Category Archives: Tracing the Scenic Route

Heaven Blogs #1: The Origin Story

I’ve picked up a lot of new followers recently, which I imagine has something to do with the EdFringe entry for Heaven Burns going live… which probably means it’s about time I wrote something about the show!

 

The short introduction to Heaven Burns is this: I’ve been fascinated by the Scottish witch hunts since my teens, so when I started writing plays it was only a matter of time before I wrote one on the subject. That play was Heaven Burns, which I wrote in 2015. There was a rehearsed reading at Previously… Scotland’s History Festival that year, followed by two years of looking for a home for the script. After a lot of rejections I was on the point of shelving it, but then the Assembly Roxy Theatre Award came up and I decided to give it one last shot… and I won! Heaven Burns will run for three weeks at Assembly Roxy during #edfringe2018.

 

As we get into workshops and rehearsals I’ll be sharing bits of the preparation process here. Until then my plan is to talk a bit about where the play comes from and the process of creating it, starting today with the very earliest point in its journey – my interest in all things witch-related.

 

I can’t pin down the origin of my interest with any certainty. I was a spooky child and anything with a supernatural element was right up my street. From Babette Cole’s The Trouble with Mum and Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch to Bewitched and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, if there was a witch involved, I was sold. The concept of magic made sense to me, possibly because I experienced a lot of powerful hallucinations in childhood and the possibility of growing up to command an army of museum exhibits didn’t seem like a stretch.

 

As I grew up it became increasingly clear that the world didn’t work the way I thought it had. Like all 90s teenagers I dabbled with the kind of magic that has to be spelled with extra letters, but all it did was bring me to the realisation that things like Wicca aren’t for me. I was looking for something that doesn’t appear to be available within reality. Not to mention that styling yourself a witch was just so bloody popular in the late 90s, and I was an angsty pretentious teenager who wanted nothing to do with things that were popular, so I had to find a way of satisfying my interest while still feeling different.

 

God, being in my teens was exhausting…

 

The answer, I decided, was to look to history. By this point I’d started working as a ghost tour guide, because if you work in the arts in Edinburgh it’s pretty much mandatory that you do your time telling scary stories to tourists. I’d developed a bit of an obsession with the bubonic plague, particularly the epidemic during the 17th century, and had started reading more widely about the period in order to flesh out my mental picture of the society it affected. That led me on to reading more about the witch panics, which fuelled my interest in learning much more about them than we covered on the tours.

 

At this point, being a young and undisciplined reader, my ability to evaluate sources was limited. It took me a while to get the hang of reading critically, but as I got better at it I began to realise how little I understood. Next thing I knew I was down the research rabbit hole, trying to wrap my head around the complex factors that contributed to the witch hunts – Scotland’s shift to Calvinism, folk belief and its overlaps with Catholicism, James VI and all his emotional baggage and subsequent paranoia, the ravages of the plague, family dynamics… even the weather causing crop failure and lost fishing boats. The more I read, the more interested I became in what it must have been like to live one’s everyday life in that society, and that’s what started finding its way into my plays.

 

My first Fringe play, Creepie Stool, contained a sneaky reference to the North Berwick witches. Old Bones, which opens in Prague later this month, engages more explicitly with the events leading up to the North Berwick trials – I’ll be writing a separate post about that in a few weeks. Heaven Burns, the first of my plays to focus solely on the witch hunts, is set a bit later and deals with the brief heyday of the witchprickers, and particularly with one named John Dixon, who turned out to be a disguised woman named Christian Caddell.

 

Spoilers for the play? Not really. Between the blurb and the opening scene, those of you who see it won’t be in any doubt as to the situation. I first heard Christian Caddell’s story from Susan Morrison of Previously… Scotland’s History Festival. She had encountered this little-known figure, unearthed by Dr Louise Yeoman while working on a BBC Scotland documentary, and thought it was such a powerful story that she actually had it printed on the back of her business cards. I’ve still got that card somewhere, and it’s to Susan that I owe the initial spark of the idea for the play.

 

As I searched for what little information there is on Christian, I noticed that she was operating in Morayshire at around the same time as Isobel Gowdie, whose story I had learned in my earlier studies. Isobel is a very unusual case, since she presented herself to the parish authorities and freely accused herself of witchcraft, apparently without being under any kind of duress. She confessed at length and in great detail, telling about her coven’s activities and contradicting prevailing opinions about the Devil’s proficiency as a lover. Her eventual fate is lost to history, but the records of her confessions remain. Christian Caddell, or rather John Dixon, doesn’t seem to have been involved with her trial – but John Innes of Spynie, who hired the disguised Christian to prick witches near Elgin in 1661, was the Notary Public who recorded Isobel’s confession, so they at least have some common acquaintance.

 

This was enough to set my imagination to work. Did the two women ever meet? What would have happened if they had? What kind of fervour spurred Christian on to hunt witches? What makes someone accuse herself of witchcraft when it carries the death penalty?

 

I don’t claim that the play answers these questions, but it does explore one possibility – and I’ll be talking more about how I chose to treat the historical subject matter and how I see its contemporary relevance in future posts. For the moment, I’ll leave things here and not risk turning this into the mega-post where I attempt to explain every thought I’ve ever had relating to Heaven Burns. If you’ve got any questions that you’d like me to answer in future posts, comment away and let me know!

 

And get your tickets for the show, I’d love to see you there. Cast announcement coming soon!


2017 Retrospective: A Year of Aiming for Rejections

It’s been almost a year since I decided to follow the advice of this article and aim for 100 rejections a year. I would like to make crystal clear that it was not a New Year’s Resolution, I do not make New Year’s Resolutions – I began my challenge on December 14th, which is not even Solstice let alone Hogmanay.

 

However, resolution or no, it’s been a really interesting thing to do. I’ve always had a tendency to look at available opportunities and find a way to talk myself out of applying. I would look at them and think “Yes, maybe I should apply, but I don’t quite fit this criterion and I’m sure there’ll be someone who meets this requirement more closely than me, and what right do I have to do/talk about this thing anyway?” And then I wouldn’t apply, because it seemed like a waste of time and effort when the answer was almost certainly going to be no.

 

The thing is, my attitude was not unreasonable. Arts opportunities almost always attract far too many applications, and you’re much more likely to find opportunities that are an 80% fit than a 100% fit. The chances are there will be somebody better suited or more experienced. The chances are it will be a no.

 

Of course, not applying for things means that I might not get a no, but I definitely won’t get a yes. There can be no acceptances without first applying. So I decided to aim for 100 rejections in order to break myself of the habit of not applying. If I saw an opportunity that looked interesting I would resist the urge to talk myself out of it and just give it a shot.

 

At the time of writing, I’ve sent out 97 applications. These range from sending out short stories or plays to lit magazines to sending full plays to large theatres doing open submissions, to applying for residencies and submitting scripts to companies that have requested them. It’s a mixture of theatre, fiction, spoken word and a few things that I would struggle to categorise. Three applications were sent within the past day.

 

At the time of writing I have 56 rejections. Sharing that publicly is a touch nerve-wracking, since I know that many people believe you should never admit to being rejected for anything, but sod it, there it is. Some of those rejections have stung pretty badly. Others have barely registered. On a few occasions I’ve received rejection emails and had to go and look up what the opportunity was because I’ve forgotten. In 7 cases I was notified that I had made the shortlist, in a further 2 I made the longlist, and in 9 others there was no mention of long or shortlists but I was given specific, encouraging feedback and/or asked to keep in touch. 38 were outright rejections, either with no feedback given at all or with feedback that wasn’t particularly helpful (feedback that directly contradicts itself, for instance, is difficult to put to any constructive use).

 

Three of my rejections led to meetings that led to other things – in one case a bit of R&D on a new piece that took place in October, in another to an ongoing conversation with a company that hopes to develop something with me, and in the third to R&D that will happen in 2018.

 

As for acceptances, there have been 11 of those. These have ranged from having short pieces in new writing events at the Bolton Octagon, Southwark Playhouse and Brighton Rialto, to pieces published in lit mags and to R&D opportunities with BOP Artists supported by NTS and with Imaginate at Summerhall. One project fell through. It happens. But 10 had definite results, which feels great.

 

Of course, my list doesn’t include things I applied for before the arbitrary date on which I began this challenge. A week earlier I had, on a whim, sent a pitch to 404 Ink for some anthology thing that they were putting together. That turned out to be Nasty Women, which has been selling copies all over the world, was the best-selling book at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, and was recorded by Audible a couple of months ago. The list also doesn’t include things I didn’t have to apply/submit for – anything that I was approached for directly is unlisted, and I’ve picked up a lot of gigs by direct contact this year.

 

The applications and submissions I’ve done this year have been quite varied in form and the amount of effort required. Some have been a case of seeing an opportunity, thinking “I’ve got something that fits the bill sitting on my hard drive”, and just sending it along. That mostly happens with lit mags seeking submissions and short play nights doing call-outs for scripts.

 

Others have been much more labour-intensive, involving detailed proposals for the work I want to create, tailored to a specific brief. These, I find, are the tricky ones, partly because you’re having to put your faith in your own interpretation of the brief and hope that your vision matches the company’s, and partly because when you’re creating a very detailed proposal it’s easy to fall in love with the project, which makes it utterly galling if you then get rejected.

 

Fortunately, I’ve found that the proposals I’ve fallen madly in love with and had rejected on initial submission have gone on to have a life elsewhere. Early in the year I pitched for a commission to write a sci-fi radio play, but while I made the shortlist I wasn’t selected. I turned the piece I’d pitched into a short story, which I’ve performed at a couple of spoken word events, both of which led to other gigs. I’ve done well out of that story, and I still have plans to flesh it out into a play. Likewise Unlockable, the project I began developing on my BOP Artists residency, started life as a proposal for a prize with an extremely specific brief. I didn’t win the prize (though I appreciated the personalised and encouraging feedback), but I was determined to work on the piece anyway so when the call for BOP Artists went out a few weeks later, I went for it.

 

Of course, while I might feel like I write applications for a living at the moment, they’re not all I’ve been writing. This has been a busy year. I’ve written three full scripts, one first draft, a second act to an existing script, two short “demo versions” of scripts that will become full length, numerous short stories, some poems (god help me), a spoken word show and the first part of a novel. I’ve done guest and feature slots, I’ve flyted, I’ve performed in a Ferrero Rocher-themed murder mystery (don’t ask). I’ve been on panels for stuff. I’ve got another spoken word show to write in December. I’ve also been teaching. I’m going to Germany tomorrow to give a workshop at the University of Konstanz. I have some exciting news about one of my plays that I can’t share yet. For someone who feels like she never does anything but fill in application forms, I have a fair amount of evidence to suggest that I occasionally do other things.

