Hazel McHaffie

mental health

Countdown

What a week. The brutal murder of MP Jo Cox; Tim Peake‘s return to earth after six months in space; an historic referendum on the UK’s position in Europe; … I’ve counted down to my own author-event at Blackwell’s Bookshop this evening, not just in days-to-the-referendum, but in significant news flashes. And I want to pay my own small tribute to Jo Cox and her family who have epitomised dignity, humanity, unity and compassion. If only her legacy could continue to overrule the vitriol and power-struggling and falsehoods which have characterised this campaign.

So, tonight we launch my latest novel, Inside of Me, into the bigger world, courtesy of Blackwell’s Bookshop in Edinburgh.

Stash of Inside of Me

I always knew it would be hard to do justice to this one without giving away a surprise but significant element which is only revealed at the end. So I had to explore various angles which might ‘sell’ the book to a live audience without containing spoilers. On this occasion I decided to concentrate on two points: body image and disappearance.

I suspect that only a tiny minority of people go through life perfectly content with their own body image; I’m certainly not among their number. All manner of hang-ups, me. All my life. And sobering statistics for suicide, mental health, eating disorders, self-harm, obsessions and addictions, cosmetic procedures, gender changes, all bear testament to a wider societal dissatisfaction. Small wonder, fueled as we are by the messages, overt and subliminal, from magazines and the internet; from social media; peer pressures; completely unrealistic expectations and cultural ideals. My book fits into this context, exploring what it means to live with unhappiness and troubled thoughts and unachievable goals.

One example will suffice: 15-year-old India Grayson looks in the mirror and perceives a size 3 body as grossly overweight. She aspires to have the courage to binge eat and deliberately vomit. Her mother can only stand on the sidelines, powerless to prevent her beloved daughter, on the very cusp of adulthood, starving herself to the point of collapse, forced to wait for medical intervention until the teenager is at death’s door or at imminent risk of significant deterioration. But India’s not seeking death; she’s seeking control. So how far should she be allowed to go along the path to self-destruction? What right has her mother to intervene?

Disappearance is the second recurring theme I chose to speak about. Three teenage girls vanish one after another. So does India’s beloved dad, leaving a neatly folded pile of clothes on a windy beach. Are these events connected? India’s mother has her niggling suspicions, doubts and fears but she’s suppressed them and certainly hasn’t shared them with a single soul. But now, eight years after his supposed suicide, India is convinced she heard her father’s voice on a crowded London station. She has to find him. The truth when it emerges is not what anyone expected; it challenges their notions of family and relationships, of image and identity. It makes us wonder, to what extent is it right to pursue our own goals and ambitions, when they conflict with the interests of others?

A-Lot-Like-EveAs part of my thinking about body image, I’ve been reading A Lot like Eve by Joanna Jepson. A newly ordained curate, Jepson came to fame in the early 2000s when she challenged the courts over cases of abortion for nothing more disabling than a hare lip and cleft palate. I remember her well – and her arguments. She was uniquely qualified to adopt this cause having herself been the victim of bullying and humiliation because of a facial disfigurement, and having also witnessed reaction to her brother who has Down’s Syndrome. What I didn’t know is how she has struggled with her faith and calling. This book is a moving exploration of her own battle to find acceptance and peace in her personal as well as her religious life.  And who else would see their calling to be chaplain to the fashion industry?

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Mental health awareness

You’d have to be an ostrich to miss all the attention given to mental health of late. It’s Depression Awareness Week this at this very moment. Heartening to see; we can all do with better understanding and sympathy.

Since Inside of Me came out, my own working days have been much taken up with fathoming the extent of provision for adolescents grappling with psychiatric ailments and issues. I had absolutely no concept of the number (hundreds in Britain) of centres and units and teams devoted to this vulnerable group. Impressive. And all this is going on largely unsung and unremarked.

Naturally I did a stack of research before and during the writing of Inside of Me, but now it’s published I’m exploring different aspects of the topics and finding them fascinating. Not only increases my own awareness but all helps when I’m being interviewed or fielding questions at book events.

There’s been plenty of exposure in the media too.  The A Word, on BBC1, is currently unravelling the effect on the Hughes family of young Joe’s autism. It’s still ongoing so I won’t say too much about it meantime. But, knowing a number of people on the spectrum personally, I’m particularly interested in the reactions and behaviours of his parents struggling to accept the situation and deal with the comments and criticisms and insensitivities of other people, what it’s doing to the whole family.

BBC1's The A Word drama

Born on a Blue DayI’ve also been reading a book written by a young man who has synaesthesia as well as Asperger’s: Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet. ‘I just did not seem to fit in anywhere, as though I had been born into the wrong world. The sense of never feeling quite comfortable and secure, of always being somewhat apart and separate, weighed heavily on me.‘ Not surprisingly Daniel craves order, security and predictability; but in many ways his life is outstandingly vibrant and uniquely different.

Numbers are never far from his thoughts no matter where he is or what he’s doing, but he sees them as shapes, colours and textures. Calendars delight him – all those numbers and patterns in one place. On the other hand social interaction is problematic, but if a person reminds him of a number he feels more comfortable around them.

