Prologue – The Stolen Sisters & does your novel need one?

I began writing my debut, ‘The Sister‘, for fun. It was meant to be a short story. I hadn’t written any fiction as an adult and I hadn’t any qualifications other than a clutch of GCSE’s. I never believed I could write a book. I had always thought that to be a published novelist you needed a wealth of experience and a degree in creative writing.

When it got to the point that my ‘short story’ had reached 90k words I began to tentatively hope I could edit it to a high enough standard where I’d dare to submit it. Out of my depth, I was so grateful when a writer I met at an event offered to read the opening 3 chapters for me. I didn’t check where she was published, or how she was published. The fact she was in print led me to believe she knew absolutely everything.

Her overriding feedback was that my prologue was a huge mistake, ‘”readers hate them, agents hate them and publishers hate them. If you submit something with a prologue it won’t be read.”

I felt my face burn with embarrassment. I didn’t know the rules and I’d been found out for the imposter that I was.

Immediately I deleted my prologue, but now, several books on and with over a million copies sold I’m familiar with most of the rules and (whispers) here’s the thing. There aren’t any.

That writer, as it turned out, was right that ‘The Sister‘ shouldn’t have a prologue, but not for the reasons she said.Her overriding feedback was that my prologue was a huge mistake, ‘”readers hate them, agents hate them and publishers hate them. If you submit something with a prologue it won’t be read.”That writer, as it turned out, was right that ‘The Sister‘ shouldn’t have a prologue, but not for the reasons she said.

The prologue wasn’t needed. It didn’t serve a purpose and in a novel, every single scene, every single word needs to earn its place, prologue included. After The Sister spent two months at No. 1 I found the confidence to include a prologue in my second psychological thriller, ‘The Gift‘, because no matter what that writer said about people hating prologues, I don’t and first and foremost I’m a reader. I don’t write one for every book because not every story warrants one.

So how do I decide when to use one? ‘The Stolen Sisters’ (currently 99p in the Amazon Kindle Deal) is my latest thriller and I’ll use it as an example, I’ve included the prologue below.

Prologue

When Carly looked back at that day the memory was in shades of grey; the trauma had sucked the blue from the sky, the green from the freshly mown grass. She had sat on the back doorstep, the coolness of the concrete permeating through her school skirt, the late-afternoon sun warming her bare arms. Carly remembers now the blackness of a beetle scurrying down the path before it disappeared into the soil under the rose bush. The stark white of the twins’ socks, bunched below their knees.

Inconsequential details that later the police would jot in their notebooks as though Carly was somehow being a great help but she knew she wasn’t, and worse than that, she knew it was entirely her fault.

It had all been so frustratingly normal. Leah and Marie had shrieked in mock disgust as Bruno, their boxer, bounded towards them, drool spilling from his jowls. But their screams then still carried an undercurrent of happiness, not like later when their cries were full of fear and there was nowhere to run to.

The things that have stayed with Carly are this. 

The way her fingers gripped the cumbersome Nokia in her hand as though she was clutching a secret. Her annoyance as she angled her screen to avoid the glare, never dreaming that soon she would be craving daylight. 

Fresh air. 

Space. 

The pounding in her head increasing as the girls bounced a tennis ball between them across the patio. The way she had snapped at the twins as though it was their fault Dean Malden hadn’t text her. Of all the things that she could, that she should, feel guilty about, she had never forgiven herself that the last words she spoke to her sisters before they were all irrevocably damaged was in anger rather than kindness.

Although in truth, she had never forgiven herself for any of it.

‘Shut up!’ She had roared out her frustration that the first boy she loved had shattered her thirteen-year-old heart. Crazy now to recall that she once thought the absence of a text was the end of the world. There were far worse things. Far worse people than the floppy-haired blond boy who had let her down. 

Her younger sisters turned to her, identical green eyes wide. Marie’s sight trained on Carly’s face as she chucked the ball for Bruno. Carly’s irritation grew as she watched it fly over the fence.

‘For God’s sake.’ She stood, brushing the dust from the back of her sensible pleated skirt. ‘It’s time to come in.’

‘But that’s not fair.’ Marie looked stricken as her gaze flickered towards the fence.

‘Life isn’t fair,’ Carly said feeling a bubbling resentment that at eight years old the twins had it easy.

‘Can you fetch our ball, please, Carly?’ Marie pleaded.

‘Fetch it yourself,’ Carly snapped.

‘You know we’re not allowed out of the garden on our own until we’re ten,’ Marie said. 

‘Yeah, well I’m in charge today and I’m saying you can. It’s not like we live in a city. Nothing ever happens in this dump.’ Carly was sick of living somewhere so small where everyone knew everyone else’s business. Where everyone would know by tomorrow that Dean Malden had rejected her. ‘Be quick and shut the gate properly.’ 

She turned and pushed open the back door, stepping into the vast kitchen that never smelled of cakes or bread. It never smelled of anything except freshly roasted coffee. Carly clattered her phone onto the marble island and yanked open the fridge door. The shelves that were once stocked with stilton and steak and that had groaned under the weight of fresh fruit and vegetables, were woefully bare. There was nothing except a shrivelled cucumber and some out-of-date hummus. It was all right for her mum and stepdad out for the evening at yet another corporate function. They spent more time on the business than with their children nowadays, although Mum had assured her it wouldn’t be for much longer. She’d soon be at home more but in the meantime it was left to Carly to sort out tea again. She had loved her half-sisters fiercely since the day they were born but sometimes she wished mum still paid the retired lady down the road to babysit but since Carly had turned thirteen mum felt that she was responsible enough. 

She sighed as she crossed to the shelf above the Aga and lifted the lid from the teapot. Inside was a £10 note. Chips for tea. She wondered whether the money would stretch to three sausages or if they should split a battered cod.

Minutes later the twins tumbled into the kitchen.

‘Yuck.’ Leah dropped the tennis ball coated with slobber into the wicker basket where Bruno kept his toys.

‘Wash your hands,’ Carly snapped as she checked her phone again.

Nothing.

What had she done wrong? She had thought Dean liked her.

Marie perched on a stool at the breakfast bar, swinging her legs, the toes of her shoes thudding against the kick board. How was Carly supposed to hear her text alert over that? Marie had her chin in her hands, her mouth downturned; she hated being in trouble. Carly could see the way her lip trembled with upset but she couldn’t help yelling again.

‘Shut. Up.’

Marie slid off the stool. ‘I . . . I left my fleece in the garden.’

Carly jerked her head towards the door in a go-and-get-it-gesture before she clicked on the radio. The sound of Steps flooded the room. Marie paused and momentarily their sisterly bond tugged at them all. ‘5, 6, 7, 8’ was one of their favourite songs. Usually they’d fall into line and dance in synchronicity.

‘Let’s do this!’ Marie flicked her red hair over her shoulders and placed her hands on her hips.

‘It’s childish,’ Carly snapped although inside her shoes, her toes were tapping.

‘It doesn’t work unless we all do it.’ Marie’s voice cracked. ‘We have to be together.’ 

Carly pulled the scrunchie she’d been wearing like a bracelet from her wrist and smoothed her long fair hair back into a ponytail. The twins got into position. Waited. Carly reached for her phone and tried to ignore the pang of meanness that flitted through her as the smile slipped from Leah’s face. Marie’s small shoulders rounded as she headed back outside.

Minutes later she raced back in, socked feet skidding across the tiles, tears streaming down her freckled cheeks. ‘Bruno’s got out. The gate was open.’

‘For God’s sake.’ Carly could feel the anger in her chest form a cold, hard ball. It was one of the last times she ever allowed herself to truly feel. ‘Who shut the gate?’

Marie bit her lower lip. 

‘I did,’ said Leah, slipping her shoes back on. 

‘You’re supposed to bang it until it latches, you idiot. You know it’s broken. Three times. You bang it three times.’

The girls pelted into the garden, calling the dog’s name. 

Marie hesitated at the gate. ‘Perhaps we should wait—’ Under her freckles, her skin was pale. She’d been off school yesterday with a stomach-ache and although she’d gone back today, she didn’t look well. Carly knew she should ask if she was feeling okay but instead she shoved her roughly into the street. ‘It’s your fault, Marie. You search that way.’ She pointed down the avenue lined with beech trees. 

Marie grabbed Leah’s hand.

‘No,’ Carly snapped. ‘Leah can come with me.’ The twins could be silly where they were together and she had enough to worry about without them getting into trouble.

‘But I want . . .’ Marie began.

‘I don’t care what you want. Move.’ Carly grabbed Leah’s arm and led her in the opposite direction, towards the cut-through at the side of their house which led to the park.

It all happened so quickly that afterwards Carly couldn’t remember which order it all came in. The balaclava-clad face looming towards hers. The forearm around her neck, the gloved hand clamped over her mouth. The sight of Leah struggling against arms that restrained her. The scraping sound of her shoe as she was dragged towards the van at the other end of the alley. The sight of Marie, almost a blur, flying towards the second man also clad in black, who held her twin, pummelling him with her small fists. 

