The Writing Process

Hi all, my apologies for not blogging here for a long, long time but believe it or not, I have actually been busy writing! I’m half-way through a ‘Begin Your Novel’ course (the time to do this, I suspect, was three years ago) and hope to dive into finishing Rachel’s story with more clarity. Deborah, if you’re reading this, we said the beginning of May for a first draft, but looking at the work I need to do that won’t be happening – sorry!

One of the other things I’ve been working on is an article about why I chose to write and my writing process. It was a great opportunity to promote myself as a writer and it will be published in the Spring edition of The Irish Wheelchair Association’s SpokeOut.  While everything I put into the article is completely true, I did make some omissions to the realities of the writing process. Here’s what a typical day might look like

9am – Arrive at my desk. My diary is open in a deliberate attempt to get me writing straightaway, complete with a pen to encourage me to jot down things straightaway. Ignore said diary and open emails instead. It’s important to know what skills my cousin endorsed me for on LinkedIn. Ooh, writing… oh yes, right…

9.30am Open Word and start freewriting. It’s great to get the old juices flowing. I love writing, it’s awesome.

10am – I did not know that your one Sarah from Corrie, Tina-whatever-her-face is, actually went out with Ryan Thomas who plays Jason. Oh, and that vicar Billy is going out with your man Daniel – wow he’s gay?! Oh all right, this has nothing to do with my novel, oops

10.20am – Back to work.

11.15am – That dryer has been beeping for the last ten minutes. I must turn it off because it’s wrecking my head.

11.30am: [ding] Who’s messaging me? Oh, it’s Ken from college. Writing back to him surely counts as work, him being a published writer and all. He’s sharing his knowledge. It’s imperative I don’t ignore him.

11.45am: 500 words written. Of pure and utter waffle! This is embarrassing, I’ve been working since half nine!

12.00pm: I’ve spend the last fifteen minutes rocking back and forth in my office chair, trying to calm myself down. But I feel I’m failing as a writer, and failing at life. Who did I think I was,  trying to be the next Margaret Atwood? I wonder did she ever feel like this. I’m going to quickly google and find out

12.15pm: Nope, probably not. I mean, look at all the books she’s written. Bet she didn’t spend all her time googling all her favourite authors. You know what? This internet’s nothing but a bloody distraction. I’m going to disconnect altogether.

12.55pm: 300 more words. Not bad if you omit the fact that I’m supposed to have my novel finished by the end of May. I feel sad. Cue more chocolate.

1.05pm: Nooooo, what is my laptop doing? Updates?! I don’t remember agreeing to this time. ‘Preparing to configure: 3%’. Why are you doing this to me?

1.45pm: Alison will be home in fifteen minutes but thank God the bloody laptop has finished updating itself, though what difference it makes I don’t know….. Oh no… no no no…my work, where is it? I’m opening Word but not seeing it… Recover unsaved files… no, that’s not it… agh! [enter string of expletives here]

2pm: Make note in my diary to write blog about my crappy day’s work, but maybe wait until I find it funny.

Of course, not every day is like this (if it were I wouldn’t bother writing at all) and if I had my wish, I’d be more organised and productive.

Then again, I’d also love to move to Australia, but that mightn’t happen anytime soon either.

 

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What’s the Story?

 

My Left Foot was on RTE 2 on Saturday night. I know it well because it was one of the ‘comparative’ texts I studied for my Leaving Cert (the film, not the book). Of course, me being me, I’ve read the book as well and it seems to be the voice of a man who very much came from an era where disability and impairment were problematic (okay, let’s face it, that’s every era – nothing’s changed there). Christy Brown is regarded as one of the most talented Irish writers of the twentieth century, and his name has become synonymous with triumph over adversity, literary genius, truly inspirational. And as a writer with Cerebral Palsy myself, I reflected on what it’s like to live in the shadow of such genius, and such brutal and cold oppression such as that endured by Brown.

If I had been born thirty years before, would I too have been relegated to watching life pass me by from under the stairs?

I’m constantly being told that I should consider  writing an autobiography, as Christy says ‘my own story’, and although I’m sure that every writer toys with the idea at one stage or another, part of me can’t see anything particularly extraordinary about my life. Unlike Christy Brown I was mainstreamed, and was very much a part of ordinary family life. I went to school, where I detested homework, and then to secondary school and college. I was always convinced that this was the status quo for other disabled people too, in spite of the fact that there were only two other students with physical disabilities in my school. (I say physical because there are also hidden disabilities like dyslexia, etc.)

Sixty years on from the publication of My Left Foot, I know that there are hundreds of autobiographies written by people with disabilities. In my home town alone, two men with Cerebral Palsy have published their own stories – Brendan Brophy wrote On Three Wheels and Dealing a Bad Hand and David Boland wrote Life from the Tip of My Tongue. Their style is different from Christy Brown’s, although some experiences are the same such as being in the CRC. My good friend Leigh Gath is currently extending her autobiography Don’t Tell Me I Can’t, the s\tory of her incredible journey as a thalidomide survivor (she has hands and feet, but not arms and legs) growing up in Newry during the Troubles, finding her identity as a sexual being and escaping from her alcoholic husband to finally find true love.

The progression of the perception of disability between My Left Foot and Don’t Tell Me I Can’t is intriguing. In My Left Foot Christy is preoccupied with his physical limitations and the now outdated terms he uses to describe himself, such as ‘cripple’ and ‘handicap’ whereas having been born thirty(?) years later, Leigh has a different perspective. Despite her specialised education at boarding school, she can clearly see from a young age that she is not the ‘problem’ but rather she lives in a society that won’t accommodate her needs. This frustration led her to become involved in disability activism and hard-core protests in trying to secure the rights of people with disabilities. It’s interesting to note that Leigh grew up in Newry, a community divided into Catholic and Protestants, while also inhabiting a world that endeavoured to reinforce the differences between disabled and non-disabled people.

Christy Brown’s perception of disability is now a little outdated. But one thing he must be credited for is that he gave permission to the disability community of Ireland (and the wider world) to tell their stories. Unfortunately at present we live in a world where these stories often exist in isolation. Christy Brown’s book may have garnered him worldwide recognition, but the rest of us face a new challenge. Disability has become so commonplace and integration is supposedly the status quo to the extent where, in the future,  writing your story from the perspective of having a disability won’t be enough to gain you credibility or respect.

Instead, it will be up to us as the future Christy Browns to push the message that disabled people in themselves are not problematic. It is society that disables, society that insists that we are different. A disability or impairment can never be overcome, but obstacles created by our society can be removed, if we put our minds to it.

And though I admit that I also am a sucker for a good old ‘triumph over adversity’ story, wouldn’t it be simultaneously strange and wonderful if we had more stories like: ‘Wobbly Yummy Mummy had no problems accessing mainstream school, or going to college, or accessing transport. She lived an average life with her husband and her kid. She sold a billion copies of her bestselling novel. The End.’

Okay, that’s a little boring. A little ordinary, even. But a good writer will always find the extraordinary in everyday life, if he or she is willing to look hard enough for it. My hope is that in the future, disabled  people will be perceived, and have the courage to portray themselves as the multi-faceted, complicated creatures we are.

And undoubtedly My Left Foot, both the book and the film version will be studied for decades to come, and my hope is that students will exclaim, ‘How could Irish society exclude Christy Brown and other disabled people for so long? Thank God Ireland ratified the UNCRPD!’*

*We haven’t, as of 23rd January 2018. The Minister of State with responsibility for Disability promised it would be ratified by the end of January. Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.

 

 

The Repression of Rachel

It was a miserable September afternoon, the 19th if I’m not mistaken, and I was sitting in the Hilton Hotel in Kilmainham with a man I’d only met once before, having coffee in the middle of the day. Sounds sordid, but I assure you it wasn’t. It was purely business. You see, I’d written a monologue and I was due to perform it in the Mansion House at a massive disability event on 23rd September, but something about the piece felt hollow, and so Peter was trying to encourage me to inject a bit of personality into it.

‘Who is this character?’ he demanded as we reread the script, me eyeing him warily. Surely he wasn’t suggesting that my perfectly written script required an overhaul, four days before the bloody event?

‘What do you mean? It’s an everyman-type character.’

‘Well, where’s she from at least?’

I knew the answer to this. ‘She’s from Kinvara. My aunt lives just outside it, in the Burren. What I’ve always found interesting about Kinvara is that it’s in County Galway, kind of on the Clare border. I thought that it’d be a good metaphor for this character, who’s stuck between having a disability and needing services to live independently, and being capable in so many ways too. She’s confused and angry about how society defines her.’

‘And if she were an animal, what would she be?’ he asked. He’s lost it, I thought. Finally I answered:

‘A caged tiger.’

‘And what is it that fuels her anger?’

I composed a perfectly generic answer: ‘The way in with society treats her like an ‘other’ and as I said before, confusion about her place in society.’

Peter wasn’t happy with my answer. ‘Be more specific. What fuels your anger?’ A lump formed in my throat.

‘The way I was treated after my daughter was born.’ As I told Peter the story, my heart broke in the same places it did nearly six years ago when I found myself trying to convince medical ‘experts’ – as well as myself – that I was a capable mother. After I finished, Peter grinned.

‘Now that’s a story worthy of drama.’ I went cold. Was he seriously suggesting I get emotionally naked in front of two hundred people?

He certainly was.

And so, on the 23rd September, I performed a monologue that I had co-written (I don’t normally write in collaboration, but it’s time to open up my mind to new experiences) in front of two hundred people.  And since 3 December marks International Day of People with Disabilities, I thought it would be appropriate to share it with you today.

 

Rachel from Kinvara, by Peter Kearns and Sarah Fitzgerald

(Rachel is sitting in a chair and a woman dressed in a white coat is sticking labels on her – scrounger, handicap, vulnerable, waste-of-space etc)

Go away. I said – go away.

Just five minutes. five minutes – that’s all I ask.

And don’t worry, I won’t forget I’m not ‘normal’

I can’t forget – I’m not allowed to forget – we are never allowed to forget!

Well I wish I could forget you… this horrible pain you’ve inflicted upon me…

But you don’t understand. I tried – I did my best…

Yes – yes I did…

people never get to hear my voice…

You say it’s because ‘they’ – those ‘mainstreamers’ – won’t understand me.

Instead you encourage them to pity me, to try and ‘cure’ me….

I am broken because you have broken me.

You told me that the only way that my life could be better

was if improved, if I made the effort…

You promised me if my impairment were cured, that I could have everything…

I did the exercises  – stretched on the hard, sticky medicine ball and I endured your prodding and poking, cutting me open  and sewing me back together and – Look at me!

What do you see when you look at me?!

I don’t know how you look people in the eye…

Convince them that you know what’s best for me…

Convince me -and them – I know nothing about running my own life…

Will you be the one to bend down and kiss me on the cheek

And stick me into a Galway or Clare nursing home

Take me out to your AGM – that once a year ‘thing’ that makes you feel good

And then store me away like normies store their Christmas decorations in the attic –

Never to be seen from one end of the year to the next?

Am I starting to sound like a broken record?

Normies think that it’s okay that I have to give twenty four hours’ notice before using public transport?

That I would rather laze around on benefits than contribute to society?

Loads – I’ve shitloads – Loads to say… but hey…

It’s easier to believe I’m a freeloading scrounger rather than someone, who could be… someone….

Actually I am someone. Seven years ago I became a wife and two years later I became a mother. But you couldn’t let me have that, could you?

Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.

You told me that I would be a danger to my own baby.

And… even after doing all the ‘normal’ things – the Leaving Cert – battling access in an inaccessible college – being a wobbly yummy mummy was taking that mainstreaming that little bit too far.

I caught you spying on me while I struggled in the playground with those shitty nappies, staring while I tried to breastfeed – your stares dried up my milk, your judgement lessened my embraces.

I felt worthless, damaged. For a long time you led me to  believe I was not a proper  mother.

Do you know how good it feels to have proven you wrong?

And how degrading it was to have to do it in the first place?

I have a daughter, she calls me mummy

I care for her, not the other way round. Of all the labels you’ve placed on me, it’s my label – my favourite.

She is my proudest achievement – my legacy.

And you won’t ever be able to take that from me – would you – could you?

So here I am… in Kinvara… neither Galway nor Clare… neither specialised nor mainstreamed – literally ‘idir eatha’ as the mystics would say, ‘between worlds’ – the hard world of your anxious clinical society and a place I know in myself, in the unfolding mystery of my daughter…

… and her name is… (lights down)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take Care of Yourself

It’s something that we all say to each other, almost like a cliché, at the end of phone calls or when bidding each other adieu when meeting face-to-face: ‘Take care of yourself’. We say it because we care about the other person, and yet we don’t always follow our own advice.

Correction: that should read, I don’t follow my own advice.

As long as I can remember, I’ve always been crap at looking after myself. And before you go off ringing social services, this never has impacted on my ability to look after my daughter; she’s never gone without. But somewhere along the way I seem to acquired the message that my needs aren’t as important as the needs of others. Perhaps it’s a result of internalised oppression (something I’ve been researching lately for the novel I’m writing), the result of growing up in a world where disability is some sort of ‘other’, a deviation from the norm.

Perhaps I need to re-evaluate what I can realistically achieve. I say that I’m writing a novel, but in truth, I don’t know if I’ll ever get it finished. A friend read what I’ve done so far and gave some great constructive feedback, but warned me what I already knew: that it may be difficult to publish and even more difficult to sell. I’m starting to wonder whether I should’ve stuck to short stories, started small. I’m trying to decide whether I’m in over my head. (He didn’t criticise the story though, which gives me hope).

This feeling of tiredness coincides with the fact that I’m waiting for four new (solid this time) tyres for my wheelchair, as one is quite badly flat. And to be honest, reader, I feel very hard done by this. I like being able to whizz around town from this shop to that, and still have the energy to write rubbish blogs and do other work, and being housebound does not become me. As I said in an earlier blog, the wheelchair has been an invaluable addition to my life. It offers me independence with my daughter and enables me to be both a mother and a writer.

I’m writing this  blog to inform my loyal followers that I probably won’t be around for a few weeks as I’m off, with the help of some great friends, to try and reactivate the entire Independent Living Movement (although if I get the wheelchair back, I’ll have energy to spare!) And to say thank you all for being so amazingly supportive of my ‘writing career’ and for your lovely comments.

That’s it for now. See you soon! Until then, take care of yourselves. I’m off to veg in front of the telly before another hectic week of trying to make a difference, however small, in the world.

 

Man, I feel like a writer…

I am writing this blog today in the hope that after I do so, the inspiration that I need to fix the middle of my novel will magically appear and afterwards my office will feel like it’s full of unicorns and rainbows.

It’s been two years since I left my job and decided that I wanted to be a writer. I wasn’t under any illusion that doing this would ever make me rich. It wasn’t the money I was seeking, or fame or recognition or anything like that. It was the sense of feeling useful, productive, being able to see on a blank page exactly what I’d produced that day. Having tangible goals. Doing the unthinkable and throwing myself out there, feeding myself to the wolves.

One thing that I did wrongly anticipate was having a real sense of pride in what I do. I’m ashamed to say that although I try to convince myself otherwise on a daily basis, part of me feel like a giant fraud. Especially when people ask how the novel is getting on (‘How long have you been writing it now? Two years?! You must be nearly finished.’) Nope, nowhere even close. I now realise that I probably should’ve started with something slightly more manageable, like a collection of short stories, but I can’t backpedal now. I’ll finish this book if it kills me! (and by the looks of it, it probably will).

Another frustrating aspect of my life right now is that I can’t decide whether I should focus on activism or writing more. Obviously, in writing the novel, I’m tackling both at the same time which, if I wrote it properly, could start a whole new conversation about how we perceive disability as an issue in Ireland (okay, perhaps I am being a little overambitious, but better to aim too high than too low, right?). But then I can feel myself being pulled towards being a full-time activist, always trying to make a difference, and I think to myself: God almighty, what is it I want?!

I’ve also found myself looking at the job section in the paper/on websites a bit more lately and every time I do so, I can physically feel myself trying to repress my urge to write. You said that if you weren’t getting a steady income by the middle of this year, you’d quit. This makes me turn cold. Inner voice, stop talking out of your behind! I can’t quit. People will laugh at me, think badly of me, I’ll have to start all over again and anyway, if I’m ready to quit, what is this magical force that keeps bringing me back to the keyboard?

Maybe it’s organising an event to honour Irish Disability Activists that has me frazzled, but I have to admit that being involved in this project has prompted me to think about the legacy that activists such as Martin and Donal have left to us. I look at them and others, and at what they achieved and failed to achieve for us, and remember their unwavering passion and I think, how did they never lose their passion? How did they and so many others keep going even when they were told they were wrong? They used their voices with confidence; I hide behind a computer screen.

With my words, where I feel safe.

I know that I’m probably going to return to the workforce, sooner rather than later, but I’d rather do it with something to show for myself. Something tangible, preferably a novel or some kind of written portfolio. Something to leave behind. A legacy.

And I suppose, isn’t that what activists and writers have in common: the irrepressible need to leave their mark on the world? Seems they’re not so different, after all.

Unproductive Days

Lads, for the last half an hour I’ve been sitting looking blankly into the laptop screen silently willing the urge to write to wash over me. And these are the first few words that I’ve managed. So, instead of marking today down as an unproductive one, I’ve decided to be sneaky and write this blog and mark it as work. Genius or what?

I ‘came into work’ at 9.30pm this evening with the intention of researching an article. That hasn’t happened so I’ll have to do it tomorrow.

When I started writing a novel two years ago, I told myself I’d be finished the first draft within six months. Ha. Hahahahaha. I should’ve been a comedian! New aim is to have it done by this Christmas. Oh, and possibly a play too. And a few more newspaper/magazine articles. And play a part in a major event organised by disability activist group, By Us With Us in September.

What do you mean, these are totally ridiculous, unattainable goals? Well, I’ll show you…

I didn’t manage to write much today. But I did manage to bath my child, bring her to the hairdressers and to a birthday party, complete with card and present.

No, I’ve written sod all. But I did manage to clean and hoover the house.

It’s hard to explain, but when I don’t manage to write, I don’t feel like myself. In fact, I’m grumpier, harder to live with, and sometimes this borders on self-hatred. When I see everything I expect myself to do written down on paper/on the screen I can see how ridiculous it is.

I’ve been pushing myself a little harder lately, conscious that the summer holidays will eat into my writing time. I know I won’t be blogging as much, and that my working week will be at least halved.  I might get one or two days a week to work, and the rest of my time will be my daughter’s. And rightly so.

If you had told me ten years ago when I started and abandoned the novel I’m working on now that I’d be a writer with a handsome husband who supported me and a beautiful daughter who loved to read, I would’ve called you mad.

If you have told me that I’d be totally obsessed with the Independent Living Movement, I would’ve scoffed. I hate committees and commitment and yet both seem to be dominating my life at the moment.

I’m coming up to the third anniversary of the July night that I was determined to end everything, once and for all. If you had told me then that I would come out the other end and start to recover, even like myself a little, I wouldn’t have believed you.

And I think of that Sarah back in 2014, who was struggling to stay together for five minutes at a time, and how thrilled she’d be to have a novel on the go, some freelance work, a little blog and a real opportunity to help people. And not in an arrogant way, I think of how far I’ve come from three years ago, just by taking one day at a time.

Suddenly, not being able to focus and write a few words doesn’t seem like a big deal, because I know there’s  always tomorrow.

And it’s great to be able to believe that.

My Literary Inspiration

Sometimes (okay, most days if I’m honest), I find myself asking why bother. Why writing? Why not an office job, a nine to five with a steady income and job security? On days when I have to drag  the words out of my head kicking and screaming, I end up on job vacancy websites, sobbing into my laptop as once again self-doubt, in all its cruel and soul-destroying glory, sneaks in again and does a happy dance in my stomach.

This happened again last night, when I had so much to do and couldn’t settle. I scrolled through the Word document that will be a novel some day (I’m trying the power of positive thinking starting….now) and I watched helplessly as the words seemed to merge into one big blob. I have to walk away when that happens. The temptation to end the struggle once and for all using just two buttons, delete and enter, is much too great when I’m in a panicky, confused state of mind.

But I digress. I got to thinking why I wanted to write in the first place. Louise O’Neill, award-winning author of Only Ever Yours and Asking for It (and, as far as I remember, sat in a few tutorials with me in Trinity- her and Ken Mooney are my claims  to fame) credits Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (now a major TV series) for igniting her need to write. Incidentally, I’m a Louise fan too, and in particular Asking for It raises some serious questions about how we perpetuate rape culture and how we need to exonerate the victim of responsibility. After all, you wouldn’t ever say that a murder victim was partly responsible for their own demise, would you?

I’m an Atwood fan too, though the book that changed my life was Cat’s Eye, a novel detailing the complexity of female friendship, the far-reaching consequences of emotional abuse by a loved one and the struggle of trying to live with regret. Atwood is the master of description, and in Elaine  she created a complex character who is a product of her past and her regrets. In fact, if I think about it, this is what I’m trying to portray in my character as well.

Another book that changed my life was the text I read for my Junior Cert, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harpur Lee. I had read widely up to that point, mainly for pleasure, and Mockingbird was the first time that I considered that a novel could be a vehicle of promoting activism. Lee’s depiction of the inherent segregation of people in the sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama and the widespread normalisation of discrimination, demonization even, made me feel cold. As a child narrator, Scout is taught both directly and indirectly, to judge people based on their differences, and yet Lee offers hope to the narrator. Yes, the innocent Tom Robinson, convicted of the rape of Mayella Ewell, is wrongfully convicted and later killed for trying to escape prison, but Scout learns to recognise humanity. In the touching scene where she meets the childlike Boo Radley for the first time, we learn that it is our perception of others that creates divide and not our tangible differences.

I still have nightmares about this last book (by no means the last book to have influenced my writing, but nobody will read a 4000-odd word blog about  it), George Orwell’s 1984. Like any good dystopian novel, the world of 1984 is not too far from the world we live in now. It’s a world in which the inhabitants’ thoughts are not really their own, where there are cameras everywhere, even in private homes, and where news stories are rewritten  to suit the agenda of the State and the real facts are chucked into a ‘memory hole’. Winston, an ordinary working class bloke, starts to question the oppressive regime under which he lives. He lives in a world where he cannot trust anyone, where he is not even allowed the privacy of his own thoughts. The reason why I had nightmares about  this book is because Winston is beaten into submission when he is placed in a room of rats. Loyalty means nothing in 1984, and neither does friendship or compassion. You think and do what you are told to think and do.

Sometimes I wonder whether I’d really be able to write a novel that would have the same impact on others as these three have had on me. Yet that little annoying voice inside says that I have to keep trying, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s better to have tried and failed than never tried at all. Right?!

The Innocence of Anna

Yesterday, my dad called in and delivered an unexpected surprise: an old newspaper article from 2001, written by two of my Transition Year classmates about the performance of my play, Waiting for Anna, in the Sacred Heart School. The paper itself is now tatty, dog-eared and smells damp, but the memory of that period of my life is as clear and fresh as if I were seventeen years old again.

 

waiting for anna 30007

Aforementioned Article published in the Offaly Express, 5 May 2001

 

A year before, I was sixteen, getting ready  to sit my Junior Cert with only a vague idea of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I hated study at the time (yes, believe it or not) and the prospect of going into fifth year made me feel sick.  So, in spite of the fact that I would be nineteen leaving school, a year older than 90% of my peers, I decided to do Transition Year and chill out. Little did I know that there’d be little chilling involved!

To get into Transition Year, there was an interview process. I was nervous and when it came to my turn, I was asked what skills I had to offer either by way of the Mini Company or other projects. Before the thought of writing a play had crossed my mind, the idea fell out of my mouth into the thoughts of Ms F, who was interviewing me to determine if I was a suitable TY candidate. Within twenty-four hours Ms H, the drama teacher, had sought me out and congratulated me on committing to write the TY play. It was madness. The only play I’d ever read was Romeo and Juliet, and I suppose Waiting for Anna does share similar themes: two teenagers falling in love against their parents’ wishes, running away to be together. Thankfully nobody dies; that’d be a tad extreme.

I set to work in the summer of 2000, spending all my time at the computer typing, composing, tittering to myself. I decided to have fun because I didn’t think anyone was ever going to actually read it, let alone play it out on stage. I got to know all the characters individually, each one based (and named after) someone I knew and loved. I laughed out loud, I sobbed into my chest. The first draft was completed on the 13 September 2000, at twenty pages long.

Writing Waiting for Anna was the most pure writing experience I’ve ever had. I had no perception of myself as a writer; it was just something I wrote. I never thought to edit or censor myself either, and all in all Ms H took very little out. Handing it over to be read by my classmates is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. In the beginning, they  didn’t know I’d written it and felt free to pull parts of  the dialogue apart and make it their own, although these occurrences were rare. As the writer I was more than happy to walk away and leave my friends to their  own interpretations, but then Ms H insisted that I co-produce the play as well.

Anna consumed me. In many ways I became her. She was the unwitting victim of psychological and financial abuse at the hands of her boyfriend Tom, but this wasn’t a straightforward ‘good vs evil’ story. Tom’s life had been hard, whereas Anna came from a privileged background. Tom wasn’t evil; in fact he had a lot to be angry about: having to leave school early, losing his mother and bound to support his hapless, unemployed father. All he wanted was control over his life. And believe it or not, even though I wrote the bloody play, I can only understand Tom now, nearly sixteen years later.

And here I am, sixteen years later. trying to forge a career for myself in writing and finding myself envious of that confident seventeen year old who didn’t know any better. I miss her. She wasn’t self-conscious about every little thing that she wrote. She didn’t care who she offended as long as her message got out there. She would’ve had the confidence  to throw herself out there at the mercy of an unreliable audience.

She wouldn’t have hordes of short stories hidden away on her laptop, never to be read by anyone.

She would have finished her novel months ago without giving two flying figs how it would be received, if it made sense or if people would relate to the main character.

Some people become less self-conscious as they get older, but I seem to have become more so. A lot of it has to do with being a disabled parent, but that’s not the whole story. I’ve been told, both by people who know me and people who don’t, that their favourite blogs and stories of mine are ones where I share my own experiences. I do believe that the best writing has passion and personality and reveals a bit about the author, and yet doing so makes me nervous. Every time I press that ‘publish’ button up there, for a second I feel physically sick. Why do I do this to myself? What if I’m being annoying, repetitive, or coming across as self-righteous? Is it time to revisit the idea of getting a normal office job, and ignore the little voice that says I’m happier as a writer?

Obviously, owing to a lack of time-travel facilities, I’ll never be seventeen again, but hopefully that doesn’t mean that I can’t learn how to write again without the burden of self-consciousness.

As my friend used to say ‘what other people think of you is none of your business.’ Maybe, one day, I might fully agree with her.

 

Night off work

 

Me: I think I’ll take the night off.
My conscience: But you’ve got so much work to do.
Me: I’m tired, and not in the mood to work.
My conscience: You’re not going to get far with that attitude are you?
Me: I’ll feel better in the morning, and I’ll work twice as hard tomorrow.
My conscience: Hmmm, sure. And you have the cheek to wonder why your novel isn’t finished yet?
Me: Hey, I deserve a night off. I have a kid, kids aren’t easy, you know.
My conscience: You have one kid, she’s five and let’s face it, she’s far from a handful. (Pause) You know, you’d get so much more done if you deleted your facebook account.
Me: I only check it to see how my blog is doing.
My conscience: Hmmm-hmmm. Yeah, sure. Not to randomly scroll through photos.
Me: Oh here, forget it now, I’m definitely taking the night off. I need this.
My conscience: Ah, go on. You might as well. And if you want, we can even call this conversation work, if it makes you feel better.
Me: (eyes misting) Thank you.
And that’s Tuesday’s work done and dusted.

1-7 May: Maternal Mental Health Week

I was just scrolling through Facebook this evening, you know, doing some important web-based research, when I saw a post saying that it was Maternal Mental Health Week this week (May 1-7). According to talkingmums.com, up to one in five women experience mental health issues either during pregnancy or in the year following birth. Yet, out of these women, only 7% of them are typically referred for specialist help.

How many of you, like me, have suffered from PND, yet never admitted it to a doctor or health professional? How many of you out there are still suffering?

I’ll never forget the moment I knew for sure I was suffering from PND. Alison was only three months old and we had just discovered (or rather, the Public health nurse finally believed me) that she had a cow’s milk allergy. We had Ali put on special formula. She started gaining weight and became the happiest baby ever, sleeping through the night and everything.

I should’ve been happy, but I wasn’t. Relieved, yes. Happy? No.

All I wanted to do is disappear. I was just waiting for the right time.

I had this vision of having PND as standing over your baby’s cot with a pillow in your hand or wanting to throw your baby down a flight of stairs. While I appreciate that some women feel like that (and this doesn’t make you a bad person – you’re unwell and need help), I didn’t. I felt that my daughter was the most perfect person in the world and that she must have done something truly horrible in life to end up with a mother like me.

I didn’t know that PND meant looking in the mirror and being repulsed by the pathetic specimen staring back.

I didn’t realise that ignoring it wouldn’t make it go away. I ended up in the doctor with chest pains, shoulder pains, stomach aches and yet the doctor couldn’t find physiological reasons for any of them. She prescribed painkillers which didn’t seem to help. I always denied feeling down or depressed. Big smile on my face. Sure what would I have to be depressed about?

By May 2014, I could barely get out of bed. I wasn’t eating properly. I was crying all the time; it was all  I seemed to want to do. In order to get from one end of the day to the other, I had to measure my time in hourly units. Then half-hourly, and towards the end, minute by minute. If I can hold myself together for ten more minutes I’ll be grand, I would think to myself. But of course, I wasn’t grand – far from it.

When I took time off work, I considered my treatment options. I know it sounds ridiculous and shallow, but the thought of going on antidepressants filled me with dread. I wasn’t too keen on counselling either as my previous experiences were quite negative. But I knew I had to do something, so I started writing. Writing how I felt. Writing about my flaws. Writing about my talents. Suddenly, I felt liberated. I’m not recommending this course of action over medication or counselling, but writing was my saviour. It’s something I enjoy, am (reasonably) good at and writing my thoughts and feelings down helped me to own them, and then let them go.

Postnatal Depression has changed me into someone different to who I used to be. I am more sensitive now, and I hate myself for it. I’m still conscious of how people perceive me as a mother. In addition, I now have to make a conscious effort to look after my mental health, to recognise the signs of feeling sad or overwhelmed and act on them before they take over. I also have to be careful. I love helping people, but I have a tendency to internalise their problems to the point where they become my own problems. Sometimes I need to step back, say no and this is hard. I hate doing it.  But I have to remind myself that if I don’t mind myself, I can’t help others.

This week is National Maternal Mental Health Week, and while it’s great to have a platform to write about PND and mental health, the issue of maternal health shouldn’t be confined to a mere seven days of the year. We need to open up the conversation to all mothers, make them feel supported and not feel alone. When I published my long preamble about my experience with PND, I was convinced that either no-one would read it or that it would be dismissed as being a tad melodramatic. What I didn’t expect was the hordes of girlfriends, as well as women I’d never met, emailing me their stories and reminding me that I was not alone. Thanks to those women for validating my story and for making me feel that my depression was completely normal.

And if you are reading this, and you are silently suffering from pre- or post-natal depression, you are not alone either. Look after yourself and get the help you need. Trust me – even mothers who appear to be perfect can suffer silently.

You are worth the help. And after the fog lifts, life becomes so much simpler.

You are wonderful. You are beautiful. You are everything to your children, and they deserve you just as much as you deserve them.

But you can’t pour from an empty cup, so look after yourself.