Category Archives: anxiety

The boy who stole my life

This morning, The Guardian published this extraordinary letter. After I read it, I sat down and cried. It is beautifully written, for a start and, as was noted by literary folk on twitter, the account read like a short story.  Also, I wish I could invite this person over for tea right now and give them a huge hug. This is a deeply painful and confusing set of circumstances and one, I would think, in which it would be hard to find clarity or any form of comfort or redress. I want to say to its writer, though, that reading it, while it upset me, made me feel less alone with my own peculiar circumstances.

I want to say thank you and that I am sorry for what has happened. And yes – do you know that you write beautifully?

By the time I was an adult, I’d lost both parents, all grandparents, my oldest friend and the only person  in the world with whom I felt safe, my godmother. I had a sibling, much older than me. I loved him passionately, but was also scared of him and struggled to articulate why. Three years after my mother died, my sibling disappeared. Refused all communication with me and did not explain why. This carried on for many years and I experienced it as shame and bewilderment; in the end, it was easier to tell myself that I was an only child. I felt sick when I thought of it all; still do. I would hear, third hand or so, that my sibling wanted nothing to do with me because of what a terrible person I was, because of how badly I had treated our parents (I had done my best to nurse them, I hoped, abrupting my childhood, bisecting my adolescence or university career, where I felt separate and strange).

Later, I felt the story shift a little within the family. I suppose it was because it was easier for people to understand, or more palatable. There had been issues between us; an argument. Yes; that was what had happened. It’s the revisionist version of family history. I had tried, before, to raise with my extended family, the matter of events and their impact and, also, of the dark and distressing things which had happened within the family home. The things which led, in part – I am careful to qualify that – to multiple episodes of anxiety and depression. To this day, I still have nightmares about my experienced; some of these nightmares are about my sibling. And when I raised these things, emboldened by finally finding the right therapeutic support for me, I was told, “If ANY of this had happened, I would have known.” As I said, revisionist. But I did not revisit discussion because I didn’t want to cause upset. I could cope and it could have been worse, I reasoned.

When I was about to get married, I tried again to get contact with my sibling again: I wanted him at my wedding, I thought. Wanted him to know; thought he might want to. This time, I had a reply and it left me on the floor – it was all curses and how I was selfish and hadn’t given enough notice (three months, but maybe not enough: I’m not sure!) and no way would he be attending, you selfish little bitch this is typical of you. While I lay on the floor, I thought…well I thought that I would not survive it. I believed – and right here was further endorsement – that I was this terrible person. I had always been told I was, for as long as I could remember. I didn’t know otherwise and could not really understand why this really lovely man downstairs actually wanted to marry me. Still, the revisionism came into play: he’s upset because you didn’t ask him to give you away. That is the accepted version of events, which ignores a decade of refused contact prior to this. Perhaps I did the wrong thing and I cannot ever have been blameless, but it hurts to have a truth told which is not my life; which is a lie. When you’ve worked out it is a lie, mind you. It can be terribly hard to see clearly.

I had three children. Sent pictures. Nothing. Well, one little thing, once, out of the blue with the first child: “Thank you for your photograph. I will put it in an album. Regards.” Nothing subsequent; the first baby is now nearly sixteen. But I kept the note. I’m not really sure why.

And then. Three years ago. He was getting married and suddenly got in touch with all the extended family. With a couple of exceptions, everyone acted as if nothing had happened. His wife to be showered everyone with gifts and wrote to me – all about how much his nephews meant to him and he loved them from a distance; about how I was a special sister to both of them now and would “the boys” like to come and stay with their auntie and uncle? Again, the extended family saw it differently: why don’t you let them? Don’t the boys deserve to know him? Deserve to know their uncle? I really struggled with that, a recasting of a story – as if I had somehow witheld them. He’d never met them. Moreover, if you read the letter which follows below, you might have some notion of the inappropriateness of such a visit. An unsupervised visit. I have seen and felt things which I wish I could unsee and unfeel. Besides which, all the letters were from her.

My sibling rang me and said he would be calling at our house. This was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. He told me what I was to do and was explicit that the only reason for visiting was so his wife to be knew who I was. I rang an aunt and said that I did not want this, that it was not real, but was told not to behave badly and I had to do what my mother would have wanted. They stayed an hour. We lined the boys up for them. He barely spoke to me, talked about his work in a sort of boasting way – he is very wealthy from what I can gather – and they left.  Thereafter, I had further “precious nephews” letters from my sister-in-law and “treats from auntie and uncle”. Tenners on a birthday. Then they dropped the “auntie and uncle”, then the treats; then the birthday cards. I think it took a year for them to get bored.

We had a raft of family bereavements. They were there, leading the funeral procession. He pushed past me, looked through me, refused to speak. There was one occasion, for a beloved relative, where she was the first person I saw. “Thank you for making the journey for our beloved…” she said. I could have said, “Whom you knew for little over a year and who dandled me and loved when I was a tiny child forty years ago…” but I didn’t. It felt like a fantasy; as if nothing made sense. In addition to being transparent – he was looking right through me – to my own sibling, I felt like my life was being stolen, my narrative rewritten. On hearing gushing compliments about the two of them, on this occasion and others, what I felt was anger and shame. I am still getting over it, but I have to accept that they have propelled themselves into the heart of a family, and that is that. There is nothing I can say.

Without the support of my husband, and the one little enclave within my extended family…well thank you. I talk to my friends, too, about bubbles that come up – at children’s parties; in the school holidays – family stuff. I can feel like a social leper. But sensible friends now know to jolt me out of this. It is what it is. Also, I have my husband and my boys in front of me. It serves me well to have someone remind me not to be ungrateful or self-indulgent. And I do believe that family is a flexible construct and can be built; that our friends and our community are part of it. And that’s me, the chubby toddler with a bucket. For years I could not look at pictures of myself for loathing. I’m getting better, because there I am.

When I wrote my first book, a semi autobiographical novel called Killing Hapless Ally, I drew, in the section that follows, on homework I had to do in therapeutic support. I had a crisis – breakdown if you like – five and a half years ago and received extended support CAT under the NHS with people who saved my life. My sibling reappeared just at the end of this support – so I was able to talk it over a little, but not enough, perhaps. In CAT – cognitive analytic (or analytical) therapy – I was asked to write some letters, and the one that follows was to my sibling, here in its original form, before being slightly edited for my book.

But to return to the letter in The Guardian today, just know, if you are its writer or feel upset in reading it or because something that makes you terribly sad has happened in your family, that your story belongs to you. No-one can steal your life. You were there and you can heal or, more realistically, learn to live alongside bereavement or loss of such a painful, contorted sort. Yes, you were there. Tell your own story, make your own revisions, if you like, for your own sake; for that of your future happiness – but also so that you do not admit impediment to the love you give to others.

So here’s the letter, as I gave it to the NHS and pretty much as it went into the book. I should explain that there are references to real people in the letter and yes: I really did have Albert Camus as my imaginary friend! Dixie Delicious (sorry darling) is my husband.

‘To my brother.

Here goes. When I was a child I idolised you. You were like a more fun version of a dad and I would sit on your lap and watch telly or just chat. You spoiled me with sweeties, long walks, playing badminton. I don’t remember having a sense of discomfort about my relationship with you as a child. You would joke with my friends and always come to help entertain my friends at birthday parties, but I do have a memory of being scared of something and I don’t know or cannot articulate of what exactly. It came from the corner of your yellow eye. I know that when I was about ten, something changed – or maybe it was always there but I didn’t see it until I became more, shall we say, sentient, my newly knowing state coinciding with the time you first went off me? I remember what I thought -or rather willed myself to think- were happy visits; day trips. But they were punctuated by anger, weren’t they? You said I was the apple of your eye and that I would always be your precious “little sis.” But there would be the sudden wild anger; exuberance then angry tears, and I didn’t understand. Were you so sad, too? One day, you made the peculiar statement I didn’t know whether to admire or run from. You stopped in the street and said, “I enjoy being a bit of a bastard and kicking people when they are down” and you were all swagger and brilliance. You said, ‘People are all shit. It is the nature of the beast. You can’t trust anyone and no-one will care for you’ and you smiled knowingly as you said it.

