Category Archives: psychology

For writers starting out. Do comment, discuss and contribute your thoughts!

I know there are a lot of people out there writing books and a lot of people submitting said books at the moment. I know or have met people who now have stunning commercial success, writers who are agented but yet to have their first book sold, those who work with the small presses and who are not agented, those who are what we might call a hybrid (I am thinking this is likely to be me) – by which I mean agented but also finding publication routes on their own, perhaps with a small press, those who are disconsolate because everything is a flat rejection or they have received no answer at all and those – including recent MA in Creative Writing students – who are, for various reasons, too scared to submit at all. That’s just for starters.

It might come quickly; it could take years. I do think the key thing is not to take rejection personally (while accepting that, maybe, you need to write a different book if nobody at all is biting); also, if you are floored by rejection and delay and disappointment, then this might not be for you. And that, OF COURSE, is fine. Because there is a life beyond writing.

Here’s where I am. I started writing a book, Killing Hapless Ally, a novel, which originally began life as a memoir, in July of 2014; by the 1st of May, 2015 it had a publisher and it was published in March 2016 by the small press, Patrician. I only sent this manuscript to five agents; two rejected it, three didn’t reply at all. I read an article about the press in ‘Mslexia’ magazine and I liked the sound of it, corresponded with its charismatic founder and there we go. I was, I should add, realistic about how visible the book would be, but I have relished the experience and, ever since, the bonds I have made with its readers. Is it a bestseller? Good God no, but it has been important to its readers and the engagement I have had with them has been life changing. With Patrician, to whom I now feel rather bonded, I also published a poem in Anthology of Refugees and Peacemakers (just back from an event at Essex Book Festival on that) and will be co-editor of next year’s anthology, My Europe and editor of its Tempest, which is a book, by various authors, on (Trump) America. And my poetry has been published by the brilliant indie Emma Press, too.

Way leads on to way.

Meanwhile, I spread my wings and wrote another book, a novella, The Life of Almost. I began sending this out before Christmas 2016. I’m a quick worker, apparently. Two agent rejections (one the day I sent it!), three small press rejections (but read on for that and for more on agents), waiting on two further presses and an agent so still out on submissions. BUT during this process, another agent had read a section from Killing Hapless Ally and admired my writing; said agent asked me to send what I was currently working on (as in, The Life of Almost) in partial then in full; told me they thought I was a brilliant writer but that this book was not, though they admired much about it, for them. To their taste, for example, it needed more pace. But I had also told them about my plans for the next book (I actually have four more books sketched out: is that crazy sounding?) and the agent asked me to send them the full manuscript for that as soon as it was ready because they absolutely loved its concept. This was my third text, Passerines.

Meanwhile, one of the other agents told me (having read three chapters of Almost) about how they loved my writing style. That there was much to like; it was innovative and compelling but in the end the book was not right for them. Keep sending! And of the three small presses who rejected me, one said that though they would not be taking this one, they were confident it would be placed and would I send them future work? The other told me there was some lovely writing and they were impressed, but that this text was simply too innovative for them and, on that basis, they would simply not be able to shift enough copies to make it financially viable. I do know that the small presses – whom I adore and champion, by the way – are often those who DO champion the innovative book, but clearly that is not always the case.

So you see, there’s a lot of encouragement in that pile, just as there is a lot of rejection. The rejection is part of the experience and of the learning.

I have almost finished my third novel. So that’s three books – from the first word, I mean – in three years and this is not my day job. I run a a company, teach, have three young boys and I’m a volunteer and mental health advocate, too.  I don’t have a great deal of time so I’ve got to want to do this.

Do you? Take your time and don’t give up.

I may not have hit a super stellar advance just yet and obviously I may never, but I am playing a long game. May those who find later books go back and read my first, for example. We are three years in and I have met so many fascinating people, read hundreds of books – I read a great deal anyway, but I am so much more alive to different presses and sources of reading; it has been such an adventure. I’ve made a film about mental health, presented at a literary festival, had a packed book launch at a wonderful bookshop, spoken to, had dinner with, corresponded with, interviewed and had my work read by – it is happening now – writers whom I admire. I’ve also published poetry and articles and guest blogged. To boot, I think I am a better teacher because I am a better reader and writer and what is more I am able to share my work with students. Right now, I am commissioning those in years 10-13 to write for the two anthologies I have mentioned and, through my company, I felt inspired to set up a year-long bursary so that I could help someone who had had – this is the icing on the cake for me – long term mental health problems (as I have had myself) to evolve and complete a creative writing project.

So that’s where I am now. In the peculiar position of having one book out on subs and another being waited for and…without giving too much away…being discussed. At the weekend I had an offer of publication for my second book, but I am taking my time.

And now I have to make the tea because the kids keep coming in and rooting through the cupboards. Not having the time forces me to write when and as I can and I mull at other times, which I also regard as working. If you wait for your perfect writing environment or space or time, it may never happen. So why not write something tonight and get started – even if it’s just a paragraph?

Do tell me about your experience and about how you are getting on.

Anna.

Killing Hapless Ally: Patrician Press (2016)

The Life of Almost (TBA!) and Passerines (ditto)

Passerines

Here she is again, the Honourable Violet Gibson. She’s feeding the birds in the garden of St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton. That’s where she ended her days. Because in 1926, Violet shot Mussolini. She wasn’t a great shot. She’d also previously tried to shoot herself and failed at that. She was beaten by the crowd, that day in Rome, when she shot Il Duce. She experienced prison, lunatic asylum, then deportation, not realising where she was going.

Home?

No. She was incarcerated for life.

But what if…

What if she had had help, that day in Rome? What if she had not missed, had not only grazed the nose of Mare Nostrum?

What of Lucia Joyce, similarly abandoned by her mother and brother, in the same psychiatric hospital? How would it have been if she got to do things differently; could go back and forward? Now, how would any of that be possible?

What has this to do with Anna O or Blanche? With Dr Freud, Dr Breuer, Dr Charcot? With Vienna, or the Salpetriere in Paris. And why did Violet’s father, Baron Ashbourne, meet James Joyce, Lucia’s father, before he left Dublin for Trieste? And if Violet shot and  didn’t miss, then history is changed, as well as the lives of women whose freedom was radically curtailed, whose madness was…questionable; who were abandoned,derided, or turned into exhibits.

I will publish a proper synopsis very soon, but it is one hell of a road trip, this – and what happens has much to do with the birds, the passerines…Some of this is true; some of it is imagined, but the latter for the sake of adventure and sweet liberty.

From the end of chapter one, where Violet speaks of Lucia,

‘I know that was a long sentence. I made like Joyce. Oh but Oh God and the snotgreen sea, I am determined. I’ve made her dance, just a little. And here’s a shorter sentence: so keep up.

“Come to us, passerines. Soon enough, we will come with you.” ‘

‘Where are Violet and Lucia, Nurse Archer? Are they accounted for? It’s not exactly scientific, but at my desk just now I thought…I sensed…a disturbance.’

‘They are in their rooms, doctor, and night medicines administered. Both seemed agitated; we have given extra, as per notes.’

Dr Griffith finds he cannot concentrate, takes up a bible. Remembers birds of childhood.

Let him see.

Remembers.

As a boy, turn of the century thereabouts, his father made him go to scripture memory competitions. Welsh Baptist family. Now his eyes are moist. He was good.

Psalms.

Even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest.

Proverbs.

Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, an undeserved curse goes nowhere.

Down the corridors of the asylum echoes a turbulent commotion and alarms fly. This was the bit the staff heard. They’d missed the whispers, glissando of the winged helpers no louder than a heartbeat through a greatcoat; rustles of paper and scratches of soft pencil; tremendous change: you couldn’t stop it now.