 

All in all, aiming for 100 rejections feels like it’s worked out for me. So am I going to do it again next year? At the moment I don’t know. Probably, though I don’t think I’ll start it straight away. I have a show to write this month, and once that’s done I’d like to take a bit of time to do the things I’ve been putting off – finishing the collection of short stories and looking for a home for it, starting the next spec script, working on a solo show for one of my long-standing collaborators.

 

Perhaps I’ll start my next year of aiming for 100 rejections once I’ve had a chance to work through some of that. Or, more likely, I’ll find myself with a glut of things I want to apply for and just sort of stumble into it.  In the meantime, 33 responses to go, soon to be 36…


Selbstmordversuch

 Going to be talking about suicide in this one, folks.  Don’t read it if that bothers you. 

 

I’ve always been very private and secretive about my suicidal impulses. I didn’t talk about suicide when I was planning it because I didn’t want anyone to hinder my attempts. I didn’t talk about it when I was better because it horrified me, and it took me years to be able to name what I had tried to do. I talk about it now because after a lot of therapy, I finally can. And I feel I should talk about it, because I want people to know that a suicidal person doesn’t always look and act the way one might expect.

 

My priority when planning to kill myself was to inconvenience people as little as possible. The aim was to die quickly, preferably not painfully, and in a manner that would not involve anyone else or cause unnecessary suffering for those left behind.

 

My attempts happened at times when I believed, rightly or wrongly, that nobody would care much if I died – but even if nobody cared for me, I still didn’t want to hurt them. I reasoned that an accidental death would inflict less anguish than an obvious suicide, so my demise would have to be carefully staged.

 

These criteria meant no slashed wrists (I never cut – working as a life model during both breakdowns meant there was no way to conceal self-harm), no hanging, no downing dozens of pills. There could be no throwing myself in front of vehicles (though if driverless trains had been in operation on my regular routes in 2010, I might not be writing this now). I would also need to set things up so that an inquest wouldn’t find any evidence of my intentions, which meant scrubbing my notebooks and journals of anything that might give the game away.

 

If this sounds more like planning a murder than a suicide, that’s pretty much how it felt (or so I’d imagine – my experience of planning murders is admittedly limited to the world of fiction). But do you know how difficult it is to plan a wholly convincing “accidental death” when the intended victim is the one doing the planning? It’s hard. The body fights for survival even when the spirit is utterly sick of it. Dying accidentally yet deliberately requires an act of will – don’t try to catch yourself when you fall, don’t let yourself surface, don’t take that breath. The body reacts instinctively, it demands continued life, and there is little so disappointing as the feeling of gasping to fill the lungs you were trying to shut down. The body would win, and all I could do was refine my plans and cling to the impotent hope that I’d kill it successfully next time.

 

When I stopped eating, I thought I was onto something. I had grown to hate eating, because what was the point in continuing to fuel a body I wanted to destroy? I was living away from home, I wasn’t regularly eating in company, so it was easy enough just to stop. I didn’t intend to starve to death, since that would have been too obvious – I was relying on my tendency to get dizzy and black out when I don’t eat, hoping that it would happen during one of my night-time rock climbing adventures down on the beach. Scrambling about on the rocks in the small hours was a known habit of mine, so no-one would question my being there. With any luck I would faint and fall from the rocks into the sea, and that would be it. My bright and promising young life snuffed out in a Tragic Accident. Perfect.

 

It didn’t work, of course. A few weeks into my plan, my parents came to visit. At this point I was just drinking milk to curb the hunger pangs and downing packets of sugar to heighten the dizzy spells. I was losing my ability to look like a functioning human being. My face was gaunt, I was piling on makeup to conceal the shadows under my eyes and the hollows of my cheeks. My clothes were starting to hang off me. My hair was constantly pinned up to hide the fact that I lacked the energy to wash it. I could pass among strangers, sort of, but my parents could see me for the haggard, distant mess that I was.

 

They took me home. I didn’t resist. I didn’t have the energy. But once I was home, eating nothing ceased to be the path of least resistance. They would give me food and insist I ate some. I didn’t have it in me to refuse. I started to think about other options for suicide, but it was too late. Within days I was so far into catatonia that I didn’t have the wherewithal to think anything any more. For months I said nothing, did nothing… I survived catatonia because my parents were on hand to make sure I ate. They got me into therapy, so by the time I was able to think again I had some medical support, so I was able to manage the suicidal ideation that occurred during my recovery and not act on it.

 

If that catatonic episode had happened just a couple of years later, after my parents had died, while I was living alone, I wouldn’t have survived it. There would have been no need for my convoluted staged accident, I would simply have had no-one to make me eat and no energy to correct the situation myself. Eventually I would have starved, and sooner or later the unpaid bills would have stacked up or someone would have noticed the smell of decomposition and I’d have been a sad, quickly-forgotten story in the Evening News and that would have been it.

