Waterstones and World Mental Health Day

It’s World Mental Health Day, and so today – like every day – I’m sending love and strength to anyone who might be struggling. I wrote this for Waterstones, about how where I write has changed as I got better.

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-11-07-54One of the cruellest things about my depression was that I couldn’t read (not ideal in the midst of a degree!), so it robbed me of one of my greatest escapes. Celebrating feeling well by re-reading AUBREY AND THE TERRIBLE YOOT by Horatio Clare, a gorgeous depiction of depression that I fully recommend to kids and adults alike. Take care, y’all.

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What Really Matters

A few days ago the wonderful Abi Elphinstone posted this on Twitter:

So much about this rang true, though I am a fair few steps behind Abi in this process. It’s sometimes hard to focus on what really matters: writing. And why does the writing matter? Because I want to tell stories. I write for children because that’s when I became a reader – I think there are few things more important than literacy, and books can be a formative part of growing up (they were for me!) So when I saw this review on Goodreads, I realised that this is why I wrote THE GIRL OF INK AND STARS.

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This temporarily salved the worry about my social media presence, about prize lists or book sales. This cancels out all the people asking when I’m going to write a ‘proper’ book, or why I write for children when I could be telling grown up stories. I want to write an ‘adult’ book someday, but it certainly won’t be any more ‘proper’ than my books for children. Stories, and the telling of them, are important no matter who they’re for – and reviews like this keep me focussed on that, and keep me writing them.

Writing, the universe, and everything

“What I need… is a strong drink and a peer group.”

Douglas Adams, LIFE, THE UNIVERSE AND EVERYTHING*

A lot of very exciting things are happening, very quickly. A couple of weeks ago Emma Carroll (one of my favourite MG authors) brought my attention to this tweet, from the children’s preview editor for The Bookseller:
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Cue ectasticism. It’s not a word, I looked it up. But I like it.

This bizarre wonderful journey has nearly reached its pivotal point, and moments like this are hugely exciting and uplifting to me. They’re hugely important. But when I share news like this I often neglect to mention the flipside of it. That that same morning, just before I spotted Emma’s tweet, before the closest I’ve experienced to a Twitter storm (more a Twitter Scotch mist) for my book took place, I was in the kitchen crying because I’d deleted a whole file of poems for the OE project. That when my partner Tom found me I said I had no confidence in anything I’d written, that I was sure the book would fail, that my poetry had no worth, and my plays were – in the words of one reviewer – twee and derivative. I was having A Bit Of A Mini Breakdown™.

This is a regular pattern for me. Tom also works from home (he’s an artist and has a studio at the bottom of our garden) so he sees me at various points throughout the day and often jokes that everyday is a lifetime emotion-wise – joy, anger, fear, sadness – the whole Inside Out shebang. Plus an overwhelming level of empathy – I feel ready to cry whenever I see a pigeon with a gnarly foot. As my friend Daisy beautifully put it in a poem of hers – ‘we walk the length of a marriage in an hour.’ And it’s fairly exhausting.

I have this theory that it’s because my brain has learnt the pathways for both depression and anxiety – a panic attack a day for a year must leave its mark somehow – and automatically defaults towards those extremes when dealing with ‘normal’ levels of stress. That, combined with the fact I’m certain I’m a fraud and EVERYONE IS GOING TO FIND OUT. And that theory is why I’m not a neuroscientist. What I am is a person who writes, and the empathy is definitely useful for that. The crippling self doubt? Not so much.

Fast forward to today. Today is the last day my story is just an ms to me. Tomorrow I get the proof copies, in book form. With a cover, a spine, that will open into a v in my hands. Inside will be my story. I’m deeply excited, very scared, and also a little melancholy (writing this to Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness may have something to do with it).

My mum is currently in New Delhi with my great aunt, aunt, uncle, and cousin, Sabine. The latter was a surprise as she wasn’t meant to be back from boarding school yet. It was lovely to see her beautiful face on FaceTime – I miss her to the point of pain – and even lovelier that she’s finally seen the bound ms of THE GIRL OF INK AND STARS, the book dedicated to her. Sabine had even painted her nail all starry!

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And suddenly everything came careening into focus.

There have been more exciting tweets, from incredible authors like Emma Carroll, Abi Elphinstone, and Melinda Salisbury.

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There was the emergence of the gorgeous packshot. There’s my wonderful publicist Jazz and everyone at Chicken House, being supportive and encouraging and kind. But none of this matters if all it takes to drag me down is one bad review, which was the case with BOAT, or one deleted file, as with OE. Likewise, I can’t rely on other people to tell me my book is good – though when they do I need to enjoy that, not brush it off. I need to be more confident in it myself – in the immortal words of Christina Aguilera:

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Preach.

The acknowledgements thank Sabine for making me want to write a book she’ll love. And she may do, she may not, but ultimately, I tried. I wrote a story I think matters, that I want to connect for readers. I can’t be a fraud because I did not write this story fraudulently. I did my best, and as I have no control over whether that’s enough for other people, that has to be good enough for me.**

*You may be wondering what the above quote had to do with anything – that is how I get through my A Bit Of A Mini Breakdown™ Moments. Plus, any excuse to quote Douglas Adams, right?

** Easier said than done. Bring on the peer group and pub.

Crazy cars and other stories

So. I’m going to walk the line between sharing and over-sharing, and tell you about yesterday evening.

