Is it possible to write fiction about mental health well?

Over the last few years I have been writing the first book in a fantasy novel series (current title Feeding Jasmine Valentine). It has two main protagonists, and one of those protagonists has severe anxiety and other mental health issues. The more I write her the more I think about if I am doing justice to her.

One of the really problematic things about writing a character who struggles with their mental health is that there is a really troubling legacy of how mental illness has been portrayed fictionally in the past. For example people with mental illness are often portrayed as dangerous, uncontrollably violent, as an ‘evil genius’, or as incoherent and unpredictable (in what are often quite predictable ways).

There are a number of harmful stereotypes that were easy enough for me to avoid. I have not written my character, Julianne, as a dangerous uncontrollable psychopath or as someone who is inherently prone to doing unpredictable and damaging things to other people. She is not someone who does ‘mad’ eccentric things just for the sake of making a point about her mental health. I’ve tried very hard to give her experiences that are authentic, and have drawn from aspects of my own mental health at times to do so.

The main stereotype I am worried about falling foul of is that of ‘the unreliable narrator.’ Characters that have a mental health problem are often portrayed as inherently unreliable, and thus their version of events is not to be trusted. Over the last few years I have worked closed with many people who have struggles with their mental health and have found this not to be the case at all. The majority of the people I know give very clear accounts of their own experiences. However some of those experiences can be difficult to hear, and it may feel easier to the listener to doubt what is being said.

My concern with my writing is that it will automatically be assumed that she is unreliable, when this is not my intention at all. Any ideas about how to tackle this would be welcome.

Thank you for reading. I also make art and films. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

Seen in South London

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In the UK we’ve been in ‘Lock Down’ for about three months. Although technically we could have been going out and about for a walk for an hour a day as part of our ‘daily exercise’, we decided to stay at home while baby magpie was so small, and my section wound was still healing.

Baby Magpie has put on a substantial amount of weight since then, and I am completely healed up. While CORVID-19 has not gone away, cases do seem to be dropping a bit and the risk of getting it appears to be low when you are outside. For these reasons we’ve been going outside a bit recently to a local wildlife park to get a nice walk in a few times a week.

As we moved to the area not long before Baby Magpie was born, there is a lot about the area that I don’t know. Pretty much every time I go for a walk I see something new in my local area, which probably isn’t new at all to people who have lived here a long time, but which I find rather exciting.

The photo below is from the country park that is quite close to our house, and I rather like the idea that there may be some ancient magical creature living there.

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I also make art. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

Thoughts on Radical Kindness as a Daily Practice: Part 1.

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It’s almost ten years since Amy Winehouse died. I really liked her music and was lucky enough to see her perform twice during her first album. She was a wonderful, funny, forceful presence on stage. In later years I saw filmed footage of her at concerts and performances, and could see that things were going wrong for her, although niavely, I did not understand the extent of her distress. The world was not kind to the beautiful, talented, Amy Winehouse.

I do remember a point in time where I had bought myself a magazine and they had printed paparazzi photos of her out in the street, seemingly after having a fight, with only one shoe. At that point the penny dropped for me that I had bought a magazine that had effectively paid someone to stalk women. I have not bought ‘woman’s magazine’ since.

Not long after this Amy died. I was at a wedding with friends and we found out over breakfast with the morning papers. One of the people there said something to the effect of ‘well we all saw that coming.’ I remember thinking at the time how unkind this was, and how I didn’t really know my friend so well after all.

Over the last week or so press intrusion has been sited as a causal factor in the death of another woman, Caroline Flack. I didn’t really want to write about her, because before this happened I confess that I didn’t know who she was. I can’t comment on her work, or what kind of person she was, although the coverage suggests that she was very human, struggling along like the rest of us. One of the things I noticed in the last week that prompted me to write this post was a quote attributed to her circulating on social media. The quote went something along the lines of:

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

It’s a really nice quote, and it’s nice to see it circulating. I’ve also seen a lot of those ‘inspirational, pay-it forwards’ stories recently, like some one paying for someone else groceries in the checkout when they are short, and they are really nice to see too. However, sometimes I despair at quotes and stories like this, because it feels a bit like posting the quote is enough, and then we can go back to ‘business as usual’, which is not always particularly kind. Here’s my problem:

Posting the quote, or the story is not enough.

I have been working along side people with sometimes significant mental health problems for the last four and a half years, and I also spent a good amount of time talking to people who were thinking of suicide as a volunteer. This certainly doesn’t make me an expert on kindness, but it has given me a crash course in what practicing kindness can mean. In my experience genunine kindness is rarely about paying for a stranger’s shopping at the supermarket (although it can be about that). It is often about small gestures, and is as much about what you don’t do, as what you do do.

