What shapes us ~ nature, nurture or experience? A novelist’s view

square peg

Today on No Wriggling I am lucky enough to host a guest post from author Vivienne Tuffnell. Vivienne, who wrote for (and inspired the title of) my book, Dandelions & Bad Hair Days, talks here of family history in the broadest sense, and of the process of writing via the characters in her latest novel Square Peg, which offers the wonderful line ‘She’d seen faces like that before, but on the television, in films and in the history books. The faces of fanatics, cold and blind to all reason staring back at her….’ 

It’s a great debate, nature or nurture, when it comes to who we think we are. While we may think we are our own person, that person is shaped both by upbringing and genetics and the experiences we go through in life. As a novelist, the shaping of characters is a curious process, half unconscious and half deliberate and I’d like to think that the fusion of the two has meant I’ve created some memorable folks amid the pages of my novels.

I was asked recently (several times) if Chloe’s grandmother in Square Peg is based on my own grandmother. My answer is that she’s not based on anyone(as such) but she’s probably how I’d like to be seen when I am granny-aged. I’ve also been asked how much of Chloe is me (just as I was asked how much of Isobel in Away With The Fairies is me) and I’d answer that question in the same way: a good deal of me is in her.

Yet Chloe’s Gran and her unconventional upbringing shaped her and brought her to the uncomfortable place she’s in at the start of the novel. Gran was one of those free-spirited women who blazed trails through history yet get almost no acknowledgements for the work they did. Trained as a doctor, she chose to spend her working life amid the poor, oppressed and marginalised people around the world, travelling and finding new challenges in a risky life. At some stage, she met and fell in love with someone whose child she came back to England with. She never saw him again, and returning to her home town and parents, people assumed she’d married while abroad but kept her maiden name for professional reasons. A generation before it would have been a massive scandal and a generation later, something fairly unremarkable, yet at the time the birth of a son out of wedlock was something she needed to keep private. As soon as her son was independent, she left to return to the work she loved, only returning when her son lost his wife in an accident.

In the intervening years, she visited her family and sent presents home, usually gifts that reflected the community she was living in. Chloe and her sister are sent a colourful Pendleton blanket, packed with white sage, suggesting that Gran was living among Native Americans, perhaps acting as doctor on a reservation. The battered sandalwood Buddha that sits on the hearth is another such fixture in Chloe’s home.

Like so many women called upon to care for those who need it, Chloe’s grandmother reluctantly returned but never fully settled into a life of a suburban general practitioner and her restlessness was only assuaged by working with the fringe communities, like Romanies and other travellers. Chloe spent enough time as a child among these communities that she grew to identify unconsciously with the marginalised and the outcasts and not with respectable middle class values of those more expected to be her peer group. She also learned a lot of very dubious skills, like how to fight and use a shotgun. Combined with her plain-speaking grandmother’s influence, who taught tolerance for differences of faith, ideology and race but resistance to blind convention and mealy-mouthed maintenance of a status quo of injustice, Chloe arrives in a place where she’ll be tested to her limits simply to survive without going under or losing integrity by acquiescing to the kind of hypocrisy that would make her grandmother spin in her too-recent grave.

It’s not only her grandmother’s influence that has brought her to this turning point in her life. Her childhood and her student days shaped a woman who is combative and uncompromising, yet her choice of husband has also changed her. Clifford has not tamed her, but rather has seen her wildness as something to cherish. He sees her plain speaking as a virtue; not as the college wives do, as rudeness and a lack of community spirit. He’s not the kind of ordinand who wants or expects his wife to be a stereotypical help-meet, organising prayer groups and baking scones; it would bore him senseless and the spark he has with Chloe would gutter and die if she became meek and conventional.

Chloe isn’t someone who needs a horde of friends, but she does need kindred spirits to keep her from sliding into despair, and she’s lucky to find one in her first year of college who keeps her from the darkness of total isolation. But it’s not until their final year when the anarchic Isobel arrived with her ordinand husband Mickey, and a bond is formed between two square pegs that will endure some terrible times. Isobel is someone better able to walk the line between being outrageous and acceptable. She’s had a bit more practise, swapping from a degree chosen to placate her father to a degree in art to please herself, and somehow keeping it secret long enough to produce work her father can see is potentially a career builder. She’s also able to accept some compromise, cutting off her dreadlocks and removing her piercings before she and Mickey start at college. She sees them as peripherals and not really that important to her identity; she can go ‘plain clothes’ for the duration and not see it as infringing on her core identity. She makes the perfect mole.

Authors sometimes talk about back story, of knowing who your characters are, and how vital that is even if little of the background appears directly on the page. It’s about knowing marrow-deep precisely who they are and how they came to be that way. Chloe inherits her grandmother’s not-inconsiderable intelligence, her red hair and her questioning nature, but perhaps not her tough and resilient hide, impervious to the opinions of most other people. Her time growing up with such a role model taught her not to suffer fools gladly but it’s only experience that teaches how to spot rogues and frauds, and only experience that can teach self preservation in impossible situations.

There’s a saying that the secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go, and that’s the one secret that Chloe’s Gran really needed to have taught her.

Vivienne Tuffnell
Vivienne Tuffnell

My sincere thanks to Viv for this post. To read more of her wonderful writing, go to her blog, Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking. Square Peg, as well as her other novels The Bet, Away with the Fairies and Strangers & Pilgrims, and short story collections The Moth’s Kiss and The Wild Hunt are available from Amazon by following the link.

On World Mental Health Day – Dandelions, Depression & Desperate marketing

Book Cover resize (2)(Please note – this is not just a sales pitch for a great cause! I include some poems to add value so bear with me…..)

I am proud to say that today is the first anniversary of the publication of Dandelions and Bad Hair Days, the book of wonderfully creative and heartfelt life-writing, poetry and photographs on the subject of depression and anxiety. More than twenty people allowed me to use the pieces they had provided for the monthly mental health blog post I ran on No wriggling and I am terribly proud to be its editor.

To celebrate World Mental Health Day (the launch of the book was planned to mark it last year) I have reduced the price of the Kindle version of the book by half to raise awareness and get it up the charts and royalties on the ebook mean that even with a price of £1.53 more than a £1 goes to mental health charity SANE. To go direct to buy (please!) click HERE. If you would like a copy of the paperback (and a chance to see Nettie Edwards’ great photos which we couldn’t replicate in the ebook) it is just £5.99, but I have a few copies I can send at a reduced price of £4.50, dedicated if you wish. Just leave a comment below for more details.

Continue reading “On World Mental Health Day – Dandelions, Depression & Desperate marketing”

Publishing books as fundraisers – the pros and cons on ‘Talking Books’

Last week I blew my own trumpet on Talking Books. I chose the theme ‘writing books for charity’ and, of course, Dandelions and Bad Hair Days  (now available on Kindle) comes firmly within that category, raising funds for SANE. However, lots of other people have produced some wonderful work to support particular causes and charities and I thought it would be a good topic to discuss – what was the experience of those who had gone through the process and frankly, was it worth it?

alzheimersMy main guest was Jackie Burgoyne from the ‘All Write Then’ collective, a group that came together after meeting online via the Open University Creative Writing course. Jackie contacted me via the DABHD Facebook page to see if I had any advice to offer. I hope sharing my experience with her was useful and the group have certainly produced a great book – Still Me – which has been written to raise awareness of and funds for The Alzheimer’s Society. I have a copy – it is lovely, with some really heartfelt writing within its pages and I would heartily recommend buying a copy. It was lovely to find out that, quite by chance, the group also chose the dandelion as an image for the front cover.

I also shared the experiences of Esther Clark, whose OU Creative Writing group also pulled together an anthology called At Home With Words (which you can still purchase by clicking on the link and contacting Esther) for Cancer Research UK and mentioned the work of  Lois Chaber, who wrote The Thing Inside My Head for OCD Action and Jackie Tanner, a poet who wrote The Cupcake Queen Bites Back for SWEDA (Somerset and Wessex Eating Disorders Association) a local Eating Disorders Charity.

Although those I spoke to acknowledged frustrations, anxiety and a lot of hard work, everyone found publishing their books very rewarding and worthwhile.

I played a couple of interviews with contributors to DABHD on the show, let the lovely voice of poet David J Beauman work his magic on listeners by reading my own poem Life Force (in DABHD) and then donned the headphones for the first time ever and spoke to Jackie live on the telephone. Hopefully she didn’t find it too scary and we rounded off the show with her request Swing on a Star by Bing Crosby, a great favourite of her mother’s, who remembered the words even in the late stages of her dementia. Very moving.

I do hope you can listen to the show via the link above. There is a lot of my voice (as my sister kindly pointed out), for which apologies but I hope I am getting a little better at this presenting lark. Still a little hesitant and definitely not slick, but it is still early days. Thanks for listening!

Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Everybody loves it so let’s go for the top 10….!

Last month Dandelions and Bad Hair Days; Untangling lives affected by depression and anxiety was published on Kindle. Available around the world to read on Kindle, PC or even iPads and smart phones, alongside the paperback version it is now available to millions of people. All the reviews so far have been 5*, with comments such as ‘moving’ ‘enlightening’ ‘uplifting’ ‘accessible’. The book has been featured at a Psychotherapy conference where a reading by Vivienne Tuffnell of her piece that gives the book its title was viewed by many therapists present as one of the highlights of the day.

Image

All good then. Since going to eBook DABHD has featured in two Kindle charts, reaching the top 50 of one of them and the royalties available from Amazon mean that selling at 2.99 we get nearly as much in royalties as we do for a paperback at twice the price.

But we really need a breakthrough to get it on to  ‘must read’ lists. Looking at the charts, the ‘self-help’ books that do well seem to be the ones with inspirational quotes and have a life coach angle to them. Nothing wrong with that at all. However, I do think there is a place for a book full of wonderful writing by inspirational people who talk about their own experiences in their own words, creatively and with passion. Reviewers have said that even if they have no direct experience of mental ill-health themselves, the book has helped them understand how it can affect anyone, in any walk of life and however resilient they think they are.

So how do we ‘go viral’? How do we bring Dandelions and Bad Hair Days to the attention of all those that would benefit from it, learn from it, come to a better understanding from it? All of those involved believe that to reduce stigma and raise awareness we need to get our stories out there. We have poked our heads about the proverbial parapets, which for many has been a courageous move.

So lets find a way to sell in the hundreds, the thousands. Remember ALL profits go to mental health charity SANE, with a contribution to OCD Action in memory of Sybil Macindoe whose mother, Lois Chaber, writes movingly in DABHD and whose own book The Thing Inside My Head has done so much to highlight how damaging Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be.

I have to say I am not very confident at marketing the work I do – it feels a little like selling raffle tickets – you know people are strapped for cash and it is hard to ask. However – this is not all my writing; it is poetry and prose by some twenty contributors. It has a beautiful and unique cover, using artwork by the talented artist Ingrid Smejkal and the paperback includes photographs by photographer Nettie Edwards.  Everyone wins with this book. Please do buy it, tell your friends, review it. I can’t thank you enough for the hard work so far, but there is so much more it could do.

‘Talking Books’…On trying to become Somerset’s answer to Mariella Frostrup

10radio…I wish!

But I do have my own book show on local radio -10Radio based at the heart of a Somerset community  – and the first programme  is looming large. I go on air at 11am tomorrow (Friday 29th March 2013) to start the series of fortnightly programmes which will offer book reviews, news and interviews with writers, poets, photographers – in fact anyone with a book out that I think will interest listeners on 105.3fm in Somerset or anywhere in the world online at www.10Radio.org. I will also be recording each show and putting links up on my blog so you can listen anytime anywhere. Aren’t you lucky?!!

I am nervous, but very excited. As a writer I am also a keen reader (and think you have to be) but I also love to talk about books and think about what they mean to me. I want to focus on a different genre each time and find an author willing to come on for a chat to talk about their work and their writing life. I also want to encourage a bit of audience interaction so would love to have requests for favourite poems – there is someone with a wonderful voice at the station who does readings and voice overs professionally so I am keen to take advantage of his skills.

The show came about purely by accident. I was being interviewed at 10Radio to plug the TAP conference and had talked about my book Dandelions and Bad Hair Days when I happened to ask whether they had a book programme in the schedule. ‘No! Do you want to do one?’ came the reply. I am in the mood for new challenges at the moment and after much discussion over a title for the show, ‘Talking Books’ was commissioned. On a voluntary basis of course. The station is held together by a committed band of Directors and a lot of willing volunteers but it is really well-respected and I am keen to ensure I don’t mess up.