That night I discovered the huge porn collection under your bed and couldn’t take my eyes off what I saw. Above your bed was a huge photo of a naked woman, breasts on show, all shiny tabloid and emerging from the sea, her lips parted expectantly. I stayed in that room with you, sleeping at the end of the bed with the giant tits looking on and the porn humming under the bed, easily within reach. I clung to The Wind in the Willows, incongruous in your bedroom. Tits. Being a bastard is fun. Readers’ wives. It is the nature of the beast. No-one will care for you. All people are bastards. Bestial. It is the nature of the beast. None of this cares for you. Oh my precious, precious sister. Raaarrrrrr!

For some time in my teens you stayed away. When you visited I remember you on edge; aggressive; I was nervous around you; you used strange language around me and shaming memories erupt: you would lean closer to me and say, “How are your periods?” or “Have you got a fat fanny?” or ‘Look at your breasts. Your silly little breasts.’ That might have been funny from kin close in age, but when I was thirteen, you were twenty nine and you shuddered in disgust when you saw me and it mortified me and made me ashamed of my changing body all through my adolescence and I would look at myself and be sick and so it was really only my adventures with Albert Camus and jaunt with Denis the Lusty Blacksmith that made me consider the possibility that I wasn’t some kind of, I don’t know, physical outcast: dirty girl: my sex repelling all those around me: Albert and Denis thought I was hot, hot, hot. Of course, the boys in school thought I was persona non grata: eccentricity, oddity and trying too hard tend to have that effect on people. It had to be me, didn’t it? I would have shrivelled up without the hot blacksmith and my imaginary existentialist. Vive La France. And the nightmares I have had for years about you doing the most terrible things to me? I do not know whether they were true, but I know it took me twenty-five years to be able to name the sexual parts of the body because there laid fear and loathing. For me, it’s hard, because my waking and dreaming and my real and imagined encounters are historically a little blurred, but I definitely do not cry to dream again when I dream of you; instead, I wake and cry not to and I’m a lucky girl now because I reach for the hand of Dixie Delicious and what can you do to me now?

Once, Wales, home in our bisected lives, we went for a walk on the beach. Took a young cousin. He was a lippy sod, but very little and his cheek was funny. But to tell him off, you threw this fully clothed little boy into the freshwater stream running down from shingle to sea. Hard compacted sand. Kid too startled to cry. “That’s what you get” you said. How. Why.

I remember your drinking and crazy dancing and wild unexpected swearing and the sense that our parents gave me, expressed quite calmly and not in the white heat of anger, that they preferred you. Oh yeah: I got kind of used to being under sufferance and with a muddled sense that I was shit and you were shinola. I never felt cross; I just felt sad and dug my nails into the palms of my hands. It was things such as this, I think, that made a place for the self harming to start. I felt a kind of rage and frustration – and also, as I grew, disgust at my own body: emerging breasts and all. I recall being thirteen and accidentally bumping a drawer on the wall of a bedroom in your house: it made a mark. You were incandescent with rage: you and mum called me a selfish little bitch, I ran out into the street, somewhere, anywhere. In darkness I came back to stern silent looks. When we left you said, “Next time don’t bring her – that – with you.” I hadn’t meant to cause harm or damage. “You marked his wall. You marked it. It was you, you, you. And you are marked, too!” Mum and dad just told me again how selfish I was and, well, everyone knew that. I felt kind of desperate and just wanted to know if anyone thought differently: it sounds so pathetic! I said, “But his next door neighbours said I was lovely” and mum barked out a laugh and spat, “That’s because they don’t really know you.” I cried silently for two hundred miles home. Santa Maria threw a carton of orange juice, a ‘Club’ biscuit and a bag of crisps into the back seat at some point. Like a bone to the nasty little dog. They did not turn round.

I feel that there’s a kind of spitefulness in you as there was in my mother. And what, as a child I must have, inchoately, begun to think of as true and eternal simply wasn’t. What you said – about us always being together; about you and me having adventures together; taking on the world – well I thought it was possible. I thought that with your thoughts and words you could make a star dance or melt its heart; really your words were hollow – beating on a raggedy old drum. I just didn’t know it yet or I tried not to know it. And what you seemed to be was just a layer covering up resentments, wounds and imagined slights; misogyny, pornography, the self-denial of a functioning alcoholic; a repressed and angry son. Look at me: I have morphed into a cod psychologist: isn’t that just typical of bucket-baby Annie – ha ha ha? I can’t not be your sister, but if you’re Brother who May as Well be Dead, I hardly expect to look on you again -and I will survive: with my most excellent unshamed bazookas, much beloved of my husband. They’re a double D! I just had them measured up. And say I do see you, expert on pulling the wool, on subterfuge, on being the out in the cold injured one, turning up to caress a hearse or wear a mourning suit with gravitas, well I won’t see you. You don’t exist anymore in my head even while you continue to take from me and snarl at me. I wish you only happiness, no harm. So Brother who Might as Well have been Dead, Mummy/Santa Maria and Daddy Daddy, I’m through, oh I’m through.”

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The Life of Almost,a breathless Killing Hapless Ally and choosing your ending.

I have written a strange little second book. I suspect I will always write strange books. Big ones and little ones. The first, Killing Hapless Ally, was placed with a small press. As such, it is not, naturally, going to fall into so many hands. And yet and yet…I cannot tell you how rewarding it has been to discuss the book with its readers.

I know it is a challenging book; it is busy and breathless and constantly allusive. It is a work of fiction, but this rush through a history, through a mind, was deliberate. Its publisher understood and supported this; loved its density and fragmenting quality: its form was part of the effect, you might say. But to other readers it will be too busy, appear too dense and poorly edited. I took a risk – and my hope with Killing Hapless Ally was always that this was a long game. What I wanted was to write at least a book a year; to establish a catalogue and, gradually, for more and more people to find it.

But back to the discussion with readers. It has been read by people suffering from mental health problems and those who seek to understand what they might look like – as such, I have had many raw and challenging conversations about the book. It has been read by psychologists and academics – very recently, one who feels it will be instructive in their work, in addition to finding it entertaining. It is, after all, a black comedy! But at the moment the thing I really like is that some of my older students are reading it, which has meant that I felt I should mention to parents the book’s graphic content. It does not flinch in its illustration of depression, anxiety, self harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. I am laying myself bare here, aren’t I? But you see, there is a foreword to the book which reads rather like a mission statement. The book is based on episodes in my own life; to my mind it reads like a memoir, rather than a novel (again, this hybrid will irritate some readers because they do not recognise the novel form in it – more on which another day) and, in telling a/my story, I said that if I were not upfront about the mental health problems I have suffered from repeatedly since childhood, then that would be “to do a disservice to those who are yet to recover or find appropriate help.”

Now, back to that second book. The Life of Almost. Who is he and what is he? Is he alive or dead? What is his purpose? Well I like ambiguity and grey areas. If a book promises a twist at the end, you can bet I’ll have guessed it on page three; I’m that sucky person who shouts out the answers not long after it starts, which is why I am bound to silence when watching films  or telly with my husband. Like a kid at panto. “It’s binary and he’s the ghost!” (Interstellar.) “It’s his sister and I bet Moriarty’s helping her!” (Sherlock Holmes). I’m happy to know the ending or not to have things promised to me. Anyway, The Life of Almost has, at present, two different endings. Casuistry. Pick one. “What do you want? What do you expect?”, to quote Owl Eyes in the library in The Great Gatsby. And also, because the book is also a reworking of Dickens’s Great Expectations, the two ending recall what happened with that book, a note of explanation being underneath. I think I can get away with setting text out here. If the book gets commissioned, this bit of the blog post might have to go!

But you know – this is relevant, I promise! –  I am struggling at the moment: depression, sadness, they have the better of me; I wake, frightened, at night; I start at noise: my mind races, thoughts collide and crash and back come the hauntings of early experience. I cannot bear bright light or loud sound; sometimes, I hear sounds when they are not there, a constant auditory disturbance; sometimes music, often quotation. This has always been a feature. No-one’s experience of depression or mental health problems is quite the same. Mine is jangling and mult-coloured; fast fast slow. But I can do this. I CAN. There is no miracle. I rebuild my mind with books and thought and friends.

I have to say that I can choose an ending here because an ending is also a beginning, isn’t it? As Dorothy Rowe would tell you, “Even the worst day does not last forever.”

Casuistry. Which ending, for Seren and Almost, would you rather? The other person in the text is Catherine, who begins the book. And it is Catherine who begins summer 2016 in a state of welling despair. That is why Almost appears, from the sea-coast, off-world, whatever you like (as I said, I like ambiguity) to begin a bitter magic.

Here.

Pick.

‘The two endings, Catherine. Listen and choose. I begin with a poem. For her. Everything is for her.

If I should fall, then say to me the reason clouds form as they are,

Why ice should seed along a scratch, why I should love my six point star.

I do not know or care to see the smiles that fall in brazen line,

But innocence and clearest eye embolden me to make her mine.

I speak of love and quiet worlds, the county town on winter nights:

The sweets of honey bees, a view of ruby sky and amber lights—

A mermaid Terpsichore, sand-snow, auroras made of rosy glow,

My Borealis blood-red sheenif I should fall, then make me know.

When I am not and you are here, beholden to this dusty room,

Be gentle with the tenuous forms of memory; do not grieve too soon.

Consider thiswhy should we be, ephemeral and urgent? How?

And speak to me with confidence, declaim for me on cliff or prow.

In nature’s fragile frame I see a world that lives beyond the hill,

Beyond the log pile, salt and shed; behind our eyes when we lie still.

And when I fall, then say to me you read its language, pure and keen—

And set my records on my desk and light my lamp: make them be seen.

I met her out there. I felt her, thoughts carry: I always knew where she was. I walked beyond St David’s to look at the Blue Lagoon, turned back and walked and walked to Abereidy, then through the bluebell wood, by the mud and stream to the fierce mouth, Abermawr. Skimming stones into the sea, she was. Oh God, aflame. I could hardly stand her beauty. She saw me and walked slowly my way as I cupped a pebble and steadied my thoughts and tried to control my tears.

Seren. Star. Always her. A mermaid I trapped on land and who never forgave me.

She said this: ‘Boy. Always boy.’

I said, “Age does not wither her” though I knew I was lying and I saw I was fresher and new, still.

“Roland is dead. I am…I am different, Almost.”

Oh she wept and howled into and out of a fierce mouth and hurled the rocks across the breakers and I went to her and held her while she told me of her life with him; of the spite that held, the jokes that cracked and broke; resentments, brutal, scorning others just because they had a better boat; a finer cast of house or leg or anything. He hated the world and everyone in it, handsome damned man who had fooled her. I said, ‘I will find him dead and flay him for you, Seren, for you, my love’ and I meant it, brute like daddy, down under the sand in another sea and time. My howl was elemental; perverse. We clung to each other.

He, Roland, touched her wrong; he did not cradle her at night, not understand that her own beautiful scorn was from her pain, sea girl trapped, and if he had, what would it have mattered? He had her to set on his arm and place where he should and that was enough. He used her roughly; cursed her barren; not a mother, nor a soft gentle thing. He cast her out, within her home. I could not stand to hear it all and howled again and she clung and my God I cannot tell you how beautiful she was because it would be like…it would be like trying to beat the heart of a star with a warped broom; like lifting up prayers with dirty hands and biting mouths. That is something like it was.

We walked out through the woods and I gathered bluebells, pressed them upon her in a fever.

“Forgive me, Almost.”

“I already have” I said; I fell on my knees in the stream and mud and the bluebells were crushed with I and her and us together, tremendous.

Her heart was opened then. I saw it.

Afterwards, I took her hand and I knew that there would be no shadow of another parting from her. I thought, also, that one day we might find her garb, as for Derian out at Oystermouth; as for Miss Davies, somewhere in her wild garden, under the fingers of creeping moss and the care of the kind willow. There might, yet, be a way back to the sea. For her and, in growing magic or the charms of the englynion, because poems carry, for me.’

Chapter 17. Or a star dies

‘But then again, is this how it was? Catherine, do you prefer this ending?

I begin, as I often do, with a poem. This one is about endings, when we come to recognise they have arrived, that is.

So,

We climbed the downward spiral of the trail

To best the shedding fingers of the cliff;

I’d promised you, oh love, I could not fail—

I’d prove to you against our childish tiff

That there was treasure to be found that day—

Albescent moons to cradle in your hand—

Sea urchins fine, a little world to say:

Echinocardium, wanting to be grand.

But my world was not yours, you did not care

To hold the little lanterns in your palm—

The hollow globe within the greatest fair,

You did not care if such should come to harm.

So cracked the sea potato on the tide:

I knew, although I smiled, my love had died.

I knew where she was. I felt her. I walked there, out beyond St David’s, the lovely harbour at Abereiddy, turquoise of the Blue Lagoon, then through the bluebell woods to Abermawr. She knew I would find her, of course. Out there, hurling stones across the breakers and howling her pain. She did not stop me taking her in my arms, drawing time-stopping kisses from her. Too late, too late, though, Catherine.

For this is what happened.

Everything I said of Roland was true, but when he died, consumed by his own acid and pride, Seren married a quiet local man. Not rich, but comfortable, like, and they lived in a house looking out across Ramsey Sound. This is the road she had taken, my beautiful mermaid girl. And she had a child, too: how could I claim her now? Oh Catherine, do not laugh: she called the boy ‘Nearly’ and he was her joy. I could see that. How could I claim her now? She seemed old, though she was not, and greatly changed and sad.

What could I do? My heart was broken.

I reached down and picked up an auger shell, she cupped it in her hand with tears in her eyes and then she turned, picking her way across the pebble beach to the bluebell wood and she was gone.

And that is the ending, almost. Which ending did you prefer? Which shall we have? And really, all I want to ask you, Catherine is this: did any of this happen? Was any of it true? And am I really here, June two thousand and sixteen, in your kitchen. Now, what do you think?’

Then I wept, cried until I was dry, not comprehending the world. I felt his fingers brush my arm: electric. Then he was gone, too, and had ended his story.

An explanation of the two endings.

