lip lit: running like china – interview
Sophie Hardcastle is an inspiring young author who has written a memoir called Running Like China about her struggles with mental health. Lip’s Bridget Conway had a chat with Sophie and found out about how she chose to push through the stigma to write the book in the hopes that it would inspire others to do the same.
Could you tell me first about your career as a writer so far – have you always been a writer, or always wanted to be one?
I have kept journals and written stories for as long as I have known how to write. I was lucky to have been a girl taught to read and write from a very young age and to have had parents who let me indulge my passion by buying me journals (non-lined are my favourite) and pencils. My words empower me and I don’t know who I’d be today without them.
Growing up, I loved when my stories felt like they were writing themselves. Like magic, the characters would take over and I’d just sink into the page, being pulled along with the tide. When I was fourteen I started writing a novel by hand and would lug around a huge brown folder with all my handwritten pages in it. The story was about a girl and her twin brother and I began writing it because I wanted to see what it was like to have a twin brother! I was bent on becoming an author who would write books to change the way people saw the world.
When I was sick, I stopped writing stories for almost four years and it wasn’t until I found myself leveling out mentally at university that I realised I’d abandoned the aspirations of my fourteen-year-old self. I decided to suspend my fine arts course to return to writing. I wrote Running like China in seven weeks. I then spent the summer working with a freelance editor who then referred me to an agent. She signed me and started negotiations with publishers. In the meantime, I returned to the novel I’d been writing when I was fourteen and fifteen. Flicking through the handwritten pages, I realised my teenage self knew nothing about love, death or heartache and so I left the pages in the brown leather folder, bought a ticket to Bali and flew over to start working on a story loosely based on the original. When I arrived back in Australia after two months writing and living solo in Bali, I spent the next four months finishing the manuscript. By this point, my agent had organised a book deal for Running like China with Hachette Australia. I signed my contract on my 21st birthday and less than 2 months later, I signed my contract in February 2015 for my novel Breathing Under Water.
In the last 8 months, I’ve been busy with the publication of Running like China, the editing of Breathing Under Water (to be released in July 2016) and have recommenced my fine arts studies. I have also been published in Surfing World, Damaged Goods Zine and Harper’s Bazaar. Most importantly, I have rediscovered the girl who is bent on writing books that will change the way people see the world.
Could you provide a brief background on what Running Like China is all about?
Running like China is my story of ‘how I sank to the seabed, how I drowned, and how I surfaced to breathe once more.’ It’s my story of my battles with mental illness and how I’ve learnt to not only live with bipolar but also thrive in spite of it.
What has inspired you the most to share your very personal story?
I think knowing how terrifying and frustrating the ‘not knowing’ was when I was sick is what propelled me to share my story. I am still learning everyday how to better live with this condition but I am thankful that I have a concrete diagnosis, a firm understanding of the condition and medication that I respond to. And if there is someone out there going through a similar thing who is confused and scared but can pick up the book and come to understand what they’re experiencing, then sharing my story, in my opinion, will have been worth it.
What were the biggest challenges of getting the book together and in sharing your story?
Time… It was almost two years to the day from when I started writing Running like China, to when it appeared on the shelves and as a nineteen-year-old it was hard to stick to my guns before I had a publisher or agent to rally behind me. It was also hard, as any writer would know, putting in so many unpaid hours (basically working fulltime) with only the slight hope of being published. I love writing though; I love it like nothing else. Writing never feels like a chore and I think if it was a chore for me I never would have been motivated to stick it out. A lot of my friends are graduating from university and moving into jobs with weekly salaries, giving them some level of financial ‘security’ which can knock me around a bit and make me question what I’m doing, but as I said I love it and wouldn’t trade my job as a writer for anything else, no matter how handsome the pay cheque.
When I think specifically of sharing my story, I never found it difficult. People have told me sharing my story is courageous but I don’t see it that way. Courage is when you’re fearful but you do it anyway. I’m not courageous because I’m not scared. I was raised by a woman who maintains that honesty is essential to everything you do. We grew up with no boundaries on what could or couldn’t be said at our dinner table and so I never felt like sharing my story was something I wasn’t meant to do.