 

This is extremely uncomfortable to write about. It’s probably an uncomfortable read. Sorry about that. There’s more I feel I should include – I should talk about what it’s like to deal with the strange dichotomy between living a life that I’m happy with and want to continue with, and the constant low-level ideation, that little voice in my head that never quite stops saying “die, die, die, die, die”. I will, another time. A thousand words seems to be about my limit for one sitting, where this subject matter is concerned.

 

I’d love to sign off with some positive message about how it all gets better and brighter and everyone should just hang on in there, but since I’ve already mentioned that this is something I still deal with, that would be false. So I’ll end this post with the same phrase I’ve been using to answer the question “How are you?” for the past few years.

 

I’m still alive.

 

How are you?


Squiggles

This monologue was originally intended to feature in Such a Nice Girl, the play I wrote for the Just Festival in 2014. The character was cut and the play went in a different direction, but this piece has been used once or twice as a standalone monologue. I’m sharing it here because the events that inspired it have been on my mind of late. (I’m also sharing it under a Creative Commons license, so if you’re an actor and you want to use it you can do so royalty-free – click here for full details.) 

 

Squiggles. That’s what I used to call her. Partly on account of her hair – growing out of her head in little squiggles, but that wasn’t where it really came from.

 

No, it was from when she was two, and her big brother had just learned to write his name at school. Eilidh was determined she was going to write hers too, so she went and got her crayons and made her daddy write her name so she could copy it, just like Alisdair’s teacher had done for him. Then she took her favourite crayon, her blue crayon, and she had it in her wee fist, with her head down so her nose was just about touching the paper, and she was like that for about fifteen minutes until she came up to me with this solemn look on her face and said “Here you go, Mummy. That’s my name. Put it on the fridge.” And I looked at it and she hadn’t even tried to copy the writing at all! She’d just drawn all these squiggles. So I looked back at her and asked, quite seriously, “Is your name Squiggles?”

 

And she looked at me – she was such a serious wee lass, you could never tell if a thing like that would make her laugh or cry. I raised my eyebrows, making myself look even more serious, and that’s when she decided to laugh. And then she wouldn’t stop laughing, and said yes, that was her name, and it just kind of stuck. I kept calling her Squiggles even when she was too old for that sort of thing and would just sigh and pretend she didn’t know me.

 

Telling her I was dying was… Well, you can imagine. Jim offered to tell the kids, or I could have got the doctor to do it, but… The poor doctor, he was only about Alisdair’s age himself. Must have drawn the short straw. Looked like he’d rather be anywhere else, like he was wondering why he hadn’t just skived school and got a job at McDonalds. He was sitting in the chair next to my bed, and I was patting him on the shoulder and shushing him and thinking about how his shirt needed an iron. I knew what he was saying, but he could hardly get the words out. He kept getting as far as “I’m so sorry, Mrs Curran,” then he’d stammer and start again so I just said “I know. It’s ok. I know.”

 

And I did. I knew. I knew the minute I saw his face. Truth be told, I knew the minute the ultrasound man stopped as he was going over this bit here and went over it again. I knew when they said I’d to get a biopsy. I knew this was what they’d been looking for, even though they hadn’t said the name. All those tests I’d had over the last year. All those times when they’d told me it was stress or IBS or the menopause – because if you’re my age, everything’s the bloody menopause – I knew it was this. Cancer. Too fast and too aggressive to fight it, or even to slow it down. Sometimes you just know, it’s like your whole body saying to you “Come in Number 99, your time’s up!”

 

So I couldn’t let the wee doctor lad tell my family when I’d had more time to get used to the idea than he had. I told Jim first, and I could see how hard it hit him, but I could see him push it down into that part of his brain where he keeps things to be dealt with later. And he said he’d tell the kids, and I said maybe he could tell Alisdair. Ally’s like his dad, he’ll deal with things in his own way. He’s never really liked to show his feelings in front of his mum. He’d be better off with his dad. They could shrug and be silent about it. But Eilidh needed to hear it from me, and I needed to be the one to tell her. So I did.

 

And she looked at me, just the same look on her face that she had that day she tried to write her name. And I remembered that, and I raised my eyebrows like I did back then and wished she’d laugh. I could have done with seeing her laugh. But this time she didn’t. This time she just welled up and stared at me and said “Mum, I can’t manage without you.”

 

And I just said “Oh, Squiggles. You’re going to have to.”


The Tale of A Defective Woman

For International Women’s Day, I’ve decided to share the story of my infertility, sterilisation and the opposition I faced for wanting to control my own body. I make no apology for oversharing, and I’m not interested in any attempts to persuade me that I should have children. 

 

It’s been 18 months since I got sterilised. I’ve been considering whether to write about it ever since the operation, on the one hand eager to share my experiences but on the other eager to avoid the negative response that so often greets a woman choosing not to give birth.

 

In my case the childless state wasn’t wholly my choice. I’ve known since I was 17 that I was highly unlikely to conceive naturally. That was fine with me. I already knew that I didn’t want to conceive at all, so I reconciled myself to my infertility quite easily. However, several other women in my family had been told the same thing and had gone on to produce legions of offspring, so I knew better than to take any risks.

 

The most logical solution, it seemed to me, was to seek tubal ligation. A one-off minor operation struck me as a far better option than an endless round of pills, patches and injections. I approached my GP to ask for a referral. I was told I was too young to make a decision with permanent consequences. I argued that having a child is a decision with permanent consequences, and if I was legally old enough to do that then I ought to be considered old enough to take responsibility for myself. Nevertheless, my request was denied.

