Category Archives: mind

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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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

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

 

 

 

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

A review from Goodreads that moved me greatly and starter questions for book groups

I have so been enjoying listening to feedback from readers of Killing Hapless Ally.  I know it is also being read for two local book groups, so if you fancy reading it for yours, I have added some suggested reading group questions, as given in an earlier post. The book is free on kindle to Amazon subscribers – although I must say that the paperback is a substantial, beautiful white and lilac thing with a striking cover by artist Charlie Johnson,

Here is the last review for the book, this one at http://www.goodreads.com this afternoon, followed by book group starters for you.

I received a signed copy of this book through Goodreads Giveaways – thank you very much – but this has not influenced my review. 

Wow! This book is incredible.

I identified with Alison so quickly, I frightened myself. (Mind you, what sort of mother tells their child she was a mistake?) This novel felt like going through psychotherapy. Alison’s struggle out from the depths of depression is here written so beautifully, so intricately, so real. The streams of consciousness left me breathless and the letters written by Alison have inspired me. I am going to write my way through the depths and endure. I rejoice in Alison’s survival.

 

Questions for book groups.

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?

 

Today’s Goodreads review

This is today’s pre-publication review on Goodreads.

‘This was worth reading. It is a powerful book that gives you a peek behind the mask into a private struggle, a concealed personal experience of being someone who lives with overwhelming levels of shame and self-contempt. We use these terms a lot but in this case it is a military grade phenomenon with significant consequences. So what happens when some-one is really unwanted, really unloved and learns to assume that if some-one else knew them, they would hurt them, reject them. This is what Alison has to live with and this is her story. How she manages to survive and how when the real world becomes unbearable, there are other places to go with other people in them. It’s a demanding book, not an easy read and you have to concentrate, but it’s worth it. The content can be upsetting, the madness difficult to keep up with, but that’s the point. I’ve read loads of accounts of this kind of thing, but rarely is the author up to the task of telling a good story and keeping it up through the whole book. Anna Vaught, the author, is bold and honest. She respects the reader and doesn’t try to protect you so at times you have to put the book down and take a break, but not for long as it is a page turner and you want to know how it turns out. It’s not easy to live with this kind of stuff, the professional help has its limits and it’s a test, but you come away from the book with hope and a belief that although some people can be cruel, not everyone is and sustained kindness can really help.’

 

Killing Hapless Ally is out on Thursday with Patrician Press (link at content page to buy) in paperback; a new kindle edition has just been made available at Amazon.co.uk. The review above was written by a psychologist – an entirely wonderful person. At the moment, the book is in the hands of various health professionals, including a GP and a psychiatrist. It will be interesting to see what feedback the book has there. Yes – it is to entertain; but it is also to console and to give hope. x

 

Writers and Artists, Goodreads, reviews and being thankful.

Here is the last review on Goodreads, just left, by one of my pre-publication reviewers.

There are so many books out there, so many tales to tell and yet this book is a rare find. As you turn each page of Killing Hapless Ally, you start to understand why. It takes more than a good story to make a great book and the author’s use of language, her ability to interlace harrowing with humour and extract strength from despair, is nothing short of extraordinary. With black humour and crafted language, you are transported to an emotionally harrowing childhood in Wales, introduced to Ally and the characters she created in a bid to control a world that that could make no sense to an innocent child. Adolescence sees a whole new set of challenges and it’s an extraordinary writing ability that makes you laugh, cry and shake your head with incredulity. With lusty shenanigans afoot in France, you accompany Ally in the f**cking caravan and shudder as she experiences her first orgasm.

There are few books that really stand out for me. As a small child, televisions were banned and I was raised with the likes of Dickens, the Brontes, classical poetry and oddly, Pam Ayres! As an adult, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabrielle Garcia Marquez stills stands out as a tale that is all consuming on every page, with no need for superfluous cliff hangers. The Killing of Hapless Ally combines the beauty of language, the skill of a gifted writer and a story so realistic that it is almost unbelievable. When you throw in sex, death, self harm, suicide attempts and the ability of the human mind to survive, this becomes a book that you simply have to read. A rare find indeed.’

Yesterday, I heard I had publication from Bloomsbury’s Writers and Artists website for an article on the value of poetry in today’s society. I focused – and it was a very personal piece in the end – on poetry and, in its broadest sense, mental health and included a section on my observations on poetry and teenagers. I hope you like it. I would have liked to write a much bigger piece (hint to anyone…)

I have a piece on ‘Mother’s Day’ that I couldn’t place in the press, so I will put it here. It may not seem like a celebration and it’s rather full of curses, and yet love is a complicated thing. I have spent decades trying to get out from under the shadow of my mother, someone, as with my father, I never knew as a adult. I have heard only and repeatedly that she was a saint. This is my riposte to that. But did I love her and do I miss her? Oh yes, oh yes: every day of my life.

So my book launches a week today. I have had an exhilarating week, but one that gives pause for thought. I have found that people are coming forward, having read a little about my book or heard what it is about, to tell me about their own experience of depression and anxiety; to begin to put in words their feelings about obstacles they want to get over or cruelties from which they feel they have not recovered. It would not be my place to give advice, only to say, ‘I hear you.’ And also this. Look at the fear you feel or have felt; address the things that hold you back; seek professional help if you feel you need this to heal. If you ask and don’t get (for you have only to look at the brilliant supportive MH community on twitter to see the stories of this), ask again; try a different GP; speak to Mind for advice and support. I know it is hard. But I have found that in dealing with my febrile imagination, rapidly shifting moods and moments of panic and despair – and I want to say that I had thirty mangling, enervating years of these before I even fully believed I deserved help. Yep: thirty years – I was able to begin again. Some days, it’s like I am going backwards, such is the delight in the spontaneity and freedom I can feel; some days are difficult, but that is life. I have learned that in the more difficult elements of my personality, there are also clues to, for example, a greater elasticity of imagination. That scared me when I was younger, but now I am beginning to appreciate its other side.

 

x

 

 

Early pre-publication reviews of Killing Hapless Ally..

If you buy the book through Waterstones or Amazon, do please leave a review. I also have a page at Goodreads (pop the button on the page) where you can review and add a question for me, if you would like.  Praise is wonderful – of course, it is – but so is constructive criticism. I also like to tangle with others’ arguments and views, so please ask me questions or comment on things you thought didn’t work. The book is candid in its exploration of what it means to be well; to have mental health problems; to hurt and wish to annihilate yourself. Also, its humour is dark. Oh yes, dark. It will offend some people. But if reviewers comment that the events don’t seem plausible, I’ll have to state that the foreword tells you it’s fiction “drawing on many episodes in (her) own life…” The things I could tell you of caravans, spotted dick, tripe, people buried with their dog, evil relatives….

Anyway,

“I thought it was a splendid read. And it made me laugh. I enjoyed her literary references too – all my favourites; I used The Wind in the Willows as comfort reading too. I genuinely liked this book (or I wouldn’t have read it so quickly!) – very likeable narrator, many familiar references that chimed – and funny – which is difficult to pull off, especially whilst dealing with such a knotty subject. Congrats to Anna!”

‘Killing Hapless Ally’ is an intriguing and powerful novel which explores one woman’s quest for freedom from the overpowering clutches of depression and dislocation. With dark humour, sprightly wit and insight the author follows Alison’s twisting and often frightening path towards positive mental wellbeing and a release from fear and self-loathing. The book is both touching and savage and is imbued with exquisite description throughout. I think this story will appeal to many people; it is definitely a ‘page turner’ and one which will make you laugh (a lot) and cry. I greatly enjoyed reading it and will definitely be recommending it to my friends….

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.