‘let’s talk! about mental health – #Take5 on the 5th February to discuss mental health

keatsbabe:

As today is the (deep breath!) Time to Change ‘Time to Talk’ #Take5 minutes to start a conversation about mental health day I am on the ‘let’s talk!’ blog for The Terrace Psychotherapy & Complementary Therapy Clinic in Taunton, talking about my life affected by depression and anxiety, and about Dandelions and Bad Hair Days, the book filled with the wonderful contributions from guest posters to No wriggling out of writing. Do follow the links and buy the book if you haven’t yet got a copy and are interested – all money goes to SANE and OCD Action. And remember keep TALKING :-)

Originally posted on let's talk!:

logoToday is Time to Talk Day, when the charity Time to Change asks us to all to spend five minutes discussing mental health issues. The aim is to raise awareness, reduce stigma and encourage people to open up about a subject which is still taboo for many.

So here on let’s talk! we thought we should do just that, and have asked our regular contributor, Suzie Grogan, to start a conversation about how mental health issues affect her, and what raising awareness means to her.

My name is Suzie and I have experienced mental illness. There I have said it.

This is actually how I began my first ever post about mental health, four years ago, on my blog over at No wriggling out of writing and the response to it was overwhelming. It led to my offering a monthly guest post slot to someone else who wanted to say something…

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Number of British Soldiers experiencing mental ill health rising significantly: 100 years on, why can’t we get this right?

Cleared for public release by MAJ Clarence Counts, 7th Special Forces Group, Public Affairs OfficerWriting Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health I quickly realised that although it was, on the face of it, a book about the aftermath of the First World War, it had a very modern significance. I have now given a lot of talks about the book, and the impact of the trauma on the soldiers and their families during and after the Great War. Invariably, an audience member will ask me a post-talk question about how far I think things have changed for service personnel over the past century. One hundred years ago there was little understanding of the mental health needs of civilians, let alone those facing the horrors of conflict, but today? No excuses surely?

So I was really interested to read in the press today that the number of servicemen and women suffering from mental illness has risen by almost a third since 2011, when significant cuts to the defence budget took hold.

The Daily Telegraph published official Ministry of Defence figures showing the number of Armed Forces personnel with “mental health disorders” has risen from 3,927 in 2011 to 5,076 in 2013, a rise of 28%. It is anticipated that the figures for 2014 will show a further steep rise.

How far this rise is related to a greater willingness to discuss mental health issues is unclear. Certainly the Ministry of Defence attributes the rise to a drive to raise awareness, including the ‘Don’t Bottle it Up’ campaign, but are challenged by veteran’s charities who believe that a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed to the rise.

Col. Stuart Tootal

Col. Stuart Tootal

The Telegraph quotes Colonel Stuart Tootal, who led troops into Helmand Province in 2006:
“You cannot ignore the fact that the Army has just spent over 10 years on intensive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan…..You have soldiers who have been exposed to intense operations. There is pressure on their families and pressure on themselves, often during long tours.”

Researching Shell Shocked Britain I uncovered many stories of families destroyed by the mental scars men returned with. It was very difficult for many to slip back into civilian life and they might break down months or years after war ended, unable to relate to their families, find employment or forget the terrible things they had witnessed.

Col. Tootal continued: “We have come a long way. There is better recognition of mental health and more awareness, but more can be done. We have to remember that the mental scars of war are just like the physical scars.” He would like the government to commit to continuity of support as soldiers (and the problem is most acute in the Army) move into retirement.

After the First World War men who were physically wounded were given far better pension provision than those who were suffering long-term psychological problems, and although that is no longer the case, it is still often difficult for service personnel who break down after leaving the army to convince the MoD that it is related to their time serving their country.

The Telegraph piece comes in the week that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, claims there remains an “unspoken bias” in Britain that prioritises physical illness ahead of concerns about mental health. As someone who has worked in the field and written about mental health issues on a regular basis I can say this is most certainly the case.

These figures were published following a Freedom of Information request made by The Daily Telegraph to the MoD. They are certainly not figures that are widely published, but then the Ministry of Defence is no different from many other organisations who may be reluctant to admit that their staff are under increasing stress and experiencing mental ill-health. More than £7 million pounds has been allocated to support service personnel with conditions such as PTSD and depression, which is laudable but only effective is utilised in the right way. Co. Tootal is right – only by making sure a man or woman leaving the Forces has continued support can we reduce the higher levels of family breakdown, domestic violence, crime and homelessness that are often a consequence of psychological trauma and which affect the war veteran now, as they did 100 years ago.

