So Much to Tell You* (Hi from the psych hospital. No really.)

First up: if this post raises any concerns for you please, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 or if you’re a young adult you can visit www.headspace.org.au

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Hey people. It’s been a really long time. It’s been a long time since I met any readers, visited a high school or did a festival. I have three books sitting on a desk in my hospital room. I wrote them all. My name is on the cover. I have them here to remind me what my mind is capable of because  none of the author stuff – the festivals, the workshops, even the actual writing – feels real anymore. But I must have done it, because there those books are, on my desk as well as on shelves in people’s homes and bookshops. (Forgive me if my sentences are a little clunky, there are a lot of meds doing a lot of funny things in my brain right now.)  The Protected  even won The Prime Minister’s literary award, the CBCA Book of the Year, the Victorian Premier’s Award and the WA Premier’s Book Prize! That’s a lot. And it’s a bloody great height to fall from, but here we are. Or here I am.

Early one Friday morning in July I was in the car on the way to do a school visit when I got a sudden sharp achy pain in my chest and found I couldn’t breathe properly. This was accompanied by a strange liquidy hot swooshing sensation that flooded my chest, limbs and brain.  At first I thought I must have drunk my coffee too quickly. It had been such a long time since I’d had any issues with anxiety that it took me a while to realise it was a rather acute panic attack. I started to cry, consumed with the most potent terror imaginable. I pulled over. I breathed slowly and deeply. I waited for it to pass, drove to the school, did three talks on auto-pilot and a (hopefully) convincing impression of someone who is completely mentally sound. (I’ve had a lot of practice at that. I don’t know if that’s the right spelling of the word ‘practice’ in this context. I don’t care.)

I came home, had pizza and watched TV. I looked forward to the next day. But the next morning, and the morning after that, the panic was back: a great snarling black monster squirming through my body squeezing my chest and turning all the lights out in my mind.

Initially my doctor chalked it up to exhaustion. That didn’t really make sense to me because in the weeks leading up to this point I had felt better than I think I ever have in my whole life. I was super motivated, I was writing lots, drawing and painting lots, and had become very, very enthusiastic about house plants. I really wanted to believe it was exhaustion. That meant I just needed to rest and I would be sweet.

I rested. I rested really hardcore. But it didn’t make any difference. I’d have a week or so of classic anxiety, panic attacks, then sobbing and hideous depression; only for it to lift as suddenly as it had started and I’d go back feeling totally fine. This went on, up and down through July , August and September like the most hideous, poorly designed and possibly deadly rollercoaster you can imagine. (My simile game is weak at the moment, forgive me.)  Every time I thought I had come good and the glitch in my system had passed, it would bowl me over again.

I had to pull out of Byron Bay Writer’s festival. I had to cancel school visits and all my bookings for Book Week. That was the worst. I hate letting people down. I hate pulling out of commitments. I got an email from a devastated reader who had been looking forward to seeing me in Byron. I cried while I read it. I’ve been composing something in reply over and over in my head ever since, but I can’t get the words right. I like to get the words right. It’s kind of my job.

We thought maybe it was a series of viruses. We thought maybe it was something to do with meds. (Which I have taken diligently for years and up until now have served me very well.) My doc ran tests. Maybe it was my thyroid. Maybe it was diabetes. Maybe it was a brain tumour!

The MRI showed no tumour, which was good. But I longed for an answer.

(My GP, I should add, is amazing. But it’s hard to diagnose the bizarre array of symptoms I was experiencing. I was also in complete denial that it was anything wrong with my mental health, it was far more appealing for me to believe (and insist) that this was something that had gone physically wrong in my body.)

I did make it to Melbourne Writers’ Festival where I did my sessions in a daze, signed books on auto-pilot then went back to the hotel, curled in a ball and wailed. Like really ugly snotty crying, not at all dignified or glamorous; even though it was the Sofitel, which is a really, really fancy place.

I went on a European holiday with my husband and sons. We used a bit of the prize money from The Protected to go to Amsterdam, Berlin and Italy. We had some really fun times. I also had some of the absolute worst times I’d ever experienced – it’s a very special thing to have a prolonged panic/anxiety attack in the Van Gough museum while looking at the paintings poor bloody Vincent did when he was losing his own mind.

About ten days ago the rollercoaster threw me off and I was left crumpled on the floor. I couldn’t battle it anymore. I couldn’t do anything except cry and think horrible, catastrophic thoughts. All the lights went out.

So here I am in a psychiatric hospital. God has been very gracious and kind to me. If I hadn’t won those prizes I wouldn’t have been able to afford it and trust me, anyone who has ever been in a public psych ward knows you need years of therapy to get over the experience of being in a public psych ward. This hospital is a really nice one, it has good food, a gym and wifi. It is staffed with kind people who are skilled in caring for those of us who have had a run in with a rollercoaster. (That metaphor really is all I got right now, apologies.)

I’m okay. The word ‘bipolar’ is being used and that’s scary, but it’s an answer to the truly baffling experience that has been my life since July. Also, Stephen Fry has bipolar and he seems to be managing, right? I mean, the constant reruns of QI are excruciating, but I would like to have him to a dinner party. (Him and Jesus. And Truman Capote. And Rob Brydon. And Felicty Ward.)

