Parenting a child who has depression – Mental Health Matters

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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.

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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.

 

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Writing with sound – Placing a reader in the scene #writingtips

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“The world has music for those who listen.” William Shakespeare

My son is home for Christmas from uni with a mountain of both coursework and laundry. Studying media, one of his assignments is to record a two minute piece of writing of his choosing and add any sound effects he thinks should accompany it.

When we last spoke on the phone I knew he’d be doing this and he was on his way to get approval from his lecturer for the piece he wanted to record. What I didn’t know was that piece is the opening to my debut, ‘The Sister’. His lecturer thankfully said he felt right in the scene as he read it and that it is the perfect piece to record.

I’ve written before about bringing the senses into prose when writing (you can read that here). Making the reader feel as though they are right there with the characters, feeling what they feel, seeing what they see, hearing what they hear.

Sound is one of the most powerful senses, believed to be the last thing to go when we die. When I’m out with my dog I never listen to music or scroll through my mobile. Instead, I drink in my surroundings, taking note of where I am and I close my eyes. What can I hear that would place me in my scene? What is unique to it? What can I use in my stories? These are the things the reader needs to hear.

Today, my son and I went to the park with his recording equipment to record the sounds that accompany ‘The Sister’. Although I believe I am mostly mindful, mostly attentive, I was stunned by the multitude of sounds I could pick out when I stood still and really allowed myself to listen.

Layers of noise, all demanding attention from a chainsaw to bird song, kids playing, dogs barking, to the more subtle sounds, the wind against a leaf, the snapping of a twig under footfall in the distance. We’ve had a fabulous afternoon recording and have returned home with a memory card full of noises and I’ve a head full of inspiration.

If you’re writing a story, take a minute to read it back. What sounds would you use if you could? Are you doing enough to set the scene? A reader who feels is a reader who will keep on turning the pagers.

Here’s the sounds we’ve inserted into The Sister: –

Stepping out of my car with heartbreak-heavy legs (car engine, car slowing, stopping, engine cut, car door slam), I zip my jacket (pulling on & zipping a coat) and pull on leather gloves (the stretch of leather gloves being pulled on) before (walking on a hard surface) hefting my spade and bag from the boot (unloading something heavy. A chink of metal): it is time. (footsteps on gravel) My wellingtons slip-slide (footsteps through mud) across the squelching mud to the gap in the hedge. It’s been there for as long as I can remember. I shiver as I enter the forest; it’s darker than I’d thought and I take deep breaths (breathing) of the pine-scented air to steady myself. I fight the urge to go home and come back in the morning, remind myself why I’m here and drive myself forwards. (Walking. Leaves. Snapping twigs).

My smartphone lights the way as I look out for rabbit holes I might fall down. I take giant steps (larger strides) over fallen limbs of trees I’d once have hurdled. At twenty-five I’m not too old to run, but my load is cumbersome; besides, I’m in no rush to get there, I was never supposed to do this alone.

I stop and rest the spade handle against my hip (spade sticking in the ground), splay my fingers and shake out my pins and needles. There’s a rustling in the bushes (leaves rustling) and I have a sense of being watched. My heart stutters (gasp) as two rabbits dart out, (louder rustling) bounding away when they see my light. ‘I’m OK,’ (voice) I reassure myself, but my voice seems loud and echoey, reminding me how alone I am.

My rucksack feels tight across my shoulders and I readjust the straps (the sound of straps sliding) before marching on (more purposeful steps), snapping twigs underfoot (twigs). I’m beginning to think I’ve taken the wrong fork when I reach the clearing with the lightning-struck tree (stop footsteps. Breathing). I wasn’t sure it would still be here, but as I look around it seems nothing has changed – but of course, everything has. Memories of the last time I was here hit me so hard I feel winded. I sink to the ground. (Clothes crinkling as sitting. Dislodging leaves). The dampness of the leaves and earth seep through my trousers, as the past seeps through to my present.

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.