So we must hope that the budget cuts affecting our Armed Forces do not extend to the psychological support available. I end my talks with the hope that the centenary of the Great War, if it has one long-term outcome, raises awareness of the impact of war trauma down the generations, something which has affected many over the century and which will continue to blight lives if robust action is not taken.

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The Loss of the Joy

keatsbabe:

Here is a heartfelt and melancholy post by the lovely Vivienne Tuffnell on her blog, Zen and the art of tightrope walking. She is clearly speaking for many authors as she writes about the role authors now have to take when their work is published. Marketing Shell Shocked Britain has left me drained and lacking the motivation to start the next books, knowing how hard it is to get one’s work noticed. And it is work – it is, as Viv says, what gets us up in the morning. …..

Originally posted on Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking:

The Loss of the Joy

I don’t know precisely when it really began, this loss. They say when you lose something you should go back to the last time you know you had it and work forward until you see when it stopped being there. It worked for the dog lead (it fell in the river) and it worked for my daughter’s purse left behind in a shop in Glastonbury (it was handed in, much to my surprise, money intact). I still had it when I began this blog in 2009, I know that. Looking back, though, I can see it started to disappear not long after that.

Did blogging drive away my joy in writing? No, I don’t think so. I still have a ghost of joy, sitting with me as I write this. After all, I still manage to blog once a week. How many folks can manage…

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Sitting under Walter de la Mare’s ‘Mistletoe': Happy Christmas from an exhausted writer…

merry-christmas2014 has passed in a blur. As did 2013. Does writing a book shorten your life? Now there is a question. I have put on two stone and done little exercise, sitting as I have done in coffee shops, or at my PC scribbling or tapping away to get Shell Shocked Britain completed and ‘out there’. Certainly the Grogan bum is now spreading indelicately over the edges of the chair as I write this. New year resolutions include better planning and more exercise -new ways of working that I tried to stick to early in 2014. So we shall see…

So this is Christmas…. I did one of those Facebook ‘review’ things that use the photos you have posted to create an overview of the past 12 months. Mine was so boring in comparison to those my friends were posting that I didn’t bother. Now I have two more to write for Pen & Sword over the next two years and at present my batteries are drained to the dregs. Even rubbing them between my hands, blowing on them and putting them back can’t get the words flowing again. Fingers crossed for 2015.

Anyway, I am whining. I have had a great year, challenging myself in ways I never imagined (talks on Shell Shocked Britain have gone really well despite my nerves), so I wanted to write this as a THANK YOU to everyone who has read this blog and taken an interest in my work. If you have bought a book, that is great but a re-tweet or Facebook share is also greatly appreciated.

images (4)As always, poetry is something I read avidly at Christmas. A poem can distil the essence of the season and strike an emotional chord worthy of a ding dong merrily on high. This year I have chosen Mistletoe by Walter de la Mare. It reminds me of the late evening Christmas Day, when I relax in the sitting room, with just the Christmas tree lights to cast shadows around the room. It is a moment of sadness in a way, but I try to ignore the fact that all that mad spending and celebration is drawing to a close for another year and just enjoy that moment of peace, looking forward to the new year.

Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.

Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen—and kissed me there.

Have a lovely Christmas everyone, take care of yourselves and each other and let us hope the new year is a happy and healthy one for us all.

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Post-book blues? On losing the will to write…

don_t-be-a-slave-to-writer_s-blockWriter’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.” — Philip Pullman

That is us told then…those of us who think ourselves writers.  I found another contemporary writer willing to pass on their advice, Barbara Kingsolver, a woman whose work I admire as a rule:

It would be easy to say oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.

Oh dear – she isn’t willing to collude with me either. Help……

At the risk of worrying my publishers, I can’t write at the moment. Well, to be more accurate I can’t write books at the moment. Clearly I am writing this blog post, and I have written another post for wonderful The Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog on new ways of interpreting John Keats’s poetry. But nothing else seems to make sense as it leaves my brain and reaches the screen. Even my love of writing with a pencil in my favourite notebook seems to produce nothing of any meaning. It is a tough time, and worrying about it seems to make it worse.

Shell Shocked Britain, a book that took two years of research and writing, was published by Pen & Sword Books in October. Since then I have done lots of talks and have been marketing it madly on blogs, in magazines and via twitter and Facebook. It has gone well, but I feel as if it has been sucking inspiration and motivation out of me. I am not sure if other writers feel this way, although I suspect it is more than likely, but for me I know this feeling is a route into a more general depression. Scary.

I was of course anxious about the success of Shell Shocked Britain– all writers want to be read. It is a book about mental health  – looking at the shell shocked men and families who lived through the Great War 100 years ago and examining how the trauma still resonates with us today. It has sold well (I was well aware it was a niche subject, albeit an important one) so why are my anxiety levels so high that it is hard to work? Why am I railing at myself for my seeming inability to engage with the world in a healthy way?

Telling myself to ‘just write’ is not really working, unless a post like this is in some way building up to a wonderful bill-paying opportunity. I write because I enjoy it; I also write because there are bills to be paid and I have found sharing my thoughts and knowledge in articles, on blogs and in talks offers an opportunity to make an albeit meagre monthly income. Asked recently whether I would, as it were, ‘sell out’ and write commercially rather than for love then the answer had to be ‘yes’. Just because I don’t adore it doesn’t mean others won’t, and there is always the chance that an idea that really grabs my imagination will materialise from the most unexpected of places.

X2GFS_H1T1My mood is low, my anxiety high and my inspiration flown. I have two more books to write over the next two years and must start making sense of my notes. It feels terrifying. As always, my ability to procrastinate remains stubbornly expert. Perhaps I should take Neil Gaiman’s advice:

Start at the beginning. Scribble on the manuscript as you go if you see anything you want to change. And often, when you get to the end you’ll be both enthusiastic about it and know what the next few words are. And you do it all one word at a time.”

Certainly, thinking ‘Oh my goodness I have to write 200,000 words before the end of 2016′ is giving me palpitations and preventing me from writing even 200.

As is always the case, in life as on this blog, I turn to John Keats to put me right. In Endymion, a patchily brilliant poem he wrote before his most stunning work was penned, he says:

But this is human life: the war, the deeds,
The disappointment, the anxiety,
Imagination’s struggles, far and nigh,
All human; bearing in themselves this good,
That they are still the air, the subtle food,
To make us feel existence, and to shew
How quiet death is.
from Endymion, Book II, l.153-159.

Maybe this period of post book blues is all part of the plan then, and I am simply ‘feeling’ my existence as a newly published writer.

Whatever. I just want it to stop.

Posted in Book, Books, History, Keats, love the universe and everything, Mental health, Poetry, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Work, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Guest post: The moving memoir of a despatch rider on the Western Front

AES 1917 001Today I am lucky enough to have another fascinating guest post on No Wriggling – this time by family historian and writer David Venner, who I met after the publication of my own book, Shell Shocked Britain. Here he writes movingly of his own family experiences in the Great War, and tells us more about his great-uncle Albert Simpkin, a despatch rider and the subject of a book David will see published by Pen & Sword in the spring. 

As I write, many of the leaves on the hazel outside my window have fallen and lie scattered on the ground. In time they will decompose or get dragged below the surface by earthworms.  Other leaves remain on the tree but they have changed – from the fresh green of the spring to a faded autumnal yellow: a metaphor, perhaps, for the men who fought on the First World War battlefields. Many of them fell and lay scattered on the surface or were swallowed up, unrecognisably, by the mud. The men that survived and returned from the war were changed, some in obvious, physical ways, others with mental scars that may or not have been apparent to the observer.  A lot of them of course were damaged both physically and mentally.  Their families and the wider community were deeply and irreversibly affected too, as Suzie conveys in her thoroughly researched and well-written book, Shell Shocked Britain.

My great uncle Albert Simpkin was one of the lucky ones who survived the war. Suzie’s book has started me thinking about how his experiences might have changed him. I knew him as an old man, but as he only married into my mother’s family when aged 40, his early life and character are not easily pieced together.

AES 1914 001

Albert in 1914

He was born in 1885, the eldest child of a Salford printer and his wife. When he was 12 his mother died at the birth of a fourth child, a traumatic experience for Albert and the rest of the family. His father soon re-married and Albert apparently did not take to his step-mother – a further source of emotional stress at a sensitive age. At the 1901 census there were two young half-brothers as well as the three siblings from the first marriage. It is perhaps not surprising that, on leaving school and being apprenticed to a Salford engineering firm, Albert moved out of the family home. He lived in digs with two other young men and a landlady who, according to family stories, treated him in a much more kindly way than his stepmother did.

