Lucky me

IMG_4034In truth, I would have happily bought every single one of these shoes, being something of a shoe-a-holic, but fiscal constraints held me back. And besides, in the Scottish climate, how many opportunities would I have to wear any of these more than once in my remaining lifetime?

The shoes and I were in Jaipur, taking part in the twin-cities Bookaroo book festival (well, I was, but the shoes were just hanging out on the street), and we had a free afternoon to go sightseeing and shopping, for as we know, all Westerners love to shop. I was excited beyond all measure to actually be in Jaipur because I’d always wanted to see the Palace of the Winds, but we flew past that in approximately twenty seconds flat because the guys wanted to shop. Not the women, but the men. Deepna and I watched in some amusement as the guys tried out manbags, kurtas, selected a rainbow’s worth of silk scarves and throws for assorted womenfolk, checked out more kurtas and then finally, it was time to go back for dinner.

So I didn’t get to see inside the Palace of the Winds but I did get to see inside a tiny shop while its owner showed us silks and yet more silks and hand-embroidered bedspreads, and all the while, at the rear of the shop, an elderly man perched across bales of kurtas and tried to sleep through all the bartering going on up front. I was so overwhelmed by the experience of being in India for the first time that I was tempted to join him.

There is a beauty overload everywhere you turn. There’s also unbelievable squalor, sprawling mountain ranges of trash surrounding the outskirts of the big urban conurbations and a rush hour when the air turns so thick with hydrocarbons you could almost chew it. India is wonderful and awful at the same time. I travelled hoping to have my horizons expanded and my mind blown and, yes, both of those things surely happened. The contrasts between old and new, rich and poor are enough to render one breathless, spinning like an uncertain compass needle caught between opposing poles of awe and horror.

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We travelled from Jaipur to Swati Madhpur to visit a school and spend two nights in a very upmarket glamping establishment where we had our own white tents complete with little en-suite bathrooms and the sound of the wilderness of a tiger reserve right outside our canvas doors. To my dismay, all that stood between me and a Tiger Coming To Tea ( What’s for tea? Guess what? You’re it!) were a few strips of velcro.

Velcro? To ward off a marauding tiger? Not to mention the crocodiles we’d been peering at through binoculars? I have no idea how I managed to sleep on our first night,  but I did. And woke to birdsong. Birdsong as part of an astonishing call and answer sequence ; first a bird sang, then Jose in the next door tent answered on a viola. Bird; Jose: bird: Jose – what a perfect way to begin a day. I lay awake, entranced.

We took a train back to Delhi the following  day and disembarked at a station with the longest platform I’ve ever seen. Our luggage was immediately whisked away atop the heads of two porters with unfeasibly powerful neck muscles ( three heavy suitcases, piled one on top of the other? HOW?) and the only way to navigate our way through  the crush of thousands of people on the seemingly endless platform was to follow the undulating pile of suitcases weaving their way through the crowds up ahead.

Streets in Old Delhi were so narrow you could hardly make your way through the throngs of people, and we found ourselves pressed back against walls and doorways to allow passage of motorbikes with sometimes as many as four passengers riding pillion. I stood on something soft as I tried to get out of the way of one of these overloaded vehicles and looked down to discover I’d stepped on a dead rat. At least, I hope it was dead…

In the Spice District, a red fog of chilli powder engulfed us as we made our way past sacks of cardamon pods, cumin, coriander, turmeric and fenugreek. And those were only the ones I knew ; there were many other open sacks, full of mystery ingredients,  but light was leaching out of the sky and it was time to return for dinner.

The book festival sessions were hilarious and emotionally exhausting in equal measure. I was there to talk about picture books, but also to talk about my book about a personal journey through depressive illness ( Night Shift). I was nervous about mangling cultural mores or stepping on shibboleths or causing any upset by talking about depressive illness or any MH issues. I needn’t have worried. The generous and open-hearted audiences were only too happy to talk and ask questions and share their stories and finally, on the final session of the last day of the festivals, as a helper at the back of the tent was making the ‘last question’ signal, and I was happily anticipating a lie-down in a cool hotel bedroom, a young girl put her hand up and asked –

‘What advice should I give to a friend who is thinking about killing herself?’

Suddenly, I was walking on eggshells. My voice wobbled, my eyes filled up and I said something along the lines of – ‘Tell her she has no idea of what lies ahead of her. None of us can see the future. To cut it off, to make that awful irrevocable decision to end her life means she will never experience all the joys and heartbreaks and bliss and whole range of human experience that she is standing on the threshold of. I imagine she is having a terrible time right now, but this will not last for ever. Nothing lasts for ever. Things change, she will change with them. Her future self is begging her to reconsider. All of life lies before her. All of it.’

Thankfully, what you can’t hear or see behind these words is the halting, wobbling, nose-blowing wreck that was delivering them. This was not what I was expecting, but now, in retrospect, what I’ve taken from the experience is that this, this terrifying moment at the end of a book festival was why I went to India. Regardless of the outcome, the best we can do is to reach out and be kind to each other. To have compassion for all others and ourselves.

India was so massive, so full of people that I felt utterly insignificant. A tiny human ant among billions of others. Blessed by the fortunate circumstances of my birth in Scotland, blessed by my education, my friends and family, all of these contributing to the fact that I am warm, have a roof over my head and food in the cupboards. India made me appreciate that this gift of a life is mine by the merest fluke of fortune.