Last night, the glorious Daisy Johnson had one of her short stories read at a Stories Aloud event in Blackwells Bookshop. Stories Aloud is what is says on the tin – stories read to an audience by actors. It was their third birthday and my first time at this event so I was extremely excited, and the fact Daisy had picked one of my favourite stories made it even better. But a not-so-funny thing happened on my way to the forum.

As I was crossing the road on my bike, a car came barrelling along at what felt like 60mph in a 30. I just got across, yelled that he was going too fast and righteously cycled on. Unbeknownst to me, he did a u-turn in the road behind, nearly hitting another car in the process, and came up alongside me. He began swerving into the cycle lane, and proceeded to shout abuse including (but not limited to) a very specific and detailed rape threat. As soon as the car he almost hit and Tom turned up, he drove away. The man who the crazy car almost hit told me to take his details so he could be a witness. Cue crying, the I-should-call-the-police-but-don’t-want to-deal-with-it guilt, and imminent anxiety.

But instead of heading home – a two-minute walk – we decided to carry on to the event. Now, if you don’t know me, this may be a fairly normal reaction. But I have struggled with PTSD, anxiety, and depression for years, and my usual reaction to stress/threat/unpleasantness/hunger is to find a small space and hide there until Tom has fed me/shown me enough cat pictures to get me out. So this was basically A Turning Point.

A favourite get-Kiran-out-from-under-the-desk photo

A favourite get-Kiran-out-from-under-the-desk photo

We just made it to the event in time, and I sat in a seat at the front and felt tears coming. Luckily, one of my very close friends was sitting next to me so I was able to sniffle into her shoulder and compose myself before the readings started.

The first was a short story by Tim Clare, a performance poet and writer whose first book The Honours is out now. I’m ashamed to say I was still so full of adrenaline I only followed vaguely, but the reaction from the audience was rapt and towards the end of the story I was lifted and caught up by its flow. My cheeks cooled, my fingernails un-dug. The next story, Goody Bags from ‘The Girl On The Fridge’ by Etgar Keret, took my breathing back to normal.

The break brought cake and prosecco and so much love from my friends, the knots between my ribs began to slip open. I want to pause again here to point out that this is Another Turning Point. Ever since anxiety arrived in my life, I have dealt with it in the way that many people do. I have been scared of and embarrassed by it. When something triggers me, I either hide as described above, or stay in bed until it fades, peaks, or passes. I never, ever go out in public. Yet there I was, being pulled back from the brink of an attack by other people. And prosecco. And cake.

The third story was another flash fiction from Etgar Keret called Crazy Glue. It was honestly one of the best things I’ve heard in a long time, and reading it confirms it as a favourite (you can do this on boo hiss Amazon). And then, Blood Rites by Daisy Johnson came swooping at us from Shelley Harris‘ mouth and filled the room with darkness and beauty and wit and strangeness. Her short-story collection FEN is out from Jonathon Cape next year, and I fully recommend keeping an eye on her website for updates. Then, the Q&A had me in stitches, ending with Tim Clare announcing ‘I need ATTENTION’.

After, I went for dinner with Tom and a friend. And aside from not wanting to cycle, I felt completely normal. When I got home, Tom and I read Dystopian YA tweets to each other for half an hour (click the link, it’s hi-larious), argued about politics, and drank whisky.

Essentially: the crazy car did not ruin my night.

I wanted to write this, and then share it, for a few reasons. Firstly, to have it as a record of The Turning Points. Secondly, because Stories Aloud is an amazing event and you should go. Thirdly, because I want to publicly say ‘thank you’ to everyone who hugged me, was angry for me, ate squid with me, and facebooked to check I was alright.

Fourthly, and finally, because I learned something. That my default reaction to anxiety would not have worked last night. Going home would only have led to an evening of crying and Netflix and guilt. There is no shame in this as a reaction – this is not about being strong or better or any of those words that manage to make people with mental illnesses feel like failures. The main difference is that last night, other people were not the enemy. Other people were the solution.

I felt angry, and scared. Normally, those feelings would have turned in and festered. But other people pulled the anger and fear out and directed where it needed to go – towards a horrible, pathetic man who did his best to make me feel small. Next time, I’ll think twice about bed and Netflix. But if I don’t, that’s ok too.

So. That was my night. And it turned out alright.

Get Over It

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The news has just broken that Robin Williams has died. It is seemingly suicide. According to a statement released by his family’s press officer, he had been struggling with severe depression. And it is such a waste. How many more people have to suffer before the silence around mental illness is broken? The stigma and guilt attached to such conditions only worsens the problem.

At my lowest times, the need to hide why I retreated from the world was one of the greatest burdens. I was scared: of being told (though not by the people that really matter) I needed to be stronger, get more exercise, eat right, and I’d feel better. That I was in control of my own happiness. Don’t even get me started on The Secret. That I should just get over it. Like I was choosing to feel like my body was filled up with lead, my joints fused to my bed, my heart so heavy and hollow I would do anything to make the alternate pain and numbness stop. I have not been to that place for years now, though some days are spent in bed feeling the beginnings of darkness creep into my periphery. I am thankful for every day it stays away. I am hopeful it will be forever.
Everyone’s hurt is different, and everyone’s hurt is valid. I’m guessing Williams’ was too great. I’m guessing he was too tired. The horrible news of his death is like a metallic spoon in the mouth – it tastes familiar, it tastes bitter.
Depression is real. Get over that fact, and maybe those that suffer from it will feel a little less alone.