Showing posts with label mental health. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mental health. Show all posts

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Two Hundred Years Old* and Still Timely - Joan Lennon

On Feb. 16, 1820, essayist and clergyman Sydney Smith wrote to his friend Lady Georgiana Morpeth, who was suffering from depression.  Not everything he writes speaks to our condition today - I'm not at all sure about the 2nd advice or the 11th - and nobody's going to mess with my coffee intake! - but there's a lot of pertinent stuff in here.

Some of it will ring a bell.  Some of it will raise hackles.  

See what you think -

Foston, Feb. 16th, 1820

Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done—so I feel for you.

1st. Live as well as you dare.
2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.
3rd. Amusing books.
4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.
5th. Be as busy as you can.
6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you.
7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you.
8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment.
9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.
10th. Compare your lot with that of other people.
11th. Don’t expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best.
12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and every thing likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence.
13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.
14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.
15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant.
16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness.
17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.
18th. Keep good blazing fires.
19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.

Believe me, dear Georgiana, your devoted servant, Sydney Smith

(Source: Letters of Note)

* Two hundred and one, to be exact.  And four days.

Joan Lennon Instagram

Monday, 7 October 2019

Bad Bosses by Dawn Finch

I have had many bosses in my time, and have been bullied by a few of them. I’ve been made to do things that were not in my job description, and I’ve been treated like dirt and even driven to resign more than once. None of these bullies even come close to the worst boss of all – me.

Since I went freelance and self-employed a few years ago I have fallen foul of the worst kind of employer treatment. I am a hideous employer. The worst. I almost never give myself a day off and even insist that I work on public holidays like Christmas.  I forced myself to work through weekends, birthdays, family occasions etc. On the rare occasions, I do take a holiday, I still work through. I get no sick pay, or holiday pay, and even if I am sick… I still work. If I ever take a break I spend most of it feeling guilty for not working and know that when I return to my desk everything will have stacked up so I’ll have even more to do.

Working from home means that I don’t have a staffroom or colleagues around me. Facebook is my staffroom and I love nipping in to have a chat and a cuppa. I look at people’s photos and “meet” up with old friends and make new ones. Twitter is my picket-line, and over there I campaign for libraries and literacy. There I support library workers and writers and stay in touch with everyone else working towards similar goals. I love a bit of social media and, if you work it well, it can be a wonderful tool.

But it eats up time, and the more you do it, the more it requires of you. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – it is always there, and people need replies quickly.
I had to be quick.

But this wasn’t about the real world, it was about me and most of this was in my head. This was actually me putting pressure on myself to be perfect. To work harder. I wasn’t getting either emotionally or financially rich doing this. The harder I worked, the poorer I seemed to get. I was not only getting sick, but I was doing most of my work for free and was not being as useful to anyone as I should be. I was overloaded with things I’d agreed to, and I wasn’t finishing things. I was late with deadlines and was forgetting important things. I was getting sicker, and depressed, and angry.  I had to find a way to change this.

My mental health was being torn apart by my need to keep going and to reply to every message, and every email. I was gradually breaking down. Without realising it I was becoming sicker physically too. I hadn’t paid attention to my own physical health and had failed to deal with a medical problem that might have killed me.

(Spoiler – it didn’t.)

Lots of things made me reassess the kind of employer I am. I was a union rep for a long time in my workplace and if any of my colleagues had come to me with the kind of grievances I have, I would have recommended a formal complaint followed by a tribunal. Why was I doing it to myself? Everyone knows that a happy employee performs better, so why was I trying to drive myself into the ground?

I knew I had to do something about it, and in January last year I decided I had to force myself to take back control of my life. I decided to look at my life just as I would a real job, and to try to treat myself with more dignity and respect. I wanted to reassess my life and give myself some more quality time and a better work/life balance.

This was not easy. Library campaigns and writing deadlines don’t go away at the weekends. Things happen that need replies, government documents sneak out late at night or just before bank holiday weekends, tearful library workers email late at night and they deserve replies, huge stacks of board and committee papers won’t read themselves, journalists ask questions that require immediate answers or they say something else. Things happened that I felt I had personal responsibility for.
But something had to change

I went offline for a day. I had to hide first of all because I knew my mean-assed employer would nag me until I weakened and went back to work. That meant that I had to go somewhere I knew I had no signal. My first escapes were windswept and rainy places where I was absolutely sure that even if I totally guilt-tripped myself it wouldn’t make any difference.
That little “no signal” thing is surprisingly liberating.
That little thing worked, and it started me on a bigger thing.

As I mentioned before, I’m not rich. In fact, I’m far from it. I looked on social media at all the things that other people were doing to relax: fancy holidays, shopping, spa days, makeovers, meals in expensive restaurants…. I couldn’t afford those. I don’t drive, so my escapes were limited to where I could walk, or what I could afford on the train. I can’t afford lavish meals out, but I can afford a sandwich, and I can afford to fill my little flask with tea. I don’t have the money to travel in the lap of luxury, but my old walking boots have new laces, and they’ll do for me.

Now, every weekend I go offline and shift from the virtual world to the actual one. I don’t switch on my laptop, and I don’t open emails. I’m not saying I threw out social media altogether. I’m still a solo worker so I still want to chat to people. I spent a few months sorting out my Facebook and made an announcement stating that I was shifting my campaign work to Twitter and that people should follow me there if they want only that. I warned people that my Facebook might now become a thread of “books, reading, hedgehogs in baskets and sarcastic jokes”. People seemed fine with that. At the weekends I now avoid emails and Twitter, but I still hang around Facebook a little bit.
A very little bit, because mostly I’m up a hill, or a cliff, or slightly lost in a forest.

This brings me to #SandwichOnTheKnee

I started taking pictures of where I was eating my little sandwich because I wanted to encourage other people to stop being crappy employers and to treat themselves with a little more respect. I wanted other people to take time for themselves in any way possible. I’m pretty sure we would all make a stand against people treated poorly by their employers, why do we treat ourselves so badly? Why do we tolerate it?

Join me in my #SandwichOnTheKnee campaign. You don’t have to sign anything, or pay anything, or make a banner – all you have to do is make time for yourself in a simple way. Doesn’t have to be a sandwich; it might be a bit of fruit, or a bar of chocolate, or just a bottle of water.

#SandwichOnTheKnee is more of a symbol than an actual sandwich (although I will still be making my sandwich). It’s about climbing your own hill and taking time back for yourself. All you have to do is remember that you matter and that it’s time you took back time! Drag your eyes from the screen to the horizon, and feed your brain with a blast of fresh air. Right now, with all that's going on in the world, I suspect this is more needed than ever.

Tweet me your photos using the hashtag. It might take me a while to reply. I might be up a hill.
See you there.

Dawn Finch is a children’s author and library campaigner. She is a trustee of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and is Chair of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group committee (CWIG)
You can find her on Twitter as @dawnafinch or with a #SandwichOnTheKnee

Friday, 19 April 2019

Ways Back to Writing - Lucy Coats

It's been a long time since I've written anything at all apart from lists and ABBA posts -- and not character lists either; shopping lists, lists of furniture, mundane everyday lists. I have written here before about my battle with depression. This last bout of it has been very bad indeed, including terrible panic attacks (sometimes several a day). I don't say this to garner sympathy, but I hope that by being open and honest about this, I may help someone else who is struggling. That is my aim in writing this piece.

I always visualise my creativity as a deep well from which I draw. This last year, the well has been dry, with only cracked mud at the bottom. It has, frankly, been terrifying. Under normal circumstances, even in the bad times, I have ideas floating through my head all the time, tiny snippets of potential storylines, dreams that turn into book plots. This time, nothing.

I have so many strategies I use to get myself going creatively, and I teach them to my writing students. Normally they work. I tried all of them. None of them worked this time. Inside my head was an arid desert, devoid of anything. So in my saner and more reflective moments, I gave myself permission not to write, but to concentrate on getting well again, and work at that instead. Several months down the line, the well of creativity is beginning, very cautiously and slowly, to fill again, and I'm starting to find the way back.

'Bees' (c) Lucy Coats
In fact, I didn't start with writing itself, but with drawing and painting, beginning with a pattern of bees for a shamanic drum. The repetition of drawing the same thing over and over was very soothing -- each bee was the same, and yet I soon found that each of them was slightly different in the way they related to each other. Then I started spinning with a distaff and drop spindle, creation and meditation in one. I'm not very good at it yet, but the act of making one thing into another with my hands -- wool to yarn in this case -- was and is something I find very satisfying.

One thing I missed greatly in the arid time was my dreams. I am a prolific dreamer, and have had many good writing ideas from them in the past. But my depression nights were either black and empty or full of insomnia and anxious thoughts. Again, I chose to let them go, trusting that they would reappear in time. Eventually, a couple of weeks ago, they did. What's more, quite soon I had one of those middle of the night post-dream wakings which necessitate lots of incoherent scribbling down of an Important Idea at 3am. In the light of day, it turned out to be a good idea, though something entirely different from anything I've done before, not for children, and not fiction. I'm loving the initial research for this, and because it is so different, there is no pressure.

This morning, though, brought the real delight. I woke early, with the germ of a story in my head. A proper, bona-fide children's story. I'm taking time away from it to write this post, so forgive the brevity, as I'm longing to get back to it!

