For you. If you want to write and get it published; if you are tired, unwell, stretched or broken-hearted. This is for YOU

I took a long time to be published; by that I mean, I took a long time to start writing. I didn’t have the confidence. Now I have, it’s like a torrent. I am six years in. When the occasional person decides to be a bit snarky about the seven books I have written in that time, I tend to explain that they were in my head for decades and that’s why everything is as it is now. My bravehearts, do your own thing; believe in your work first and foremost and do not apologise for the way in which you work, whether it be ‘too fast’ or ‘too slow’. Here is my first bit of love for you all and it is about productivity – but perhaps not in the way you might expect. Also, being gentle on yourself and always working with what you have.

So, let’s go on this adventure together. For a start, you work with what you have. That is, it’s lovely to have an office or a dedicated room, but if circumstances demand that you write at your kitchen table, or on your lap wherever you are, so be it. If you wait for those perfect circumstances, you will never start, so yes: always go with what you have. I write at the kitchen table and am frequently interrupted. I go with it and use headphones for busy times. Remember that genius exists in the finest library, but also at a scruffy kitchen table. Also, if you think you must assemble ideal conditions – that is, ideal emotional or psychological conditions – before you write or continue writing, then I do believe that is deferring your creativity to fate. You may feel down, sad or that heavy weight of grief that comes after the first pains which you think will kill you. My darlings, I am so, so sorry. But you know, you can write in rage and sadness, too. Maybe not yet, but you will. Sometimes, little bits of story unfurl within the sad story of you and yours; cling to them, because they are still there and precious. Think I don’t know? I am writing this now, to you: after a second very broken night, this little story unfurled while I was on the phone to care providers and emergency staff because I have a very unwell eldest. I find it heartbreaking sometimes and after years it seems a solution is not within our grasp, but within those feelings, I try to draw something else out. Today, this morning, so tired, it was for you. Take it.

It may seem that, with difficulties in our daily life, for those we care for or, or with ourselves, we cannot create, but that is not so. Here is more about me: I manage several long-standing mental health problems and I have been recovering from Long Covid (I think we are getting to know each a bit better, right?) – and I am not writing from a position of privilege, telling you sweet things. I am aiming to comfort you, so that you might follow a dream and, hopefully, get paid for it, too – but we will come back to the latter.

What about the adage of writing every day? That real writers write every day. Well lovely if this is you, but it cannot be everyone. I cannot do it. If you are poorly or managing any combination of circumstances, or just because it doesn’t work for you, then you cannot do it. This does not mean you cannot produce a book. Again, go with what is available to you because, again, if you think it is only possible with (perceived) ideal circumstances, then you may never get started or find your progress is stymied because you are feeling anxiety about your lack. Look, instead, at what there is. Thought. Cogitation. Reading. Listening. Man, you’ve been busy. So, you may not have committed words to the page, but a process is still ongoing. Pondering is the writing, too. Don’t forget that now. (I dedicate this last sentence to my fantastic agent who had to remind me about this and specifically in the context of pondering the plot. Ahem.)

This point follows on from the last. You may not write every day – as in get words down on a page – but try to inhabit the world of your book. What might that mean? Perhaps, that you mull over its characters and plot, read, think about it all on your commute, go for a walk and just let it sit and let your mind freewheel and see what springs up; that you keep reading; that you look over edits – your own or someone else’s – and maybe you could do bits of admin if the urge is that strong. Do your page numbers, check SPAG or write an acknowledgements page: these things can be lovely little boosts and make you feel your book is evolving into an actual THING. Think of the work and the writing as not only being the writing down, but also of the rumination while you are having a bath, or resting, say. If you do that, you may find your attitude to it shifts and you realise you’re further along than you thought.

A little exercise to do right now. If you don’t have a dream…Grab anything (if it were me, it would be a not very fancy exercise book and a felt pen, I expect). Now, scribble down in any way it comes to you some thoughts about the kind of book you want to write. What would it explore? What themes are in it? Where is it? Not what you think you ought to be writing, but what you dream of doing because you need to test it on your pulse. It must make you feel excited. That will focus the mind. You could also think about what your dream is in publishing: again, consider what you really want. Shall I tell you mine? It’s to write books that you can see in bookshops, have at least one of them made into a film and empower as many people as I possibly can along the way. That’s what this book is. I also want primarily to be a novelist, but with other short fiction, features, and non-fiction texts. To build a portfolio of varied books. In terms of industry, I want to be with industry professionals who are supportive, open and flexible. Over six years this has not consistently been the case and, with my everyday concerns, I found it startling and then eviscerating. We will return to looking after and working with this side of things  later as it is all part of the picture.

BUT

Most of all I am going to get totally lost in what I am writing – and we are back to testing on your pulse. This is where everything starts.
I have a second exercise too. I said, work with what you have. Well, what do you have and how can you make it better for yourself? Never mind the conditions in which you think you ought to be writing; never mind what you have surmised everyone else is doing. Where can you work, how can you make it a nicer environment for you – which includes things that are soothing if you are prone to anxiety or those troubling MY WORD MY WRITING IS SHIT WHO AM I KIDDING thoughts which may bubble up as you work. I have essential oils and fake peonies in a vase and music to the rescue on the kitchen table or a desk in my bedroom. Think also about you: reflect on your assets, your reading, life experience, the way you see the world, your dialect, accent, phrases specific to you: all that richness and beauty that you are. Think about where you have been – yes, even if it was in your imagination – your sufferings and joys and know that with all the stories and the myriad experiences you have, you are extraordinary. And don’t tell me you are ordinary, because no-one is that, especially not you. In reflecting honestly on what you have, your vision becomes clearer, I think. Your vision of who and what you are as a writer; if you can feel reassured that you don’t need the glittering education, (readers, I went to Cambridge, albeit from a not very good comprehensive and was sure that everyone there had had a better previous education than me and I still met lots of people – forgive me – who were exam-smart but dumb as soup),or  the MA or MFA (although there are many lovely reasons for doing one). I do not have a room of my own, but I have a table I gussy up and earplugs. And I know who I am. I have found my voice. I hope you can hear it speaking to you as I encourage you or remind you to find yours.

A quiet life. I think that’s where I’m heading

I’ve always been quiet; I am merely accidentally loud. I love activity, but become extremely stressed and tired out by noise when it is clamouring for my attention and when it is a noise competing with other noises.

I have always been melancholy; I look the opposite!

A while ago, if you read it, I wrote about an epiphany I had in Nando’s – here it is again: https://annavaughtwrites.com/2022/02/25/an-epiphany-and-some-things-i-want-to-say/

I’ve been thinking about all this again – and the noise and the melancholy – because I need to reflect on changes I feel I must make. These are really changes in my thought and, because writing and reading are at the core of what I do, some of those changes may impact on that, or rather my perception of it. You see, after the past intense years of my eldest son being terribly ill and the total failure of multiple agencies to help him and us, while I was already managing chronic illness, I am a bit tired.