‘Because of the mystery and ambiguity of the book, the uncertainty of its endings, or rather that Catherine should have some choice in how it ends (including, I would say, in what she does about her own sorrow after Almost has passed on elsewhere), seemed fitting to me. But there is another reason. Great Expectations is very important to this book for The Life of Almost is at least a partial reworking of it and that book had its ending changed at the last moment. Edward Bulwer Foster, Dickens’s friend and a fellow novelist, had been keen that Pip and Estella were united at the end of the story. The account goes that Dickens felt his friend argued such a good case that he subsequently agreed to make a change. “I resolved…to make the change…I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.” George Bernard Shaw published an edition of Great Expectations in a limited edition run with his preferred ending: the one Dickens had written first and which he argued was, in fact, “the truly happy ending.” Some have argued that this was a perverse argument, but I prefer the sobriety of the original and find it more fitting for the brooding, disillusioned narrative tone through the book. So,

“I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”

OR, the former, when Pip, walking along Picadilly, is told a lady in a carriage wishes to speak to him: it is Estella:

“…I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.”

But now, if you wouldn’t mind making tea and trimming up some Welshcakes but without a recipe and with one hand only, I shall offer you my last. Do you know that, sometimes, stories have two endings? Of course you do. In old books, sometimes the author wrote an ending that was too sad and his publisher demanded it more palatable; a triumph. Triumph is sometimes untrue, of course, but what would you like? What do you expect and how may I help?

Almost Derian Llewhellin, all time a room in which to roam.’

Anna Vaught, Wiltshire, two thousand and sixteen.

Lost Child to Loved Momma.

 

Anna Vaught

Lost child to loved momma. Parenting for the sick at heart

‘My childhood was not the terrible of which we read in the papers. It was not an imprisonment or a brutal and terrifying thing, so why I am here?’ This is what I said, apologetically, to a skilled, kind psychologist as she helped to put me back together after I had conspicuously failed to function. I stopped apologising, in the end, at her prompting. What I saidit could have been so much worsewas true. But there was no getting away from it: where I had come from had scuppered me and sent me fearfully scurrying from place to place in search of shelter. So to get better, I had to ‘lie down’, as W. B. Yeats had it in ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, ‘where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’. And when I did, wounds began to healbut only after I had confronted things that were frightening and that happened as a commonplace in childhood: the scoff and thump of my brilliant mother; the soft acquiescence then rage of my father; the curses and scorn of a sibling. And I had to do thishad tobecause I was mother of three young ones. And they needed me to be well.

I came from a middle class and well connected family, with both parents paragons of the community, and I had a substantially older brother who was, by turns, angel and devil. When he was devil, I thought it must be me. Within this socially lauded family, there was risible dysfunction, for if you, as a child, are repeatedly told that you were lucky to have been kept at allthat you are an aberration, dreadful, responsible for terrible things and that this is a view held by your entire family and that everyone out there in the chilly old world can see who or what you arethen I am not sure it is easy to rebound and feel at ease. It HAS to be you you you. It cannot be her or them, can it? You are not blameless, but are you that bad?

So, as a young kid, I did this.

I packed it down tightly.

I invented an alter ego (partly to have someone else to confess to; partly to provide a more palatable version of my horrid child-self to provide in company) and gradually began elaborate conversations with imaginary friends from books (and their writers) and songs (and their singers). I had to tell someone, otherwise the anxiety and sadness were so bad that I knew I was going to explode. It sort of worked, but it wasn’t a strategy for a lifetime, or as a mother. And, always, up came the voices from behind the chintz:

Look at you. You should never have been born!’

When I became a mum, the sorrow did not abate and when I look back at all those years of parenting, I well up: I was looking at my babies through a glass darkly and thought I was blight not blessing to these kids. I didn’t feel at ease or safe. It was that horrid internal narrative, you see.

You you you.

If I told you that, at my lowest points, I could barely hear my babies cry without feeling waves of anxiety; if I said I was frightened that I would somehowjust because I was meharm them by dint of being their mother, would that make sense? Self-loathing like this is corrosive and hard to tolerate. I had internalised the notion that I was the bringer of terrible events and no matter how hard I set logic to work, I couldn’t get over it.

But there came a different day.

I remember sitting, paralysed, in the front room. My youngest, then six months old, was there with me; the other two were at primary school. I was frightened, that horrid morning, of everything and thought that I had broken irretrievably. But this is also where life shifted; the paradox of the thing. Now, for the first time, I began to let people in. Friends rallied and advocated for me and I want you to know, if you are looking for help or at sea as I was, that eventually I got the help I needed: partly because of CATcognitive analytic therapydelivered by a hugely skilled psychologist and long-term support, and partly because I let others in. It was life-changing to see what friends did, entrusted with my care and thus that of my three boys, and then to be with this clever, kind lady and God Bless the NHS. We unpicked patterns of thought and found new pathways; gradually, I got rid of the nagging voices (and, in fact, those other voices of which I told you!) in my head and became more dependent on my own voice and judgement. I began to look at my world more clearly and understand that there were some people (especially dead ones!) I could say goodbye to and that I could disentangle myself from past situations by freeing myself from blame for terrible occurrences that had happened to others.

Appropriate therapeutic support meant I could heal and re-build. It meant I could be with my children with less anxiety and shame. And I remember that near the end of my support, I came out of MHRS (Mental Health Rescue Services, but I prefer ‘squad’it’s cooler) and cried a massive cry, up from my toes, like a quake. I was seeing the world from a happy child’s eye: colours were brighter; life was simpler. An epiphany. A breakthrough.

These days, post CAT, are different. It’s imperfect, but I have, in my head, the resources I need. And I know that ultimately, it boils down to this. My kids have seen me sick and well; they know a bit about my own past, but not too much. And when I was really poorly and friends swept in, I knew, despite my distress, and as I wrote above, that this was a turning point. Both in the way my friends were family and in how my kids coped in the midst of crisis and kindness. I wrote about it in my semi-autobiographical book, Killing Hapless Ally. And it went like this:

‘There was no choice but to let the exigencies of motherhood force her to cope. But today, everything was back to front and in the incorrect place; there were two packed lunches in one bag and she was crying and her knees were buckling as she came apart. It is a testament to these children that they went off and out, knowing that they were loved. And knowing you are loved is all, perhaps. Not feeling guilty; dirty; too responsible too soon or with a head full of macabre images and angels howling.

Bye Mum.”

The boys’ eyes were like saucers.’

Knowing you are loved is all. That, I think, cuts to the heart of it. For you and for your children.

Anna Vaught’s debut novel, Killing Hapless Ally, was published by Patrician Press this March. She is currently working on two further novels and a collection of poems. Anna is also a freelance author and blogger, secondary English teacher and tutor, mental health campaigner and advocate and a mother of three boys. www.annavaughtwrites.com or follow her on twitter where she’s @bookwormvaught

Latest review and what I have been reading – particularly from The Wellcome Prize Shortlist

It is early days for Killing Hapless Ally. Which is a strange feeling as I am already working on at least one other book. I am both letting her go and keeping an eye on her, and writing pieces on mental health, anxiety, literature and well-being, young people and mental health and parenting and mental health. You can access any of these through the pages of this blog, linked at top, or read some of them as blog posts here. I notice that even when I write on more frivolous topics – such as in my posts for http://www.selfishmother.com – I am also mindful of the topic of mental health. I have so much more to say here, I think.

Anyway, I liked today’s review of Killing Hapless Ally. It’s nicely written, isn’t it? That ‘So’ had me at hello.Here we are:

So. I suggest you don’t try to approach this as a book to dip into, in the few minutes before sleep for instance. The early chapters are a roller coaster of happenings expressed in dense, layered prose full of wit and horror. They are gripping and challenging at the same time, and the style cleverly reflects the state of the young Alison’s mind as she tries to cope with her family. It almost feels like the literary pizazz and black humour is there to deflect the tale of such cruelty to a child. When we get to the adult Alison’s showdown with her demons, and her work with Drs Hook and Crook, the style becomes calmer as Alison’s voice takes over. This packs even more of a punch when describing the dispatching of the chorus of Hapless Ally, Dead Santa Maria, Brother who Might as Well have been Dead, Vaguely Dead Dad and her other demons. This dispatching is incredibly moving, as is the knowledge that Alison’s voice, spirit and fierce intelligence was not dimmed despite everyone’s best efforts including her own. Highly, highly recommended.’

