The big fat (mad) diary that's made it to the small screen

Author Rae Earl tells Charlotte Philby how she hopes a new TV series based on the journal she wrote as  a teenager will lessen the stigma of mental illness

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

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot