Living with complex illness and surviving to tell about it: Anna Spargo-Ryan's chronic optimism

Christopher Ott/Unsplash
Christopher Ott/Unsplash

Anna Spargo-Ryan has been managing multiple mental health conditions since childhood, a lifetime of surviving an unwell brain. A recent diagnosis of ADHD, however, comes with fresh (though not unexpected) anguish.

Review: A Kind of Magic – Anna Spargo-Ryan (Ultimo Press).

On Twitter, Spargo-Ryan characteristically cracks a joke:

Later that same day, she lets rip:

And anyway, she explains, an ADHD diagnosis “medically” means nothing – taking the prescribed medication would interfere with her multiple psychiatric conditions.

The diagnosis gives Spargo-Ryan something else, besides a passport to Twitter spats over why the condition is spiking among women or whether it is caused by “TikTok or the pandemic”. It provides relief from the shame of feeling responsible for behaviours that were unwanted, which she enacted not because she was “bad”, but because she was ill.

Being “openly unwell” affords Spargo-Ryan some awkward privileges. It means she has to navigate (possibly) well-meaning comments from those curious about whether her children are

likely to follow in my footsteps of being a depressed insane person […] when you’re sort of openly unwell, like I am, people think this is an acceptable thing to say; they even expect you to be impressed by their insight.

On the other hand, her capacity to talk about her experiences and advocate for change has the potential to raise awareness and educate.

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Memoir and mental health

It helps, on Twitter and in memoir, to be the kind of writer who can navigate dark and complex material with grace and good humour – who can talk seriously without descending into solipsism.

Certainly, Spargo-Ryan’s memoir A Kind of Magic presents a very different kind of protagonist to the earnest narrator of her award-winning essay The Suicide Gene – an emotionally taut and affecting personal essay in which humour is markedly absent. As the title suggests, Spargo-Ryan seems to have envisaged A Kind of Magic as more than “just” a memoir, or rather a memoir overtly interested in “doing good”.

A long explainer on the neurological function of memory is an insight into how she copes: she alleviates the uncertainty caused by her anxiety disorder by compulsively accumulating information about it. A series of ironic jokes about “winning” at psychometric questionnaires by completing them quickly or with the “highest” score for diagnosis is an amusing parallel.

But it might also tell us something about the uneasy place this kind of memoir continues to occupy in the popular literary sphere, especially when it is written by a woman. Memoirs that dwell on individual pain and trauma can get short shrift from the reading public if they reject the upward trajectory of redemption.

Nonetheless, memoirs about mental illness have increasingly drawn attention to how gendered stereotypes affect the quality of care and reduce positive outcomes for women. In Hysteria, for example, Katerina Bryant investigates and critiques the historical legacy of medical misogyny. Kylie Maslen, in her memoir Show Me Where it Hurts, explores how gendered stereotypes continue to limit the ways women are treated or believed within medical institutions, particularly when the illness is “invisible”.

A Kind of Magic tackles disturbing and challenging themes to draw attention to them and advocate for change. Spargo-Ryan writes compellingly about her experiences of psychosis. In particular, she evokes her childhood experience of mental illness, a less often explored but critical issue. Her accounts of parenting (and reflections on being parented) capture generational shifts in approaches to, and understanding of, mental illness that are deeply affecting and important.

The memoir also digs deep into the intergenerational legacy of mental illness, expanding on themes Spargo-Ryan explored in The Suicide Gene. In that essay, she reflects on the trope of “family history” in relation to mental illness. In discovering her grandfather’s story, she finds uncanny kinship:

It was as though I’d found the missing link that would explain my own self. I found comfort in the idea of a ‘suicide gene’.

In A Kind of Magic, she finds the space to consider an alternative to living with chronic illness and the permission to choose survival.

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Hope and advocacy

“Family history”, of course, is also a diagnostic tool. Surfacing periodically throughout A Kind of Magic are diary entries, mapping the course of writing the book, and which was completed while living through the pandemic. Almost all of these entries narrate a therapeutic encounter – a record of living with mental illness over time.

There is a lot of waiting. There is the pain of failing to disclose adequately – “years of creating language that failed to communicate how sick I was” – and the pain of disclosing too well. Later in the memoir, Spargo-Ryan is asked whether she is a nurse. “I need to know a lot about it,” she explains, “so I can advocate for myself.”

Advocacy and trauma are linked in A Kind of Magic, as they are for so many who take up the challenging work of representing communities through personal narratives. Spargo-Ryan reflects that while writing this account has been very hard, she has found agency and control through the process, maybe a kind of healing.

Importantly, Spargo-Ryan is clear she has developed strong coping skills and maintains a strong network of personal and professional supporters, something other writers in this genre have noted is essential, but which also requires more than individual will to sustain.

A Kind of Magic is ultimately a hopeful book. Spargo-Ryan’s personal story is undeniably dark; her memoir is an ongoing survivor’s story. It is also very, very funny, and touching, and deeply empathetic. As per her chronically online persona, Spargo-Ryan is a dab hand at the one-liner. She is a wry and engaging observer of popular culture and a wonderful raconteur, unafraid to judge her own foibles and failings.

Along with individual day-to-day challenges, living with mental illness incurs severe stigma. Spargo-Ryan, despite her complex conditions, is luckier than many, and she knows it. She has a family history of mental illness, but she also has a safe middle-class life. “Circumstances conspired to keep me well,” she explains, “and the illness pushed through anyway.”

There are, of course, other more vulnerable people for whom circumstances are far less kind. A Kind of Magic does its work of asking a certain kind of reader to think about their own privilege and exercise a little more compassion and care, not just for their own hurt self (something Spargo-Ryan advocates), but for those who continue to suffer in circumstances far less conducive to surviving against the already stacked odds.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Kylie Cardell, Flinders University.

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Katerina Bryant (author of Hysteria) is my PhD student.