What am I reading? I am about to write a review of The Loney and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, about which I have conflicting views, but both of which interested me greatly. I thought, for example, that the language of the former was utterly beautiful; its evocation of landscape is something that will stay with me for a long time. I also felt it pulled off the difficult feat of making one laugh at the very time one is unsettled by the prose and full of dread. The latter, I am torn by. I am a huge fan of both Beckett and Joyce and instinctively felt at home here and yet…More to come. On my bedside table at the moment, Playthings by Alex Pheby, which is, I am convinced, entirely brilliant. Again review to come, when I get time. I do want to say, though, that all three of these fascinating titles found their home (at least initially) with small presses. May I remind you of my article on publishing with a small press myself. Here:

A Small Press State of Mind

And what with Alex Pheby’s book by my bed (and some rather ravishing other things to come from Galley Beggar Press) and most of my way through the whole Wellcome prize list, I want to recommend to you Suzanne O’ Sullivan’s It’s All In Your Head: True Stories of Imaginary Illness. She is a neurologist and has a deep interest in and respect for psychosomatic illness, which I should add is not ‘imagined’ as in ‘faked’, but a gamut of really experienced physical symptoms which, it is argued, may have their root in psychological issues. That does not under-value their reality, the pain these things cause or the havoc they wreak in people’s lives.

I felt that O’Sullivan is elucidating in what seems to me a very sensitive way the subtle link between the mind and the body. I can see from some of the negative (some furiously so) reviews on Amazon that many people have taken her to task, accusing her of misunderstanding illness for which, at the end of the day, it is hard or impossible to attribute physical cause, but I also have some personal understanding of this, in that, as someone who received mental health support and who had many years of struggling with anxiety, depression and OCD, I also had a raft of  (physically) unexplained medical problems alongside them: pain, awful fatigue and IBS to name three. Now I am mentally much stronger, because – and it would have been different otherwise: I cannot emphasise this enough – I have been helped to find the tools for health by appropriate MHRS support and I had to choose to engage with that support. And my physical health is very different. When it wavers, as it must do, both my psychological and physical responses are very different.  I would have to posit, therefore, that these things – the pain, IBS and fatigue – were, for me,  quite possibly psychosomatic and rooted in the psychological distress I was experiencing. I do feel uncomfortable stating this, but thus was my experience: pain came from pain; illness came from sadness – a fruit of what, in other times, might have been called hysteria or melancholia. It is this same inference on which some of those Amazon reviewers have taken her to task because they feel it is a misunderstanding of subtle illness.

I know that it is not easy for people and that shifting illness for which there is no attributable cause (which is not the same as saying there isn’t a cause which needs treatment or that the illness is not real to its sufferer or that it isn’t a serious matter) does not receive the compassion it should in the everyday world, so that those who suffer from something which may, by some definitions, be termed psychosomatic, also have to cope with others’ lack of understanding and sympathy. I am afraid it is also thus with mental health disorders and I certainly felt stigmatised within society and even within my own family; people still do – and that’s partly why I wrote my novel. No-one should feel both ill and persecuted and I wanted to punch stigma roundly on the nose. So, I did find much of what O’Sullivan wrote resonated with me – particularly its thornier or more uncomfortable points – because I also knew that I could, at several stages, have accepted further medical and/or psychiatric intervention which, on paper, was not essential. It is for serious illness – mental illness, I mean (and you see I am pains to point out that I am speaking only of myself because mental health problems are complex, diverse and peculiar to the individual) but I was encouraged to see I had the answers and, of course, I had my Dorothy Rowe books beside me. Her line – also not popular with all – is that depression is a prison where you are both prisoner and jailer; ergo, you put yourself in there and you have the key to getting yourself out. Human beings have the most extraordinary resources and we should never forget that.

I will take some weeks to digest the book and I urge you to read it. I hope that the tone of my comments comes across well.

Anna.

 

 

A new piece on anxiety and some suggestions for managing your world….

https://brizzlelass.co.uk/2016/05/12/guest-post-anxiety-where-it-came-from-and-how-i-manage-it/

 

Here is a guest blog piece I wrote for this rather lovely blog (above).

ANXIETY. WHERE IT CAME FROM, WHAT IT DID AND HOW I MANAGE IT

I just wrote a cheerful book about things that suck. In it, I drew on episodes in my own life, early childhood onwards. It was a carnival of anxiety.

I came from a middle class and well connected family, with both parents paragons of the community and I had a substantially older brother who was, by turns, angel and devil. When he was devil, I thought it must be me. Because the thing was that within this socially lauded family, there was risible dysfunction. Don’t laugh: I am aware that there will always be dysfunction to some extent because we humans are inconsistent and not one thing; we are flawed and wanting. So let’s say this is only a question of degree. If you, as a child, are repeatedly told that you were lucky to have been kept at all – that you are an aberration, dreadful, responsible for terrible things and – more to the point – that this is a view held by your entire family and that everyone out there in the chilly old world can see who or what you are, then I am not sure it is easy to rebound and feel at ease. If, to others, your immediate family is praised and if, say, your mother is referred to as if she were a saint by people she worked with, or people that you would meet, sometimes family, sometimes just passers by coming to receive benediction from the blessed lady, then what do you do? It HAS to be you you you. It cannot be her or them, can it? When your sibling repeatedly tells you weren’t wanted and are a burden, the bringer of illness and the harbinger of death, you think that’s about right. And you cannot tell anyone because, on the occasions you tried, you were told, ‘Who would believe YOU? Everyone knows what you are like!’ That is the sort of dysfunction I am thinking of. If they think you’re that appalling, then you must be.

So, as a young kid, I did this.

I packed it down tightly.

I invented an alter ego (partly to have someone else to confess to and partly to provide a more palatable version of my horrid child-self to provide in company) and gradually began elaborate conversations with imaginary friends from books (and their writers) and songs (and their singers), because I had to tell someone otherwise the anxiety and sadness were so bad that I knew I was going to explode.

I kept up the imaginary friends for years; my first was Frida (the brunette one) from Abba. She was cool and complimented me a lot and always told me how pretty I was and that I was really a good kid and that even if I ended up in prison, she would visit me. And I was a reader; a devourer of books. I still am. So I used lines from them as a talisman (which went awry at several points when such lines became incorporated into elaborate and frightening OCD ritual) or as a place to find people to have conversations with, which is how, as I got older, I came to speak to Keats and Yeats and Dickens and Dante and Charlotte Bronte and Albert Camus. Despite these early strategies, however, I needed, in the end, to know others – other ways to cope – because life as an adult was awash with shame for me and could not be corralled just by speaking to Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden. My mother had been ill most of my life and died when I was twenty. I thought that I had contributed to her illness and was told that I had ushered in her early death; one of her closest friends told me I had begun the ushering with my very birth. My father (who went not long before her) had been fit and strong all his life and was diagnosed with serious illness, all too late. He refused most treatment, as far as I could ascertain, and in his final year he entered a startling decrepitude, shuffling around the house and refusing to speak to me. His last words were ‘You have let me down’ and when I went to see him, toes up and surrounded by the lilies he had loathed in life, my thoughts were confused, jarring, terrifying: I thought I had killed him. I had nightmares about it for years, lilies and all. Also, a childhood friend that I had used to play with when we were in reception class died around the same time as my father and my mind was in such a maelstrom by this point that I thought I might be implicated – things I had done aged five, when rough and tumbling. It didn’t matter how little logical sense this made, to me I was scared that this bad little girl had hurt a good little girl and fourteen years later had caused her death. I think I lived on my nerves constantly by this point. I was leaving university; both parents had now died; I felt ill, scared and confused, but thought that I had deserved it all and out I went into the adult world and made a fist of it. In the adult world, I had to keep up the cheery voices because inside my head were the cackling voices of my late parents and their assumed entourage.

