Rapid Fire Reviews (4)

Since I’ve found that I read faster than I can get around to writing full reviews of each book, I prefer to do mini reviews that reflect my gut reactions rather than being too analytical. All titles are linked to their Goodreads pages.

Lexicon CoverLexicon by Max Barry

I was intrigued by the idea of a science fiction thriller based on the concept that words can be used as weapons to persuade and destroy. In this world, people can be organised into segments and controlled (compromised) by specific combinations of obscure words. The wielders of these words are the Poets, members of a secret organisation that controls knowledge and use of the words. Emily and Wil appear to be on opposite sides of a conflict within the organisation, but nothing in this world is what it seems. One of the things I loved about this book was that it gave me lots of “a-ha!” moments when I could connect the small clues and figure out key plot points. I won’t give too much away, but the way the book is structured and told from the perspective of two different characters is significant to the story and makes it even more exciting. There is suspense, conspiracy, romance, danger, interesting explorations into the power and structure of language, along with well-developed characters and a satisfying conclusion. I loved it.

The Disappearance Boy CoverThe Disappearance Boy by Neil Bartlett

There are books that are character-driven, books that are plot-driven, and books that manage to be both. This one definitely tries to be character-driven, which means it should feature interesting and engaging characters with compelling stories to tell. Unfortunately, I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of them and found them annoying and uninteresting. The second person narrative really put me off and left little room for my imagination. The narrator was so busy telling me exactly what to think and pay attention to that they didn’t give me the chance to become immersed in the story. A really disappointing read for a book that seemed promising.

Nasty Women CoverNasty Women by Various Authors

I consider myself to be liberal and open-minded, but this collection opened my mind even further and gave me new perspectives I hadn’t considered. I didn’t connect with all the essays, but each one definitely had a distinctive and unique voice behind it and wove an intricate tapestry of what the world is like for women in 2017. My favourite was Jen McGregor’s ‘Lament: Living with the Consequences of Contraception’. In addition to speaking to the reader, she also spoke directly to the Depo-Provera contraceptive she was forced to stop using due to health reasons. Some elements of her story are very similar to my own, and I could feel her struggle through her words. A fantastic collection I would highly recommend to everyone.

The Jungle CoverThe Jungle by Pooja Puri

I was lucky enough to get a signed copy of this book as I bought it at the Society of Young Publishers Conference in Edinburgh a few months ago. The cover really drew my eye and the plot sounded intriguing. I can’t say that it was a terribly engrossing story, but it was well written and easy to read. Rather than a complex plot with a satisfying ending, this book presented a fictional snapshot of life in the Calais refugee camp. It’s about the people more than the politics and the struggles they face having run from one bad situation only to find themselves in another. By the end of the story, most of the characters were essentially in the same place as they were at the beginning, but maybe that’s the point. It illustrates the endless cycle of the refugee crisis and the shattered hopes and dreams of those who find themselves in such desperate circumstances.

Mental Health Series: April –Anger

This is the fourth in my series of mental health posts that will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.

My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.

January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | August – Grief | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships


Anger

The sun obscured by haze from forest fires, Montana, USA (the image is mine but feel free to use it)

Like most emotions, anger exists on a spectrum. It can range from mild annoyance to blinding rage. Sometimes, anger can be a useful emotion. It can motivate us to stand up for ourselves and others, fight for justice and equality, and even help us survive in situations when it provides the strength we need to stay alive.

Anger can also be incredibly destructive, and that’s when it becomes a problem.

It can deceive us into thinking it’s an ally. It can make us feel stronger and more able to withstand the pain and fear that has triggered it, while, in reality, it is making us weaker. Like a drug that makes the user feel indestructible while simultaneously wreaking havoc on their health, anger provides us with a shield against the world while at the same time it saps us of our energy and positivity.

Whether it’s becoming violent, losing our temper with friends and family, or turning to self-destructive coping mechanisms like alcohol or drugs, repressed anger has a way of breaking free from our mental restraints and leaving devastation in its wake.

In my experience, this kind of intense anger can be provoked by situations that fall into three categories: disappointment and frustration with ourselves for mistakes we’ve made; hurt and mistreatment caused by another person (particularly someone we trust); and pain caused by something beyond our (or anyone else’s) control.

The third category is arguably the most difficult to deal with. While we can learn from our own mistakes or confront someone who has wronged us, we have no recourse when life simply goes wrong and there is no one to blame.

When I started thinking about how I would approach this aspect of mental health, two significant periods of my life came to mind: one from when I was a child, and one that I’m currently experiencing.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts in this series, I grew up with a severely autistic younger brother. Completely non-verbal and often violent, it was an incredible challenge for my parents to cope with him. As a result, they inadvertently placed a great deal of responsibility on me at a very young age. My brother’s violent outbursts often came without warning and I was very frightened of him, yet I was frequently left alone with him and expected to keep him amused while my dad was at work and my mum did housework or cooked us dinner.

One day, after so long living in fear, dealing with being bitten, pushed around and forced to follow my brother’s rigid routine at the cost of seeing my friends and having a normal childhood, I couldn’t take it anymore.

He was in the garden driving his toy car in circles around the swing set. It was big enough for him to sit in, and he had already worn a muddy path into the grass from weeks of this repetitive behaviour. I remember vividly standing there staring at him, feeling all my unexpressed anger and fear rising to the surface until I couldn’t focus on anything else. There was a long-handled wooden brush propped up against the side of the house. I grabbed it and waited until the car came closer to me, and then I swung the brush as hard as I could at my brother’s face.

I didn’t really understand why I’d done it, but it became clear to me later on. I wanted my parents to realise that their reliable, helpful and ostensibly strong daughter wasn’t coping the way they thought she was. I wanted them to ask me why I had done something so out of character and give me the opening I desperately needed to express all the fear and anger I was feeling. I wanted them to protect me.

Instead, they reprimanded me for what I’d done, cleaned up the blood from my brother’s nose (which thankfully wasn’t broken), and said no more about it. He went back to driving his car and I was left feeling worse than I had before.

Obviously, lashing out like that was the completely wrong way of trying to deal with my anger, and I still feel terrible that I hurt my brother, but I can forgive myself for that. I was a frightened child acting out of fear and desperation. That said, I wish I had felt able to tell my parents that I was struggling. I never doubted that they loved me and were doing the best they could, but at the time I genuinely believed that they wouldn’t have been able to cope if they knew how I really felt.

I know now that I was wrong and that their marriage actually grew stronger during those difficult years, but as a child I had no understanding of this. All I saw were the negative effects of my brother’s autism. Things like my dad holding his bedroom door closed to protect the rest of us from his uncontrollable violent outbursts. My mum being taken to hospital after he attacked her when she tried to get him to brush his teeth. My parents fighting to stop him from cutting his own ear off with a pair of scissors when he had an ear infection and couldn’t handle the pain.

Children shouldn’t have to see those things and feel frightened in their own home. It’s no wonder that I was angry. Talking about it likely would have made all the difference, and I’ll always wish that I had spoken up.

As an adult who has spent more than her fair share of time with psychologists, I know that talking things through is the best way of dealing with anger, and it’s one of the ways I’m trying to deal with the anger I’m currently feeling. It’s a different kind of anger than I experienced as a child. Not only because I now have the maturity to express it in a healthy way, but because, this time, I have no one to blame. Instead, I have only yet another confirmation of a truth that we all must accept as the cost of living – life isn’t fair.

Last month, my mum was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. We lost my granny to cancer last year and my grampa five years before that. They helped raise me and I loved them both so much, and my mum means the world to me, so this news was absolutely devastating. When the oncologist gave us mum’s diagnosis and we walked out of the hospital, it didn’t take long for my tears to dry and angry thoughts to take their place.

Why did this happen? How had the doctors missed it? Why did our family keep getting hit with one blow after another?

Not two months previously, we had been told that mum had beaten breast cancer and that she would likely continue to live a long and healthy life. We had started planning for the future again after months of chemo, surgery and radiotherapy, and I was so angry that the battle we thought we had won was only part of a bigger war that we are going to lose.

In order to be able to talk about it, I have to understand and acknowledge why I’m angry:

I’m angry because my family and I have been through enough hell in our lives already.

I’m angry because the physical pain I deal with every day due to my health problems is making it much harder to deal with the emotional pain.

I’m angry because I won’t have my mum there for me when I get married and have children.

I’m angry because I’m losing the person I love most in the world and there’s nothing I can do about it.

I could easily become consumed with my anger at cancer, at my mum’s doctors for not spotting it earlier, at the universe for this cruel twist of fate – but that won’t change anything. All it will do is taint the time I still have with my mum and rob me of the energy I need to help both of us get through this. I don’t want to let that happen, so I’ve had to figure out how to live with this anger in a way that doesn’t compromise my mental health.

Unsurprisingly, this has involved a lot of talking. My mum and I have always been very close and she believes in having an open and honest relationship, which means we’ve been able to talk frankly about everything from her funeral arrangements to how I’ll cope after she’s gone. That’s been very upsetting at times, but it’s also a huge relief to be able to discuss and work through such a difficult situation together.

One of the hardest aspects of grief can be regret and unanswered questions, so mum and I are ensuring that I’m left with as few of those as possible. We talk even more than we used to, and if a question comes to mind, no matter how trivial, I make sure I ask it – even if it’s just her opinion about the latest reality TV show!

I know there will be times to come when I’ll want to ask mum’s advice and I won’t be able to, so she’s writing me letters in response to questions I think I’ll have in the future. Questions like what advice she would give me if I were pregnant with my first child and what she would like me to tell her grandchildren about her. It’s wonderful to know that I’ll be able to carry those words with me as constant reminders of mum’s support and guidance, even when she’s not here to say them to me herself.

She’s also asked me to try to find something to laugh about every day, which hasn’t been too difficult since this family has always met adversity with laughter. It’s the antithesis of anger and the perfect antidote for the feelings of dread and helplessness that we’re all struggling with.

If I allowed my anger at what’s happening to consume me, I wouldn’t be able to face up to the future and make the most of this quality time with my mum and the rest of our family. It’s time I won’t get back and I know I’ll never forgive myself if I withdraw from the people who love me because I’m too angry to be around them, so I force myself to confront my anger and push through it.

I’ve made a big deal about the importance of talking in this post, so I have to acknowledge that doing so is something that many people, particularly those who struggle with mental health problems, can find incredibly difficult to do. That’s absolutely understandable. When we open ourselves up to others, we become more vulnerable and have to face the fear of being dismissed or ridiculed, but that shouldn’t stop us from reaching out.

Talking about intense and confusing emotions is a skill that can be learned and practised until it becomes easier over time. For years I only wrote about my feelings in private journals and poems, but once I started talking to psychologists and close friends and family, it became a lot easier to express them. As I talked about in last month’s post, I wouldn’t be here now if I hadn’t learned to do that, which is why I’m encouraging others to do the same.

Since lack of support as a child with a disabled sibling was such a challenge for me growing up, several years ago I set up my own online support group for the siblings of those with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and Down’s Syndrome. You can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/110123842407656/

There is also a wider support community for siblings of those with disabilities available via SibNet: https://www.facebook.com/groups/SibNet/

Mental Health Series: March -Depression

This is the third in my series of mental health posts that will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.

My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.

January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | August – Grief | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships


Depression

Cloudy skies in Melrose, Scottish Borders (the image is mine but feel free to use it)

Depression is a term that is often heard, but not often fully understood.

It is a normal part of the human experience to feel unhappiness, self-doubt and despondency. Feeling these things for short periods at infrequent intervals is not depression – it is life. Depression is so much more than that. It is an all-encompassing, suffocating and debilitating illness that is relentless in its campaign to rob sufferers of their happiness, self-confidence and hope for the future.

The stereotype of depression might involve the image of someone holed up in their house for weeks, sleeping away their days, not showering or eating properly, and generally cutting themselves off from the world. Sometimes, this can be the case, but, more often than not, you would never know someone was suffering from depression unless they told you. Outwardly, they might appear to be perfectly fine. They might turn up to work or school, spend time with friends and family, even continue to pursue hobbies and interests, while all the time their own minds are attempting to sabotage them at every turn.