The only thing I can really think of that was challenging personally was how taxing it was reliving some of the darker experiences by writing about them. Often, when I’d been sick, I was dissociating from reality and really numb. I’d lost my ability to empathise and it wasn’t until I was writing these experiences through the lens of mental health that I fully grasped the severity of the situation. I felt the weight of everything that had happened and could finally empathise with my family. I realised how much they had suffered and it made me feel so guilty for having put them through the ordeal. Mum assured me I’d been sick and that it wasn’t my fault but the sense of guilt lingered. As I worked through the book though, I was able to make peace with the guilt by channelling it, using it as motivation to commit to all the healthy lifestyle practices that help me prevent a relapse.
What do you hope those who read the novel experience and learn from your battles with mental illness?
I hope that it will inspire life for those who are going through a similar ordeal. I hope that it will show people that things can and will get better. My mental health is in a constant state of flux and my life will, at times, be interrupted by madness, but I want people to know that my episodes of mental illness don’t last forever and when they pass there is room for moments that take my breath away and make me look back and think, this is why I waited.
I also want this book to be used as a learning tool to enlighten those who are standing on the outside. The parents, the friends, the peers, the teachers… Anyone who is standing on the outside trying to understand what the person with the mental illness is going through so that they may be able to empathise. I believe it’s the lack of understanding causes stigma and scares people away. My hope is that by educating people, this book will bring family and friends back together.
What do you think is the hardest thing that people with a mental illness experience and what do you think can be done about it?
There is still so much we don’t know about mental illness. We can’t see it like we can see a broken bone on an x-ray, so for many people it can be really difficult to understand. Sometimes it’s even difficult for the person who is struggling to understand. Not knowing why you’re feeling a certain way or why a friend is acting out of character can be terrifying. I believe education is the answer. We need to learn about mental illness in schools. At the moment, it’s barely touched on and I wonder how many lives could be saved if teenagers were taught in school what to look out for. I wonder how many people could be helped before they reach crisis point if they are taught what to do when they identify the symptoms appearing, either in themselves or in their loved ones. What’s more, we need to open the conversation, again and again. I hope that one day opening up about your mental health or mental illness will be as easy and simple as telling your mum you think you’re getting a sore throat or going to your GP because you’re coming down with the flu.
What do you hope for the future of this book and for your career in general?
I hope this book will enlighten people so that they may come to understand mental illness and be able to empathise with someone who is struggling or recognise when their own mental health is taking a slide. Running like China really is for the people who are going to benefit from it. It’s not about me anymore. So many people have struggled the way I did, and this book is for them.
For my career in general, I want to spend my life writing books that challenge the way people think. Running like China was how I shed light on a very real issue that few seem willing to talk about. My first novel, Breathing Under Water, however, is where I get to be a writer who creates something out of nothing to inspire and challenge people. I don’t have words to describe how much I love writing fiction.
What stigma have you faced as a person living with a mental illness?
The worst stigma I have faced is when people have undermined my condition by telling me it’s not real or that it doesn’t exist. Early on, this used to pull the rug out from underneath of me. Now though, I’ve got two feet planted on the ground. I still have bad days and I’m certainly not saying it’s easy, but I know what is real for me and I stick to it.
I’ve had a lot of people tell me things about mental illnesses that are gross false stereotypes. It used to shake me, and sometimes still does, but I feel stronger now in calmly explaining the truth. Some people just don’t get it, but for others, I see a flicker in their eye when the pieces fall into line and they start to understand mental illness.
Finally, I’ve worked as a casual in hospitality before and found it astonishing that I never once felt comfortable calling in sick if I was in the midst of an episode. It’s ludicrous really that we’re allowed to call in to say we’re in bed with the flu but we’re not taken seriously when we call in to say we’re in bed with depression. I really hope that changes…
Do you have any advice for those out there who may be going through a similar experience?
Open the conversation and seek professional advice. Don’t ever play down what you’re going through because you think it’s not worth seeing someone. Professionals will always take you seriously. It’s also important to note not every patient gels with every doctor so it’s worth persisting until you find someone you bond with.
More than anything, my advice is to be patient because no matter how bitter the night is, the break of dawn is always worth waiting for.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Find your truth and honour it. People have told me it’s all in my head and that bipolar isn’t real, but I know the truth. I feel depression in my body; it’s a weight in my limbs, an ache. I feel mania in my body; it’s an agitation and an inability to keep still. Bipolar is real for me and nothing anyone says can take that away from me.
Running Like China by Sophie Hardcastle
PB 288 pp
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