By Dolly Sen
Key Themes: schizophrenia, manic depression, bi-polar disorder, abuse, self-harm, activism
“An epistle to equality, tolerance and the true beauty of madness. Dolly Sen’s powerful personal pilgrimage to love, life and humanity again is a very intimate tale about the power of dreaming, taking control and fighting for the right to be oneself and to be equal and to be accepted” – David Morris, Senior Policy Adviser to the Mayor (Disability), Greater London Authority
Dolly Sen’s second book, ‘Am I Still Laughing?, is the follow up to her acclaimed memoir, ‘The World is Full of Laughter’. Her first book started out as a possible suicide note and ended up as a celebration of life. The brutally honest account of living with madness has been an inspiration to readers around the world, and has positively changed many peoples’ lives. In ‘Am I Still Laughing’ Dolly describes her childhood with a father who was a small-time singer and actor, through him she worked as an extra on various films including the Star Wars epic, The Empire Strikes Back, until Steven Spielberg sacked her because he thought her child-breasts were too big for the part of an underfed child slave. Confused by sci-fi reality and day-to-day fiction Dolly traces her madness ‘all the way back to when I worked on The Empire Strikes Back. It wasn’t a film, it was reality, and it was up to me to maintain the good and evil in the universe’.
About the Author
Author, poet and activist Dolly Sen lives in Streatham, South London. Born in 1970, she had her first psychotic experience aged 14 which lead her to leave school. After years of mental illness, probably bought on by an abusive childhood, Dolly decided she should write about her experiences. She was inspired to write her own story after reading Jason Pegler’s autobiography ‘A Can of Madness’. She has since written five books, become a successful performance poet who has toured throughout Europe and has set up two charities. Dolly is a key figure in the mental health movement and regularly appears on television and radio talking about mental health issues.
Writing has always helped me. I found it when I was 22 and it has kept me alive since then. During my worst depressions, writing gave me a reason to wake up in the morning. Would I still have carried on writing if I never was published? Of course I would. One of my favourite writers, Charles Bukowski, said of writing: ‘It is the last expectation, the last explanation, that’s what writing is’. A plain piece of paper won’t judge you, criticize you. And above all it won’t lie to you. If you can’t say what needs to be said face to face, write it down.
People with mental health problems who are able should think about either writing their story or at least telling it. Their lives shouldn’t be what they think are dirty secrets they have to hide. One woman at one of my book signings shook her head sadly and said, “I can’t, it’s too painful. And besides, nobody wants to hear it.” That’s what I thought once. I now know that to be untrue. People, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, have taken me aside after reading my book and say, sometimes with tears in their eyes, “This happened to me too… but please don’t tell anyone that it did.” This is painfully heart-rending. Because I think if you don’t share it positively, it’ll manifest somewhere else, in your body, in your relationship to others and the world. For example, it can be seen in some people’s eyes; they try to smile, but their eyes don’t believe it. Their eyes are telling their story – something about their life always will. So you might as well have some control over it.
For me creativity gave me control in a world where because of a diagnosis I had no control. A South American poet said, “Take away someone’s creativity and you take away their humanity. Give someone back their creativity, and you give back their life.” I found this to be true while writing my story, and every day after too.
Writing your life story does so much for you. It gives you opportunity to reflect, it empowers you because you have nothing to hide any more.
I made a conscious decision to let it out, to give away secrets. But it was really difficult to get it onto paper sometimes without crying; or deleting, starting again, deleting, and starting again. Some of the things I wrote I didn’t tell my family about. Most of them didn’t know about the abortion or the extent of my mental illness.
Will they reject me for what needs to be said? That did definitely cross my mind. I even made plans to leave London if things got ugly. The first to read it was Paula. When she finished it, she rang me up in tears. “Why didn’t you tell me? About the abortion and other things? Oh Dolly…” So we cried together. I was so relieved that she didn’t reject me; in fact, it made our relationship stronger. This goes with the other members of my family too. Our love got stronger. It dumbfounded me. Of course, my father won’t read it – or can’t. His memory is such that he doesn’t remember what he reads. For example, he will read the same newspaper 5 or 6 times without retaining information. And nothing can change the story he tells himself anyway. Jason was intuitively supportive, just knowing exactly the right time to encourage me. His belief in me was nothing I had from anyone in my life previously. I remember thinking this is the thing that all humans need, the thing that affects change in someone, no matter what has happened in their life before. I am forever grateful to him for that. And because of his belief in me, my self-belief developed slowly.
So I didn’t get to see much of the summer of 2002. I had spent most of it, sweating inside, writing the book. When it was finished, I felt like a new person, my skin was easier to wear. The thing I thought would be the hardest thing to do was in fact very uplifting and life-refreshing. I felt I could do anything… until I realised how much my life would now change. Being a published writer, I had to engage with people, talk to them! And talk in front of them! I was shitting myself. I wanted to go back and hide, not unwrite the book but be anonymous again. As the publication date loomed closer and closer, Jason gave me things to do to occupy myself. He needed photos for the book cover, so I got my brother Kenny to emerge from behind his computers and take some pics of me with his digital camera. “What are they for?” he asked. “Oh, they are for the cover of my new book.” “Oh right, I see.” Like it was something we did everyday. But Kenny is used to my craziness. If I said, Kenny we have to burn socks so the devil doesn’t have fossil fuel. He would have said, “Oh right, I see.”