There is the misconception that depression must have a reason to manifest, like a trauma or personal tragedy, but it doesn’t always work like that. This concept can be very difficult to understand. How can a person just wake up one day and suddenly feel overwhelmed by self-doubt and dejection? Why can’t they just go back to the way they were and ‘snap out of it’?

Let’s look at it another way. Mental illness can be just as debilitating as physical illness, and one should not be taken any less seriously than the other, so imagine for a moment that we’re discussing cancer, and not depression. Sometimes, cancer has an obvious cause, like exposure to asbestos or radiation. Other times, it just appears with no reason or apparent cause. One day, a person is fine and living their life, the next day everything changes and the life they knew is irrevocably altered.

Depression can be exactly like that. Sometimes there is a discernible cause, and sometimes it just appears of its own volition, unwelcome and unexplained, sending a person spinning off their axis into a world that doesn’t make sense anymore.

Like cancer, depression is experienced differently by each individual who suffers from it, and what follows is only my personal experience.

It was 14 years ago that I found myself planning my suicide one night at the age of 15, and, although I am a completely different person now than I was back then, I will never forget what it felt like.

For months prior to that night, I had been suffering from anxiety, OCD and clinical depression, although I didn’t realise how bad things were at the time.

I grew up with a severely autistic brother whose inability to speak and frequent violent outbursts made for a very frightening and isolating environment in which to grow up. In their struggle to cope, my parents inadvertently placed a tremendous burden of responsibility on me that I was far too young to bear. I operated under the misguided belief that if I told them how terrified I was of my brother, how often he attacked me and how much I wished I could just go out and play with my friends, my family would fall apart and it would be my fault.

By the time my brother was moved to a residential care facility where he could have the quality of life he deserved, the damage to mine was already done. I had become terribly withdrawn, fearful and anxious and struggled to relate to my family and friends.

As I got older and had to deal with the onslaught of teenage hormones and the social and academic pressures of high school, I developed severe OCD (described in February’s post) and a deepening depression.

I had trouble forcing myself to get out of bed in the mornings, and I can remember just lying there staring at my alarm clock and wondering what the point of living was. During one of those mornings, my thoughts wove themselves into lines of a poem that described my despondency and disconnection from my sense of self:

Poem

That poem was dated 20th July 2003, just over a month before the night I planned my suicide.

That morning had been pretty normal. I had lain in bed for a while before forcing myself to get up for school, look at the X Files episode chart pinned to the side of my wardrobe (which I had made to determine which episodes I would watch each night that would help get me through the day), then drag myself downstairs for a breakfast I had no appetite for.

My lessons went by as usual, and I was packing up after the end of a double period of Computing Studies. I have no idea what triggered what happened next, but I remember it vividly. As I was pushing my plastic chair back under the desk, I was suddenly hit by a wave of such profound despair and isolation that I felt faint and couldn’t move. The voice of my teacher issuing our next homework assignment faded into white noise and all I was aware of was the absolute certainty that nothing would ever get better and I would always feel this bad.

I wandered through the rest of the day in a daze until I got home. Dispensing with my planned X Files episodes, I put on an episode of my favourite show, Star Trek: Voyager, and sat despondently in front of the screen, a pile of prescription medications on the bed next to me (thanks to my physical health problems, there were plenty of those available).

My mind started to wander.  What would happen if I took them all at once? Would I have time to sneak into my parents’ drinks cabinet and knock back a few bottles as well before they found me?

I took the first few pills. I don’t remember what they were, little pink, innocuous looking things, and just as I was about to reach for more, I heard a powerful and authoritative voice projecting from the television:

‘In command school, they taught us to always remember that manoeuvring a starship is a very delicate process, but over the years, I’ve learned that, sometimes, you just have to punch your way through.’

It was Kate Mulgrew speaking as Captain Kathryn Janeway, and in that moment of sheer hopelessness that line was like a bolt of lightning illuminating a very long and dark night. In this episode, Voyager is trapped in the event horizon of a quantum singularity. Their only escape route is closing fast and the situation looks hopeless. As I continued to watch the scene unfold, Voyager’s struggle suddenly became a metaphor for my own. My hand remained suspended over the pills as I watched Janeway urge her helmsman to ‘keep it together’ as the ship was rocked by turbulence and structural damage.

When Voyager burst triumphantly from the quantum singularity, a surge of hope rushed through me as I began to believe for the first time that maybe I could escape too. I spoke to my parents and within a week my doctor had diagnosed me with clinical depression and OCD, and I began treatment at a centre specialising in adolescent mental health.

During one of my early sessions, the psychologists gave me a questionnaire to fill out so they could better understand how I was feeling. While they were discussing it with me, they asked me which question had been the most difficult to answer. I tried to tell them, but found I couldn’t get the words out, so they laid the questionnaire down on the table in front of me and asked me to point to it instead.

I pointed to ‘Do you think about committing suicide?’ I had answered yes.

That was the first time that I fully realised how ill I was, and I became committed to my recovery. My psychologists helped me to realise that my love of writing was a means by which I could find my way back to myself, and over the months that followed I crafted a path made out of words and metaphors that personified my depression into a force I could fight.

I sent fictional, sword-wielding versions of myself on grand quests to save towns terrorised by monsters who kept them in constant fear. Every time the monsters fell and the towns were freed, I imagined myself freed from the monster of my depression. It took a long time, but that approach is what helped me through, and, eventually, I felled my own, real-life monster.

Over the years, I have felt that monster stir to life again, but I have never let him get to his feet and drag me back to the hell I experienced as a teenager. I use every weapon at my disposal to keep him at bay – writing, my friends and family, my work, my favourite Star Trek episodes – whatever it takes until I feel grounded in the present again.

I’m almost 30 now and my outlook on life is completely different than it was then, but the fact that, at 15 years old with decades of my life in front of me, I genuinely believed things would never get better and I would always feel that kind of despair, is terribly sad and shows the power depression wields over its sufferers.