I wrote before about how I don’t have the strength to pitch articles now. I may do the occasional one with someone I already know, with whom I have worked perhaps, but that’s it. Also, I will continue doing as much of the recommended push for The Alchemy, which I am crowdfunding for – https://unbound.com/books/the-alchemy/?utm_campaign=thealchemy&utm_medium=AuthorSocial&utm_source=AuthorActiv …but what does not work and what I cannot do, I shall not berate myself for. Everything else: I will meet deadlines for forthcoming books, greet good news for future work with love and enthusiasm, but other than that, I need to start relying on others a bit more (not to mention avoiding those who have been unsupportive or unkind; I cannot make everyone like me, can I?) Because the asking, pitching, getting involved in a lot of things is, I’ve discovered, too much for me. Everything I have learned about the book business has been through twitter, but I can’t constantly hawk my work in the way I have been. I thought that was what sold books; it isn’t: it’s a good team of people behind you with strategic planning and you, being your bookish self, as part of that.

I was reflecting, as I looked at Instagram briefly this morning, that, even if I were to be invited to do exciting book events all over the country or abroad – I am not proud to admit that I get awful pangs of jealousy and might have beens as I see many doing such things – how could I? The kids need me, because when one is long-term ill and there’s no professional support – we are talking years here – it has an impact on everyone. And I am managing pain and mental health stuff, as usual; waves of fatigue. I’ve been pushing myself too hard, haven’t I.

So yes, time to rely on others a bit more. There are plenty of lovely book folk about and some of the bad experiences I have had are put to bed while we focus on what comes next.

I think the key here: take your time and find good folk and work with them. Don’t try to do too much and don’t expect too much of yourself if your life is already complex.

Books – the reading and the writing are a joy: don’t lose that in the clamour.

Sometimes a quiet life is where it’s at.

x This is me, looking at you – in case you need quiet, too.

THESE ENVOYS OF BEAUTY

For this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and by kind permission with the publisher of my forthcoming memoir, I offer you part of the opening section of that book. Please note the trigger warning and that this book is still in an editorial stage, to be published Spring 2023. Text is copyright. Here is the publisher’s link to the book:

https://www.reflex.press/these-envoys-of-beauty-by-anna-vaught/

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A collection of interconnected essays on the natural world and its detailed and passionate observance over decades in the context of trauma and mental illness.

Trigger warning. Please be aware that this book is about personal experience and includes accounts of or references to mental ill health, OCD, self-harming, suicide, depression, anxiety, dissociation, and derealisation. Also, to violence and cruelty within a family. Importantly, some of these experiences were lived through by a child so please read mindfully.

TO go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities , how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty and light the universe with their admonishing smile. (Ralph Waldo Emerson. From Nature, Chapter One[1].)

A note on the text.

All epigraphs are from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay ‘Nature’, as is the title of the book (shown in the first longer epigraph), I have included botanical names for all plants and trees because they are so beautiful and I thought readers might enjoy seeing them, too. As a kid, I loved to learn them and would roll the names around in my mouth. Like sweeties. Only – arguably – Latin is better for you in the mouth than butterscotch.

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Introduction.

So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes

There are twelve essays in These Envoys of Beauty, and each looks at some element – or elements – in the natural world and what it has meant to me. When I say that, I mean in terms of how I look at it, how I feel, how that has changed but, for the scope of this book, what any of it has to do with trauma and its management. Let me explain.

I grew up very rurally, raised by a Welsh family on the Somerset-Wiltshire border, but I have habitually spent a great deal of time in West Wales, particularly Pembrokeshire, because that is where most of my family is from. I now live in West Wiltshire. Open land, woods, riverbanks were and are my world. I am also sure that they are how I survived – not better, but intact.

What I show you in this book rests on formative incidents as a child and adolescent: bookish, nerdy, and socially awkward (all of which I still am, only I do not mind now). I spent as much time outside as I possibly could and was always scrambling about somewhere, up trees, in ditches, into rivers and streams and home to look things up and, sometimes, preserve specimens in books or a flower press – or found antique treasures in pillboxes and tins. That is still me today. If you had looked in my primary school books or those in the early years of secondary school, what I wanted to be when I grew up was a botanist. I would spend hours out there and, afterwards, hours in there, looking at my guides and drawing plants and animals – a particularly tame wren on the dog roses; a tree mallow with its flowers open to the sun, looking happy. Lavatera arborea: I loved the rhythm of those words as a child and would linger there now.

            I was raised on the crest of a hill, with orchards and old woods behind me and the fields below me and to one side; the river Frome in the valley, near to where it meets the Avon. The Wiltshire sign was below our house but parallel with a lower wall and I was always delighted that where I lived straddled two counties. I must have thought this was unique, back then. Or forbidden: that you had to live in one place or another, not in two. Then, the time in Wales: St Brides Bay, Cardigan Bay, the islands – Ramsey, Skomer and Skokholm – and the water lands; the Daugleddau estuary where my grandmother had once lived, where part of it ended at Cresswell Quay. There were other places that felt like a home, too – Cardiff Bay, the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains and I have always felt more Welsh than English, because I was raised by Welsh people in England. I feel that within me, and I like the way the two things tangle, itself a story for another book.

In many ways I was so lucky, and I am very aware of the privilege of growing up in these places. This is one story: bluebells, wild garlic, wood aconites, red campion, mud, and flood and feeling the lichen and moss and stone stiles.

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But there is a second story.

I did not understand the dynamics of my immediate family, that I was blessed in where I lived made me think it was terrible to confess it, and I am not sure who I could tell. There was deep weirdness, death, unspoken illness, and psychiatric problems the nature of which I did not understand in my father’s family and, since the day he died, when I was eighteen, I have not seen them: they cut me off, just like that, my world there and everything that it brought into my imagination at first, had disappeared. I did not understand at first that its best bits could live on in that imagination, lively and fresh, though wrought by that deep weirdness. Then, my parents and sibling. I did not understand and still do not and, because I have explored it elsewhere and it is not the main thrust of the book – though you can see and infer much, reading through – I will not do so. But there were events which still, as I write, make me feel unsettled. My mouth becomes dry, and I feel that I am under threat. I do not expect to get better from this. It is all because of my mother. She was a splendid woman and I loved her, really, against my will. Because although there were streaks of that splendidness with me, what I was given and what I was left with was the sense that I was evil, the bringer of harm, a blot, a brat, a harlot, a slut, a terrible, selfish thing. This, she would always tell me, even when I was very small, was what everyone else thought too. I did not know any different.

She would slap me, pull my hair, kick me when I had fallen and scratch at my ears, but mostly it was the words. The confusion lay, as I say, because I grew up in a beautiful place. I could see that, empirically, but I knew it, hard, because my parents had come from large working class rural families, and had made the ascent, they would say, to the middle classes, or were very much on the way. It makes sense that they should want to remind me of blessings. But, you see, my mother also repeatedly told me I did not deserve it. She was ill a great deal and I remember feeling sick and shivering at the tension in the house. She took the time to tell me that I had made her worse. Then, when I was thirteen, my father became ill. The descent was slow at first, then rapid and dizzying. I did my best to help them both, to care for them, while feeling that I was burden and blot and then came the day that I was told I had hastened his death. I had always worried I was capable of this. Now it had come true.

At night, I would recite Latin names from plant books like mantras and talismans. I had awful ruminating and intrusive thoughts. I would feel a bad thought about someone ushering in – not something I felt, but a collocation of words in my head; a fit of diction, that was all. But by the time I was seven or eight, it was so entrenched that I was a bringer of harm that I decided I had to expel the words so as not to make the bad thing happen. I would have to go and tell that person, always an adult, a dinner lady, a teacher, the school caretaker, the vicar. What they thought I cannot imagine, but I do not remember reassurance ever being given.

By my late teens I had developed severe anxiety, depression. I first tried to take my own life when I was fifteen and again when I was nineteen. On the first of those occasions, my mother would not take me to hospital but instead said I should go to my room. I did not tell anyone this until after the birth of my first child, when I was dreadfully unwell and being looked after by a consultant psychiatrist in outpatients and a kindly GP. This is the first time I have written about it. I don’t know whether she hoped I would die – I had taken a considerable amount of paracetamol – or if it was simply too much for her to think about. I did not understand then, and I still don’t and will never have the opportunity to ask. Both my parents were dead by the time I became an adult.

From the age of twenty one I have been in and out of care – such as is available – and, ever since my teens, I have had difficult periods, of varying length and intensity, where I don’t know where or quite who I am; where my edges are. It is exhausting. It was never talked about by my parents, and they did not try to help me. My mother said mental health problems were an indulgence. She said moods were a myth, especially moods in teenagers, a licence for bad behaviour. PMT, she said, was made up. People who were mentally ill were those who had failed to control themselves. I don’t know why she said these things, but I feel now, looking back, that there was such burning life in her which had been thwarted. Moreover, mental illness – and severe mental illness – was rife on both sides of my family and I wonder if neither of my parents could bear to accept it within our family home. They rejected it because they were frightened and wanted to retain control and function; in doing so, they created something that was dysfunctional. Any one of us can be ill – and any one of us can have things go wrong with our mind.

I remember that it often felt so cold in our house, though a fire was often lit. I remember the day when my mother bought lamps as a development from the days of big light. I felt like we had arrived, and I loved the soft pools of light which fell on the floor and then, wonders, beside my bed. But you see that softness did not last and it was cosmetic. I looked outside.

Oh, there was a lot more than I feel I can tell which went on, but you can infer as we go because the point of this book is not degradation and terror, but joy and survival. Of course, I learned a good deal from some – not all! – of my therapy received sporadically over the decades of adulthood, but all that time, today, this afternoon, it was my connection with the natural world (and my reading[2]) and all things in it which shored me up. On my worst days, I cannot go far, so I am just outside, but I am listening intently. I am a rural girl, but I am observing wherever I go.

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In this book, stay with me as I try to show you the world I explored, what it meant to me then, and now. The essays are not chronological, but dart back and forth between them and within, memories and ideas associating and cohering. I do not mean to mythologise nature, because it is also full of facts and yet it illuminates, calms, and makes things intelligible. Sometimes I feel it as a metaphor, sometimes just as a sense or a reminder or prod – in the hard lines of something or the delicate feather of rime – to think about something with a different attitude. Also, even when it is small about me, I perceive space; that’s how it was for me as a child.

‘We constantly refer back to the natural world to try and discover who we are. Nature is the most potent source of metaphors to describe and explain our behaviour and feelings,’ notes Richard Mabey in Nature Cure[3] and that is true, I think. When I was very young, and I would run out, or just stand and stare, I would look to plants and trees to help me explain to myself a bewildering world. There was something else, encapsulated by Wilson A. Bentley, known as ‘The Snowflake Man,’ who studied the snow and published many extraordinary photomicrographs of snowflakes. Bentley saw the snowflakes, as he observed them from Jericho, in Vermont, as a metaphor for all things beautiful on earth, but also ‘The snow crystals…come to us not only to reveal the wondrous beauty of the minute in Nature, but to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade away. But though the beauty of the snow is evanescent, like the beauties of the autumn, as of the evening sky, it fades, but to come again.’[4]

I want to reiterate. Nature has not been my cure. It has been my inspiration, teacher, and companion.

I am not better, but I have never been alone.

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[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Essays, Lectures and Poems, ed. Robert D. Richardson, Bantam 1990, 2007. ‘Nature’ was written in 1836

[2] If you like, you can read an account of reading, the imagination and survival in an essay I wrote for Trauma. An Anthology of Writing about Art and Mental Health, Dodo Ink, ed Mills and Cuell, 2021); it also uses some sections from my first book, which was a work of autobiographical fiction.

[3] Nature Cure, Richard Mabey, Chatto & Windus, 2005, Little Toller, 2021, p. 32

[4] Quoted in The Snowflake Man, a Biography of Wilson A. Bentley, Duncan Blanchard, Macdonald and Woodward Publishing Company. 1998.


My Writing Year

I was wondering if I had enough to say here! That is, I’ve tweeted quite a bit of it, in personal terms there is only so much I can say without breaching confidences and in writing about the difficulties of the publishing year that are particular to my work, I would rather move on positively as there so many blessings! Some things were connected with timing; others with having little control over situations. But chin up, I thought! I will keep this short and do write and share your thoughts, if you like?

I was mildly ill with cold-like symptoms in early March, as were my husband and one of my three kids. At this point my eldest had been seriously unwell, so we were navigating difficult times before Covid and so marched on. I will come back to that! With advice – a lot of it from the brilliant people you meet on twitter – and a great community, we could cope. When the pandemic began, I had all three at home and then was responsible for home learning with the youngest and access to ongoing support we really needed with eldest ebbed away. I had a book out imminently, Saving Lucia. The launch was cancelled and there were no other events, barring my involvement in the fantastic Lockdown festival and a turn for SL on some online events. I was devastated, but decided it was best kept in context because of what folk were going through, though I still had to acknowledge that it mattered to me because I had waited two and half years for publication from acceptance. It helped so very much to connect with readers, read extracts from the book and think about my new book having a long life – beyond this time. I found someone to have mentoring chats with and that really helped. Also, to write short pieces related to my books for various journals and for my blog. Keeping it moving and lively as much as I was able. BECAUSE the other thing that happened was that I was not well and I have not been for about 9 months now. Hello Long Covid. You remember I mentioned the cold-like symptoms in early March? AArgh. Chest pain, vertigo, shortness of breath and hello fatigue like I had never experienced it.

Once Saving Lucia was out, I decided what I needed to do was focus on the book under construction. I had seen my lovely agent in February, shortly before she went on maternity, and had great edits and notes. I do believe you should always be working on something, because there are a lot of waiting, planning and, I think, variables in writing and publishing. Between April and August, I rewrote my novel and began plotting another one, The Cabinet of Curiosities. Just as I finished this run of The Zebra and Lord Jones, I won the publishing and writing section of Creative Bath, which was great because it was a broad acknowledgement of what I am trying to do with my volunteer and community work alongside my writing. Then, in September, Famished was out. Again, I found it wonderful to focus on engagement with readers, to offer readings of the book and to work diligently on social media. We had a lovely launch event and then – very 2020 – Instagram went down shortly after it started. Very important to laugh, my bravehearts!

When all is said and done, I am immensely proud to have been part of two little teams and to have met so many brilliant people. Also, I think, to have been building new and enduring friendships because of the books, because of a shared love of reading and, frankly, because I have had to ask for help in navigating what is still a new world to me alongside work, domestic stress, exhaustion and illness. I am immensely proud that we got two books out this year, that I rewrote another one and, frankly, that I coped as well as I did when a further novel and volume of short stories were turned down this year and I was told rights and translation were not shifting. This happens; it’s natural. But it’s hard! But we made a plan and hopefully it will come to fruition.