‘Look at you. You should never have been born!’

What gave? I established a teaching career, did some pretty adventurous travelling and some satisfying volunteer work, but it would all come crashing down periodically and the self-harming of childhood took up: what gave? I did. Twice in my teens I had tried to take my own life; periodically in my twenties and early thirties things would come crashing down and I was given various courses of anti-depressant as my anxiety was linked to low mood and some more serious periods of depression. I had disabling and regular panic attacks, frequent insomnia and horrible nightmares, where I would wake up shaking and crying. The same recurrent dreams and their pointing, screeching, accusatory phantoms. I was offered CBT and, for me, it didn’t touch the sides; then, when I was ill after my first baby I was sent for psychotherapy, which achieved very little and when I had my third child, my whole world came crashing down and I was temporarily unable to function at all.

I remember sitting, paralysed, in the front room. I was frightened of everything and thought that I had broken irretrievably. Even looking at my shoes or bag made me anxious. But this is where things shifted. Now, for the first time, I began to let people in. I told more people of how I was feeling. Friends rallied and advocated for me and, dear reader, after thirty odd years I got the help I needed partly because of them. CAT – cognitive analytic therapy – delivered by a hugely skilled psychologist and long-term support. It was life-changing to be with this clever, kind lady. We unpicked patterns of thought and found new pathways; I did homework and wrote letters; she wrote to me and I wrote back. Very gradually, I got rid of the nagging voices in my head and became more sure and more dependent on my own voice and my own judgement, because it was as if I were a sort of composite person, arranged of other people’s motley opinions and condemnations. I gradually looked at the whole picture; at how I couldn’t have caused the things that I thought I had: it was as if someone had finally given me permission to let go. I began to look at my world more clearly and understand that there were some people (especially dead ones!) I could say goodbye to and that I could disentangle myself from past situations by freeing myself from blame for terrible things that had happened to others. I think that I had been incapacitated by shame and fear for so long and these things were at the heart of the anxiety I felt: I was perpetually at the point of annihilation, if that makes sense. I had always wanted to explore faith properly. I would try to pray. But I thought I was beyond redemption. Appropriate support meant I could begin to do this. I do believe that in therapy we could do well to explore our attitudes to faith (or not) and to end of life and what comes next. We all think about it. But that is a story for another day (although the Dorothy Rowe book I mention below tackles this).

I wasn’t totally fixed at the end of this year of CAT but now, these days, I am very different. To celebrate this and, I suppose, acknowledge the bedding down of new ideas, I based my novel, Killing Hapless Ally, on my experiences. It got picked up by a publisher and, while, it’s billed as literary fiction, I hope that there is much in it to guide and give hope to those suffering from severe anxiety, or other mental health problems. If you read the book, I should love to know what you think. But in the meantime, for what it’s worth, here are my coping strategies. I’d say for anxiety, but we need to remember that anxiety, in mental health terms or in terms of mental illness, may be a complex thing and bound up with a myriad mental health disorders – so it is not a case of one size fits all here. So much rubbish is peddled about mental health; there is so much sloppy vocabulary around it. Please accept what follows only as a list of what helped me and of what I have to remind myself pretty frequently. So…

1. Accept that just because you feel something does not mean it is real. Sounds simple, but having that expressed to me, in therapy (or by my favourite psychologist writer, Dorothy Rowe, in Depression. The Way out of your prison) was revelatory and revolutionary. Unpick a situation. Tweak it. Look at in a different way. When I tell you that at one point I fell from my chair with relief and that at another I thought I could see colours as brighter and truer…well, I know that sounds excessive or hallucinatory, but to me it was as if I had entered a new world. One in which I could be at ease and which I didn’t experience only through a glass darkly.

2. Be kind to yourself. No-one has ever treated me as unkindly as I have treated myself and I would never judge anyone as harshly as I do myself. Nope. That doesn’t work, so practise getting rid of it.

3. Be aware of your triggers, but laugh at them, reason with them and don’t run away. Face them down because, in my experience, anxiety amplifies if you don’t look it in the face. Know that you CAN do this.

4. Bad day? Overwhelmed by conflict and to do lists and things you’ve screwed up? I think ‘tomorrow is another day’ sounds trite and twee, so I say ‘Keep it in the day’ otherwise you shift today’s concerns and start tomorrow burdened.

5. Think, the past is a different country and that tomorrow is up ahead, where you cannot be or live. Focus, therefore, on the present, the hour, the minute, In other words, mindfulness.

6. Frankly, don’t give up on finding the appropriate MHRA help for you. If your GP is not understanding, ask to see a different GP. If questioning your treatment feels too daunting to you, ask someone to come with you, if you can.

7. Decent food; fresh air; self care. Reading to refresh and renew and help you see and entertain new ways of doing things; of building or re-building your mind. I do not say this lightly. I would not have survived without my books. And relax. If the pace of modern life and tirade of information and stimulation through social media make you feel overloaded, then give yourself permission to take a break. Pressing the ‘off ‘ button does not make you a total Luddite or a social outcast. (But see below*)

8. Friendship or familial relationships. Keep at it. BUT I have had to learn to be ruthless, though. If someone puts you down constantly or if they are workaday cruel to you, ditch them. I hope that doesn’t sound too harsh. And maybe remember something I have learned: family is a flexible construct – both internally in terms of roles and externally in that friendships may provide you with a warmth or love you never had in your family. Also *know that there is a great deal of support out there on social media; I find twitter a source of such – for example, through @mhchat every Wednesday night

9. Focus on others. Look at what they need. I have found that if I am taken out of myself because I am absorbed by the needs of others, then I can help them and, as a side effect, it is healthful for me, too.

10. Accept yourself. Compare and despair. No-one else can be you; don’t try to be someone else. Also, accept difficulty as normal. Failure is part of life. In a way, when we continually ramp up expectations, we raise the stakes and find ourselves feeling anxious and got at. I am not saying that I don’t look forward to things. Just that, for me, I find I am regularly delighted because I have let go of such weighty expectations.

I cannot promise you this is easy and I am realistic that MH treatment varies around the country; to say ‘help is out there’ is trite and all too glib. But, as I have learned, all the answers, for me, really lay, after all, within myself. These days I experience anxiety, but it is not the terrifying, all-encompassing thing it was for a long time. I teach; I write; I do volunteer work; I am raising three young sons and I have had over thirty years of depressive episodes, self harming, OCD, Generalised anxiety disorder and two suicide attempts.

But things are different now. I am well and I am happy and so I am sending you love and encouragement as I type this and I am crying a little bit now because I have just realised that I have never written the words ‘I am happy’ before.

Anna xxx

http://www.annavaughtwrites.com Follow on twitter /bookwormvaught

Killing Hapless Ally is published by Patrician Press (2016) and available to order from bookshops, on Amazon and Waterstones online and from http://www.patricianpress.com Latest review here: https://thecontemporarysmallpress.com/2016/05/04/darkly-funny-and-courageous-killing-hapless-ally/

For help with anxiety or other problems: Mind, Saneline and The Samaritans have all helped me. For young people Healthy Minds is a great resource and @respectyourself is of great encouragement on twitter. Also there, @MHChat is for everyone, every Wednesday night; it is used by a diverse group of people. My favourite book about mental health: Depression. The Way Out Of Your Prison by Dorothy Rowe (Routledge, 2003). And, by the way, that’s Albert Camus in the picture. He was there, in my head, all the way through. x

 

 

 

Darkly Funny and Courageous: Killing Hapless Ally

This bold, unique novel is a first-rate example of the innovative and original approach exemplifying the contemporary small press scene.