Lucky me.

 

 

Night Shift : 1

Oh it’s you! Come away in ( as we say in these parts) and put the kettle on. You’ll have had your…NO, I won’t say that. There’s some highly  alcoholic Christmas cake  on the worktop if you like the semi-lethal combination of brandy, icing, marzipan, dried fruit, candied peel and butter. Several slabs of that and I regret not one morsel.

Yes, I know. It’s all so new, isn’t it? A few hours, actually. Yes, the move was rather sudden, but you know, when I finally went back to my old place at fiddleandpins.blogspot.co.uk, the Google militia had changed the locks and put their fingerprints all over my things. So I’ve cut my losses. I had to leave some precious things behind, but they’re only things.

In case you’re in the dark as to what I’m on about,

a. I’ve moved my blog to WordPress in the hope that I won’t have to hack my way through a thicket of passwords just in time for whatever I wanted to blog about to disappear out of my increasingly colander-ish memory

b. I wanted to be able to discuss different content to that under discussion at fiddleandpins.blogspot.co.uk. That blog is hosted by my website, which in turn is put together by the lovely people at Bloomsbury Publishing, so the old blog’s main content is picture book related and fit for children to read

c. I hope by moving out from under the Google/Blogger umbrella that I will lose the impression that my every keystroke is going into some vast Google-data-mine, but I think this is a bit of a stretch

d. And finally, I hope that Mel will forgive me for moving house, and will still drop by for the occasional chat, even if I don’t talk much about knitting any more

So. I’m here today because in two days time ( 12th January) I’ll be introducing a brand new book called ‘Night Shift’. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before, and much as I’d love to lurk in your local bookstore, recommending it to you, I can’t, like Santa Claus, be everywhere at once. And besides, irritating authors who pop up in bookstores and recommend their own stuff are embarrassing . Instead, for Night Shift’s coming out ball/ day/occasion, I’m going to take to the ether and blog about it.  Tomorrow, I’ll talk about why I wrote it and hopefully post a picture of the gorgeous cover design; on publication day, I’ll show some extra drawings that didn’t go into the book and for as long as I can manage to keep going, I’ll talk about what happened to me and why this book is at once highly personal but at the same time, something I hope will be useful and will be shared by lots of people just like me ; people who have suffered, are suffering or are looking after someone who suffers from depressive illness. And that was a sentence and a half.

 

I’m also going to try to post one thing we can do each day to help ourselves. I’m aware that I’m writing from a position of immense privilege ; I’m warm and dry and there’s food in the cupboards. But it doesn’t matter – depressive illness is so all-encompassing, recognising no social barriers or income bands, from the outside, someone can look as if they have it all, but inside them is a howling wasteland of nothing. So, for this day which is drawing towards evening, try and spend at least two hours without looking at a screen. The hours just before bedtime are when you are at your most vulnerable to the sleep-disruptive influence of screens. Music, radio, the sound of the world around you ; any of these is more conducive to sleep than looking at other people’s amazingly filtered lives via the medium of a lit glass screen.

Speak to you tomorrow.

p.s. The photo at the top? It’s the Bass Rock from West Barns beach, Dunbar, Scotland. Imagine what it feels like to swim there on New Year’s day. Now there’s an image to conjure with…

 

Night Shift : 10

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Today, of all days, it would be good for all of us to release ourselves from our digital tethers. After all, what, if anything will be served by watching a rolling newscast beamed straight into our homes? No matter what your political persuasion, you’re going to find something to be upset about. Accept that right now, we can’t do anything other than try to be kind to one another, starting with ourselves.

Sitting and fretting on the other side of the world or even Stateside isn’t going to help your mental health. Anger, powerlessness, disbelief – all these contribute to raising our cortisol levels and that in turn makes us more stressed. Why on earth would we want to do that?

Online, there will be fights aplenty. The btl comments will be vicious. The trolls will be out in force. Facebook friends may become fiends. Just step away from the fray. You’re not going to miss anything important. It’s out of our hands at the moment ; we have to accept this and move on. Nothing to see here.

Today, tomorrow and tomorrow there will be demos, marches, protests and heaven knows what. We are certainly living in interesting times. But living through such times and coming out the other side intact requires you to be strong. You will not find that strength by watching events unfold on a screen. The strength you need is inside you, waiting to unfurl. To give it the absolutely optimal conditions for growth, you need to look after yourself. Today might be a good day for curling up with a book. Actually, every day is a good day for that.

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Books have been a lifesaver for me ; they’ve fed my head, filled my thoughts, fired up my imagination and allowed me to empathise with the lives of people I’ll never meet except through the medium of a page. Through them, I’ve discovered who I am and who I’d like to be; I’ve found myself reflected back at me from a multitude of paper mirrors, and in the distance, caught sight of the me I aspire towards.

I couldn’t seem to read a book properly when I had my first brush with depressive illness. I call it a ‘brush’ but in fact it was more of a vicious sanding down with the harshest grade of sandpaper. Apologies ; given an opportunity to mangle a metaphor, I’ll always rush at it headlong. Books with their stories and plots didn’t stick. Music grated. Food was shovelled down without pleasure. All of the things in my life that had hitherto made me happy to be alive, turned into ash. For some bizarre reason, the one thing that did seem to anchor me to some foggily recognisable version of who I’d used to be was listening to the late night shipping forecast on Radio 4. Its mantra of Viking Forties, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight seemed to act as a calming device, a reminder that  perhaps ( although I personally doubted it) worse things happen at sea. It most certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. I was caught in the middle of a tempest. My little boat  was heading for the rocks and I had completely lost control of the tiller. But some words helped. I could just about manage short poems. Nothing too tricky, but ones that revealed their meaning without too much effort on my part.