So, The Zebra and Lord Jones (novel) rewritten, I began a new novel, The Cabinet of Curiosities and made some – for me! – major pitches for features. I also tentatively began plans for a non-fiction book I am passionate about doing. Where are we as we stand? I have to be vague about a lot of this as you can imagine, so I will say that I am working on this pitch, making approaches to people, keeping in touch with my agent and that there is a lot of work on desk. Recently, I was longlisted for the new Barbellion prize – you can read about the prize here – https://www.thebarbellionprize.com/ for Saving Lucia and, in four books and lots of entries for prizes, it is my first longlisting and I am delighted.

During this year, I have also been fortunate both to work on several manuscripts with writers, to mentor and, also, to receive some mentoring myself from kind, brilliant and inspiring people whom I will not embarrass here. And for 2021, well…as I said, there is a lot on the desk and I know that we will be clarifying, planning and strategising. As I am still not better and because I still have complexities within my home life – and quite possibly I will have 2/3 not going back to school and college (the other is on a rather uneventful gap year before studying Psychology at university) – I need to pace. I have made some PhD applications – that is, a PhD by Publication to be worked on with three of my own books – but it will not be the end of the world if it does not happen; far from it. In a terrible year, there is, if I may say, already so much that I am thankful for.

Much love,

Anna x

For young people and their parents. Thoughts on mental health.

Dear all,

I thought I would jot down a few resources and ideas for you, if you have concerns about your secondary age and moving on (or trying to) teen. I am not a mental health professional, but my background is in secondary teaching plus tutoring and mentoring with young people, mental health advocacy and, with my own family, I have navigated various parts of the system and continue to do so; my older offspring are teenagers and life certainly has its complications for us at the moment! I have had various conversations with and messages from worried parents and friends over the past few weeks, so this is my response. Of course, I am thinking of the way in which education has been abrupted by Covid, but I hope there might be something here which could help at any time. It may also be applicable to younger ones. I went there too! Finally, services will be stretched and it’s a very busy time, understandably. Make sure you’ve got a cup of a tea and a decent biscuit if you’re going to be waiting on the phone for some time.

  1. If you have been looking after a young person with mental health problems, google and see whether you have a local carers’ group to whom you could talk. I am a member of one. You need care for you as you do the caring. Also, please accept that it is very tiring to be a parent or carer in this capacity; give in to that. Try to take a break from things which rattle you (this is why I need to be away from social media at the moment; there are some ongoing things which damage my well-being in the face of additional demands at home and that’s no good), and, also, if you have other offspring, aim not to make the whole household revolve around the person or people who are struggling. Easier said than done, I know! And take each day in small increments, rather than looking ahead, dreading what mood is going to be like when the kraken awakes. You know! (Again, easier said than done.)
  2. From my heart: if your child or your young person is in a hole, do your level best not to get in the hole with them. Which is to say that you care and you empathise, but you have also to look after you. That’s partly so that you can do a better job of caring, but also because you need and deserve that care, too.
  3. If you are struggling with making comparisons – with families where there is a lot of support from extended family or whatever it is that you feel you do not and cannot have – I urge you to focus on what you DO have. Compare and despair. It serves no purpose other than to make you miserable.
  4. CAMHS is Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. Generally this is up to age 18 BUT in your area, there may be extended provision up to the age of 25, so google with your area and see what lies if you are really concerned about your offspring; ask your GP if you can get through! Moreover, while (I know this first hand) the CAMHS wait like the wait for adults is extensive and you would need to be referred by your GP, in some areas, there may be self-referral, which you do via an online form. This provision exists in our area. So, for example, we may have been unable to access ongoing CAMHS support in the end, BUT a psychologist rang us and we had a talk for an hour and she wrote me an extensive letter summarising what we had said and pointers for things to do. I am sure that there will be variation, but I can tell you that this is what happened in Wiltshire, for me.
  5. Young Minds. It’s superb. Here. https://youngminds.org.uk/ There’s a stack of information about mental health and they have a dedicated section on Covid. There is information on a range of mental health problems, on what to do if you are really worried; that is, if it is an emergency or you judge it to be. There is information for you – with a dedicated parents’ helpline – and lots for your offspring to access for themselves. I have found them fantastic and, in the past, have booked an hour long session with one of their team. In its comprehensive information, there is explanation of CAMHS (see above), on hospital (for example, a blog entry by a young person on their experience) and a range of ways in which they can offer support. Do try. And remember it is for you as well as your young person. Young Minds looks after young people up to the age of 25.
  6. MIND. Mind can support you, but they may also operate young people’s services in your area, where, for a suggested donation, a young person can access counselling. There will be a wait, of course; in the case of our family, it was six weeks – which seemed short and support is an hour a week, commuted to a phone call at the moment or a short check-in once a week if things are doing okay. https://www.mind.org.uk/ and here: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/helplines/ If you click on that, you will see an advisor bubble pop up. Tell them what you are looking for. Mind is now running a text service, too. For some people that might be preferable.
  7. The Samaritans. You do not have to be suicidal to call. This is for you and them. Here: https://www.samaritans.org/ They now have a self care app which might go down well and also if it’s easier to write things down, you can email as well as call.
  8. If your young person is unwell or has been unwell and intends to go to university this year or next, here is some information specific to that. Some of it I knew already with my background, but some I have learned because of what our family has been going through. If you are the parent of an offspring in year 13 and you are concerned about the impact of your young person’s mental health on their grade and can substantiate this, then you may not have been given the opportunity to cascade this information to your school or college exams’ officer in this current strange situation. In our case, we were advised to give statements and information/records directly to the chosen universities (general admissions team and, if you can, the admissions folk for the department your offspring would be studying under). This is so that the university understands that there have been extenuating circumstances. You would do this, perhaps, if your young one were to have been physically ill for an extended period and there is no shame in regarding their mental health in the same way. Your young person can collate information and send it (they are an adult) BUT a university can receive information from you as a parent or carer IF your name is listed as ‘proxy’ on their UCAS form. If your young person rings the UCAS central number, then asks for your name to be registered also on their form, it means the university is able to take into account something that you, as parent, have sent. We have just done this.
  9. If your young one is going to university this year, make contact in advance and ask about their pastoral team and what is in place at the university or nearby in terms of support. Again, this is from the horse’s mouth. It means that something can, hopefully, be in place before term starts. You may well find that any paperwork amassed for point 8, above, does double duty here.
  10. There are many, many more resources; more helplines; lots of fabulous people but I want to end this simply by saying that I wish you all the very best whether as young person or their parent or carer and I send you so much love. Anna xxxx

A New Year Newsletter

Here is what I am up to next year. Or rather, here is what I can tell you so far. Now look, readers and writers: things have got most tricky at Bookworm Towers. It happens. But, you see, never feel that if life is difficult, if you experience illness or are bereft, your creativity will wither alongside. Take heart; nurture it and believe in it. Make things. That is what I am continuing to do. In the midst of sadness I am writing another book.

