Rae Earl remembers her first diary perfectly. It was a “rough book” stolen from the school stationery cupboard. The moment she felt the pen touch the paper, letting “everything that was going on in my head splurge all over the page”, felt like a revelation.
This was January 1989 – three months after the 16-year-old was released from a psychiatric ward.
More than two decades later, these heartfelt, and often hilarious, entries form the basis of a new E4 show throwing a spotlight on the subject of teenage mental illness.
It’s a problem Earl, now 41, has learned to “manage” if not entirely overcome, thanks in no small part to the daily catharsis provided by that scrappy yellow book.
In fact, Earl was nowhere near as alone as she felt at times.
One in 10 people aged between six and 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental-health disorder in the UK, and nearly 80,000 of them suffer from severe depression.
The number of children and young people afflicted with anxiety, one of the conditions with which Earl was diagnosed as a child in Lincolnshire, is 290,000.
But when you are in the throes of the darkness, it is hard to imagine that anyone else could be there, too.
“When you’re a teenager, all you want to do is blend into the backdrop. You don’t want to put yourself out there and say ‘I’m feeling like this’,” Earl explains. The diary was a place to vent and reflect, and get her “head around all the things that were going on”.
At the time, these were largely concerns about the various ways in which she was about to die. “Suffering with anxiety as a child and adolescence is a bit like being in a dark room when you know any minute something terrible is about to happen,” she says.
“In reality, it may not happen but you are absolutely sure in your mind. I had physical symptoms – terrible headaches, stomach pain – and as an adolescent I was permanently convinced I was having a stroke.”
While mental illness is anything but a joke, it was by developing a dark humour about her condition – helped along by the distance her writing afforded her – that she began to find ways to cope.
“Over a six-month period I had gone downhill very badly and became impossible to live with,” she says. “By the time I ended up in hospital I had had a complete breakdown. I was convinced I had rabies – even though the last recorded case in Britain at that time was in 1901 – almost certainly meningitis, and definitely a stroke.”
But, on reflection, she concedes it was quite funny to see her mum arrive at the ward armed with a trifle and a copy of Smash Hits magazine.
In the hospital, Earl, who was treated for extreme anxiety and OCD, felt further isolated. “It was the wrong place for me to go, it was inappropriate. Everyone else was 25 years older than me and going through very exceptionally hard things.”
As a young person with mental health issues, she suggests, a more personal approach was needed.
It was the thought of ending back on the ward that spurred Earl on to make changes in her life. “Getting better” took “a lot of mental training” and “an army of positive thoughts”.
“Life for teenagers is tumultuous at the best of times,” she says. “With mental-health problems on top of all the other usual issues you’re already facing,” Earl says, “it can be particularly difficult to deal with.”
Apart from eventually confiding in her best friend, in her teens Earl felt she had to hide what she was going through. Because of the stigma attached to mental health, she now thinks it is especially important we talk about it – normalise it a bit – with the help of shows like My Mad Fat Diary, starring Sharon Rooney, which looks at mental health in a wider and warmer context than we are used to.
As far as Earl’s diaries go, there is plenty of material for a follow-up series. In the end, they extended to 10 jam-packed volumes – with additional “crumpled A4 sheets” and a poetry book “full of drivel”.
The writing stopped when Earl started university. “There was a lot more going on and I felt I needed to distance myself from what I thought was the old Rae. It felt like I’d made this leap into a new mature me.”
Now Earl says that was a nonsense idea, and she since started writing again. This time working on a prequel, working through the factors that drove her to breaking point.
What were they? “To be honest I haven’t got a clue yet,” Earl says. “But if I keep on writing I’m sure I’ll find out”.
Dear Diary: Earl's extracts
Thursday 2 March 1989
I’m so bloody confused about the Harry situation. Leah from the year above told me that he really likes me but didn’t fancy me, but that he might go out with me. But then Bethany told me that SOMEONE at the boys’ school had said to her, “Someone in the upper-sixth really fancies Rae Earl” and Bethany said “Is it Harry?” and this someone said, “YES!! HOW THE HELL DID YOU KNOW THAT??” So explain THAT one!
Monday 1 May 1989
Do I diet or do I not? I don’t want to change my personality and that often seems to happen when people lose weight. It will go against every principle I’ve ever had. You know “personality before looks”. This weekend is crunch time. If I don’t get a man (preferably Luke) before the end of the weekend, THEN I’ll diet.
Sunday 7 May 1989
Just got in from the gig to find this message from Mum: “Rachel, this is not a hotel, it is MY home. I asked you to be in by 10pm and it is now 10.45. Have you looked into a summer job yet?” Oh, PISS RIGHT OFF. Just feel like scrawling the word “NO” all over the house.
My Mad Fat Diary starts on E4 on 14 January