I can’t recall which ones, but I’m sure that for today, there must be words that will help us all. Here’s a few that are helping me.

‘Fill your Heart’ by David Bowie.

‘The peace of wild things’ by Wendell Berry.

and finally – ‘Shovelling Snow with Buddha’ by Billy Collins. I love this.

 

 

 

Night Shift : 11

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It’s almost imperceptible, but night-time is happening later and later each day. The year has definitely turned. Buds are budding, birds are singing and green shoots are poking up through the earth…you get my drift. Why this should be a cause for joy inside my head is another matter – as the light returns, I draw closer to my own particularly perverse seasonal affective disorder ; namely, the more light there is, the worse I seem to feel. Go figure. Perhaps it’s the frequent disappointment of yet another dreary Scottish summer ( sorry, Scotland, nothing personal, just…you could try harder) coupled with the knowledge that I seem to be locked in perpetual combat with myself at a time when it feels as if everyone else is looking forward to holidays, sunshine, barbies and time off…

So why am I posting this? Why advocate something I don’t feel works for me? Getting out there and looking for signs of spring? I think I’m doing it because I’m convinced that taken one day at a time, this gentle medicine works. Instead of trying to look ahead to tomorrow and worry about what’s happening on the world stage ( no, no, no, let’s just not) perhaps we need to take each day one at a time. Each hour, if necessary. Heck, let’s break it into easily assimilable minutes. So, in this minute, the birds are singing their hearts out. The grey sky is disappointing a restful  pearly grey. This moment is good. I am breathing. Nothing hurts. Well…after today’s session with the energetic yoof and super-fit people at the gym, actually everything hurts, but we’ll gloss over that, shall we? This single moment is amazing. I’m grateful to be here and now.

And hold that thought.

The small things that bring pleasure, the vanilla moments of semi-contentment ; these little things vanish when we suffer from depression. In fact, they almost turn against us, taunting us with a faint memory of what used to be, whispering in our ears that such moments will never return and it’s probably our fault for not appreciating them enough in the first place. When I had my first encounter with depression, I looked back to the postgrad year I’d just finished and couldn’t connect with who I’d been then. She ( the illustration post-grad) was made out of an altogether different substance from the soggy mess I’d become. She was busy, happy ( I thought) and looking forward to a future which seemed to be opening out like a flower. (Which it did, but not until I’d gone through a year of illness.)

A dear friend cajoled me into coming out to dinner with her and some of her women friends. ‘It’ll cheer you up’ she said, thinking that being in the company of these amazing women would somehow rub off on me, or that they could accomplish what I’d clearly been unable to do. By then, I was on a hefty dose of amitriptyline, which I suspect I wasn’t supposed to mix with alcohol. I forget what the contraindications were. Anyhoo – I was too ashamed to say to her a. I’ve actually had to go and see a psychiatrist and have been diagnosed as being clinically depressed and b. our family doctor has prescribed an antidepressant medication that appears to have turned me into a zombie. I couldn’t even tell one of my closest friends that this had happened. Such was the stigma back then. I felt, deep down that somehow it was my fault that I was in this state.

So we took our places round a large table in a restaurant. The women ordered wine, I tried to bleat out something about how I’d rather not drink, but due to a combination of my newly-acquired stammer and the general noise levels in the restaurant, an unwanted glass of white wine appeared in front of me. Since the whole meal was a gift to me from my friend, I didn’t want to appear ungrateful, so I tried to sip it very slowly. The meal finally came and the conversation flowed around me. The women were bright, funny, clever and kind. They tried to include me in their group. They brought me in on topics, threads, jokes but nothing seemed to enable me to speak. I felt as if I were a large, silent rock on which every little conversational wavelet, every big frothy surge crashed and ebbed upon. In the waves came, and out they went, leaving me mute and still. I simply had nothing at all to contribute.

Then I began to feel very unwell. I managed to flee the table and made it to the bathroom just in time to lose medication, wine and supper in one go. I washed up, tried to make myself look less ghostlike, and returned to the table. I don’t think I’ve ever loathed myself as much as I did that night. Back home, my partner asked how the evening had gone, obviously hoping that I’d miraculously ‘snapped out of it’ or that the company of some good women had helped return me to myself in a way that his best intentions and efforts were clearly failing to do. I knew how much I was letting him down when I said that I hadn’t enjoyed it much. I saw myself through his eyes and, if anything, felt even worse.

The main problem then, as now, was a lack of communication. I couldn’t explain how I felt without appearing to sound as if I was either criticising,  being ungrateful or just pathetic. I was ashamed at myself for succumbing to this illness. Nobody had actually said to me that depression wasn’t my fault, or that it wouldn’t last forever, and I, in turn, couldn’t explain how terrible it felt. Words were letting me down. In extremis ( and depression fits that category) I became inarticulate. Yet I needed contact – I desperately needed to feel that I wasn’t alone. The isolation brought about by depressive illness was the loneliest place in the world.