 

Thus began an annual battle with a succession of GPs. Every year, like clockwork, I would turn up a year older and ask for a referral. Every year, like clockwork, they would advise me that no-one would take my request seriously until I was at least 30 and probably more like 35. On one occasion, when I was 25, I succeeded in persuading a young male GP to refer me. It felt like such a triumph until I met the gynaecologist I’d been referred to. She informed me that I would want babies, no matter what I might think, that if I didn’t have them I’d regret them and that any woman who said otherwise was lying to herself.

 

I looked into the possibility of going private but chose not to. What put me off wasn’t the idea of saving up for it, or even the knowledge that I’d have to have the procedure done in the south of England, far away from my support network – it was the fact that this had become my personal ideological battle. If I had been in my 20s, married and struggling to conceive, those same doctors would have been bending over backwards to help me. If I’d been producing one child after another for all those years, no-one would have called me ‘entitled’ for using NHS resources to bring them into the world. If I’d presented with gender dysphoria and sought SRS I would not, based on what I hear from trans friends, have been told that I was too young to make decisions about what to do with my own body. But because I was choosing to consolidate my infertility rather than fighting to become a mother at all costs, I was being shut down. I felt utterly disempowered, but I was determined that I would keep fighting.

 

In the meantime I had to seek other means of contraception. For eight years I used Depo-Provera, the contraceptive injection. The noticeable side-effects were bad skin and low mood, but it kept me pregnancy-free and stopped my periods. Menstruation had always been a miserable experience for me, bringing with it cramps, nausea, vomiting, anaemia and cluster headaches at irregular intervals from the age of 13 until my first Depo jag at 18. Ceasing to menstruate was incredibly liberating. I felt like my life had been given back to me. I loved it. I was quite prepared to stick with Depo for as long as it took to win my battle for sterilisation (by which time I hoped my cycle would have settled down).

 

Then, when I was 25, I was sent for my first bone density scan. It revealed that had osteopenia and was on the cusp of osteoporosis. The cause, I was informed, was Depo. I had to stop my injections immediately and start carefully managing my calcium intake and absorption. I was advised that with proper calcium intake and a boost in oestrogen (provided by a change in contraception), I should be able to minimise the damage and I could expect to be back to a normal bone density for my age… by the time I hit menopause.

 

I wasn’t happy about all this, but what could I do? I did as I was told, altered my diet and began the quest for a new form of contraception. I tried the pill in various forms, followed by the patch, without success. It quickly became apparent that anything involving oestrogen is detrimental to my sanity. I experienced sharp, uncontrollable mood swings and became extremely aggressive, to the point where I genuinely feared that I would hurt someone. I was also anaemic from bleeding constantly, which wasn’t helpful, and gaining weight every time I switched contraceptives.

 

Being unable to take oestrogen means that my bone density will always be poor for my age, so I’ve just had to get used to having fractures every so often. But I still needed contraception, so I enquired about the IUD. I was advised that since I hadn’t had children this wouldn’t be ideal, but my options were limited. I tried the copper coil first. Cue nausea, cramps and heavy bleeding for six weeks until it had to be removed. Then I had a Mirena coil fitted, and in spite of repeated warnings that it was unlikely to suit a childless woman, it turned out to be the best option I had. Yes, there was more weight gain, mild mood swings, dysthymia, bad skin, tenderness and bloating, but at least I wasn’t actively throwing up or talking myself down from punching people who looked at me funny.

 

By this time I was 28. I’d spent three years switching from one form of contraception to another, having my hopes dashed again and again, paying the physical price for each failure. Fair to say that I was scunnered. And all the while I was being told again and again that I could not be sterilised because I was too young. It was incredibly frustrating.

 

As soon as I hit 30 I made the usual appointment. I opened with my absolute certainty that motherhood has no place in my life. I went through the usual list of contraceptives I’d tried and been told to discontinue. I closed with the argument that I was biologically old enough that I could have a teenaged child of my own, whom I would be responsible for educating about their contraceptive options, so it was increasingly ridiculous that I was not considered ready to be responsible for my own body.

 

The GP, an older man whom I had not seen before, simply nodded, agreed that I was old enough to make informed decisions about my own fertility, and referred me on. I couldn’t believe how helpful he was. Suddenly, now that I was out of my 20s, everything had changed. The gynaecologist offered no opposition, she just checked that I knew what the procedure involved and understood that it was permanent, then put me on the waiting list.

 

I was 31 by the time we found a suitable operation date, and it all went very smoothly. I will admit to a flicker of frustration when I was being prepped for the operation itself – I can understand why the nurses were checking with me that I understood that the procedure was permanent, but I didn’t appreciate being asked to confirm that my husband was happy for me to have it. Again, I can see why they asked, but the idea that my control over my body was somehow in my husband’s gift rubbed me up the wrong way.

 

A quick general anaesthetic, a few incisions and a couple of Filshie clips later, I was done. Goodbye fertility, hello freedom from constant synthetic hormones. The IUD was removed in the same operation, bringing down what felt like five years’ delayed period pain upon my poor body all at once. I spent a week curled round a hot water bottle and praying to Diclofenac for deliverance, then everything calmed down. I’ve spent the past 18 months learning what the new normality is. I still hate my menstrual cycle and resent its presence in my life, but the pain and blood loss happen at a manageable level these days. It’s an inconvenience rather than something that puts me completely out of action for days on end.

 

What annoys me is that this could have been my life years earlier. If my decisions had been respected and my early requests for sterilisation granted, I could have avoided a great deal of pain and inconvenience. Without the brittle bones I might have avoided numerous hospital trips and time spent rocking splints, plaster casts and crutches, or just fighting through invisible pain from the various fractured vertebrae I’ve had.

 

The argument against early sterilisation is always “What if you change your mind?” Does any doctor ask you this when you want to get pregnant? I’ve never heard of a doctor saying “Are you sure? You’re only 28, that’s still very young. What if you get to your 30s and find you don’t want a child then? What if you meet a man who doesn’t want children? Come back and see me when you’re 35, and if you still want children we can talk about it then. I just don’t want you making a decision you’ll regret.” And I very much doubt that a 31 year old woman going for her 12 week scan is repeatedly reminded that this decision she’s making is permanent, and asked to confirm that she understands the process that her body is going through, and quizzed about whether she’s considered termination instead. A woman choosing to bear a child is generally assumed to know what she’s doing. A woman choosing to forego motherhood is generally assumed not to.

 

If I ever regret my choice, then it will be up to me to take responsibility, accept the decision I made and find a way to get on with my life. I’m 33 now. I’ve yet to feel even the slightest flicker of activity from my supposed biological clock. The thought of being pregnant still fills me with horror, and I’ll be absolutely astonished if that ever changes. But if it does, if I suddenly find myself teleported into a chick flick and start obsessing over babies, it will be my responsibility to accept the choices I made and find a way to live with them.

 

 


Things I do for the sheer giddy hell of it

If you ask me what I like doing in my (ha) copious free time, most of my answers will be completely unsurprising. It’s mostly arty stuff, overlapping with my professional life – writing, music, reading, watching films, watching plays. I’m also fond of cooking and baking, and I like trivia quizzes.

There’s something that all of these things have in common. Specifically, I’m good at them. (Well, strictly speaking I’m not good at music, I am a terrible musician, but I’m a good singer so I can fool people into thinking I’m good at music.) I can interpret books, plays and films and discuss them endlessly. I am a repository of information that is never useful anywhere other than a quiz or when writing a play or a novel. My lemon drizzle cake is fantastic, and I make a killer Cullen Skink.

Without wishing to sound arrogant, I’ve always been pretty good at these things. Training and practise have helped, of course, but I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t do all of these things at an above average level.

Like many “gifted” people, my gifts came at the cost of my work ethic in my early years. Being naturally quite good at a lot of things, I was able to coast. I was clever enough to find workarounds for things that challenged me, but not quite clever enough to foresee the problems I was storing up for myself. Music is a good example here. I took singing lessons and, briefly, piano lessons when I was 14. For some reason reading sheet music was difficult for me, so rather than practise until it became easy I relied on having a good ear, decent pitch and muscle memory to see me through. It works for a little while, but I assume that if I’d been able to continue with piano for longer I’d have learned that there’s a stage at which you can’t just fake being good any more, you need to actually be good. I certainly reached that stage with things like languages. I got to university and suddenly the As weren’t quite as effortless as they used to be, so I found myself battling to acquire a work ethic at 17.

With all of that in mind, it always surprises me that one of my favourite hobbies is playing computer games. Let it be known that I am really, really bad at computer games. I can hold my own in some fighting games where furious button-mashing will carry the day. I’m decent at Tetris. But that’s about it. Where most games are concerned, including many of my favourites, I suck badly.

The first game I remember playing was Dig Dug. An uncle of mine had a home computer back in the days when those were rare, and he let me play it a couple of times. I loved it. I was bad at it.

Next came my cousins’ Sinclair Spectrum. They had Cauldron. I was probably about five and obsessed with anything witch-related, so I fell madly in love with the game. I don’t think I ever got past the first couple of screens, but that didn’t matter. There was this world in the computer and I could interact with it and I WAS GOD. This is probably the basis for much of my enjoyment of these games.

Eventually my dad set up a home office and I was sometimes allowed to play Solitaire on it, which wasn’t quite the same thrill as Cauldron. I continued to covet my cousins’ Spectrum, then their Nintendo, but eventually Dad let me expand my PC game repertoire with a pirated copy of King’s Quest 3. It’s a good thing I was dreadful at it and didn’t have a copy of the manual that had all the copyright protection spells in it – the pirated version was missing half the game, and I’d have been gutted if I’d successfully felinified the evil wizard only to be told I had to Insert Disk 2. Still, my crapness didn’t hold me back. I loved this unclearly-drawn world of magic and maps and I spent many happy hours trying in vain to climb down that bloody mountain path and typing in commands the game didn’t understand.

Then, at about the same time, my cousins got a Sega Megadrive and I got Sid Meier’s Pirates!, which still holds a place in my heart as one of my favourite games ever. At the same time as conquering the Caribbean (or failing spectacularly to), I was learning the delights of Sonic, Street Fighter II and Streets of Rage. Since my access to these games was severely limited, restricted not only by the infrequency of our visits but by the necessity of sharing with my cousins, I’m not surprised that I never became much good at them. But I loved them all the same.