Beth Webb
Beth Webb

The first show – as it is Easter hols – is on the children and young adults market. I am lucky enough to have Beth Webb as my first guest. She is a first rate storyteller and writer of books for children and teens, including the Star Dancer quartet (loved by teens and adults alike) and The Junkyard Dragon. I am hoping she will be kind – I suspect I will get so involved in our conversation I will be cut off unceremoniously at 11.30am as I overrun. Timing might be something I can only learn by experience.

So listen out for me. I would love to know what you think. Most of my readers here will have to listen online I suspect but feedback would be good (although not the kind you get from having the phone too near the radio of course…) and as each programme approaches I might be asking for your favourites in the ‘genre of the week’. So keep your fingers crossed for me. I would love a long career in radio and the chance to talk to you directly about the writing we all love.

Make a cup of tea and listen with a hob nob. Books and biscuits – what could be better?

British? Moi?

britThis is a tough one. I have been nominated by the lovely writer Vivienne Tuffnell over at zen and the art of tightropewalking (whose novel Away With the Fairies I am currently reading and enjoying very much) for A Very British Blog Tour something I would not normally get involved in.

There are three reasons for this:

1) I always find it hard to nominate people to continue the tour – it feels like sending someone a chain letter, albeit  a benign one.

2) I rarely think of myself as British, or of any nationality, unless I am filling in an official form of some kind. I like the idea of being ‘European’ and embrace the possibility of one day having the time and money to travel across the continent. Being ‘British’ at the moment sometimes seems parochial and occasionally I feel as if I am being knitted together with people who have a very different and potentially less inclusive view of Britishness than I do. It is hypocritical I realise. But then so is shouting for many of our Olympic medalists if you vote for UKIP…

3) Why would anyone want to know this stuff about me? For the same reason I want to know about them, I suppose.

So why this one? Well it is one that involves a discussion of my writing life (via the terrific Roz Morris at Nail your Novel )  and I am, now, a writer. I earn money by it and am published so it would be good to let people know I am here and what I am all about. A couple of the questions seem to directly refer to my current non-fiction writing on something I consider an important topic, and I also thought it would do me good to enjoy my ‘Britishness’ for a moment. In a house full of people who consider themselves (rightly) to be a little bit Irish, I have no such claim. If I am not British, then what am I? Embrace it girl – even with the government we have it isn’t all bad…

So here goes…..

n20Q: Where were you born and where do you live now?

A: I was born and brought up in North London and always considered myself a Londoner through and through. My family tree shows decades of poverty-stricken existence in Clerkenwell on both stems. However, others have done more detailed research and it seems that on both sides I have ancestors from the South West, which is where I live now (on the Somerset/Devon border). Perhaps I have been heading home all my life…

Given the chance though I would be up in the Lake District. No question.

Q Have you always lived and worked in Britain or are you based elsewhere?

A: Always Britain. I do wish I had traveled and worked abroad when I was younger though. I don’t think you can really understand your own nationality until you have lived away from it.

Q Have you highlighted or showcased any particular part of Britain in your books, a town, a city, a county, a monument, well-known place or event?

CIMG1018

A: I write about The Lake District in my poetry, and my non-fiction is set wherever the research takes me. However, I feel drawn to use London as a backdrop to my fiction. I love the city and feel really ‘alive’ when I go back.

Q: There is an illusion – or myth if you wish – about British people that I would like to discuss. Many see Brits as ‘stiff upper lip’. Is this correct?

Soldier croppedA: I am currently writing a social history book entitled Shell-Shocked Britain about the impact of WW1 on the mental and emotional health of the nation. My great uncle was deeply affected about one of the air raids on London in 1917 but could never talk about it. In 1922 he murdered his ex-girlfriend and then turned the cut-throat razor on himself. That event too was hushed up, only to be discovered when I was undertaking some family history research. Decades of repressed emotion explain the mental health issues many of the family experienced over the century. It was a shocking time, and I think people need to discuss pain in order to deal with it. It comes out in ways we don’t expect.

Q: Do any of the characters in your book carry the ‘stiff upper lip’ or are they all British Bulldog and unique in their own way?

