Letters, laughter and family stories

A few weeks ago, I received a proper, old fashioned letter through the post.  It was from my uncle, whose laugh I can hear clearly in my head although we’ve only seen each other a handful of times over the past couple of decades.

Knowing that I’m studying ‘Writing for Young People,’ he wrote of his favourite children’s story: The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. In it, Phillip takes his small sailing boat to aid in the rescue of the British troops trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk. It has a resonance for our family, because my uncle’s uncle – my own Great Uncle John – was one of those soldiers.

dunkirk 1

Despite his rescue that day, Great Uncle John’s story did not end well. He became institutionalised as a result of mental illness and eventually took his own life. Long after the war was over, he was still a victim of it.

I recently wrote a piece for my course, the prompt being ‘an object lost’. I’d chosen my late grandmother’s house and, the more I wrote the more memories came back. It got me thinking about the stories we hear from our families when we are children and how they interweave with our own memories to become part of us. It’s made me think about the stories in my fictional characters’ pasts. I need to know what has made them who they are.

My uncle’s letter was full of lighter family news, too, including a photo of his first grandchild. Looking at her sweet round face and the distinct lack of hair, I could see the resemblance to my cousins when they were small.

Last week he sent me a video clip of her laughing. Light in the darkness.

Rewriting Anxiety

I see that it’s World Mental Health Day today.  Here’s something about anxiety from my own experience. I hope it will help others making their way through the storm.

Think of when you have a burst of adrenalin. Anxiety feels like that, but all the time.Your heart beats too fast. You breathe too fast. There’s too much air in your lungs.

Eventually, you reach a point when it moves in and occupies you, body and mind, and it never goes to sleep.

On top, sits a good old dose of guilt. What right have you – well fed, clothed, sheltered, loved, educated – to feel like this?  Why can you not celebrate and enjoy life?

It makes you incredibly selfish, completely wrapped up in yourself. You snap at people who ask a simple caring question because your head space is used up just existing. You hate the selfishness, the snapping. More things to feel bad about.

Anxiety is worry that’s so out of control, it’s running around naked swinging its pants around its head. It’s hard to think straight, let alone curvy. Before you know it, even though anxiety is rushing through you, blurring your lights, you are stuck. Living is on pause.

night jpeg

If you read books about anxiety, you will learn that sufferers frequently catastrophize and indulge in black and white thinking.  This means always thinking that the worst case scenario is going to happen, regardless of any other options or possibilities, and despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

What I finally worked out, with a bit of help, was that I was using my imagination to tell myself a story that always had the worst ending.  For me, that worst ending, apart from the fear of horrible things happening to people I loved, usually involved being embarrassed, feeling stupid, not getting things 100% right, not being perfect. In other words, human.

I began to resent anxiety for stealing my imagination and I wanted to take it back, reclaim it and write a story with another ending. And that’s what I did. I got back to writing. I made things up. I wrote stories about people who were nothing like me and some who were.

Writing is my thing, but I believe a creative outlet of any kind can benefit the anxiety sufferer. Instead of channeling your imagination into creating your worse case scenario try painting, drawing, singing, dancing, drumming, baking, gardening, game design…whatever rings your bell.

Keep it to yourself or show it to the world. Be kind to yourself – it takes time. Baby steps.

I cannot say that writing alone saved me. I had some hypnosis and counselling. Exercise, especially outdoors, is also a factor in maintaining my mental balance. And some days, the anxiety returns.  Of course, it does.  But it’s not as strong, and it doesn’t hang around so long.

I say: Alright, Anxiety? How you doing?

And then I get on with my life, you know, writing, talking to myself and, of course, procrastinating…

More info at: Anxiety UK   –    Mind   –   YoungMinds