Thirty two years later, in drawing ( and writing) Night Shift, I wanted to try to assist  communication between the spheres of the ill and the not-ill. To facilitate a signal boost between worlds. To let the birdsong back in and allow us to take one day, one moment at a time. To reassure us that this will not last for ever. To be able to point to an image in the book and say – this is how I feel right now. Help me. Give me a hug.

Help us. Remind us that depression lies. Remind us that this will not last for ever. Remind us that we are not defined by this illness any more than a pool is defined by the action of the wind on its surface.

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Night Shift : 12

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An antidote to the internet. A walk in the winter sun at high tide. An attempt to still my thoughts and gain some perspective. I keep thinking ‘this too shall pass’ and of course, it will, but… So I took my own advice and went for a walk – to this exquisitely beautiful part of East Lothian which rarely fails to lift my spirits.

Except, as I squelched along the shoreline, I wasn’t enjoying it. I wasn’t feeling grateful for being fortunate enough to live near to such beauty. I was awash in a complete information overload, horrified at events playing out across the other side of the world, aghast at our own government’s lack of spine, moral compass, ethical stance…

In the face of current affairs, I feel powerless. There are events afoot in the wider world that make me so afraid, I’m amazed that sleep is possible. There are events afoot near to home (  the looming spectre of a vast housing development ) that make me feel besieged. If it all goes according to the developers plan, our little single-storey houses on a leafy lane will be overlooked by the upper floor windows of three hundred identikit three-quarter of a million pound executive homes with their massed entitlement to the best part of the sky, light and view. For the past umpty decades, we’ve filled our eyes with that sky, that light and best of all, that view, and counted ourselves blessed.

Caveat. Blessed when I haven’t been wrangling with depressive illness ;  at such times it’s impossible to feel anything other than star-crossed.

Back to the walk along the wintry shore. My tangled thoughts carried on twining and snaking around inside my head, jumping from one bleak prospect to another ; a series of what-ifs leading off into some grey and dystopian future. With five children, I can’t just write off that future knowing that I won’t be around to see it. In truth, we have a massive stake in ensuring that there still is a decent future for all children, whether they are related to us or not. Then I had a short pause while I beat myself up for overloading the planet, diverting more resources to looking after my family, publishing books that entail chopping down trees, running a car, burning yet more trees on a woodturning stove, occasionally eating meat and generally being that hackneyed thing; an eco-hypocrite. Never let it be said that I don’t know how to have good time when out for a walk. Oh, the thinks you can think.

The high tide made walking along the shore quite a tricky proposition. At times, I had to head inland into deep mud and leaf mould, weave under jaggy branches, risk soggy boots and slither over rocks. In short, I had to pay attention to something other than my own thoughts. And at such times, solutions can suggest themselves to you. Precisely when you’re not looking for them. Solvitur ambulando, as the Romans said. It is solved by walking.

What came to me was that we are always out of control. We are always powerless. To accept this is to take a step towards true freedom. To acknowledge that no matter how tightly you cling, or holler, or clutch the sides of the river, or try to keep things from changing,  in the end, everything changes and everything is swept away. And to cling to keeping things unchanged is to waste time and energy that might be better spent experiencing the full heft and breadth of right here and now.

So ; in that vein, today is the proper launch day for Night Shift. My publishers at Hot Key in association with the excellent booksellers at Blackwells on South Bridge, Edinburgh are having a proper launch event tonight complete with a Q&A, drinks and signing of books. It’s a big day, I’m slightly nervous ( actually, make that very) but also looking forward to releasing my book into the wild and hearing what people say. And remembering that ultimately, I can’t change anyone’s opinion of the book, or my ‘take’ on the subject. All I can do is let it go and allow it to find its own path.img_2811

Night Shift : 2

Once there was a girl. She was a lonely only, long on imagination but short of friends. She lived in between the pages of books, finding company in tales of talking toads, moles, Snowy Queens and elves and Hobbits, reading and drawing and waiting till she was fully-grown.

Unfortunately, before this could happen, after years of lesser skirmishes and fallings out, her mother and father had an enormous battle and decided to live in separate houses. There passed several miserable years ; the girl missed her father, ( she only saw him on Saturday nights) her mother appeared to be desperately unhappy and her father seemed oddly distracted. This proved to be due to his having created a whole new family, complete with newborn baby which would make any recently-separated father feel a bit preoccupied. The girl discovered the existence of this  new family by accident, but didn’t feel she could tell her mother without making her even more miserable. And she certainly couldn’t tell her father either because he’d’ve been furious that she’d found out. Time passed in a kind of grey fog until the girl hit puberty. At which point, she decided that she might be better able to take care of herself and she left home to do so.

The girl moved into a hovel with a much Older Man, and her life began to rapidly unravel. The Older Man vanished for a while, leaving the girl at the mercy of several predatory younger men. They predated. The girl didn’t know how to defend herself. She didn’t know how to claim  benefits and lived off a sack of out-of-date muesli made semi-palatable with tapwater for a period of six weeks until someone explained that such austerity wasn’t necessary or advisable. One morning, she woke up with several police officers breaking down her door. They turned over her room in a hunt for illicit substances. Since housework wasn’t high on her agenda, the girl had the ends of two soggy spliffs floating in a beer can and as such,  was charged with possession. At no point did she ever contemplate going back home to either parent.

Some months later, she was the subject of a short, sharp shock via the legal system and found herself locked in a woman’s prison to teach her the error of her spliff-smoking ways. Or something.  Not entirely sure what lesson was learned ( throw out your beer cans ashtrays, perhaps?), but upon release from prison, the girl ran as far away from her home town as she could afford. This wasn’t far, but relocating to a different county proved to be more than enough. Shortly afterwards, reunited with the Older Man, the girl found out that she was pregnant.

Four months after the birth of her little baby boy, the Older Man rearranged the girl’s face. Shortly after that, due to an unrelated matter, he went to prison for a long time. At which point, finally, the girl grew some sense. She loved her little boy dearly and wanted to make a good life for both of them. A life free from prison, free from fear and one in which there would be books, and music and home-grown vegetables. Her only transferable skill at this point was an ability to draw and write, so she applied and got in to Art College.

Things began to improve. A student grant seemed like unbelievable amounts of money compared to what was ( back then) called Social Security. Pause while those of us old enough to do so, nostalgically recall a less punitive benefits system… The student grant paid her rent, her food, her heating and there was a little bit left over to buy a wreck of a car. Times continued to improve. The little boy was a sunny child, consumed with boyish things ; fishing, talking non-stop and playing with a model railway. The girl loved her work ; she was happily building the beginning of a career for herself as an illustrator. She even planted some vegetables. Until…

Three months after the girl had finished her post-grad, she began to feel a constant anxiety as if something, some nameless horror was about to happen. An series of anonymous phone calls while she was at home alone didn’t help, just hearing someone  breathing on the end of the line was distinctly un-nerving. This was back in the days before you could dial a number to tell you who’d just called.  The girl’s anxiety ramped up a notch. Soon, sleep deserted her and she rapidly descended into a confused and terrified state. She began to suffer vivid aural hallucinations and finally, fearing that she was losing her sanity, she sought professional help.

Which is more or less where my new book ‘Night Shift’ begins. It’s publication day is tomorrow ( 12th January) and it’s the most personal and soul-baring book I’ve ever written. I’m hoping to help raise awareness and empathy and understanding about the nature of depressive illness by drawing what it felt like ( and still feels like) to suffer from this invisible disease. By using drawings, I’m hoping to transcend the misinterpretations that words are subject to. I’m hoping that fellow-sufferers might find ‘Night Shift’ useful as a point-it book ( it is very short) and might be able to say  – here, this, this is what I feel like today, but tomorrow, I may feel like this. I’m hoping that it might give an insight into what to feels like to suffer from this illness for those caring and loving friends and relatives who wish to help but feel disempowered by their inability to do so. And last of all, I’m hoping it might throw a little light into the darkness for anyone who still thinks that people with depressive illness need to ‘snap out of it’ or ‘pull themselves together’ or ‘stop whining’. Fiat lux. Let there be light. Shed some light, make a crack in the darkness because, as the late, great Leonard Cohen said,

‘There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’

A small thing to do to help yourself today. Try and get some daylight shining on your head. Preferably during the lightest part of the day. Take your hat or hood or scarf off and let the light in. Tucked inside your skull is your pineal gland , a tiny thing no bigger than a grain of rice,yet it’s in charge of controlling  the production of melatonin which regulates your sleep patterns.  Buried equally deep in your head is your hypothalamus, which despite its dense wrapping of grey matter is also sensitive to light and is in charge of the regulation of circadian rhythms.I apologise for the sketchy nature of this information -my medical knowledge can be summarised on the head of a drawing pin, but I know that we need daylight, especially when we’re feeling low. Half an hour. Even if it’s cloudy. Hell, even if it’s raining. Get out there. Even if only by contrast, when you come back inside, it’s a lot less wet.

One more sleep till publication day! I’m heading out to get some light. In the howling wind…

Night Shift : 3

DSCF2565.jpgToday is what is sometimes referred to as a book birthday. Being the mother of five children, I prefer to imagine it as the day a book is born. Being the book’s mumma, today I should be sitting up in bed or perching carefully on a bag of frozen peas ( too much information?) or reclining on something comfortable with my newborn either cradled in my arms or in someone else’s. There might even be flowers and chocolate within reach. And probably some prunes, she said, darkly.

There have been so many book birthdays over the years. Some have passed with nothing so much as a pause in the onward flow of  book deadlines ; others we’ve celebrated by taking a bottle of something fizzy up a hill and finding a secret river or a sheltered hollow to consume it along with a picnic. On other book birthdays, I’ve been out on The Road, living out of a suitcase and visiting small children in a variety of schools, libraries and lit festivals round the UK. Every one different in its own way.

Today’s book birthday is an altogether different beast. Before, my books were fiction. Well..inasmuch as any writer is capable of teasing out the threads of their own life from the yarn  they’re spinning. Sometimes I can only see why I wrote what I did many years after the event. Sometimes it takes a dedicated PhD student to pick apart my texts and offer them, dissected, back to me before the penny drops. Ah, I’ll think, that’s why I wrote that bit. And at times, that same penny drops as I’m standing up there, babbling in front of a group of small children.

For instance, I offer you the menopausal Mr Wolf, a self-portrait if ever there was one. Needless to say, as soon as I spotted the likeness, I blurted out my findings in front of a class of bemused five-year-olds. Thankfully, they hadn’t a clue what I was on about, but their teachers did.

DSC_1817.JPGHowever, I know that ‘Night Shift’, published today, isn’t fiction. It may have dragons, but it’s as near as dammit an illustrated version of what happened to me when I first encountered depressive illness.

First time round, I was prescribed the anti-depressant amitriptyline. I have no idea in what dosage, but it was sufficient to stop my panic attacks ( see previous post, Night Shift : 2), stem the feelings of dread and put me into a merciful sleep. Deep, sticky, dreamless sleep. Sleep from which I awoke into a grey fog. Soon, I was so far from the ‘me’ I once was that I was convinced I’d never be her again. That girl/woman had turned into a shambling, sexless thing ; a thing with no ability to create any more, no interest in anything at all, a thing that merely existed to eat and sleep. Every day for months, I took my little boy to school and crawled back to bed with a large packet of digestive biscuits. I tried to read, but the words slipped off the inside of my head and got lost somewhere in the biscuit crumbs. I tried to cry, but nothing came out. I hid from everyone, didn’t answer the phone and sank deeper into something that nobody seemed to understand. Counselling wasn’t on offer, so I didn’t know that it might have helped. There weren’t any self-help books around, so I didn’t realise that the simplest things might have made a difference.

My mother, determined that I shouldn’t give in to depression and throw away all the hard work I’d done to get a degree and a post-grad, bludgeoned me into accepting a post as lecturer at the same Art College I’d recently graduated from. To her, this was the highest accolade imaginable ; a safe job in academia ranking far  above the riskier strategy of becoming an artist. I lasted four weeks. The tears did come. It was utter torture not only to pretend to be normal, but to try and prepare and deliver classes to twenty gorgeous, all-of-life-before-them first year students. I felt like the worst fraud imaginable. I wasn’t an artist ; I was a thing of no use whatsoever. Even resigning my post didn’t make me feel better.

Back I went to the digestive biscuits. I ballooned in weight. When I’d first been diagnosed with depression, I’d been hovering around a worrying six and a half stones. Now, I weighed  fourteen. My partner, a primary school teacher who’d been holding the household together in the absence of the-me-I-once-was decided it was time to bail. He’d had enough. I was sad, but not as sad as I could have been ; the depression made the whole break-up feel as if it was taking place underwater. I was drowning anyway, what difference did it make if the water was just over my head or fathoms deep?

The day he left, that night, making tea for my little boy and I, the full weight of what had happened hit me. I had no money. The rent was due, I had no job, my partner was gone, I was ugly inside and out and there was nothing whatsoever to look forward to. I went through the motions of supper, bath time, book and bed for my little boy. Alone at last, I shook out every single pill I had onto a bit of paper, reckoning there was more than enough to do the job. But the prospect of what would happen to my child stopped me. I was all he had.

I flushed every pill I had down the toilet, including my anti-depressants. This wasn’t because I was feeling particularly heroic, but was because in the leaflet that came with them, I was sure I’d seen something about not taking too many and if so, seeking immediate  medical advice – i.e. they were toxic in high dosages. So they had to go. The next day I pitched up at the nearest Social Security office and made an appointment to see someone. Within a week, I was in the benefits system as a single parent with no visible means of support. I went to see my landlady and stammered out apologies for being late with the rent. She kindly offered to wait. I looked through the vast number of vinyl albums left behind ( temporarily) by my ex and pulled out Simply Red’s debut ( don’t judge me) and dropped the stylus down on ‘Money’s too tight to mention’ and turned the volume up and danced like nobody was looking.

They weren’t. Then I played the whole of Prefab Sprout’s debut album and cried my eyes out. For everything that had gone. For the loss of a good man. For I had no idea what, but just every single thing. The music touched some frozen part of me and allowed something to thaw. I didn’t know then, but I know now that at that point, the light was about to come back in.

A little something to lighten the day – Sometimes, just doing something different can help. Dreary routines performed without really being aware we’re doing them can contribute to that feeling of being stuck in a rut. So – with this in mind, can I suggest that you listen to something different on your daily commute or when you get home or when you’re doing the school run or whenever you have twenty minutes to yourself to fill your ears with newness? Getting up and dancing is not mandatory, you’ll be glad to know. So – if you normally go running to dance highlights from the 80’s ( don’t judge me, again) then try some Wagner. If you’re on the train listening to reggae on your earbuds, try some Nordic Fiddlers Bloc ( yup, that was a plug for something extraordinary) and if you’re listening to local radio with all its incessant adverts for stuff you don’t need ( more sofas, anyone?) on your car radio, then head over to Radio 3 and stick it out through the quivering violins and swelling opera. This is contrast. Black and white. Even if you listen to enough to decide that you loathe it, you’ll have done something you didn’t do yesterday. Off with the grey blahs and on with the new. With this in mind, I’m going to go listen to ‘The Lark Ascending’ on youtube. Some of my family rate it very highly, but to my horror, I cannot remember what it sounds like.

Night Shift : 4

DSC_2033.JPG This is one of the pictures that didn’t make it into the final book. in fact, I don’t even think I offered it to my publishers, preferring to keep it to myself. You can see the rough pencil marks and un-rubbed out bits, but there’s something very child-like about the dragon – his pelican bib and expectant claws are, dare I say, endearing? However, the little human is wearing a welder’s mask, tongs and gloves- she’s not taking any risks with accidental snorts of flame.