I was incredibly fortunate to have the support available to help me recover, but not everyone is able to work their way through depression and come out the other side. For some people, the only choice they have is to find a way to integrate their depression into their lives, accept it as part of who they are, and carry on. That takes incredible strength and courage. Ironic, considering that depression makes you feel as though as you are weak and worthless.

One notable example of this is author and mental health advocate Matt Haig. His book, ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’, is an illuminating insight into the mind of someone living with depression. There are also countless blogs, twitter accounts and books/magazines out there that are working towards making mental health a less intimidating and misunderstood subject, and ensuring sufferers know they are not alone.

It can be extremely difficult to relate to someone with depression if you’ve never experienced it yourself, and you may be at a loss as to how you can help them.

There are no easy answers to that, but never underestimate the power of simply listening. As someone who cares about them, you can provide a supportive and non-judgemental opportunity for them to express whatever difficult emotions and thoughts they are experiencing, without the fear that you will dismiss them or think they’re crazy. There is immense value in that, because it means they can contradict their depression when it tries to tell them that they’re a burden and no one cares about them.

Be an ally in their fight. Pick up a metaphorical sword and stand beside them. Tell them that they matter, that they are valued and that you are always there to listen. Encourage them to pursue any (safe and legal) avenue that makes them feel better, even if it seems strange or trivial.

Above all, remind them of this: where there is life, there is hope, and things can get better. I, and others like me, are proof of that.

 

Mental Health Series: February –OCD

This is the second in my series of mental health posts that will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.

My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.

January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | August – Grief | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships


ocd

Up the Eildon Hills, Melrose, Scottish Borders (the image is mine but feel free to use it)

Most of you have probably heard of the term ‘OCD’. I hear it thrown around in casual conversation all the time. It’s often used to describe people who like to clean and keep things neat and tidy, who are very organised, or have a somewhat peculiar personality quirk like needing to keep their ornament collection arranged just so. I hear people remark, “oh, I’m so OCD about that”, when referring to their need to make their bed every morning or have their coffee at exactly 9 a.m. every day.

That’s not OCD. It’s not even close.

I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone who casually uses that phrase is being overtly insensitive or insulting. I’m sure it never even crosses their minds that it might be taken personally by those of us with actual experience of it. Unfortunately, whatever the intent behind it, that statement trivialises the severity of a condition that is so much more than just the desire to keep things neat and tidy.

If only OCD were that simple – or that benign.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a mental illness that causes sufferers to experience unbreakable cycles of disturbing and negative thoughts that produce high levels of anxiety, usually accompanied by the compulsion to complete repetitive and sometimes bizarre rituals in order to cope. Often combined with other mental health conditions such as depression and suicidal thoughts, OCD traps sufferers into a pattern of behaviour that can cause them to believe that if they stop performing these rituals, or perform them incorrectly, something terrible will happen.

If you have OCD, it is genuinely possible for you to believe with absolute certainty that your family will die if you don’t check the soles of your shoes exactly 3 times as you walk down the street, and that it will all be your fault.

It can compel you to circle the perimeter of a room and touch objects in a specific sequence before you’re able to sit down.

It can force you to align objects at precisely right angles and get unreasonably angry if one gets knocked out of place.

It can leave you with chapped and dry hands because you feel the uncontrollable need to wash them over and over again to try and rid yourself of non-existent dirt and germs.

It can extend the length of your supermarket trips because you have to reshelve out of place products and straighten up the chewing gum displays.

It can mean that you feel so trapped in a room with closed doors and curtains that you have to repeatedly open and close them to prevent a panic attack.

In case you think these examples are exaggerated for effect, they’re not. Those rituals used to be mine. They are part of the rigid pattern of behaviour I was trapped in for over a year when I was 15 and severely mentally ill.

I recovered a long time ago, which is why I can now see them for what they really were and write about them objectively, but at the time, they formed the bars of a prison that meant I had to have home visits from two psychologists because I couldn’t manage the anxiety and all the rituals that would be required to get me from my living room couch to the treatment centre.

I can still remember how humiliating it was to have to walk around the house and show them all the bizarre and nonsensical rituals I was compelled to perform. They then had me sit on the couch with a piece of paper and a pen. When I felt the urge to perform one of the rituals, touching the mantelpiece with both hands at exactly right angles to the clock, for example, I had to draw a graph of my anxiety levels. When I wasn’t able to stand it any longer, I was allowed to perform the ritual, and then had to record how my anxiety levels dropped, and how quickly they began to rise again.

One of those graphs would have looked like this:

graph

You can see a pattern here. A disturbing thought would enter my mind, triggering my anxiety. That anxiety would continue to build, and, lacking the ability to rationalise my feelings and deal with them, I would be compelled by my OCD to perform a ritual to calm the anxiety. I would experience only a brief reprieve before the anxiety would start building again, like a wave about to break on the shore (or the mantelpiece, in this case).

Eventually, I was able to attend regular sessions at a treatment centre specialising in adolescent mental health, where I was diagnosed with clinical depression and suicidal thoughts alongside the OCD. A challenging triad, to say the least.

With the help of my psychologists, I learned to process my traumatic childhood and address the underlying reasons behind my anxiety. I found that writing came naturally to me, and I personified my OCD into a monster that could be fought by Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style heroines who were really just idealised versions of myself.

The need to perform my rituals fell away over time, until I stopped performing them almost completely. I can definitely still see elements of OCD in the way I behave, particularly in my need to organise and clean, but I can live with those traits and have accepted them as part of who I am.

As I discussed in the first post in this series, I still have an anxiety disorder and I’ve needed further counselling since my original treatment but, over time, I have learned how to channel my anxiety in productive rather than restrictive ways. The mantelpiece that used to attract my hands like a magnet is now, thankfully, just a mantelpiece.

I’ve written about my anxiety several times before, and I freely talk about it, but I never talk about my history with OCD. Maybe it’s because it’s still difficult to admit that I used to walk around performing those bizarre rituals in a desperate attempt to master feelings I couldn’t control. After all, nobody wants to admit things that might make them sound crazy.