What’s coming? In April, you can read my new novel, Saving Lucia. Here she is above. The book that started with a chance sighting of that photo above – the one where the elderly lady is feeding the birds, so very tenderly. She was the Honourable Violet Gibson and, in April 1926, she went to Rome and tried to kill Mussolini, She shot him in the nose. She got closer than anyone else. Lady Gibson was knocked to the ground, put in prison and, eventually, deported; thereafter, she was certified insane and spent the rest of her life in St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton. Later, a fellow patient was Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce. What if…and do you see the other women above? That’s Blanche, Queen of the Hysterics at the Salpetriere and that’s Monsieur Charcot demonstrating what happens under hypnosis. She is most remarkably responsive. To her right is Bertha Pappenheim, a prominent Jewish social worker, whose institute was razed by the Nazis. It was not until twenty years after her death that she was also revealed to be ‘Anna O’, in Freud and Breuer’s On Hysteria. These women have an extraordinary story to tell you, so stick around. The book is published on April the 24th, but Bluemoose Books is starting a subscription service, where it will be available to subscribers from (I gather) late February. Follow all news here: https://bluemoosebooks.com/ Saving Lucia is part of Bluemoose’s all women catalogue for 2020.

Below is a gallery of images pertinent to what I have been writing about; from a bookshop of towering shelves, an old asylum window, Victorian portraits (the first one has a memento mori which has been added subsequently, but I liked it!), a devil, a baptism in 17th century Virginia, shades of grief, my late grandmother’s house on the Cleddau in Pembrokeshire (the setting for two books now), the holy well of St Non’s near St David’s and Walton West church on St Brides’ Bay in Pembrokeshire, fictionalised in the book I have just sent to my agent…(see below)…

In June, I have an essay in Dodo Ink’s Trauma: Art as a Response to Mental Health; it’s called ‘In Order to Live’ and is about reading and the imagination in my life, kid up, in the face of trauma. Reading as survival, in fact. http://www.dodoink.com/blog and – details when they are up – I also have some weird fiction in a new anthology by Unsung Stories; it’s a really interesting concept and one very important to me: weird fiction exploring mental health themes but also hopeful uplift on these themes. You will see!

In September, my first short story collection is out. Here.

famished cover-c (1)

This is already available for pre-order as part of Influx Press’s subscription service. https://www.influxpress.com/famished Hit the subscription button.

‘In this dark and toothsome collection, Anna Vaught enters a strange world of apocryphal feasts and disturbing banquets. Famished explores the perils of selfish sensuality and trifle while child rearing, phantom sweetshop owners, the revolting use of sherbet in occult rituals, homicide by seaside rock, and the perversion of Thai Tapas. Once, that is, you’ve been bled dry from fluted cups by pretty incorporeals and learned about consuming pride in the hungriest of stately homes. Famished: eighteen stories to whet your appetite and ruin your dinner.’ Oooh and ugh.

Ah but that is not all my bravehearts. I have also, thus is the way these things work, submitted a second novel – witchery in mid 17th-century Somerset and Virginia called The Revelations of Celia Masters – and a second short story collection called Ravished. And if there is news, you will be the first to hear it.

AND

I have written my first magical realism and handed my work in to the literary agency who this year signed me: Mackenzie Wolf, NYC and one of the best girls in the world, my agent Kate Johnson. I think I am allowed to say that this is called The Zebra and Lord Jones. I have been asked by a few people why I am with an American agency. This is partly because we are an Anglo-American crew at Bookworm Towers and I try to split my time as much as I can, partly because they also have a presence here and partly because of my literary interests and ambitions and where. And because of Kate. The best girl. I am desperate to tell you more about this book, set in Wales, London and Ethiopia during WWII – but I cannot. x

When we have had a meeting about it, I will tell you more about a thing which I am over the moon to be able to do: for September 2020 I am offering at least partial fee remission for an MFA (in creative writing) for a student from a disadvantaged background. I have asked if there can be a focus on someone whose life has been circumscribed by mental illness. This is because mine has been – and that’s really why I wrote a novel, Saving Lucia (back to top) about this theme, too. And I am building a writing retreat and teaching room in my garden. I do mean I am building it. With a bit of help, When I am up and running, I will tell you all.

Oh, there will be a lot to share. We will bring you events and news on Saving Lucia – here she is again and note the four windows and the bird on this beautiful cover, below – and I shall share them here and on social media and tell you about everything else that is happening. Saving Lucia is my third book, with the first two Killing Hapless Ally and The Life of Almost no longer with their original publisher and on the move. We will bring you news on this all in good time; you can find copies floating about though!

I have chosen my FREE READ for 2020. I usually do four a year, but 2020 sees all this work on top of my day job (I am an English teacher, tutor and mentor for young people) and extra care for my two eldest boys who are in exam years and have additional needs. This is going to be a rollercoaster year, isn’t it?

I hope we get to meet and I wish you a Happy 2020 and much wonderful reading, perhaps writing. Oh – and I mentioned that I was writing a new book. Here is how it started. The image is of me with the two Shirley Jackson books which are the biggest influence on what I am writing at the moment. It’s called We All Live in a House on Fire -and have a Welsh cake for knowing that the title comes from Tennessee Williams’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. And I can’t tell you anything about what I am writing either. Except that I am a third of the way through and very excited. It’s strange how ideas bubble up. I was upset one night and couldn’t sleep. I started re-reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle and there we were. By 4.a.m. I had started writing chapter 2. I anticipate that I will have finished this new novel by the end of March. I write quickly; it’s just how I roll. I have written all my books in 3-4 months, but I wrote my two short story collections in three crazy weeks a pop. Everyone is different and, anyway, I’d say it’s not the writing that takes the time, it’s the editing. Imagine that, when your book goes to your editor – aside of what you have done yourself – it’s about half-way there. But you may feel differently!

But for now, it’s all about Saving Lucia. I hope you like it xxx

On estrangement

You may have seen news today on Meghan Markle’s decision to tale action against a British newspaper and Prince Harry’s rush to defend her. I am not a fan of the royal family at all, but I dislike the way the press has treated her and I might also understand his response. No-one has any right to pass judgement on estrangement and the prurient interest in it here, plus a tabloid rush to pass judgement, seems to have led to what has happened. You simply do not know what someone’s actions have cost someone else and you do not know what that former relationship has effected in terms of psychological damage. I don’t know the ins and outs of what has happened here, but I certainly think it is a private matter in public people. And, more to the point, I know about estrangement and why we might choose to make decisions to sever ties. And I simply do not agree that blood is thicker than water though I have heard this all my life. Family is beautiful, but if elements of it hurt you badly, you should not feel you need to maintain contact with those elements. In my case, it was a calamitous nervous breakdown when my youngest was eight months old that clarified a decision and a better process; when things came to a head again shortly before I was discharged from long-term therapeutic support, I thought that my need to stay away and our need to keep our boys away would be fully understood, but it was not.

Let me tell you a bit about that.

I should like to write very freely in this post, but I can only do so to a certain point. This, in itself, speaks volumes. It’s because I grew up with a lie. And it wasn’t even entirely a lie. Some bits of it were true and beautiful and kind. And the bits that were not true and beautiful and kind spun me into dissociation, sent me mad or provided, latterly – and God knows why I didn’t see, hadn’t grasped it before – some dark materials for writing. And through that, I came to see that I might have made my way through some things with a pretty sturdy imagination, plus I had the utter blessing of reading – because it was my escape and how I found my way through a world I did not understand.

