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

 

 

 

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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

Here’s the cover of Killing Hapless Ally

cover of killing helpless ally

So here’s the cover, with some nice words, at back, from Martha Roberts (author and journalist) and Alex Campbell (YA author of Land and Cloud 9). At the moment, media interest is building momentum prior to the launch. Fingers crossed for pitches up and coming…

While it’s a work of fiction, the experiences Killing Hapless Ally describes are very much based upon my own – the extraordinary measures a child went to to stay afloat, and how she maintained them in her adulthood: varied gallery of imaginary friends, alter ego (who turned nasty) and all. So while I hope the book entertains and makes you laugh, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope readers might reflect on what mental health is, what we think mental illness is (clue: there are many different types of it), how problems can develop very early in a child who learns to compensate quite flamboyantly, but who feels under a great deal of stress, and possibly how – even within someone who is otherwise healthy – there may be a great lability of mood; a rather too quick shift  from normalcy to near despair and back again. I loathe, however, any text that insists you dissociate yourself from negative thought, because feelings of melancholy, sadness and even despair may be benchmarks of an emotionally healthy person able to run the gamut of all human feeling.To run away from those things is to live fearfully. I already know that some people may be horrified at my literary evocation of self harming, suicide, therapy, funerals and maleficent dead relatives, but these things I stared in the face – and my protagonist stared in the face – and found that feet were still on the ground and eyes were to the stars.

It’s interesting. As I was bemoaning on twitter earlier, a couple of folk have said, for all the best reasons, that they’ll be glad to buy the book – it’s important to support ‘people like you’. By which they mean, I think, that as kind and civilised members of our society we have to support those members referred to – in a tongue in cheek way in my book – as ‘those who can’t’. But there is another narrative tumbling along in the book, you see: it comes first from the mouth of Helen, Alison’s (the protagonist’s) godmother who is dying in a house on Cyclamen Terrace on Tyneside, to the tune of Countdown jacked up to full volume downstairs and stifling plug-in air fresheners. (Actually, this was a formative experience for me, I must admit – for Helen is based on my own godmother and the situation not dissimilar). But as I was saying, Helen looks at little Alison with fire in her eye and she says, ‘You will be the girl who did.’ She understood and she was right. People go through tremendous difficulty, but that does not mean they don’t have an intellectual life, raise a family, run a business, maintain friendships or hold down a job. I want to say that – albeit by the skin of my teeth sometimes – I have managed to do these things, never more so than when I finally accessed the care and support that, for me, was life changing and enabled me to effect permanent change. Having difficulty or illness does not make a person lesser or someone for whom we should give the sort of sympathy that also manages to demean them and suggest that they are not autonomous.

Hey look: I’ve had about thirty five years of mental health problems, but I’ve written three books, taught many hundreds of secondary age pupils, am raising three boys, feed three cats, rescued many chickens, been to two universities, travelled the world, married a bloke who stopped me on the street and asked for directions. Yeah, I know. People with MH problems do those things too. I’ve been off and on meds, received hospital support and spent a lot of time with my GP and MHRS: sometimes I broke. Then I couldn’t do any of the things I describe. I stared into a hole in the middle distance and everything was through a glass darkly and hope was a broken, jagged thing.

So how about this: say that the person who, after many years of anxiety, depression, breakdowns, self harming and OCD, kept rebounding and, eventually and moreorless, got better, well that would be some marathon, wouldn’t it? Say that the person didn’t, but kept battling. Is that not impressive? It isn’t the work of a weakling – as some may see it. It isn’t the work of a sub-species; a sort of collusion of ‘people like yous’. It’s the determination of an individual to survive and thrive. And my battle has been but a skirmish compared with what others have to combat.

But back to the book. Read it for a laugh, for company, to be startled; root for Alison; be horrified at The Hill and what happens to Muffled Mfanwy; wince at siblings like Jaggers in his vile horsehair-stuffed chair and never look at a pickled egg again! And if the book does just one tiny thing to diminish stigma around mental health problems, I’ll be so happy.  And maybe no-one will come up to me and say they are glad to support ‘people like you’ – because I am you, and you are me and I am glad we met.

