If someone had told me in my twenties, I’d write a memoir about my mental illness, I’d have replied that they were crazy. Having been diagnosed with mental illness since I was a kid, it was something I’d always felt the need to hide. It was shameful, ugly, and not for polite company. Certainly, not something I’d ever want to share with the world.
But here I am, sharing my mental illness—as well as travel—stories with the public in my new book Baggage: Confessions of a Globe-Trotting Hypochondriac.
Like many writers, I don’t feel like I ever woke up and said, okay I’m going to write this book. Instead, it was the fact that once the idea got in my head, I simply couldn’t shake it off. I tried. God knows, I tried. But the concept stuck like a burr, until it began to form from just an idea into themes, chapters, and scenes.
Probably, the most difficult thing about writing a memoir around one’s mental illness struggles is the decision to share such things publicly. The decision was not easy for myself nor my wife – and there are still times when I wonder if this really was a good decision – but in the end it just felt right. I increasingly wanted to write about my trips around the world chasing endangered species as an environmental journalist, but I also knew I couldn’t do so honestly without delving pretty deeply into my OCD, extreme anxiety, and even depression. I knew, as the book grew further from a seed into a full-blown tree, complete with branches and arches, that I’d also need to jump back in time and show at least portions of my childhood.
Only I’d do it in my own way. I decided early on I didn’t want to write a book about mental illness that focused solely on the despair and anguish of living with mental illness. Others have written such important books before and it was, simply put, not the book I had in me. Instead, I wanted to be honest about the struggle of living with chronic mental health problems, but also show more of the humorous side. After all, running around the world with OCD does lead to some ridiculous situations. Laughter is one of the best parts of being human—and, at least for me, a pretty good way to keep the demons at bay.
As I began to write the book, increasingly the theme of resilience began to take shape. How resilience shapes the lives of those who live with mental illness, and what, really, resilience means. It’s not just about doing what’s hard—though that’s part of it—but also recognizing our limits. Since the book also took place across eight countries, and featured any number of endangered species and places, it’s also about the resilience and fragility of our natural world.
Such themes hadn’t coalesced when I imagined the book, but only as I wrote it. The once somewhat discursive episodes of travel began to form together into something more whole, something that spoke to my larger experience on this Earth—both in my personal mental illness and in my career as an environmental journalist—even as much was left behind, unnecessary for this story.
Writing a memoir isn’t really telling the details of one’s life—that’d be unbearably boring even for the most interesting lives (unless you’re Proust—Proust could probably pull it off)—it’s really pulling out the themes, like harvesting the grain and leaving the chaff.
After all a memoir is still a story, and a story is different from life. A memoir should be entirely true, but it’s also told in a way that accentuates whatever themes are most important, and diminishes the rest. It tells a story, and a story—whether true or not—is always about artistic and narrative choices. This does not mean the prosaic should be left on the cutting room floor. The prosaic can be just as telling, just as beautiful as the dramatic, but it should all be chosen with great care.
At the same time, unlike fiction, a memoir reveals the deeply personal, whether it be physical or mental illness, poverty or wealth, grief or gain, suffering or joy. Whether it be about coming-of-age or meeting the end, most of the great memoirs I can think of shine a light on what’s often hidden, exposing the inner workings of our subjective lives, and perhaps saying something about the greater collective of human existence.
These elements—a story built from the select stones of truth—are what make the best memoirs so goddamn compelling.
I never thought I’d write a memoir. And I’m not sure I’ll ever write another. But, like any story that won’t let go, memoirs have a latent power, a power to change and shape our lives.
Jeremy Hance is an environmental journalist and author of Baggage: Confessions of a Globe-Trotting Hypochondriac. For three years, he wrote a popular blog for The Guardian with over two million views. He is also a columnist for Mongabay, one of the most highly respected environmental news sites in the world. He has been interviewed on NPR’s Living on Earth and Sea Change Radio, among others.