And the reason I can only write freely to a certain point is that the lie was and is upheld by others. Sometimes they should do better and have done better; not entirely fail to believe someone because they didn’t see it with their own eyes. But a lot of the time the lie is upheld because it’s only a lie to the person who was on the receiving end of it. All they saw were the bits that were beautiful and true and kind.

When a person or people are systematically cruel to you in such a way as you are short-circuited in some manner so that your brain doesn’t work properly; when you flick awake, posed and ready for action as others groggily come to; when you have repeated nightmares, dissociative episodes, panic attacks and when you develop severe depression and an OCD which is predicated on atoning in ritualistic ways for some terrible crimes you believe you have committed and to atone in some small way for the terrible person you think you are; when all this happens and you know in your bones, the taste in your mouth, what you hear and the very colours behind your eyes, what is behind it, then this is a response – and baby I get the multi-sensory version and very tiring it is too – that is not normal. And it didn’t come from nowhere. This is a sustained and complex trauma and it has informed everything that has come after it. My shaky decisions, perilous lack of self belief, running away from rather than to something – the opportunities I have missed and denied myself because I thought I was not good enough or, frankly because I was too crazy to cope.

And yet the sources of this trauma may have been good parents, friends, colleagues, siblings, members of the community and all those things because people don’t tend to be one thing. Unfortunately, as a young child, if you see those you are frightened of routinely praised, loved and respected by others, then you believe the problem must be you.

For me, the problems were upheld – I suppose it was like an accidental gaslighting really – through my adult life and it is only comparatively recently that I have distanced myself from those who still praised and upheld those I was scared of and who reduced me, in my head, to nothing. I found I simply couldn’t listen any more. From the person who decided it would be a good idea to tell me on my wedding day what a disappointment I was, to those who, again and again, urged me to allow my three sons to have relationships with certain people when I knew, Mr Bookworm and I knew, that they meant them no good. It should have been radically obvious and yet, somehow, it was not.

So, when you hear about those who choose to estrange themselves from people, don’t make assumptions as it’s not generally a decision borne lightly. I doubt very much that it will have been this way with Meghan Markle. A latter day intense privilege must not cauterise your nerve endings; surely it cannot remove troubling memory or pain. So treat someone who has chosen to estrange themselves with compassion and don’t intrude on their decision. And also, if it is something you need to do, and you go ahead, I wish you all the love in the world. Anna x

 

 

 

x

Where All the Ladders Start

Where All the Ladders Start

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,

I sought it daily for six weeks or so.

Maybe at last being but a broken man

I must be satisfied with my heart, although

Winter and summer till old age began

My circus animals were all on show,

Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,

Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

W.B Yeats, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, verse I.

Here is a post intended to be encouraging to you if you have had or are currently managing mental health problems, but want to write; a post about what I do and what I’ve done; about how mental health problems prevented me from writing, but how I’ve tried to engage them in the process – and also how they’ve become subject matter. And when I started writing this new post I thought, as I have done before, of this Yeats poem, above.

What is my theme? What do I write about? How do I write about it and follow a process?

A lot of it comes from my heart. What I have endured psychologically. Certainly, I have drawn on events, but also method of survival, which involved reading, reflecting and sustained flights of fancy. I am not currently supported by the mental health service, but they saved my life and my therapy, post breakdown, two kids and a new baby in tow, led to my first book in the end. That’s because I was stronger, but also because I began to see that I’d used books, reading and my imagination for survival. And if I’d done that, why should I not try writing, too? All those things were teachers, surely?

Recent events and also mistakes I have made have meant that I now want to speak more euphemistically about my personal history, at least for a while, so let me only say that I came into adulthood thinking I was a terrible thing, incapable and weak and that I could do little or no good. Although, as I will tell you in a new piece on books as saviour next year, it was reading that sustained me, it took me a long time to feel that I deserved to write and be read. Does that sound odd to you?  Eventually, there were choices I made which were empowering. How I parent my boys, how I am as a guardian of others, as a young people’s mentor and mental health advocate and what I think about, watch for and think about when I teach and tutor. And now, as I aim to do in my life, I do in my writing, increasingly a raison d’être for me. I flip the bad bits and think, ‘Hmmm bad thing. Could I pop you in a story somehow?’ I think the reason I am so keen on writing gothic and weird fiction is because, to my mind, I lived it, every trope. I hope I make you smile a bit in writing that!

There will be genes and personality in there of course, but clearly my early experience bears a logical link to mental health problems. I’d lie awake for hours as a child, ruminating thoughts, frightened. It was reading that saved me. I think that tumbled me into OCD, depression, generalised anxiety and dissociative episodes. I am free of the OCD now, largely free of depression, but my anxiety levels can skyrocket, and I have never got on top of the dissociation that occurs, so I try and think of it as my brain having tried to protect me when I was younger because these reactions have been going on forever. I say, childishly, Good brain; clever brain; thank you, my darling. Like a kid; looking back to that scared little girl and giving her a cheery affectionate punch on the arm from big Me. Ah, if you are wondering what dissociation is, here is the NHS page: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/dissociative-disorders/ It is not fun; it gets colossally in the way of my life, but having not solved it, I try to find some seed of hope or creative purpose in it if I can. I can’t always, of course!

At the time we meet, I am doing edits for my third novel, Saving Lucia, which you can read next April; my first two books, novel and novella, are between publishers – and I am not going to lie; there are gains and losses in publishing and this has been a tricky thing to navigate; there will be an announcement on my first short story collection very soon, I have another novel and a second volume of short stories (I have to choose vocabulary carefully here so as not to give away details)…under consideration and I am half way through another book, a novella. I’ve also got short stories, features, poems, narrative non-fiction and essays in various publications and still to come. I notice, above all, that key themes emerge: of memory and trauma; flights of fantasy and imagination; books coming to life; myth, legend, a living landscape – and the latter is important, because just as much as I loved reading, I loved the natural world and saw it as a storyteller; I saw landscape and animals as voiced and intensely beautiful, often ignored. This is something I am writing about later today. I wish I could tell you what that is, but all in good time.

And…

While I had written features and articles before, I had not written anything else at all until early 2015, a little while after I had my breakdown and the first truly effective piece of therapy I had received. You might be interested: CAT – cognitive analytic therapy, over the course of a year on the NHS. And now my writing – whole novels – is coming out like a torrent and with relative ease and I am convinced this is because it was waiting all this time until the moment I committed words to paper. Which was, incidentally, after the school run one morning and I caught myself by surprise and just sat down and wrote. That was it. It’s weird: I’ve written anything from ten words to 20,000 words in a day. It is like I am catching up, and the reason I procrastinated is because I had so little confidence, because balancing mental health problems with three kids, partial care of more, teaching, mentoring and the rest of life – like cooking and filling in forms; painting the windows and so on; you know – well, it took everything I had. It still takes everything I have, every single day. I am exhausted today because I’ve had some bad nights: I wake up in shock, my system super-charged. It is manageable, but we have never quite managed to fix that, either. When I am not asleep, I am immediately awake, alert, ready; facing threat and challenge. I do not remember a time when my life was not like that.

