Smoking reefers with ghosts

DEAR DIARY | THE WRITER’S LIFE

Last night, I sat up talking to a dead person. It would be a good opening line for a story, but it’s fact. I don’t know if my friend heard me, but I like to think she did. I may be branded a loony (I’m pretty much medically diagnosed as one anyway) but I got something from that meeting, as though I’d heard something. This is not a religious epiphany.

Carl Sagan

I’ll confess that I’d been smoking a bit of weed, but no-one should judge that until they’ve tried it themselves. My friend smoked too. For her, it was pain relief from sickle cell disease, which took her from us last year. It’s her birthday today, so we kind of sat up, passing a reefer between us. For me, cannabis relieves my anxiety, relaxes me and opens my mind. It’s a very agreeable self-prescribed therapy. But just because I was a bit stoned, doesn’t mean I was tripping, or out of it. Like pretty much all weed smokers, I’m compos mentis (despite the medical diagnoses) when I’m on it, more chatty, articulate and enquiring. I get clarity of deeper thought, and I’m able to interrogate my own brain, which has allowed us to become good friends.

As an atheist, I deny God in man’s image. I don’t deny that there could be superior or technically advanced beings in the universe. I believe it may be possible that our planet was visited by ancient aliens, and that these events were recorded by scribes in the terms which they understood. My objection is to the white-haired man created by Christianity, in its own image, and religion based on worshipping an idol. But I accept that for some, it’s a belief system and a comfort.

I have my own set of beliefs. Having got my head around quantum mechanics a couple of years ago, I believe that life as we know it is merely one part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. And of course, like Christianity, my belief has to be based on a faith that I’m right. But my beliefs do at least have a grounding in science. Put simply, I believe that the soul continues to live, after the physical body has broken. Then, we take on a different physical form, which gives us freedom from the restraints of the living human body. Some may think of ghosts or spirits, and that’s perhaps what those phenomena are.

My short story, Cardboard Sky, explains the various kinds of ghosts:

The ‘Crisis Apparition’ is normally a one-time event for those experiencing it. It’s when a ghost is seen at the time of it’s predecessor’s passing, as a way of saying farewell to family and friends. It would be like going about your daily business, then suddenly seeing your mum outside of normal contexts. Minutes later, you receive a call to tell you that she’s passed away. With practice, the deceased may be able to visit you more than once, to reassure you. If they do that, you might have a guardian angel. In my case, a fallen one with broken wings.

‘The reluctant dead’ are ghosts who are unaware they’re deceased. They go about their lives as if they were still living, oblivious to their passing. This innocence (or denial), can be so severe that the ghost can’t see the living but can nonetheless feel their presence: A kind of role reversal. This can be stressful, for both the haunter and the haunted. In films, it’s usually someone moving into the home of a recently deceased person. Perhaps they lived and died alone in their twilight years. To them, the living might be invaders. These are not ghosts which need to be exorcised: Simply talking to them about their death can help them to cross over and leave your home.

Then there are ghosts who are trapped or lost: They know they’re dead but for one reason or another, they can’t cross over yet. Cross over into what? Some may fear moving on because of the person they were in life, or they might fear leaving what’s familiar to them.

There are ghosts with ‘unfinished business”’broadly split into two categories: A parent might return to make sure their children are okay. Or a lover might hang around, making sure their partner finds happiness and moves on. But there’s also the ‘vengeful ghost’; perhaps a murder victim, back to haunt their killer.

‘Residual ghosts’ usually live out their final hours over and over again. They often show no intelligence or self-awareness, and will walk straight by (or through) you. Many think that these types of ghosts left an imprint or a recording of themselves in our space time.

Finally, the ‘intelligent ghost’: Where the entity interacts with the living and shows a form of intelligence. I certainly wanted to communicate with George. In fact, to lesser and greater extents, I fitted parts of the descriptions of all types of ghosts. I’d not long been dead and already I had a multiple personality disorder…”

That was fiction. But in fact, I do believe in ghosts I suppose.

By extension to all of this, I can see how heaven and hell might exist, in a personal sense. When the time comes for my calling, I imagine I’ll be faced with an entire universe to explore, perhaps for eternity. To my mind, that would be a personal utopia: All the answers I’ve always sought. ‘Knowledge comes with death’s release’ (David Bowie). But to others, knowledge represents fear. So faced with a universal knowledge of all things, some people may be terrified, and find themselves in a personal hell. Intelligence and ignorance may experience an eternal karma on the other side.

I believe that as we continue to exist and move freely after our physical death, we can visit the living. It may be that they don’t know we’re there, but I’m comforted by a belief that the dead still walk among us. In death, the world is without borders. I have written and I believe, that if we speak to the dead, if they’re listening, sometimes they may hear us. I imagine a sleeping soul being stirred from slumber, because someone is thinking of them. I believe that our thoughts can be heard: An ethereal, telepathic connection, with an afterlife without physical form, replaces the audible speech we’d have had with them in this life.

It wasn’t a long conversation. I told my friend that everyone said hi, including my kids, who went to school with her son. I asked her how it was out there, and how I imagine it was nice to escape the pain of her illness. But of course, she had to leave a family behind. I shared with her, my belief that she can hear me, and others who think of her. I wished there was a way she could have told me everything’s okay, and that she could hear us. Even though that’s down to my own atheist scientific faith, I felt at ease. I was relaxed, of course: we were smoking a joint. But it was a comforting feeling I had. The kind I get when I’ve just finished a story I’ve written while I’ve been a bit mind-expanded, and knowing it’s good. I read her the poem I wrote for her after she’d left us. To Catford’s sleeping Queenie:

A wave from a plane

If you’re ever stuck;
If you ever wonder;
It’s the simple things,
that make a life:

Sunday roast: Jerk chicken
Sandy coast: Jamaica
Bonfire nights, Christmas lights
All these things

Birthday gifts, healing rifts
Friendly smile, extra mile
All these things
remind me

City walks; Kids’ school
Family talks; Black and white
London years, happy tears
All these things

Moonlit night; Security lights
Morning haze; Happy days
All these things
remind me

Dogs and rats; Welcome mats
Catford: Life rhymes with that
Dancing queen, evergreen
All these things

All these things are true

50 Cent makes music
while Dana sings:
“All kinds of everything
remind me of you.”

It’s good to talk. Talk to the dead, if you believe they can hear you. I believe that it’s nice for someone out there to know that they’re being remembered.

I hope people still talk to me when I’m gone.

valdin

Valdin Millette (1983 – 2016)

The difference engine and the afternaut

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Afternaut4

Recently I wrote of The Unfinished Literary Agency, my fictional office, where the staff (me) write the stories of others. It’s really just a standard tool which many writers use, but which I’ve turned into a background story in itself.

Originally, The Unfinished Literary Agency existed to write the stories of those who were unable to tell them themselves, for various reasons. But it’s also a repository for people’s ideas, which I turn into stories for them: A mutually beneficial arrangement, where the idea donor gets to see their story idea published; and the writer (me) is given the germ of a story to develop. Recently, I wrote a short story about a translation device, The difference engine, and that will be published in a week or so. The latter story ideas which have come into the agency, are the difference engine being put to work.

Among the idea slips in my in-tray was this one:

Imagine if you fell into a lake during a freak cold spell, and were frozen in a cryogenic-like state, however the extreme cold across the globe (perhaps the sun burned out?) caused the entire human race to perish, or at least change drastically. You are then discovered by these future people, and thawed out because you are now the last of an “extinct” human species, and are stuck trying to escape from these intrusive and frighteningly intelligent beings trying to study you.

That’s actually a big brief. Taken to its full extent, there are at least three massive concepts to include in the final story: Human extinction; Extraterrestrials, time and space; Human psychology, morals and social ethics. All would require at least a degree of explanation in setting up the beginning of a story. Even individually, it’s a lot for readers to take on board. As it stood, it could easily be a brief for a novel, or at least a novella.

A novella is typically 17,500 – 40,000 words. A novelette is 7500 – 17,500, and 7500 words or fewer is a short story. Most publications only accept a maximum of 6000 words for short fiction, and even those are rare and mainly online. Print magazines typically specify 1500 words maximum. Then there’s flash fiction, at sometimes as few as 500 words. Back at the other end of the scale, there’s the novel, with 40,000 words and over: An actual feckin’ book, as far as I’m concerned. As a point of note, Cyrus Song comes in at 93,000 words and it’ll be a 412 page paperback when it’s published in a few months. More on that in a moment.

Returning to the brief above, I was only going to be able to turn it into a short story. Given submission guidelines, I’d need to keep it under 6000 words if the idea donor was ever going to see it published. So I thought of a way I could do it, and this is the synopsis:

The lake is planet Trappist-1e, and the last human is a man, floating in a tin can, above the planet. He is the last human, following an extinction event on earth c.2097. Using the EMDrive, humans sent the last of their kind on a journey to the Trappist system. After 4000 years, the tin can travels the 40 light years to Trappist-1e, where we find ourselves in the year 6070.

It’s going to be a sort of ancient aliens turned on its head: There will be Trappists on the alien planet, and they have ancient scripts which tell of a distant planet where their forefathers once lived, and who would one day send a sentinel. It’s 12,000 years of history repeated.

With a working title of The Afternaut, it should be published sometime in the next month. The rough first draft opening goes like this:

The last earth human was also the most distant that any had ever been from the home planet. In roughly 4000 years, he’d travelled 40 light years away from earth and was approaching Trappist-1e, an exoplanet orbiting the Trappist-1 star.

The Trappist 1 planetary system was discovered in 2016, and Trappist-1e identified as a habitable planet shortly thereafter. By the time of mankind’s extinction event in 2096, the most advanced propulsion method available was the electromagnetic drive, or EMDrive. At warp 0.01 speed, it had taken 4000 years to travel the distance to the Trappist system. Back on earth, it would have been the year 6070. Neither the Trappists below, nor the man in the tin can, knew who he was.

To answer a few of the many questions arising at this point, and to speed the telling of the fable, it’s important to take a few things on board. Accept as fact, that humans died out on earth in 2097. It was an AI: Extinction through technology. What mankind had strived for millennia to achieve, turned on its creator. The entire extinction event was complete in less than a year: A flash in space time, and they were gone…

(To be continued).

It might even be a Douglas Adams-esque, Life of Brian type of story. I’ll see how it evolves in the typewriter. The idea donor and anyone else, will be able to see it when it’s published.

Returning to Cyrus Song, I mused to some of my writing peers in a forum last night:

Am I rare (or perhaps alone) in suffering separation anxiety from my characters?

For the last six months, I’ve been writing Cyrus Song and now it’s out with test readers. I’m trying to spend some time away from the manuscript, so that I can go back to it in a month or so, with beta reader feedback and take a fresher look, if necessary. So for now, I’m in limbo, and I really miss all the characters I created. I even wonder what they might be up to in the world I made for them.

Am I insane, taking writing too seriously, or just a normal idiosyncratic writer?

Apparently, I’m normal. Or at least, that’s a normal thing for a writer to feel. I was genuinely slightly concerned though, that my daily living issues of paranoia and anxiety were somehow creeping into my fiction as well. I haven’t suffered separation anxiety from anyone in real life for some time, because there hasn’t been anyone to separate from, and one of the many reasons I’m resolutely single. In any case, writing has been therapy for me for some time now, so the best way to overcome fictional character separation anxiety is to bring those people back to life. But that’s the thing: Simon Fry, Hannah Jones et al are such strong and deep characters on the page that they do seem real to me. Maybe it’s because I’m a good writer, or maybe just because I’m a writer.

So there will more than likely be a Cyrus Song II, possibly about a year for now. In the meantime, Hannah, Simon and all the animals are with my beta readers: Three pairs of safe hands and one one who spends a lot of time with their foot in their mouth; a good cross section of the target audience.

While I’m waiting for my fictional friends to come back to me, before I write more for them to do, I have other therapy to work on, with the difference engine, The Unfinished Literary Agency, and the afternaut. And the Unfinished Literary Agency is still open for submissions.

Why do rainbows look sad?

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Zippy and George

Despite life in general being pretty good, depression is always just around the corner, waiting to piss on my bonfire. No matter how well things can seem on the outside, those suffering from anxiety and depression are always expecting bad news in the post. We know it’s coming, even if it isn’t. A rainbow is a beautiful thing, but it still looks like a sad face. Such is life.

On the flip side, there are of course situations which look worse than they are. I’m not a pessimist. I realise that being an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it. So despite suffering chronic (as in, life-affecting) depression, I do tend to look on the bright side. But the dark dog is always skulking in the woods somewhere: One of many ways I describe the perpetual anxiety I have. It’s subjective, it’s as unique as the individual, and others would describe it all differently. We’d all describe it as “a bit shit” but I try as a writer to convey more than that generalisation (true though it is).

Of course, it’s always nice and life-affirming, when something which initially doesn’t look good, turns out to be okay: A bit like someone offering a plate of Russian Roulette sandwiches, where all look the same, but some are filled with Nutella and others with shit. That’s kind of what happened this week, when a lady I know from the council knocked on my door. She’s a very nice lady and part of the team who housed me at my studio when I became vulnerable. My landlord is that rare angel who works with the local authority to offer homes to benefits tenants. As I’ve said before, my studio as a flat is pretty “unusual”, being very small (a bedsit with a separate small kitchen) and with an off-suite toilet and shower room (for my exclusive use). But as an office, it’s feckin’ ace. And seeing as my work is also my life, that’s how come this small living space / cool workspace became known as Le Studio Chez Moi: It fits me and vice versa. The point is, it’s not the kind of place which private renters will be falling over themselves to occupy, even though it’s in a quiet location in a peaceful village. So my landlord rents out the lower end of their portfolio to people like me, who are grateful of somewhere to live. Something I’ve always lacked though, through many years of renting, is a sense of permanence. This is not to be confused with a sense of entitlement, which is something I lack. But for my own personal well being, a permanent home has always been my wish.

When I moved to the studio 15 months ago, I was put on a one year tenancy agreement and the council raised a bond to cover my deposit. At the time, I was told that my landlord may grant a longer tenancy at the end of a first year, depending on how that year went. I’m a good tenant and the first year was without incident. So when that lady from the council turned up at my door, brandishing a manilla C5 window envelope with my name and address peering out, my heart sank (what was I saying about being an optimist or a pessimist?). As it turned out, my deposit bond has been renewed and I’ve been granted a rolling tenancy: It’s the nearest I will ever get to having a permanent home. Council tenancies for life are a thing of the past, but what I have now is the nearest modern equivalent. So that envelope, that potential shit sandwich, turned out to be one filled with chocolate spread, which was nice.

I’ve said before that I don’t want to politicise this blog, and that’s still true. But beliefs are part of what makes the person, so I’ve made it clear in the past that I’m a Labour voter. My day-to-day observations on politics and everything else in the world are on my public Facebook timeline, but I will say a little about recent political events:

I voted Labour and I’m pleased that at least the Tories didn’t get an overall majority. The next few weeks will see more disruption, with coalitions and co-operatives formed. It’s all too complicated to call at the moment but in modernising politics, coalitions will play a part. I don’t see Labour forming a coalition (although I think they should with the Liberal Democrats) but Nicola Sturgeon has said that the SNP will work with any progressive parliamentary party. Progressive is what politics is finally becoming, and that’s a good thing.

Even unilaterally, Labour have a voice in parliament now, which will throw a spanner in the works of Kim-Jong May. The Imperial Dictator called the general election egotistically. She assumed (wrongly) that she would win a landslide majority, giving her the green light to steamroller through her hard Brexit, unchallenged. Under this “no plan” of hers, she was seeking to make the UK an annexe of Trump’s US, with cheap labour (no minimum wage), which could be exploited by employers who’d get tax breaks for investing in UK PLC. Either that, or she called the general election because she was shit scared of Brexit. Both have been equally divisive. Whatever happens next, in the short term at least, I predict increased civil unrest, as the far-right get more marginalised. And May has shot herself in the foot, just like her predecessor.

Social media is a minefield in times like these, with fake news spread by the ignorant. Some of the levels of ignorance I’ve seen have been frankly mind-boggling. I’m talking about those who thought Brexit meant “Immigrants out!” and “Muslims out!”: Fascists, who are probably low-earners and who should naturally vote Labour, but who vote Tory because they think Kim-Jong May will goose step all “Immigrants” out of the country, like some pied piper of the apocolypse. It’s hilarious that most of these people wouldn’t even be allowed entry into some “Pure Aryan race”, when one of the prerequisites for such a twisted fantasy would surely be a high level of intelligence. These are the people who wake up in the morning, see a couple of milk bottles on the doorstep and wonder how they got there. Now there’s a pint I’d like to spill.

So, two weeks ago on Facebook, I predicted a hung parliament. Just over a week ago on this blog, I noted that I sensed an uprising and a lifting of the veil: I stand by that and I’ll watch what happens next with great interest.

Away from political punditry, my next novel is almost complete. In terms of publishing, that means I’m about half way through the whole process. Cyrus Song itself is 90% complete: I wrote the ending a long time ago, and the narrative is now approaching that finale. If I pull off the two “Easter Eggs” I’m planning with the word and page counts, there’s about 10,000 words to go. And that’s a book, written. In first draft. At the end of this month, the manuscript goes out to beta readers, all of whom have signed non-disclosure agreements. I’m hoping I’ll get their feedback by the end of July and in the interim, I’ll be poring over my own copy of the manuscript and tidying it up for the second draft. Then there’s editing and checking spelling, punctuation, grammar, tenses, perspectives, continuity etc. After that, the actual book can be compiled and indexed, then there’s acknowledgements, references and a load of other stuff to write before it’s finally ready for publishing. Barring events which even the finest heirophants couldn’t predict, Christmas is probably now at the far end of my publication window. At the moment, I’m aiming for October. 

So it’s all good. But up above the streets and houses, a rainbow still looks like a sad face.

A writer in a residence

THE WRITER’S LIFE

writer-in-residence
Writer not in residence

Without wishing to tempt fate, or count the eggs which the horse laid before it bolted and I found out where the stable door was, I may have cause to relax just a little bit. All the clues point to my landlady giving me a rolling tenancy, without actually telling me.

Apparently this is par for the course, according to the other two benefits tenants who live in this little hut perched atop a coffee shop. Like me, they came here on an initial one year tenancy and it was never renewed. Which may not seem like great comfort but it’s the most secure I’ve been in a long time.

Three years of varying degrees of homelessness meant that I became quite knowledgeable in a few areas, including squatters’ rights and latterly, those of tenants. We squatted only in abandoned commercial premises and never forced entry. Since then, I’ve had a tenancy agreement and the limited rights which one of those represents. Even without a tenancy agreement, a sitting tenant is entitled to two months’ notice to vacate a property, under the terms of a Section 21 eviction notice, and the latter is a legal requirement of the property owner.

I’ve been at my studio for almost a year now and a Section 21 notice to evict me at the end of my current one year tenancy would therefore have been required almost two months ago. There wasn’t one, and I’ve received a notice from the council about ongoing housing benefit payments being made directly to my landlady. So apart from an actual tenancy agreement, I feel quite secure. In law, I retain the right to two months’ notice, and a tenancy agreement doesn’t give any extra rights. But the key was in speaking to my neighbours, neither of whom have a paper contract but who have both been here for several years on rolling tenancies. Given that the council have confirmed they’ll continue to pay my rent, I have to assume that I have a rolling contract too.

Renting is never secure, as it will always lack the permanence I crave, but this is the next best thing: A rolling tenancy with a council landlady.

The studio is small: It’s a living room barely twelve feet square, with a small kitchen. The toilet and shower are off-suite but for my exclusive use. As I’ve said before, as a flat, it’s not the best; As an office, it’s fantastic. And seeing as writing is my life, I treat the studio as an office which I also relax and sleep in. I’m unlikely to ever make a living from my writing and I’m too ill to work, but writing gives me purpose and it’s therapy. I call it my job, because it’s what gives me and others satisfaction. Whatever it is, when anyone asks me what I do, I am qualified to answer that I’m a writer. It took a long time to be able to say that with confidence. My landlady simply squeezed an extra flat in where others might not; The kind of place which might only be taken by the needy and unfussy. Well, there was a place with a me-shaped hole in it.

And despite its shortcomings, I love my little studio. The flat and the strange little building it’s in with three others is quirky. The end wall on the outside is apparently a rare example of a mill wall, where sacks of flour made from corn were thrown from a first floor door, opening onto thin air, so that they could be dropped into waiting horse carts in the yard below. The door is still there, fifteen feet up, and the wall itself is Grade I listed. The flats sit on top of a coffee shop in the village high street, which is quite a poetic thing for a writer. It’s quiet. It’s very quiet around here, in the studio, in the mews, which is in the yard, tucked behind the village centre. It’s ideal for me. It’s small, but I don’t need any more. I’m paid a basic state income on account of my depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, OCD and many times PTSD. That security has allowed me to improve myself and give something back.

Of course, that’s part of the whole Universal Basic Income (UBI) model, now being trialled in Finland, Ireland, Scotland, Canada and the Netherlands, among others. While it may be some way off in the UK as a whole, it’s something being studied and which I’m a great advocate of, not just because it would suit me, but many others and much more as well. The argument for a UBI is gaining traction, thanks in part to such visionary advocates as Elon Musk, and the author, Rutger Bregman, whose latest book was the subject of a feature in this weekend’s Observer:

As liberal democracy seems to be crumbling under the weight of widespread despondency, some hardline opinions are in danger of becoming received wisdoms. In the global market, we are told, we must work harder and improve productivity. The welfare state has become too large and we need to cut back on benefits. Immigration is out of control and borders need to be strengthened.

The choice seems to be either to accept this new paradigm or risk the likes of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders gaining power. The centre ground is being dragged to the left and right, and collapsing down the middle. Meanwhile progressive politics has returned to its comfort zone, busily opposing everything and offering almost nothing. Where is the vision, the ambition, the belief?

Yet into this bleak picture drops a book and an author bristling with hope, optimism and answers. Rutger Bregman is a 28-year-old Dutchman whose book, Utopia for Realists, has taken Holland by storm and could yet revitalise progressive thought around the globe…

“I’ve heard for years that my ideas are unrealistic. You want to stick to the status quo? How’s that working out?”
Rutger Bregman

The full article is here.

It’s a facsimile of this model which has allowed me to publish three books, which are now being enjoyed by others, because they’ve told me so. And although I lack some written proof regarding my tenancy, other correspondence and all of the available evidence allows me to conclude that in this instance, no news really is good news. I’m a writer in residence, with the current residence being the most secure that someone in my situation can expect, and the most security I’ve had for the last six years, following that knifepoint robbery in Lewisham which triggered everything which lay beneath, prompting my fall into the gutter and subsequent recovery.

With three books published, I’m now able to relax and concentrate on the next ones: a sci-fi space opera, and a second volume of short stories. I’ve already finished the first for the latter, and I’ve gone back to my slush pile, which contains many unfinished works.

The bubble could burst at any moment. This won’t cure my anxiety, but tonight, I may allow myself a small celebration, with a pizza. Because it was a man from Iceland who used to say, “I’ve started so I’ll finish.”

Re-record, not fade away…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

scotch-skeleton
Video podcasts of my bedtime stories will be coming soon

A couple of years ago, I posted an article based on one by CultNoise, about depression, anxiety and borderline personality disorder. Mental illness is largely incurable, and can often mutate and metamorphose in the sufferer. Mine has. But like many others, I embrace mine, because it’s made me the unique individual I am and allowed me to write.

Most mental health conditions are measured on spectra, so a person with more than one condition (most people with mental health issues) will often have multiple diagnoses placing them in various positions within a spectrum. With so many mental health conditions and such wide spectra, it’s not difficult to see how each mental health “patient” is unique.

For my own particular cocktail, I have chronic depression and anxiety (with “Chronic” defined as life-affecting), with borderline multiple personality disorder. I also have psychopathic tendencies. This doesn’t mean I’m a psychopathic murderer; It means that I am psychopathic about some of the things I do, to the exclusion of all else.

There are eminent surgeons who are clinical psychopaths. What this means in the context of their jobs, is that they are able to perform sometimes highly risky procedures, where there is a real danger of permanent trauma, or even the death of a patient. But the psychopath mind is such that it can concentrate fully on something like neurosurgery, perhaps to remove a tumour in order to save a life, when there may be a real risk of damaging a nearby nerve and causing total paralysis. I’m no brain surgeon but I’ve taken it as a compliment when I’ve been called a psychopath writer.

Two years after writing that article, many things have changed. My mental health issues have at once become worse as my anxiety in particular has increased, but also more interesting. But still, I’m unique, like everyone else who has a mental illness. The point of that article was to raise awareness of something which anything up to 1 in 4 of us will be affected by at some point. For some, it will be temporary: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following a bereavement is usually temporary and treatable in isolation. I have PTSD diagnoses piled on top of each other (a knifepoint robbery; the breakdown of my marriage and estrangement from my children for a while; Homelessness, and the many traumas one encounters in that situation…). So for others, it’s a life sentence. And although we’re all different, we do understand that we’re difficult to deal with at times. We don’t understand ourselves. So even though my conditions have evolved, nothing has changed, and this could have been written by anyone with a mental health issue:

I don’t need to be handled with kid gloves.

I’ve got mental health issues, but this doesn’t mean that I’m ‘broken’. Do not talk to me like a cat you just saved from a tree; especially when you never cared before. My pet peeve is the head tilt with “So how are you feeling?” from people who previously would never have spoken two words to you and now feels the need to partake in charity. I would be grateful if this was at all sincere, like with loved ones. There’s always one loved one who tries to wrap you in cotton wool and is terrified to even go to the shop, for fear of leaving you alone. Please do not stop your life for me.

You can tell me your problems, I can handle it.

If you are my friend or significant other, please share your feelings and worries. Just because I am dealing with my own problems does not mean that I cannot listen to yours. I can handle it. In truth – focussing on someone else’s problems makes me forget about mine for a while. Also, it feels like I’m being a good friend Normality is key.

I don’t mean to hurt you.

For friends and family of those suffering from depression, life can be just as hard. Watching someone you love struggle and cry, in some cases self-harm and attempt suicide, is hard to understand and accept. We know that and feel very guilty. Unfortunately, depression can be a very selfish illness. Sometimes we can be unintentionally harsh and mean, but most of the time we don’t mean the things we say. It’s out of hurt. The best defence is a good offence and all that. Often we can push people away to ‘protect’ them from us and it just results in hurting them even more. If we take it as far as to try and hurt ourselves to stop the suffering, it is no reflection on them. At that time all you think about is the all-consuming beast that is depression. Without a doubt, it is a challenge to love and care for someone with depression.

‘Am I wearing a sign?’

Paranoia often comes hand in hand with depression, along with the fear that people are judging you or talking about you. It often feels like you are wearing a large neon sign that says ‘I HAVE DEPRESSION’. The thing is – it isn’t noticeable. Depression isn’t like a broken arm or leg – you can’t see it. Somehow, because it feels like such an overwhelming factor in your life, you think others can see or sense it too. People do not have spidey senses. Those with depression look just like everyone else. We are sneaky individuals.

Sometimes it can feel like I am two different people.

When we get really low, it can feel like we are two different people: one is the true us and the other is an emotional, grumpy wreck. Rather than feeling like we are both people, it’s important to remember that the ‘other’ you isn’t you: it’s depression. It can be helpful to disassociate yourself from the ‘other’ you. Winston Churchill referred to his depression as ‘the black dog’. My depression is my shadow: darker in the sunshine. Whatever you call it, remember that it isn’t you! Also, it’s important for us to have others recognise that there is a difference too. I am not my depression.

If I don’t take my tablets, do not yell at me.

Some people take antidepressants to help manage depression. It is not everyone’s cup of tea and that is each person’s personal preference. It is not uncommon for people who are on them to suddenly stop taking them. Admitting there is a problem can be hard. Sometimes they are helpful, despite the side effects, but sometimes they just make us feel worse. The thought of having to take pills to make yourself ‘normal’ can sometimes be distressing. However, the sudden withdrawal can cause a slight meltdown. The worst thing you can do is to yell at someone to take them. That is no use. Imagine you had to take tablets to be happy every day, because your brain didn’t make the right chemicals. It can be upsetting. Logically explaining and understanding the frustration is much more helpful.  And hey, sometimes we just plain forget.

Depression and being sad is not the same thing.

Being sad is a normal human emotion. It is reactive. If something bad happens to you then you become sad and then it relents. There is some opportunity to ‘cheer you up’. It is not constant, but depression is. With depression, someone could offer you a trip to Disneyland on the back of a unicorn and you would not even crack a smirk. It is relentless and life-altering. It can change your personality, interests and goals in life. It can last for weeks, months or even years. If we compare depression to cancer (which a lot of people do not like) then sadness is a benign tumour. It is horrible but treatable. It is not life threatening or cancerous. Depression is a malignant tumour. The cells grow out of control, become cancerous and potentially life threatening – they spread throughout your body.

I know you are trying to help, but don’t try to give me medical advice. I know more about my diagnosis than you do.

This includes: “have you tried exercise?”, “maybe it’s your diet?” and “it must be hormones”. Honourable mentions go out to: “are you sure you need medication?” and “have you tried reading the Bible?”. If you have had depression for a long time, you will have heard some of these at least once. It’s nice that people are trying to be ‘helpful’ but if you have had it long enough then you will know everything about the medication, diagnosis, causes and treatments. Each person is different and knows what is best for them. What works for one person may not work for another. For those who are new to it all and do not know what to expect, the best advice comes from actual medical professionals and those who have been dealing with it for a while. They can tell you the various routes you can try but, in the end, only you know what is best for you.

This is not a choice.

Why would anyone choose to be depressed? It can mess up your relationships, work, studying and family. Nobody wants to have low moods all the time or to be such a challenge. People do not choose to have flu or polio; it is not within your control. There are ways to lessen the chances and practice good mental health, but no one can 100% say it will never happen to them. We have not “brought this on ourselves” by life choices and we are not weak.

It can also be physically painful.

This is something that many people do not understand. Sometimes depression can be physically painful or uncomfortable. Most of the time I liken it to a lead weight in my chest or like someone has punched a hole straight through me. Chest pain, headaches, back pain and muscle aches are common problems associated with depression. Sufferers can also experience fatigue, loss of appetite and sleep problems. Sometimes medicines which help with depression can change the chemicals involved in nerve cell communication. This can make them more effective, and potentially become more sensitive to physical pain. Depression can also slow down the digestive system, resulting in stomach problems.

Having depression does not make me ‘depressing’.

I’m a nice person, really. Most people who know me would describe me as such. However, sometimes people don’t want to invite you to places or hang out with you because they assume you will be in need, of company; of attention. We do notice how others react to us. I am not going to go to your house and cry into a wine glass, while I tell you how difficult it is to be me. To be honest, most of the time we are feeling super-down we don’t actually want to socialise anyway. There is no point in going out just to be ‘depressing’. We can be fun and interesting even with the depression, just some days are worse than others. On most occasions, people would not even know we suffer from depression because we are as sociable and upbeat as everyone else. The thing is, people do not know what is going on inside your head. The strongest looking people can be the ones fighting the hardest battles.

I don’t want to be a burden.

When you have depression you often have to rely on at least one other person to keep your head above water. Knowing how difficult it can be to accompany us on this roller coaster of emotion, we often feel guilty about it. We don’t want to put anybody out or to be a burden, especially on our loved ones. You have to remember that they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t want to be. If they care enough about you, then they will never consider you to be a burden. You have to ask for help when you need it.

Sometimes I just don’t want to socialise. It’s not personal.

On bad days, we may not want to see anyone or socialise. Sometimes the pressure of trying not to be ‘depressing’ in a social situation is too much and so avoiding it seems like a better choice. We just want to be free to feel our feelings. Support and friendship is always appreciated, but sometimes we just need some space. It isn’t personal. Knowing you have got friends or family willing to be there if you change your mind makes the difference. Just don’t push us to socialise when we are not willing because then it could spell disaster or even cause us to feel worse than before. Trust that we know what our head needs.

This isn’t a ‘trend’ or ‘cool’. If you had it, you would understand.

Films and TV shows paint depressed people as being cool, edgy and moody. This is so far from the reality. Depression isn’t sexy. Crying for hours on end, unable to get out of bed and sleeping all day is not sexy. Trying to ‘fix’ a damaged person is not some sort of Xbox achievement, so don’t enter into a relationship with a depressed person unless you actually care for them. Actually typing ‘depression is sexy’ into Google brought up disgusting pages from uneducated idiots, who quite frankly need high fived… in the face, with a chair. To say that people who are fighting it are sexy, because they are strong, badass individuals, is much more acceptable. It seems, at the moment, that depression is the new black. It’s not a badge of honour or pride; it’s a poisoned chalice. Self-harm is not trendy or to be used as a way to keep your favourite band member from leaving. Children need educated to know that these are serious issues and that this type of publicity is irreparably damaging to mental health advocates. We are trying to end a stigma, not make it trend on Twitter.

On occasions, our thoughts scare the shit out of people.

General melancholy becomes quite normal as do the weird-ass things you sometimes say. Some people may not see it that way. Telling close friends, very matter-of-factly, the ways you tried to commit suicide may become quite normal to you, but not necessarily to them. We can scare the shit out of others, but we don’t mean to. This is our normality. Being depressed tends to mean you think more about life and the meaning of things.
To be honest, once you hit that low, you stop caring about what other people think of your opinions and ‘crazy thoughts’. We may also act a bit differently and spontaneously. For example, I once sunbathed in the rain. These aren’t cries for attention – the way your brain functions just becomes a little different… and weird to some.

I am very unpredictable.

One second I can be okay, the next I will be crying. No, I don’t know what is wrong. Nothing happened. Story of my life. Things are never fantastic, but they aren’t always horrible either. They are just… Depressed people don’t become insanely happy: that is manic depression/bipolar disorder – a different kettle of fish. Those of us in that kettle have a whole load of other things we’d like people to know and we are even more difficult to deal with simply because we are so complex. It’s often like someone just flicks a switch and we suddenly become inconsolably upset. There is not always even an explanation for it or, if there is, it’s something small. The smallest tasks can sometimes feel like a mountain to climb. Don’t be surprised if we cry over spilling a cup of tea or losing our keys. It happens!

Small achievements to you are massive to me.

Reaching little goals that we set ourselves are a massive deal. Most people aim to get good grades or get the promotion of their dreams – sometimes just being able to get out of bed is an achievement. So do not knock us down when we achieve them, instead be proud of us! They may seem minuscule to you, but to us, they are each a step closer to recovery and seem as difficult as any task that you attempt. Some day we can aim for bigger things, but today is just about getting healthy.

I can be really challenging, but if you put the effort in, I will be the most loyal friend.

Without doubt, being friends with someone with depression is hard work. It can be exhausting, frustrating and upsetting. When you suffer from depression, you truly see who your real friends are. Many friends will desert you, but you discover that they were never really friends at all. As hard as it can be, we treasure the ones that stay more than anything. And we are guilty of not showing our gratitude to them. We do not take you for granted. Things may be tough, but we are eternally grateful for your love and support. That makes us some of the most loyal friends to have, next to Labradors. The effort is never forgotten and helps to create a bond that few other friendships have. You both also know, that no matter what shit either of you go through, that you will be there for one another. You aren’t fighting alone.

When I speak about it, it’s not for attention, it’s to raise awareness and end stigma.

When people, such as me, speak out about their experience of mental health issues, they are often met with hostility and judgement. People think it is being done for attention. Therein lies the problem. There are so many stigmas about the issues and the things that I have mentioned that people associate many mental health advocates as attention seekers. Really, all we want to do is talk about the issue.

We share our experience so that others know that they are not alone.

Talking openly about the issue will make it less of a taboo.

Do not be ashamed to talk about mental health. Talk to those of us who know.

And like many others, if someone offered to take my mental health problems away, to “cure” me, I wouldn’t let them.

Thank you.

It’s just because…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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I don’t know why. I don’t know why I’m sitting here now, listening to Suzanne Vega and drowning in my face. This doesn’t happen to me. I actually think it’s because so much that’s good has gone on recently in my universe. I don’t mean my own success in publishing books, but family things. Things which I wish I could write about, but then I’d be judged for being somehow sanctimonious. Truth is, everyone who’s still in my life agrees that my breakdown was somehow for the best. Freedom of information only goes so far and anyone who still doubts me would see I’m telling the truth. If they bothered to ask. Ask my family and friends. It’s paranoia. That’s all it is, and that’s one other little cunt I need to kick, punch or headbang into submission. I suppose I just want to kick some heads, or content myself with words.

Never mind that I donate any royalties to causes more worthy than me. Nor that I will never stop helping troubled teenagers while those who think too fucking wrongly think there’s something “wrong” going on (in your fucking head, cunt. Come and swap places). No matter that I’m supporting someone who’s got a bit lost and found themselves almost where I was three years ago. No, fuck all that. I’m a cunt. If I’m a cunt in your mind, then I’d like to remain as such. Because ignorance doesn’t recognise ability. As for my mind, you are gone: You are dead and you never even existed. Who? I forget.

And although I brush it all off, like so many other things, the constant feeling of being watched never leaves the paranoid android. I have plenty to say to those who abandoned me for dead three years ago, if only to say I don’t blame them. In any case, sometimes the quiet suffering prompts something. So I took to Facebook with a late night introspective:

Like many others, I’m okay. I don’t expect to be asked how I’m doing, because I know that most people fear the reply. Truth is, I’d rather I wasn’t asked. Same goes for many others.

We know we’re impossible to understand. I’ve got an IQ of 147 (I’ve had it measured at UCL) and I don’t understand it. I’m a writer, and yet I still can’t convey it truthfully, despite my many words.

We have good and bad days. We never know which will be next, or when one will turn from good to bad in what could be the last blink or beat.

If there’s one thing which can truly break a human heart, it is the human brain.

I don’t expect anything from this. I’m posting in the dark hours so that few will see it. I’m just like the rest who are governed by their minds’ inability to shut the fuck up.

We don’t know what we want. We don’t know how to tell others how to deal with us. We treat people like we don’t care, when we crave contact. But we don’t know what with. We only want contact on our own terms, when it suits us. We are fucking impossible. No-one can answer our questions and we know that we’re frightening.

Don’t pity me. I just hope that my ability with words has enabled some to read this far and think a little deeper. Those of us with depression do that all that time and we need a conversation. Why the fuck would anyone sane want to try to have a conversation with a mental? Why would you try to engage with someone who just kicks you away?

No, we don’t know either.

But this is how it feels, right now, and all the time, before we finally decide to break. The headline picture speaks many words: Not as many as I wish I could write, but it goes some way.

I don’t know why I decided to just cut and paste this, but I did. Like the rest of this blog, it was done for one reason I suppose: So that it’s indelible and so that I can tell people, “Just read my fucking blog.”

Just, because. I don’t know.

August overture

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

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Words can mean more than one thing. And a good writer can use this to create parallels, analogies and metaphors. Mixed up, words mean a lot more: A story is far greater than its component parts.

august
ɔːˈɡʌst/
adjective
adjective: august
respected and impressive.
“she was in august company”

o·ver·ture
ˈōvərCHər,ˈōvərˌCHo͝or/
noun
noun: overture; plural noun: overtures
an introduction to something more substantial.
“the talks were no more than an overture to a long debate”

I often think about my shit and contemplate the two main ways of dealing with it: Package it up as entertainment in fiction, or just smear it on the walls as fact. In much of my writing, I combine the two.

Sometimes it’s easier to start with a clean sheet. Like I did so many times at school, at work and with life. I’m at the beginning of what I know will be a transitory period, partly through my own making but also with a situation I’ve only partially engineered.

I have a literary voice in my head which speaks to me: Paul Auster. Like the music of David Bowie, Auster is in amongst the background noise of my life. It’s The Music of Chance (a book and film by Auster).

My authorial muse is content if he produces a single page of decent prose in a day. Two is a bonus and three is a very rare thing. And so it is for me, once the freelance work is written and invoiced.

This week has merely been a continuation of last, but also an escalation. I have continued to welcome guests into my home but I have had to question motives; Not just those of some visitors but also my own.

Now that I run my life as I would a business, I’m tending to analyse things even more than I traditionally have. For example, if the acquiring of something requires any more than monetary input from yours truly, is that extra investment worth it? It can be applied to many scenarios and those involving sex and drugs are the ones which fuel the writer.

The greater fuel though comes from the protagonist or antagonist, depending on the viewpoint the story is told from. Lots of scenarios have played out in my head over the last few days. Just like a story, my internal machinations are in conflict. I don’t know which story to write.

“He knew exactly how to deal with what was going on. It involved becoming more like the person she thought he was. But in doing so, he was not what he wanted to be to her. On the other hand, it was a longer conflict and this would just be collateral damage.”

Or; Or, but also.

“She knew exactly how to deal with what was going on. It involved becoming more like the person he thought she was. But in doing so, she was not what she wanted to be to him. On the other hand, it was a longer conflict and this would just be collateral damage.”

At the moment, it’s just at the beginning. The story has a soundtrack: Songs which could be by anyone, but which could be overlaid on specific memories to make a sum greater than the parts.

The story could end at any moment, in any way I please. It’s how I remain in control.

“Everything can change, suddenly and forever.” As writers, we have the tools.

It is said that some stories write themselves: “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them.” (Paul Auster).

Like life, really: Whichever way it turns out, someone will get hurt.

At the moment, it’s just a page or two of prose.