Spring greetings and mad march hares to you all! I, myself, am a mad march hare, being that I share my birthday with St David’s Day. Yes, I have turned another day older, and it feels…pretty much the same as it did last year, bar the niggling pain in my hips and pelvis. I guess that’s what happens with age and carrying a nine-pound baby. But enough about my old donkey of a body, what I wanted to focus my waffle on this month is on the more serious side of things. It’s come off the back of my recent release, ‘Gabe’, which is the second standalone in ‘The Darkness Within’ series. Although I’ve put quite a bit of humour in it, as well as romance (obviously), the characters have also been through some trauma and as a result, are dealing with some mental health issues, including PTSD, low self-esteem, feelings of abandonment, and social anxiety. Therefore, this month, I’ve decided to talk about mental health.
Now, if you’ve read any of my books (lots of love, hugs, and kisses to y’all), you will have picked up on the fact that I like my characters to have flaws. After all, what human being isn’t, especially adults. I like them to have histories that have led to them being the kind of people they are. If you want the Disney ‘Sleeping Beauty’ heroine who speaks about five sentences, all of which are about finding one’s true love, then my stories won’t be for you. Neither are they going to always choose the perfect, most sensible course of action. Because people who do, don’t exist in real life. A lot of my characters are made up of a mish-mash of myself and/or other people who I know. So, when people say, ‘that’s not realistic, people wouldn’t say or do that’ then, I’m sorry, you clearly haven’t met the crazy awesomeness of people who I have.
So, what I thought I would do is go through some of the issues many people are facing in today’s modern society (and no doubt suffered with in the past, though it was less recognised). I am no health expert; I can only go from experience. I sincerely apologise if I say something that doesn’t relate to your own experiences. Unfortunately, not all these conditions manifest themselves in the same way. What I will say, however, is that after having suffered from my own mental health issues and working with many children and adults who are also suffering from mental health issues, these people are some of the strongest people I know. They are not weak characters; they are incredibly strong. If you look at someone who has a physical health condition, you will see how amazingly well they manage to go through life with that ailment. They adapt to survive. People living with a mental health issue, are also working hard to live with their disorder, and often without anyone realising they have any affliction.
Let’s just agree that everyone suffers from some sort of anxiety; it’s nature’s way of protecting ourselves from danger. A little bit like having a natural risk assessment for life. However, some people have it more than others, and some have it to the point whereby it stops you from living a normal life. It can be a total bitch of a condition that can manifest itself in different ways. Phobias, PTSD, OCD, social anxiety, separation anxiety are a few of the more familiar ones. Symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, memory loss, intrusive thoughts, night sweats, migraine, panic attacks, plus many more little lovelies. I could go on for pages about the condition and its effects, probably whilst going off on many tangents because it’s huge. Flippantly saying, Oh, you’re just anxious’ is a little short-sighted, especially when talking about children. But it doesn’t make you weak.
When I was eleven, I began to get intrusive thoughts – my loved ones dying, people being able to see me at all times, getting some hideous disease, a plane crashing, worldwide catastrophes, and so forth. The ‘what ifs’ began to play out every minute of the day, especially at bedtime and mealtimes. This progressed and I began to carry out certain rituals and mantras to try and counteract these thoughts. Such rituals included washing my hands, checking the ceiling, repeating prayers, touching wood, and various other actions that made no sense at all. If I thought of something at all bad, I would have to repeat the process over and over again. I couldn’t simply get into bed and go to sleep; I would be up for hours carrying out these rituals until I would be having full-blown panic attacks. My hands were bloody and cracked, I stopped eating because it was easier not to, and I was severely depressed. I wanted help but I also didn’t want anyone to know because it’s weird, right? What rational person believes they can stop someone from dying by washing their hands? And I did know it was irrational, and I did know it wasn’t right, but it didn’t stop me from doing it*. So, I had to do all of this whilst trying to keep it hidden. On the outside, I was as normal as one can be, but on the inside, I was raging a war against my fears, the urge to carry out a ritual, and fatigue. When I eventually came clean to my parents, my father, quite logically, told me to just stop doing it. It was like telling someone with a cold to stop coughing. I couldn’t.
*I recently learned that OCD can be linked to OCPD. OCPD is the condition whereby people need to be excessively neat and ordered. People with this condition often don’t think they have anything wrong with them. So, lucky me had the condition whereby you realise you’re not right but without the bonus of having a neat and tidy household! My house is neither neat nor organised.
My point is, I covered up my condition for over five years and not one teacher, friend, or significant adult ever called me out on it. Occasionally they would question as to why I was checking under the table, usually with a chuckle, but that’s about it. Five years, day in, day out. I survived secondary school, got through my GCSEs, and managed to ignore people who made fun of me for feeling too intimidated to speak, all whilst this was happening for every minute of every day. I’m not saying it makes me special, but I would defy anyone who tried to call me weak.