But still I write, and don’t you worry about the tyranny of writing every day. If you cannot write, think. You’re at work.

That Yeats quotation at the top. What got me into writing long-form was thinking about the strategies and imaginative techniques I had used, for as long as I could remember, to deflect panic and fear. I had abiding relationships with characters in books and when I say ‘relationships’, I mean that they became as imaginary friends; the books (I moved on to song and film so that, at one point, my best friends were Albert Camus and Dolly Parton and there’s a yoking). I found relief and solace in words and scenes and imagined places. It was comforting and enlivening, and I didn’t tell anyone about it. Ever. I also had lines from poems I liked and pages from books that I would recite at some length when I felt frightened at night.

In late childhood, having been convinced by that point that I was the bringer of bad things, a sort of weird little kid who couldn’t help but cause harm, I can recall roots of things; weird reactions coming in that seemed to set me apart, at least to my mind, from the other kids I knew; for example, the dissociative experiences I still have today when I am not sure who or where I am or that the world around me is real. It’s like…I can see my toes, all pinked-up in their flip flops there, but I cannot compute that these are the same toes that will beat a path to my door. I don’t entirely recognise the world or people about me and I feel unsure of my edges, or as if I am above myself, or to one side. My life is full of odd experiences because of this kind of thing, and I should probably note that the dissociation is a bit more complicated too, but maybe we can talk about that face to face one day? And also, there is more to it in positive terms: because in the roots of such fear as a child and as a teenager, there must have been such resolve and, ultimately, a pretty powerful imagination and creativity. No-one told me; I just thought it was survival, and then, like I said, I started writing a few years back and it was like…in my head was a word hoard; from my fingers came story after story and I have never had writers’ block. Not for a second. It’s freedom.

It is intoxicating.

I hope so much that it can be of use to others.

And I want to say that if this is not your experience, don’t worry. And don’t ingest as truth that you cannot live a creatively fulfilling or exciting life because you have mental health problems. Just find your writing foothold gradually and learn to hear your voice. Because the last thing I mean is to make you question why your lived experience of chronic illness or mental health problems has not made it that you’ve coughed up a load of books like it did for me. That’s because you’re you. Listen to them, your precious thoughts and reveries, doubts, oddities, the lot: mine your experience.

I quoted a favourite poem of Yeats at top; now I quote its last verse.[1] I remember it when I think of the things lost and hurt and still painful. I think of the place where the ladders start and imagine that; for strategy in life, but also inspiration in writing. I hope this makes sense to you.

Those masterful images because complete

Grew in pure mind but out of what began?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,

Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut

Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

If you are struggling, you are not alone. If you worry that your writing is no good, you are also not alone. Rejected? You’ve survived worse, so back on your feet. If you can, find your tribe and your tribe can be online because I understand that health or funds or difficult feelings may mean you cannot get to a writing group. We are here! Find us on twitter and please don’t be afraid to start conversations and ask questions, because the writing community is welcoming and enormously helpful. And also, if you are managing difficult circumstances in your life, I bet you can write a book, or a poem, a story,  if you read and think and try and plan and cross it all out and start again. Because I also bet you’re hugely courageous and that you have a rich imagination.

Why not just start, or steel yourself to carry on? And remember that, each step of the way, I shall be rooting for you.

Love,

Anna.

[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43299/the-circus-animals-desertion You can see the full text of the poem here.

An A-Z of Mental Health. C is for…

Hello again.

A mixture of things for you once more. For C, let’s try…(and I have a timer set for half an hour, which is why I always ask you to forgive some ragged edges)…

  1. Cats. Or chinchillas. Or whichever furry creature. Hugely soothing: beg, borrow, rescue. Volunteer as a cat cuddler if you have an animal sanctuary. I can honestly say that having our brood of creatures at home has got me out of a lot of scrapes, or soothed me after them, and provides immense comfort to my children. Recommended. Unless you hate them, obviously; people do.
  2. Counselling. I am not going to be glib and trot out the old ‘Help is Out There’ adage because we all know that it’s not that easy. But if you are struggling, it all starts with a conversation with a friend, a sympathetic person, a phone call, online. It may be that you can access CBT (which didn’t touch the sides for me, but it might be what YOU need) through self referral, but persist with your GP – if need be take someone with you to make you feel supported or, if need be, to help advocate for you. If you do not have a GP who is receptive to mental health needs, ask to see a different GP. And you may think that I am being simplistic by listing counselling here – it is a HUGE topic that I cannot begin to do justice to – but people feel ashamed and need not. If someone makes you feel that way, ignore them. We must support each other and make that conversation easier.
  3. Caring. In my case, if I get too involved in too many things; if I have too many people and things to care about and take care of, then things do not go well. Perhaps I have less room in my head or fewer resources than some others, but sometimes I have to retreat and calm my focus on some things and even, for a while, some people. Because I don’t have the energy. I know someone wants me to come round and talk something through with them tonight, but I have had to say I cannot:  I feel spent because of the battling – it really does feel like battling!- over the past three days: I am trying to get appropriate SEN provision for one of my lads and meeting rebuttal, denial and getting talked down to. I don’t think anyone means any harm at all, I really do not, but I don’t have room for a lot else this evening. It is important to pick and choose sometimes because we are not indefatigable.
  4. CAMHS. Ah, this is child and adolescent mental health. I wanted to say to you all, from the bottom of my heart, that if you have an offspring under CAMHS; if you have an offspring who is experiencing mental health problems; if you are caring and then some, then this is when you need to step up your own self care, even if you think you do not have time. And also, to put this bluntly, if your child is in a hole, do not get in that hole with them. I speak from hard-won experience. Having a child in distress is the hardest thing that has ever happened to me; I felt sick to my core sometimes. Learn from me here: practise self care as and when you can. Just a little time out; some relaxation techniques; saying some bloody good things to yourself. Promise?
  5. Cake. Or whatever it might be. Make something; eat something lovely, just because. Or light some candles. Or just a little something. You might think these details, these fripperies, do not impact on your mental health. I beg to disagree. I think it’s about the self care again; a simple act of making or being.
  6. Community. Every time. Look about you. Speak to people. Make small talk. It is, above all, community that helps to keep me, Mr Bookworm, two businesses and two other careers, physical and mental health problems, and three kids afloat. And I try every day to give that back in spades. It is one of the greatest joys of your life, Remember that your community can be online. If you cannot access other stuff, go here – and don’t you let anyone scoff: there is vitality, love and companionship here, too and I won’t be dissuaded from that!
  7. Oooh this is controversial. I want to say church, because I am a Jesus fan, you know. I don’t actually have a church now but I hope that one day I will. And yet consider your church, your temple, your spiritual life, your beliefs: give yourself time to reflect, to be still, to think about some difficult things because maybe one has to; talk about them to someone whom you trust. I feel that I want to write more about this topic, partly because in all the counselling I have experienced and in everything I read, it is the spiritual dimension that is entirely missing. You might find huge comfort from talking to someone within a religious community. Let me tell you that I am always cheered by knowing that in a place not too far away, there is a community of Benedictines who remember me in their prayers. I love that.
  8. CAT. I am back with counselling. This – cognitive analytic therapy – is the one that saved me, my bravehearts. The best bits of CBT with clear and sustained observance of roots of behaviour and patterns. Changed my life, this.  Maybe I should say change: change is possible. When you are utterly laid low, it could well feel that you will never get better. If this is you now, know that you are in my thoughts and that I hope for and long for the change that you need to live a better, happier life for you.
  9. Colour. It’s true: colour has a wonderful effect on me; putting it around me, wearing it, but mostly being in the natural world and really looking at plants and trees; at insects. It’s that absorption in the myriad beautiful things about us and the boost to our system that can occur with a shot of turquoise or cerise. Or whatever you especially like.
  10. Comedy. Sounds obvious, but find things to laugh at. It’s so good for you, and I don’t know about you, but like a dullard I forget this when I get low. If something is funny enough, you will laugh. Go look for it.

