For years I avoided triggers. For me, that meant avoiding anything specifically relating to eating disorders and recovery, any information about dieting or weight loss; anything that might upset my long-fought-for fragile balance of not hating my body to the point of wanting to obliterate it.

It also meant avoiding sex. Not only the physical act but books, movies, anything that reminded me of its existence. Sometimes even the word was enough to trigger a flashback, and words like rape or abuse had even more power. (As a result of thinking about triggers, I’ve given some thought as to whether I should give ‘trigger warnings’ for posts on this blog. This cautionary note explains my feelings on the matter.)

When I was on my writing retreat and finding it difficult to reconnect with those emotions by choice, I decided my best way forward was to try and trigger myself. I set about reading a stack of books I’d diligently avoided for years…

Triggering Myself

It worked.

This post is the second in a series about a writing retreat I took in 2010. Please click here if you’d like to read from the beginning.


This post is the second in a series about a writing retreat I took in 2010. Please click here if you’d like to read from the beginning.

Hard to Reconnect

Despite my fears, what I found at the start of my retreat was that it was hard for me to be affected by my past, even when I wanted to be. Perhaps I’d left it further behind than I’d thought. Perhaps I’d become so used to avoiding the difficult stuff as a way of protecting myself from the emotions it could stir up. I could reason out why I had suffered from an eating disorder, but I couldn’t remember what the suffering had felt like. I found it surprisingly hard to reconnect. I needed to find a way to remind myself.

In the earlier stages of my recovery, I had written in a journal every day, sometimes several times a day. Years later, when I was having one of my moments when I decided that writing a book would be a stupid cliché, and I wanted to forget it all had ever happened, I destroyed every single one of them…

Burning Ceremony

I wish I hadn't done that...


I'll just write this email...

For a long time, I dabbled. Even after signing the contract and everything becoming real and official, I think there was a level of denial. The project still felt overwhelmingly big, the deadline incomprehensibly far away. There was always something else I found to do that was smaller or had a more immediate deadline. I told myself “I’ll just do this [insert justification here] and then I’ll really get started.” It took a few months of still not starting for me to notice the pattern.

Clearing Space

I decided the best way for me to clear a space was to go away. Away from my computer, away from my part-time job, away from my friends and family and other work. To be completely alone with just pens, paper and the story in my head, and no choice but to get the heck on with it. I went for three weeks (next week I’ll be blogging about what happened while I was there).



The question I was asked most often whilst working on Lighter Than My Shadow was, ‘Is it cathartic?’ Usually with the assumption that it was, and that was why I was doing it. It’s true that it feels important to get the story ‘out’, but out in the world, not out of me. It’s one of my biggest worries that people will see the book only as an act of catharsis.

That said, I’d be lying if I told you there wasn’t catharsis in the first draft. There was the messy, stream of consciousness getting-it-all-out. But after that, I had to try and put the emotions I was stirring up to one side. I had to make objective* decisions.: whittling down the story to what was essential. What, frankly, was actually interesting.

What I’m trying to say is that working on the book was not therapeutic, and I didn’t expect it to be. Oftentimes I was voluntarily reliving trauma that no longer affected my daily life. If it was catharsis I was looking for, I would have given up when it got hard. If it was catharsis I was looking for, I would have filed it all away in a box when I’d finished, or burned it, or something to that effect. I certainly wouldn’t want to publish it, and I doubt anyone would want to read it either.

So what was I looking for? I’ve written a lot this week about all my lofty reasons for creating Lighter Than My Shadow: breaking the silence, challenging stigma, maybe, possibly helping people. What I haven’t said anything about is this: I wanted to tell a good story. I also just wanted to write a book.

*I had supreme editorial assistance.


This week I received the lastest dummy book for Lighter Than My Shadow, and learned that it will be the longest graphic novel Jonathan Cape have published. Even knowing how long it took to draw those 507 pages, I was quite astonished by its ‘bigness.’

dummy book

I always knew the book would be big. I wanted it to be, because I loved reading comics that lasted me more than a few hours. But I also knew it had to be, because I wanted to dig really deep into the process of recovery, talk about all the stuff I’d found lacking in other books I’d read and tell the truth about how long it takes. But the idea was so big that I didn’t know where to start.