She’s offering the giant beast a madeleine. This is a Proustian moment (if that doesn’t make me sound like a complete tosser… ) This is a precious memory she’s handing over in the hopes that – I have no idea what she’s hoping will happen to that memory. It’ll be cleansed by fire? Turned into ash? Alchemised into gold? I drew it because I have a quote from Proust pinned to the wall above my drawing board and I wanted to illustrate it.

Forgive me while I mangle Proust. I think the quote goes something like ‘Griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some of their power to injure the heart.’ Sorry, Marcel. But it illustrates what I was doing when I was drawing the pictures for Night Shift. It wasn’t self-therapy. It was trying to take the dross, the base metal of the experience of depression and turn it into something valuable, something that might help other injured hearts find their way.

Of course, the experience of actually drawing what it felt like to hit rock bottom was beyond weird. I’d open up my studio in the morning, and there, on the easel, waiting for me, would be one of the humungous illustrations in progress.DSCF0104.JPG

Nostrils flaring, wings outspread, there was my monster in black and white. I could only take a few days of this and I’d have to cover my illustration over and go do something else. A fluffy bunny perhaps? A dear little penguin. Ahhhhhh, that’s better. DSC_2055.JPGThen the monster called, and I carried on. When I finished an illustration, I added it to the growing pile, but without any idea of what the growing pile was for. From time to time, I’d show friends and family what I was doing and we’d all suck air through our teeth in a fashion beloved of car mechanics or school nurses. As in – ffffffff that’s going to cost you.  Or – yikes, that’s a bit of an owie.

Being a writer though means that you spend rather too many of your waking hours trying to make sense of things through the medium of story. And the pile of drawings were no different. Obviously they were charting a journey of sorts, but what route map was that journey taking? Reminded of my inability to read maps ( I am a legend in that respect) I decided to dispense with an order, a map or anything like a framework and simply drew how I felt.

Simply.dscf0440If anyone wonders what the little squiggly bits on the cover of Night Shift are, they’re spent matches. Beating back the darkness, one Swan Vesta at a time.

One small thing to lighten the load – Spring is already on its way. Bulbs are pushing through the black earth, tree branches are slowly swelling, prior to bud break. The Earth turns towards the sun again, and although we don’t sense it yet, the nights are getting shorter. Go outside  just before twilight, maybe hunting for crocuses poking through the soil and while you do, have a listen to the birdsong. They’re not in full  and glorious chorus yet, but here in Scotland, they’re certainly tuning up. Who knew that robins could sing so sweetly? They know the light is returning. Birds are a reminder that nothing stays the same, light follows darkness and seasons turn. They’re seizing this day.

Night Shift : 5

img_3179Yesterday, eldest daughter and I headed up into hills and high moorland for a much-needed walk. It was cold enough to require full winter hillwalking kit, plus ( on my partner’s insistence) I carried a bivvy-bag, just in case one of us fell down and broke something and the other one had to go for help. Plus spare food, more layers, a balaclava and snow goggles.

You can’t be too careful. Hills kill.

I’d been somewhat dismissive of all this caution until we got up on the plateau ( I use this word loosely, it’s just the high moorland, but still, the views are amazing) and the wind buffeted us. Actually, it knocked us sideways and we stopped to put on more layers. At which point I realised that I was very cold indeed, despite Goretex, down, merino and everything I’d wrapped myself in in the hope of staying toasty. I’d forgotten to bring a proper hat. I was only wearing a fleece headband. I had packed a balaclava, and they’re all very well when you don’t have to bail out your streaming nose every five seconds, but otherwise they’re useless. My head was freezing, and despite gloves, my hands were so cold they were almost unable to work zips or fastenings.

On we marched, through a patch of spindrift ( you can just about see it in the photo above)  looking forward to the halfway point where we planned to stop for sandwiches and a cup of tea before heading back.

It was so cold, that even down off the moorland, tucked in a river valley, we only paused for five minutes before the temperature drove us back onto our feet again. And if anything, after lunch, I was even colder than before.

But oh how beautiful it was. To be outside, in winter, to simply be walking and breathing – it felt like a gift. Despite the bits of me that weren’t feeling quite so appreciative of all this beauty. To my frozen hands and head, I added the grinding of hips and wailing and gnashing of knees. And after we stopped again for a cup of tea and a slab of leftover Christmas cake with a dentist-dismaying layer of icing so thick it looked like the snowdrifts around us…well, that kicked off the siren-song of a distant migraine.

But we were on the way home, supper had been discussed and decided upon ( eldest daughter and I talk about food a lot) and we were both beginning to feel that glow inside that comes after a grand day out on a hill. Any physical effort that pushes me beyond my comfort zone seems to do the trick ; running, walking, sobbing my way up mountains – they all have the same net result. Contentment.

And sometimes if you’re  winter walking on clear days yore given the extra reward of twilight skies. Like this –

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Then we headed home to the agony/bliss of a hot shower and a well-earned bowl of pasta.

