Mental Health Series: June – Lack of Motivation

This is the sixth 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 – Grief | August – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships


Lack of Motivation

Indianola Beach Dock, Washington, USA (the image is mine but feel free to use it)

Lack of motivation might not be one of the first things that comes to mind when you think about mental health. Procrastination and the occasional bout of laziness are a normal part of life and we all have days when we simply can’t be bothered to do something, especially if the task is one we don’t enjoy (I’ll take reading a good book over cleaning the bathroom any day). Usually, this behaviour doesn’t cause us too many problems. At some point we convince ourselves to get on with the tasks we’re putting off and are able to move on with our lives.

For those of us who struggle with mental health problems, it’s not as simple as that. Lack of motivation that goes beyond idle procrastination is often a by-product of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. It is a sign that our own minds are sabotaging our efforts and draining us of the mental energy we need to perform even the simplest of tasks.

When this happens, we can find ourselves locked in a self-defeating cycle. We have tasks to get on with that keep increasing in number, which can cause us to feel overwhelmed and anxious about not being able to get everything done. We can feel useless and angry with ourselves for our inability to manage our lives and for letting things get out of control. These feelings increase in severity along with the number of tasks until we reach the point that we don’t know where to begin and have no motivation to try.

Making lists of outstanding tasks can help, but even they can make things worse as they can become a visual representation of our failures if we are unable to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves. They taunt us in their incompleteness and are used by our mental illnesses as manufactured evidence of our weaknesses and lack of will power.

Lack of motivation can also apply to the things we actually want to do. Ironically, I had trouble motivating myself to write this post. I have a lot of competing priorities and big changes happening in my life right now that are quite overwhelming, and some days I feel like I’ll never have time to do everything, so finding the will to sit down and write a coherent post has been quite difficult. The only reason I pushed myself to finish it was because it’s getting very close to the end of June and I want to make sure that I keep my commitment to myself to publish a post every month. As tempting as it was to use my day off to lie down or try to tackle other things on my to-do list, I knew how angry and disappointed with myself I would be if I didn’t get this done.

It can be difficult for people who have not experienced significant issues with motivation to understand why we can’t simply prioritise our tasks and complete them one by one (in other words, “just get on with it”). Of course, we understand that doing this would make us feel better, but knowing that and actually being able to accomplish it are two different things.

To explore this idea further, I want to look at an example of when lack of motivation can have a debilitating impact on our ability to take positive steps forward in our lives – being unable to complete job or university applications. This is a really common problem for people who suffer from mental health issues and is about so much more than procrastination.

Imagine yourself sitting in front of your computer trying to work on a job application. Now imagine there is someone sitting next to you who does nothing but spout a relentless barrage of criticism. They bring up every mistake, every insecurity, every perceived weakness you have, and every reason they think you’re not good enough to get this job. To make matters worse, you can’t escape this person. They follow you wherever you go and refuse to leave your side. You try to ignore them and focus on what you’re doing, but they only get louder and louder until they’re screaming insults in your ear and you can’t focus on anything else.

Could you fill out a job application under those circumstances? Could you even summon the will to try when you know this person will always show up to sabotage you? Could you convince someone to hire you when you feel like you’re not even worth their consideration?

Probably not, and therein lies the problem.

Having a mental illness like depression or anxiety can cause us to feel exactly like this, only it is our own minds providing the constant stream of criticism and self-doubt rather than another person. We are not lazy. We are not putting it off because it’s boring. We are struggling with the very minds we need to carry out this task in the first place, which can make it feel impossible to make any real progress.

So, how can we deal with this?

Getting some help for any underlying mental health conditions is really important, but there are other, smaller things we can do to help become more motivated in the meantime.

I mentioned before that making lists can be counterproductive as they can make us feel like we’ve failed if we don’t manage to accomplish everything we planned to, but that can often be a result of making the lists too long or wide ranging. For lists to be effective at managing everything we need to do, they have to be achievable and suited to how we’re feeling at the time.

There will be some days when even small, seemingly insignificant tasks will require a Herculean effort, and we need to make allowances for that to avoid trying to do too much and feeling like we’ve let ourselves down if we don’t achieve everything we set out to do. If we’re tired or having a particularly challenging day with our mental health, then it makes sense that we’ll find it more difficult to get motivated.