I pestered my parents briefly to let me save my pocket money for a console of my own, but my dad brought that dream to an abrupt end by explaining that such a feat would take me years, and even then I wouldn’t be able to afford the games. I made do with being allowed to play games on his PC at weekends. I started to get better at Pirates and the Sierra games, along with a handful of oddities that entered my life because I found them in the sale bin at Makro or because I’d got my hands on a dodgy copy. Without wishing to enter the current contentious debate about “girl gamers”, I found that liking computer games put me squarely in the company of the boys at school. I don’t know whether I was the only girl in my class (both at primary and secondary, now that I think about it) who played computer games, but I was certainly the only one who was open about it and part of the little circle of kids swapping disks and photocopied manual pages under the desk. By those means, games like Monkey Island, Theme Park and Dune entered my life. I fell head over heels for the wit and lateral thinking of Monkey Island (well, wit, lateral thinking and GHOST PIRATES), and while I found that the resource management of the other two games challenged my attention span, I enjoyed the feeling of achievement I got when something I’d worked hard at went right.

Unfortunately, once I started secondary school I lost my little coterie of fellow gamers. If there were people who liked computer games at my tiny secondary school, I didn’t find them. I continued to play alone, but my supply of new games dried up. Then I began to concentrate on theatre and spent less time on games, and they remained an occasional pleasure for some years. I watched with envy as the World of Warcraft craze began, but I never got involved because I’m too much my father’s daughter to play anything I have to pay a subscription for. One-off purchases and single-player are more my jam. As an adult I contented myself with stocking up on legal copies of all those games I had once pirated and completed some that had stumped me as a child, sometimes due to my own ineptitude and sometimes due to my inability to afford hint lines/hint books (on which note, fuck you Sierra for putting the unicorn bridle in King’s Quest IV behind another object on a screen that was only accessible once in the game and generally only found by people with hint books).

Eventually it occurred to me that as an adult, I could now buy a games console if I wanted. I still couldn’t quite bring myself to pay the price for a new one, but I bought a second-hand Wii from a friend. He left Street Figher II and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on it. A few years later when my now-husband moved in, we fetched his old consoles from his parents’ place and began to play through old favourites. I started searching the internet for old PC games that I hadn’t been able to find copies of, which led me to GOG, and from thence to Steam and Humblebundle… Indie game El Dorado.

Just as I loved the old, simple games that introduced me to the joys of pixels on a screen, so I love the gorgeous games that are being released now. There’s so much beautiful artwork, so many brilliant scores, such clever gameplay… Some truly excellent games, some that do really interesting things that aren’t quite successful but are still really cool… and some that I don’t enjoy but am still interested to check out, especially considering that games don’t cost a fraction of what they used to when physical distribution was the only option.

It makes me really happy to have grown up with games and seen the progression from Dig Dug and Space Invaders to things like The Bridge, Braid, Crusader Kings II, Pid, and the game that has been my favourite thing for the past year, Don’t Starve.  I’m not bad at the stunningly-illustrated puzzles in The Bridge, though I do get seasick from the spinning screen. I don’t quite have the patience for Braid but I love to watch my  husband play it. I truly suck at Crusader Kings II, but once I stopped trying to be a good ruler and embraced my capacity for tyranny it became lots of fun. Don’t Starve is probably the game I’m best at, though I’m still pretty terrible and I cheat like hell by using mods to alleviate some of the game’s less forgiving aspects. I will never be one of these people with a massive fancy base, breezing through Adventure Mode just for kicks, but I will be the one having a high old time fighting death-or-glory battles with beasties several times my size. Sometimes I don’t have to be particularly good at things. I don’t say this often, but… from time to time, just having fun is enough.

Occasionally I encounter people who really seem to have a problem with adults playing computer games. I’ve been told that I should have grown out of it by now, and that it’s sad/shocking/both to see “a grown woman” wasting her time this way. Unsurprisingly, this is not criticism I choose to entertain. Firstly it’s my spare time and I’ll do as I damn well please with it. Second, I don’t consider it wasted time (and I suspect that if the people who say these things knew more about the massive, diverse range of games out there, they wouldn’t either). I enjoy every minute of it, even if I’m not good at them. That was true when I was eight and when I was sixteen. It’s true at thirty-two. I fully expect it to be true at sixty-four, and be damned to what anyone else thinks.

And when I’m 64, I expect that I’ll still be asking my husband to defeat the Helmasaur King for me. I never could kite that guy, and sometimes a girl has to know when to ask for help.


Knowing where I stand

There are some obvious difficulties inherent in living with mental health issues. There’s the apathy, the auditory hallucinations, the need to lock the car door three times. There’s the social stigma and the knowledge that by being open about it I might well cost myself opportunities. There’s the day to day management and constant updating of my CBT skills.

But among the weirdest and more difficult things is accurately assessing the severity of the issues. If you’ve never been “normal” or non-disordered, it’s hard to figure out how far from “normal” you currently are. (The world is full of people who try to say helpful things like “there is no normal”, “everyone’s a bit weird” and “you shouldn’t pathologise emotions”. Well-intentioned, but honestly, not helpful when you’re dealing with mental health problems. Yes, everyone has their idiosyncrasies, but there’s a difference between people’s quirks and actual disorders, and identifying mental health problems is not the same as pathologising emotions.) If you’re trying to figure out when it’s time to get help, you need to have some idea of how far into disordered thinking you’ve gone. Figuring that out requires observation of other people and comparison with them – for me, at least.