Having been through this depression cycle so many times, the most important thing I have learned from this round is to give myself both a literal and mental break from writing, to ask for help, and not to feel guilty about any of it it. Mental illness may not be something that can be seen, like a broken leg or arm, but it is just as real and just as painful, and just as slow, if not more so, to recover from. I have never been more thankful not to be under a deadline this year, for the first time in forever. If you are struggling right now, do be kind to yourself. And don't try and deal with it on your own. As writers in what is quite a lonely profession, we tend to beat ourselves up a lot, and to continually question the validity of what we do. Coupled with depression and anxiety, it is a toxic mix. There are people around you -- friends, family, therapists -- who can help. I know the inside voice all too well which says things like 'nobody will care'; 'why should anybody be interested?'; 'don't be a bother/bother anyone.' Trust me, they will care, they are interested, and you're not a bother.

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review 
Lucy's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram
Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency

Friday, 19 October 2018

When Life Hands You (Rotten) Lemons -- Lucy Coats

I've written several times on these pages about mental health and wellbeing. I think that it is important to talk openly and honestly about the struggle that many writers, including me, have with depression, anxiety, panic attacks and associated conditions, although I am aware that not everyone is able or wants to do this. Despite the enormous strides which have been made in widening public conversations and awareness about mental health in general, it is still a sad fact that, as an 'invisible illness', there are those who still dismiss it as a self-indulgence, or think we should just 'pull ourselves together'. I wish it was that easy.

For personal reasons, which I will not go into, this summer has been full of the (rotten) lemons which title this piece, hurled at me one after another. I do not wish to make lemonade (the normal advice for when life hands you them). For one thing it would taste bitter and vile for lack of sugar and sweetness, and for another, nobody would wish to drink it. These particular rotten lemons have been toxic to both mind, body and creativity. Not only do I feel physically poisoned, (not least because my physical body has reacted very badly to the combined stress of anxiety, depression and panic attacks, enhanced by what my doctor tells me is an excess production of cortisol), but my creativity levels have gone through the floor.

I am not a doctor. I do not usually talk about science. But cortisol is an interesting little stress hormone when allied to a writer's brain. In short, high levels of cortisol mess with memory and learning skills (among other things), and are also a trigger for all kinds of mental illness including depression. The basic science tells us that cortisol is part of the fight or flight mechanism of the human body, and is released by our adrenal glands as a response to fear or stress. Normally, once the fear or stress event is over, and there has been a physical release from either fight or flight, the body returns to normal. The problems arise when there is no such physical release, and when the stress levels continue day on day, at which point the cortisol levels build up in the blood, and turn into a 'saboteur within' of both the mind and body.

This is, quite literally, how my creative brain is feeling at the moment. Sabotaged. If there is such a thing as a 'well of creativity', mine has been blown up and is in pieces, with the water of ideas all leaking out. So how the hell am I going to mend it? There are many tried-and-tested solutions for alleviating high cortisol levels -- exercise, mindfulness techniques and so on. I do all those, and they help. But they help only to the point of keeping me functional, and able to navigate day to day life without too many disasters. There just doesn't seem to be anything much left over to boost my creativity levels.

Caroline Brothers wrote an interesting article for Autumn 2018 edition of The Author magazine, in which she quotes Paul Silvia, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. Silvia says that: 'Creativity isn't a part of the brain, but something incredibly complex that the brain can do.' That strikes me as very true, and it gives me a little hope. That complexity is something my writing brain can't quite manage right now. But if I carry on with those tried-and-tested solutions I mentioned above, eventually it will. I've written this piece, after all, and even if it's not a creative piece in the true sense, at least it is words strung together that (I hope) make some kind of sense. Maybe the next will be a poem, or a piece of flash fiction. One thing is certain. I won't let the damned rotten lemons win.

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review
Lucy's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Singed Around The Edges by Sheena Wilkinson

I’m writing this from Carrickmacross, a small and attractive town in County Monaghan. I’m in the middle of two days of school and library visits in the county. Next week it’s Kilkenny and Dublin, and then begins a month of weekly travel to England and Scotland – Manchester, Liverpool, Huddersfield, Birmingham, Aberdeen, Edinburgh… And I have a book to write by the end of March. 

Yes, I know.  I’ve done what I advise everyone else not to do – I have burnt myself out. 

I have been too busy, too over-committed, for too long. I have spent too much time queuing in airports and yawning in trains and dashing round in the car. A few weeks ago – probably not unrelated – I ended up with the kind of horrible virus I haven’t had since I was a child. Too sick to read? That’s not on! For the first time in my writing career I had to cancel events.  