On days like those, it’s important that we try to adjust our expectations of ourselves. For you, maybe doing the laundry is an achievement. If it’s something that you normally don’t manage to do, or do with great difficulty, and you’re able to do it, then that’s an achievement and you should view it as such. Accomplishing a task, no matter how small, gives your self-esteem something to work with in its battle against feelings of worthlessness, so it’s important to acknowledge it.

When I know I have a lot on my plate and I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed, I write a list of absolutely everything I can think of that needs doing, even if it’s not urgent. Then, I break it down into smaller, more manageable lists, making sure to include things that I actually want to do. It’s amazing how trying to catch up on a TV show that I’ve fallen behind on can actually feel overwhelming and turn into a task itself. Sure, it’s not vital to my day-to-day life that I stay well-informed about the lives of fictional characters, but the fact that I don’t feel like I have the time to do that can be very frustrating, so things like that go on my to-do lists as well.

To help combat the part of my mind that tries to make me feel lazy and useless, before I go to bed I make a mental list of everything I’ve achieved that day, down to the smallest task. If I haven’t had a particularly productive day, I try to remind myself that quiet days where I just sleep or watch TV are also important for my wellbeing, as they help me summon the energy to do more the following day.

What I’m aiming for is a balance of productivity and relaxation that allows me to keep on top of things that need to be done, like paying bills and housework, while also making time for things that I really want to do, like spending time with friends or finding out who the hell ‘A’ is on Pretty Little Liars.

This isn’t always easy, and even now I’m struggling with feelings of anger and disappointment with myself that my day off did not go as planned. That said, before I go to bed tonight, I will still be able to list some achievements for the day that will temporarily silence my internal critics, this blog post being one of them.

Fighting a daily battle with mental illness is a full time job. We won’t always get everything done. We won’t always feel up to fulfilling every commitment. We won’t always be able to get out of bed. The thing we have to try to do is accept that this is okay. These jobs don’t give us vacations or benefits, so it’s up to us to manage the workload and take time out when we need to.

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

 

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.

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.

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.

8 Ways Reading Can Help With Depression and Anxiety

Me glaring at monsterWe all perceive depression and anxiety in different ways. Maybe for you they are dark clouds obscuring the sun; maybe they are demons who follow you in your dreams and promise to haunt you for the rest of your life; maybe they are monsters who pop up everywhere and look like they were drawn by a 10-year-old, like the one that I made for this post (I apologise for my mediocre artistic skills, words are more my game).

Whatever they feel like to you, it can be difficult to find anything that offers some relief and breaks the cycle of negative thoughts. Since this blog is mostly about books, I wanted to write a post about how reading helps me on the difficult days, and how I hope it might help you.

1) A rapid heartrate and racing thoughts are common effects of anxiety. Reading can help slow these down. Well written prose and poetry have a natural rhythm that can lull your thoughts and breathing into slowing down without you even noticing.

2) An interesting story will pull you in and help you to push your difficult thoughts and feelings aside. Even a short break from them can be mentally and emotionally rejuvenating and give you much needed strength to get through the day.

3) Books contain some seriously awesome weird and wonderful things dreamed up by the impressive imaginations of their writers – hidden magical worlds, futuristic realities, fascinating fictional cultures and characters. The human mind is a powerful thing; powerful enough to fight back against depression and anxiety.

My bookworm is not afraid of the monster.

My bookworm is not afraid of the monster.

4) Depression and anxiety can make you feel very alone and like no one understands you. Given the wealth of characters found in books, you’re bound to find some who are just like you who you can relate to. Reading about their struggles can help you better understand your own and give you ideas about how to cope.

5) Can’t find the words to explain your feelings to others? Find a book with a character who is going through the same thing and ask your friends or family to read it, or just pick out some quotes which speak to your feelings. I would recommend It’s Kind of a Funny Story (fiction) by Ned Vizzini and Reasons to Stay Alive (non-fiction) by Matt Haig. There are loads of others out there and you can find great lists on sites like Goodreads.

6) Books can be a great way of connecting with other people, whether online or in person. Depression and anxiety can make it very difficult to talk to others, but discussing a book you both enjoyed can provide a safe and interesting conversation topic.

7) Reading can inspire you to write yourself, which can be very therapeutic. You don’t have to let anyone else read it, but letting your thoughts flow from your mind into the outside world can really help to put them into perspective.

And finally …

8) Reading connects you to the world beyond the confines of your own mind. That’s where the hope is. Books can beat monsters (and squash their cardboard representations).

Monster squashed in book

Borders Book Festival Part 2 – Matt Haig

Festival Sign 2

This is the second post I’m writing about the Borders Book Festival which took place last weekend (11th – 14th June) in Melrose, Scotland. You can find my first post about the talk I attended by author Kirsty Logan here.

On Sunday night I attended a talk by Matt Haig about his latest book Reasons to Stay Alive. This post took me longer to write than I thought it would – partly because I haven’t had a lot of time this week and partly because the subject of the talk is difficult for me to discuss.

Reasons to Stay Alive is a candid and emotional account of Matt Haig’s struggle with the ‘black dog’ of depression and anxiety. If you’ve read one of my previous blog posts, you’ll know I’ve struggled with this myself and would likely not be here today if it hadn’t been for a particularly serendipitous moment 12 years ago involving Star Trek: Voyager and the wonderful Kate Mulgrew. Over the years I have found ways of reading and talking about depression without having it trigger a response within myself (I have plenty of other triggers to make up for those), but somehow listening to Matt talk about his experiences in person made me feel … something. It’s difficult to articulate exactly what that something was.

Matt Haig Talk

Firstly, the setting, though very nice, threw me off and felt incongruous with the nature of the event. All the round tables with red velvet chairs, white table cloths and flower centre pieces made me feel like I was at a formal dinner rather than a book festival event (the set up for Kirsty’s event was completely different).

But then, why shouldn’t depression be discussed in an open, bright, well decorated public forum? Keeping it hidden away only serves to fuel the stigma and feed into the idea that depression is the unique affliction of those with so-called ‘troubled pasts’ and ‘hard lives’. The truth is depression can hit anyone, at any time, for no discernible reason. Of course, sometimes the reasons are painfully obvious, as they were with me, but like any illness depression doesn’t necessarily need a reason to strike – it can just appear one day and change your life without your permission.

While I was listening to Matt speak very honestly and bravely about his own experiences, I found myself analysing the way he was talking and the reactions of the other audience members. This, of course, being easier than analysing my own reactions and the subsequent avoidance easily justified by the fact that I knew I would be writing about the event for this blog.

I noticed two main things: Matt talks very fast when he’s discussing depression, and he skilfully uses humour to get his point across.

I certainly didn’t have trouble following what he was saying, and it didn’t look like anyone else was either, so it wasn’t a problem, just something I noticed. Matt talked about how his depression, coupled with anxiety, made his thoughts race and everything feel like it was moving very fast. In his own words:

‘It’s like a fast-forward depression — you’re having a lot of racing thoughts. It was never boring, it was horrendous but it wasn’t that slow, flat plane which you think of as the archetypal case of depression.’ (I couldn’t remember his exact words from the event, so I found this quote in an interview he did here).

I found myself wondering if he talked so fast in order to try and keep up with the pace of his thoughts. I often wonder that about myself, too, especially when I’m walking anywhere. I have no concept of a leisurely stroll and, as I have been told countless times by friends and family who try in vain to catch my attention when they pass me in the street (this even happened once today), I’m always ‘charging off’ somewhere like I’m on a mission and seem to be completely in my own head.

They’re absolutely right. I rarely ever notice what’s going on around me when I’m out running errands, heading to an appointment, etc. I notice enough not to bump into things or get run over by a car, but that’s about it. My thoughts never stop and the anxiety that I still struggle with on a daily basis is always lingering in the side lines even when I am not consciously aware of having anything to actually be anxious about. I think maybe my feet move so fast because I’m trying to keep up with my own thoughts. Sometimes I can’t stand to be still, and being on the move helps me feel better, like pacing when I’m feeling particularly anxious. Seriously, my footprints should be visible in my carpet by now.

I’m rambling now. Back to Matt.

The second thing I noticed was his use of humour, both in the talk and in the book itself. He got a lot of laughs from the audience and therefore made depression feel like a more approachable and less intimidating subject for people either not familiar with it or not sure how to engage with the topic. My favourite part was when he described himself as an ‘agoraphobic, neurotic weirdo’, which he said isn’t great for many professions but could sit right at the top of a CV (resumé) for a writer! Good thing he’s a fantastic writer then!

