Hazel McHaffie


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.



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Big issues and compelling reads

I wonder how many of you enjoy a book that tackles one of life’s big issues. The kind that makes you ask, ‘What would I have done in that situation?‘ Not everyone does, I know. Some people tell me they’re looking for escape from life’s challenges, they don’t want their leisure hours to be troubled by injustice or suffering or tragic choices. Ergo: ‘Sorry, but I won’t be reading your novels any time soon!

But me, I like something gritty, something that makes me stop and think. Dark and difficult sucks me in. And I prefer to take my time considering my response to delicate or unexpected situations, rather than risk crashing in with hob-nailed boots. Comes from years spent walking alongside families struggling with tragedy and loss, I guess. Or maybe I’m just a slow thinker.

I’ve had another good wallow in just such a book recently – a novel.

I have a kind of love-hate relationship with author Jodi Picoult. Cons? Her formulaic style; and the way she endows all her characters with the capacity for philosophising and uttering wise insights. Pros? The readable way she deals with big questions. Having put her on one side for a long time now, I came to her latest, House Rules, with a fresher mind. And this time the subject matter eclipsed the irritating aspects, so I enjoyed it much more than the last few she’s written.

House RulesJacob Hunt is eighteen. He’s obsessed with crime, and can recite laws and forensic facts verbatim. He can’t abide the colour orange. He lives by fixed rules. He has Asperger’s. Although he’s high-functioning, he finds it impossible to make friends. But there’s one exception: a young student, Jess Ogilvy, who’s paid to teach him social skills. Jess understands him, she has time for him … until a new boyfriend starts to monopolise her time and thoughts. Jacob is not a happy bunny.

But then, Jess is found dead. The finger points at Jacob. The evidence is overwhelming.

His mother, Emma, is torn between love for her son and a desire for justice to prevail. She’s the one who calls the police. She’s the one who fights for a fair trial that accommodates Jacob’s special needs. But she’s all too conscious that the symptoms of Asperger’s – the tics, the inappropriate actions and expressions, the lack of eye-contact – can all be interpreted as evidence of guilt.

Emma’s other son, Theo, is just fourteen and harbouring his own secrets and problems. Her ex-husband, Henry, reappears unexpectedly, but now she sees warning signs in him too. Her employer reckons the mother of a murderer can’t be a suitable person to continue writing an agony column for her publication.

Throw in a novice lawyer, a sensitive police officer, and a singularly unattractive boyfriend, and you have the usual melting pot for one of Picoult’s classic protracted legal wrangles.

But what shines through this fiction is the effect of Asperger’s, not only on the person who bears the diagnosis, but also on his family, on everyone he comes into close contact with. I do personally know a number of people on the autistic spectrum and I thought I was reasonably understanding, but this book gave me much better insights into the world they inhabit – rather like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time did when that came out in 2003. Or the Dustin Hoffman film, Rain Man.

I sincerely hope this book will make a difference in real lives. And I salute Picoult for her ability to combine a gripping narrative with a big issue – a delicate balance I constantly struggle to achieve.


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