It means not interupting someone when they are trying to tell you something, even if you think you know what they are going to say. It means not giving advice, even if you are sure you are right, before you have taken the time to really try to understand the other person’s experiences. It means actively showing you are listening, that you care. It means putting down your phone. It means acknowledging you don’t know the answers, or that you don’t understand something. It means avoiding sentences that begin with ‘At least…’ It means not consuming click bait on the internet. And it means doing these things every single day, even when you are tired, or stressed, or distracted.

In a world where our politics and our media are becoming increasingly macho and frequently cruel, we, on mass, have a role to play in changing the direction of things. It means practicing radical kindness with each other, everyday, and it means refusing to support or consume things that are cruel.

This has turned into a rather lengthy blog post and I still have more to say – I will publish part two to this blog next week, so look out for that.

I also make art. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

 

Reasons to be grateful: being able to change my living situation.

It’s been a while since I’ve been here on the blog. After a lot of disruption we’ve finally managed to move into a new area in London and have even unpacked some of the boxes.  There were a few months when we were looking and looking, but it turns out that just before Brexit is not the best time to move, and there weren’t many flats available that would work for us. But we did manage it in the end. We’ve been in for about two weeks and have some interesting new views to look at, as you can see in the picture above. The change of location has really made a difference to our life style, which I’m pretty pleased about. I have managed to claw back an hour of free time in the evening through the move, and am able to walk a good chunk of the journey to work now (although some mornings my legs are not so happy about that). I would like to say I’ve immediately put that hour to use by making art, but I’ve only been mildly successful there. One of the reasons for this is that we have welcomed some new additions to the Magpie Nest.

Yes, we’ve adopted two rescue cats. They are older cats, and have arrived with us in a somewhat ‘plump’ state, shall we say. For followers of this blog you will know that we spent the last year trying to deal with infertility, and that there will be more fertility treatment a bit later this year. While we have not been successful so far in conceiving, we have been successful in expanding our little family to create a home for these fellas, who have settled in quite quickly to their new surrounding. In the process I am rapidly transforming into someone who can sustain long and meaningful ‘conversations’ with her cats. I am not sure what this will mean for my art, but I do feel pretty happy about it.

I am hoping now we are at least partially settled that I will be able to resume a more consistent blogging schedule from now on. Hopefully it will be something like once a week, with some extras here and there. I think I’ll be getting back to the Objects with Meaning project, and will be sharing a bit more art as well.

I hope everyone who reads this blog is well, and that I will hear from you all in the near future.

With Love

Magpie

Reasons to be grateful #6 – swimming with my sister

SWIA0424-20x30There hasn’t been a huge amount of activity on this blog for a week or more as I’m a bit exhausted and taking a bit of down time. However, Laurie from the lovely blog Meditations in Motion posted this post a few days ago which included a very kind write up of me and the magpie blog. It reminded me of the picture above which I had wanted to post for a while, mostly with her in mind. She writes very well about her experiences of running distance races. I’m not a distance runner, but I am a distance swimmer.

I started swimming longer distances last year, at a similar time as I began looking having tests and treatment for infertility. It was also about the time that my sister and I started swimming regularly together. The photo above is from the Great East Swim at Alton Water which happend back in June – it’s of me and my sister, finishing a 2 mile swim together (I’m the bigger, more sausage shaped one!). My sister is faster than me, but I have the edge when it comes to stamina. In that swim in particular she flew off at the start but I caught up at around the 1.5 mile mark and we swam the final half mile next to each other. In these group swims everyone wears the same coloured hat, and it can be difficult to find another person if you dont start together, so we got really lucky. At the end we got out of the water together, and finished just one second apart. We had a great swim that day, mostly becaue we got to finish together.

My sister and I swam a lot as kids, but during our early adulthood we lived in different places and I certainly took big breaks from swimming at times. My sister lived abroad for 4 years, and moved back to London two years ago. Soon after that we began swimming together regulalry when we could. Its been really great as we never really spent that kind of regular time together as adults before. She was one of the first people I spoke to about my infertility, which was kind of suprising because I’m not really a talker when it comes to difficult things. I am greatful that we had swimming to come back to together. It made me think about how it is worth spending the time establishing yourself in a physical hobby or sport when things are going well. Having something physically challenging (that you enjoy moderate progress in) to indulge in when things feel a bit dark is a very helpful thing indeed. I have just signed myself up for a 9 km swim next year in the Big Welsh Swim. This will be the longest distance I have to date. I am looking forward to traing with her for that.

I am also greatful to Laurie for prompting me to write this post and for her supportive messages over the last few months.

I also make art. You can things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying.

Things to do when you are busy not having a baby

One of the things that my partner and I discussed early on in the process of having fertility treatment was how not to let the ‘trying to have a baby’ stuff consume all the energy we may have to do the ‘make life fun’ stuff. This sounds great in principle but isn’t  particularly easy in practice. A lot of the advice early on is to carry on ‘life as usual’. It is also to lose weight, do moderate exercise, but not too much, eat more of fruit and vegetables, less cake, and restrict your alcohol intake. And dont forget to ‘just relax’. So if your ‘usual’ doesn’t involve many of these things, ‘carry on as usual’ could translate to ‘undergo a radical lifestyle change’, which isn’t a very relaxing thing to think about.

While my partner and I did pretty well on the exercise and veggies, the beginnings of our relationship did involve the ‘British method’ of dating. For the uninitiated, I’m afraid to say that this involves some (by which I mean lots) public drunkenness, and other socialising involving at least a drink or two. So there was lifestyle change of a sort needed, which has been more successful at some times than others. Not drinking has been one of the things I have been doing while busy not quite having a baby, which really means less socialising too. In the UK there is an absurd cultural pressure to drink when socialising, and it’s kind of wierd to have to explain to people that you’re not drinking because you aren’t pregnant. It’s not like not drinking because you got knocked up (hurrah! Hopefully). It tends to prompt conversations about how you should have a drink and ‘just relax’, as if you just aren’t quite doing sex right. Which isn’t relaxing at all.

So not socialising becomes one of the things you do when you are busy not having a baby. Personally I feel better for not spending as much time socialising. I want to spend my spare time swimming and doing arty things. I think my introverted parts have become more dominant as I’ve got older and I don’t have the energy for it any more. But I can see how this in itself could be very isolating for someone more extroverted. I have noticed may self that my social circle has narrowed somewhat, and now includes several ladies who are also busy avoiding conversations that unintentionally suggest that they don’t quite know how sex works. While it’s kind of nice to hang out in that boat with them, all extraordinary individuals, the conversations can be sad. For several of us, things are not working. Counterintuitively, my social circle has expanded to include several friends who have just had babies (I can hang out with babies and not really get too sad – I think I am lucky here), so they can’t drink much, and don’t want to talk much about how sex works just right now, thanks. They also had some success at actually getting pregnant, and who knows, that magic could be catching.

So far it feels like what one does when busy trying to have a baby is actively try not to do things. Which is kind of hard on the mental health, and opens the door to an unhealthy level of guilt about ‘not doing things right’. Am I drinking too much coffee? Am I breathing too much polluted London air? One of my lovely, clever friends, Julia, who has had two gorgeous babies now, gave me some kind advice recently. She said that if I just make it as inconvenient as possible to have a baby right now, it will happen. Book that expensive wine tour in central France. Plan to train for a marathon. Go for that tricky promotion. So next weekend I’ll be swimming a 5K race in the lake district, and today will be spent working on my film and checking out an open air swimming pool I’ve not been to before. Go after the juicy difficult rewarding other things in life, she said. And I shall.

Like what you see? I also make art. You can things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying.

Patience and watching my garden grow

I started writing this a few weeks ago, but I’ve been kind of working through a sticky depressive brain fog since then and I feel so slow at the moment (and I already picked the slow road so you know, snail pace slow right now) so apologies for the relative radio silence. I also wanted to think a bit about pressing the ‘publish’ button in this, as it’s a bit more personal than the posts I normally go with. But I’ve decided it’s ok. I hope you think it’s ok too.

A few weeks ago I planted out some plants into the garden we had raised inside from seed. Anyone living in the UK at the moment will know that we’ve had some unpredictable weather recently and so we kept these little plants inside a bit longer than was really good for them because of some very late snow and ice. A week ago in the heatwave I caught myself going out into the garden every few hours when I was home, inpatiently tracking the growth of my plants (and monitoring which ones were being eaten by the snails, but that’s another story).

I’ve been thinking about this a bit this week as I surprised myself a bit. In my work life patience is one of the ruling principles of doing the work I do. I work in mental health research – rush tends to lead to ruin here. At home I have picked the kind of art forms that are slow. The finished thing reveals itself over a period of weeks, months or years. While I have often felt frustrated with myself, I have mostly made peace with picking such slow hobbies.

In the last few weeks, pacing around the garden I have questioned a little my full capacity for patience. One of the big things in my life, that had been silent in my writing here so far, is that my partner and I have been trying to have a baby, for quite some time. There have been some tests, some medication, some more tests, and now some more medication. Yesterday I started injecting myself with hormones, and this will be a daily deal for a while. There has been healthy living and less alcohol and talk about reducing stress. Thus far things have not worked. I am aware of the importance of patience here too. I have very little control, apart from the obvious (wink wink), over making a baby happen.