‘Stop! You can’t do this! Don’t take her. I don’t want you to take her!’

The soft flesh compacting against hard bone as Carly bit down hard on the fingers that had covered her mouth.

‘Run!’ she had screamed at Marie as the man who held Leah grabbled to find something of Marie’s he could hold onto, clutching at her collar, her ginger pigtails, as she dodged his grasp.

‘Run!’

I decided to use a prologue for this story, not only because it’s an instant hook, but because I wanted to begin twenty years before I started the story proper. There was vital information I wanted the reader to know. The girls are snatched in the prologue but Chapter One immediately move on to the girls as adults and we learn they were returned without any abuse. As a mother the only way I could write about missing children was if we know straight away that the girls were safe and the prologue enabled me to do this. We do, as the novel prgoresses, delve back into the past where we see, not how the girls were taken, but why and in the present it’s all about what happens when their abductor reappears on the twenty year anniversary of their abduction.

To read more of the Sinclair sisters’ story download the digital version of the book for just 99p for a limited time only across all digital platforms. You can find The Stolen Sisters on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Google books & Waterstones.

It’s also a Fern Britton book club pick and a special edition with extra content is available at Tesco. You can also find ‘The Stolen Sisters’ at Asda, shortly at Sainsbury’s and as an audiobook on Audible.

Two of my other books (with prologues!) are also in Amazon’s October sale. Download ‘The Gift‘ or my Amelia Henley debut love story with a twist ‘The Life We Almost Had.‘ (you can read the prologue for this here.)

Publication day!! My 7th book is OUT!!

It’s publication day for my 6th psychological thriller, (my 7th published book).

 

It’s been a whirlwind, launching both this book and my debut love story ‘The Life We Almost Had‘ written under my pen name Amelia Henley. With ebook and paperbacks, this is my third publication day in the last few months. The excitement never ends! Thanks to everyone who came along to my live online launch last night – it was huge fun and congratulations to all the prize winners.

The Stolen Sisters is available as eBook, paperback and audiobook, and the physical version can be found in Tesco, Asda, (Sainsbury’s in a couple of weeks), Waterstones, Foyles, and other bookshops. If your local bookshop isn’t stocking it, do ask – they’d be happy to order in. I can’t wait to see it on a shelf! There was much excitement when I finally got to hold it in my hands.

I’m both grateful and excited that the lovely Fern Britton has chosen The Stolen Sisters for her October bookclub pick. She has an exclusive edition with extra content which can be found in Tesco!

This story of the Sinclair Sisters is very special to me, and I’m thrilled with the early feedback. It’s already received over 100 5* reviews on Netgalley and I’ve been doing a readathon these past few days with the lovely folks at Pigeonhole and the response there has been phenomenal.

I’ll be talking about the inspiration behind it, and the creepy real life location it is based in over the next few weeks but for now I’ll leave you with the blurb.

Sisterhood binds them. Trauma defines them. Will secrets tear them apart?

Leah’s perfect marriage isn’t what it seems but the biggest lie of all is that she’s learned to live with what happened all those years ago. Marie drinks a bit too much to help her forget. And Carly has never forgiven herself for not keeping them safe.

Twenty years ago The Sinclair Sisters were taken. But what came after their return was far worse. Can a family ever recover, especially when not everyone is telling the truth…?

You find find The Stolen Sisters on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Google books & Waterstones.

Drinking – 100 Word Flash Fiction

Photo prompt © Ronda Del Boccio

My heart sinks.

He’s been drinking again.

This I know from the flash of anger in his eyes, the purposeful way he strides towards me. My knees tremble as I stand my ground. Last time he threw my favourite ornament at me and it shattered as it hit my head. It left a scar.

I still love him.

He never drinks at home.

He’s been with her.

She enables him.

She loves him too.

But I wish my mother would stop giving my two-year-old orange squash.

He can’t cope with the additives.

I can’t cope with his personality change.

 

It’s been months since I last took part in Friday Fictioneers. I’ve been so busy launching my 5th psychological thriller ‘The Family‘ but thought I’d join in the fun again today before I get stuck into the structural edit for next year’s release ‘The Stolen Sisters.’

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly 100-word flash fiction challenge inspired by a photo prompt and hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Read the other entries and/or submit your own story here

Why I wrote & what I learned writing The Family – eBook publication day!!