 

 

 

Alas, no – I cannot offer you Albert, but look within the book and you will find him: a vital presence – and with a motley crew alongside him.

Killing Hapless Ally will be with you on March the third! This novel will be published with Patrician Press and you can order it through any bookshop or buy online at Amazon, GB Books, Waterstones and so on. I will be talking about the book and doing signed copies at its launch at Mr B’s Bookshop on March the third. Meanwhile, I have been in ‘At Home’ magazine talking about friendship and its ebbs and flows(viz a viz Killing Hapless Ally),  I am looking forward to my first poetry publication with The Emma Press next year, I am completing a pamphlet and working on The Next One.

As you see below, the award-winning mental health journalist, Martha Roberts, has written in praise of Killing Hapless Ally and  I hope that when the book comes out, readers will enjoy its rattling tale as well as find comfort in its pages. It is a work of fiction, but, as I write in the foreword, very much based on experiences in my own life. There is still so much stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness – neither of the terms is ideal – but I have tried to tackle it head on in the book as I saw it and as I experienced it.

So here’s the back cover of the book.

Killing Hapless Ally is a tale of an individual grappling for sanity and identity; a black comedy in which we discover how Alison, its curious protagonist, conceived in childhood an alter ego called ‘Hapless Ally’ in order to present a different, more palatable version of herself to her family and to the world beyond. Ominously, the alter ego began to develop autonomy. You learn how Alison had to deal with that: she had a lot of help from a varied catalogue of imaginary friends! The book is about serious matters: fear, confusion, dark days of depression and breakdowns. It carries with it a timely message to anyone poleaxed by depression and associated problems – or any reader interested in the windings of such things. You can, like Alison, survive and prevail. Ah, but how would you do it? If you had to – to survive – would you kill for it? Now that is an interesting question.

‘Anna’s story of Killing Hapless Ally is a heart-rending book that covers the subject of depression in a brilliantly funny way – no mean feat. With every chapter I found myself willing Alison to thrive and prosper as the feisty and incisive survivor that she is. Go, Alison!’
Martha Roberts, author, columnist for Psychologies magazine and award-winning mental health journalist.

 

 

Cover illustration: © Charlie JohnsonkillinghaplessallycoverISBN 978-0-9932388-4-0]

A Review of Dear Stranger (Penguin/Mind, 2015.)

 A short review of Dear Stranger (Penguin/Mind, 2015)

This is a marvellous collection of letters to imaginary people (or not). I think it is a book to keep at hand, for encouragement and,  if you are laid low, there is much consolation in this book. I would like to write about all the letters, but, constrained by time, I have just picked a few of my favourites. Please forgive the odd bit of wandering slightly off topic: on mental health I have much to say for much have I been through!

So, I have taken the following text from Penguin’s own website, which you can find at http://www.penguin.co.uk/books/dear-stranger/9781405922128/

Dear Stranger is a collection of inspirational, honest and heartfelt letters from authors, bloggers and Mind ambassadors to an imagined stranger. Insightful and uplifting, Dear Stranger is a humbling glimpse into different interpretations of happiness, and how despite sometimes seeming unobtainable happiness can, in the smallest of ways, become and achievable goal.

No one should face a mental health problem alone. Whether it’s on a doorstep, on the end of a telephone or online, Mind is there for everyone who is experiencing a mental health problem.

All profits from the sale of this book (at least £3 for every copy sold) will be donated to Mind, a registered charity number 219830.

****

‘Dear Stranger is an inspiration’
Stylist

‘An inspirational book’
Sunday Express S Magazine

‘This collection cuts right to the heart of what it means to be happy – and human. . . . Dear Stranger is a thoughtful exploration of happiness, in all its wonderful, often elusive complexity, that all of us can learn something from’
Red Magazine Online