Rest, relaxation & 3 great reads

Last month I coped with my son leaving home by sending him off to uni with 3 important things (you can read that post here). I spent the first few days of his absence drifting sadly around the house. It was when I lit a candle in his bedroom I knew I had to get out and do something productive so I dashed to Asda to stock up on chocolate. When I arrived I reminded myself how well I was doing on my sugar free diet, how much better I felt and so instead of a bar of dairy milk I headed into the in-store travel agent and bought a holiday to Lanzarote instead (and it was fun explaining that impromptu purchase to my husband).

Days later myself, my youngest son and my husband were on a beach. It was an odd sensation, trying to relax. It was the first time, in a long time, I hadn’t had a looming deadline from my publisher. I deliberately hadn’t packed my laptop, instead I’d taken a stack of books and I intended to read *whispers* for pleasure.

Historically I used to read a couple of novels a week but in the last few years I’ve been so busy writing my own books there’s been little time for reading. On the occasions I’ve managed to snatch precious minutes from my day, I’ve ended up reading one of the huge pile of proofs in my study awaiting quotes which all tend to be psychological thrillers as that’s the genre I write in. On my break, I was determined to read something different, and I did.

The One With Hidden Depths – First on my list was Graham Norton’s cozy crime debut ‘Holding.’ I’ve long been a huge Graham Norton fan. I pre-ordered this the second it was announced but I’ve been putting off reading it because… if I’m honest, because I thought it might not be very good. Sorry Graham. 

I dove into the pages expecting them to be peppered with brash humour, outrageous jokes, which I wasn’t sure how would translate into a novel, but what I found was a gentle story set in rural Ireland, sensitively written by someone who knew his characters inside out. The gradual unfurling is slow but I like that in a story. There’s a depth to the characterisation you rarely find in debuts. So much so I googled whether Graham had a ghost writer, apparently he didn’t. There’s a vulnerability surrounding the small community featured in this story, that doesn’t come from the characters alone. I’ve since bought Graham’s second novel ‘A Keeper’ and I won’t leave it too long before I read it.

The Chilling One – Next up was ‘The Taking of Annie Thorne’ by C.J. Tudor. As a teenager I was a real horror buff and a big fan of Stephen King but as I’ve got older I’ve… I’ve grown into a bit of a wuss  I suppose and so I tend to shy away from the genre. That said when Steven King recommends a writer you sit up and listen and that, along with the fabulous cover, swayed me into putting on my big girl pants and diving in. Goodness. This book is creepy. Right from the start a sense of unease settled over me, despite my brilliant backdrop of blue skies and golden sands. This story is so atmospheric with a refreshingly unique voice. I do love it when I start off loathing a character but the writer gradually draws me in until I’m rooting for them. I’m glad I didn’t read this alone at night, but I’m so very glad I read it. 

The Weepy One – A writer friend of mine recommended ‘Bitter’ by Francesca Jakobi to me and told me I’d love it, and she was right. I find it utterly fascinating when a story is based on some semblance of truth and this one, based on Francesca’s grandmother, drew me in completely. It could have been hard to picture a time when divorce was scandalous and single parent families an oddity but thanks to the evocative writing I was right there with the beautifully crafted characters, living out their obsessions with them. This book is thoughtful, heartbreaking and utterly compelling. I am desperate to know what happened after the final pages. 

Aside from reading, it was a fabulous holiday which kicked off to a thrilling start when we popped into WH Smith’s at the airport and found ‘The Surrogate‘ on the shelves. Once we’d arrived, we hired a car but didn’t explore this gorgeous island nearly enough which is a good reason to return (although we did stumble across a fabulous bookshop who stocked ‘The Sister‘ – hurrah!) What we did do in-between reading was wade into the sea to feed the flurry of fish with cooked vegetables we saved from lunch.

We also went sea trekking for the first time. Walking around the ocean bed while hooked up to air was an odd but amazing experience and a privilege to be up close to so many sea creatures in their natural habitat. 

Evenings found us at a beach bar, sipping cocktails and watching the sun set.

It was while gazing out to sea I had an idea for a romantic novel I felt ridiculously excited about but within 48 hours of being back in the UK I’d (fictionally) killed someone. I feel relaxed, refreshed and ready to put the finishing touches to my fifth psychological thriller, and as for writing romance? Maybe one day…

 

Letting go – when a child leaves for Uni – 3 important things I gave my son

 

I still remember it so clearly; the heady joy of discovering I was pregnant; the overwhelm of a love that was almost painful the first time I held my baby.  It seemed unfathomable back then to think of a time I’d be without my children.  First steps, first words. Sticky toddler kisses, teenage uncertainty as they tried to navigate their way in the world and then, later, it was me who was uncertain and afraid as I took my second child to university. The heartbreak as I drove away in a car that was too empty. Too quiet. Back to a house that looked exactly the same but felt somehow different.

I felt somehow different.

A mother bird with an almost empty nest.

It was difficult initially to sift through my feelings. What was real and what was imagined. What thoughts were coming from ego, of which there were many: –

  • Of course he’ll never be as comfortable anywhere else as he is at home.
  • Of course he won’t eat as well now I’m not cooking for him.
  • Of course he’ll never wear clean clothes again.

Except he will. He does. He can.

He’s resilient. Strong. Capable of creating his own home, operating a cooker, a washing machine. Underneath the tangle of irrational fears that I’d never see him again, that our relationship would be irrevocably altered, came a creeping sense of pride.

I’ve brought him up well. He’s smart, funny, resourceful and kind.

Last month I left him at university with three things.

A photo book of his childhood. The cover a reminder that wherever he goes, whatever he does, he has a family who will always have his back. Be there for anything he needs. Who would unquestionably bury a body for him.

 

A story about his hopes and dreams. It’s easy to get swept away. To forget who you are, what you want. What you can achieve if you try. A mother/son chat warning him of the pitfalls of too much partying and not enough work would have been quickly forgotten. Instead, I wrote a story about a boy and his journey through adulthood constructed almost entirely of lyrics and song titles from his favourite band, The Counting Crows. A reminder of what he could be.

 

The last thing I gave him was the wisdom that every student should know. It’s always salt, tequila, lemon. Don’t mess with the order. And always, ALWAYS, drink a pint of water before bed.

These were the things I left him with at university, but he left me with so much more. A heart full of love and a lifetime of memories along with an immense sense of gratitude that the world is wide open to him. The world is lucky to have him.

 

 

 

Images courtesy of Unsplash – Liv Bruce & Fidel Fernando.

Why I was SO grateful to go back to school – My visit to Northants Uni

Recently I received an email from the University of Northampton asking if I’d be willing to go in and be interviewed by the media/journalism degree students to talk about writing and following your dreams. I felt a pang of excitement and instantly my first thought wasn’t what I could offer them, but what I could learn from them.

At the risk of sounding ancient, I’m from a generation of girls who weren’t often encouraged to go to University, and we were sometimes actively discouraged. The 80’s may all have been about bold make-up, big hair and shoulder pads, and although women nailed power dressing (I really NEVER nailed power dressing btw) the advice I got from my careers advisor was still to become a secretary. Regular hours, steady pay, and I’d always be home in time to make my future family’s dinner.

During my visit I was struck by the sense of purpose in the University, the determination in the air. Yes, I’m sure there are parties, drinking too much and those who don’t appreciate what an incredible opportunity it affords them being there, not just education wise but in terms of personal growth and life experience, but the students I had the pleasure of meeting had something I was sadly lacking as a teenager. Confidence. The belief they could work within the field of their chosen careers. A quiet determination to succeed that has taken me over 40 years to cultivate myself.

It was a real privilege to visit and I came away feeling inspired and hopeful. You hear so many negative things about our younger generation it was a pleasure to spend time in the company of creative, ambitious, young adults who I have no doubt can do anything they set their mind to.