Gill Mann reflects on the joys and difficulties of raising a son with schizophrenia
‘You are a song inside me now, a melody that stirs and bursts into life when I think of you.’
This is a story about love.
In her heart-breaking, thought-provoking, and ultimately uplifting memoir, Gill remembers life with her son, Sam, a boy and young man who enchanted and infuriated in equal measure. Sam saw colours where others saw grey. He made people feel alive. His unvanquishable spirit sings out as Gill reflects on the joys he brought, the difficulties of his struggles with schizophrenia, and the impact of his death.
In this beautifully written memoir Gill thoughtfully and tenderly reveals her relationship with her son, both before and after his death. Part journal, part journey into the past, and part conversation with Sam, A Song Inside explores universal issues of love and loss to reveal how we can move forward and find contentment again, without leaving behind the people we have lost.
What inspired you to write A Song Inside?
I had no plan to write a book. It simply happened. At 4 o’clock one morning I found myself sitting up in bed, reaching for my iPad and starting to write. Just two days earlier I’d stood under the eaves of a Buddhist temple in Bangkok and watched, disbelieving, as four young men slipped out of the shadows and slid my son’s coffin into a giant oven. Nothing felt real. I can see now that this instinctive urge to write was my attempt to make sense of the nonsensical, to make meaning not just of Sam’s death, but also the last few years of his life.
Sam had always demanded attention. As a child and young adult, he was quirky, different, and challenging. But always loveable. Writing became a way for me to spend time with him, to talk to him. It also became a way for me to process my grief. For two years I wrote whenever and wherever I could, but I was writing simply for me. It was only when a friend lost her son too, read my journal and wrote to me about it, that I started to see it as something more. She said it had helped her, that she’d felt as though I was walking alongside her, holding her hand, that it had made her feel less alone. She urged me to think about publishing, said it would help others facing loss, and that really spoke to me because, as a psychotherapist, I’d come to realise that loss is a part of each of our lives and that most of my work, at its heart, is about helping people to face the pain of loss – of every kind – and to find a way through it. Her letter was the prompt I needed to start working on turning my journal into a narrative that tells a story for others to read.
What do you hope people might take away from the book?
More than anything I hope A Song Inside will touch people and resonate with them. Although it tells Sam’s story and my own the themes of family, love and loss are universal and affect all of us. I hope too that readers will come away with greater awareness of mental illness generally and in particular a better understanding of psychosis and schizophrenia. It’s such a terrible illness yet is so rarely talked about and so often misunderstood. My hope is that if people read my book and get to know Sam, they might understand schizophrenia better, see it differently and most importantly see that there’s an individual behind every diagnosis.
I hope too that my book might help people to start conversations about difficult subjects like death and mental illness, to talk about things they may have avoided in the past; perhaps give them a better understanding of what’s happening to them, or to someone else. And most of all I would love it to give people a sense of hope that loss can be survived, that it doesn’t have to shape lives in a negative way, that it isn’t loss that defines us but how we respond to it.
‘A Song Inside’ covers many difficult moments in your and Sam’s lives but it is also an uplifting book about love and family. How have you managed to convey the light and darker sides of Sam’s life and legacy?
When I was in the later stages of crafting the shape of the book, I was aware of the need to find a balance between the dark and the light because I knew that if the book was unrelentingly dark, people simply wouldn’t want to carry on reading it. Sam really helped me with this aspect of the book because he was very funny. Even as a little boy he was quirky. He said and did outrageous things all his life. In many ways he was a fairly impossible human being: unbelievably contrary and obstinate, but he was also a joy. There were many funny stories about Sam to draw on and they provide much of the light within the book. Readers tell me that it has made them smile and laugh as well as cry, and that feels true to my experience of Sam – a boy who could take you from despair to laughter in a matter of seconds.
Another thing that lightens the book, is that by the time I reached the end of my journal I had found answers to a lot of the questions I’d started out with and had reached a place close to acceptance. My training and work as a psychotherapist informed my experience of losing Sam and, in the book, I draw on that, exploring what’s happening in both my external and my internal world. I fought hard to keep the book’s journal format because I wanted the reader to join me on my journey through those first two years after Sam died. I wanted them to share the insights I had gained along the way into grief, family dynamics and what it means to face loss. But more than anything I wanted them to be left with a sense of hope that even this most devastating of losses can be survived.
Having said all that, I can’t pretend that the book isn’t hard to read at times. I don’t shy away from the darker side, the pain and confusion and heartbreak. Schizophrenia is a devastating illness and losing a child is a devastating loss. But that’s not the whole story because there’s also a huge amount of love in this book. At its heart, A Song Inside is a love story, and love is uplifting.
What have you learned from writing and publishing ‘A Song Inside’ and what would your tips to other writers be?
I’ve learned a lot from the process of writing and publishing my book. On the writing side my tips would be to:
- read as much as you can and try to be a conscious reader, noticing what you think works and what doesn’t, and then trying to work out why. We can learn a great deal from other writers.
- go on courses, join a writing group, and put your work up for critiquing. It’s terribly hard to hear criticism, especially if your writing feels very personal to you, but it will help you both to develop a thicker skin and to work out what advice to ignore and what to accept. Hearing other people’s views will, in time, help you to understand and gain confidence in your own voice and the things that matter to you.
- stay true to yourself but also stay open to ideas. I have always written from life and have seen myself as a memoirist and non-fiction writer because I’m an observer rather than a creator. But when a member of my writing group challenged me to write a piece of fiction, I found it really inspiring to discover I could. As a result, I’ve completed a couple of short stories based on the theme of therapy and will go back to those in the future.
On the publishing side my tips would be to:
- resist being lured into sending something out before you’ve got it into the best possible shape it can be. It’s tempting to look for early affirmation and reassurance but if you can, wait until you know you can’t improve your proposal or manuscript.
- do your research before you send anything to agents or publishers. Find out who they represent and what sort of books they publish. Make sure your project matches their areas of interest and experience.
- take note of individual submission requirements and follow them. Check and double-check for errors in formatting, spelling, and grammar. Every communication from you is a showcase for your writing abilities.
- prepare yourself as much as you can for possible rejections and try to see the bigger picture (the changing market, the vagaries of agents’ lists, individual publishing companies’ profiles). But do also listen to feedback, especially if you’re hearing the same thing from different people.
- Above all else, keep on submitting and don’t lose heart.
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