‘An incredibly thought-provoking read’
Sun

‘Beautifully written letters from the heart’
Lady Magazine

Full list of contributors: Fiona Phillips; Martha Roberts; Francesca Martinez; Rachel Joyce; Donal Ryan; Matt Haig; Philippa Rice; Naomi Alderman; Yuval Noah Harari; Ilona Burton; Rowan Coleman; Ellen White; Abbie Ross; Giles Andreae; Conn Iggulden; Seaneen Molloy-Vaughan; Genevieve Taylor; Thomas Harding; Jez Alborough; Caitlin Moran; Blake Morrison; Nicci French; Jo Elworthy; John Lewis-Stempel; Chris Riddell; Tessa Watt; Helen Dunmore; Alain de Botton; Deborah Levy; Kevin Bridges; Marian Keyes; Nicholas Allan; Nick Harkaway; Edward Stourton; Eoin Colfer; Shirley Hughes; Santham Sanghera; Alexandra Fuller; Daniel Levitin; Claire Greaves; Arianna Huffington; Richard Branson; Molly Pearce; Nicholas Pinnock; Tim Smit; Tony Parsons; Dave Chawner; @Sectioned__; Professor Lord Richard Layard;

Now THIS bit is mine.

I found out about this book through some of the people I follow on twitter, particularly Mind and the excellent journalist, Martha Roberts, who also maintains a website http://www.mentalhealthwise.com – a deeply compassionate and compendious source of information, encouragement and solace. I had, in my many periods of illness, found Mind a support. I liked the breadth of contributors to the anthology and relished the notion that this was a book I could keep near me for emergencies, or just feeling flat – or for those times when I have given an unsettling or disturbing feeling, say, ninety seconds to run its physiological course – and it’s still there. Finally, I was editing my debut novel, a synopsis of which you can find at the top of this site: it’s billed as fiction, but oh my, I have drawn heavily on my own experiences and adventures in mental health. I  knew that, to be well-informed in the subject area of my book – and to be able to talk about it – I needed to keep abreast of titles which looked at mental health or mental illness.

So, Matt Haig writes in his letter, ‘Dear twenty-four-year-old me’, that depression draws a line – between what you were before and what you are now; that,

‘It separates lives into eras. It gives you a BC and an AD of your own life.’

I have found this to be true, but also that I have had many eras, since I have been falling into (Matt Haig’s word, here) ravines since childhood. I can summon up that feeling now, of being a kid – a dark and visceral experience: it was a big lump of sadness and I don’t remember being without it, although I do remember times, from late childhood and early adolescence when the sadness altered everything and I felt separate from my contemporaries. There wasn’t anyone I could tell. I don’t say that to sound self-indulgent or tragic; I am being factual. There is a reason that the central character in my debut novel has many imaginary friends into whom the protagonist of the story breathes life.

This is, at first, rather a digression, but his letter prompted me to think about being younger and feeling alone; in the BC period.  Well I know  – because the eldest of my three boys is fourteen and  because I teach teenagers – that parents worry about their offsprings’ access to social media – the films they may see or make on YouTube, what goes on Tumblr and so on. There are, most definitely, some troubling things out there – perhaps most of all the ‘pro’ communities: pro self-harming, mental illness, pro-Ana (anorexia) – and if you looked about you would find a lot of younger people writing about being in such online communities and also about getting away from them. But this is not my main point. As a kid and a teenager, when I was at school, then university, I either didn’t have anyone to tell or, later on, didn’t know who to tell. But those who are alone or FEEL alone, may find lively interchange and friendship through social media. There are twitter groups who hold open MH chats for younger people. Take a look at the tweets of one of my favourites,@Nursewithglasses for information about things; @YoungMindsUK is great for threads to follow and  – whatever your age – @MHChat has a session – which is like a wonderful conversation – on Wednesday night at eight. When I’m thinking, ‘Uh-oh. BC/AD’ that is where I head.