I panic when I look at my diary for the next two months. I have written JUST SAY NO on the wall above my desk (on a post-it, not the actual wall; I haven’t lost the run of myself that much). I have scrawled WRITE AT HOME on all the days in my diary when I am not physically somewhere else – these are few and far between. I didn’t use to have to tell myself to do that. Especially as most of those days are weekends. 

I know other writers often feel like this. Recently, Claire Hennessy wrote a great article on the subject of writers with day jobs for The Irish Times and it was contributing to this article that made me think I needed to write about this honestly here on Awfully Big Blog Adventure. (here)

Tired and overburdened is how I felt when I had a day job. It wasn’t supposed to be like this now. I’ve had seven books published, won some awards, had some lovely gigs – RLF Writing Fellow, Arvon tutor, teaching creative writing in settings ranging from prisons to universities. I enjoy all those things, which is just as well as I need the gigs to pay the bills. I just thought I’d be living the dream a bit more. Because let me assure you – 90% of this travelling isn’t to meet readers who have bought or love my books; mostly I begin events by saying who I am. 

I’ll keep on doing these gigs, and I am grateful for every invitation. But I haven’t got the balance right. I have said yes too often, squeezed out my writing time, squeezed out time to just BE. 

I have just bought my 2019 diary and it’s started to fill up. But I’m making a before-the-new-year resolution: take more time to write. More time to think. More time to read. More time to be. 

Back to Carrickmacross. It’s lovely. I’m happy to be here and the library have put me up in a gorgeous hotel. The children I met today were delightful, engaged and polite, with some great questions. Of course, one was the inevitable Where do you get your ideas from? and as I answered I thought – though didn’t say aloud – Gosh, I might never have another idea again. I’m too tired for ideas. But then I drove to this little town and took a walk down the main street. And this post is illustrated with some of the quirky, intriguing things I saw. You might see the same on any street if you look.  Any one of these photos might spark an idea for a story.

look closely for the layers of history 

Maybe I’m not that burnt out. Just a bit singed around the edges. 

A reminder from the streets of Carrickmacross about what it's all about -- sharing stories 

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Desk Worrier vs Desk Warrior - Lucy Coats

How many times have you sat at your desk, staring at a blank or partially-filled screen and worrying about words? Words that won't come, words that seem wrong, words that don't sound right, too many, too few...  Writing is not always a jolly picnic, and I'd like to bet that every writer has sat staring into the black hole of despair over words at some point. I certainly have and do, and as I suffer from depression anyway, I have to be careful not to let myself get sucked in, or to let the anxiety over any of those wordy panics grow, especially when deadlines are looming.

Sometimes I go and do something else till I've calmed down. I have some strategies that mostly work, but not always. Sometimes writing something totally different works -- a poem, maybe. Or using a random slew of word prompts from a writing friend who posts them on Facebook to write something that doesn't really matter (one recent collection was bellybutton, conquest, dark, shock, date, cool, kisser, sprawled, melt, split, wrist). Sometimes I give in and procrastinate on social media, which is not good for mental health either. Or I take a creative nap, which means lying horizontal and sleeping for a bit.

What I've never done is to take the advice of many (including my doctor and some well-meaning friends) and go for a walk, convincing myself that I couldn't do any form of physical exercise (and that I hated it). For many reasons I won't go into at length, I gave up on exercise a long time ago. Copious amounts of steroids, a myriad operations, mental and physical illness all gave me perfectly valid excuses (I thought) to just let my body do what it wanted, which was mostly to sit down and eat chocolate whenever the mood took me, with predictable results. After all, I was in my mid-50s, I told myself, it was too late and who cared if I was a size 20? Then, in March last year, I hurt my knee and it wasn't getting better, even with physiotherapy. That was when the knee surgeon came in and shocked me out of my lethargy with a diagnosis of pretty bad arthritis, and a few well-chosen words.

"It's a question of mechanics," he said politely but firmly. "The more weight on your joints, the more wear and tear. You'll be in a wheelchair by the time you're 65 if you don't do something about it now." 
 A year later, I have indeed 'done something about it', and a month ago, much to my own surprise, I took up the Couch-to-5k challenge, inspired by two other writers (you know who you are!). And that's where the Desk Warrior bit comes in. Again, much to my surprise, when I'm running, my mind kicks into creative gear. Those word worries seem to disappear, and ideas flow. It's a sort of miracle as far as I am concerned, and I get back to my desk in definite warrior mindstate. Maybe it's those exercise endorphins I never truly believed in before, maybe it's just that running (and the in-between walking bits) free my mind and put it into creative reset again. And I guess that if I, of all unlikely people, can run three times a week (sometimes in the freezing rain) in the face of all the blocks and barriers against exercise I set for myself, then a mere writing block or word worry seems much less scary. My running is still very much a work in progress, but I'd like to apologise for all the snarling I did in my head (and sometimes aloud) to all those people who told me that exercise would help more than just my depression. It really, truly does. And it turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks after all.

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review
Lucy's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram
Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

How To Take A Compliment by Dawn Finch

Am I going to have to spell it out for you?
I have something very serious to chastise you all for. I’m sorry, but it has to be said. You creative types are absolute rubbish at accepting praise and compliments, and it has to stop.
I have noticed this is an increasing problem that is possibly exacerbated by the rise of the instant contact afforded to us by social media. This means that we are sharing our work live (as it were) and giving people the opportunity to comment on it directly. This in turn means that, on the whole, people are saying nice things about your work and you don’t know how to handle it. This usually results in conversations that go something like this…

Them - “Wow, I love that illustration / painting / poem / book!”
You –  “Oh it’s not the colour/ shade / tone/ quality / depth that I’d like.”
Them – “I think it’s absolutely beautiful”
You –  “I really wanted it to be bluer/ greener / bigger/ darker / paler / deeper / stronger…”

You get the idea. I have noticed that this inability to accept well-deserved praise with ease is definitely worse among creative types, but it is by no means limited to them.

Psychologists have studied this inability to accept compliments or praise, and many have come to the conclusion that it stems from a number of issues from lack of self-esteem to imposter syndrome. One of the reasons we find it so hard to accept compliments, is that we almost never give them to ourselves. Think about it, when was the last time you said to yourself “That’s my finest work” or “damn it, that’s good”?

Psychologist Guy Winch has written and spoken extensively about the science of emotional health, and he says that we are bad at accepting compliments because they directly challenge the image that we have created of ourselves. He states that receiving praise from others when we feel negatively about ourselves “elicits discomfort because it conflicts with our existing belief system.” This means we often negate or dismiss compliments.

This has two effects:
  1. We carry even more negative feelings than we had before
  2. We indirectly insult the person who has given the compliment

So, how do we deal with this?

The answer to that conundrum is quite simple – just say thank you. That’s it. Thank you.
You can dress it up a bit to suit yourself, but don’t add anything that will drag your thanks back to a negative place. Add-ons like “you didn’t have to” or “I really don’t think so” are actually very annoying to the person complimenting you.  Remember that in all conversations there is another real human being on the other side. The person complimenting you may well have struggled with their own self-esteem. They may be thanking you for your part in making them feel better about who they are. If we diminish their compliment with a “you really didn’t have to”, then the next time they might not bother, and we may make them question themselves more.

The most important things is – YOU’RE REALLY WORTH IT! If someone compliments your work, it’s usually not because they want anything more from you than your appreciation of their compliment. You genuinely have touched someone with your work and that has compelled them to reach out to a stranger and thank them. You have earned that compliment. Your work has inspired someone to reach out to you, and that's a very powerful thing. You did that. You put your work into the world and it had a positive impact on someone's life. 

In a world increasingly led by anger and spite, it is important that we cherish and protect the gift of complimenting each other. With our social media threads so often full of people talking about the things that they hate, we should nurture and encourage those who talk about the things that they love. These are the glittering diamonds in the heap of coal.

With that in mind, the next time someone gives you a compliment, repeat these simple steps

Step one - say “Thank you!”

Step two - allow yourself to take that compliment and enjoy it.

Dawn Finch is a children's writer, librarian and general know-it-all who is often found wittering (and twittering) about things like reading, libraries, literacy, children's books, diversity and inclusion, mental health and wellbeing.
If you want to compliment her on anything you can do so via her blog, website or twitter account.
She is also very poor and would like you to buy her books and be awfully nice about them.
Thank you!

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Instagram and the Creative Mind - Lucy Coats

Autumn Roses -

Last month I wrote from the depths of a bad depressive episode.  I am very grateful for all your kind comments on that piece, and I'm glad it helped some of you. Unfortunately there is no quick fix for the black dog's grey fog. It's not something I can turn off with a switch, however much I want to. Writing a book right now is like wading through a sea of frozen treacle with lead boots on. Doing events is exhausting - because I have to put on that 'mask of normal' I talked about, and that takes its toll. But, and this is important, I survive. I am here. Every day that happens is a victory. Within that, the pleasure of small things becomes vital - as does acknowledging them.

Vitis Cognetiae -

Because my creative well is so dry, I have turned to another sort of creativity to try to fill the gap. I've always liked photography, so I've started keeping a virtual diary of gratitude for those small things on my Instagram page. Trying to put the joy back into the creative process is essential for me, and I'll try anything to get a tiny bit of that joy back, even for just a minute. For now, it's playing around with filters and layouts, seeing things in both colour and black-and-white. It's about really looking at objects - textures, shadows, light - and trying to convey that through the media of word and picture. As every picture book writer knows, it's the marriage of image and text which makes the whole thing light up and come alive, but in this case it's the image which is important for me. I want so very badly to move out of the monochrome world I'm living in and get back to the place where colour sings.

