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MY WORLD

I don’t often write about my illness but I feel compelled to do so now because it’s troubling me. It does this sometimes. My mind is torturing me; I’m torturing myself. I’m having what is called a “Depressive Episode”. This is a term repeated many times on my medical record and it was previous episodes like this which led me to overdose and be admitted to hospital twice. I have no intention of letting that happen with this one.

That was around a week ago, when this latest episode started. Like others before it, this was another large, dark ship, floating suddenly in to view, obscuring the horizon and just sitting there.

Like so much with depression – and I am clinically diagnosed as having chronic depression – the feelings are hard to describe, even when you’re in their midst. It’s also personal and therefore subjective. The best way that I could think to describe an episode in words was when I posted quote memes on social media: mental illness is just as traumatic as anything which might happen to you physically. A panic attack is like being stabbed; an anxiety attack, like being stalked. A depressive episode is like being buried alive. Many have written of depression and described it in its varied incarnations. How I feel is something which only I can attempt to put into words.

To demonstrate how my life feels, we would place two mirrors facing one another with a distance between them dictated by a photon travelling from the moment of my birth to the end of my life. Then I stand you between the two mirrors and you can see what it looks like.

It’s an interesting concept that a photon leaving me at the moment of my birth will now have travelled 45 light years into space. Whether photons can be truly massless is the subject of debate. They have speed – they travel at the speed of light – and therefore, energy. So an almost infinite quantity of nearly infinitely small parts of me now occupy an area in space ninety light years across. But I digress. These are the things which occupy my mind.

The best way to deal with these things is not to run away but to confront them. That’s pretty easy for me because my episodes manifest themselves in periods of deep inner reflection. It’s most likely writing my new book which has prompted this. As I’ve observed previously, it’s difficult to write of my breakdown, which was itself deeply personal. It’s hard to rationalise something with hindsight, which at the time I both did and didn’t understand. The breakdown and resulting homelessness were caused by depression and alcohol abuse and the effect was a second diagnosis of PTSD, after the original one following a knife-point robbery. My life is a tangled web of good and bad, conflicting and co-operating.

Although it’s not a complete autobiography, the book has to have some sort of context and therefore, I’m having to revisit the period leading up to my losing it. This is a very difficult time to write about but the clarity I now have in relative sobriety is what makes it so challenging. I’m having to confront the lying and cheating which I subjected my wife and children to; the lying to and stealing from my fiance and my parents; and the alienation of many friends. Sobering up and being able to talk to these people coherently as I’ve rebuilt bridges has taught me that most of them simply gave up because they couldn’t bear to see me kill myself but were helpless to stop me. They were mourning prematurely. Now that I’ve dried out, I know that these people cared. At the time, my judgement was skewed by drink and mental anguish: I was right and they were all wrong, as I was always keen to spit about on my blog. It would be much easier to write the story if I were still in that frame of mind but now I can see all of the damage I caused because I’ve sobered up. Some would say it’s enough to drive one to drink but that would be in very poor taste. So the story has already been written once but it needs to be told again, truthfully and with more sympathy towards the supporting cast. I can now write about the whole episode in the past tense. I am now able to speak with the other people involved, gain a perspective which I kicked away before and write a balanced account of how someone threw away a stable life, destroyed his own and those of others, had a breakdown, then became something different. From a capitalist, rightwing, narrow-minded, bigoted alcoholic, to an atheist, anarchist, feminist, pot-smoking, alcoholic writer with chronic depression. The biggest victory was in gaining recognition for being unwell. There are millions more like me in that respect.

Just as I’m exploring my breakdown, so I am my recovery. There were no single catalysts for either; both just happening around me under a lot of influences. As all of my retained friends who let me go for dead have said, I had to do it myself. I acknowledge and appreciate all of the help which has been around me and which remains. It’s the kind of help which you take for granted but with those who I know take me for granted, I take that as a compliment. Because taken for granted is how it may seem to the outsider but they don’t see the bonds which tie. I’m thinking primarily of the girls but it applies to others. With all those relationships, there’s an unspoken and assumed moral code. It’s an unbreakable thing, which transcends age and distance: it’s friends and family: to me, the two are the same. I was encouraged when I questioned whether I should write the memoir of my breakdown, when it was causing me distress, by two people. Neither of them are physically close to me on a regular basis but I have that bond with them for different reasons. One was an old school mate. Us grammar boys never lose that link. This friend spent many of his post-school years in southeast London, like me. He thinks that I need to write the book, for my own sake and possibly to help others. He knows me. The other vocal support was from one of the girls. She’s interested to see how I became what I am to her now. We have that unbreakable bond. No-one’s broken it yet and no-one would ever be able to. So I’m resolved to do it and the feedback I’ve had from beta readers is encouraging.

