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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.
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
This is by the journalist, author and broadcaster, Wersha Bharadwa. She has been a wonderful source of encouragement to me and this section of her article on friendship – authors reflecting thereon – is reproduced here with her kind permission. Wersha: thank you. xxxx
Pre-order from 3rd of February, folks! The ISBN is 978-0-9932388-6-4 and it’s published by the wonderful independent press, Patrician. Killing Hapless Ally is not a book for everyone. It’s densely packed with idea and allusion; it’s dark and (I hope!) comic. But if you like it, take it to your heart and that will make me so happy. It is fiction, but within it, there lies a distillation of what I know, what I have found out and what I have been through. It is about how mental illness takes hold – how it can settle in so young – and about imaginative ways to fight it. And that, lovely readers, is all me. x
NB: there may still be some editorial changes to this copy before I bid it goodbye in a few weeks.
THE FOLLOWING EXTRACT CONTAINS EXPLETIVES. Actually, there’s a hefty amount of creative swearing at various places in this book.
Not for this homme a lie down in the afternoon, but a manly growl after lunch, some Gitanes and a marc. Step forward Albert Camus and also the story of becoming an existentialist on a campsite. Not Albert; oh no, no, no: he was far too cool to be seen in a Fucking Caravan. It was Alison, trying to translate the world into something that made sense.
We have already shared fateful tales of The Fucking Caravan, of the entrapment between two alder trees and, on the same trip, tales of two blacksmiths. However, on that same ‘holiday’, parked up by the Seine and sitting under the willows for days (with her parents somewhere else; they didn’t say) Alison began a roaring and extraordinary affair with Camus. It was a reading summer, between the two sixth form years. All around was the sense that people were dropping like flies and the deaths of Dad and Santa Maria must surely be imminent; she just hoped, ever practical, they didn’t happen when the two were out in the car, or maybe driving on to the cross-channel ferry, with everyone hooting furiously behind them. But the reading: for days on end by the river: Sartre’s Nausea, Genet’s The Thief, and, best of all, Camus’s The Plague, The Fall, The Outsider and Selected Essays and Notebooks. Also, at speed on the journey home, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Force of Circumstance and, cheerily, A Very Easy Death. When she got home, Alison devoured Gide’s Straight is the Gate and Fruits of the Earth: ‘Nathaniel—I will teach you fervour!’ Fervour: Holy Fuck—what was fervour? What was lust for life? Were those things somewhere in the unknowable distance, just visible beyond the bacon grease of The Fucking Caravan? She was intoxicated: dislocated entirely from her surroundings. The dislocation did not provide a new or unfamiliar sensation, but this kind of dislocation was one in which she was on fire and in splendid company.
‘Come. Come away with me now. Tonight!’ said Albert Camus.
Now, one could dwell on the literary qualities of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, but the most impressive thing for an adolescent Alison (she whose constant companions to date had been imaginary Swedes in a crawl space) was the sense she gained of Sartre and de Beauvoir’s love affair; that they wrote and argued and shared and, of course, smoked (like Helen) in the cool way. And when de Beauvoir wrote about her love affair with Nelson Algren—not to mention sharing bricks (bricks: Ooh la la!) of raspberry ice cream with him—Alison had a peculiar light headed and heavy hearted sensation. It was, we would have to say, the first knowledge of the erotic. And it hurt, because it didn’t exist in any part of the real world, where there was just getting off and, for some girls, an early, clumsy, grasping fuck. When Simone de Beauvoir wrote of their ‘contingent lovers’; of love affairs, known about by both but clearly allowable and part of happen-stance rather than a dedication for a lifetime, it sounded both painful and delicious. How entirely entrancing for the teenage Alison that de Beauvoir and Sartre wrote and expressed an intensely creative life to one another. This was something Alison could never quite get out of her head. And when she tried and failed to engage something which might look like it, the stone dropped in her heart and she was scared to open her hand in case the frightening thought was there, pressed into the palm, waiting to open. And she was scared of being herself: Just Alison (as Denis the Lusty Blacksmith had it), while in her heart remained the appalling leaden feeling and the acute sense of being separate; weird, possibly a killer; not inclined to the magazines and spontaneity of her female peers: missing the point always. Wrong and Weird Kid. She willed herself to live on in a way that was meaningful and hoped that she would find people to discuss these feelings with; that she could know someone who understood about absurdity, existence precedes essence or the frightening experience Sartre’s Roquentin has when, in Nausea, he touches a door handle and comes face to face with jarring, sickening anguish: that anguish lived alongside Alison permanently. At five, it had started somewhere after Saturday morning cartoons, as the day unfurled; at sixteen it began after Weetabix and before the first application of lip-gloss.
‘This I understand: it is when the scenery collapses,’ said Camus.
He made it sound exciting in his low tone. But it wasn’t in real terms: at least, not yet; instead, it was terrifying and yet Alison had a timorous sense that from that terror came only a beginning. That definitely made sense. Good god: intellectual heat; the erotic in its most subtle form; a notion of how to live with hope, when God quite clearly does not exist and we must travel to the frontiers of our anxiety to understand where to start. Alison was not asking much in a man, then.
Ah—but one ready day along came Albert, ready for action. If you have ever read his peculiar, flat, sparkling, cold story of Patrice in The Outsider, then there is little to express. But if not, imagine a wandering, solitary individual, not inclined or feeling the pressure to act as expected. Not cruel, but mercenary because appetitive; plainly erotic in responding to his needs as and when they push forward, articulate of who and what he is and yet without what would feel like morality to us. He did not cry when his mother died; he shot a man on the beach and did not express regret, only annoyance. For the teenage girl, it hit a nerve. The description Camus had of his protagonist as a solitary and wandering individual; as somebody entirely alone and on the edges of society, now, that was the truest description of her to date. It was—and there is no other way to say this—a first orgasm. Not only with the plainness of the character and Camus’s prose, which Alison gamely attempted in both French and English, but also because of the man. Let us describe him. Alison had to get over Mersault first, a man both in love with the world and separate from it. Camus told her of how his protagonist was inspired by a stubborn passion, for the absolute and for truth. His truth remained negative truth, but it had its own beauty and without it there could be no adroit comprehension of ourselves and of the world; no self containment. Mersault’s life was that of a foreigner—a stranger—to the society in which he lived, and he wandered about on the fringe, in the shadows of others’ lives: plain, but deeply sensual. Such descriptions made Mersault enormously attractive to Alison and made her fall more for the man who wrote him into being. Such a telling of the outsider, the wandering foreigner living and breathing a negative truth, pierced and had a difficult heat for her because, of course, that was Alison. We could say she was Weird Kid—plenty did and probably still do—but l’étrangère would sound altogether more arousing, non?
Alison had photocopied a picture of Camus: it was of him, apparently sitting on a rather lopsided sofa, and leaning forward with his hands tensed, his mouth slightly open, his eyebrows raised and his trousers showing his socks as he inclined towards a co-combatant to advance his argument. He was so fabulously French; so fabulously exotic because he came from Algeria, that he carried off the sock thing with élan; socks were not normally a detail of erotic piquancy. Camus might have been describing how brilliant it was that William Faulkner had pulled off the language of high tragedy; that a man from Mississippi could find language that was simple enough to be our own and lofty enough to be tragic. Or perhaps he was dictating something for the Resistance magazine, Combat, of which he was the editor. But, to a teenage girl, under his spell he was also evincing arguments for,‘Come away with me.’
And, ‘Let me show you.’
Or, ‘Let me show you how to live in the face of despair. Sit on my knee and we will begin.’
And, occasionally, when the Oran sun roused his temper, ‘Come here now and stand against this wall. I will take you.’
Was this what Helen had meant, gifting Alison the Camus as she lay on her Cyclamen Terrace deathbed? It was a jolly long way from a few drunken fumbles in the dark when they—the boykind—mistook her for someone else. Camus would have taken a bowie knife from his pocket and cut her out of her clothes, grazing her skin and eliciting just a little blood as he went. Later, he would lick the drop of blood off the knife like a wolf.