Much love, do look at A is for…and B is for…on this blog.

Much love,

Anna xxx

And,always,… xxxxx

 

An A-Z of Mental Health. B is for…

So, in A, I wrote a little about anxiety. B is going to be a pick and mix for you. A range of bs. I will touch on the wonders of Professor Brian Cox (who’s the new physicist in my life), buns (not Brian Cox’s, although I am sure they are very nice, it’s just that I am more focused on particle physics here) and blame. I will add in some other things, too. Here we go… Do look back at Anxiety, too – and maybe the post that came before it, which gives you an idea of why I am doing this now. Each of these blog posts is written in thirty minutes with a timer. Stay with me if there are rough edges. x

B IS FOR.

  1. Brian Cox. I am a bit late to the party on this one. What am I on about here? I am currently watching The Planets on i-player. What is this doing for me? Well I find anything to do with astronomy or astrophysics or particle physics really soothing. It’s something to do with reveling in the logal, deduction, neat arguments and damned sexy hypotheticals. And scale. It helps me to see myself and us, our world, as something tiny. For my birthday, I had a telescope and such pleasure it has brought me. There’s something in the unimaginable vastness that is stilling and comforting. I watch Brian Cox in bed and leave instructions that I am not to be disturbed. My older kids might think I am watching porno, but no: I am listening to Professor Dreamy talking about the late heavy bombardment and why Jupiter is the godfather. The irony of this is that these programmes have a narcotic, even hypnotic effect on me. At the risk of sounding feckless, I was exactly the same with Neil de Grasse Tyson on Cosmos (could we have this back on Netflix please?) And, while I love the topics and listening to Neil say ‘Come with Me’ with sexy astrophysical hauteur and Brian smiling because he just loves it all and also doing his beguiling hand movements – both of these men are, I swear, the most brilliant natural teachers – the fact is they also put me to sleep because I am so soothed. For anxiety, an overwrought brain, to settle panic, FIND YOUR BRIAN.
  2. Buns. This is a general thing. If my mood dips substantially, I need to find ways to orient so that things do not spiral. I still have flashbacks and dissociative episodes and I won’t sugar coat (although I might the buns; I know: I am THAT funny) things and say that my daft techniques always work, but I know they help me. So, if I have time, I will cook something mindfully. Possibly buns of some sort. Careful with comfort eating, but you don’t need me to tell you that depression and the myriad mental health conditions which you may be navigating lead you to the need for comfort and sometimes that tips over into something destructive. I’ve done this too. If the cooking worries you, pick another thing. But do it in the moment and mindfully to still your mind and give yourself a rest. I make things and plant things, too. And my writing is hugely absorbing. As with exercise (see A is for Anxiety), I regard this time as time off. And maybe you can extend that bit of time off in increments?
  3. Blame. Oh. I have spent years blaming myself for things. Terrible things that have happened in my life. Because my parents and older sibling (and a few others) convinced me from the ground up that I was an appalling person, it didn’t actually occur to me until I had really effective therapy following a breakdown after my third baby…that they might be wrong. I held myself responsible for my parents’ illnesses and felt I had a considerable hand in their deaths: when you are repeatedly told such things with no-one there to correct the balance, it may be ingested. In my case, it was. I often felt terribly guilty. I got it into my head that people who had died in adulthood with whom I had been friends in early childhood had in some way been harmed by me. Heavy stuff, huh? Took a psychologist and – I am not joking – a GP with facts and no arguments to sort this one out. I was half the weight after it all. On the floor. For a while I could not get up. But then, I floated up, like a feather. That is what I want for you. If you have been led to blame yourself by others, I am not suggesting that you don’t reflect on how you might have done and might do things better, but forgive yourself and let it go. I wasted years of joy on this. Years, my bravehearts.
  4. Bubbles. Or anything trivial. I don’t mind. Go blow them. Be childish. Child-like. Play. Does this sound naff? Well not everything has to have a purpose that is immediately discernible. Some things are pure joy. Also, if someone stole your childhood, go make some new bits now. Early bereavement, trauma and abuse make a kid way too aware and heavy in heart. No child should have to live with that. I did, and I had it very easy compared with many.
  5. Bollocks. Yup. Or we could have, ‘Bugger off’. The voice in your head which says, ‘You are shit.’ ‘You are worthless.’ Whose voice is that? Is it your voice? Try to work that one out. If it’s your voice, think about how you wouldn’t be saying these things to another person, so don’t say them to yourself because it’s mean and destructive. Tell them to bugger off. Or say, ‘Bollocks’ – which I do when my mother pops up to have a carp at me about something or other in the middle of the night, cresting a dream and then feeling a cold wash of fear, back in childhood. BOLLOCKS.
  6. Breathe. This is so very simple but it’s easily forgotten, too. In through the mouth, out through the nose, 4 and 7, say. It is harder to feel anxious if you are focused on your breathing. While you are doing that, check what your back is doing. In my case rounding and shoulders have gone up in a stress, anxiety or fear response. Shake it out.
  7. Brevity. You may have  to excise people from your life to cope with your lot; if you want to and cannot – by which I mean that you will have to continue to see people who routinely upset you or are mean – then, brevity. Keep it short and look for a reason to be on your way or somewhere else in the room. Also you can be saying, ‘Bollocks’ and ‘Bugger off’ while you do it. Mitigate the influence of those who are no good for you when you cannot excise them completely.
  8. Bed. Rest. No-one’s looking. Managing mental health problems is hard on the body as well as the mind. I have historically been hopeless at this. But the fact is that my health has worsened and I’ve had a telling off from the practice nurse. Take a rest where and when you reasonably can.
  9. Bonanza. The High Chaparral, Murder She Wrote, Quincy. I think you know what I am talking about here. This is quality soothing telly right here.
  10. BOOKS.  This is going to come up again and again. Reading has always been the backbone of my life. With books, you can build and rebuild your mind. I know I have done and that I may do again. Reading is a way into another world, other lives and horizons and ideas. And beauty, in finely-wrought language: I can bask in that. I personally feel that plot is a bit overrated, but don’t get me started on that now. And with books, try new things, don’t assume something is too difficult for you. And – bearing in mind that I am a writer as well as an English teacher – try books from all times, all countries, from diverse backgrounds, in translation; if you find you cannot manage a novel, try poetry or a novella. Or a play? But experiment!
  11.  MUCH LOVE, Anna xxx