Today is ebook publication day for The Family and I am SO excited that my story about Laura, Tilly and the creepy commune who reside at Oak Leaf Farm is finally in the hands of readers. You can find it on Amazon here, Apple Books here, Kobo here and Google books here. The audio and paperback will be published on October 3rd.

The idea for this story came about after yet another report of terrorism on the news. My youngest son asked me why people do bad things. Together we researched the psychology behind brainwashing and I found it so fascinating it led me to research cults. The people whose real-life accounts I read had all started from a place of vulnerability and loneliness, I began to wonder if you took two women in exactly the same situation, and placed them in the same environment, whether they would both react the same. My writer mind began to toy with the idea of a story where one woman knew there was something very wrong and wanted to leave, and the other woman was completely enthralled with her new life. What if those two women were mother and daughter?

As a mother myself I know I would do absolutely anything to protect my child and I wanted to explore the family bonds, not only between parent and daughter but the wider family, aunts, uncles, cousins. Are those relationships stronger than the friends we choose? There’s a lot of discussion in the story about flesh families vs chosen families.

In the early few chapters of the book, we see certain events experienced from both Tilly and Laura’s point of view. I found this really eye-opening. It was fascinating to see how much mother and daughter assumed about each other and misunderstood. Laura not quite knowing how to comfort Tilly when Tilly asked to be left alone. Tilly thinking that because Laura left her alone she didn’t care. I learned a lot about the assumptions we make and it really made me think about the way I communicate with my children and with my mother.

Tonight, there will be an online launch party on Facebook where I’ll be giving away signed copies and also a bundle of proofs, not yet available anywhere else, by my publishers, HQ – Harper Collins. Do come along at 19.30 GMT. You’ll find the event here. Do come along. I’ll be answering questions and chatting about writing – it’ll be a lot of fun.

Early reviews for The Family have been amazing.

And it’s always a relief when fellow authors like my work.

I do hope you enjoy the story of Laura and Tilly and enjoy uncovering all the secrets at Oak Leaf Farm.

Revisting my primary school where I wrote my first ‘book’ made me feel ALL the emotions, including anger…

fullsizeoutput_2327

This weekend I went along to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of my former primary school, with a set of my books to donate to the staffroom and a heart full of gratitude for the teacher who encouraged me to write.

cropped-fullsizeoutput_225a.jpeg

Mr Townsend made a huge impression on my seven-year-old self. Never confident, I could usually be found curled in the corner of the library reading a book. He encouraged me to write my own stories. Patiently reading them, offering kind words and constructive advice. It was him I turned to when I penned my first novel – all seven pages of it which I’d illustrated and had stuck together with sellotape and love. ‘The Fabulous Five’, in no way ripped off from Enid Blyton.

**totally and blatantly ripped off from Enid Blyton**

We were allowed to check out one library book each week but, but always a fast reader, and incredibly careful with the pages, treating the books like the precious treasure they were,  Mr Townsend allowed me to borrow as many as I wanted to. He wisely said ‘the key to learning to write stories is to read as many as you can’ and those words have always stayed with me.

fullsizeoutput_2325

I was thrilled my two favourite childhood books were still here (albeit newer editions)

It was emotional being back at primary school, trailing through the still familiar classrooms with my sister who had been in a different year to me, sharing memories, trading stories and occasionally disagreeing over whose classroom we were currently standing in (well we are sisters – there has to be a little conflict).

fullsizeoutput_2323

The 70’s have such happy memories, it’s made me more determined to write a nostalgic novel one day.

fullsizeoutput_2329

As I stood in the original 1960’s floor with its parquet flooring I remembered the smaller me who had sat crossed legged, listening to stories while drinking her free bottle of milk, dreaming of the day she’d be an author – writing those stories and I felt something else. A fleeting moment of anger for all that came after. The secondary school where I was told it was ridiculous to think I could forge a writing career. Who gradually tore apart my dreams, and replaced them with the ‘achievable and realistic goal’ of working in an office.

IShFpRM3SsyWByevYM%JzA

It took me a long time to find the courage, the confidence to pursue writing again and, with over a million book sales so far, I’m so grateful I did.

Mr Townsend’s support is something I’ve held on to for a long time, and I was sad not to see him at the reunion. I wanted to thank him for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself.

Primary schools are instrumental in shaping us in the people we are ultimately going to be, the people we want to be. I’m thankful mine was so nurturing.

Z86H2ovQQam4D9T+Wa7WGw

I’m 3rd row down on the right with the wonky collar – upset I’d just had my long hair cut off.

 

 

6 monthly news roundup & an invitation!

It’s been six months since my last news roundup. I can’t believe how quickly the year is flying by. I hope you’ve been enjoying the sunshine as much as me.

Yesterday, I had a lovely surprise when a box arrived from my publishers, HQ – Harper Collins – full to the brim of proof copies of my forthcoming thriller, The Family. I was overwhelmed and you can see my reaction over on YouTube here.

I’ve never had a proof copy with a specially designed cover before. This gorgeous double cover will be very different from the retail version of the book and is especially for book reviewers and members of the media.

The thought that my story is now winging its way out into the world prior to its publication on October 17th is both nerve-wracking and exciting.

Although the cover hasn’t yet been finalised The Family is now on Amazon (here). I had my first attempted at writing a blurb – what do you think?

COULD ONE MOTHER’S MISTAKE COST HER DAUGHTER EVERYTHING?

Laura is grieving after the sudden death of her husband. Struggling to cope emotionally and financially, Laura is grateful when a local community, Oak Leaf Organics, offer her and her 17-year-old daughter Tilly a home.

But as Laura and Tilly settle into life with their new ‘family’, sinister things begin to happen. When one of the community dies in suspicious circumstances Laura wants to leave but Tilly, enthralled by the charismatic leader, Alex, refuses to go.

Desperately searching for a way to save her daughter, Laura uncovers a horrifying secret but Alex and his family aren’t the only ones with something to hide. Just as Laura has been digging into their past, they’ve been digging into hers and she discovers the terrifying reason they invited her and Tilly in, and why they’ll never let them leave…

I was honoured when Titan books invited me to write a short story for their ‘Exit Wounds’ anthology. To be regarded by the editors as one of the nineteen best crime writers around was a bit… well bonkers really but I’m so happy to have my story – The Recipe – share a book with Mark Billingham, Lee Child and Val McDermid among others. I was reading the other stories on holiday and they are brilliant. You can find it on Amazon here.

On Sunday I’ll be again sharing a stage with the fabulous crime writer Darren O’Sullivan at Earls Barton Literary Festival in Northamptonshire. We’re pictured above at last month’s Deepings Literary Festival. Darren and I are such good friends which makes for our talks being a lot of fun. Rather than a structured script we prefer to chat with the audience making sure everyone goes away knowing everything they wanted to about books, writing, and publishing. Do join us if you can. Tickets are available here.

Aside from books I’ve shared how it feels as a parent when your child suffers from depression in a candid post, you can read here. I’m so proud of my son for being so open about his mental health problems and we both wanted to share a harrowing experience we recently had. Please do share if you think it might help anyone.

I’ve recently come back from a holiday in Lanzarote, where I made friends with this gorgeous stray cat who fell asleep on my dress.
I’m refreshed and ready to start work on my next book. My agent loves the opening I sent him and for the first time ever when I begin writing something new, I already know the twist. Trust me, no-one will see this coming!
Lastly, I wanted to share the stunning German cover for The Date, retitled ‘Her Last Date.’ I’m so pleased with it and it will be published in October.

Aside from my regular blog posts, I’ll be back in a few weeks for another news update to reveal the cover for The Family and some super exciting and unexpected news I can’t quite share yet.

In the meantime enjoy the sunshine,

Louise x

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uc6734gTiaU

THIS is absolutely the highlight of my career

A few days ago, on holiday, my youngest son excitedly told me Lego are making a ‘Stranger Things’ set.

‘You know you’ve made it when you’re immortalised in Lego,’ I said.

We travelled home this morning, and after I’d showered I opened the door to my study to find this Lego model of my office – complete with inspirational quote board – on my desk.

Next to it was this note: –

So many amazing things have happened over the past three years with my books, and I hope there are many more causes for celebration to come but genuinely no amount of books sales, chart domination or award nominations have come close to the feeling of pride I got when I read this note. Whatever you do in life, to be a success in the eyes of your child…. there is no greater success.

Parenting a child who has depression – Mental Health Matters

thumbnail_IMG_4308

Last September my son left home to begin a new phase of his life at university. Like many mums, I felt a mixture of sorrow, pride, happiness, loneliness, and excitement. I also felt something else.

Fear.

My son has depression, something he’s very open about and shares on his blog. He’d deferred his uni place the previous year, not feeling in the right headspace to go but now…

Now he wasn’t entirely sure but after some medication and therapy, he felt it was now or never.

A few years previously, when his brother had plans to go to uni, I found myself googling student recipes to print out for him, articles on budgeting. This time around I googled suicide statistics for male students.

The results were horrifying.

Men are three times as likely to take their own life than women.  My son hasn’t been brought up with a ‘boys don’t cry’ mentality. As a family, we’ve always talked and he’s openly shared his feelings with me, his mood, his ‘I’ll-never-get-out-of-bed-again days.

But I had a constant gnawing worry – what would happen when I wasn’t there to talk to?

Mostly he manages his condition well. He knows his triggers and has coping strategies in place. His new friends are understanding when he can’t face going out or leaves a gig halfway through.

Mostly he manages.

But there are times he doesn’t.  Times when I check his Instagram story and know from the music he’s listening to that his mood has plummeted.  Sometimes he’ll come and spend a few days at home, but sometimes he’ll retreat into himself and these are the most terrifying of times for me. The dark voice whispers in my head that it’s all my fault – something I did or didn’t do – while I anxiously trawl through his social media accounts all hours of the day and night. Not because I want to know where he is, but because if he’s posted, I know he’s alive. I study photos he’s been tagged in. How does he look? But how he looks is no indication of how he feels. As he said on his blogyou can’t see mental health, you can’t look in a mirror and see the damage being caused.”

And living with that fear. The fear that one day it might all get too much for him creates such a feeling of utter helplessness, of hopelessness it’s a constant battle to balance giving him space to grow, with checking he’s okay. I try not to plague him with endless calls and messages (often I plague him with endless calls and messages).

A few nights ago he sent me an email completely out of the blue, completely out of character. It was a long and lovely message about his brothers and me, and if it had come from one of my other children I would have burst with happiness. As it was, a cold dread wrapped itself around my heart. Immediately I rang him thinking something that no parent should ever have to consider.

‘Is this a suicide note?’

‘Umm, no. I can see why you’d think that, but no. I can promise I will never do that,’ he said with sincerity, and he meant it. But I’ve worked in mental health. I know those long, dark hours where sufferers of depression convince themselves it would be a good thing if they weren’t around anymore. That everyone would be better off. Happier.

That is never the case.

My son raises awareness of mental health where he can, particularly amongst males.  I’m immensely proud of him for being so open and honest. Despite the despair he often feels, he has a desire to help others.

He said of his own journey “I went through a phase where I would drink more in the hope it would fix the problem. I can’t begin to explain how badly this impacted my mental health, constantly throwing yourself into a situation you don’t want to be in is crazy, essentially what I was doing was running as fast as I could into a wall, but every week running slightly faster and hoping that the harder I hit it, the better it would be.”

I hope that one day he stops running.

fullsizeoutput_1929

 

This was a raw and emotional write I’ve shared with the permission of my son. If you or your family are affected by mental health issues you can access UK mental health services (including emergency support) here and in the US here, or speak to your doctor.

 

Where do story ideas come from? Everywhere…

My husband had gone to a client meeting, my son had just left to meet friends when I decided to have a break and make a drink. Back in my study, I put my coffee on my desk and it was then I realised, somebody had been into my room.

But I was alone.

Fear prickled at the back of my neck. On my keyboard, was a Biscoff.

‘Hello?’ I called into the silence which now felt heavy and oppressive.

Grabbing my phone, I called my son.

‘There’s somebody in the house,’ I whispered. ‘They’ve left a warning on my keyboard.’

‘A warning or a biscuit?’ He asked.

‘Was it you? But you’re not here?’

‘I found it in my pocket when I got to the bottom of the road and thought I’d pop it back as they’re your favourite. Seriously, mum how could you think it was creepy?’

‘Because somebody could want me to think I’m losing my mind, doubting my reality. They-‘

‘You’ve got an overactive imagination,’ he said.

It’s something I’ve heard throughout my life, usually accompanied by an eye roll and a sigh. My school reports often started with ‘Louise is such a daydreamer.’ I am but now, rather than seeing it as a flaw, as I’ve always been led to believe, I look upon it as something positive. Although gazing out of the window and making up characters in my head may be a problem in many jobs, without my over active imagination I wouldn’t be living out my life-long dream of being an author.

For Mother’s Day, my youngest son bought me a fizzy bath bomb from Lush. We’d not had them before and he wanted to watch as I dropped it into the bath. Just before I let it go he said ‘look mum, there’s a secret message!’

Inside a small hole on the top of the bomb there was a tightly rolled piece of paper.

‘What do you think it says?’ he asked excitedly.

‘I think it says ‘drown, bitch,’ I said. ‘I don’t think it’s supposed to be revealed until you’re in the bath and as you stare in confusion at the words you become aware of someone standing behind you-‘

‘A hand on the top of your head,’ he said (he writes too…)

‘Which pushes you underwater and holds you down until you stop struggling.’

The disappointment when we read it said ‘thanks’ was immense.

My three sons are used to me now. One called me to tell me he’d lost his wallet he quickly followed it up with ‘and no I don’t think anyone will find it and leave my ID at a murder scene.’

‘You never know,’ I said, darkly.

Last weekend, we took our dog for a country walk and my son pointed out the perfect place to hide a body. I didn’t roll my eyes and sigh, tell him he’s got an overactive imagination as though it’s a bad thing. Instead, I encouraged him to explore the idea, write it down. If all potential story-tellers were made to feel having a vivid imagination is a bad thing there wouldn’t be as many books and that would be a very sad world indeed.

Mental Health – A graduate’s journey through school & uni with chronic anxiety (& why writing helps)

 

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Today, I’m excited to be chatting with Chloe from Chloe Chats. Chloe’s a recent graduate who has had a really tough time with chronic anxiety.  I’m interested learning how she navigated the education system and why writing has helped her therapeutically.

 

Hi Chloe, having first met you the day you were born I’m feeling pretty old right now to see how grown up you are but delighted to welcome you onto my blog.

Hi Louise! The time does seem to just fly by – sometimes I can’t believe I’ve already graduated from university.

Firstly, let’s touch upon your anxiety – did anything specifically trigger it?

I’m someone that has had bad anxiety all my life, I can’t even explain why I feel anxious.

I can relate to that. I felt that way before I discovered mindfulness. Now, I’m a huge advocate of mental health and find it both shocking and saddening that according to the NASUWT teaching union, 96% of teachers state they have come into contact with pupils experiencing mental health issues. Did you find your teachers were understanding?

When I was at school I never told anyone about my anxiety, none of my friends or teachers knew about it. I always kept it to myself.

That must have felt like a huge burden?

Yes. I used to feel more anxious because I was worried that people didn’t understand why I wouldn’t talk so much, or why I wouldn’t join in with all the activities. The only reason I didn’t tell anyone was because at the time I didn’t understand it myself, I thought I was ‘weird’ and everyone else was normal. I used to hate myself for not being able to be like everyone else, I would be so annoyed that I couldn’t just join in with a conversation just because I was too anxious.

So at that time you didn’t have any coping techniques in place?

No. I just tried to get through the day. Even though it was only a few years ago there was hardly any information on it, no one really spoke about it like they do now.

Did you have any support?

I was lucky that in secondary school I had a good group of friends that I felt comfortable with, although things went downhill for me when I reached sixth form. I pretty much lost my main group of friends, we all split up and ended up in different form classes and from there I slowly stopped talking to them and if I did meet them at lunch I would just sit there in silence – I can’t even tell you what happened, my anxiety got the better of me.

That must have felt really lonely. The added pressure of GCSE’s and A ’Levels can’t have helped. How did you find that period?

I ended up doing a lot of the exams by myself in a room instead of the main hall with everyone else. I managed to speak to my tutor at the time and I told her how I just couldn’t cope with sitting in the big hall with everyone and so they organised me to take my exams elsewhere. This was super helpful.

Getting through your exams must have been a relief but also brought the pressure of what next?

Yes. When school was coming to an end I panicked a little because I didn’t really know what to do! I ended up going to university where I decided to do a Media and Creative Writing course. Seeing as I enjoyed my Media AS Level so much and I loved to write I thought that was a great option.

That sounds like a positive step?

I thought so but after a week of being at uni I packed up and left – my anxiety was uncontrollable. I struggled to leave my uni room and go into the kitchen to make food because I couldn’t bring myself to bump into my flat mates. I spoke to my mum and she said to do what is best for me, she did try and get me to stay longer because a week is definitely not long enough to get a feel for it. I went home but I didn’t want to feel so defeated. I called up the uni 3 weeks later and asked if I could come back, and thankfully they said yes!! So off I went back to university again – back to my same room and this time around I stuck it out and I’m so glad I did, my flatmates were lovely, I made some great friends and met my boyfriend!

That was such a courageous decision.  Did you feel more in control when you returned?

I did. The friends I made was the biggest thing that helped me. My anxiety seemed to get better but after I left uni it escalated again –and for the first time I had to put my life on hold. My panic attacks grew worse – I had them more often, my heart palpitations were non-stop, I cried a lot, I made myself physically ill because of how run-down I felt. It was at this point that I got stuck in this never-ending loop, I couldn’t see an end to it. I spent loads of time in bed and would barely eat anything, the thought of eating made me feel sick. I went to the doctors, my family looked after me, but I still couldn’t get out of this cycle. I ended up crying in the middle of a restaurant and it was so embarrassing and at that point I just said to myself this has got to stop – I need help. I reached out to my friend who I met at uni – it was handy as she is in the mental health industry. With her help I got to the stage that I felt a little better and I decided that I wanted to help others.

Which brings us to your blog. Why do you find it so beneficial?

Writing is a great coping method for me, it gives me a purpose, it keeps me busy and what I write about has helped others – I get messages from people, comments on my blog posts, and so many tweets from people saying how reading the blog posts has made them feel positive or inspired. I found it also helps to know that you’re not alone.

I honestly don’t know whether I’d have completed my first novel without the support of the WordPress community, let alone published four. Has blogging about something specific given you a sense of connection?

Definitely. I have connected with so many bloggers and it’s been fantastic to make new ‘online’ friends and to be able to talk about these issues with others.

I read your post on ‘How to boost happiness.’

That’s a great example. As I started to write what helps me feel happy it made me realise how much there actually is!

I do a similar exercise in my mindfulness classes. It’s a brave thing sharing personal posts. When I started blogging about my novel writing journey I can remember feeling absolutely terrified and so vulnerable that I was putting myself out there. How did it feel for you and has it got easier?

When I decided to publish my journey of anxiety on my blog I was terrified. I wrote it up in March, but I didn’t publish it till April because the thought of everyone knowing was a scary thought. My parents and boyfriend knew about it and one close friend but that was it. I remember I published it on a Sunday and my boyfriend was there with me and the support was overwhelming – I received so many messages from loved ones, I ended up crying a little. I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and it was a positive step for me. The next thing that I was anxious about was going to work the next day because I knew a lot of colleagues had read it from Facebook likes and messages. I thought I’d walk through the door and everyone would just stare at me. However, I walked in and nothing was different, everyone spoke to me like they normally would. One of my colleagues actually came and sat by me and said ‘I just wanted to say, you’re blog post was amazing and well done for sharing it.’ I had a few others message me on our chat system we had who started to tell me that they have experienced similar things – it was great that it got people talking!  

It is! Finally, Chloe, as someone who has also suffered from anxiety I know how beneficial I have found writing, both journaling and blogging, but I also know how completely overwhelming it can feel to begin. What are your top 5 tips.

  • You don’t have to share what you write on a blog or even with anyone else. It could be that you write it up for yourself – it’s such a relief when you get out all your thoughts onto paper (or a computer) that’s been taking up all that space in your mind.
  • If you find that you’re going to bed with worries on your mind I find a great thing to do is to have a notebook by the side of your bed and write down everything that is troubling you. Sometimes writing them out can just lift that weight off your shoulders. I like to write down what is worrying me and then write some solutions next to them. This can help you have a better night’s sleep.
  • If you have a blog yourself, you can always leave posts as drafts until it feels like the right time share it. Sometimes I will have something on my mind that is worrying me and so I will write a blog post on it because it helps to ease my mind but also think that it’ll be a great post for others who might have the same worry. The reason why I would leave them as drafts for a while is because sometimes I just need to get things out of my mind and so I will just type up everything that is running through my mind – sometimes I just go on and on and it doesn’t make much sense!
  • What I have learnt from being a part the blogging community is that there is no pressure when it comes to publishing blog posts. The important thing I’ve learnt about is that you don’t need to look at your stats every day, you might have days where you don’t get as much engagement as you would like but that’s normal. There’s only so much promoting you can do, don’t burn yourself out. I have come across other bloggers where they’ve had weeks off because they’re not in the right headspace and if you find that you’re just writing posts after post just to get views then you should probably stop and think about why you started your blog to begin with.
  • The good thing about blog posts is that you can write about whatever you like, you don’t have to worry so much if readers are going to like it, of course you want your readers to enjoy it but don’t just write about something because you think that it’s popular and will get you a load of views. They’ll be people out there that won’t like your posts so much and they’ll be others that love it and relate to it. You can’t please everyone, but I feel the most important thing is that you enjoy writing it.

Chloe, It’s been such a pleasure chatting to you and thank you for being so open an honest. I’m sure many people will resonate with this post. I look forward to following your blogging journey on Chloe Chats. Good luck.

Thank you!

You can find Chloe’s blog here. Her Facebook page here. And Twitter here.