Albert’s cadences were delicious: he was declaiming phrases of profound, shattering erotic power to Alison’s ear. And by God he had enough style to be vulgar, if he wanted. Camus had a history of manly pursuits, too: goalie for Algiers; a fine swimmer and athlete. She had a sense of his being a consummate man. Funny; brave; a demon in the bedroom—if you ever got that far, because what are walls, floors and furniture for? And, unlike JK, he could have built a wall or changed a tyre. On the occasions when Alison went to other girls’ bedrooms, she saw they had pictures of The Cure, or Bono, when he was ragged, young and angry. She, meanwhile, had a picture of Albert Camus next to her desk. People said, ‘Who’s that?’ and she said, ‘My godfather. The notion felt entirely, naughtily fitting, for the Camus books, en Français, that Alison possessed had been bequeathed to her, as you learned earlier, by her godmother Helen, studying Camus at The Sorbonne. Perhaps Helen had been similarly intoxicated (which made the Terry the Fat Controller, the unexamined life, Friday-pie thing even more depressing). So the honorific chimed as fitting. Plus it felt like Albert leaned over Hapless Ally in a proprietary and manly style. L’Étranger was inscribed with the words “Helen Griffiths, Paris, le 19 Janviér 1962” and Alison had always hoped that, in leaving France for Terry, his mother’s pie and a new life in Tyneside, Helen was able to say, like Camus’s protagonist at the point of death, that she knew she had been happy. She hoped it was like this for Helen especially when the morphine gave her respite from pain and the unexamined life downstairs, punctuated by the sickening puffs of air freshener from the Cyclamen Terrace plug-ins.
Now, all those years it never mattered to Alison that Camus had been dead ten years before she was born: he was there on her wall now.
Godfather. Most louche, brilliant, gorgeous godfather.
She saw in his Notebooks that he wrote, ‘I loved my mother with despair. I have always loved her with despair.’ Good God. He even understood that. It was exactly how she felt about Santa Maria. And by God (although He is Dead if He ever Existed) Albert was brave: he would stand in the face of despair and say that now he was free.
Ah: the growingupsexthing. Alison had hopeless expectations, really, for while Camus smouldered away behind her closed eyes, real life was, shall we say, more a damp inconsequential thing than a smoulder. There was Johnny in the barn. Always, ‘Let’s go to the barn,’ a bunk up against a bale: no use there expecting conversations about Proust. She asked him about books and he said, ‘Why would anyone want to read boring books?’ But in school, there was an important dalliance with D.H. Lawrence. It was Sons and Lovers and she remembered mostly Paul Morel’s loving: not the bit which was like a communion (with Miriam) but the bit which was ‘too near a path’ with rather racier Clara. The evocation of Paul’s mother, however, as he drifts back to her—and drifts to his own future death (as Lawrence himself had it in his notes on the text), now that was a theme best avoided during these delicate years. Besides which, no-one would have got it because at that time boys just wanted to get you drunk and feel you up in a dark room when the parents are away. Only in reality, they were feeling up someone else. Like Heroic Alice. Oh yeah: Heroic was still around; jiggly tits, cool-thriving and diving and looking on her hapless (again, ironic, though note lower case) counterpart with scorn. She had the best clothes and hair; told the kind of jokes boys liked. When she moved upstairs, the party moved with her, while Alison stood downstairs thinking about existentialism and, ‘I’m a misfit and nobody fancies me.’ Alison was definitely Weird Kid. Good job she had Albert
A short review of Dear Stranger (Penguin/Mind, 2015)
This is a marvellous collection of letters to imaginary people (or not). I think it is a book to keep at hand, for encouragement and, if you are laid low, there is much consolation in this book. I would like to write about all the letters, but, constrained by time, I have just picked a few of my favourites. Please forgive the odd bit of wandering slightly off topic: on mental health I have much to say for much have I been through!
So, I have taken the following text from Penguin’s own website, which you can find at http://www.penguin.co.uk/books/dear-stranger/9781405922128/
Dear Stranger is a collection of inspirational, honest and heartfelt letters from authors, bloggers and Mind ambassadors to an imagined stranger. Insightful and uplifting, Dear Stranger is a humbling glimpse into different interpretations of happiness, and how despite sometimes seeming unobtainable happiness can, in the smallest of ways, become and achievable goal.
No one should face a mental health problem alone. Whether it’s on a doorstep, on the end of a telephone or online, Mind is there for everyone who is experiencing a mental health problem.
All profits from the sale of this book (at least £3 for every copy sold) will be donated to Mind, a registered charity number 219830.
