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 : 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 : 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 : 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, 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 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…