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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Darkly Funny and Courageous: Killing Hapless Ally

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

Source: Darkly Funny and Courageous: Killing Hapless Ally

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

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

 

 

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]