The tricky thing is doing this without letting it descend into a Crazy Contest. The point is to keep tabs on my own state of mind, not to prove that I am the Craziest Crazy that ever was Crazed. The difficulty arises from the fact that it’s hard to be objective and dispassionate about my own headspace, and there aren’t many reliable external criteria to help.

When I had my first and worst breakdown, the one where I stopped talking, eating or moving unless forced, that was categorised as Severe. Severe with Catatonic Features, to be specific. What I considered “getting better”, my shrink considered “Moderate”. I haven’t experienced full-on catatonia again, and I hope I never will. (Though just as a side note, this is what I mean about the difference between handling a disorder and “pathologising emotions”. I know what profound sadness and loss feel like, and I know what catatonic depression feels like, and I can assure you that they are nothing alike. What I was being treated for back then wasn’t “having feelings”.)

As of my last assessment, it’s categorised as Mild/Moderate. This is the best the headspace has ever been, so this blows my mind in two ways. First, those terms don’t feel like they do justice to the vast gulf between how I am now and how I was then. It feels like there ought to be at least a dozen different words standing between me and catatonia. Second, if this is Mild/Moderate, then what must it feel like if you’ve only ever experienced Mild? Or if you’ve never experienced depression at all? How does that work? My earliest memories of depressive feelings and behaviour date back to when I was only two or three. I’ve never been “normal”, there has never been a time in my life where I wasn’t this way. There are, apparently, people out there who do not live with depression, and I have no idea what that feels like. I genuinely can’t even imagine what it must be like. I’m fascinated by the concept.

That said, I’m fascinated with other people’s experiences of mental health in general. It seems like everyone has either experienced mental health problems or watched someone go through them at close quarters. It surprises me how many people I’ve met who have been hospitalised at some point. Bizarre as it may seem, the fact that I’ve never had to have inpatient treatment is one of those things which, in my darker moments, causes me to question the legitimacy of my own disorder. The “logic” runs this way: If I’ve never been hospitalised then I can’t have been all that bad, in which case my depression (etc.) is much less severe than theirs. Same thing with suicide attempts, I’ve never been caught in the attempt or ended up in hospital, so my depression can’t have been that bad.

Of course, that doesn’t take account of the fact that when I was catatonic, I probably should have been in hospital. If my mum hadn’t been able to take care of me, that’s where I would have been. Well, in hospital or dead. When I lived alone there was always an undercurrent of worry in my mind in case I misjudged myself and ended up catatonic again before I sought the right kind of help. I’ve always tended to go to ground when my headspace isn’t good, so it wasn’t unusual for me to vanish every so often. If I had slipped, I could have succeeded in starving myself to death. Would I have been far enough gone to merit hospital treatment? Yes. Would I have caused my own death without ever having been hospitalised or having any record of suicide attempts? Yes. So presumably these things are not good yardsticks for severity. They’re not legitimising experiences, they’re just experiences that people might have had depending on their circumstances. It’s a lot easier to end up getting sectioned if you have a disorder that causes you to behave strangely in front of other people. Disorders that manifest in withdrawal and introversion make it easy just to waste away unnoticed. That this could have been my lot still frightens me. That’s the thing I am guarding against.

On the flip side of this, I sometimes read  or hear about other people’s experiences and they seem milder than what I’m used to. I work hard to listen and read without judgement, but it’s an emotional topic connected to a strong fear, and I would be lying if I said that I’d never had a rogue thought along the lines of “Pfft, low moods, that’s nothing. Come and talk to me when you can’t feel anything at all, then you’ll know what real depression feels like!”

This is nonsense, of course Different people experience different levels of severity. I know that. I understand it. That’s why there are different categories. Also, catatonic depression isn’t the only legitimate form of depression. I’m aware of all of this. But when you’re dealing with mental health issues, it’s a constant battle to be taken seriously (both by myself and by other people) and to accept my own diagnosis and experiences as legitimate. When I feel myself slipping and decide to seek help, I feel bad about taking up my GP’s time because there’s still a part of me that doesn’t really accept that there’s a whole realm of depression that lies between “fine” and “catatonic”, and that I don’t have to be unable to function in order to justify asking for help.

This is why I feel it’s important for people to speak openly about their mental health, if they can. The more people there are talking about it, the better equipped we as a society will become to talk about it (I hope). The better equipped we are, the easier it will be to assess our own mental health and gauge how we’re doing. I often wish that when I had my first breakdown, the internet had been further developed. I had access to it and was using it in 2000, but the blogosphere was considerably smaller and it would have been great to have had access to the range of experiences that you can find online today. Future Jen-equivalents, I hope you find this and I hope it helps.

Still, as important as I believe it is, it’s just as important for me to remember that my mental health and dead parents aren’t all there is to me. They’ve been major influences on my life and my choices, and I’ve no plans to stop writing about them, but I think that for my next post I’m going to find a less angsty topic (and by that I don’t mean arts politics, the other major strand to this blog). I’m sure I can do it if I try…