This is another form of anxiety, one that a lot of people have heard of. It is usually associated with those who have fought in the armed services because of the trauma they have had to face, usually on a frequent basis (which can make the condition worse). However, it can affect anyone who has suffered from any form of trauma. Examples include witnessing a disaster, an accident, a violent incident, suffering through abuse, being subjected to a traumatic experience over and over again. Not only have you had to survive something awful, but you also have to live through it again and again. Flashbacks, hallucinations, nightmares, avoidance, intrusive thoughts, and excessive arousal (irritability, rage, alertness, difficulty sleeping, etc) are all symptoms.
In ‘Gabe’ I made my poor hero suffer from flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance, and excessive feelings of guilt because of what happened to him when fighting in the marines. However, he is also suffering from PTSD because of his bad childhood whereby he was frequently caught in the middle of his parents’ arguments. As a result, he has shut himself off from meaningful romantic relationships and cut ties with his mother and father. Gabe certainly isn’t a weak character, but this doesn’t mean he isn’t battling with his own issues. I can relate to his reoccurring nightmares. They take you back to the trauma and force you to relive it as though it is real. When you finally come to you have to try and remember that what you thought was happening in the present, actually happened years ago. It’s both distressing and a relief and can leave you with leftover feelings from when it actually occurred. I rarely sleep well, and I always have vivid dreams, some that are harder to bear than others.
This usually occurs through a loss in childhood – death, divorce, trauma. However, it can also stem from neglect or emotional abuse, including parents who ridicule their children, adults who stifle their children’s emotional expression, or even parents who treat their children as peers. In adults, this can manifest itself in their relationships with others. Symptoms include being a ‘people pleaser’, insecurity, trust issues, lack of intimacy, a need for control, and settling for relationships that aren’t good for you.
If you’ve read ‘Gabe’, you can see how both the hero and heroine are suffering from this condition. One of the main criticisms I have received is why Cesca stays with her fiancé for so long. She explains why when she finally opens up to Gabe and also through her narration. However, Gabe is on the other end of the spectrum, whereby he avoids relationships so as not to become like his parents who were neglectful. Unfortunately, I know a lot of people who settle for less than satisfactory relationships. They are so consumed by the fear of being alone or being rejected, they would rather stay with what they know. It’s a sad reality, but a reality, nonetheless.
Autism Spectrum Disorder
This is huge and I’m not even going to attempt to fully delve into this. However, I wanted to include it because I have worked with so many children on the spectrum (which is wide-ranging). I also know people who, if they were at school now, would most likely be highlighted as showing signs of this condition. Some people with this condition, particularly girls, hide it by masking their symptoms. In fact, for a long time, people thought this was a condition more prevalent in boys, however, experts are now finding that girls tend to show their symptoms in different ways and will mask them by mirroring others around them or what they see on television. Can you imagine how exhausting that is?
People on the spectrum may find it hard to communicate and interact with other people. They might not be able to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings, have sensory overload (light, noise, tactile), and become anxious or upset in unfamiliar situations and social events. It might take them longer to understand information and will need to repeat things over and over again. People who are close to those on the spectrum often question why they don’t understand how upsetting they are being, why they are saying cruel things, however, some of these people don’t understand beyond their own feelings. I had a little boy who would lash out because he felt angry; it was that simple to him. He did not understand that he reacted more severely, that the other person had a point or that what he did was breaking the rules. He would apologise but he rarely understood why he was apologising. The only thing to make him calm down was to give him a hug, to extinguish his high energy levels so he no longer felt the need to release it through angry outbursts.
A lot of children who I have worked with over the years exhibited anger and frustration, so needed a lot of support to help them manage these feelings; feelings they couldn’t even name. Being that I work with young children, I was usually able to help them with their daily stresses at school. They were open to strategies that would help them feel more at ease and less burdened by sensory overload and having to be social with lots of other people. But what if you’re an adult who has never had that understanding shown to you how to survive it all? What if you were never given the strategies or support to help you cope with everyday life?
Although autism doesn’t come up in ‘Gabe’, I have kept it in mind for future characters. As an author, it is scary to delve into these sorts of conditions, knowing that some readers won’t have come across them before. It may turn some readers off. However, as a romance author, which is all about relationships and human behaviour, I want to include characters who are not always ‘perfect’ or ‘normal’. Even those alpha males who we all love so much will have reasons for why they are so masculine and dominating. It’s why I enjoy writing in the first person and with dual points of view.
Anyway, a little bit serious this month, but I really wanted to try and put across why I choose to create characters who aren’t based on flawless caricatures. I also want to stress that people who are suffering from mental health issues are not weak. They are warriors, each and every one.
You can get a copy of ‘Gabe on Amazon KU: