Why I write about maternal mental health in my novels – part 4

In Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week, I’m sharing something I wrote leading up to publication of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, where I talk about my own mental health in the first days and weeks of motherhood, and why I frequently address this topic in my fiction. It’s too long for one post, so I’ve split it into four, and this is the fourth and final post (scroll down for parts one, two and three) 

Moving from psychosis to depression

After breaking down in front of the health visitor, I was diagnosed with PND, but I was still breastfeeding so I didn’t want to take anti-depressants, and by that time, the really scary symptoms had gone anyway. My GP was wonderful, and when I told her how frequently Emma was waking, she said, ‘The first thing we need to do is to get you a good night’s sleep.’ She prescribed something to help Emma sleep for longer. I’m sure this would be frowned upon today, but it was a turning point for me. That night, Emma slept for six hours, and when I woke I leapt out of bed and rushed to her room, convinced she must have died in the night!

When my son was born two years later, I had a brief resurgence of the PND, and I became paranoid about nuclear war again, but I didn’t have those other symptoms that made me fear I was losing my mind. There are very few photographs of me as a new mother, and I can’t remember why – maybe I just didn’t want to be seen.

Two years later when my son was born, I had PND for a few months, but it was nothing compared with what happened the first time.

Post-natal mental health issues are still not talked about enough, and back then they were barely talked about at all, which is probably why I’d never even heard of postpartum psychosis. I was vaguely aware of postnatal depression, but I knew little about it and felt slightly ashamed when I was diagnosed – other women had ‘baby blues‘ and got over it within a few days, so why was I so weak? I was embarrassed. I told no one except my sister and my husband, and ten years later, he tried to use it against me during our divorce, bringing it up as ‘evidence’ that the reason I’d taken the children and left him was that I was ‘mad’ (I left because of emotional abuse).

Trying to raise awareness

Much later still, I was happily remarried and making a new life. I trained as a magazine journalist, specialising in health and parenting and contributing regularly to women’s magazines, and the parenting and baby mags. I placed features on many different topics, but I couldn’t get anyone to take a piece on postnatal depression. It was important, I argued, to raise awareness. If new parents and their families recognised the symptoms of PND and the circumstances that might lead to it, there would be more chance of the mums receiving support and treatment.

A common response was, ‘we don’t want to frighten new mums’. I understood that, but it was my contention that if women were more prepared for the possibility that the first weeks of motherhood may not be as joyous as they’d been led to expect, they might actually feel less frightened by what was happening to them. I believed – still believe now – that the enormity of childbirth and new motherhood is frequently underestimated. Not only does your body go through a major trauma, often resulting in minor or even serious injury, but there is also a major emotional upheaval and a dramatic change in lifestyle.

Back in the 80s when I gave birth, and even in the early 2000s when I was in journalism, the baby books and magazines didn’t prepare women for any of this. The mum and baby shots you’d find in their pages were likely to make you feel inadequate and guilty. In those first weeks I barely had the energy to shower, let alone do my hair and makeup. The mums and babies in the photos were smiling, but my baby seemed to cry all the time and I was too tired to smile.

How different are things today?

I often wonder what would have happened if I’d given birth in the age of the Internet and social media. Maybe I would have Googled ‘hallucinations’ or ‘I can’t sleep because I’m scared my baby might die’ and found that I wasn’t the only one. Maybe things would have been easier if I could have chatted online with another mum at four in the morning when my baby wouldn’t stop crying and I was on my knees through lack of sleep. As it was, my best friend, who also had a young baby, lived too far away for me to get to easily. We’d talk on the phone, but during the day when things didn’t seem so bad. Today, I’m guessing I would go on social media in the middle of the night to see who else was up, to compare notes and understand that I wasn’t alone.

Or maybe it would have been just as bad. Maybe Facebook would have shown me even more photos of perfect mothers and smiling babies than the magazines did. I’ve heard so many young mums today saying their friends seem to cope better than they do. Is it more likely to make you feel inadequate if the perfect mothers in the photos are your friends? Maybe you’re even less likely to confide in them if they’re regularly posting photographic evidence of their maternal competence.

What if, behind those Facebook posts, some of those mums are crying and desperate but think they’re the only ones?

Spread the word!

I truly think we can go some way towards improving the situation for new parents by talking more about the possibility that things won’t be as wonderful as they may have hoped, at least, not for the first few weeks. Both parents may struggle to cope with sleep deprivation and the change in lifestyle. New mothers may even develop a postnatal mental illness which may be mild, or could be severe.

I don’t understand why it’s such a taboo, because talking about it doesn’t make it happen. It’s so important to recognise the possibility, and if you spot the symptoms, to get help, whether it’s for yourself, or for someone else.

I hope you’ve found these posts interesting and even helpful. I also hope you’ll read my latest novel, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood which, while inspired and informed by my own experience, is a fictional story about people who never existed. Maybe stories are one more way we can make it easier to talk about these issues.

The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood

The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood

To discover more about Postpartum Psychosis and how to get help, contact  Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP)  

 

Why I write about maternal mental health in my novels – part 3

In Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week, I’m sharing something I wrote leading up to publication of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, where I talk about my own mental health in the first days and weeks of motherhood, and why I frequently address this topic in my fiction. It’s too long for one post, so I’ve split it into four, and this is the third post (scroll down for parts one and two) 

Lack of sleep

I wasn’t prepared for the level of sleep deprivation that comes with a new baby. When people talked about ‘sleepless nights’ it was with an almost cheery tone. It’s still the same – they see a newborn, then grin widely and say, ‘bet you’re having a few sleepless nights!’ And you’re supposed to smile and nod in return. No-one told me I’d end up crying with tiredness. No-one warned me that when the baby finally slept I would suddenly become sharply alert and completely unable to sleep, terrified that she would die while I slept, or be carried off somewhere by I knew not what or who.

Any ability to concentrate that I had left was soon smashed by a cacophony in my head – snatches of music and voices, some singing, some talking, as though several televisions were on at the same time, all on different channels, all running together in my brain. It was as though my mind was never, ever at rest.

Isolation and the company of crows

With my then husband working nights and sleeping during the day, I spent many hours alone. I didn’t have friends living nearby, and I didn’t drive, so it would often be days before I saw anyone other than my husband, who offered very little support. I spent a lot of time pacing up and down, jiggling my crying daughter on my shoulder and looking out at the wooded area behind our garden, watching and hearing the crows as they came and went. They felt like company. For me, there will always be a strong association between crows and early motherhood, which is one of the reasons I use them to illustrate Leah’s state of mind in The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood.  

The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood

The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood

Delusional thinking and paranoia

It was at about this point that I began to imagine that my baby daughter was judging me. She slept so little that she and I inhabited a separate night-time world in which it felt like we were the only people awake, and there was something about the way she would fix her eyes on mine that started to unnerve me. There was a wisdom in her eyes, a knowingness. It was as though she was assessing my competence as a mother and finding it wanting. I became afraid that I wouldn’t be allowed to keep her, that ‘they‘ would come and take her back – don’t ask me who ‘they’ were, because I’ve no idea. This wasn’t like the fear I had later, that social services might take her away because it was clear I wasn’t coping like the women I saw in the magazines, the ones who were all smiling and capable. This was the strange idea that she had been ‘sent’ to me by some indefinable source and that she might report back to them that I was making a pig’s ear of caring for her, and that ‘they’ would therefore take her back.

I remember also that my sensory perception became skewed. Noises seemed extra-loud and colours brighter than they should be. My perception of the size of things went wrong, too. It wasn’t just that they looked bigger than they were, it was as if I could sense their density and bulk, and it was massively out of proportion. It was worse at night when I was at my most tired. I’d look at the lamp, say, or the pillow, and I’d feel overwhelmed, almost engulfed by its apparent hugeness. It was terrifying.

I’m not sure how long this went on for, but certainly a few weeks, possibly months. I didn’t tell anyone, and no-one noticed except my sister, but she was only 19 and didn’t know what to do. But gradually, I stopped seeing bodies in the trees and I had fewer nightmares. The paranoia lasted longer, and it was a long time before I was able to stop thinking about scenarios in which something happened to my baby – everything from illness to accidents to kidnapping. I also feared there would be a nuclear war any day, and that I’d be killed and Emma would be left unprotected in a post-apocalyptic world. My mind was like a horror film.

The beginnings of recovery

As the weirdness slowly faded, it was replaced by more common symptoms of depression. I was tearful and anxious, I felt down all the time, and guilty for bringing a child into such a terrible world. But things were less scary. My stitches healed slowly – it was eight months before I could have sex again but Dr Snooker-fan had done a good job with the needle so there were no long-lasting problems. I didn’t recognise my depression, though, and it was only much later when a new health visitor asked me how I was coping that I broke down and sobbed for about fifteen minutes.

Final post tomorrow.

 

Why I write about maternal mental health in my novels – part 2

In Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week, I’m sharing something I wrote leading up to publication of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, where I talk about my own mental health in the first days and weeks of motherhood, and why I frequently address this topic in my fiction. It’s too long for one post, so I’ve split it into four, and this is the second post (scroll down for part one) 

the birth

The birth wasn’t especially traumatic, but nor was it easy. My pregnancy had been fairly straightforward, and the baby was planned and wanted by both myself and my then husband. I was a young mum, even by 1980s standards, giving birth three weeks after my 22nd birthday. When I was admitted to the labour ward a week before my due date, the first thing they asked me was, ‘What’s your pain threshold?’ Reassuring, huh? I’d been mildly apprehensive, like any first-time mum, but once I was in hospital, my anxiety levels rose rapidly. There was a fuss about my small stature and size 4 feet, the implication being that I might struggle to deliver vaginally, and apart from a lovely student midwife who held my hand when things got tough, the staff seemed brusque and unfriendly. I remember actually apologising for being small!

Epidurals were new and scary back then, so I had gas and air, which made me feel sick, and pethidine, which made me high, quite literally – I had an out of body experience where I was floating near the ceiling, watching what was going on below.

Despite all the mutterings about a caesarean, I delivered vaginally after 16 hours, but the second stage was painful and protracted, and despite having an episiotomy, I ended up with 2nd and 3rd degree tears. But when I held my new baby daughter in my arms, I was euphoric. ‘Hello,’ I said. She looked right into my eyes, and I knew that she knew me.

After they delivered the placenta, they wheeled me away to be stitched. As I lay on my back with my legs in stirrups, drifting in and out of consciousness, I could hear the doctor chatting to my husband about the snooker while he stitched me. I became tearful, angry with both of them but too exhausted and vulnerable to speak. How could they be so inappropriate? How could they trivialise this profound thing I’d just done? I’d grown a whole new human and pushed her out of my body, and they were talking about the sodding snooker!

First Days

I was in hospital for six days, but even when I was discharged, my stitches were still so painful that I could only walk using tiny, careful steps. I’d watch people walking up and down the ward, genuinely wondering if I’d ever walk normally again.

The first couple of weeks were dominated by sleeplessness, exhaustion and pain – pain from my stitches, and also from breast-feeding with sore, cracked nipples. The health visitor told me it was like breaking in a new pair of shoes – I’m sure she thought I should just ‘woman-up’.

Emma cried a lot and refused to settle unless I fed her. I was breast-feeding exclusively, and breast pumps weren’t in common use, so it was all down to me. My mum and mother-in-law helped out occasionally, but both had full-time jobs, and also, my then husband wasn’t keen on having other people around, especially people who might notice he wasn’t pulling his weight. He’d take her out in the pram sometimes and change the odd nappy, but he was by no means a hands-on dad, and anyway, he only had a week off work (no paternity leave back then) and he worked nights, so I coped alone at night, and during most of the day while he slept.

The nightmares

I’d only been home a few days when I began to feel strange. It started with the nightmares. The worst one (which I had several times in different forms) was where I’d found my newborn baby in pieces on the doorstep. There was no blood, it was just that her tiny, perfect form had come apart, ‘broken’ into a dozen or so pieces. With the skewed logic of dreams, I started calmly collecting up the parts and putting them in a shoebox with the idea that if I took it to the hospital, they’d put her back together. But as I began to dwell on my incompetence at having broken my new baby, the true horror of the situation dawned on me and I’d wake up sobbing.

I became afraid to sleep. I had dreams that were haunted by images of random blue-grey bodies with head or limbs detached. I called them ‘my mutilation dreams’, and they began to spill over into daylight, especially when I looked out of the window towards the wooded area beyond our garden, where I’d watch the crows coming and going. I started to ‘see’ bodies – blue-ish corpses hanging from the trees. I’d stare at them to confirm what I was seeing, then I’d blink and they were gone. 

The only person I told about this was my sister. She says now that she knew there was ‘something odd’ about me at the time, but she was even younger than me – just 19 – and she had no idea what to do about it.

Part three tomorrow!

Why I write about maternal mental health in my novels – part 1

 

This week, 29 April – 3 May, is Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week. If you’ve read my latest novel, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, you’ll know that I have a special interest in maternal mental health. My kids are in their 30s now, but I went through a tough time during those first weeks of motherhood, especially after my first child was born. I was so terrified that my baby would be taken away if anyone suspected I wasn’t coping that I didn’t tell anyone what I was going through, and it was only when I interviewed a perinatal psychiatrist as part of my research for this book that it became clear that I’d suffered from postpartum psychosis, albeit in relatively mild form.

My memories of those early weeks are still painfully vivid. Not only of crippling exhaustion, but of nightmares, fleeting hallucinations, paranoid anxiety and delusional thinking. I was desperate for sleep, yet unable to give into it because I was terrified my daughter would die while I slept. I wasn’t sure if was going mad or if I was simply exhausted, but I knew my ability to cope was at fault. After all, other women managed…

Me with Emma the day after she was born

The experience has haunted me ever since, and if you’re one of my regular readers, you will know that all my books touch on postnatal depression or the difficulties of early motherhood in some form. But my most recent novel, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, is perhaps the book I’ve been wanting to write ever since I became a mother, and as this is Maternal Mental Health Matters Awareness Week, I thought I might share my own experience and talk a little about how I came to write  the novel. There’s too much to say in one blog post, so I’m going to split it into four consecutive posts.

Cornelia Blackwood started as a short story called When the Bough Breaks around fifteen years ago. I was working as a magazine journalist and I’d been trying to to convince the magazines I wrote for regularly that they should run something on postnatal depression, or perhaps on the effects of sleep deprivation and lifestyle change on new mothers. They weren’t interested, so I thought I’d try exploring it in fiction. The short story worked well, but I wanted to go deeper with a novel, and this novel is perhaps the closest I’ve come to saying what I want to say about how, for some women, the experience of early motherhood can be difficult, exhausting, frightening, and traumatic. In some cases, that manifests as postnatal depression or even psychosis. For many women, the glowing and serene new mums that smile out from the pages of the baby magazines represent their own experience, and for them, I am truly happy.

But for some women – more than you may think – new motherhood is not a rose-tinted time that glows brightly in the memory, rather it is dark and frightening and bathed in shadows.

This is post one of four, so tomorrow, I’ll talk more about how it was for me in those first few weeks. (You’ll need to scroll up for part two!)

The Writing Life – the ‘ups’

I often talk about the ups and downs of the writing life, and I’m guilty sometimes of lingering on the ‘downs’, especially after a horrible period of real, full-on ‘writers block’ in the first half of last year.

But being an author is a mix of highs and lows, and while the lows can be very low, the highs can be very high. And I’m lucky enough to be going through a pretty high phase at the moment.

My new book, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, is being published in hardback next week. I was nervous about this book because while it is the book I’ve always wanted to write, it tackles some difficult subject areas, and I worried that it might be too much of a risk. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I am over the moon with the pre-publication reviews.

Out 21st February 2019

Of course I want the book to sell well – I make my living through writing and teaching, so I’d be lying if I said the money didn’t matter. But this book in particular goes a good way to saying something I really wanted to say about new motherhood, so it’s even more important to me that it strikes the right note with readers.