The main reason I am writing this post (which is the only thing I have written since July) is because it’s really super important to break the stigma about mental illness. It’s very easy when you’re really down or anxious to think that everyone else in the world has it together and you are the only one not coping and therefore there is no way out for you. Do I need to list the awards again? (I don’t mind, really.) This shit can happen to anyone. Talk about it. If you are feeling like you’ve been thrown off the rollercoaster (Oh yeah, I’m still flogging that one.) tell someone. If they don’t take you seriously, tell someone else. Tell your parents, a sibling, a teacher, a friend, your doctor, or that weird aunt with a lot of house plants. Speak up. They won’t think you’re a drama queen, a freak, a nut job, or weak. They will think you are human.

Claire x

*Title is a homage to one of the writers who made me want to be a writer, John Marsden. I tried ‘Looking for Claire Zorn’ in honour of Melina Marchetta but it didn’t have the same ring to it.

What lovely news for a Wednesday

Hello internet. It’s day three of the school holidays and I am all out of ideas to occupy the small people. They are both still alive and nothing (including my spirit) has been broken, though. So let’s count that as a success thus far.

And* hey, Twitter just delivered some happy news! The Protected has been shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. This book continues to prove itself to be the little book that could. I nearly threw this manuscript in the bin and gave up on writing altogether multiple times during its creation. Here’s an understatement: I’m glad I didn’t.

The other shortlisted books in the YA category are:

Croggan, Alison The River and the Book Walker Books (2015)
Groth, Darren Are You Seeing Me? Random House (2014)
Hayes, Nicole One True Thing Random House (2015)
Lawson, Sue Freedom Ride Black Dog Books, an imprint of Walker Books (2015)
Lomer, Kathryn Talk Under Water University of Queensland Press (2015)

What a top notch bunch. I am, as ever, privileged to be amongst them and to be part of the powerhouse that is Australian Young Adult fiction.

When you’re working on a big project, whether it’s writing a book, making a film or creating an album, the whole thing is a gamble. You continue to bet, often against the odds, that something will come of the pain and time you pour into it. You hope that it will find an audience of people who love it as much as you do. If you are someone who is toiling away in the pursuit of a career in the creative arts, please, please hear me when I say that hard work and determination will pay off. Ignore the pressure to ‘grow up and get a real job’. If you’re good at it, stick with it, surround yourself with people who will encourage you when it all seems hopeless and gently guide you when you’ve gone off course.

I still find myself wracked with self doubt when I’m writing. (Especially when it takes me four goes to spell the word ‘privilege’ correctly.) Being shortlisted for awards (and being fortunate enough to win a few) is encouraging beyond words.

Thank you to all the people who helped me on the road to this point. You know who you are. I’m so bloody proud of Hannah right now.

The Madness in the Method – on creativity and mental illness

Like many humans, I sometimes have conversations with other humans. (Real ones, not the imaginary ones I converse with for money.) Inevitably when chatting with someone new, the question of occupation comes up and that’s when I get to tell them I’m an author. It’s wonderful. My twelve year-old self (who couldn’t spell or do sums but had a catalogue of imaginary worlds and characters in her head) does backflips of glee. I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I don’t love my profession, yes writing novels is difficult, but it is a privilege and I still have a file of rejection letters in my study to remind me how blessed I am.

Sometimes the news that I am an author is met with questions about what I write, how I got published, how much money I earn or when I find the time to write. Sometimes the response is, ‘Wow, you must have a big imagination!’ This always seems to me like telling Usain Bolt that he must be quite athletic. Yep, I have a big imagination. Most humans do. I put mine to work everyday, which strengthens it and a lot of the time my imagination is very useful to me. But sometimes it can be dangerous. (This is where the Bolt analogy falls apart, unless he starts using his speed to rob banks.)

I’ve been doing a lot of school visits recently and I usually tell students that I think primarily in pictures and I see a story in my head play like a film. The pictures come easily, finding the words to do them justice and communicate them effectively to my reader is the hard part. My mind’s ability to build intricate, detailed scenes is what allows me to write novels. This is helped along by a long-term memory bank which seem inexhaustible; I can remember what colour sweater my husband was wearing on our first date thirteen years ago, for example. Do I remember my son’s school library day is Tuesday? Never. img_0815.jpg

But like it is for a lot of creative people, my mind is a double-edged sword. It can build intricate, detailed pictures of chaos so well that the worst case scenario in any situation seems highly plausible. I recently contemplated getting a quote for someone to clean my kitchen and bathroom once a fortnight, but I decided not to incase the cleaner turns out to be a serial killer. I then flicked through the handy mental list I have of female murder victims from the recent past (admittedly, there have been a lot to choose from) as evidence that inviting a stranger into my home was certain to result in my death. This is kind of funny to read. It seems ridiculous.

I’m still nervous about the cleaner.

Yep, I’m a master of catastrophic thinking. So good, in fact, that I have made a living out of thinking up catastrophes and following them through until the very end. Ever wondered what it would be like to live through a nuclear winter? I wrote a book on it. Read it and you won’t have to wonder anymore. What does the death of a sibling do to a person? I’ve got that covered too. The next book has a grief-stricken boy navigating the world after the sudden death of his mother. Guess what? I have sons.

But sometimes I can’t organise all my anxieties into a narrative. Sometimes they are so real and so threatening that they take over my existence altogether and I have trouble functioning because my mind is so busy worrying and despairing and reliving every distressing event I’ve ever experienced in that same excruciating detail that apparently makes my books win awards. Last year The Protected won three major awards. Everyone kept telling me that I must be so thrilled and excited and walking on air. I was. A bit. But it was coupled with the knowledge that within a month of being offered the publishing contract for that book I was in a psychiatric ward and that the giddy high from the awards came rapidly after one of my most gutting lows.

A huge part of managing my mental health is the acceptance of medication. I was on a very effective regime until about six weeks ago when I thought I might try to get by on a little less. I could write award-winning novels and visit schools and raise two boys and lead the music every week at church. Look at me go! ‘I’ve got this,’ I thought. ‘And imagine how much better I would have looked at the PM’s awards if I didn’t have the extra 10kgs that all the meds bring along with them!’ Yep. That was an actual motivator.

Yeah. It didn’t work. As some guys in skivies once sang, hello darkness, my old friend.

Creative work is the pursuit of perfection. I am not perfect. That sucks.

There is a lot of stuff out there about the link between creativity and mental illness. I don’t know if I can have one without the other. But I do know that with all the problems my mind brings into my life, it brings a lot of good stuff too. It makes me who I am. And to quote from one of my favourite writers, Alice Munro, ‘I am extremely okay.’

 

Hello Queensland! (I will not be wearing these leggings.)

If you are a savy reader of blog titles you may have realised by now that I am in Queensland and I’m not wearing pineapple leggings, although they would be appropriate because it is rather tropical here and I like to team with the theme.PineappleLeggings_05_1024x1024 First up, I have two days talking to high school students, then on Tuesday night I will travel to the Gold Coast to either attend the Somerset Festival of Literature OR compete in the Quicksilver Pro. (I’m going to retain an air of mystery by allowing you to guess which of these options is accurate.)

The best part of all of this is the buffet breakfasts which I will enjoy, closely followed by the opportunity to meet my beloved readers and sign books for them. I prefer to keep this activity to books I have written myself but I have also been asked in the past to sign books by Any Griffiths. I don’t know if this was because my hair looks like the kind of novelty wig Mr Griffiths may wear but I don’t let that stop me.

I do get nervous talking in front of large groups of people. It could be argued that the act of public speaking is the most challenging thing a writer could be asked to do aside from saving for a house deposit. But I am here and I have had two coffees, a stack of pancakes, some croissants, yoghurt, bircher muesli and a little packet of delicious organic butter – so if I am too nervous to eat for the remainder of my stay, at least we know I won’t starve to death.

CBCA Book of the Year for Older Readers – THE PROTECTED

CBCA#1Yep, this is a thing that happened. I still haven’t seen the Book of the Year sticker on the actual cover of the book, maybe it will feel more real when I do! In the meantime here’s my acceptance speech….

I often say that I write for my seventeen year-old-self, right now my seventeen year-old-self is standing here saying ‘What the frig? How did this happen?’ I’m the kid who had a panic attack in the middle of her first HSC English exam and left. I’m not here because of the wonders of our education system, I am a glitch in the system. I’ve had the opportunity to visit a number of high schools recently and I’m not sure all that much has changed. When it comes to education we are very concerned with rankings and bell curves.  It’s worth noting that I was discouraged from taking on what was then called three unit Related English because my ranking wasn’t high enough. We want our kids to perform. We teach them to play Tchaikovsky by rote, but disable their ability to write their own music. I had teachers who fought against the obsession with marks and rankings and focused on nurturing my creativity, but I think that is like trying to light a candle in a cyclone, if you will allow me to get a bit Elton John.

I must thank my darling dad who told me over and over again that creativity was immeasurably valuable and must be held on to. I must thank my mum who gave the me stubbornness and determination required to pursue an artistic path.

Creative minds are vulnerable and mine has caused it’s fair share of problems, I would not have survived, much less written any books without the love and support of my husband, Nathan. Of course my thanks also go to my Publisher Kristina Schultz at UQP and my editor and coconspirator Kristy Bushnell.

I will finish by saying that this wonderful award does not qualify me to go into schools and give students the formula for a good piece of writing. I have no interest in improving their rankings. It does qualify me to visit high schools, look those kids in the eye — the off-beat ones, the weird ones, the ones who haven’t done that Biology assignment but have written 67,000 words, sometimes on their phones — and tell them that they will be okay.   To the Children’s Book Council: thank you for this award, I can not tell you how much this means to me, especially seventeen year old me.

Cutting the giant cake - a job I am well qualified for.

Cutting the giant cake – a job I am well qualified for.