Fire -

I know this type of laid-bare honesty isn't for everyone. But for me it's a survival tool.

OUT NOW from Orchard, Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out now: new Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review

Lucy's Website - Twitter - Facebook - Instagram

Monday, 19 October 2015

Depression And The Writer's Mind - Lucy Coats

'For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of Is come unto me. I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet; yet trouble came.' 
Book of Job 

For me, the act of writing is a lonely pursuit. I am not one for cafes or company. My personal next-door-but-one mindworld is one where anything is possible - magic, dragons, gods...and also monsters. It is the monsters I would like to talk about today, because sometimes, for a writer like me, who also suffers from chronic depression, the monsters rise up in revolt. Right now, however much I don't want them to, however much I fight them, they are winning. However much I protest that it isn't true, they tell me (among other things) that there is no point to what I do. They have the spirit-sapping power to make me believe that however many books I have had (or ever will have) published, I will never succeed in writing a really good one. At the moment, the thing we call creativity is an impenetrable smog where any idea seen is vague and blurred - impossible to grasp hold or tell the shape of, let alone craft into something coherent and meaningful, such as a story. Even writing this non-fiction piece has been a painful and slow process.
Job (Wikimedia commons)

I know this can be hard to understand for those who have never suffered depression. It's hard to explain. How can this job of writing, which I love, turn on me like a monstrous beast, snarling and snapping amid the greyness, leaving me unable to go near it, tearing at and trying to destroy the creative source of the words which normally come to me so easily? And what triggers it? This is not 'writer's block'. This is me fighting my own mind and losing - badly. I have been here often enough to know that it will pass. I know what I need to do - give myself rest and time to refill the creative well (from which I am currently pumping dregs). The stark truth is, though, that I don't have the luxury of doing that for very long. There are deadlines (I know - I'm LUCKY to have deadlines). I have to meet them. All I can do, then, is to take as much time away from the world as I can allow (a few days), switch off the world of social media, say no to anything outside the bare minimum of current responsibilities and commitments, remember to eat at least once a day - and do a lot of comfort reading, because that's the only way I can escape my own mind and heal. I also have to pray that this small 'plaster' will be enough to get me through - and that's an added pressure I don't even want to think about just now.

Many creative people of both past and present have their own depression monsters - Sylvia Plath comes particularly to mind, as I've recently re-read The Bell Jar, as does Matt Haig, whose recent Reasons to Stay Alive is an excellent and helpful foray into the darkness which can beset a writer's mind. I am in the best of good company. I keep telling myself that, but it doesn't really help. (The monsters say, of course, that I shouldn't be presuming to put myself in that company at all, that I am a fake and a fraud).

Some of you reading this may feel uncomfortable that I lay myself so bare in this piece. But so many writers currently suffer with depression and still feel it is necessary to hide it that I feel it's important to be open about the toll it takes to stuff the monsters away and pretend to be 'normal' (whatever that is). I am very very good at the pretending mask. 'Fine' is my default response. If you meet me in a public place, you will not be able to tell that anything is wrong. But today I am taking off that smiley mask, and hoping that by doing so, I will give other people (not only writers) the courage to take off theirs. There is still immense stigma around mental illness. It's only by talking about it and acknowledging the mental cost of it openly that we will ever begin to help those who still believe that suffering in silence is the only option. Just because you can't see the pain of the mind, like you can a broken limb or a bleeding wound, doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Why read? A look at the Reading Agency's latest report by Dawn Finch

A quick internet search using the term “reading for pleasure” will bring up almost 39 million hits and a huge range of “evidence” and reports, however many of these are largely anecdotal and on closer inspection often lack robust evidence. Those of us who have been working for many years at the book-face know that reading for pleasure* gives us all benefits far beyond just enjoying the book. The new report from the Reading Agency - The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment - has collated and summarised the most robust findings that relate to the non-literacy outcomes of reading for pleasure, and it contains some very powerful messages.

I was part of the steering group for this report, and am genuinely very excited to start working with this data. The report contains some very strong messages about the wider outcomes of reading for pleasure, and it should be an incredibly useful tool for everyone who works with books and reading. The report confirms that people who read for pleasure benefit from a huge range of wider outcomes including increased empathy, alleviation or reduction in the symptoms of depression and dementia, as well as an improved sense of wellbeing. People who read for pleasure also have a higher sense of social inclusion, a greater tolerance and awareness of other cultures and lifestyles, and better communication skills.