I am looking at twitter now and can see that some younger mental illness sufferers are tweeting from hospital. Some of these people contributed to the book. Ok: now I am crying. I am also writing back to them, sending a DM or tweet saying, ‘Hello – I am thinking of you. I am sending a hug.’ It isn’t my place to say anything else but you see, I was there. I lay down on the floor to die twice – once when I was fourteen and again when I was nineteen. I’m bearing those scars; I know that no-one came, I scraped myself off the floor –  and I’m damned if others should feel so alone. Should I hide any of that? Should I hide what happened in the ‘ravine’; in the ‘BC’?The sort of admission that still, in this day and age, has people avoiding you as if you and what you connote are in some way contagious? No: I should not hide it, because to do so is to do a disservice to those who have yet to recover. No again, because those who have avoided me or told me I was a weakling were, I could say, operating from a place of fear. They saw or could see me as a contaminant. But at least one in four of us may suffer from mental illness at any one time and so I say things to those who are going through the fire – and I mean those people whom I don’t know, but who are reaching out through social media, so I say,

‘I hear you and I understand. You can do this. You can, you can. I am still here. I went to university, I teach, I run a business, I write – my debut novel is out next March – I have three boys. I am doing the mummy stuff and I can dig it. This morning I did something funny and had a custard slice for breakfast.’

And Dear Stranger in its individual letters and as a whole, says something so very comforting and pertinent. It sets the darkness echoing and tells people that they are not alone and that people of all ages and all backgrounds have been affected by mental illness OR that the writers are understanding and sympathetic and want to pass on, in a spirit of generosity, what they know. For me, every day can provide significant challenge and so this book is of great personal support. It reminds me that I am not alone. Or, as Martha Roberts writes in her letter, ‘Dear Woman in Pink’,

‘I want to turn back and say ‘Hi’. I want to talk to you about illness and desperation and to explain that you’re not alone in your sadness. I want to chat to you about humour, and how, even in those bleakest of  bleak times, it’s possible to reawaken a hibernated joy that can serve as a lifeline and a vehicle for recovery.’

What I enjoyed about this book was its breadth, humour and kindness. I loved Martha Roberts’s letter to a person observed near her, drawn through the prism of Martha’s own experience and concluding, ‘This too shall pass.’ Caitlin Moran’s  description of the ‘dark place’ was poignant: it’s a place I know well – where you lie down. When I lay down, first when I was a child, then on the cusp of my adult life, I wished hard to expire; to not be; to never have been. But you see, there was a voice in my head while that wish rattled around and echoed out into the room and the voice said, ‘You should never have been; you are wrong; a waste; an abject failure.’ But that voice was not really my voice: it was a compound of parents – or rather my mother with a acquiescent father – a sibling, teachers who humilated me for being a let down to my publicly-lauded parents, later a partner with whom a relationship went wrong – so it had to be me, didn’t it? How could the others have been wrong? It was me, aberrant, in the face of normal, up and doing other people.

Caitlin Moran’s letter reminds us to question whether the voice is impolite and speaks in a way we would not stand if it spoke thus to a loved one. No? You wouldn’t be so harsh, so damining to another? You wouldn’t try to diminish or even annihilate them? No? Quite. We should learn not to speak thus to ourselves. Moreover, she suggests a pet – making yourself into one – that you enjoy looking after, hence the dachshund called Eric who has been hers for some time. He is well looked after, likes watching musicals and has a jaunty bobble hat and duffle coat. And importantly, she gives you a reminder: depression takes a layer of skin off so that you ‘feel more of the world.’ Flip that: if you feel more of the world, it could be argued that this is a gift. Feeling more; arguably experiencing more, And, yes, I cry straight away when David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ comes on.

‘WE FEEL MORE OF THE WORLD THAN MOST PEOPLE. That’s amazing. That is why we cry with joy when we listen to David Bowie, and are obsessed with the moon, and can stare at the redness of cherry-juice on our finger and imagine a whole world that is cherry-juice-red — with stained glass trees and frosted crimson glass, and tiny bright birds that fly out of scarlet oyster shells. Every day is a fight — the highs are high, and the lows are low. You are rarely lukewarm.’

I remember asking, during one period of support with MHRS (which is the community health rescue service, although I like to think of them as a squad – sort of superheroes) if I could be medicated for lability of mood, because my moods and responses are changeable and dramatic and always have been. The psychologist’s answer was pretty much that I did not, in their opinion, have a mood disorder but also that to medicate would take me away from the highs – to place me somewhere that was ‘lukewarm’ and that this would, ultimately, do me a disservice. That would not be the advice for everyone, but for me, it was just so. I tolerate the lows and I am thinking about an imaginary pet of some sort.

