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).

Advertisements

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 – Grief | August – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | 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.

 

A Battle on Four Fronts – Grief, Pain, Anxiety and Illness

At this moment, there are countless people across the world struggling with mental health problems, living with physical illnesses and disabilities, dealing with the grief of losing someone they loved, and living daily with the fear of losing someone else. At the same time, there are people facing all four of these struggles at once. I wish I wasn’t one of them.

This year:

My mother, the person I love most in the world, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

My granny, who helped raise me and was more like a mother than a grandmother, died of leukaemia only 5 months after her diagnosis.

My own health, which has gotten steadily worse over the last 14 years, threw me another curveball and added more medication, hospital visits and potential surgery to my already long list.

My mental health, which I have struggled with since I was a child growing up with a violent autistic brother, has made every day a fight between extreme anxiety and crippling despondency.

These events have been overwhelming and frightening, but they have also taught me very valuable lessons.

When I was receiving treatment for my mental illnesses as a teenager, I discovered that writing was the key to my recovery. During my final session, my psychologist asked if he could keep some of my poems to help other patients. That helped me realise that writing about my experiences could help others.

I want to do that again. I want to make all this mean something.

When I think about what I would say to someone struggling with the same things I am, the following comes to mind.

Grief is not linear or logical.

It will strike at unexpected moments. One of mine was when I walked up the front steps to my house for the first time after granny died. It suddenly hit me that I would never take her arm to help her climb those steps again when she came to visit. I cried for almost an hour.

Guilt and grief tend to go hand in hand, and there may be times when you feel guilty for NOT crying. I didn’t cry at my granny’s funeral. Instead, I stood up and recited a poem I had written for her. Afterwards, a number of people expressed their admiration of how I had kept my composure, to which I hastily replied that I was sure to be an emotional wreck later that day. At the time, I worried that my apparent lack of emotion would lead them to assume that I wasn’t feeling my granny’s loss as deeply as I was.

I realise now that there was no need to justify my way of dealing with things. Grief is a process unique to the individual, and comparing yourself to others is both unhealthy and counterproductive. Do what you need to do, not what you think you should do.

You don’t have to feel guilty for not handling a loved one’s illness as well as they are.

Watching someone you love dealing with an illness is often harder than going through it yourself. My mum has been telling me for years how hard it is for her to watch me in pain every day, and now I know how she feels.

She is handling her cancer with grace, strength and determination and I’m incredibly proud of her. One of the things I admire most is her ability to focus on one stage of her treatment at a time, without wasting her energy on worrying about the future.

I simply cannot do that. For me, her cancer presents a minefield of anxiety, fear and endless terrifying questions. What if she reacts badly to the next chemo drug? What if she doesn’t wake up from the surgery? What if she gets an infection? What if the cancer comes back one day? What if I lose her like I lost granny?

When I’m having a really bad day and the endless cycle of questions pushes me into a panic attack or makes me so despondent that I just sit and watch reruns of Star Trek, I always find myself apologising to her. I feel like I’m letting her down if I’m not constantly upbeat and pushing aside my own problems to help her deal with hers. So what if my stomach hurts so much I can’t stand up straight? My mum has cancer, my problems are nothing compared to that, right? Wrong.

Just because I’m not the one with cancer, doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to be struggling, too. The effects of illness and injury are felt by more than just the person suffering from them. They ripple out and touch everyone who loves them.

You are not weak if you are not coping and your loved one is.

You are not selfish if you are ill or in pain yourself.

Your fears and struggles are just as valid as theirs.

Be honest and keep talking. You can get through it together.

Anxiety doesn’t always have to be a handicap.

I would be lying if I said that I wouldn’t banish my anxiety disorder if could. Of course I would. It can be incredibly debilitating, isolating and frustrating, but that doesn’t mean that all that anxious energy can’t be redirected towards something positive.

Your mind insists on running at 100 miles an hour, analysing in microscopic detail every facet and nuance of your life? Fine. Make it work for you. That over-analytical way you have of looking at the world? It doesn’t have to be a handicap. Even a quick glance at job advertisements will tell you that the ability to be organised and analytical are highly sought after traits by employers. Your mind can conjure up worst case scenarios at impressive speeds? That means you have the ability to anticipate problems and head them off before they happen. Another very useful trait.

If you’re anything like me, your anxiety will drive you to organise everything, with ease and accuracy, because that is the way your mind attempts to bring order to the chaotic state it exists in. I have become renowned at work for my lists and spreadsheets, and there’s nothing I like more than being given free rein to get stuck into organising a new project. My work gives me focus and allows me to channel my anxiety into something productive.

I’ve written more about this in a previous post, which you can find here.

Wanting to move forward and actually being able to are two different things.

One of the worst things about mental illness and grief is that, while you desperately want things to get better, you have been robbed of the motivation and confidence to make any positive changes. It can make you feel pathetic and weak. It’s amazing how things like filling out a job application or making that long-overdue trip to the bank can seem like climbing Mount Everest, (never mind things like trying to buy a house – my current Everest).

At the moment, the only time I feel truly productive and useful is when I’m at work. My job gives me achievable goals and a daily sense of accomplishment, not to mention a great social atmosphere (laughter is the eternal panacea).

Those feelings are vital and we all need them. If you can’t find them at work, look at the other areas of your life. Are you creative? Enjoy being in the garden or the kitchen? Volunteering your time to help others? There are a great number of ways you can give yourself the opportunity to feel accomplished and productive, and it’s important to keep trying until you do. Your mind will have more trouble fixating on negative thoughts if you’re busy arranging a flower bed or perfecting a new recipe.

That being said…

The days when you do next to nothing are not wasted days.

Those days when you can’t muster the will to leave the house or do much more than stare at the television are your mind’s way of telling you that it needs a break. That’s perfectly reasonable, especially considering the energy it takes to generate a constant stream of anxious thoughts, process grief or cope with depression. The mind can only take so much.

My granny’s leukaemia entered its final stage in the same week as my mum ended up in hospital after a bad reaction to her first round of chemo. I couldn’t sleep. I felt sick with grief and anxiety. My physical pain levels shot up to the point that I had to check with my doctor if it was safe to increase my dose of painkillers to the level I needed just to get through the day.

Initially, I tried to cope by burying myself in work. I only accepted how much I was struggling when I realised that I couldn’t even do that anymore. That was incredibly hard to admit to, not just because my anxiety used the opportunity to make me feel like a failure, but because I am not a person who feels comfortable walking away from her responsibilities.

Reluctantly, I went on compassionate leave until after granny’s funeral. In hindsight, I can see how absolutely necessary that was, and I will always be grateful for the incredible support I received from my colleagues (and continue to receive).

Needing a break does not make you weak or unreliable. On the contrary, being able to admit that you need one is a strength in itself, and you should never feel guilty for it. Neither should you feel guilty that your biggest accomplishment for the day was getting out of bed. When your own mind is trying to sabotage everything you do, a small achievement is still an achievement.


For those of you who believe there is no hope in your future, that you are weak and worthless and the world would be better off without you – I understand that. I’ve had those thoughts and I’ll never forget them. But I would urge you to remember this:

If you jump off that bridge, or swallow those pills, or use that razor – there are no more possibilities. No more chances for the extraordinary and unexpected twists of fate to change your circumstances and the way you feel. A single moment of random serendipity changed mine 13 years ago, and I’m still here because of it (you can read about that here).

My granny knew about my mental and physical health problems, and one of the last things she said to me was ‘thank you for being everything that you are.’ She didn’t see me as weak. She was proud of me just the way I am. She said her life had been a journey, and I will carry her words with me for the rest of mine.

If you had told me a year ago that all these things were going to happen, I would have bet every penny I had that they would have sent me spiralling back into the cycle of clinical depression, severe OCD and suicidal thoughts that defined my teenage years.

That hasn’t happened. I am still here.

Anxiety and Editing – The Perfect Combination

Editing Marks

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, but a few things have happened this week that have made me decide to write it now.

Some background before I get to the main point.

I grew up with a severely autistic brother, whose violent outbursts and unpredictable behaviour made my childhood home a frightening and dangerous place to be. He’s my only sibling and I’m the eldest, and my parents unwittingly placed a great burden of responsibility on me that I was too young to bear. I became fearful, withdrawn and terrified of telling my parents how I felt because I thought they couldn’t cope. I wanted to be the strong one, because, from where I was standing at 11 years old and ignorant of the strength of my parents’ marriage, I believed that if I showed any weakness, my family would fall apart.

A few years later, after my brother had been moved to a specialist residential care facility, I developed health problems. It’s a complicated story but, in a nutshell, an undiagnosed autoimmune disease left me with permanent damage to my digestive system and significant problems with my nervous system. When it all began the physical pain only added to the emotional pain and eventually it all got too much. I became depressed, horribly anxious, and, eventually, suicidal.

I got the treatment I needed, and, 13 years later, I’m a completely different person than I was then. My physical health has gotten worse, but my mental health has improved enormously. Unfortunately, although I have beaten back the depression and suicidal thoughts, I still have an anxiety disorder.

Because of this, I worried for years that, despite my academic achievements and ambition, I would never find a profession that would suit me. Then I found publishing, specifically, editing.

To my great surprise, this turned out to be the perfect job for someone with an anxious mind.

I work as a Publishing Quality Controller, and my main responsibility is to ensure that our books are as consistent and error-free as possible before they go to print. I LOVE my job, and I have found that it has allowed me to turn my anxiety into an asset.

It sharpens my focus and causes me to hone in on errors by instinct as well as by skill and experience. I’ll run my eyes over a page and think, something is wrong here, and I won’t stop until I find and correct it (or grudgingly convince myself to leave it alone if necessary – some authors are very stubborn!). It also makes me highly organised, and I use spreadsheets, checklists, folders and a ridiculous number of post-it notes to make sure nothing is missed or forgotten.

I don’t have a very laidback attitude when it comes to my work. When I send a top priority job to our typesetters, I’m slightly on edge until they acknowledge receipt of it. When an important deadline is unexpectedly brought forward, I’ll work as much overtime as it takes so that I don’t sacrifice quality for the sake of getting it done on time. My anxiety has a hard time letting me cut corners, even if I know the readers would likely never notice the errors I don’t fix. I know they’re there, and that’s all the motivation I need to keep working.

I have been known to be in bed about to fall asleep, suddenly remember a detail about a book I’m working on, then get up again and write it on one of my ever-present post-it note pads so that I can follow it up the next day. Crazy? Maybe. But it means that I don’t have to worry about it and I can get to sleep. The same goes for checking my emails out of office hours. I’m a ‘forewarned is forearmed’ kind of person, and if having knowledge of a new job the night before means I can hit the ground running the next morning, then I’m happy to keep an eye on them.

To a lot of people, this way of doing things might seem very unhealthy, but it works for me, and has the added benefit of taking my mind off the physical pain I deal with every day.

I am incredibly fortunate to work in a very supportive and sociable environment with seriously awesome colleagues, and I have the best manager I could possibly ask for. So many people face stigma in the workplace because of their mental health issues, and, while I don’t go about discussing mine at work, it doesn’t bother me that there’s a chance a few of my colleagues might read this. I trust them not to judge me for it or look at me any differently, and that’s a rare gift that I’m very grateful for.

Earlier this week, I had an upsetting conversation with someone close to me, and while I lay awake that night unable to sleep for worrying about it, all I wanted was for it to be morning so that I could go to work and plough my nervous energy into something worthwhile that would focus my mind and help me feel better. It worked, and that day I managed to send a series of 5 books to our typesetters and beat the deadline I had set for myself.

Sure, having an anxiety disorder means that I spend a lot of time worrying about small things (or what other people might consider to be small things), and even things that never actually happen. My anxious mind can conjure up the worst case scenario from any situation faster than my rational mind can stop it. That’s hard sometimes, but it also allows me to anticipate potential problems at work and head them off before they jeopardise the quality or deadline of a book.

After being treated by 5 psychologists in 15 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that my state of mind as it is now may be as good as it’s going to get. Rather than being upset by that, I’ve finally reached the point where I’ve accepted it. There are times that it still gets the better of me, but those times get less and less as the years go by, and, for the most part, I am able to control it enough to allow me to live the life I want to.

Rather than fighting with my anxiety and trying to change the person it has led me to become, I’m using it to my advantage. I haven’t figured out yet how that’s going to work in other areas of my life (where it still tends to cause problems), but I’ve certainly figured out how to use it to make me the best Publishing Quality Controller I can be.

I would never have wished to go through the things I have and to have been left with this anxiety, but it’s a part of me now, and it doesn’t have to be a weakness. For me, it has become a strength, and I think, if he could be, my brother would be proud of me for that.

Rapid Fire Reviews

I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t had much time to write. That really bothers me, so I’m trying to spend this weekend catching up on a few posts. Rather than writing separate reviews for the books I’ve been reading recently, I’m going to do a quick rundown of each of them. I’m calling it a rapid fire review post. Considering how behind I tend to get on my book reviews, this might become a regular feature. I think it’s a good way of going with my gut instincts rather than being too analytical.

All the Bright Places Cover All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

“The story of a girl who learns to live from a boy who wants to die.” That line is on the cover and it drew me to the book right away. Violet is dealing with the grief of losing her sister, while Finch is trying to find reasons not to kill himself. When they meet on the ledge of their school’s bell tower, they strike up a friendship that has a profound impact on both of them. I enjoyed the parallel journeys of the two characters. While Violet was rebuilding her life, Finch was rapidly losing control of his. I really liked them both and their struggles felt real and relatable. This isn’t a feel good YA, but it’s definitely worth a read.

 

Our Endless Numbered Days CoverOur Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

Peggy is only eight when her father takes her to live in an isolated cabin in the wilderness, after telling her that the rest of the world has been destroyed. What follows is a fascinating exploration of the father/daughter dynamic and the effects of extreme isolation and deprivation. I did see the twist coming, although I was hoping I was wrong. While I would recommend this book, it was quite disturbing at times, so it’s definitely not for everyone. I really enjoyed it though, and I think Fuller did a great job of dealing with the psychological effects on a young girl who matures into a woman with only a mentally disturbed father for guidance.

 

The Serpent King CoverThe Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

This one came highly recommended from Stefani over at Caught Read Handed. It’s centred around the lives of Dill, who is struggling to escape the prison of his family’s past; Lydia, who has aspirations far beyond the boundaries of her hometown; and Travis, who escapes his violent home life by taking refuge in his love of a Game of Thrones style fantasy series. Up until the twist in the middle of the novel, I was enjoying it well enough but it wasn’t really affecting me emotionally, but the second half had me rooting for the characters and hoping to see them happy. It was a good read overall.

 

The Water-Babies Cover The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley

A fairy tale about a boy who runs away from his cruel employer, gets turned into a water-baby, and has lots of strange adventures in the underwater world. I really didn’t like this book. It was written in 1863, so the style of language was quite different. I studied literature for years at university, so that’s not something that would usually bother me, but in this case I found the style of writing jarring and annoying. My main thought as I was reading it was, “this book is just weird for the sake of it”, and that really didn’t work for me. The talking turnips whose sole purpose was to learn lessons and be examined (or die), were the last straw!

The Need to Write

I love to write. I always have.

When I was a child, I would scribble endless stories on scrap pieces of paper and staple them together as little books.

Inspiration came from all sorts of places.

The animals in our garden were sentient creatures that would go on fantastical adventures among the overgrown trees and shrubs.

The lovebirds we looked after while my grandparents were on holiday were on their own vacation and would break out of their cage at night to socialise with the wild birds.

The ornaments on the shelves would come to life in my imagination and go on all kinds of adventures in the outside world, (my favourite of these was ‘The Pig That Lived in the Wild’ which I illustrated and recorded as an audiobook).

Once, I wrote a story about a squirrel that went into outer space in his squirrel-sized spacesuit. I have no idea where that one came from!

As I got older, my writing turned inward and rarely ventured beyond the boundaries of my journal pages. Severe depression and crippling OCD inspired poetry and introspective monologues that eventually helped to restore my emotional equilibrium. The mental health centre where I was treated kept some of my writings to help other patients, and ever since then I have believed in the power of creative expression to overcome emotions that would otherwise be suffocating. You can read more about those experiences in one of my previous posts.

Years have passed since then and my life is much busier now, to the point that sometimes I don’t realise that I NEED to write. The words force themselves through though, one or two lines at a time, until I have no choice but to notice them.

Sometimes, I dream about a dark room with a single spotlight shining on an easel holding a large sheet of white paper. As I watch, words appear on the page written by the invisible hand of my subconscious to form poems or extracts from stories. When I wake up, the words are still vibrant in my memory, and I make sure to write them down before they disappear again.

Other times, I find myself with a pen in my hand, idly scribbling words and ideas that won’t leave me alone unless I express them. Like this one that has been with me for the last few weeks:

Quote

It’s been a stressful start to the year, and I think these words are an expression of how I respond to emotional upheaval by taking refuge in writing. Those are usually the times when the words are at their most insistent and will run riot in my mind until I write them down.

I’m not sure where this blog post came from, but recently I’ve been feeling the need to write something, and this is what appeared when I sat down at my laptop.

I feel better now.