Source: Darkly Funny and Courageous: Killing Hapless Ally

Talking to your children about mental health; helping your children cope with your mental health problems

 

TALKING TO YOUR CHILDREN ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH; HELPING YOUR CHILDREN COPE WITH YOUR MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS.

This text contains some frank descriptions, a swear word and a hint of humour in unsettling places.

Here is an extract from my new novel, Killing Hapless Ally. And in it, I drew very much on my own experience of managing my mental health problems as a mother. In this bit, there are three sons to be cared for and this is how it went when I was once quite unwell and my husband and I struggled to manage until — because for the first time in my life I really opened up — a community of friends swept in. It was this — the honesty of it all, I think — that was a key element in my getting better. Here, in the novel, when the protagonist struggles to hold herself up and doesn’t entirely know what day it is, are three young men, seasoned by fire and the determination of their parents’ love.

‘There was no choice but to let the exigencies of motherhood force Alison to cope. But today, everything was back to front and the wrong colours; clothes were in the incorrect place; there were two packed lunches in one bag and she was crying and her knees were buckling as she came apart. It is a testament to these children that they went off and out, knowing that they were loved. And knowing you are loved is all, perhaps. Not feeling guilty; dirty; too responsible too soon, or with a head full of macabre images and angels howling.

“Bye Mum.”

The boys’ eyes were like saucers.’

The ‘boys’ here recall what I remember, just a few years back, of seeing my two boys go out into the world, with their mother very distressed at home (the third was six months old and so I partly fictionalised the text because he was pre-verbal!). Like anyone who has had mental health problems, I have worried about how seeing their mother so upset and so poorly has affected the boys. But I want to say something about this. It’s not that knowing — and seeing — I am being frank; my boys have seen some pretty raw things — a parent at rock bottom is exactly ideal, but you see they have watched me get better, too. They have a sense, they tell me, that I am strong because they have seen me battle and seen me get better. Of the two, it’s the battle they respect the most, apparently. On Mother’s Day this year my eldest, who is nearly fifteen, made me a home-made card listing the reasons I was ‘Greatest Mum in the World’, and he noted that I always ‘took on’ illness and the problems I had had and that he thought this was amazing. No cupcakes; spendy holidays; kit. Just, ‘Mum. You are amazing. You have had all these problems and you have never given up.’ If you are a mum, reading this, worrying, let it be known that I am giving you a HUGE virtual hug RIGHT NOW. And also commenting that sometimes I feel I learn more from my kids than they do from me. Ever feel that way?

We have given the boys information so that they are informed without being over-burdened with facts, answered questions and told them things about mental health and about how and why (insofar as we know) things can go wrong. Certainly, the older two, who are at secondary now, will learn a bit about moods and feelings and where to ask for help in PSHE, but (as well as being their mum and an author I have always worked with secondary age students and also been a PSHE teacher) mental health is still not addressed fully, I would say, in the national curriculum. In our daily lives, it still attracts some pretty horrid vocabulary and whispered voices. Sometimes — I think of ‘Daily Mail’ headlines and the careless lexis of all kinds of people (including teachers) about ‘psychos’, ‘nutters’ and, most recently, ‘going schiz’ to describe a child’s misbehaviour in class, all of which infuriate me — and I wonder if there is still a hefty element of wishing the crazy people ’round the bend’. That screened place, which, in years gone by, was eclipsed from view after the straight drive swept off in its bend to the psychiatric hospital. And by the way, I am not suggesting that we should be, forever, sharing and emoting left, right and centre; emotional continence and discipline have their place; on the other hand, by demonising ‘bad’ emotions we teach nothing of any real value to our offspring. And when people – or when we – need help and support because things have gone wrong with our minds, moods and emotions, we need to be able to have open dialogue about it just as we might about our physical health; I know that we can create a context for that as we speak to our children.

As parents we have a responsibility to talk to children so that they are not frightened if they know someone — and I want to say that one in four people will have a mental health problem — who is experiencing difficulty and so that they are properly compassionate to others and to themselves. I would want my boys to see the reality of who people who have mental health problems or mental illness actually are: they are us; they are you; they are me. Shame and stigma are destructive and while they obfuscate, they cause more problems and more misunderstanding and, perhaps, cause people not to seek the help they need. Because there isn’t really a they; there’s only an us.

Let me tell you what happened to me.

When I was a child, I knew that, in sections of my large family, things had gone awry. Strange things happened and I had glimpsed into them and listened in, furtively, on private, grown-up conversations. I was forever thinking about some terrible things that might be happening behind the silent screens, behind the whispers, but being entirely kept in the dark about them made them more terrible for me, because my imagination and limited knowledge built them into things of gargantuan proportions. For example, I had an aunt who hadn’t got out of bed for some years and her condition was referred to as overwork, yet I caught snatches of conversation about ‘nervous breakdowns’ and heard one of the neighbours say she was a ‘mental case’; sometimes I heard screaming and then recalled it in nightmares; I knew that at least two of my cousins had disappeared and was hastily told they had brain tumours (I know — a strange things to be saying to a young kid; but you see this must have been considered a better explanation than the real trauma); again, earwigging, I came to understand that they had taken their own lives, and sort of wondered where they had put them. It was my family’s epic-fail mythology, on both sides, but particularly in my late father’s, that all was well and that you didn’t tell for shame. A mythology that the sadness wasn’t, anyway, palpable. Because, of course, it was. As a child I sucked it up and felt sick; it was there on the table with bangers and mash when no-one spoke but sat, as Auden had it, ‘in a place beyond glum.’

No-one spoke about what was going on; I had to over-hear the accounts of wife-beating, of a gold-digger marrying the terminally ill aunt who was the person I loved most in the world; of why another aunt had to be sedated for the vast journey across Somerset; of why the aunt who didn’t get out of bed occasionally threw furniture at visitors. Even as a young kid, I knew she must have been so distressed because I was left in the car outside willing myself to think of something else. ‘Bang!’ That’ll be the bedside table. I was told to shut up when I asked. Because everyone was so dead keen on stifling things, it almost killed me when my father cried at said married-to-a-gold-digger aunt’s funeral. And he was furious with me that I had seen it and belted me for it because his shame was so great. I am aware that my family was dysfunctional, but because they were such pillars of the community — and had apparently joined the middle classes now — there was no-one to tell because, as I wrote in my novel, ‘Who would believe you?’ Ah, keeping up appearances does a lot of damage, does it not?

I could also witness, within my own home, familial mood swings that, to me, were terrifying and I do believe that the secrecy and lack of articulation made me into a frightened child and probably adult, too. Because my family (albeit ineptly) covered it up, it felt worse; moreover I was always taught that moods, and PMT and adolescence and passion and crying apart from alone were signs of the most hideous weakness; at least two of my cousins suffered from eating disorders: no-one called them that; despite the fact that they appeared to be wasting away and there was one cousin whose scratches from self-harming I could clearly see. I feel and see this all so clearly now and I know that I desperately wanted to talk to someone about it all.  When you become a parent, maybe you feel more acutely for your child self? And this child self needed to be told that she was okay and coping and she wishes that there had been someone to say, ‘It isn’t you, kid’ or ‘Mental health problems and mental illness are not weakness’ or ‘Your family’s suppression of anything that looks shameful is actually the unhealthy part and totally sucks because the problems are so clearly there.’ And I needed that talk about it because also, as a small child, I began to develop problems myself, in my topsy-turvy, back-to-front world.

My black comedy, sort of bildungsroman of a novel explores the ways in which a child develops problems of some dimensions, has not a soul to tell, is traumatised by many key events in her childhood and is very fearful and full of self-loathing; she scratches and pounds upon herself and uses her imagination to populate a world which, to her, makes no sense. This kid also develops an alter ego who turns nasty. What can I say? I was a funny little girl, but I survived with my unorthodox means. Unfortunately, I also had years of mental health problems — OCD, panic attacks, generalised anxiety disorder, self-harming, extremely poor coping skills in the face of stress, periods of depression — and I thought that I was a ghastly person who had brought terrible things upon her family and, possibly, on others too; an individual whose presence was always deleterious to those around her.  I believe that, at the heart of depression (I am with the Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe on this one),there is a sense one is a bad person, a wicked person; this, unsurprisingly, colours all events that happen to one, making a person feel responsible for things they were not, finding pattens of failure and let-downs and things they can’t do and shouldn’t have entertained. That was me and it took me a long time and many false starts to get better; it was a combination of culling a few people, dead and alive, I am afraid (you’ll have to read the book!), surrounding myself with a good community of friends and getting the appropriate therapeutic support after other systems didn’t work. It was CAT (cognitive analytic therapy) delivered with stupendous skill and compassion that did it and when this worked I want to tell you that things were a different colour and that I fell on the floor, cataleptic with relief. THAT is what skilled support delivered for me and my heart bleeds to think that others cannot access it because they do not have a supportive GP, because they feel they cannot advocate for themselves, because funding is such that the help is sparse — which is the reality in the UK — or because they have always harboured a sense of shame (thus cannot tell anyone) or never received any useful knowledge or information and find themselves stymied by fear: what is happening?  Had I been able to ask and tell as a child, would things have been different? I think it likely, although I am no health professional, that they would.

Let me return to that quotation from the beginning of this article.

‘It is a testament to these children that they went off and out, knowing that they were loved. And knowing you are loved is all, perhaps. Not feeling guilty; dirty; too responsible too soon, or with a head full of macabre images and angels howling.’

If children feel loved and if they have some knowledge, but not too much, of what is happening, I think the situation is more manageable for them. I would say that we need to speak frankly and answer all questions — and find out some answers when we don’t — because mental health is still not given the focus it needs. I should like to think that things are changing gradually. Recent books and the excellent work of mental health campaigners and advocates, many of whom are prolific on twitter, and groups with a good presence on social media, such as ‘Respect Yourself’ and ‘Young Minds’ are resources for younger people in distress themselves or trying to cope with that of a parent. Mind and Saneline are terrific and I think Matt Haig’s recent book, Reasons to Stay Alive was a sensible and gentle resource which will, in its way, and for a broad age demographic, help to comfort and de-stigmatise; I am a huge fan of everything that Dorothy Rowe (see above) ever writes and I think that Juno Dawson’s recent book Mind Your Head is an excellent guide to mental health for young people. And there’s us — the parents, many of whom, like me, will have suffered or be suffering from mental health problems or perhaps a thoroughly debilitating mental illness.

Something I do is to make sure — and I will always do this for as long as I can — that I give top priority to those people who have given my children a sense of safety and fun and in whom they can trust; for me, this has also meant those who knew how hard things had been for me sometimes and who didn’t walk away. I have been very careful to ensure the children can go and talk to some of my friends because, as I like to say, family is a flexible construct and sometimes, as I have learned over and over, family cripples you if it can’t look something scary in the face or if its sense of shame is so heavy as to weigh down your very soul and the world you walk through. And sometimes family fucks off in a crisis because it doesn’t like unpleasantness. So I’ve been practical and I hope our boys feel they have a loving community around them and that a shorthand exists because these friends don’t judge and know that people are people and that we can talk and break through problems with open arms and through open conversations. And, yes, that it’s an us.

The open conversation and the consoling warmth of an extended hand: they would be good for everyone, wouldn’t they?

Please feel free to comment on what you have read. x

A Film I made for AXA PPP and Healthizmo

 

Watch my little film by clicking on that nice green W.

I made this short film a few weeks ago. It is difficult for me to watch, but I would love to know if what I said – which is entirely me, not scripted – helped you or made you feel comforted. Maybe that you could get better; not feel your days and memories are compromised or scuppered. What I describe in the film is only a little of my experience – but it was important to deliver insight and practical notion here. I hope I have done that.

Anna x

Today’s new review of Killing Hapless Ally

 

Format: Kindle Edition

A new review showing on Amazon this morning.
There are so many things that I like about ‘Killing Hapless Ally’; here are just a few of them:

i The supreme confidence and natural flow of the writing. It was so good to be able to relax almost straightaway and know that I was in the hands of an exceptional writer, who wasn’t going to irritate or pull me up short with sloppy workmanship.

ii The humour, which as the author clearly knows, helps make the parallel tragedy even more palatable and poignant.

iii The intelligence – this is a constant, and very welcome, presence throughout the narrative.

iv Quirkiness: I like this not only because it’s hugely refreshing but also because it feels so spontaneous.

v Subject matter: Whilst an individual’s breakdown is so damaging in its own way, I was most definitely with Alison in her car by the White Horse. Vaught describes the cacophony of the disintegration of the mind superbly.

vi The bravery of the writing: Vaught manages to convey the subject of overwhelming, constant fear with such paradoxical fearlessness.

Launch tomorrow and something for book groups!

So tomorrow is the launch of Killing Hapless Ally and it occurred to me that, since we haven’t published book group questions and starting points at the back of the book, I’d do some here. You know, in case, wherever you are in the world, you belong to a book group and would like to tackle the book  (as I know a couple of book groups local to me are already planning to do) – maybe with a few ideas to get you going?

Who is Alison and who is Hapless Ally? Are the same person or two separate people?

Would you describe Hapless Ally as real?

What is your opinion of Santa Maria?

Who is the most horrible person in the book and to whom do you warm most?

Did you guess the ending?

What’s the significance of the book’s title? Is it simple and straightforward, or something more complex and nuanced?

Did you like the names for people and places in the book?

Did you take offence to any of the descriptions – for example, of the f…… caravan, the funerals, dying?

There are many literary references shot through the narrative. Some are obvious and documented explicitly in the text (and thus you will see them on the acknowledgements page) but some are harder to spot. So get spotting!

Did you feel that you learned more about mental health from the book?

Did you think that the book gives us insights into therapeutic practice and the sort of help available (although I feel I must add, not routinely available) through our National Health Service in the UK?

Did the book help you? By which I mean, did it make you feel better about your own problems or state of mind? Did it give you a nudge to tackle things that are holding you back and making you unhappy?

Was the book shocking? If so, why?

Is it a happy ending? Is it over – in a good way?

Who was your favourite imaginary friend – and why? Dolly, Shirley, Albert, JK….

Did you feel sympathy for Santa Maria? For Dad? For Brother who Might as well be Dead? For Terry?

What do you think of Dixie Delicious?

What makes you laugh in the book? Is it the pickled egg murder/horrible deaths/caravan of evil/revenge on the tutus…?

What does the book show us about the power of literature and, more broadly, of the written word? What of the spoken – the “curses ringing”?

Why do you think there’s a shift in narrative from first to third person between the prologue and chapter one? Do you think it’s successful?

What’s the significance of the foreword to the rest of the book?

Is Alison strong, or is she weak?

Did all this really happen? Do you believe it did? Why?