospitalized, unemployed and would be homeless if it was not for his father. It took ten years before Arnold began to get better, but not before he hit absolutely rock bottom: he was homeless for a period, living on the streets of London and wandering around in a psychosis. Arnold is clearly ashamed about this time of his life and the things he experienced: getting urinated upon, shitting in a phone box because there was no toilet available, stealing from an airport because he wanted to go to Thailand and help victims of the tsunami, crying to his ex-girlfriend on the phone because he has no shoes.

What is even more painful to read about than his homelessness, was how he terrified his father and sister. Since Arnold was unable to hold down a job when he was either manic or depressed, he lived with his quiet older father who clearly has no idea how to deal with his mentally ill son. Arnold would at times blame his father for his illness, would become violent because he thought the man had stolen his pen, would show up at the doors of friends and extended family members and try to force his way in. The situation becomes so bad, his father and sister cut all contact with Arnold. Of course, they had to protect themselves, but we as readers are seeing all of this through the eyes of Arnold who does not see they are reacting as they do.

“Depression is a way of feeling, a way of thinking and a way of being. It is all consuming, all-encompassing. It is a way of life, the only life, an anti-life. Within there is no without it. It is numbness at skin level, and muscle level, and at cell level. It is also a cold fog that envelops the body from head to toe, freezing in its grip. It is also a physical pain felt throughout the body as well as a mental pain that throbs though the the mind”.

Admittedly I have not read many personal accounts about bipolar disorder, but I was gripped and read the book in one sitting. We have all felt at time that we do not know what do with our lives or euphoria when things finally go our way, but Fanning describes a place in which these feelings get so utterly out of control that reasoning is impossible, that processing the world around you and your emotions becomes extremely difficult. It is a state of mind that is, thankfully, foreign to me and that I hope I will never experience.

I feel like thanking Fanning for sharing so much of his life with his readers. It cannot have been easy to write about these experience. He describes his life as a happy one now. Not a fairytale happy life because, as he writes, a life entirely free of clouds is not possible. But he managed to get physically and mentally healthy, pull his life together, and I take off my hat to him.

At times I am happy; at times I am sad and I suffer. I have good times, and not so good times. This is life, not illness.


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