‘Dear Stranger is an inspiration’
‘An inspirational book’
Sunday Express S Magazine
‘This collection cuts right to the heart of what it means to be happy – and human. . . . Dear Stranger is a thoughtful exploration of happiness, in all its wonderful, often elusive complexity, that all of us can learn something from’
Red Magazine Online
‘An incredibly thought-provoking read’
‘Beautifully written letters from the heart’
Full list of contributors: Fiona Phillips; Martha Roberts; Francesca Martinez; Rachel Joyce; Donal Ryan; Matt Haig; Philippa Rice; Naomi Alderman; Yuval Noah Harari; Ilona Burton; Rowan Coleman; Ellen White; Abbie Ross; Giles Andreae; Conn Iggulden; Seaneen Molloy-Vaughan; Genevieve Taylor; Thomas Harding; Jez Alborough; Caitlin Moran; Blake Morrison; Nicci French; Jo Elworthy; John Lewis-Stempel; Chris Riddell; Tessa Watt; Helen Dunmore; Alain de Botton; Deborah Levy; Kevin Bridges; Marian Keyes; Nicholas Allan; Nick Harkaway; Edward Stourton; Eoin Colfer; Shirley Hughes; Santham Sanghera; Alexandra Fuller; Daniel Levitin; Claire Greaves; Arianna Huffington; Richard Branson; Molly Pearce; Nicholas Pinnock; Tim Smit; Tony Parsons; Dave Chawner; @Sectioned__; Professor Lord Richard Layard;
Now THIS bit is mine.
I found out about this book through some of the people I follow on twitter, particularly Mind and the excellent journalist, Martha Roberts, who also maintains a website http://www.mentalhealthwise.com – a deeply compassionate and compendious source of information, encouragement and solace. I had, in my many periods of illness, found Mind a support. I liked the breadth of contributors to the anthology and relished the notion that this was a book I could keep near me for emergencies, or just feeling flat – or for those times when I have given an unsettling or disturbing feeling, say, ninety seconds to run its physiological course – and it’s still there. Finally, I was editing my debut novel, a synopsis of which you can find at the top of this site: it’s billed as fiction, but oh my, I have drawn heavily on my own experiences and adventures in mental health. I knew that, to be well-informed in the subject area of my book – and to be able to talk about it – I needed to keep abreast of titles which looked at mental health or mental illness.
So, Matt Haig writes in his letter, ‘Dear twenty-four-year-old me’, that depression draws a line – between what you were before and what you are now; that,
‘It separates lives into eras. It gives you a BC and an AD of your own life.’
I have found this to be true, but also that I have had many eras, since I have been falling into (Matt Haig’s word, here) ravines since childhood. I can summon up that feeling now, of being a kid – a dark and visceral experience: it was a big lump of sadness and I don’t remember being without it, although I do remember times, from late childhood and early adolescence when the sadness altered everything and I felt separate from my contemporaries. There wasn’t anyone I could tell. I don’t say that to sound self-indulgent or tragic; I am being factual. There is a reason that the central character in my debut novel has many imaginary friends into whom the protagonist of the story breathes life.
This is, at first, rather a digression, but his letter prompted me to think about being younger and feeling alone; in the BC period. Well I know – because the eldest of my three boys is fourteen and because I teach teenagers – that parents worry about their offsprings’ access to social media – the films they may see or make on YouTube, what goes on Tumblr and so on. There are, most definitely, some troubling things out there – perhaps most of all the ‘pro’ communities: pro self-harming, mental illness, pro-Ana (anorexia) – and if you looked about you would find a lot of younger people writing about being in such online communities and also about getting away from them. But this is not my main point. As a kid and a teenager, when I was at school, then university, I either didn’t have anyone to tell or, later on, didn’t know who to tell. But those who are alone or FEEL alone, may find lively interchange and friendship through social media. There are twitter groups who hold open MH chats for younger people. Take a look at the tweets of one of my favourites,@Nursewithglasses for information about things; @YoungMindsUK is great for threads to follow and – whatever your age – @MHChat has a session – which is like a wonderful conversation – on Wednesday night at eight. When I’m thinking, ‘Uh-oh. BC/AD’ that is where I head.