In 2006 I attended the very first graphic novel writing course run by The Arvon Foundation, taught by Bryan Talbot and Steve Marchant. This proved a turning point of sorts, and if you have a similarly big project that you’re struggling to get your head around, I can’t recommend these courses highly enough. With the support and enthusiasm of the tutors and other students (and in particular Bryan Talbot’s invaluable teaching) I began to take my idea seriously, and get something of a foothold on where to start.

And I did start. Over the three years following that course, I started work on the book maybe seven or eight times. Sometimes it was just a page of scribbled ideas and planning; other attempts included several pages of ‘finished’ artwork. But every time I would end up feeling overwhelmed, or frustrated by my ineptitude with the medium, or simply not ready to face the emotions the project was stirring up. I’d put my progress away in a box and forget about it. Until next time I started.

I lost count of how many times this happened, how many beginnings were abandoned. But the idea wouldn’t go away.

The idea wouldn't go away

Next week I’ll be sharing a series of posts about why the idea wouldn’t go away, and even when it felt overwhelming and too big to manage, I decided it was important to keep going.


Lighter Than My Shadow was going to be a prose book.

I’d always enjoyed illustration, and indeed always wanted to be an illustrator. But I was one of those people who thought that books with pictures were for children, or perhaps for those who weren’t able to read ‘proper’ books (you can imagine what I thought about comics).

Until I stumbled upon the book that changed everything.

The Red Tree

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is a picture book, but in its few short pages of sparse text and deeply allegorical images, it resonated more with my experience of mental illness than any prose book ever had. I’d never seen pictures so eloquent, nor found so few words to be so profound. There was something about the combination, the two working together…

I felt like I’d struck the most unique and exciting idea anyone had ever had, and a whole world had opened up to me. Books with pictures tackling serious subjects: imagine that! I enthusiastically told my friends that this book idea I’d been harping on about for years was going to have pictures, and be unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.


…and so I read my first comic in 2005.

From there it was only a short step to discover a whole world of people telling serious stories with pictures. With every new book I read I was filled simultaneously with inspiration, and with crushing despair that I could never live up to the quality of storytelling these artists were achieving.

And yet, there were hundreds of books about eating disorders. If I was going to bother telling another story about anorexia, I wanted to do so in a way that might bring something different to the conversation. Though I lacked confidence in my skills as an illustrator, I was pretty sure I was a better artist than I was a writer.

The change was like flicking a switch. Once I discovered graphic novels existed, I knew that was how I needed to tell my story.


Which Is Harder?

Of course there is a large gap between deciding to write a book and actually writing one. There was a gap of years: it was 2001 when I first thought of making a book, 2009 when I formally started. Creatively it needn’t have taken that long, but there was also an emotional gap. In 2001 I was fully in the grips of an eating disorder, and couldn’t possibly write about recovery. As it turned out, getting better was not quite as straightforward as I’d planned or hoped for (afraid you’ll have to wait for the book for that bit of the story). On the way, I abandoned the book idea a number of times, for a number of reasons:

“Writing a book I such a cliché, I can’t believe I thought it was a good idea!”

“I’m so messed up, I can’t even do recovery right. Nobody’s going to find anything useful or interesting to read in how many times I did everything wrong.”

“I’m totally fine and sorted. I’ve moved on and closed the door. I need to just leave it all behind, pretend it never happened.”

After several variations on these themes, including a ceremonial burning of a stack of journals that would have been invaluable in writing the book, I came back to the idea. Perhaps, after all, I had something important to say. Perhaps I could say it better in pictures than words. By 2009, enough time had passed that I was steady enough in my recovery, and confident enough in my work as an illustrator that I felt ready to take the project on. I’m glad I waited. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for…