For children and young people the evidence obviously demonstrated that children who read for pleasure had higher levels of educational attainment, but what is most interesting is how it improves the overall quality of their lives. Children and young people who read show a significantly enhanced emotional vocabulary and cope better with education and social engagement.

What does the report mean?
A key finding of the report is that enjoyment of reading is a prerequisite for all these positive outcomes: people who choose to read, and enjoy doing so, in their spare time are more likely to reap all of these wider benefits. This shows us that negative attitudes towards reading for pleasure have a much wider negative impact on both the individual and society as a whole, and it’s essential that nationally we create a more positive attitude towards reading. It also shows that schools should encourage an atmosphere of reading for pleasure and that it is not enough to only have reading lessons or guided reading tasks. Children need to have a wide variety of books and other reading material at their disposal so that they can choose things to read that suit their tastes. It is far less likely that a child will become a lifelong reader if the only books they know are those on the reading scheme, and this is another reason why we need to campaign hard to support school and public libraries.

One of the most important things that we can do is exactly what we’ve always been doing – make reading a pleasurable pastime! In our work we do all we can to demonstrate that reading is an enjoyable thing to do, but beyond that we should also do all that we can to ensure that reading is not seen as an elitist pastime. Where possible, have your characters reading or engaging with books just because they want to. Keep on using your social media accounts to engage with your readers, and discuss other books. Authors have an essential part to play in engaging with their readers and supporting a national drive towards a wholly positive attitude towards reading – and that we’re already doing! I have seen first hand the difference an author visit can make to the reading habits and enjoyment levels of children and, in the light of this report, that is something that schools can not afford to disregard.

Use the report, draw on it and refer to it – write about it, share it and quote it. Show yourselves and others reading for pleasure, and push up the “cool” factor (and yes, I realise that just saying that makes me uncool). Encourage people to show others what they are reading and we’ll keep it trending. Talk about the wider benefits of reading, and make sure that the schools that you are visiting are aware of the report and its findings.

A very important point for authors is that the study has confirmed that children’s literature can be successfully used as a model for analysing everyday emotional processes, and it can support emotional development. This in turn demonstrates that reading for pleasure is an important way of combating issues such as social isolation, teenage depression, negative self-image and social and educational disengagement. In short, reading for pleasure can make an isolated and depressed young person feel better about who they are, and can make them more confident about the importance of the place that they occupy in the world.

For writers this gives us an even greater reason to tackle difficult or sensitive subject areas in our work. Not in a preachy or medicinal way, but in a way that normalises all walks of life and shows young readers that they are not alone. It is essential that young readers have the broad range of fiction that they need to enable them to develop a greater sense of belonging, and to enhance their empathetic skills. We owe it to our readers to be brave in our writing, so that we can help them to be even braver in their lives.

We all need to be part of the discussion about reading for pleasure. We can show that every single one of us, from all ages and all sectors of society, have something personal to gain from reading for pleasure that goes far beyond the pages of a great book.

Dawn Finch
Children's author, school librarian, Vice President of CILIP and member of CWIG committee.

Notes and resources
You can download the full report from the Reading Agency website here.
The report has an extensive bibliography should you wish to refer to specific studies mentioned within.

For more information about the project and the steering group please contact me on [email protected] and I will reply or redirect your enquiry.

The Reading Agency commissioned this report and compiled it in collaboration with the following organisations:  Arts Council England, Association of Senior Children's and Education Librarians, Book Trust, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Education Endowment Foundation, National Literacy Trust, Publishers Association, Scottish Library and Information Council, Society of Authors and the Society of Chief Librarians. 

* For the purposes of the report the phrases “reading for pleasure” and “recreational reading” are used interchangeably within the text. We defined this as “non-goal orientated transactions with texts as a way to spend time, and for entertainment.”

The term “reading for empowerment” is (for the purposes of this report) defined as “transactions with texts as a means of self-cultivation and self-development beyond literacy”. For example reading non-fiction material such as craft or self-help books.

Both terms were used to define reading for pleasure and empowerment in all formats and media.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Bipolar Characters in Children's and YA Fiction

It's World Mental Health Day today - so what better time to address the subject of mental health in children's and YA books? I'm going to focus on bipolar disorder, because it's a particular interest of mine. But much of what I say can be applied to depression and other mental health conditions.

First of all, let me announce that I'm a sufferer myself from chronic/recurrent depression. Although I've never been diagnosed as bipolar, I do have mood swings and have some idea, at least, of what the highs as well as the lows can be like (the highs in my case may possibly be the result of not getting the levels of medication right - who knows?)

I now believe that my depression started when I was in my teens, though I had no idea what to call it at the time. It was all put down to PMT, though I'm not sure that the term had been invented in the late sixties. The fact that I suffered from it at other times of the month - well, that's easily got around - there's always another period on the horizon somewhere!

Or perhaps it began even earlier, when I was five and my dad disappeared off to Singapore with the RAF and I was terrified for months afterwards that my mum would vanish too. I'm sure my parents did their best, but knowing me, a book would probably have helped, and there weren't books for kids about that sort of thing in those days.

Perhaps I became depressed when bullied at my new school at seven, when I was ostracised because of my 'posh accent'. The memory still brings tears to my eyes and the teachers didn't help.

My depressive episodes, never diagnosed or treated, recurred at intervals of a few years until eventually, in my late twenties and living in Edinburgh with two small children, I took myself off to the GP with stomachache and she had the sense to see that there was something more going on. I was prescribed anti-depressants (which I refused to take on that first occasion) and told to get a part-time job. The part-time job helped. But the depression came back after a couple of years. This time it was worse and I took the medication. I also had counselling and the combination of the two brought joy and colour into my life that I'd forgotten could exist. Just waking up in the morning feeling at peace with myself... free from the self-condemnation, guilt, shame, worry, and all those other horrible things depressed people suffer.

Since then, I've had further episodes, often but not always associated with times of difficulty and stress in my life. I still fear my depression and try to make sure I don't get too busy or stressed out - but it hits me from time to time. I'm adept these days at recognising the early warning symptoms. I have medication on hand and don't delay in visiting my GP. In fact my depression these days is like my bad back in some ways - I know that if I'm sensible I have less of a chance of setting it off - but there's always the possibility that something (or nothing) will trigger it. And I have to accept that I'll have down times when I can't do very much.

I'm very lucky in one respect, though. I have never been too depressed to read. I have several favourite books I turn to when I feel bad. William Styron's memoir Darkness Visible is one of them - where the great American author describes his own experience of depression. I'm not sure why it helps me, but it does. Perhaps it's just the putting into words of some of my own dreadful thoughts. The 'I'm not the only one' feeling. Whatever it is, I am so grateful to William Styron for writing it.

Anyway - children's books. I decided a few days ago to compile a list of characters in fiction who have bipolar disorder. Of course, it's difficult to be sure, if you go back very far, because the condition wasn't sufficiently understood. I asked for suggestions from various friends, contacts and writers' groups, as well as trying to come up with some of my own. I was partly interested in which books came to people's minds - i.e. the ones that had made a lasting impression. Thanks to all who contributed, I now have a list - and for the purposes of this blog I will restrict it to novels for children and YA.

This is my list, in no particular order (further suggestions most welcome).

The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson
A Note of Madness by Tabitha Suzuma
A Voice in the Distance by Tabitha Suzuma
My Mum's from Planet Pluto by Gwyneth Rees.
Red Shift by Alan Garner 
Boneland by Alan Garner (though I'm told this is not strictly a children's/YA book)
***Mental by Sherry Ashworth
Girl, Aloud by Emily Gale

*** Mental is actually about schizophrenia, I realise now I've read it, but I'm leaving it on the list as it's a very good book.

Remember, these are for children/YA and I've restricted the condition to bipolar (except for Sherry Ashworth's Mental - see above). And I certainly don't claim that the list is complete. Nor have I read them all (yet). I'm currently enjoying Gwyneth Rees's My Mum's from Planet Pluto, which I'd strongly recommend. But I can't help noticing how few titles there are...

It concerns me that there aren't more. I said earlier that it would have helped me, as a child, if I'd been able to read about someone like me. I'm pleased to say that books for children featuring other kinds of conditions and disabilities are growing in number (though we still need more). We need, in my opinion, both issue-tackling books and books that treat the condition as a background thing - not the focus of the book but something one of the characters just happens to have.

It's the same with mental health. We need children's/YA books that delve deep into the condition (in a way appropriate for the target age-group, of course). But we need characters in books who just happen to have bipolar disorder (or depression or schizophrenia, etc) too. We need books that treat these conditions with gentle humour - combined, of course, with respect. I can laugh at my depression, at least some of the time. Often humour is part of the way we come to terms with things. We need books with 'heroic' endings (character overcomes all the challenges) and ones that are more true to life, while always offering hope. And in order to get this variety - we need LOTS MORE BOOKS. Sorry to shout, but we do.

So come on, children's authors... and publishers. By the time World Mental Health Day comes round next year, let's see a lot more books for children, YA (and adults) on the subject of bipolar disorder and, more generally, on mental health.

I believe there's a role for many of us in helping to remove the stigma attached to mental health conditions that, almost unbelievably, is still present in our society today.

We all have minds, after all, just as we all have backs.

Happy reading

Note: My own contribution to the bipolar list has just come out. It's for adults and it's called Alexa's Song. You can see it on Amazon UK and download it for Amazon Kindle for £2.54.

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