Albert was almost 30 when he joined up, so was not as unworldly as many of the volunteer soldiers were. His teenage traumas, work experiences and early move to independent living probably resulted in a marked degree of resilience and maturity in his approach to life. He seems to have been a natural leader, as quite early in his army training he gained a promotion to become sergeant of his section.

We can gain some further insights into his character from a very detailed diary that Albert wrote of his war service. He was a motorcycle despatch rider with the 37th Division HQ on the Western Front and so had a wide-ranging role and view of the action. He saw some horrific sights, which he records, often with a comment on his reaction:

‘Higher up the trench I came across the body of one of our men badly mutilated, one of his arms had been blown off and half of his face was missing.  The front of his tunic was shredded like wool and the ammunition in his pouches had exploded. A pretty ghastly sight but it raised no more feeling in me than one feels in a butcher’s shop.  War brings one down to the level of animals.’

He endured some atrocious conditions, spending two winters in the Ypres area and another on the Somme:

‘We are having wretched weather, raining every day … After an hour’s riding we are plastered with mud from head to foot and the only way to clean oneself is to wash down with buckets of water.’ 

‘The snow is melting rapidly and everywhere is deep in mud.  I do not know which is the greater evil, snow or mud.  Snow turns to water but mud sticks closer that a brother.’

The places in which he was billeted were often far from healthy:

‘Last night we slept in a barn … The place was alive with rats which ran over our bodies and sniffed inquisitively in our faces.  One of the fellows awoke with a yell, a rat had bitten his ear.’

‘I examined the bed I have been sleeping in and found every known species of vermin, bed bugs, lice and some I was unable to christen.  I straightaway got leave from the OC to go and get a bath after which I changed all my underclothes.’

Yet he found leave-taking a depressing time:

‘The time hung very heavily, everyone cheerful but a trifle forced. I was glad when it was time to go back to France’.

He seems to have had a well-developed sense of morality and equality. For example, he was very critical of the preferential treatment of officers:

‘Sometimes when we have money we go to Bailleul for a feed but all the best places are reserved for officers, which greatly annoyed us until we found a place of our own. Even the ‘pip squeaks’, who a year or two ago were wiping their snotty little noses on their cuffs for want of a handkerchief, may enter, while the highest NCO may not. This childish snobbery of the old army sickens me.’

Despite this critical view of the officer class, his commanding officer gave him a glowing reference on demobilisation:

‘Sgt Simpkin has discharged the duties of NCO in charge motorcycles and despatch riders

in the Company with marked success. Energetic, keen and reliable in all his work. Exceptionally good disciplinarian and leader of men.  Marked organising ability. Throughout his four years of active service he has set a splendid example of personal gallantry which has greatly influenced the personnel under his command.’

AES 1950s 001

Albert in the 1950s

Albert returned to his old job with Crossley Brothers and was chief engineer by the mid-1920s. He married and shortly afterward was sent to Argentina to set up a branch of the company in Buenos Aires.  He and his wife visited England every two or three years, staying with my family on our farm in Somerset.  In between these visits he wrote to me – long, wonderfully informative letters – with descriptions of Argentine wildlife, farming, local customs and events, and he was always interested to know about our lives in England.  He was like a substitute grandfather to me: both of my grandfathers had died before I was born. Having no family, Albert and his wife Lily made as much fuss of my brother and me as if we were their own grandchildren.

Albert never spoke of the war and at the time I never thought to ask him about it. In any case it is most unlikely that he would have wanted to talk about his experiences with a young boy – I was only 15 when he died. I would have loved to have heard how he won his Military Medal and what he did to earn the commendation “for bravery in the field”.

It is hard, thinking back to the visits to our farm and when re-reading his letters, to find any evidence of the effects of his war experiences. As an old man he walked with a limp which could have been the result of a war injury; in his diary he mentions being slightly wounded in the leg. Mentally, he never showed (or was very careful to conceal) any signs of depression, anxiety or sadness.  On the contrary, I remember him as a jolly, generous and gregarious man, with a twinkle in his eye and a vitality which belied his age. It was as if he was determined to make the most of a life that was spared when so many of his contemporaries were not so fortunate.

Despatch riderAn abridged version of Albert Simpkin’s diary is due to be published in April 2015 by Pen and Sword Books, under the title Despatch Rider on the Western Front 1915-18.

