Jan's story

It still seems miraculous to me that I’m writing this as the author of a full-length novel – and that it’s a novel that’s full of quirky humour, that people are enjoying reading.

If you’d seen me 7 years ago when bipolar diagnosis at the age of 50 tore my life apart, you’d have wondered what could possibly be salvaged from the ruins. A teaching career over, too ill to be employed, no money to keep up the mortgage, I found myself moving to an over-50s sheltered housing scheme: two tower blocks in Kings Heath, B14. But something – perhaps a vestige of faith – told me it would be OK as long as I was my authentic self, avoided toxic situations and people, and tried to play to my strengths.

Between 2002 and 2007 I’d hooked up with Mind and Bipolar UK, and began to write articles on self-management. Although I loved fiction, I avoided writing any, fearful of the demons lurking in my imagination, and too tired anyway, dealing with the stresses of daily life.

Soon after moving in, I met Terry McCarthy, the one tenant trying to generate positivity and neighbourliness. Anxious not to waste my talents and experience, I helped him form a residents’ association committee, and bid for funding which enabled tenants to go on trips to green spaces, and have an IT Club and a well-being group, Positive Minds, and to start our award-winning community garden.

It’s love and gardening, along with writing, that have been my salvation. Terry and I fell in love and married in autumn of 2012. We’re a team, not only as Chair and Secretary, but as husband and wife. The herb spiral was my initiative: the garden gnomes were his idea! And that’s how the idea for “The Great and the Small” came to me. Read it, and you’ll see why. The heroic gnomes: the lovable Blackthorn Brothers and the maverick Yew Band are some of my favourite people!

Is writing hard for me, especially when I’m trying to achieve that quality which, for bipolar people, is so elusive: consistency? Yes. I have sweated and wept at my computer. I spent the whole of last winter as a virtual recluse. Terry’s commitment to me saw us through. Is writing therapeutic for me? Yes – when I can successfully shape my experiences and imaginings into a work of art, and sit back and see that it’s good stuff, fit for an audience.

The glue that holds the writer in me – and in 11 other people – together is the monthly writing group I set up a year ago. We call ourselves ‘Fun with a Pen’. We have a Bring and Share lunch, and a learning focus, quiet writing time and feedback time at each session. Everyone in the group contributes their creativity, friendship and support. We’re a mix of ages, backgrounds and genres: surrealists, realists, poets and historians.
I used to earn a good salary before my first breakdown, but I think I now have riches of a different kind. The mind and soul, especially of those of a broken person, are fertile soil. But I think you need balance, which is why, when I’m tearing my hair out, Terry gets my jacket and boots and gently steers me towards the garden. “Come on, darling,” he’ll say with a tired smile, “The gnomes are missing you and the roses are out.” There’s no argument against that!

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