A: I don’t really like either the ‘stiff upper lip’ or ‘British Bulldog’ attitudes. But in my jolly crime novel Lavender Larceny (to be published this year) the characters are two elderly ladies, one of whom shows a very feisty and undoubtedly British character!

cover-small-2Q: Tell us about one of your recent books

A: Dandelions and Bad Hair Days is very important to me as it is an anthology of pieces written by people who have experienced mental health issues. There is poetry and prose and some wonderfully lyrical writing which is inspiring and often full of hope. All profits go to mental health charities.

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: Shell Shocked Britain for Pen and Sword Social History mentioned above and an anthology of ghost stories that I have written over the years. They are traditional ’round the fire on a stormy night’ M.R. James inspired creepies. I hope! And Lavender Larceny, which is on the third edit. One day it will be ready…

Q: How do you spend your leisure time?

A: I muddle about a lot and the time just goes. Beating my brother at Bejewelled Blitz and my son at Scrabble on Facebook….. Seriously, I read a great deal. I have loved the poet John Keats since my early teens and read and re-read his work as a source of inspiration and to calm me when times are tough. I also read LOTS of fiction; I find it is a great way to improve my own writing.

Q Do you write for a local audience or a global audience?

A: I write because I love it and I hope others will enjoy it. I hope it is accessible to anyone, anywhere and I do have readers coming to my blog from all over the world, which is really gratifying. Thanks everyone 🙂

Q: Can you provide links to your works?

A: Dandelions and Bad Hair Days has its own website at www.dandelionsandbadhairdays.wordpress.com and is available through Amazon and all good bookshops. For details of all my current projects I have my own website at www.suziegrogan.co.uk.

Q: Who’s next?

This is the toughie. I don’t know if this is their kind of thing but I do know they are all a terrific read and have very different approaches to ‘British’ writing…. Give them a look.

Rivenrod

Sarah Cruickshank at A life more lived

Essie Fox at The Virtual Victorian

Madame Guillotine

Lorna Fergusson over at Literascribe

 

Last year’s medical model – depression as part of the human condition

TAP Logo Small v1On Saturday I was lucky enough to attend the Annual Spring Conference organised by the Taunton Association for Psychotherapy (TAP). This year’s theme was depression and the day was marketed as ‘Dialogues Around Depression’ –  a title which reflected the different speaker’s approaches to the subject.  It is a Conference open to anyone interested in the human mind and the way in which we relate to the world, and this year there were representatives from across the therapy spectrum – from homeopaths to NHS Nurse Specialists.

And me. I rarely understand any of the jargon the specialist field of psychology can employ, and have only managed to stay for the first hour of the Conference in previous years…

But that is not for want of trying, because I am actually the Administrator for TAP, a role I take as a freelancer to help support my main job as a writer. TAP was founded over 26 years ago and in addition to the conference it offers ‘an annual programme of diverse and stimulating evening talks given by people from a wide professional and geographical field on the theme of psychological understanding.’ They are a grand lot and I recommend you check out the website at www.taplimited.org.uk. But my involvement with them has highlighted to me how wide is the field of psychology and how different are the many approaches to depression and anxiety.

Vivienne Tuffnell
Vivienne Tuffnell

This year the format of the Conference was tweaked allowing time for four ‘vignettes’ to ground the conference in real experience. I had seven minutes to tell my story ‘Mental illness, motherhood and finding the real me’, which went quite well, but I felt very nervous and was glad to have lots of supportive comments afterwards. It is great to be in a room full of people who are committed to working with people with depression and anxiety without judgement. The real star was Viv Tuffnell, who read her piece ‘The Uninvited Guest’ (a moving parable about learning to understand the visitor that is your depression) and then, nearer the end Dandelions and Bad Hair Days’ from the book I edited of the same title. She has written of her own impressions of Saturday in Vine leaves, dandelions and serendipity ~ my thoughts on the TAP conference and there you can see how the impact of what Martin Seager (a clinical psychologist, lecturer, broadcaster and activist on mental health issues) and Dr Christopher Irons (a clinical psychologist who works for a mental health team in East London) stirred up the audience in a way that a conference about depression could hardly hope to achieve. What is ‘compassion focused therapy?’ Is depression genetic? Is it something we ‘just can’t help’? Or is genetic expression so turned off by environmental factors that genetic predisposition theories are largely pointless?

Martin Seager
Martin Seager

In fact, Martin Seager could have stormed Westminster by force with the support of eighty therapists by the time he had concluded, arguing that instead of bowing to the pharmaceutical and medical lobby, or hitting on the next ‘big cure’ (at this conference it was mindfulness) Government should  look at psychologically informed policies, organisational cultures, training and support. He focused on the ‘fundamental triad’ of trauma/abuse, neglect/deprivation, loss/absence in childhood as the basis of depression and expressed disappointment that no-one properly questions the ‘medical model’.

We don’t fail to value ourselves because we have a
condition called “depression”, rather we feel
depressed when our lives are not mirrored, valued or
supported – this is the human condition…. 

The presentations are available here if you would like to get a flavour of the kind of challenges the speakers posed to us all.  It was a fascinating day and unlike most conferences, there was not one point at which, even after a great lunch, I felt like falling asleep. And to top things off, TAP allowed me to sell copies of Dandelions and Bad Hair Days to attendees, who could read the twenty plus personal experiences of mental ill-health it contains and take it, and the whole day, back to inform their practice.

I enjoy working for TAP and was so pleased that all our hard work paid off this year with, on a first look, great feedback. In these difficult financial times the cost of the conference (£86) is, to many, hard to justify. But the ideas presented and the ‘dialogues’ they should inspire are SO important, as Government continues to look only at treating the symptoms of depression to ensure the fewest number of working days are lost, instead of examining the wider issues that also lead to a gang culture, the vicious circles associated with some physical and sexual abuse and lives permanently blighted by childhood trauma.

Perhaps a march on Westminster, even a virtual one, is a very good idea…

Cover smallI don’t usually re-blog posts to this site, but this is a wonderful piece by my friend Viv Tuffnell (author of The Bet, Strangers & Pilgrims and Away with the Fairies) who spoke at the Taunton Association for Psychotherapy conference with me on Saturday. I am going to write my own post on the same subject, as it was an important day for my book ‘Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling lives affected by depression and anxiety’ (for which Viv provided the title). We sold a lot on the day and have generated a lot more interest. But importantly, as Viv describes here, we heard some interesting ‘dialogues around depression’, the theme for the day. Thanks Viv!

Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking

Vine leaves, dandelions and serendipity ~ my thoughts on the TAP conference

There is a woman on the train with two small children. She’s beautiful, dressed in stylish clothes, her hair immaculate. The children are boys, one aged about four, the other a baby of about fifteen months, seated in a pushchair. They’re well clothed, clean, well-fed. The older boy talks constantly, the air punctuated by “mummy mummy mummy”, and the baby grizzles in that tired way of babies who need a nap, a feed, a cuddle, the grizzling becoming an occasional screaming fit. The mother ignores the children more or less totally, only answering the older child when his demands become loud or he makes the baby yell. Her entire focus is on her smart-phone, held in manicured hands like a pearl beyond price, her long fingernails whipping across the screen and her eyes dead as they scan the…

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Starting as I mean to go on…

step-forwardNext week I am taking what is, for me anyway, a really significant step. I have to believe it is a step forward and although it is not exactly brave, it is taking all my courage to move further along a path that until now has seemed one which could only lead inexorably to anxiety and unhappiness. It is a path that is meant to lead in quite the opposite direction.

Forgive me for being a little obtuse. Even that word seems designed to obstruct and prevent clear understanding. I am certainly finding this hard to express. Or easier to avoid expressing directly.

Those who know me, or have read a little about me in Dandelions and Bad Hair Days, or on this blog, will know that I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 44 in 2006. I had young children and was terrified but I came through chemotherapy and radiotherapy successfully and have just been told that I can now come off of all the medication that has been keeping the beast at bay. The worst of the risk is past, apparently. No-one will say ‘you are cured’. In Somerset they don’t even say you are ‘all clear’. It is a brave man they say that will claim to have cured cancer. It can still come back but I should, with luck, do well. Good news, move on. How much easier said than done that has been for me.

From a young age I have been faced with illness – not always my own but certainly my father’s. He was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s when I was just starting primary school and I don’t remember him physically well at all. As with many neurological disorders he had good days and bad days and our lives were ruled, understandably, by how he was feeling. But I now know that however ‘good’ the day and however well he felt he would always assume the worst. He had suffered grief and loss in a previous marriage and despite happiness with a new family he felt disaster was never far from his life. It stopped him opening up to us, to love us as he might for fear of losing us as he lost his first family. Who could be surprised at that?

Dad died almost exactly twenty years ago and until I started counselling two years ago I didn’t realise how quickly I had taken over his role; started reading from the same script. The breast cancer confirmed it for me – I was playing a part in a tragedy of my own making. A starring role in my own disaster movie. How could I be one of the lucky ones? After all I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, had breast-fed my children and had just got fit and healthy when I found the lump. I had all the protective factors but no, I wasn’t one of the 9 out of 10 for whom all is well. I was the 1 in 10. Cue song…

But it has gone on too long. Before Christmas I had a scare. Ultrasound and MRI scan eventually confirming that what was on my liver was not the worst it could be, but something benign. Something that is a nuisance but NOT cancer.

This post came to me when I was browsing the Poetry Archive site, as is my wont. I found this poem by Felix Dennis, which I dedicate to my dad. I wish he could have read it.

Not All Things Go Wrong…

by Felix Dennis

Not all things go wrong, and knowing
This, be wary of despair,
As you go through hell — keep going,
Make no brave oasis there.

Through the shadowlands of grieving,
Past the giants, Doubt and Fear,
Heartsick, stunned, and half believing —
Heed no whisper in your ear.

Not all things go wrong — and after
Winter’s famine comes the spring,
Kindness, beauty, children’s laughter —
Joy is ever on the wing.

This is such a simple poem but very real for me as I head into 2013.

So with the thoughts of Felix Dennis in mind, where does it leave my script? My soap opera of a life of anxiety? Well it actually changes nothing. I could think ‘well those good results were this time, there will be others’ and carry on in the same way, crucifying myself with anxiety. Or I could do what I have done and at least take steps to try to break the cycle; write a new ending to the story. Give myself some funny lines and be kind to myself. Write myself the equivalent of a retreat; not from the world but from the knotted workings of my own mind.

logoI have booked myself onto a Living Well with the Impact of Cancer two-day residential course offered by Penny Brohn Cancer Care in Bristol. I know many men and women go shortly after diagnosis or just after treatment has ended. It has taken me six years to take advantage of the charity’s support and I hope it will make the difference to me that it has to so many others; exploring the meaning of cancer in my life with people who understand the impact of the proverbial ‘journey’. I know now I have become almost phobic about cancer, avoiding friendships with those travelling the same tough road for fear of losing them, being unable to offer the support they need or assuming their experience would be mine. I barely talk about it; hardly ever write about it which is bizarre when one’s every experience could inform one’s writing. Perhaps when I come back I will open up; I will certainly tell you how I get on.

I know it will take commitment and leaving behind all the excuses I have made to myself in the past. I must want to learn how to take care of my mind and body so that instead of taking the path that meanders without purpose to the one thing certain in our lives (death, not taxes – I paid £12 this year) I will work to choose the path that might be new and scary but which offers me not a poor shadow of my old life but a new one. I will try to come to terms with the anger and disappointment and move on.

I will tear up my father’s script and write myself a new one.

Ho Ho Ho – a Happy, healthy Christmas from No Wriggling!

vintage-christmas-261314Just a quick post to wish all those who follow my blog and any who just drop by the very merriest of Christmases and the happiest and healthiest of New Years.
This has been a good year on No wriggling. One post alone received over 20,000 views – a record by some way – and I am very grateful for your support of my writing.
This isn’t a review of the year, but 2012 also saw my first book published (called Dandelions and Bad Hair Days- Untangling lives affected by depression and anxiety) by Dotterel Press and another commissioned (Shell Shocked Britain) by Pen and Sword Books. So I can now legitimately call myself a ‘writer’. Thank you!
Anyway I thought I would send you a Christmas message via John Betjeman, who in this poem pretty much sums it up for me. Continue reading “Ho Ho Ho – a Happy, healthy Christmas from No Wriggling!”