Small thing to do to make yourself feel a bit better – If you’re able to, take yourself out for a long walk. It needn’t be with anyone ; in truth, most of the time my eldest daughter and I spent up in the hills was in companionable silence broken only by the swish swoosh of her weird gaiters, but just letting our feet carry us while the landscape unspooled around us was quite enough. It most certainly doesn’t have to be up into high moorland either – it just has to be longer and further than you would ever go on a normal day. I’m certainly not advocating that you undertake anything that would put you in any danger. Plan it in advance, look up your route on a map and see how far you intend to go. Don’t attempt anything heroic – this is meant to be restorative, not draining. Pack a picnic and suitable clothing and anything you feel you might want or need on a mini-expedition including a calorific reward to get you through the last few kilometres before home. Leave a note saying where you’re going and when you hope to return or let someone know that’s what you’re doing.

It’s your journey. It begins when you shut your door and step out into the world. You can see a small part of the path ahead of you, but despite your planning, you cannot see further than that. ( I tell children about this when I visit schools ; I liken the photograph below to the process of allowing yourself to write a story. You can see the first part, but the remainder winds off enticingly into the forest.) Trust your feet to carry you forwards, and open your senses to all the winter world has to give you.

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Night Shift : 6

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Tomorrow is the fabled ‘Blue Monday’ where, if the media is to be believed, we are all in it together. The whole nation is allowed to bandy around the term ‘depression’ as if a temporary trough in our finances and thus access denied to our Gadarene consumer stampede equates to an illness that sucks every bit of joy out of our lives.

For those of us with depressive illness, we’d gladly trade a month of Blue Mondays just for a respite from the fog, the black dog, the dragons or whatever flavour our illness takes. Because, trust me, I’m not for one second arrogant enough to imagine that every single page of Night Shift will resonate with everyone’s experience of depression. And for sure, not everyone will go running to save their lives ; that’s my route, I don’t expect it to be yours. And I use the word ‘run’ in its loosest sense. I plod, bouncily.

I’d be the first to agree that January weather can contribute to our feeling a bit miserable, low light levels don’t help, the after-holiday sluggishness is hard to shake off, not to mention the possible weight gain from too much slothery ( I may have made that word up) and that unhelpful feeling of ‘surely there’s more to life than this?

So we hear people saying – I hate January, the weather’s crap, I’ve maxed out my credit card , the boiler’s on the fritz, my rent’s going up, I’ve put on four kilos over Christmas, oh aaaargh, I’m so depressed.

Like Jon Snow, they know nothing.

This isn’t even remotely like depression. Sorry, but it doesn’t come close. Perhaps the media’s uptake of the Blue Monday schtick is contributing to the misapprehension that all we need to do is pull ourselves together, dial back on the overspending, get our finances in shape, join a gym, get some exercise and stop whining. Certain media commentators certainly seem to think so. There are small things we can do to try and make ourselves feel better, but in the throes of a full-blown depressive period, the main thing you have to do is hang on.

Hang on, even though there’s little left to hang on to. Hang on and trust that this will NOT last for ever, no matter what lies your own depression is telling you. Three years ago was the last time my personal fog rolled in, and all I could find to hold onto was my own breath. In the middle of the night, when I woke up, I’d roll onto my back,rest my hands flat against the top of my breasts and breathe.

I’d been given a copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘Peace is every breath’ subtitled  ‘A practice for our busy lives’. I’m not a Buddhist, but I was so very grateful for that slim little volume and return to its easily understood text whenever the need arises. I am so glad that there are teachers like TNH is our world. Anyhoo -within the book I’d found and liked  two very short gathas (little verses that are designed to return our minds to a state of quiet contemplation) The first one was what I clung to, breathing in the oppressive darkness, trying to quell my panic in the middle of the night.

Following the Breath

Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment.

I know this is a wonderful moment.

Trying to drag that smile onto my face was almost impossible.  At times, I’m sure it was little more than a rictus, but somewhere I’d read that engaging your facial muscles in a smile caused other muscles to relax, so… And for sure, I knew the night terrors were not ‘a wonderful moment’ but I also knew that if I persevered, I might turn them round. Breath becoming the alchemist’s crucible. Some nights I had to repeat this ‘Following the Breath’ gatha many times before I slipped back into sleep.But it worked every single time.

The other gatha was

Waking Up

Waking up this morning, I smile.

Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.

I vow to live fully in each moment

and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

Several challenges there. First of all, the smile. ( See above). Then the contemplation of twenty-four hours stretching out ahead. Especially when you’re down there in the abyss. But the hours are brand new. They are all yours. Yours to interpret, yours to live, yours to breathe in. Living fully in each moment means opening yourself out like a flower, even if it’s agony. I could only manage small attempts at full engagement before I sank back into a dull and numb nothingness, but the more I tried, the longer I could feel alive. Difficult as this was, it was nothing like as hard as the last bit ; looking at all beings with eyes of compassion? That means everyone. Pols and mouthy hate-crimers and people-smugglers and world leaders? Yikes.

However, the hardest bit is looking at yourself with eyes of compassion. You. You are worthy of love. At which point my brain would explode.

And back I’d go to the first gatha. Breathe.

Today’s little thing to help : Let’s help each other? First of all, if you’re out among people today, try smiling at a stranger, even if you’ve never felt less like doing so. With your eyes as well as your mouth. We can never know what goes on in another human heart and the people who look least like they’ve ever gone through a depressive period might just be in the throes of one right now. The people who don’t smile back might be having the worst time ever. Sometimes we have no idea if our little signals of human kindness are picked up, but I’m sure nothing good is ever wasted.

And secondly – help me out here – what little things do you do to lift your mood? All suggestions welcome.