Some times I think that I need more than patience. Patience isn’t enough. I need a better strategy or plan for managing the weird emotional fall out from this situation. Holding my friend’s gorgeous 2 month old baby is a joy as it should be. But there is sadness on the train ride home. Some days I actually don’t feel at all bad about where we are – we are lucky, I can access good medical care on the nhs, and have a great doctor helping me. Some days I talk to my friend who is devastated after her multiple attempts at ivf have failed and think, that could be me in a year. Right now I still have hope, and have been building on my mental stamina. But I’ve not been building a plan. I’m not sure what that would look like. Outside the peas in my garden are just beginning to flower.

Swimming the distance: mental health as a endurance pursuit

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If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may (or may not!) know that I’m currently training for a long distance swim in June. I’ll be swimming 5K, which is just over 3 miles (not an insubstantial distance for a swimmer), in lake Windermere during the Great North swim in June. At the moment I’m a bit concerned that I’ll be pulled out of the water half way through as I’m a little slow, but I have a bit more time to train and have been putting the effort in. Last year I swam a 2 mile event in about 1 hour and 20 minutes so if I can up my pace a bit and keep it going I should be ok, but I have the nerves all the same. I am already fitter than I was for last years event, but the distance is longer so on balance I am probably not as far ahead of myself as I would like to be.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been putting in a session in the gym one evening a week after work, as well as the swims. It’s a bit awkward to swim before or after work as the timings of the appropriate swim sessions don’t quite fit with my commute, and I don’t have enough discipline to quite force them to work! I’m trying to build up my stamina in just being able to do the same uncomfortable thing, mostly on the elliptical machine, for extended periods of time. I am concentrating on building up endurance and stamina, not so much speed. That is a gradual game. Little by little I get a bit stronger. Little by little each time I go a bit further. While at the gym a few weeks ago I was thinking about how the same principle applies to many of the other things I’ve been doing. I’ve been making the same film for at least 4 years now, and slowly I accumulate new bits and pieces for that until suddenly it starts to look like something that makes sense as a whole.

I think that working on my own mental health has been a similar process. I have a stressful day job. In the past few years I had some considerable anxiety about a range of things, and a bit of depression tagged along with that. Living like that is really tiring. Getting physically fitter now is probably really helping with that, but that has come as part of a general effort towards a healthier way of living at home. We now eat predominantly (but not exclusively) healthy plant based food, and have been doing so for over a year, but it took some time to work out how to make that work for us. I started working part time last year, dropping one day to enable me to swim and make things, which was quite a big little step in the right direction.

I wouldn’t say that I now spend all my time walking around in a state of ecstatic energetic creative contentment. But little by little, I think my ability to endure for the less enjoyable stuff of life, and look past it to the next fun thing is growing. Mental health isn’t a sprint to the finish line, it’s a long distance game.

Objects with meaning – do you want to join in?

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A few weeks ago I started running a series of posts about ‘objects with meaning’, by which I meant objects that have personal importance to us, so that they may make up part of our emotional story or landscape. You can read that original post here should you want to know more. You can also have a look at some of the objects here and here.

Anyway, I found that something pretty exciting had happened at the beginning of this week when writer Scar (of blog SCAR) took up the idea behind this post and wrote her own lovely post about her own poignant ‘objects of meaning’. You can read her post here. I was particularly taken with the tale of her Ukulele and of her Happy Wagon. No spoilers – if you want to know more you’ll need to head over there to get the full story. If you like books, or ever have occasion to roam London looking for good places to hang out or eat, her blog is also for you.

So I really like the idea that other bloggers may want to write about their own ‘objects of meaning’ and the stories behind them. I think ideas are best shared. If you would like to join in I would be happy to host guest posts here, or link to posts on other blogs to direct some traffic. I really like the idea that we could together develop a web or map of stories through interesting objects, nearly forgotton pieces of clothing and long cherished toys – it would be exciting to act as a hub for that.

Please grab my attention by posting in the comments below, or you can email me at rose@magpieatmidnight.co.uk if you would prefer that.

I also make art. You can things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying.

Objects with meaning #1 – China ballet shoes

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A few years ago I took a whole heap of photos of objects that had meaning for me. I had a conversation with a guy I was seeing at the time about minimalism and how he had thrown away all his childhood soft toys, which I just found really, really sad for some reason.

I am slightly suspicious of wholesale minimalism. I feel that some objects come with important emotional meaning attached, and they form part of our emotional memory. Our emotional story. What looks like simple clutter to some people, is for other people an anchor to an important moment, good or bad, in their past. I am sure that sometimes getting rid of those anchors can, in it self, be a very psychologically healthy thing to do. But I am not an advocate of throwing things away simply for the sake of being tidy, of creating a clean, minimalist environment. So (in a grand romantic gesture) I made a digital film for the guy.

It totally wasn’t worth it. I mean super duper wasn’t at all worth my effort. But there we go.

Looking at them again now, I think they made a nice little project. I wanted to share them with you, Fellow Magpies. I will post them over the next few weeks and months, and maybe add in a few new ones along the way.

 

I also make art. You can things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying.