Making up a religion to cope with chronic pain led to Mel Hall’s debut novel, The Little Boat on Trusting Lane. Today she has dropped in to share her story. Welcome Mel.
The Little Boat on Trusting Lane by Mel Hall is a feel-good novel about a small spiritual community that hangs out on a boat in a scrapyard in Fremantle. An affectionate satire, the novel provides a funny yet critical commentary on belief, self-help, magical thinking and the mind/body connection. In this guest post, Mel describes how the novel, which was longlisted for the Fogarty Literary Award, came into being out of extreme adversity and the need give form and shape to her chronic pain.
Making up religions in the night
Back in 2016, I was awake at four a.m., reading the Conscious Living Expo guide. I couldn’t help but notice there wasn’t any mention of aliens or Jesus. This got me thinking: aliens and Jesus have a lot in common. People believe they are real, or don’t believe in them at all. People build their lives around them, or don’t pay them a second thought. But how often do we hear about aliens and Jesus together?
So, on that early morning in 2016, I decided to make up a religion that would feature aliens and Jesus. Perhaps it might one day be mentioned in the Conscious Living Expo guide.
I began writing ideas for this religion before work each day. The results were … weird and boring. (Some people don’t realise it’s possible to be weird and boring, but these are the two best words to describe me.) It seemed like this religion might not get off the ground. But in the process of writing, three characters began wandering around in my mind. I started to write a book.
Is this true?
Is anything I just wrote true? Maybe there is something that’s more true. Maybe I’ve spent many sleepless nights in pain. Maybe, in my tiredness, on that particular morning, I was reading whatever I could get my hands on. And maybe I wasn’t making up a religion, but wanting to create some kind of mythology: a place to plant this pain, in hope that some kind of meaning or sense might grow.
I began experiencing mystery pain when I was eighteen years old. Abdominal pain, back pain, pain that shot down my legs. When I was twenty-two, I was diagnosed with sciatica. Then I ended up with RSI in both my arms: I had been studying jazz music and practising bass quite obsessively, for sometimes ten hours a day. The RSI forced me to quit my degree.
Soon, pain and tension were across my whole body. For a couple of years, I didn’t have full use of my hands. A physio told me I had huge muscle wastage across my back, and that many problems I experienced were those of an old woman. This was when I was twenty-four.
I was looking into getting a cane, going on disability payments, and sleeping a lot of the time. I was sent to a rheumatologist, and in some notes I received afterwards, I was described as a high-achieving young woman, and other words used were anxiety and fibromyalgia.
But then, I read some books that helped me. I saw a psychotherapist. My pain got a lot better, and even nearly went away. I began to think it was all psychological after all. By 2010, when I was twenty-eight, I was pretty healthy, and even lived my dream of backpacking around Europe.
Getting sick again
Then, in 2016, the pain came back with a vengeance. I was almost blacking out at work, leaving the room to vomit, then coming back in to pretend nothing had happened. Sometimes if I told a person about the pain, they’d ask if I was pregnant. My lowest point was when I vomited on myself while driving, and had to stop in at a friend’s to shower, change and admit my desperation.
So, as well as the intellectual pursuit of wishing to marry aliens and Jesus, one of the first things that got me writing this book was an imagined therapy. In this therapy, a character tries to find the right image to give shape to their pain. I needed this for myself too.
Towards the end of 2016, I was sent back to a rheumatologist and diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of inflammatory spinal arthritis that affects many parts of the body. Getting a diagnosis and medication really changed my life, as my rheumie said the last time I saw her, in November 2020. But writing changed my life too.
Writing a book to cope with chronic pain
Writing this book gave the pain somewhere to go. I think of the book as a creation story, where I can let the pain unfold amongst other things, beings, events, places.
Creation stories are about beginnings rather than endings. Part of me would like to focus on endings, as I would like to know that this pain, or this disease, will never return. (I can never be sure of that.) But being able to place this pain in a big creaking boat on Trusting Lane was something like a transformation for me. I found new life in the daily act of writing – writing which became a book.
The Little Boat on Trusting Lane is available in all good bookstores and online.