And in our darker moments, when we are ill or, in fact, just contemplating how we might be happy – and Dear Stranger is not just about depression and mental illness it is more broadly about what happiness is and how we might attain it – we could keep this book to hand. I liked Alain de Botton’s reflections on calm and absolutely agreed with what he wrote as, for me, removing agitation is important for happiness and, frankly, so that I stay well. This bit I found most compelling,

One: Panic about Panic.

‘A lot of agitation is caused by an unrealistic sense of how unusual difficulty is. We are oppressed by unhelpful images of how easy it is to achieve and how normal it is to succeed. The stories that officially circulate about what relationships and careers are like tend fatally to downplay the darker realities, leaving many of us not only upset, but upset that we are upset, feeling persecuted as well as miserable.’

He is, like me, a fan of the philosopher, Pascal and thus explains why we should be grateful to Pascal and also to ‘the long line of pessimistic philosophers to which he belongs, for doing us the incalculably great favour of publicly and elegantly rehearsing the facts of life.’

I can see that this may be at odds with what modern life is selling us, but, in my experience, to accept difficulty as normal and to let go of seeming perfection and the rush – the pressure – to try to achieve it, is very liberating. It is not the same as giving up; not a prescription for inaction, but more a prompt to a calmer life because of what falls away. I loathe, as I have written before, the shlock-philosophy and psychobabble of The Secret and the literature from which it stems – that of New Thought. If you desire something good, think of it coming to you and it will, through the laws of attraction. become yours. The same book posits the idea that bad in your life happened because you attracted it and that, if you believe, the bountiful universe will bring its cornucopia to you. This is why otherwise perfectly intelligent people stick a mock-up of a million bucks on their ceilings – because it is an affirmation of their intention. To be rich and therefore to be happy, gestating expectations that are bound to be disappointed and which are often, frankly, mercenary and without a shred of intellectual or spiritual vigour behind them. It seems to me that books such as The Secret play into people’s fears; that those who are dissatisfied or unhappy or want more, just need to think positively and the rewards will come. But one cannot shift everything into a positive (because some things are terrible and to negate that is to diminish our humanity and our experience). Far better to read a prompt to accepting difficulty, even pessimism – and being a right laugh anyway.

Finally, I found Sathnam Sanghera’s letter, which begins, ‘Dear Wolverhampton Asian Goth’, a wonderfully encouraging piece of writing. In fact, this morning I am lending the book to a mum whose son tells her he feels acutely aware of his difference vis-a-vis his school-age peers. Ah, I thought, and turned to this, for her:

‘So much human misery is caused by people trying to fit into holes they don’t belong. Whether it is hiding their sexuality, or hanging out socially with people they don’t even like, or going along with stuff just because of social and family pressure to do so. But you’re already there. It is almost certain that you will not remain as you are, but you already have the courage to be different. You’re decades, and in some cases, a lifetime, ahead of most people.’

All my life I have been troubled by the sense that I am different. I wish I’d had this essay! I am convinced that this fed I into a sense of self-loathing which toppled me deeper into depression. And for years. These days, my attitude is perkier; I’m not afraid of a mighty, ‘Fuck off!’ (albeit in my head) to those who call me quirky, mad, really eccentric, bonkers – because those monikers have not been – and are not always given –  with a knowing and inclusive smile. They are said with a tone or a look that is vaguely derogatory – and, I might say, by those who are terrified of their own sense of difference. And we are back to what Sathnam Sanghera wrote about the misery caused by that. He’s a wise fellow and I’ve loved everything he’s written.

So, do get a copy of the book. As you can see at the top, it is published in aid of Mind. When you read it, may you be reminded of glimpses of happiness: perhaps happiness was fleeting, or maybe it stayed a little longer. May you ‘lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag bone shop of  the heart ‘ (as W.B. Yeats had it in ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’) and find hope and remember that you do have ladders.  If you are ill now, or unhappy, may you find the strength to transfigure that experience into something that makes you stronger, more imaginative – better able to be kind to yourself. And I hope, as I was kindly allowed to quote from Kavanagh’s ‘Prelude’ as an epigraph for my first novel. Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press, 2016), that ‘The millstone has become a star.’

Anna x

Slight change to the book’s title and other things!