So far, the response has been incredible. The reviews have been amazing, and that’s always going to put an author up on cloud nine. But what has really blown me away this time is the empathy reviewers have shown for Cornelia, and the positive way in which they’ve responded to the difficult subject matter.

At this point, I’d like to say a huge thank you to the book bloggers who take the time to read the books and write the reviews. They don’t get paid for this, and I know from personal experience how long it can take to craft a book review, so thank you, lovely book bloggers!

You can read some of those reviews here:

With just a week to go now until publication, I’m feeling very excited about my fourth ‘baby’ going out into the world. I’m loving these reviews and I’m absolutely thrilled that the book seems to be sparking some discussion.

It out in hardback in exactly a week – 21st February – then in paperback later in the year. On 28th of February, there will be a launch event at Waterstone’s, Orchard Square, where I’ll be ‘in conversation’ with my good friend and fellow tutor, the crime writer Russ Thomas, so if you’re in or near Sheffield, do come along, have a glass of wine, and say hello – all welcome!

If you can’t make the launch, you can still come and say hello on Saturday 2nd March when I’ll be signing books in Waterstone’s Meadowhall. (No wine, though!) I’ll be there from 11 AM for a couple of hours, I should think.

If you’re writing a book yourself, even if it’s only at the ideas stage at the moment, it’s not too late to sign up for our all-day Planning and Plotting workshop on Saturday 23rd of February – Hop over to the workshops page for full details. http://susanelliotwright.co.uk/workshops-critiques-mentoring/

Hope you can make it!

Susan x

THE WRITING LIFE – NaNoWriMo V #100daysofwriting

I thought I’d give NaNoWriMo ( National Novel Writing Month. ) If you’ve not heard of this, it’s where you write 50,000 words during November – 1667 a day, which is quite a challenge. You can sign up to the website, track your progress, get little prompts and pep talks, and join the NaNo community for moral support. It’s a great thing to do, and I highly recommend it. But sometimes life gets in the way, big time. I started enthusiastically on 1st November, aiming to generate 50,000 words of material towards my new novel. I hoped that by simply pushing on to get the words down, I’d start to understand more about my characters and their story, and hopefully, some scenes would suggest themselves – material I could work on later.

Early days of NaNo, and it was going well…

But then my  daughter got a date for the operation she’s been waiting for. She’ll be out of action for a few weeks, So I’m on extended granny duties, plus extra cooking and driving. Oh well, I thought, it’ll be tough, but possibly still doable. Then some other family stuff happened,  and suffice it to say I found myself feeling too physically and emotionally drained to be able to produce that challenging number of words every day for a month.

I’d kept up  for the first eight days  but as I sat at my desk on the ninth, I could feel the pressure mounting, and as I thought about everything I had to do that day, I started to feel sick with dread. Then, scrolling through my Twitter feed, I stumbled on a tweet from author Clare King @ckingwriter  about writing challenges. Claire suggested that if NaNoWriMo  proved too much, a gentler option might be #100daysofwriting   The hashtag was started by  Jenn Ashworth who’d become mired in a horrible period of writers block following a bereavement. The commitment to #100daysofwriting was her way of gently easing herself back into her novel, and ‘falling in love’ with it again.  I worked out that if I made that day ‘day one’, then ‘day 100’ would be three days before The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood is published. I took that as a sign!

By the way, Cornelia Blackwood is now coming out in hardback in February – paperback will be out towards the end of the year. Check out this gorgeous hardback jacket!

Out on 21 February 2019 in hardback

The only commitment you make to #100daysofwriting Is to ‘turn up’ to the novel every day. Whether you write a thousand words or 50 words, whether you edit a chapter or tinker with a paragraph, or whether it’s just doing some planning or making a note. What counts is that it’s contributing to the novel. I’m now on day 27 and I’ve turned up every day, writing at home, in the library, in coffee shops, even on the train. It’s mostly rubbish, but maybe it’ll slowly lead me to the Good Stuff. I’m doing what I’d hoped to do through NaNoWriMo – I’m generating material. And if all I do one day is tinker, I’m not beating myself up over it.

I love writing in coffee shops with friends

One revelation has been that I have started writing by hand again. Initially, this was because I had to make a train journey and couldn’t carry my laptop, but I’ve discovered that I can write faster by hand, because it actually looks like crap (my handwriting is appalling and there are loads of crossings out) so I don’t agonise over It and get tempted to edit along the way. I just allow myself to write crap because it looks like crap, whereas I sort of expect nice, neatly typed stuff to be better.

Writing by hand on a train – a notebook is so much lighter than a laptop!

So, I’m definitely recommending #100daysofwriting as a way of generating material, and/or keeping your characters, setting, and story in your head from day-to-day. It means you don’t have that long break and have to spend the first half of the next writing session reminding yourself where you are. Give it a go!

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REMEMBERING HENRY – A DOG’S LIFE

Instead of THE WRITING LIFE, this is a long-ish one-off post about my dog, Henry, so if you’re not a dog person, it might not be your cup of tea. At just nine years old, Henry went to that great doggy kennel in the sky late on Monday night. He became ill suddenly on Friday morning and deteriorated rapidly. We’re devastated. Losing a pet is not the same as losing a human family member – of course it isn’t  – but if you’re one of those “it was only a dog” people, I’d suggest you move along.

Henry 2009-2018

I’m writing this partly because I can’t concentrate on anything else, but partly as a sort of obituary. We’ve loved every dog we’ve had, but this one was something else, and the absence of him in this house is almost palpable. I thought it would be nice to record some memories and share some photos, and perhaps work out why Henry – sometimes ‘Henners’, occasionally ‘The Henster’ – was so very special.

He’d been through so much in his short life. He came to us aged ten months as a private rehome and when my husband, who doesn’t drive, went to collect him on the train (I was at work) he was taken aback by how big Henry was – he looked ‘medium’ in the photos, and we’d agreed we wanted a medium-sized dog because our house was very small. My husband was a bit worried I’d think he was too big, but he was so well-behaved that when they took the three-hour train journey back home to Sheffield together, the other passengers couldn’t believe that they hadn’t been dog-and-owner for years

The moment I set eyes on Henry, I knew I loved him.  It’s true he was a big lad. He was half Lab, half Springer, but people often asked if there was ‘some Great Dane in there somewhere’, and maybe there was – his paws were huge! What I saw was an overgrown puppy with the shiniest coat I’d ever seen and the silkiest ears I’d ever stroked.

He settled in quickly and everyone who met him loved him for his gentle nature, his constant smile, and his ecstatic tail wagging (more on this in a moment). He was a beautiful animal to look at, too, and people would often stop us in the street to admire him. He was big, strong, and well-muscled, and by ‘eck if he trod on your toe, you’d know about it. He weighed 36kg – just over five and a half stones (more on this in a moment, too.)

He was virtually fully grown when he came to us, but he was very puppy-like. He liked soft toys, and I loved how excited he’d be when I came back with a carrier bag from a charity shop. He’d ram his nose into the bag , then sit and wait like a Good Boy for me to hand him the teddy bear, then he’d carry it carefully to his bed and disembowel it with relish, tail going like the clappers. He wasn’t a chewer as such, though, and he never destroyed anything other than his own toys. We were enchanted once to find he had put both my husband’s trainers in his bed – not chewed, just there for comfort. Not sure cuddling the other half’s trainers would do it for me, but still!

He loved his teddies, even after chewing their faces off…

So, back to that tail. We’d had him about three weeks when we noticed drops of blood spattered up the walls. At first, we couldn’t work out where it was coming from, then one day I stroked him to the end of his very long tail and found it was bleeding at the tip. The vet warned us that dogs with Happy Tail Syndrome – yes, it’s a Thing – often had to have their tails amputated because healing was so difficult. We were horrified and wanted to try healing it first.  He was fitted with one of those plastic cones so that he couldn’t chew at the dressing, but that didn’t stop him from wagging it off.  Every time the dressing was replaced, it would be off again in no time, and his tail would start bleeding again. One day, we noticed the dressing had gone but we couldn’t find it – it was three inches of plastic tube, covered in cotton wool and wrapped in stretchy blue bandage.

Wet dog

We searched high and low but no joy. On the walk  to the vet’s for re-dressing, Henry stopped for a poo. Yep, there it was, three inches long and an inch wide, and it had (thank God) passed right through his digestive system without doing any damage.  It soon became clear that the only real option was amputation. It was horrible, and we felt like monsters. He’d come to live with us and trusted us, and we’d let them chop his tail off.  I still shudder to think of it. But he recovered quickly, the little five -inch tail he was left with healed and all was well.

Very wet dog

 

 

We enjoyed life with Henry so much. He loved water and would go crashing into it whenever he could. He loved food, too, and would snaffle up bread meant for the ducks, bits of discarded burger and anything else that took his fancy, and he wasn’t fussy about whether it was actual food – he would eat any old shit. And I mean that quite literally. He was fond of sheep and rabbit poo, and on one holiday in the Yorkshire Dales, he gobbled up so much of the stuff that his teeth were green with it and his breath stank of it. The first time he had a bout of vomiting and diarrhoea, we assumed he’d just eaten something nasty. He was quite ill and had to be hospitalised for a couple of days. He lost a little weight, but we assumed he’d regain it when he was better.

We started to notice he was prone to diarrhoea, so we were careful with his diet, but very slowly, so that it was barely noticeable at first, he began to lose weight steadily and relentlessly. It wasn’t that he had no appetite – he would eat an entire bowl of dry food in less than 30 seconds (we timed it). And although he always strived to be a Good Boy, sometimes he couldn’t help himself, and if I left him and unattended food in the same room, well, I think he felt it would be worth the telling off. One day, I’d made some Haloumi burgers as part of a meal to serve to friends later. I think I’d made ten, but by the time I came back from the loo, there were four.

Trouble was, he was so tall, he could easily reach the kitchen counter. The best one was when I was preparing the food for my daughter’s wedding. I’d spent all morning making two biggish dishes of brandied chicken liver pate. I’d decorated them with bayleaves and cranberries and poured clarified butter over the top and everything – they looked really good. Henners was asleep in his bed and was actually snoring when I popped up to the loo. When I came back, he was standing on his hind legs, licking the bejesus out of the pate. He’d had about half of one dish and had licked it into the most perfect curve. I shouted at him and saw the whites of his eyes as he glanced at me, but then he speeded up the licking, clearly having calculated that there was time to get a bit more down his neck  before I could get across the room.

