TW: schizophrenia, depression, suicide.
90% of people who die from suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder. We know this. So where are we going wrong? I’m not the first person to tell a story based on the mental health problems of a family member – though I might be the first person to have done it this way: telling one half as a dark musical and the other as a graphic novel.
HOAX My Lonely Heart and HOAX Psychosis Blues tell the story of my brother, Rob, who committed suicide in 2008 aged 31 after a long battle with schizophrenia. The musical covers the six months pre Rob’s diagnosis as schizophrenic, whilst the graphic novel charts his life over the nine years post diagnosis through to his death.
My brother wrote poems. He started during one of his early secure-unit stays and continued throughout the rest of his life. I wanted to build something out of these beautiful pieces that had come from such a fragile and fractured mind. That’s when I found HOAX.
It’s a poem my brother wrote about Helen, a woman he had loved – and lost. I decided to take it as my starting point. I met with physical theatre director Benji Reid, showed him HOAX and we talked around the possibilities. It was clear that we shared a passion for finding beauty in the tragic. I started writing a script for Benji to bring to life on stage.
I wasn’t sure how this would evolve – but as a cross-media script writer I’m used to giving myself the freedom to find out, to explore the different ways of representation that are on offer to a storyteller. So when I found the dialogue coming out in verse – a reflection, I suppose, of the poetry underlying it – I just let it happen, and the musical HOAX My Lonely Heart was born.
Based on fragments of memories, mixed with my brother’s writings, I wrote the tale of Rob and Helen, of their meeting, their belief that the immediate need they satisfied in each other was love, the truer co-dependent nature of their relationship and their ultimate breakdown.
It’s written to be hard-hitting. Stage scripting allows you to deliver a very immediate kind of intensity to the audience, and I wanted to give Benji every chance to deliver that physical punch that knocks you off your feet. I wanted this piece to act as a bold and forceful ‘call to action’ to put mental health on the table.
However, that level of force can be too much for some people, and it was important to me that this project remain as widely audience-accessible as possible. Mental health is a very sensitive subject. People need to be able to enter this story at an emotional volume to suit themselves, and to that end I needed another medium – one that is no less powerful, but whose power can be meted out in a different way. I chose the graphic novel.
Sequential art has some wonderful devices, the main one being how you can keep the text deceptively simple and allow the artwork to voice the detail. Thus, in HOAX Psychosis Blues, snippets of conversations are interspersed with a kaleidoscope of rich worlds that the audience can go back to time and again. What’s more, those multiple worlds are created by multiple illustrators, each with their own distinct style, to emphasise the ever-changing landscape of the schizophrenic mind.
The two parts of HOAX can work as standalone pieces, but ultimately it is their combination that make this story one of a man and his humanity rather than simply a portrayal of his illness. And it is this humanity that really allows me to ask about the failings that allowed this man – so many men and women – to die?
The statistics are frightening. And if 90% of people who die from suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder, then shouldn’t we be more alert to it? More open and understanding? Less frightened by these individuals when the biggest threat they pose is clearly to themselves?
I’m not preaching from a soap box. Having failed to save my brother, I’m as much at a loss as the next person. And I do mean next. Even within the HOAX Psychosis Blues illustration team, a group of just ten people, there was another mental health-related suicide in the closet.
Neither HOAX script was written as a criticism of the mental health efforts that were afforded my brother. It is true though, that throughout the narrative there is a sense that something isn’t quite right with the system. This sense is only present because it was Rob’s reality. So I ask a third time: Where are we going wrong?