I am looking at twitter now and can see that some younger mental illness sufferers are tweeting from hospital. Some of these people contributed to the book. Ok: now I am crying. I am also writing back to them, sending a DM or tweet saying, ‘Hello – I am thinking of you. I am sending a hug.’ It isn’t my place to say anything else but you see, I was there. I lay down on the floor to die twice – once when I was fourteen and again when I was nineteen. I’m bearing those scars; I know that no-one came, I scraped myself off the floor – and I’m damned if others should feel so alone. Should I hide any of that? Should I hide what happened in the ‘ravine’; in the ‘BC’?The sort of admission that still, in this day and age, has people avoiding you as if you and what you connote are in some way contagious? No: I should not hide it, because to do so is to do a disservice to those who have yet to recover. No again, because those who have avoided me or told me I was a weakling were, I could say, operating from a place of fear. They saw or could see me as a contaminant. But at least one in four of us may suffer from mental illness at any one time and so I say things to those who are going through the fire – and I mean those people whom I don’t know, but who are reaching out through social media, so I say,
‘I hear you and I understand. You can do this. You can, you can. I am still here. I went to university, I teach, I run a business, I write – my debut novel is out next March – I have three boys. I am doing the mummy stuff and I can dig it. This morning I did something funny and had a custard slice for breakfast.’
And Dear Stranger in its individual letters and as a whole, says something so very comforting and pertinent. It sets the darkness echoing and tells people that they are not alone and that people of all ages and all backgrounds have been affected by mental illness OR that the writers are understanding and sympathetic and want to pass on, in a spirit of generosity, what they know. For me, every day can provide significant challenge and so this book is of great personal support. It reminds me that I am not alone. Or, as Martha Roberts writes in her letter, ‘Dear Woman in Pink’,
‘I want to turn back and say ‘Hi’. I want to talk to you about illness and desperation and to explain that you’re not alone in your sadness. I want to chat to you about humour, and how, even in those bleakest of bleak times, it’s possible to reawaken a hibernated joy that can serve as a lifeline and a vehicle for recovery.’
What I enjoyed about this book was its breadth, humour and kindness. I loved Martha Roberts’s letter to a person observed near her, drawn through the prism of Martha’s own experience and concluding, ‘This too shall pass.’ Caitlin Moran’s description of the ‘dark place’ was poignant: it’s a place I know well – where you lie down. When I lay down, first when I was a child, then on the cusp of my adult life, I wished hard to expire; to not be; to never have been. But you see, there was a voice in my head while that wish rattled around and echoed out into the room and the voice said, ‘You should never have been; you are wrong; a waste; an abject failure.’ But that voice was not really my voice: it was a compound of parents – or rather my mother with a acquiescent father – a sibling, teachers who humilated me for being a let down to my publicly-lauded parents, later a partner with whom a relationship went wrong – so it had to be me, didn’t it? How could the others have been wrong? It was me, aberrant, in the face of normal, up and doing other people.
Caitlin Moran’s letter reminds us to question whether the voice is impolite and speaks in a way we would not stand if it spoke thus to a loved one. No? You wouldn’t be so harsh, so damining to another? You wouldn’t try to diminish or even annihilate them? No? Quite. We should learn not to speak thus to ourselves. Moreover, she suggests a pet – making yourself into one – that you enjoy looking after, hence the dachshund called Eric who has been hers for some time. He is well looked after, likes watching musicals and has a jaunty bobble hat and duffle coat. And importantly, she gives you a reminder: depression takes a layer of skin off so that you ‘feel more of the world.’ Flip that: if you feel more of the world, it could be argued that this is a gift. Feeling more; arguably experiencing more, And, yes, I cry straight away when David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ comes on.
‘WE FEEL MORE OF THE WORLD THAN MOST PEOPLE. That’s amazing. That is why we cry with joy when we listen to David Bowie, and are obsessed with the moon, and can stare at the redness of cherry-juice on our finger and imagine a whole world that is cherry-juice-red — with stained glass trees and frosted crimson glass, and tiny bright birds that fly out of scarlet oyster shells. Every day is a fight — the highs are high, and the lows are low. You are rarely lukewarm.’
I remember asking, during one period of support with MHRS (which is the community health rescue service, although I like to think of them as a squad – sort of superheroes) if I could be medicated for lability of mood, because my moods and responses are changeable and dramatic and always have been. The psychologist’s answer was pretty much that I did not, in their opinion, have a mood disorder but also that to medicate would take me away from the highs – to place me somewhere that was ‘lukewarm’ and that this would, ultimately, do me a disservice. That would not be the advice for everyone, but for me, it was just so. I tolerate the lows and I am thinking about an imaginary pet of some sort.