 After graduating from Edinburgh University, David Venner had a career in countryside management. He is now a family history advisor in North Devon where he also practises rural crafts. You can follow him on Twitter: @davidvenner4,  and on the diary website:

www.despatch-rider-on-the-western-front.co.uk

Posted in Author interviews, Book, Books, Family History, First World War, Guest posts, History, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Guest post: “Our tongues cleaved to the roofs of our mouths” : A Great War Memoir

cover resizedToday I am thrilled to host a guest post by Susan Burnett, who has worked with her grandfather’s memoirs to publish a moving description of what happened to Norman Woodcock and the men who served alongside him in the First World War. The book, titled On That Day I Left My Boyhood Behind  is published by Acorn Independent Press and available from Amazon here. In this post she offers snippets of the fascinating discoveries she made, many of which resonated with me as I recalled the research undertaken for Shell Shocked Britain.

My grandfather, Norman Woodcock, left me three large files of handwritten memoirs including many stories about his time in the Signals in the First World War. He took part in the landings on Gallipoli, served in the desert with Lawrence of Arabia and was there at the capture of Jerusalem. As I researched and wrote the history to accompany my grandfather’s memoirs, I soon realised how different life was for the soldiers in the Middle East compared to the trenches on the Western Front. In the desert they had to deal with extremes of heat and cold, snakes and scorpions were common, sand got into everything including the food, skin became so dry that it cracked and caused terrible sores, and at certain times of the year sand flies bit and caused fever. On one occasion, as they dug a trench in Palestine, some Australian troops came across a Roman mosaic. The mosaic was carefully removed and packed off to be displayed in a museum in Australia. The biggest difference though, was the shortage of water.

Norman Woodcock, on his horse Timbuc, in Egypt.

Norman Woodcock, on his horse Timbuc, in Egypt.

In his memoirs Norman describes the horrors of the battles he took part in, for example during one battle he describes how ‘some men were afraid, others excited, some were quite mad’. His stories also cover everyday life and in particular the thirst they constantly suffered: ‘our tongues cleaved to the roofs of our mouths’ and on another occasion ‘death by thirst must be terrible’. He describes the problems of not being able to clean anything, including mess tins, so bully beef blended with the taste of tea and jam, and everything had the added flavour of chloride of lime, used for purification. He jokes about how he didn’t wash his shirt for three months but everyone smelled so they got used to it!

Amongst the horror and history of the war there are some great stories in the book, one of the amusing ones is of an intruder to the dugout where three of them slept near the banks of the Suez Canal:

One night we were woken up by noises outside and the sound of someone coming down the dugout steps. Wilkie called out, ‘Who is there?’ There was a sound of footsteps running up the steps. Then they came back again. As we all had our rifles ready, I said I would fire one round at the doorway – so I sighted my rifle and pulled the trigger. There was a sound of feet rushing up the steps and a gurgle of liquid. Wilkie lit a candle. The gurgling continued and I thought the visitor must be bleeding to death. The light of the candle revealed that I had pierced our tank of water, our four days supply. I jumped out of my blankets and tilted it to stop the flow. Next day, we found our visitor, it was a mongoose, an animal that can kill a snake; we had some big snakes about and could have used him if we had captured him. We were short of water until the next delivery arrived, but we were always short of water and became used to the thirst.

Once, in the heat of the desert sun, my grandfather downed tools, refusing to work until the water supply arrived. His comrades joined him and he was arrested and put on a charge. The allowance at that time was 4 pints of water a day, current water rations in the desert are 3 pints an hour! Fortunately Norman was needed for signals work. He could have been shot for disobeying an order but his charge was reduced and he was banished on a one man patrol in the desert for 3 weeks.

Once Jerusalem was captured, troops were despatched to France. Norman set sail in September 1918, arriving in Marseilles:

We had heard some stories of the misery in the trenches from lads who had joined us in Egypt, and so it was with some trepidation that, after two or three days, we boarded the train for the north.

Norman Woodcock in 1985

Norman Woodcock in 1985

Fortunately the war ended soon after he arrived on the Western Front. He wasn’t demobbed until July 1919 and the book ends with him describing the sadness he felt leaving the comrades he had been with every day for five years, and the even greater sadness he felt having to leave his horse called Timbuc: ‘the black beauty that saved my life on so many occasions’.

To find out more, visit Susan’s website at www.susanburnett.me.uk

Posted in Book, Books, Family History, First World War, History, Mental health, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment