Wellcome Book Prize reading #6: Madness and Recovery

Mind on Fire by Arnold Thomas Fanning

Subtitled ‘A Memoir of Madness and Recovery’, Fanning’s book tells the story of his battle with depression and bipolar disease. The book begins, however, with an episode from several years later during which he experienced mania and delusions – this prologue, told in a stream of consciousness style, breathlessly shares a manic episode which happened to Fanning at Heathrow. His brain flits from thought to thought, not staying on one train for more than seconds, oblivious to those around him, hisonly goal to get on the flight with no ticket, no plans, his mind on fire – an encounter with airport security and being arrested is the only way he is stopped. It’s a really scary scenario indeed. Then, he takes us back to his twenties, he’s an up and coming young playwright and short story author, working part time at the National Theatre in Dublin.

Depression has become something I endure several times a year, at its worst in the summer, when all my energy dissipates and my thinking becomes blackened by pessimistic ideas and self-hatred. These spells of black mood have been afflicting me since my mother’s death from cancer in the summer of my twentieth year. … Autumn and winter energize me: I make plans, I write more, apply for funding opportunities, feel I will be a success.

He gets a month-long residency at an artist’s retreat in the country, planning to write a novel, but some time into the month he begins to experience a manic phase, and after a cross-country drive to bring his unwilling father to see the retreat, he takes him home again and then drives, and drives and drives. It ends with Fanning having a breakdown at the side of the road, resulting in his first in-patient stay at hospital.

The cycle of depression, mania and hospitalization will happen several times, as the medics gradually hone in a combination of drugs that will control his mania. As is often the case, controlling the side-effects is another matter – meaning more drugs. It’s not until years later that the doctors hit on a single anti-psychotic medicine that will adequately control his now-diagnosed bipolar on its own. There was a great quote somewhere, which I should have marked, about how you talk about medicines until you’re hospitalized, then it becomes medications – a sign of incipient institutionalisation.

However, when in hospital he is relatively safe, and consequently these parts are not the most interesting. He goes to the USA for a while, falls in love, and life is getting better – but it doesn’t last – leaving him sad, penniless and on his own in New York city. He has to scrounge from friends to get home to Dublin. Similarly he is homeless in London for some time and in trouble with the law (over the Heathrow incident).

The most heart-breaking part of all though is his relationship with his father which is deeply troubled. His father cannot, or will not, understand Fanning’s illness, and every time Fanning ends up broke and homeless and needs to return to live with his father in Dublin, it drags him down further. His doctors urge him to try to leave his father’s house, but it’s not easy – it’s as if there is an elastic band tying Fanning to it.

This book is very readable and gives a very vivid and powerful insight into the harrowing world of a depression and bipolar sufferer. As others have said, it is a little repetitive, although utterly authentic in this, detailing each time he is hospitalized etc, and I would have like to hear more of his more recent recovery and stabilisation. It would have been lovely to hear more about his writing too. (8/10)

See also reviews by: Rebecca and Laura.


Source: Library. Arnold Fanning, Mind on Fire (Penguin Ireland, 2018) paperback, 288 pages.

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9 thoughts on “Wellcome Book Prize reading #6: Madness and Recovery

  1. I was fascinated by his comment on the seasonality of his depression. I can see why the summer, with its associations would be difficult for him. I have the same problem. Although I don’t suffer from depression I always find my energies depleted in the summer and any form of creativity flies out of the window. Come the autumn months, however, I am ready to go again. I’ve always put this down to the fact that from the age of five to retiring I was involved in education and by the time we got to July and August I had no creative juices left; I needed to replenish. Now it seems as if regardless of my change in circumstances my mind is programmed to be completely inert during the summer months.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I work in a school, but in a non-teaching role, which has different stresses. I would though, just sit and read all summer if I could.

  2. Great review – we’re on the same page with this one! I can see why it was longlisted, but personally wouldn’t have shortlisted it when there were stronger contenders.

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