And in our darker moments, when we are ill or, in fact, just contemplating how we might be happy – and Dear Stranger is not just about depression and mental illness it is more broadly about what happiness is and how we might attain it – we could keep this book to hand. I liked Alain de Botton’s reflections on calm and absolutely agreed with what he wrote as, for me, removing agitation is important for happiness and, frankly, so that I stay well. This bit I found most compelling,
One: Panic about Panic.
‘A lot of agitation is caused by an unrealistic sense of how unusual difficulty is. We are oppressed by unhelpful images of how easy it is to achieve and how normal it is to succeed. The stories that officially circulate about what relationships and careers are like tend fatally to downplay the darker realities, leaving many of us not only upset, but upset that we are upset, feeling persecuted as well as miserable.’
He is, like me, a fan of the philosopher, Pascal and thus explains why we should be grateful to Pascal and also to ‘the long line of pessimistic philosophers to which he belongs, for doing us the incalculably great favour of publicly and elegantly rehearsing the facts of life.’
I can see that this may be at odds with what modern life is selling us, but, in my experience, to accept difficulty as normal and to let go of seeming perfection and the rush – the pressure – to try to achieve it, is very liberating. It is not the same as giving up; not a prescription for inaction, but more a prompt to a calmer life because of what falls away. I loathe, as I have written before, the shlock-philosophy and psychobabble of The Secret and the literature from which it stems – that of New Thought. If you desire something good, think of it coming to you and it will, through the laws of attraction. become yours. The same book posits the idea that bad in your life happened because you attracted it and that, if you believe, the bountiful universe will bring its cornucopia to you. This is why otherwise perfectly intelligent people stick a mock-up of a million bucks on their ceilings – because it is an affirmation of their intention. To be rich and therefore to be happy, gestating expectations that are bound to be disappointed and which are often, frankly, mercenary and without a shred of intellectual or spiritual vigour behind them. It seems to me that books such as The Secret play into people’s fears; that those who are dissatisfied or unhappy or want more, just need to think positively and the rewards will come. But one cannot shift everything into a positive (because some things are terrible and to negate that is to diminish our humanity and our experience). Far better to read a prompt to accepting difficulty, even pessimism – and being a right laugh anyway.
Finally, I found Sathnam Sanghera’s letter, which begins, ‘Dear Wolverhampton Asian Goth’, a wonderfully encouraging piece of writing. In fact, this morning I am lending the book to a mum whose son tells her he feels acutely aware of his difference vis-a-vis his school-age peers. Ah, I thought, and turned to this, for her:
‘So much human misery is caused by people trying to fit into holes they don’t belong. Whether it is hiding their sexuality, or hanging out socially with people they don’t even like, or going along with stuff just because of social and family pressure to do so. But you’re already there. It is almost certain that you will not remain as you are, but you already have the courage to be different. You’re decades, and in some cases, a lifetime, ahead of most people.’
All my life I have been troubled by the sense that I am different. I wish I’d had this essay! I am convinced that this fed I into a sense of self-loathing which toppled me deeper into depression. And for years. These days, my attitude is perkier; I’m not afraid of a mighty, ‘Fuck off!’ (albeit in my head) to those who call me quirky, mad, really eccentric, bonkers – because those monikers have not been – and are not always given – with a knowing and inclusive smile. They are said with a tone or a look that is vaguely derogatory – and, I might say, by those who are terrified of their own sense of difference. And we are back to what Sathnam Sanghera wrote about the misery caused by that. He’s a wise fellow and I’ve loved everything he’s written.
So, do get a copy of the book. As you can see at the top, it is published in aid of Mind. When you read it, may you be reminded of glimpses of happiness: perhaps happiness was fleeting, or maybe it stayed a little longer. May you ‘lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag bone shop of the heart ‘ (as W.B. Yeats had it in ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’) and find hope and remember that you do have ladders. If you are ill now, or unhappy, may you find the strength to transfigure that experience into something that makes you stronger, more imaginative – better able to be kind to yourself. And I hope, as I was kindly allowed to quote from Kavanagh’s ‘Prelude’ as an epigraph for my first novel. Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press, 2016), that ‘The millstone has become a star.’