*********

Passerines: some epigraphs for a new book

I find I vary how I write. With this book – Passerines, a series of interlinked stories about Violet Gibson, Lucia Joyce, Marie (‘Blanche’) Wittmann and Bertha (‘Anna O’) Pappenheim  and of psychiatry – I have tinkered with the beginning because it began life as a short story – and have now lunged into what is sometimes known as the ‘Frankendraft’! So I have 50,000 words to write and I will not read the book back now until it is all done. Then I will attack it with some vehemence.

BUT I have allowed myself two things to help me think. (In addition to the ongoing reading for research).

Although I have a rough plan sketched out, I have decided to write a proper synopsis, even if this is chucked out later – inspiration invariably striking not before but while one is writing. And also, it helps me to look at other books. That is, dipping into things, beyond what I might read for pleasure or research. I read all the time…but it is like magic.

There are lots of books in our house; the house is heaving with them; only yesterday, a cat was almost squished by a tumbling tower of books yet to shelve (or rather as we are waiting for Pete The Shelves to come and shelve for us). But as I was saying, I have been reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. It is magnificent; its beauty makes me cry – and this rarely happens – that I will find a book so affecting. And there it was: the description of boy Eugene, who is Wolfe himself, bounded in by his imagination, knowingly so, and living lonely in its country. And projecting what is required onto the world. I copied it. This is a key theme in Passerines. When you are someone else’s subject or subject to someone else, what might happen to your interior life?

Then…my hand brushed against William Empson’s Collected Poems. I’m sorry if this makes me sound like an utter tosser (‘Ooooh – my hand brushed against a book and it was the very book I needed…’), but this is exactly what happened. I was getting Some Varieties of Pastoral down because I need it for an A Level class on genre. And I suddenly thought of ‘Reflections on Anita Loos’ and its startling pairing of the girl who ‘can’t go on laughing all the time’ with the image of the tortured Christ after this mischievous villanelle. And you see, Passerines has both spirited girls and women and those same people encaged by madness and circumstance – in two cases incarcerated for life and in one almost erased from records  – and a study of both faith and imagination. It begins with Violet Gibson, the Irish aristocrat who shot Mussolini, was almost lynched, then pardoned by Mussolini (who himself drew his life as if it were the Passion of Christ and spoke of the prefuguration of his death) and then sent to St Andrew’s Asylum (as it would have been known) until the end of her life. The one picture we have there of Violet is unbearably touching: in her greatcoat in the grounds, feeding the birds, her stance reminding us of Giotto’s St Francis.

So, I realise this will not make total sense. Bear with me. I am fleshing things out. I know this is a rather a WTF sort of post. (Very literary, along with ‘tosser’: apologies.)

As I write, I’m still doing bits and pieces on mental health connected with my first novel, Killing Hapless Ally, and that has only been out eight months. I have sent my second book, a novella, The Life of Almost, out on subs to a small selection of presses and agents. Has it had rejections? Well, of course. Interest? Oh yeah. So I am a bit tense. And while this is happening, I am writing a third book, a novel, using the ‘Prolifiko’ app and setting my target to 3,000 words a day. I am told this is a lot, but if I don’t make it, the app is at least a prompt and very encouraging: a little cheerleader for me. In other news, I am thinking about applying to pitch at the London Book Fair (dependent on what happens in the next week or so, I think – as deadline’s approaching), I’ve applied for Womentoring  ( a fine free mentoring service, where an established author guides one at an earlier stage) and asked for Antonia Honeywell (am I allowed to say that?) because I feel passionately that I will find nurturing in such a project and she seems utterly delightful, a wonderful writer and frankly, I thought she might ‘get’ me, also managing a large family! Does that sound odd? And up ahead, Essex Book Festival in March to read my work in Refugees and Peacekeepers (a Patrician Press Anthology) and there’s a Birkbeck day I’d like to go to in May…

Back to the epigraphs. Synopsis follows soon: did you know there’s good money in Mills and Boon? More on which another day…I write well on hospitals, sex, Horlicks from the trolley and death. You’d be amazed at the categories extant in M&B!