I wouldn’t have a lot of the friends and family I have now, were it not for my breakdown and the aftermath. It’s largely because of the circumstances that those relationships are so close. Some happen to be with teenage girls because I was living in a squat and teenage girls love to congregate somewhere: the squat was such a place. I helped them then and continue to do so. It’s a two-way street. They often don’t realise how much help they are but that’s the unspoken aspect again: they’re just there. I don’t bother them but they need me often enough and two in particular were very bright lights in an otherwise dark period last week. Rather than turn to the pills this time though, I confronted my illness, just as I’m facing off against my old self as I write the book. It was and still is like playing chess with your intellectual equal, while you both play with the same coloured pieces.

I am of above average IQ and as such, I’m able to partly understand a little of what’s going on in my head. What I don’t understand – the majority of it – has become fascinating. It could be my increased consumption of cannabis which prompted the episode but I feel more sure that it’s helped me to deal with something which would have been along at some point anyway. I’m able to analyse and dissect things, while at the same time thinking laterally. I wouldn’t say I’m friends with my illness but I have a greater level of respect for it after the latest depressive episode. It’s a troublesome entity of unknown origin. It’s difficult to understand much about it, least of all its motives. Perhaps it means me no harm and we simply have a language barrier. All of which sounds rather similar to one of the many plotlines in a rather good book I once read. I was reminded of the same book a few nights ago, when I watched a contemporary science fiction film, to the extent that I checked that the filing of my ISDN pre-dated the writing of the movie.

I did very little writing last week. In fact, this is the first day in about a week that I’ve been sufficiently disciplined to sit at my desk and write any meaningful prose. I even missed a week of pulp fiction publication in Schlock webzine. I’d let the pulp side of things slide for a while as I concentrated on stories for various competitions. There were five which I felt had the merit required for entry in ghost story, modern fairytale, fantasy and flash fiction competitions. The blog and pulp fiction output have been sparse because the work I was concentrating on before this latest melt was commercial, publishable, paid writing and not marketing or self-promotion. Now I have a rather good Hallowe’en / Guy Fawkes short story at first draft stage. As usual, it’s at least two stories in one, which is becoming one of my better known and liked trademarks as a writer. The trademark served me well with The Elephant in the Playroom, as most readers who commented saw the underlying subtext, the parallels and the references to that which wasn’t actually written. Presumably the rest of the audience fled in disgust. The Hallowe’en story is obviously subject to a deadline, so it will probably be published as pulp, marketing to a free readership, then I’ll decide if it’s worthy of development into something longer. My story of The Alternative Nativity is one which will be written for paid publication, via a route identified in the bible on my desk: The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. This particular route to market is via an atheist publication. Us professional writers need to have reference tools, we need to research and we need to pitch ourselves to the right people: this is a business after all.

Whilst not writing over the last week or so, when I’ve not been talking to myself, I have been spending at least some time doing all of the things which a professional writer is supposed to do besides writing. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is good for contact details and Writing Magazine creates work, with its classified ads for competitions and features on niche print and web publications. Many webzines do pay for writing at quite generous rates and I’m planning submissions to a selected few. But the big, background task going on all the time is Forgive Me No-one. It has simply become a natural book to write next and the others which will have to take a back seat in the meantime will most likely benefit as a result. Although Forgive Me no-one is only the second working title, it’s the one we’ll most likely stick with for publication. The full title is Forgive Me No-one For I Have Sinned. As I wrote in the introduction:

I started writing this book after I’d been seeing sense for a while: I had a drinking problem under control and had decided that there was no god. Despite all the help which I received from various churches while I was homeless, my mind is clearer now that my only conviction is that there is no god. I realise that were it not for the church, I may not have survived but I became convinced that all of the money tied up in religion might be better directed at helping one’s own. That would rely on human kindness and generosity. I found much humanity away from the religion side of things. I believe that humankind alone can achieve so much more when not tied to religion. It can be trusted to generally look after its own. Most of the problems arise when religion is involved.

I don’t believe in any unseen entity which I should beg forgiveness from. I have no fear of what comes after this. I don’t have to live life in a certain way to please a false deity. There is no judge after life as we understand it. I have sinned though. If I tell the whole truth, then I am damned but only by religion. I seem to remember writing a book which covered that and many other paradoxes.

I have the perfect life around me, albeit one built of modest aspirations: a wonky little bedsit at the top of a wobbly old pub in a shitty old town. More importantly, I have the friends and family I gained, lost and retained. Those around me now know just the level of intervention required during an episode to largely let me get on with it myself. This time I didn’t let them down and I came back, to those people who are simply there, like me. 

For as long as I live, by the grace of nothing more than my own escape from abuse, I shall continue to be free to speak and write as I please.

Expression is freedom: that’s why I have delirium tremens.

If I were asked a question which Stephen Fry once asked himself, of whether he would press a large red “OFF” button to be rid of his troubled mind, I would answer the same as him: no. I don’t think anyone who knows me well would want me to press that button either.

“Forgive me no-one for I have sinned: tales from the road” is scheduled for publication on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback in May 2016, priced at £7.99. “The Paradoxicon” is available now on Amazon for Kindle at £1.99.

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Washed up in a land I didn’t know

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MY WORLD

Two words are prevalent in my mind as I begin to write the memoir of my time on the road: fucking hell. I do not plan to share further chapters of this with anyone other than my close circle of test readers but as I put my mind to the task in hand, the introduction – as it turns out – is quite a hook…

It came from nowhere and everywhere: it suddenly dawned on me that I’d fallen to the lowest place possible before death, yet the situation was of my own making. I hadn’t been trying to kill myself but it turned out I’d been doing a pretty good job without realising. 

There were many times when I could quite easily have met my end or come to more harm than I did in the event. In a way, I wished that someone else would end my life because I lacked the courage to do it myself. I did try. I took two overdoses but didn’t do a very good job of it: the story of a life which was doomed to continue.

Other people had a go. There was a time when I asked someone to help me.

Tom was an ex-Royal Marine. He’d been retired through ill health, largely because he bore mental scars from an act he’d had to commit whilst on service. He was an alcoholic. He had a better excuse than me: whilst serving in Afghanistan, Tom had killed a three-year-old girl. She’d already been raped, front and back. Her parents had been killed by the Taliban. Tom cradled the girl, trying to shield her from the crossfire around them. A Red Cross ambulance was en route but it was blown up by an IED. Another ambulance was at least a day away and there was no realistic prospect of rescue by helicopter. Surrounded by the enemy, Tom shot the girl through the head.

Tom and I were staying in what we generously referred to as the concrete bunker at the time. The bunker was literally that: a concrete shell. It was cold and damp but it did at least offer a degree of shelter, though little else.

Safety was sometimes improved by sleeping in shifts but in reality, we were both so drunk that we shared a hope that we’d fall asleep and not wake up again.

Tom actually climbed to the top of what we called “The Drop” as many times as me. The Drop was a death machine: we’d built it with one purpose in mind. Quite simply, it was a ladder propped up to the skylight we were fortunate enough to have. The skylight was broken, so we were also fortunate enough to have running water and air conditioning, thanks to the winter elements.

We’d spent many minutes setting up our operation: the ladder was at a 45 degree angle and we’d fashioned a length of electrical flex into a noose, which hung from the underside of The Drop.

I really wanted to christen the thing. I climbed the ladder and was about seven feet up when I put the flex around my neck. I hung from the underside of the ladder, with my arms holding the ladder behind me. I’d have looked like some sort of angel, my arms splayed behind me like wings, my chin on my chest as I looked at the concrete floor below me. Tom just needed to kick my heels.

For whatever reason, he missed. So I jumped. What we’d not reckoned on was The Drop being around seven feet and me considerably less.

Bollocks.

And so things continued. It was a life lived on the edge but one which turned out to be worth living. 

A fine line of cocaine between genius and madness

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MY WORLD

“Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them”: so said Paul Auster, one of my greatest American literary heroes. I’m a writer and as such, I can tell stories. The one I’ve not told properly though is my own. Plenty of things have happened to me, so I have the stories and the ability to tell them. The blog served as a running commentary for a while and remains as a dark reminder of my breakdown. There was a lot which I had to omit or remove from the blog though, so it doesn’t tell the whole story. The new book which I’ve started writing will rectify that. More accurately in some cases, the book will right some misguided wrongs I made previously.

My frame of mind was different when I was maintaining the blog as a public diary: I was convinced that I was right and all those around me were wrong. I’ve learned and I’ve changed. I realise now that it was me who was wrong and that I was in denial. There were plenty of things I was right about though. So unlike the blog, the book will be less about me putting other people in their place and more about me dealing with myself. I’m only able to do that now that I’m able to see things differently, with the benefit of sobriety and hindsight. The worst is over and there’s a new life ahead. I’m living it but I must acknowledge what went before. If I’d not gone through all that I did, I wouldn’t have ended up where I am. I had to go through a personal hell, before almost accidentally ending up with a dream life.

With a working title of On My Radio – one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite ska bands, The Selecter – the book is not an autobiography but it is an autobiographical memoir of my time on the road, how I got there and how it changed me. Now is the time to write the book, as I have reached an ending of sorts to a period in my life; very much a new beginning as well.

I wondered whether stories of being a homeless alcoholic would be marketable: I’m not expecting a best seller but the story is worth telling for a number of reasons. Among the many experiences I had while on the road, some would make great pieces of fiction. This is fact though and just as I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve, so the stories will be the truth and they’ll be embellished only by the parts I had to leave out of the blog. Some of the names will have to be changed but I will tell it like it was. Even those who were privy to quite a lot don’t know the whole and may be quite surprised at some of the revelations. The book is a fairly big undertaking, so I’ve sought the advice of my peers and almost without exception, they’ve said that it’s a book worth writing. One went so far as to say that if the book is anywhere near as captivating as the blog then it will make for a good read.

I’m in a very privileged position: I get paid anyway, whether or not I write. I like to write though; I enjoy my job. The new book will be the story of how someone went from having almost everything and thinking they were happy, to someone who lost it all but found contentment. I went from being a rightwing church-going bigot, running a business and living a fairly lavish life; snorting coke and having the credit cards to cut the lines,  to a pot-smoking, Guardian-reading atheist, anarchist, feminist writer. Surely it would take quite some powerful influences to make such changes? My time on the road did that, so that’s the main reason for writing On My Radio.

Writing the memoir will most likely distract me a little from the other three books I’m writing but I feel that I’m in a position where I need to write it before I really move on: closure perhaps. The three novels remain works in progress but they’ll progress much quicker once I’ve got this off of my chest. Although it’s sometimes said that the easiest things to write about are those that you know and even yourself, writing about that period in my life won’t be easy because I hardly recognise the central character.

Meanwhile and in between times, the pulp and schlock fiction continue to churn out. My emotions are a little mixed on news that The Elephant in the Playroom has been accepted for publication. It is a shocker, to the extent that part of me wants to disassociate myself from it. It’s far more disturbing than COGS. Like COGS, it forces me to question things but where COGS was a tale told in a certain way, The Elephant in the Playroom provides no such luxury. I deliberately wrote it so that it would be read in a certain way. It’s stripped bare and it is not pretty. It’s guerilla writing; it’s minimal and confrontational. It’s as much about the style of writing as the subject matter itself. Most importantly though, it makes a point. It’s affecting and it ought to make the reader think: part of me pities them as this will be almost indelible in their minds. I will be judged and I can already see the two camps which will be the most vocal. There will be criticism but there’ll be debate: both confirmation that I’m good at my job. The Elephant in the Playroom is the kind of story which could be the making or the destruction of a writer in a less privileged position than me. Being self-employed means that I have even greater freedom as a writer and I have exercised my freedom of expression, not only of subject matter but of style. I would go so far as to say that if The Elephant in the Playroom doesn’t lead to debate, conversation, accusation, condemnation and possible investigation, speculation and judgement, then I’ve not done my job very well. It’s not courageous or foolhardy writing; it’s challenging. Clearly I relish a challenge.

As one of my other transatlantic literary influences and inspirations said,  “Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”

“Genius might be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way.”

(Henry Charles Bukowski (born Heinrich Karl Bukowski; August 16, 1920 – March 9, 1994),  who spent much of his life as a homeless alcoholic.)

Confronting the elephant in the room

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THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’m being held back a little at the moment, while I consider a particular story which I’m writing. My overall output has decreased very little and I’m busy on the background stuff, like the three books I’m writing and everything else which is ongoing with no visible, published output. I’m still churning out the latter, some of it pulp fiction and some for publication in print. The story I’m currently working on was originally a pulp fiction shocker and may well appear as such in a webzine but with further refining, it will have the required merit to be published in print. It’s the content which is proving difficult.

The story’s working title is The Elephant in the Playroom, which is both misleading and a warning in itself: I meant to do that. Now I have a literal elephant in the room. I have a scene to write which is integral to the story; it’s the whole point; it’s necessary. But I’m finding it hard to write. It’s not that I’m unable to write the scene but it is like none which I’ve written before. I’m sure the story will be pulled apart after publication and I’ll be analysed as the writer, in a deconstructive way. Deconstruction of writing and the people who write it is something I enjoy doing with my test readers and peers, especially when the focus is on me. But I’m apprehensive about this story and the pivotal scene in particular.

There is no attempt to hype here because in fact, I would rather suppress this thing. I can’t though because it’s so effective in what it does. What it does is disturb and repulse, yet compel at the same time. It’s a car crash: that classic horror writer’s tool. No matter how many literary RTCs I’ve created though, this is the one which will remain indelible. I do actually wonder if I should subject readers to it. I wonder if I might actually rather be a fatality in the scene which others witness. In a way, the story places readers in both positions.

But isn’t the point of what I do, to do it in an affecting way, in order to be effective? Aren’t I supposed to affect readers? I have limited but effective means. When compared to other media, writing is constrained by its methods of output, so the reduced tools of transmission need to be effective and make up for those which are absent. I cannot film a scene and portray it on a screen for my audience; I wouldn’t want to film the scene which I am about to write. I am unable to record the sounds of the scene for future broadcast: I would not want to be in the place where this takes place to do so. It’s an absolute shocker but not for shock’s sake. There is no gratuity of violence and very little description of what is actually going on in the scene. It’s mainly left to the readers’ imaginations: another great trick, also used by film makers.

Just because I thought it though, does that mean anyone else should be burdened by it? If I write it, am I going to be looked at by authorities other than the censors? Is this work of fiction going to be memorable for the wrong reasons? It is certainly indelible. So, should I write it? It is effective but does it go too far? I really don’t wish to glamorise it but I’m potentially writing a real nasty. Given some of the issues I’ve had with other writing, this one will almost certainly be subject to scrutiny by censors before it’s let anywhere near mainstream publishing.

I’ve matured as a writer. COGS remains a piece of which I am proud, however controversial it may be. “COGS is wrong on so many levels. It is morally wrong and utterly disturbing but beautifully written.” Although that was from my youngest daughter-type-thing, it was a sentiment shared by other people and demographics. Now that it’s my full-time job and I’m self-employed, I’m not tied or beholden by guidelines or one publisher: I’m freelance and I can explore my freedom of expression, through material and method, possibly to a commercial detriment but I’m not in it for the money. Who would be? There is very little of it. Some of what I’ve written has taken a while to pass the censors. COGS was one of the stories which got held up prior to its publication in its original form, purely because of its subject matter. In writing the story, I had only shown the reader something, leaving much to their own interpretation. That’s pretty much the best the writer can do. A lot is down to the reader but the real skill of the writer is in directing how that reader thinks.

One of my many writing hallmarks is the open-to-interpretation, multiple-meaning of my words. The scene of the story which I’m currently writing could carry this trait but it will require a lot of my skill to pull it off. It is a shocker and I worry a little about my readers’ perceptions of me, almost as much as I do my own sanity. It’s a necessary scene in a worthwhile piece, if I can write it well enough. The reactions of beta readers and censors will dictate whether the larger audience gets to see it published, in its original form. This is one story which will not work in any kind of edited form.

The completion of the work has been further held up by a succession of teenage girls needing somewhere to hang out and / or crash. I have been host to four of them over the last three days and three spent the night. Their company is always a pleasure and a teenage girl or two around the place will always add an aesthetic pleasure. They’re all good enough to understand that I have things to do nowadays, so they’re happy to sit in the savage cinema while I work in the cradle of filth, eventually crashing out with me in the latter. It’s nice to share a bed with a friend and I’m always quietly pleased that they still come to me for company and safety but for the first time in almost four days, it is a relief to be able to work without distraction. The pad is a sadder place without those girls but it will be nice to increase the average age of occupants of the bed tonight and reduce the numbers sleeping in it.

I give my bed up to attractive young ladies but I’d rather be writing.