This is a bits and pieces post. The next one will be a review.

Guidance from my publisher has resulted in a change to the book’s title and to that of its protagonist. The novel is now called Hapless Ally and its protagonist is Alison. This is partly a stylistic issue – that is, Hapless Annie doesn’t sit so well with Anna on the cover – but it is also important for me, as author, because the new title helps to make it clear that this is literary fiction and not memoir. It is also helpful from the point of view of clear genre and, moreover, because the book does describe and entertain real people in the public domain – Shirley Bassey, for one – I’m emphasising that any conversation with her is imaginary and had in the head of an imaginary character. Well, actually, it’s all a bit more complicated than that, but enough on the subject. And I hope you like the disclaimer which runs,

Disclaimer: this is a work of fiction and, while real authors and musicians are characters in the book, they are in the role of imaginary friends and are the author’s interpretations only; any celebrity or individual in the public domain who features in the text in no way endorses it or is associated with it; any dialogue is an invention of the author and resemblances to anyone else living, dead or undead but still quite lively, are drawn as literary creations only. I did, however, write regularly to Tony Benn and once sent him some rock cakes.

WARNING: this book contains bad language, graphic accounts of suicide attempts, self-harming, sex, funerals, deaths and some brutal culinary episodes.

What else happened this week? Well, somehow, I managed to work through all the editor’s comments and requests for changes. There has only been one big change and, oh my, was she right. But I won’t say what happened!  Also, I got permissions back for quotations from Kavanagh and MacNeice and I completed requests for Johnny Cash, Dorothy Rowe, Larkin, Plath and Auden, which latter preceded a very nice email from Faber and Faber correcting me: Curtis Brown NY office holds the Auden rights. Oops. Now, should you ever be seeking literary permissions, there is one very quick way to check who holds the key:

http://norman.hrc.utexas.edu/watch//

This site lists writers, artists and their copyright holders, so you know to whom you should write. Don’t assume it’s the publisher (which I had, with Auden) and don’t assume it’s the first publisher of a text – as I had been advised for Albert Camus, hence my applying to Gallimard (I now know it is his daughter, Catherine, I shall be writing to). Then there’s the issue of whether or not I use my own translations….We’ve got round the issue of translation from Dante’s ‘Inferno’ because my wonderful, bilingual publisher did the translation for me; easy to attribute that!

And, finally, I have drafted a plan of Life of Almost  (that’s the Next One) and written the first chapter. It’s a YA novel based on Great Expectations. I’ve enjoyed corresponding with various writers and spoken to someone about working on a collaborative YA piece (clue: genetics; off-world colonies, replicants: I realise that all sounds rather ‘Blade Runner’…) There is a great supportive community out there. Also, because I’ve had, shall we say, a bit of a dip, I’ve had some great exchanges with Mind and with the extraordinary MH survivors I have made contact with through social media. Some of them were contributors to Dear Stranger (Penguin/Mind) – which I will review in the next post. It’s brilliant. Here are some links to it; one from Mind and one from the Penguin blog. I have asked one of its contributors to write the foreword to my own book.

http://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/dear-stranger-is-published-today-in-aid-of-mind/#.Vb0IwflViko

http://penguinblog.co.uk/2015/07/02/dear-stranger-a-letter-from-rowan-coleman/

And, I was pondering: in my book there is a GP called ‘Dr Krank-Werden’, who is ‘possibly the best loved doctor in Albion.’ I was thinking about this earlier. I have talked to a lot of people about the kind of care they have received, over the years. Some have had no continuity of care at all; not all have a GP they find supportive. But I have been lucky. Together we have been down various routes: some things have worked; some have failed. Sometimes, somebody else lost the paperwork or support came to an end without any explanation at all: I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But she never gives up on me. So, while my book might be fiction, Dr Krank-Werden has some elements of my GP in her – and I thought that, if Dear Stranger could ever gain a second volume, I’d like to write a letter to her. It is partly for her that on the acknowledgements page of Killing Hapless Ally there is a thank you, ‘to the kind and determined people in our NHS which on many occasions has made me cry with pride, gratefulness and not a small amount of embarrassment…

Night night.