The crux of it is, as a society, we don’t talk about mental illness in the same way that we talk about physical illness. If, instead of OCD and compulsive behaviours, I had suffered from debilitating migraines that caused me to throw up a lot, would I still be embarrassed to talk about them? No, because, generally speaking, physical illness doesn’t carry the same stigma as mental illness does. One tends to invite sympathy, while the other invites incredulity. It’s easier to accept that someone is nauseated with migraines than to accept that someone could genuinely believe they would die if they didn’t turn a light switch on and off exactly 7 times before leaving a room.

If you know someone who you suspect is suffering from OCD, the best thing you can do is show them understanding and patience. If you observe them doing something that seems strange or unusual, try not to stare or question them. Be patient, even if their need to check all the doors are locked for the third time in a row is making you late for something. Try to remember that there’s a war waging inside their mind between the knowledge that their rituals make them look crazy and the uncompromising power of the OCD that compels them to perform them anyway. They need to know that they can trust you and that you’ll be there to listen if they feel able to talk about it.

Tempting as it may be, the worst thing you can do is try to prevent them from performing their rituals. That will only serve to heighten their anxiety to unbearable levels and make the situation worse, possibly resulting in a panic attack or an angry outburst. The only way to successfully treat OCD is to address the root cause and develop alternative ways to cope, and that will most likely involve professional help, time, and a lot of patience. But it is possible.

If you’re suffering with OCD yourself, hold on to the fact that you’re not crazy. You just have a more unusual way of coping with your anxiety. OCD, anxiety and depression all feed off each other, and hiding what you’re going through won’t make them go away. Maybe you’re worried that people, even medical professionals, will think you’re crazy and dismiss you out of hand. That’s understandable, but all I can say is that not one of the many doctors and psychologists who have treated me over the years ever judged me for my behaviour or made me doubt my sanity. OCD is a real, diagnosable condition that can be successfully treated.

The combination of my OCD and depression led me to plan my suicide one night 14 years ago. I wouldn’t be here now if I hadn’t gotten help, nor would I be building a life I’m proud of. So can you. Just don’t try to do it alone.

 

Rapid Fire Reviews (3)

My third (and hopefully final!) attempt to make this a regular feature on my blog. I’ve found that I read faster than I can get around to writing full reviews of each book, so I prefer to do mini reviews that reflect my gut reactions rather than being too analytical. All titles are linked to their Goodreads pages.

the-miniaturist-coverThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

This book came highly recommended from friends and colleagues and my local indie bookseller (who said it was the best book she had read in 2014, high praise indeed). There are excellent explorations of the female family dynamic and the politics of power, both in the home and in the wider community, including the main character’s personal development as an 18-year-old new wife thrust into a world of lies, societal pressure and the expectations of marriage. There were definitely some parallels to Jane Eyre, which is what I was expecting when I first picked it up. I felt that the conclusion of the novel was a bit anti-climactic and not what I was hoping for, but the lack of definitive answers to my many questions did retain the air of mystery that shrouds the story, particularly the identity and motivations of the Miniaturist, so I suppose the ending did make sense in that regard. While I did really enjoy this one and would recommend it, it wasn’t quite a 5 star book for me.

the-road-headed-west-coverThe Road Headed West: A Cycling Adventure Through North America by Leon McCarron

I don’t normally read any travel writing, so I was quite surprised at myself when I picked this one up, although it probably had something to do with my love of visiting the United States. I’m not one for cycling either, but I thought it sounded like a great way to see a country and I was interested in going along for the ride. McCarron’s writing is engaging, thought-provoking and entertaining. He meets all sorts of weird and wonderful people along the way, who both delight and terrify him, and ultimately help to change his views of the world. I was particularly interested in reading about his impressions and experiences of the parts of the USA that I’ve visited myself (and loved), especially Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, San Francisco and Seattle. His vivid descriptions of the landscape and general vibe of the places left me with a feeling of comforting familiarity, and a fervent desire to see them again someday. You can watch the trailer for the book here.

kids-pf-appetite-coverKids of Appetite by David Arnold

Although I’m certainly not one of those people who thinks that YA novels are only for teenagers, I am guilty of using them as easy-read palate cleansers between other genres. I usually enjoy them, but I don’t tend to become invested in them or feel particularly connected to the characters. Kids of Appetite is one of the better ones and I did find myself wanting to keep reading. The flashbacks made the narrative more interesting, and I liked how all the elements of the plot tied together. The main cast of characters were all distinct individuals and I was happy to join them on their journey. It won’t be going on my favourites shelf and I don’t feel like it’s left a lasting impression, but it was probably the best YA book I’ve read in a long time.

the-circle-coverThe Circle by Dave Eggers

This book has been on my TBR for well over a year and I finally got around to reading it. I found the plot scarily plausible given the direction that the world is heading in. I was more aware of my social media use while I was reading it and I could see how something like The Circle could have grown from the likes of Facebook and Twitter. The ending wasn’t what I was expecting (or hoping), but it did tie in well with the overall message of the story. The social commentary aspect was more transparent than most of the dystopian science fiction novels I’ve read, and there were elements that were too repetitive (I don’t feel that we needed to see Mae answering customer queries quite so many times). That said, it made for addictive, fast-paced reading and I would recommend it. I’m really looking forward to seeing the film adaptation in April (you can watch the trailer for it here).

Mental Health Series: January –Anxiety

When I started this blog 3 years ago, my intention was to post about books, writing and the publishing industry. I have done that, but, over time, I have found myself writing more about mental health. It has been cathartic for me, but also very rewarding. When someone tells me that my posts have helped them to better understand the feelings of someone they care about, or have enabled them to better express their own difficult emotions, it reaffirms my decision to openly discuss my own experiences, no matter how difficult it is.

Rather than continue with my sporadic posts, I’ve decided to channel my thoughts into a series. This will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.

My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.

January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | August – Grief | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships


anxiety

Petrified Tree in Yellowstone National Park (the image is mine but feel free to use it)

Anxiety is an emotion we are all familiar with to some degree or another. Modern life is full of situations with the potential to provoke it. Job interviews, first dates, exams, election results – to name a few.

Anxiety on this level is normal, and will usually pass once the situation that triggered it is over. Having an anxiety disorder is different for two reasons:

1) Our anxiety can be triggered over the smallest, most innocuous situation.

2) It’s with us all the time.

It follows us through every area of our lives as an unwelcome companion that seeks to undermine our self-confidence and force us to question every decision we make, every word we say, and every thought we have. All the time, every day.

Here’s an example of an unremarkable, very common situation that we all experience from time to time: we send a text or an email, and the recipient doesn’t respond for a while.

There are a number of perfectly reasonable explanations for this. The other person could be busy, or have no phone signal or battery power. Maybe they just don’t feel like responding at that particular time. No big deal, right? This isn’t an issue. At least it isn’t if you don’t suffer from an anxiety disorder.

If you do, then the following is an example of how your treacherous mind can escalate this non-issue in less than 60 seconds.

Hmm, it’s been a while since I sent that message.

Checks time the message was sent.

Over 3 hours, actually. Why hasn’t she replied? Is she annoyed with me?

Rereads message for potential clues or accidental causes of offence.

I don’t think she could have misunderstood me. Wait, did I say something wrong the last time we spoke?

Mentally reviews previous conversations.

Well, everything seemed fine. We had a good time and she didn’t seem annoyed. What else could it be?

Checks phone and the time again.

Maybe she’s still at work, that’s why she hasn’t replied. But it’s after 6 p.m., she should be home by now.

Considers all the potential disasters that could have befallen her on the way home.

Oh my God. What if she’s been in an accident? Or been attacked?

Quickly checks her social media pages for evidence that she is, in fact, alive and well.

No new posts for the past 12 hours. Anxiety is turning to panic.

How would I even know if something happened? Would someone tell me? Do her parents have my number?

The phone beeps. She’s replied. “Sorry for the late reply! I got held up at work. Damn meeting ran over again.”

Well, now I feel like an over-dramatic moron. What a waste of time and emotional energy that was.

This is only one example of countless self-sabotaging thought processes that an anxious person can experience on a day-to-day basis. It’s exhausting, debilitating, and a hindrance to our happiness and wellbeing.

So why can’t we just rationalise these thoughts until they disappear? If we know we are prone to over-analysing a situation, why are we not able to reassure ourselves that it’s not as dire as we fear?

Believe me, we’ve tried. We can come up with rational explanations for these situations just as well as you can. The problem is, those explanations get drowned out by the much louder voice of our anxiety. You can’t apply rationality to what is an inherently irrational and emotionally driven thought process. That’s why phrases like “don’t worry, it might never happen,” however accurate and well-intentioned they may be, mean nothing to us. A situation we have experienced could have had a positive outcome 99% of the time, but our anxiety forces us to focus on the 1% of times when it didn’t. A situation only has to go wrong once for us to worry that it will go wrong every single time.

When I first started considering how I was going to explain this concept, I came up with the following analogy. I’ve always used metaphors and analogies to explain and process how I feel, and I find them to be very effective.

Imagine chronic anxiety as a train, speeding along the tracks in the darkness. Imagine a person standing by the tracks (let’s call them ‘Rational Thoughts’). They see the train getting faster, out of control, heading for disaster. Wanting to intervene, Rational Thoughts starts running alongside the train, screaming for it to slow down. But the train is always faster. Always out of reach. Then, suddenly, before their helpless eyes, the train crashes.

That crash is a panic attack.

The kind where the world shrinks to nothing but the terrifying place inside your head. The kind where you find yourself on the floor, hunched over a toilet or a bucket, trying not to vomit, with no idea how you got there, because your adrenal glands are flooding your body with adrenaline, triggering your fight or flight response. But you can’t fight your anxious thoughts. They are intangible and impervious to your efforts to resist them. And you can’t run from them either, because they live where you live – inside your head.

Your heart is beating too fast. Your breaths are coming in short, sharp bursts, like your lungs have forgotten how to function, like they might give up on you any second. The panic escalates when you realise you can’t stop it, and you have no choice but to let the wave pull you under, tossing you around until it crashes on the shore and leaves you weak and gasping for breath.

And the worst thing? The trigger for such an extreme reaction could have been the smallest, seemingly insignificant thing. Like a text not being answered.  Maybe the cause isn’t even discernible. Maybe the train just crashed because it did. Because you have an anxiety disorder, and that’s just how it is.

For anyone reading this who does not suffer from this kind of crippling anxiety, but wants to support someone who does, I can imagine that it might sound like talking to us would be a minefield of potential triggers that could make us feel worse. You might be wondering how you could possibly help.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been surrounded by wonderfully supportive family, friends and colleagues since I began having mental health problems when I was a child. There have been many examples over the years of when someone has said or done exactly the right thing at the right time, one of which happened last year.

2016 was a really awful year for me and my family, and as a result my anxiety and stress levels were very high. I tried not to let my state of mind affect my work, which is very important to me, but there were days when it was obvious that I wasn’t doing well.

On one of those days, my manager asked me if I was okay. She’s well aware of both my physical and mental health issues, so this wasn’t an unusual question. When I said no, she asked me if I was in pain, or if it was my anxiety that was bothering me. This question simultaneously expressed concern and understanding while also acknowledging that my anxiety was a genuine issue for me. It made me feel supported and comfortable enough to admit if I needed to go home early or take a day off.

When you have any kind of health issue, physical or mental, that’s all you really want.

Acknowledgement, empathy and a willingness to listen.

In the case of anxiety disorders, we don’t expect others to understand the reasons behind our anxious thoughts (we often don’t even understand them ourselves). We’re not expecting others to fix things or come up with magical solutions. We just need some understanding and the security of knowing that if we need to withdraw from a situation because it makes us too anxious, that we won’t be judged or thought any less of. It’s a great injustice that so many sufferers of mental illness are told to just get over it and that it’s all in their heads. Imagine if that were the response to a broken leg or a cancer diagnosis? An illness is an illness no matter what form it takes.

From my perspective, I know my anxiety is my problem and I don’t expect other people to alter their behaviour to accommodate every anxious thought I have. It would be completely unreasonable, for example, for me to expect my friends to drop whatever they were doing to answer my messages immediately.

I know that 90% of the time my anxiety is lying to me. It’s taken a lot of work over many years, but I have gotten to the point where my anxious thoughts are mostly just background noise. They’re there all the time, but I have coping mechanisms to stop the train from crashing. They don’t always work, and sometimes my anxiety gets the better of me and can turn even positive situations into nerve-wracking ordeals, but I keep going. I’ve even found ways of using it to my advantage in my job (you can read about how in an earlier post here).

Every time something good happens and my anxiety is proven wrong, I add that memory to my arsenal of weapons to use against it in the future (writing these memories down is a good way of doing this). When a situation makes me anxious and threatens to overpower me, I mentally list all the times I’ve been in a similar situation in the past that had positive outcomes. This calms me down and gets me to the point where I can move forward and deal with the situation.

For those of you who suffer from anxiety; you are not alone. There are people in your life who care about you and want to help, but might not know how. If you can’t talk about your emotions directly, ask them to read this post, or a book with a character you identify with, or maybe even a quote from one of the many inspirational mental health writers out there, like Matt Haig.

Anxiety likes to make you think you’re weak and a burden to others. That’s another lie. It takes a great deal of strength to fight with your own mind on a daily basis and still get out of bed every day. Don’t ever forget that, and don’t ever stop fighting.

2017 Resolutions

memory-jars

At this time of year, a lot of us are looking back on the resolutions we made for 2016, and either congratulating ourselves for having accomplished them, or beating ourselves up for failing to live up to our own expectations.

Most of my goals for 2016 were centred around reading, writing and the publishing world. Although I managed to accomplish some of them, my year was derailed pretty early on and I never quite got back on track.

2016 was a really tough year for me and my family, and most of my emotional energy was focused on dealing with losing my granny and supporting my mum through cancer, so my goals fell by the wayside. Normally, I’m the kind of person who is very goal-orientated and doesn’t cope well with failure (even if it’s only self-perceived failure), but, now that the relentless wave of 2016 has finally washed ashore, I’m trying to look at things differently.

Rather than being angry with myself for not achieving everything I wanted to, I’m choosing to be proud of myself for making it through 2016 with my sanity, self-confidence and sense of humour intact. I wouldn’t have managed that when I was younger, so I’m counting it as a solid achievement.

I’m also choosing to believe that 2017 will be better than last year, so I’m setting myself some new goals for the year ahead:

  • I’ve signed up to participate in the Goodreads Reading Challenge for the second time. Last year, I set myself a goal of 45 books, which turned out not to be attainable, so this year I’m aiming for 30 books. I have a great stack to get started with and I’m looking forward to delving into them. book-stack
  • Last year, I decided to participate in the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2016 Reading Challenge to read 12 books in 12 different categories in 12 months. It was a fun idea, but I only managed to read about half of the books on my challenge list (to be honest, I completely forgot about it and just read whatever I felt like). This year, I’m not going to try to stick to a specific list, but rather just aim to read a mix of genres in both fiction and non-fiction.
  • Getting my first short story published last year was a great experience and one I would love to repeat, but my main goal this year is just to write, whether or not I feel like sharing it with others. I didn’t write any fiction at all in 2016, since all my ideas stubbornly refused to make their way from my mind to the page, so I’m hoping to change that this year. There are so many characters running around in my head, a few of them are bound to break free!
  • This blog didn’t get much attention from me last year either, so writing more posts is another goal. The ones that have meant the most to me have been centred around mental health issues, which I’ve been dealing with a lot in the last year. A number of people have told me that those posts have helped them and that they’ve shared them with others, which is fantastic to hear, and it’s given me the confidence to write more along the same lines.

I feel good about these goals and I think they’re realistic and interesting enough for me to achieve, so I’m going to leave it there for now. I hope you all enjoyed bringing in the new year, and I wish you all the best for 2017!

Thoughts on Writing

Writing Apparatus

I recently read an article about my favourite poet Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’. The poem is widely regarded as a metaphor for the risks and rewards of taking the road less travelled. However, as letters between Frost and the original recipient of the poem reveal, this was not Frost’s intended meaning. Frost had written the poem to his friend, Edward Thomas, to poke fun at the fact that Thomas always expressed regret at not having taken a different path during their country walks together. To Frost’s annoyance, Thomas missed the point and instead praised Frost for having penned such a “staggering” poem.

Frost’s frustration with the misinterpretation of his work is understandable, and something I’ve experienced myself multiple times over the years.

However, in time I’ve come to realise that, just because I’ve written something, doesn’t mean my understanding of it is the only valid one. Anything that is created, be it a story, song, painting, or film, means something different depending on who is experiencing it. I may have arranged the words on the page, but who am I to tell readers where those words should take them?

That’s the wonderful thing about creative works. They are not static. They do not have a singular meaning. Once a story is released from the author’s mind and written down for others to read, the author loses their creative hold over it. They will always have a material hold by virtue of owning the copyright, however, their ability to dictate how their work should be interpreted vanishes as soon as others read it.

Earlier this year, I had a short story published in the Almond Press anthology Apocalypse Chronicles. A number of my friends and family kindly read it, and many of them kept asking me who the character of Tom was based on. I guess it was obvious that Hannah, the protagonist, was loosely based on me, but no one seemed to believe me when I claimed that Tom was not based on any particular person.

At best, he is an amalgamation of a number of the boys I went to high school with, but I had no one specific in mind when I wrote his character. Yet, those readers who know me continue to make that assumption. It’s a peculiar fascination that they seem to fixate on. Surely, this character must be based on someone from my own life, especially since I set the story in my hometown. This seems odd to me, since I wouldn’t be much of a storyteller if I couldn’t conjure up characters from my imagination.

It is a common belief that a writer reveals more about themselves in their work than they intend (the same can likely be said for artists, filmmakers and musicians), and my readers’ preoccupation with finding out who I had based Tom on made me question whether or not I had, subconsciously, based him on someone after all.  (After much thought, I maintain that I didn’t).