‘The prison walls of self had closed entirely round him; he was walled completely by the esymplastic power of his imagination – he had learned by now to project mechanically, before the world, an acceptable counterfeit of himself which would protect him from intrusion.’

Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel, 1929, chapter fifteen.

‘Love rules the world but is it rude, or slime?

All nasty things are sure to be disgraced.

A girl can’t go on laughing all the time.

Christ stinks of torture, who was slaked in lime.

No star he aimed at is entirely waste.

No man is sure he does not need to climb.’

From William Empson, ‘Reflections on Anita Loos’, 1937.

‘The bird could also be seen as a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ. A non-Biblical legend popular in the Middle Ages related how the child Jesus, when playing with some clay birds that his friends had given to him, bought them to life. Medieval theologians saw this as an allegory of his own coming back from the dead. In another legend, when Christ was carrying the cross to Calvary a small bird – sometimes a goldfinch, sometimes a robin – flew down and plucked one of the thorns from the crown around his head. Some of Christ’s blood splashed onto the bird as it drew the thorn out, and to this day goldfinches and robins have spots of red on their plumage. Like the cross that Christ wears around his neck, therefore, the goldfinch might be read as a prefiguration of his Passion.’

From ‘The Goldfinch.Signs and Symbols’, notes in web text from the Ftizwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

People’s Book Prize

LIKED MY DEBUT, KILLING HAPLESS ALLY? YOU CAN VOTE FOR IT THROUGH THE LINK BELOW X

 

http://www.peoplesbookprize.com/section.php?id=6

Killing Hapless Ally

By Anna Vaught
Published by Patrician Press
ISBN 978-0-9932388-6-4
Category Humour
Autumn 2016 (Sept – Nov)

Synopsis

This is a black comedy in which young Alison conceived an alter ego ‘Hapless Ally’ to present a more palatable version of herself to her family and others. Ominously, the alter ego began to develop autonomy. Alison deals with this helped by a varied catalogue of imaginary friends.

Author’s Biography

Anna is an English teacher, mentor and tutor for young people, copywriter and freelance journalist; she has self-published two previous books, been a volunteer nationally and internationally and now writes poetry (to be published by The Emma Press this autumn and Patrician Press in the spring), as well as working on a new novel and some short stories. Anna is also a mental health campaigner and advocate and the mum of three young boys.

Reviews

Amazon (link as above) 7 Reviews
Price £10.00

 

Liked my debut novel, Killing Hapless Ally and want to offer a vote for it? Here’s a link.

 

Anna xxxx

Lost Child to Loved Momma.

 

Anna Vaught

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

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

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

So, as a young kid, I did this.

I packed it down tightly.

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

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

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

You you you.

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

But there came a different day.

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

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

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

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

Bye Mum.”

The boys’ eyes were like saucers.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Small Press State of Mind

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

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

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

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

Anna.

 

 

Darkly Funny and Courageous: Killing Hapless Ally

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

Source: Darkly Funny and Courageous: Killing Hapless Ally

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Bye Mum.”

The boys’ eyes were like saucers.’

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

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

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

Let me tell you what happened to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Film I made for AXA PPP and Healthizmo

 

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

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

Anna x

Read a sample of Killing Hapless Ally here

If you click on the link below, you can read a short sample of the book from Kindle Cloud at Amazon. I hope you go on to buy the book. Support your local bookseller, order it in – or find the book at Waterstones online or, indeed, on Amazon for both paperback and kindle copies. I am sure you already know this, but Amazon subscribers get the book for free. I’d love you to leave me a review, though (at either site or on my goodreads page) – and to be able to discuss the book with as many people and as wide a group of people as possible.

Anna.

 

https://read.amazon.co.uk/?asin=B01CA5F21Y