January 08, 2015 - 2 comments

Tom Pollock: The Day My Mental Dam Burst

Introducing TalkLife’s new ambassador, author Tom Pollock. Tom is a successful sci-fi and fantasy author who published his books while living with mental illness. This is his story.

From the TalkLife team: We’ll be launching new ambassadors in 2015. Our ambassadors will share their stories with the TalkLife community and beyond, and raise awareness about youth mental health issues. We hope they will inspire you and show that despite life’s challenges, you can achieve your dreams.

Tom Pollock is a great example of this. Rated by The Guardian as one of the world’s best young science fiction and fantasy writers, Tom has written his books while living with mental illness. And he’s sharing his “warts and all” story with you.Â


I want to tell you about this one specific Wednesday a few months back. There have been other days like it since, but I made notes about this one, so I remember the details better.

The day started out innocuously enough with a couple of slices of toast and a bowl of bran flakes, but then I had a row with a friend and before I knew it, I’d bought, chewed and swallowed two brownies, a bacon sandwich, a packet of crisps, some carrot sticks and a flapjack the size of the USS Nimitz.  Over the next forty five minutes I added a bag of chocolate buttons, a tuna baguette and a tub of some kind of red and white pudding that looked like someone had pureed a brain and forgotten to pick the skull out. When buying all this, I alternated between a caf, a shop and an oh-so-sweetly non-judgmental vending machine, so as not to attract attention (the guy at the shop was like “Buying for friends?” and I was like “Ha ha yes”).

I honestly couldn’t tell you what any of this tasted like, by the way. Only my hands, my jaw and the prehistoric Lizard bit of my brain were involved, my tastebuds were asleep at their post.

By now I was sweating, my hands were shaking and I had a pounding headache. I drank about a litre and a half of water, and then I went and had lunch.

A kind of mental dam burst during the afternoon, and I carried on in much the same way, systematically eating my way through everything in the house, then curling up in bed, then getting out of it in a panic to go to the shops to replace everything so my wife didn’t find out.

When I’m like this, what’s driving me isn’t hunger, or even the need for comfort, it’s the fear that I lack the power over myself to make a binding decision to stop eating. On bad days I feel I can’t trust myself, any more than I could a stranger.

The following day I wake up early, feeling like an evil toddler is squatting on my chest. The first thing I do is go for an eight mile run.  At lunch time I hit the gym and do push-ups and burpees until want to vomit (but I don’t).

I remember the first time a doctor told me I was bulimic. Ironically, I thought he was nuts, because I haven’t successfully made myself throw up for more than ten years (apparently I have no gag reflex, and yes, I’ve heard all the jokes.). I told him this and he said the purge half of my cycle is handled through exercise. However you characterise it, my relationship with food, my body and the level of control I feel the need to exercise over it, is dysfunctional, I also get bouts of depression, am in weekly therapy, and have been on anti-depressants at various points since I was fourteen.

Okay, fine, you’re probably thinking, but who are you?

I’m a writer. It’s what I always wanted to be, and it’s going pretty well. I published the final book in my first trilogy earlier this year, both of the earlier volumes were shortlisted for awards. My books have been translated, recorded, taught at universities, I’ve been flown out to sign in foreign countries, and in 2013 The Guardian put me on a list of the 20 best young science fiction and fantasy writers in the world.

That’s the thing, the timing. I’ve written and published all my books to date in the four years, not after getting over my mental illness, but living around it.

There’s a culture of silence around mental health, a taboo on talking about your illness that only applies when the part of you that’s ill is above rather than below the neck. This taboo is stupid, dangerous, and it pisses me off. Suicide kills more men my age and younger than anything else in the UK, in large part because most of them never feel like they tell anyone. The only way to change a culture, is to act like it’s already been changed. To talk about openly, like its normal (because it is). It’ll hit a quarter of us this year, chances are it’s happening to a friend of yours at the same time it’s happening to you.

So this is me, talking.

A lot of the time though, when people do talk about it, especially Celebrities, they cast it as a long past event, a dark episode in their lives (“My year of bulimia hell” etc). It’s the dip in their story arc, a single crisis struggled through in pursuit of their inspirational journey.

Maybe that is what it’s like for them, but it’s not what it’s like for me. For me it’s more like a chronic thing, diabetes say. Severity varies from day to day, it comes and it goes, it needs thinking about, and consciously managing, but I can live with it, and live well. I got married in 2013 to a woman I’m crazy about.

So here’s the plan, once a month on this blog, I’m going to write about how that’s been going, stuff I’ve written, read, seen, places I’ve been, and how the glitches in my head have affected it. Sometimes the answer will be “a lot”, sometimes (hopefully usually) the answer will be “not much”, but either way I’ll try to be honest, and if there’s anything I find that’s helpful to me, I’ll tell you.

Over time, a picture should emerge, a pictures of someone living with and around this bug. I hope some of you will find that helpful, and I will too. If nothing else it’ll be a reminder of the thing that’s sometimes the hardest to remember at the bottom of the darkest spiral: that it hasn’t been this way forever, and it won’t last forever either, today might be shit, but tomorrow could be great.

Author Tom Pollock, TalkLife ambassador

A longtime fan of science fiction and fantasy, Tom Pollock has spectacularly failed to grow out of his obsession with things that don’t, in the strictest sense of the word, exist.

He has his master of fine arts degree from Sussex University and also holds a master’s degree in philosophy and economics from Edinburgh University.

Tom’s travels have taken him everywhere from Scotland to Sumatra, but the peculiar magic of London has always drawn him back.

You can read his personal blog here and tweet him @tomhpollock.

Books: Our Lady of the Streets, the City’s Son and the Glass Republic on Amazon.

If you or a loved one is struggling with depression or another mental health issue, please talk to someone. Here’s a list of help lines and professional contacts.

If you haven’t heard of TalkLife, it is where you find friends and a place to belong. There’s a huge community of people like you, who understand. Download for free on your Apple or Android device.

Published by: TalkLife in Mental Health, TalkLife Ambassadors, Tom Pollock


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