It used to annoy me when readers interpreted my writing in a different way than I had intended. As if I had somehow failed to express myself well, or they just didn’t “get it”. Now, I find joy in their various interpretations. If people can read what I write and find more than one meaning, then that means I’ve written something that has layers and can be appreciated in a number of different ways. That’s a compliment, not a criticism.

I write more for myself than anyone else, so my stories and poems will always have particular meaning to me, as I know what I had in mind when I wrote them. That said, it’s nice to know that they can take on a new life when read by someone else, and can have more meaning than I was able to see for myself.

Rapid Fire Reviews (2)

My family and I have been having an awful year, so, although I’ve been reading quite a lot, I haven’t been writing a lot. I’m trying to get back into it now, and these are the three books I’ve read recently that I have strong feelings about and feel like commenting on. All book titles are linked to their Goodreads pages.

schtum-coverShtum by Jem Lester

This book was important to me on a personal level and I was really keen to read it as soon as it came out. It follows the battle of a father to get his autistic son the specialist care he desperately needs, which is a battle my own parents fought for my brother. It’s part-fiction, part-reality for Lester, who has an autistic son himself. His fictional protagonist, Ben, must navigate marital issues, a sick father he’s never been able to talk to, and Jonah, his severely autistic son, who makes daily life an incredible challenge. The book included letters and reports relevant to Jonah’s case, which really added to the story and helped to express the frustration that endless bureaucracy can cause in these situations.  The book was well written, emotive and illuminating. Having experienced home life with an autistic brother and watched my parents fight for him the way Ben does for Jonah, I can say that Shtum is a very realistic portrayal of what it’s really like – the highs, the lows and the heartbreaks.

the-loneliness-of-distant-beings-coverThe Loneliness of Distant Beings by Kate Ling

I was really disappointed with this book. It had the potential to be interesting. The main characters are part of a generational ship’s crew whose sole mission is to seek out the source of a distant signal received by their ancestors on Earth. In order to ensure their continued survival, they have a breeding program that selects who they will have children with, leaving no room for love or personal choice. Seren, the protagonist, rebels against this idea when she has a chance encounter with her shipmate Dom (and 5 seconds later decides he’s the love of her life even though they’ve barely ever spoken). This unrealistic love connection is described as being ‘that quick, that strong, that beautiful and … also totally impossible.’ Well, it’s also the reason I found this book ‘totally impossible’ to like. 350+ pages of teenage angst and instalove really wasn’t for me.

the-long-way-to-a-small-angry-planet-coverThe Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

I LOVED this one. It has everything I look for in science fiction – interesting and well developed alien cultures, cool futuristic technology, fast-paced adventure and complex and relatable characters. There was also a broad acceptance of cultural diversity and cooperation, homosexuality and individuality that I appreciated. Each of the characters came from different backgrounds (and species) and were distinct individuals, but, for the most part, they functioned together as one family. There was conflict, secrecy and misunderstandings (it would have been boring and unrealistic without those elements), but I did love the bonds that existed and developed between the Wayfarer’s spacefaring family. There is a sequel to this book, however it’s a stand-alone that only features two of the supporting characters from The Long Way (which I liked, but didn’t really connect with), so I don’t think I’ll be reading that one, at least for now. I feel very satisfied with how The Long Way ended, so I’m happy to leave it there.

Suicide Prevention Week: Why I’m Glad I Kept Living

Suicide Ribbon

It’s National Suicide Prevention Week, leading up to World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10th.

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and came across the hashtag #IKeptLiving. Suicide survivors were talking about how they were glad their attempts had failed, and those who had thought about suicide in the past were explaining why they decided not to go through with it.

I am one of the latter.

Nearly 14 years ago, when I was 15, I was seriously contemplating ending my life. I had already been diagnosed with clinical depression and severe OCD, and I was being treated by two psychologists at a treatment centre for adolescent mental health. During one of my early sessions, they gave me a questionnaire to fill out so they could better understand how I was feeling.

While they were discussing it with me, they asked me which question had been the most difficult to answer. I tried to tell them, but found I couldn’t get the words out, so they laid the questionnaire down on the table in front of me and asked me to point to it instead.

I pointed to ‘Do you think about committing suicide?’ I had answered yes.

One night, a few weeks later,  while I was contemplating my latest round of prescription meds for my numerous health conditions (physical and mental), I started to think seriously about how many I would need to take to make all the pain go away. Probably more than I had handy, I reasoned, so I would likely need to sneak a bottle of alcohol out of my parents’ drinks cabinet to wash them down with.

I didn’t go through with it, but I was dangerously close. I’ve explained why I chose to keep living in a previous post, so I’m not going to talk about that now. Instead, I want to talk about why I’m so glad I’m still here.

If I had taken those pills, I wouldn’t have graduated from high school and two university courses.

If I hadn’t gotten help, I wouldn’t have just come home from the job I love.

If I hadn’t kept going, I would never have gotten two poems and a short story published.

If I had let the darkness take me, I wouldn’t have had the past 14 years with my family and oldest friends, or had the chance to meet all the wonderful new friends I’ve made in those years.

If I had listened to the depression and anxiety, I would never have seen the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone National Park, or three people I love get married.

If I hadn’t focussed on that glimmer of hope, I would never have met my idol, the wonderful Kate Mulgrew, who is integral to the reason I’m still here.

If suicide had been the end of my journey, I wouldn’t have the rest of my life in front of me, and all its unknown possibilities.

Those are just some of the many reasons I’m glad I chose to keep living. I hope you are able to find yours. Remember: you are unique; you are irreplaceable; the world will be worse off without you, not better.

If you need someone to talk to, there are people who can help. The organisations’ names are linked to their websites.

UK

Samaritans: 116 123

HopeLineUK (Papyrus): 0800 068 41 41

Breathing Space: 0800 83 85 87 (Scotland)

 

USA

Crisis Text Line: Text ‘GO’ to 741 741

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 800 273 8255

 

International

You can find a list of international suicide helplines here.