On holiday in the Yorkshire Dales, probably contemplating a meal of sheep dung…

Most dog owners will be familiar with the situation where you’re telling the dog off and laughing at the same time. Once I’d told him off, part of me just wanted to let him have the rest of the pate, because there was bugger all else I could do with it, but maybe that would have sent the wrong message…

We started to notice he was getting thinner – his collar was loose and he didn’t look as chunky. We took him to the vet and weighed him. He’s lost 6kg – a significant loss. There then followed a long period of examinations and blood tests and x-rays, but nothing showed up. Treatment, which consisted mainly of steroids, didn’t seem to be doing very much. We tried different diets – he still had a hearty appetite – but the vet said it looked like his body wasn’t absorbing proteins. The weight continued to fall off him. When he hit 25 kg, we were at our wits’ end. The vet was completely stumped. We tried all the different prescription diets but by this time, he looked like a Greyhound and we had to reduce his exercise so that he didn’t burn too many calories. The vet feared that his organs would start failing.

At the 11th hour, Royal Canin brought out a new hypoallergenic food that worked. It cost us £100 a month to feed him (we were lucky that we’d recently received a small inheritance, because I don’t know how we’d have managed otherwise) More worrying was one occasion when there was a problem with production and we couldn’t get any more food for two weeks. Fortunately, we managed to eke out what we had, but given it was the only thing keeping him alive, what if that happened again? It wasn’t as simple as using the right ingredients, it was that it had been processed in such a way that he was able to absorb the nutrients.

It was a struggle financially, but he regained most of the weight. We did this for a couple of years before moving to raw feeding, which was a revelation – less than half the cost, and he never looked back. He maintained a healthy weight and a gleaming coat from then on. It’s a tribute to our veterinary surgery that in spite of all the unpleasant treatments and investigations, he still loved going there. He’d charge in, run straight up to reception, stand on his hind legs and plonk his paws on the counter, ready for a treat.

Enjoying the view in the Yorkshire Dales

In the last few years, he’s given us so much joy. He was with one or other of us most of the time, often sleeping next to my desk while I worked, or stretched out in the living room with us in the evenings. We had some wonderful holidays with him – he seemed to know when we were going on holiday and wagged his little stump like mad every time we walked into a holiday cottage. His daily walks, while we sometimes thought of them as a bit of a chore, were always a pleasure the moment we were out walking rather than just anticipating the walk.

Before we had Henry, we had a lovely little border collie called Jasper, and during that time, I thought of us as a couple with a dog. Very soon after Henry came to us, I realised I was thinking of us as a family of three. If you’ve read this far down the post, you’re probably a dog person, so you’ll probably understand. It seems most dog owners have one ‘special’ dog in their lives, and Henry was definitely ours. I’m not sure I’ve still fully taken in that he’s gone for good, and I know the next days and weeks are going to be difficult. As I said before, it’s not like losing a beloved family member, but it is a bereavement. I have lost a dear friend and companion.

I miss the comforting weight of his head on my knee and his great big dry paw in my hand; I miss lying on the floor with him and cuddling his warm, solid body; I miss the strange basmati-rice smell of him first thing in the morning; I miss the funny noises he’d make when he was excited, the exaggerated sighs when he thought it was time I took him out, the sound of him snoring. I even miss the sound of him eating. I vacuumed the house yesterday, and it occurred to me that it would probably stay looking clean and newly-vacuumed for quite a while. But right now I’d give anything to have the place covered in dog hair and muddy pawprints.

Grief, as they say, is the price we pay for love. We’ll get another dog, for sure, but we need to fully grieve for Henry first. It’s been nice writing this post and reliving some of the memories. My eyes keep leaking, and they will do for a bit, I should think. If you’re still reading, you’re probably a pet-person so you’ll have been through this and will know this sadness. I hope you’ve enjoyed some of my memories and photos. I’ll wrap this up with one of my favourite pictures.  It was another Dales holiday, and in this one, the way the sun catches his shiny coat makes it look like he’s wearing a blond wig. But the best thing about it is, you can tell by his eyes that he’s smiling.  And I’ll never forget that smile.

Henry 10.7.09 – 27.8.18

I’ll be back in a week or two with writing-related stuff, but in the meantime, you can catch up with me on Twitter or Facebook See you soon!

 

THE WRITING LIFE – some thoughts on Arvon at 50

Most writers are familiar with the Arvon foundation,  that wonderful organization that runs five-day residential writing courses and retreats in its four ‘writing houses’ across the country. For those five days, you live and work alongside 15 other course members and two published writers who lead the course.

Arvon celebrates its 50th birthday this year, and I’ve been thinking about  my experience with them and how it’s changed since I first went on a course at Lumb Bank, near Hebden bridge, in 2002. I love Arvon SO much! I’ve been to two of the other Writing Houses (Devon and Shropshire) but Lumb Bank always feels like coming home – I’ve been there many times since.

This may be one of my favorite sights ever!

I felt very much a beginner back then, and although the course was apparently suitable for beginners, I was terrified that everyone else would be much more advanced, and that I’d end up feeling embarrassed and humiliated.  I remember saying to my husband the night before I went, ‘I’m just going to get my head down and get through it.’  I wanted to improve my writing, so I was determined to stick with the course, no matter how difficult it was.

Lumb Bank

That week changed my life. I arrived on the Monday as a nervous, aspiring writer, eager to learn all I could and to get through to the Saturday morning as quickly as possible. I left as a writer, not really wanting to go home at all. It had been wonderful. I’d made new friends, I had more confidence in what I was doing than I’d ever had before, and I’d had a ball. I knew on the first evening that my fears were unfounded. Everyone at the centre was friendly and welcoming. The  tutors were amazing and put us all at ease immediately – like me, almost all the other participants were worried that they would be the least experienced writer there!

For those five days, it’s all about you and your writing – complete immersion! The mornings are spent attending workshops with one or both tutors, then it’s lunch – all laid out for you in the kitchen so you just help yourself. The afternoons are free to write, read,  or get feedback on your work in one-to-one tutorials.

The table set for the evening meal

Everyone eats together in the evening, and a considerable amount of wine is consumed during dinner. And after dinner. And sometimes before dinner, too.

On the first night, the centre directors prepare the food, but on the other nights, it’s prepared by four of the course participants – you take it in turns, so everyone takes part in preparing the evening meal once. I love this, because I’ve always enjoyed cooking alongside other people. Trouble is, I can be a bit bossy in the kitchen because I like to take charge – I used to be a chef, so it’s instinctive. I always declare this in advance, though, and there are usually people who want to do the same night as me because they don’t feel confident cooking for so many people. Thing is, the recipes are very clear, and the centre directors guide you through everything anyway, so it’s virtually impossible to mess it up. (Don’t tell anyone it’s easy, though, or they won’t let me be in charge!)

Anyway back to my first ever Arvon in pre-smartphone 2002. One of the things that had such a profound impact on me was the feeling of being completely cut off from the outside world. There was a payphone in the house, but no TV, no Internet, no radio, and that particular week, no one brought a newspaper into the house, though sometimes, people do.

Imagine it! You’re not bored – you have your writing, or if that’s not going well, there’s a library so plenty of reading matter, and the houses are all in beautiful locations, so there’s always the option of going for a walk. You’re not lonely – there are 15 other writers to talk to, plus the two tutors, and the centre directors., and there’s a kitchen stuffed with goodies. So you really don’t need the outside world – those few days are all about you and your writing.

Heading back down the drive to the house after a late afternoon walk

I did not want to go home; none of us did. We joked about hiding in the house, squatters’ rights and all that. Coming back on the train was a strange experience as the ‘real world’ came crashing back in. I felt raw and exposed, and as though I had been living in a dream for the past five days, like I had emerged from a magical mist of creativity. The train was full of people talking about things other than writing, people reading newspapers, people looking miserable. It felt almost as though I was being stretched on an invisible cord away from the Arvon experience, an attachment I didn’t want to break. And when I got home, much as I wanted to tell my husband all about it, part of me wanted to stay in the dreamlike bubble I’d been in since the previous Monday.

I’ve been back to Arvon many times since then, these days, it’s on retreats. I still love being there – especially Lumb Bank – but now we all have smartphones it’s very hard to re-create that feeling of being in a wonderful creative bubble. Even if I left my own phone at home, or if I managed to stay off social media, I’m fairly sure someone else would be checking their phone, talking about Trump’s latest tweet or something.

The view from the top of the hill

So I don’t think it’ll ever be quite the same again (apart from at the Devon Writing house, Totleigh Barton, where I gather that Internet and phone connection is still very patchy) but I still love Arvon, and I’m off on a retreat again in October, this time at  the Clockhouse retreat at the Hurst  Even with the real world and social media ever-present, I’d still say you should go on an Arvon course or retreat if you possibly can – I’m fairly sure it will change your life!

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THE WRITING LIFE – why do writers find it so hard to take a break?

A five-minute walk to the beach

I love writing, and I feel privileged to be a full-time author, but it’s still a job. This year, for the first time in 12 years, I went on holiday and didn’t take my laptop! And do you know what? The sky didn’t fall in!

holiday selfie

Odd, isn’t it, that we complain about writers not being taken seriously, about people thinking it’s easy, it’s self-indulgent, it’s not ‘real work’, and then we find ourselves not treating it as real work, not taking a break from our working lives like any normal person would.  This may of course be different for writers who also have a day job, but I now have a working life that is entirely focused on writing, whether it’s my own work, or whether it’s through teaching or mentoring.

And I love it, and I know I’m lucky to be doing a job that I love. But it’s only just dawning on me that I still need to occasionally take a complete break. I think I’ve been so immersed in writing for so long, that I am forgetting to look around at the world and see the things I want to write about.

blue sea, blue skies

So myself and himself went to Aberystwyth for a week (our holidays are always fairly modest – being a full-time writer means cutting back on stuff like holidays, new clothes, meals out etc). We usually go out of season, but this time, we went at the end of June, which happened to be the hottest week of the year! And oh my, but it was gorgeous – blue skies, blue sea, and a quiet, unspoiled beach.  We could see the sea from our apartment, and the sunsets each evening were stunning.

I spent a good part of the week either just watching the sun go down, or staring at the sea. Apart from that, it was just eating nice food, drinking nice wine (or prosecco) and reading. Every now and again, I kept getting a little twitch of guilt  – I should be writing! But then I reminded myself that I’m in the midst of attempting to fill the creative well again. if you follow this blog, you’ll know that I’ve just come through a rather horrible period of writers’ block, so in a way, I’ve had an enforced break, but it’s really made me think about my own creativity and how it works.  As writers of fiction, we should be observing the world around us and the people in it, but it’s also important to relax sometimes, and observe in perhaps a more passive way, so that we’re watching the setting of the sun and the changing of the tides without necessarily thinking about the words we’d use to describe these things.

…and another one

Anyway, we had a fabulous week, and at the end of it, I really did feel relaxed and refreshed – I can’t remember the last time that happened! We both felt genuinely sad to be coming home.

last night of the holiday

So now we’re back, and I’ve got over my sulking that we’re not still on holiday. I won’t say the creative well is bubbling to the brim with ideas, but I do feel in more of a relaxed state about the whole thing, and at least I’m now thinking about new ideas without getting my knickers in a twist. I’m not saying I’ll never take my laptop on holiday with me again, but I am definitely going to make sure I occasionally take a complete break from writing, even if it’s just for a couple of days.

Enjoy this gorgeous weather while it lasts!  If you’d like to be notified when I post in this blog, click the subscribe button to the right of the screen, and if you’d like to sign up for occasional updates on my books, events, and workshops, you can do that via the contact page. In the meantime, I hope you’ll catch up with me on Twitter or Facebook 

THE WRITING LIFE – when writers can’t write, part five

Thank you for bearing with me over these five posts! I can’t believe that I set out to write a quick little blog post about writers’ block and it ended up at over 4000 words. The irony is not lost on me!

 

So picking up from from yesterday,  I’d got to a point where I felt mentally and physically paralysed, and even the mention of writing would have me fighting tears. I concluded that I had writers’ block. I wasn’t stuck on an idea or a plot point, it was that I couldn’t write anything more challenging than a shopping list.

What did I do about it?
The time had come for me to fess up to my agent. I was worried she was going to call me and say, ‘How’s the book going?’, only for me to burst into tears and say, ‘It isn’t!’  So I emailed her to explain the situation, and received a lovely, sympathetic and understanding email in return. She suggested I that I take some time off,  a month, maybe – some time away from even thinking about writing.

At first, I struggled with that idea – I’ve never been very good at taking time off. But eventually I saw sense. Given that I teach writing and had workshops to deliver, I couldn’t avoid thinking about writing altogether, but I did give myself a break, spending most of my time reading, or  (and this may not have been the best idea) looking up solutions for writers’ block.

Advice from the Guru Google
Much of the advice I found – ‘go for walk’, ‘use a writing prompt’ or ‘try 15 minutes of freewriting’ – is good advice for someone who’s stuck, but it doesn’t really help a block. There is some good advice out there, but you have to trawl through a lot of confusion between being stuck and being blocked.

Some advice was useful though, especially when it focused on healing, or on appreciating creativity or nature rather than on forcing the writing. Things like: visit art galleries, listen to music, walk in the countryside, meditate, do yoga, spend all day reading, go dancing etc. Activities which in the past I’ve probably regarded as skiving. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who feels guilty for taking time off. It’s crazy really, because even when we’re not actually writing (or doing research, or marketing, or social media) we’re still thinking about our characters and their stories.

So I relaxed. A little. I could probably have relaxed a bit more, but it was a start. I was anxious to start some kind of writing, so I decided to go back to the good old ‘morning pages’ idea, as recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artists Way and Dorothea Brande in Becoming a Writer.

The latter is one of two books I recommend to every beginner writer, as well as to writers who are struggling to write (the other is Stephen King’s On Writing: a memoir of the craft). Becoming a Writer talks about the psychology of being a writer, about how the unconscious mind has a profound effect on the ability to write. Brande talks in particular about the voice of the inner critic, which, while it’s an essential part of the editing process, can be a confidence-destroying little fecker when we’re actually creating fiction. (Or in my case, even while we’re still at the thinking stage.)

One way of doing this is to train yourself to write to order and with no quality control. Brande suggests at least half an hour first thing in the morning, then another 15 minutes later in the day at a time you’ve chosen. It’s strict – if you say you’re going to write at 3pm, write at 3pm you must  – not 2.55 or 3.05.  You write anything as long as it’s not nonsense. It doesn’t have to be fiction, it doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t even have to be grammatically correct. You just write, and you don’t look back at what you’ve written for at least a few weeks (if ever).

I did this for three weeks, filling a reasonably thick A5 notebook. It was a challenge, especially as the RSI in my hands and arms had flared up again. (It’s worse when typing so I use dictation software but sometimes the pain is severe in spite of this – I’m sure it’s another contributory factor to the block.) But it got me physically writing again, and that in itself has made me feel more positive.

I’m still a long way from starting a new novel, but I’ve jotted down a few notes – only brief thoughts, images, random situations. And writing this post has been an important step, because I don’t think I’d have been able to write it even a few weeks ago. Next, I’m starting work on a feature I’m planning to pitch ahead of the publication of Cornelia Blackwood in February. I want to have a draft in place now, because by the time the book is published, I fully intend to be working on a new novel. Then I have a week’s holiday in Wales, and for the first time in 12 years, I’m not taking my laptop! When I come back, I’m going to start thinking through ideas again.

So, that’s the story – much longer than I’d anticipated – of my writers’ block how I’m slowly coming through it. I hope you’ve found this interesting and useful, and if you’re going through something similar, my heart goes out to you. One thing that helped me enormously was hearing other writers talk about their own experiences of writers block, and that’s another reason I wanted to write this post. My thanks to them – I hope they know who they are – and to you for sticking with this week-long post!

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