Daniel also has savant syndrome for which he has become a minor celebrity. He can perform extraordinary mathematical calculations and memory feats in his head – outdoing sophisticated computers! He can learn to speak a foreign language fluently from scratch in a week – eat your heart out teens sitting exams this term!

Daniel Tammet was born in 1979 on a Wednesday. ‘Wednesdays are blue, like the number nine or the sound of loud voices arguing.’ Remarkably for the times, both his parents understood his needs and patiently provided a secure and encouraging environment for him, indulged his obsessions and believed in him. What’s more, in spite of the extra care their firstborn required, they went on to have a further three boys and five girls, who, by their noisy and continuous presence, forced Daniel to gradually develop interpersonal social skills. Nevertheless, he would be completely thrown by small distractions – squeaking shoes, inexplicable reactions, noisy breathing, would lose him a game of chess which he would otherwise easily win.

By the time Daniel was 13 he had eight siblings. By the time he was 19 he was ready to leave home and go abroad on VSO work. By the time he was 22 he was ready to live with his partner, Neil. By the time he was 25 he was ready to recite 22,514 digits of pi without error in public for 5 hours and 9 minutes thereby setting a new British and European record. So remarkable has his life been that he became the subject of a one-hour documentary, Brainman, filmed in Britain, the USA and Iceland in 2004. A year later he was confident enough to travel abroad unaccompanied, stay in unfamiliar hotels, stroll down unknown busy streets, and be interviewed for TV in the USA. He attributes much of his prowess to the constant unwavering love and support of his family, especially his parents. But reading his book you get an inkling of his own determination to overcome the odds.

Born on a Blue Day gives a compelling glimpse into a unique mind and life. Precisely and carefully written. Sometimes stilted. Sometimes meandering through detailed descriptions, sometimes diffidently explaining the differentness of Daniel’s thinking. Always gently enquiring, shy and grateful. Much like the Daniel Tammet who comes across in the film.

Brainman

 

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Mental health break

I grew up in an age and environment where hard work was lauded and idle hands frowned upon. It’s a hard shackle to shed. But intellectually now, I know that relaxation is very much part of mental health.

So off I went, with a clear conscience (well, almost!), to enjoy a few days in the Lake District soaking up the beauty and peace in this most spectacular of autumns. And quite deliberately not thinking up anything clever/entertaining/challenging/stimulating/wise for this blog. So you too can take a wee sabbatical this week.

Enjoy!

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Fact and fiction

MslexiaDid you know that some 184,000 books are published in the UK every year, the vast majority appearing without fanfare and sinking without trace? And yet writing a book involves a massive investment of time, energy, emotion, heartache and money.

We low-ranking authors can easily feel overlooked and undervalued, but news in the publishing world put things into a healthier perspective for me at a time when I needed a boost of confidence (courtesy of my writerly journals: Mslexia and The Author.

1. ‘Publishers are tending more and more to concentrate on safe choices and celebrity brands, sometimes at the expense of supporting backlist and midlist authors who sell steadily but more slowly,’ says the CEO of the Society of Authors. And many pretty big names have demonstrated that even they feel disenchanted. A whole raft of them have recently switched to new publishing houses in a search for fresh enthusiasm and better sales figures: Kate Mosse, Harlan Coben, Paulo Coelho, Patricia Cornwell, Michelle Paver, Val McDermid to name but a few.

Take-home message: Great success is no passport to contentment.

2. Nor is rejection reserved for the few. It’s well known that even world famous authors have received crushing letters from publishers and agents. Latest offerings to add to the list: Louisa M Alcott was advised to ‘stick to teaching.’ Anne Frank’s Diary got ‘The girl doesn’t have a special perception which would lift the book above the curiosity level.CS Lewis was turned down 800 times before he published anything! Egg on faces comes to mind.

Take-home message: Don’t be cast down by rejection.

The Author journals3. According to ALCS research, the median sum earned by professional authors in 2013 was a beggarly £4,000. £4,000!! (Aspiration point: The top 5% earn in excess of £100,000; the top 1% more than £450,000 a year.) No wonder then that the number of full-time authors relying solely on earnings from writing has gone down from 40% in 2007 to 11.5%. Ouch! But in actual fact, there are many writers who feel they write best when they keep their feet firmly in the real, everyday world of work. Tick!

Take-home message: Real life activities can help keep you grounded.

4. I’m sure all authors adopt several methods for capturing ideas and brainwaves before they slip away – from having a simple pencil and notebook beside the bath tub to fancy electronic apps and fads in every pocket. Remembering is crucial … or is it? Novelist cum musician cum Latin teacher William Sutton argues that slavish notes can result in slavish writing. Sometimes ‘the capricious alchemy of the unreliable memory’ and healthy distance can transmute leaden prose into something much more volatile, airy and appealing. Phew! That’s all right then!

Take-home message: No need to get paranoid about recording every idea.

5. I guess we all worry about the structure of our books. Is it balanced? Does it sag in the middle or fizzle lamely at the end? Will it grip a reader? Well, an established literary consultant, Helen Bryant, maintains that a novel’s structure should sit within a classic three act graph: Act 1 centres on the inciting incident and core problem; Act 2 should include at least three rising tension peaks; Act 3 brings the main plot lines to a climax and resolves them. So, with some trepidation I plotted my latest novel, Inside of Me, on a similar graph, and what d’you know, it complies with this framework! Tick!

Take-home message: Keep reading the literary journals!

6. More than 50% of both primary school children and over-65s read every day! Wahey. Time to tap into that market in a more deliberate way. Let’s start with the U3A

Take-home message: Target the right audiences.

7. In June this year The Reading Agency published a review on The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment. Its key findings included the following: reading is closely linked to understanding of our own identity; it can impact on our relationships with others; it increases empathy; helps with relaxation; helps develop knowledge; helps mental health. Yes!

Take-home message: Never undervalue the wide ranging benefits of reading.

Sanguine again

There we go; spirits lifted immeasurably. Onwards and upwards.

 

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Mental health

The Orchard gardenI’ve always been conscious how borderline I am psychologically-speaking. I didn’t dare dabble in psychiatry during my training; the dividing lines between health and pathology seemed far too fragile and close to home!

So being immersed in a novel about mental health issues, living inside the skin of characters with self image problems, has been a somewhat precarious occupation for me. It was imperative that I should burrow deep inside their minds in order to understand how they would speak, act, react; I frequently got the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God feeling. So when I saw the Doors Open programme for this weekend, the Redhall Walled Garden in Edinburgh’s Colinton Dell jumped out at me and topped my list of paces to visit.

The garden itself dates back to the 18th Century but for the last 27 years it’s been operating as a Scottish Association for Mental Health facility. Trainees (as they are called) attend for at least three days a week building up to five, and they work in gardening, IT, administration and health awareness. In their own words SAMH ‘provides conditions for growth and positive mental well-being and works to create a safe place when people are experiencing distress.’

And indeed it was a remarkably peaceful place to wander around. I lingered particularly in the secluded seating areas, absorbing the atmosphere, picturing my characters huddled there, hiding there.

The Summer houseThe Sunken GardenThe RoundhouseI too felt safe and calm.

I rather wish I’d known about this little haven before I started probing my own depths for Inside of Me!

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Upstairs downstairs

Decades ago when I began to make the decision to try my hand at fiction, I had this rosy dream of writing for both adults and children – fun alongside the serious stuff; nurturing my mental health, etc etc etc. So, having published my debut medical ethics novel, I drafted my first children’s book and asked my colleague Alexander McCall Smith to give me feedback on it (that was before he was a household name, I hasten to add!).

So far so good. OK. Next find an agent. Ahhhh – what? A different one? As well as a different publisher? As well as a different marketing strategy? Hold on a wee minute.  Working full time in academia, already publishing non-fiction as part of my job, juggling that number of balls was beyond my pay grade. King Midas Sandy McC S could do it; but not I. It was the children’s books that had to go.

And I’ve never returned to them … with one notable exception: the annual story/play for my grandchildren (now aged from 15 to 10).

Children's stories

Sadly, my recent illness put paid to performing the 16th one at Christmas time as usual, so it was postponed … until this Saturday. Given that it’s a private family event, a complete secret to everyone else until the day, I am author, screenwriter, casting director, producer, director, wardrobe mistress, stage hand, general factotum … and master of none! But we always have a great time, and on the day, others become cameraman, music maestro, supporting cast. The youngsters enter into the spirit of this amateur production with enormous enthusiasm.

So today I’m going to give you a brief and lighthearted glimpse into the remnants of my career as a children’s author.

Three aristocratsThis year the story featured the three children of the 11th Duke and Duchess of Fountain-Linton who lead a restrictive life upstairs being taught to take their places in the upper echelons of a very formal society.The cook's granddaughter

 

 

 

 

 

That is, until their cook and her granddaughter introduce them to fun and laughter below stairs.

 

 

Cue lots of dressing up, activities, and games … Examining the brain

Tasting test

Chocolate making

… all concluding in a couple of hours of handcrafting de luxe chocolates – a sure fire winner! And destined to raise money for less-privileged children in Africa – yes, seriously!

Chocolates

Bags of chocolates for village children

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the moral of the tale? Happiness comes from kindness to and helping others, not from acquiring wealth and possessions.

Happiness is ...

The whole enterprise took place over eight hours (excluding the sale of the chocolates) and is both physically and mentally quite challenging, which all served as a tangible measure of how hugely indebted I am to a very skilled electrophysiologist, who managed to cure (through ablation) both my heart arrythmias in one fell swoop six weeks ago. I am back to my original energy levels.

Somewhere in the deep recesses of a back-burner the next Christmas story is already fermenting – only seven months to bring it to fruition this time! But for now I must return to the serious writing … missing teenagers, body image issues and locked-in fears. What was I saying about mental health? Ah yes, but we shall also be producing the 16th children’s story, Upstairs Downstairs, in book form.

 

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