After the event I went to get my book signed. While I was walking towards the signing tent (okay, striding, my thoughts were hurrying my feet along pretty fast by this point), I was thinking that I would mention to Matt about my own depression and near suicide attempt, about how I wrote myself out of my depression and how inspirational I thought he was. But when I got to the signing tent all those thoughts coalesced into … not a lot. He asked for my name and I made some comment about how I don’t like my full name (I’m Jo, not Joanne, dammit!) and he mentioned that he’s not too fond of Matthew either. I thanked him for signing my book and wandered away, instantly feeling annoyed with myself for missing an opportunity.

Reasons to Stay Alive - signed

Had there not been other people in line behind me (or if I hadn’t been very aware of a former school classmate’s mother standing nearby), things might have been different. Or not. I don’t know, but maybe this explains why I’ve turned what was supposed to be a write up of the event into a post that probably would have been better off in my journal rather than here. Oh well.

Depression should be spoken about – it needs to be – and for that reason I’m going to ignore the part of my brain that’s telling me to delete this post and start over, and hit the publish button instead.

‘Be brave. Be strong. Breathe, and keep going. You will thank yourself later.’ – Reasons to Stay Alive

Thank you to Matt for writing this book, and thank you to everyone who has read this post.

Kate Mulgrew’s ‘Born with Teeth’ and the impact she has had on my life

Born With Teeth CoverI was going to write a regular review of Kate Mulgrew’s Born with Teeth: A Memoir, but then I read it, and a simple review is not enough to express how I feel. This will be the most personal post I’ve ever written and I’m very nervous about it, but it feels like the right thing to do.

If you know me or are a regular reader of my blog, then you know I have been a fan of Kate and her work since I was 8 years old when I saw my first episode of Star Trek: Voyager, in which she played Captain Kathryn Janeway. I’m 27 now and my admiration and appreciation for her has grown exponentially over the years. She is an exceptionally talented actress; a wonderful orator; incredibly gracious towards her fans (I speak from experience); and a true joy to watch in any role she plays.

She is also, as it turns out, a beautifully gifted writer. Her lyrical eloquence weaves a tale so vivid and engaging that I could see it all playing out in my mind as if it were a movie. Kate lays out in unapologetic honesty a life filled with adventure, grief, trauma, and, above all, a tremendous passion for her work and her family. As she shares the intimate details of the pain of giving up her daughter for adoption, surviving a rape, losing two sisters and the kind of heartbreak only true love can bring, we are also treated to riveting stories of romance, travel and the drama of stage and screen. Kate is an astute observer of human nature and she uses this skill to craft dynamic and colourful depictions of the variety of interesting people she has encountered throughout her fascinating life.

Being the massive Star Trek fan that I am, the chapters about Kate’s time on Voyager were a real treat and I’m certainly delighted that she included them, but even if they hadn’t been there I would still have absolutely loved the book. At times intensely passionate and at others desperately sad, this was a memoir that had me completely hooked from beginning to end and left me with a profound sense of gratitude towards, and a greater understanding of, a woman I have admired for most of my life.

I love and look up to Kate for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, but there is one other reason that I have never spoken of because it was too painful and I didn’t think I was strong enough to give voice to it. But then I read Kate’s memoir, and the courage and bravery of her words gave me the confidence to find my own, and reminded me that there are some things which should not be kept hidden.

I grew up with a severely autistic younger 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 at a time when I was far too young to deal with it. 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, that my family would fall apart. I’m from a rural area in Scotland where there are few resources for special needs children, and with such little support our lives became subject entirely to my brother’s needs.

Eventually, the situation became untenable and my brother was moved to a specialist residential care facility where he could have the quality of life that we could not provide. By then I had become terribly withdrawn, fearful and anxious and struggled to relate to my family and friends. I was already a huge fan of Star Trek: Voyager and Captain Janeway was my favourite character. To help with my anxiety I took a Janeway action figure to school with me. It made me feel protected and gave me courage to get through the day; a tangible reminder of the strength and fortitude of the character herself.

This figure was far from a good likeness of Kate to begin with, made worse by its many paint-scraping trips in and out of my schoolbag!

This figure was far from a good likeness of Kate to begin with, made worse by its many paint-scraping trips in and out of my schoolbag!

A few years later I started to develop health problems. It’s a long and 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 I had been feeling for years and eventually it all got too much. One night, while I was watching an episode of Voyager, as I often did to make myself feel better, I was sitting with a pile of prescription medications and 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 have heard many people refer to suicide as a selfish act. It’s not. It’s an act of pure desperation. You don’t think about the devastating impact it will have on the people who love you. All you can think about is making it stop, about silencing the storm inside you, because how can life be worth living if every day, every second, feels like this? How can you possibly be of any use to anyone? There is no hope in that moment that it will ever get better, there is only the crippling fear and pain which has brought you there.

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 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, (‘Parallax’, the second episode of Season One), 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 soon began treatment at a centre specialising in adolescent mental health.

As well as supporting me through my recovery, the psychologists there helped me to realise that creativity was the means by which I could find my way back to myself. I discovered that I could write poetry, and over the months that followed I crafted a path for myself made out of words and metaphors that personified my depression into a force I could fight. When I came to the end of my treatment, the lead psychologist asked if he could keep some of my poems to help the other patients, which I very happily agreed to.

Now, 12 years later, I have a job in the industry I love (publishing), two university degrees, and, most importantly, wonderful relationships with my hugely supportive family and friends. I write as often as I can and also run an online support group for siblings of those with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and Down’s Syndrome, in an effort to provide the kind of help I so desperately needed when I was young.

In 2012 I had the incredible experience of meeting Kate at a Star Trek convention in London. Living in Scotland and finding travel quite a challenge I had assumed that I would never get the chance to meet her, so when I did it was like a dream and I still feel so happy whenever I think about it. My mother kindly made the trip to London with me to give me support and said that she had never seen me as happy as I was after I met Kate, who was as kind, gracious and generous in person as I had always imagined her to be.

Kate and I

Whenever I find myself dealing with difficult emotions, trying to adjust to the side effects of a new medication or struggling with the physical pain and fatigue that are my constant companions, I see Kate as Janeway standing on the bridge of Voyager, telling her crew that sometimes you just have to punch your way through. And I do.


Kate now stars as Galina “Red” Reznikov on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black and she’s absolutely terrific, as is the show itself. You can read my review of the book the show is based on here.

The following are links to some great interviews and reviews of Born with Teeth. Read it. Seriously. Kate Autograph 1

The Washington Post

Publishers Weekly

LA Times

The Mary Sue

CBS interview

One last thing, a shout out to my dear friend Stefani, who very kindly sent me Kate’s book across the Atlantic from Mississippi to Scotland. She has an awesome blog over at Caught Read Handed that I would encourage you to check out if you love books and nerdy things!

Book Review: When Mr Dog Bites

Cover Image

Title: When Mr Dog Bites

Author: Brian Conaghan

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Date: 2014

Format: Hardback (372 pages)

Synopsis: Dylan Mint has Tourette’s. For Dylan, life is a constant battle to keep the bad stuff in – the swearing, the tics, the howling dog that escapes whenever he gets stressed. And, as a sixteen-year-old virgin and pupil at Drumhill Special School, getting stressed is something of an occupational hazard. But then a routine visit to the hospital changes everything. Overhearing a hushed conversation between the doctor and his mother, Dylan discovers that he’s going to die next March. So he grants himself three parting wishes: three ‘Cool Things To Do Before I Cack It’.

Number One: Have real sexual intercourse with a girl. (Preferably Michelle Malloy and definitely not on a train or any other mode of transport. If possible, the intercoursing will be at her house).

Number Two: Fight Heaven and earth, tooth and nail, dungeons and dragons for people to stop slagging my mate Amir. And help him find a new best bud.

Number Three: Get Dad back from the war before you-know-what happens.


There are two things I should mention about this book before I get into what I thought about it. One is that there is a LOT of swearing and offensive language, so if that bothers you then this probably isn’t the book for you. There are also a few sections which are a bit uncomfortable to read, like when Dylan is taunted by bullies in the park. The author is giving an honest (sometimes brutally honest) portrayal of the kind of treatment mentally ill people can face, but it was a bit upsetting at times. Secondly, it’s VERY British. There’s slang, figures of speech and references on almost every page which readers outside of the UK might not be very familiar with. That being said, the vast majority of these can easily be understood in the context in which they are written, and shouldn’t be an obstacle for international readers.

Dylan’s character is not one you will often encounter in books. His Tourette’s causes him to swear a lot and say inappropriate things, but it also has a profound effect on the way he thinks. His thoughts are fast paced and energetic, and also very descriptive, which I loved. There are similes and metaphors everywhere you look, written with a unique Dylan twist. Sometimes he also adds in popular culture references and rhymes into his descriptions. Here are a few examples:

“This drove me round the Oliver Twist.”

“Mum’s head was wagging like a dog’s tail and her body was Shake, Rattle and Rolling.”

“No mistake, sugar cake!”

He also says “a-mayonnaise-ing” instead of amazing, which I think is really fun and made me smile every time I read it. The author is Scottish, so Scots language words pop up every now and then. Examples include eejit (idiot), lugs (ears), bahookie (butt) and mingin (disgusting). I’m Scottish myself so I’ve been hearing these words all my life, but they might seem a bit odd to people not familiar with them. In general, the slang works for the story and Dylan’s characterisation though, and allows the author to produce some brilliant descriptions and dialogue. “Pain in the bahookie” just sounds funnier than “pain in the ass” if you ask me!

The way Dylan’s thoughts are written provides a wonderful insight into the workings of the mind of someone with Tourette’s. It’s both chaotic and poetic. There are no moments of calm or chances to take a breath, which I imagine is what it must be like for someone with Tourette’s. I enjoyed his process of trying to figure out what was really going on with his family, and how he reacted to the twist later in the story, which I won’t spoil for you.

The concept of Mr Dog is also interesting. Dylan has personified his illness, which makes it easier for him to set himself apart from it and try to deal with how it affects him. I could definitely relate to this as I do the same with my own health condition, though mine is a gremlin, not a dog! When Dylan gets angry or stressed out his Tourette’s gets worse and harder to control, causing him to start ranting and swearing uncontrollably. He refers to this as “Mr Dog coming out.” The typography used in these moments definitely adds to the effect.

Typography Example

Dylan is an honest and loyal person who genuinely cares about the people in his life. This is particularly apparent in his friendship with his best friend Amir, who has autism. They both have disabilities and struggle in social situations, so they don’t care about each other’s ticks or unusual behaviour, they just get on with chatting about how much they hate the school bullies and the chances of Dylan getting to date Michelle Malloy. It’s a very accepting and tolerant friendship. Dylan is very protective of Amir, who is the target of racism from his peers. It’s sweet, and also funny, when Dylan’s Tourette’s occasionally makes him insult Amir too, and then when he tries to apologise he ends up insulting him more! Amir doesn’t mind, though, because they’re best buds. Both my brother and cousin have autism, so I was very interested to see how the author would portray Amir’s character, and I’m glad to say that I think he did a good job. Amir’s way of expressing himself and his anxieties were believable and I really felt for him when he was scared about losing his best friend.

I was going to write about a few of the other characters, like Michelle Malloy, Dylan’s mother and her friend Tony, but then I realised I didn’t really remember much about them or really care that much, which is not a good sign. They weren’t bad characters, but I don’t feel much for them one way or another, although Michelle did grow on me later in the novel as she interacts with Dylan more and more. I think the focus was so much on Dylan that the other characters weren’t developed quite as much as I would have liked.

That being said, I would still highly recommend this book to anyone interested in getting inside the mind of someone with Tourette’s. It has similarities with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (Asperger’s Syndrome) and The Shock of the Fall (Schizophrenia) in that it allows the reader to get an insight into what it’s like to deal with a difficult mental condition. Also, there’s some great humour in there, including some cracking Cockney rhyming slang!

Overall Rating: Book Rating Picture Book Rating Picture Book Rating Picture  My bookworm rating system is explained here. It would have been four bookworms if the other characters had been fleshed out a bit more.

Other Works by this Author: Brian Conaghan has also written The Boy Who Made it Rain.

If you’re interested, you can find out more about Tourette’s Syndrome here. You can also read an article written by the author about his own struggle with Tourette’s here.