People often ask me why I decided to change my career in my thirties and become a writer. They ask, and I laugh it off, shrug and say ‘Now seemed as good a time as any to change my life!’
But this is not how it happened, not really. There was no light-bulb moment, no sudden conscious decision to reorient my life towards one filled with words. It was, rather, a question of survival, pure and simple. If this sounds dramatic, I suppose it was. Let me paint a picture for you, because that is, after all, what I do, now.
Imagine, if you will, a room, in a house. The room is dark, and hot, stuffy. The curtains are drawn across the windows, and the door is closed firmly against a dreadful sound: the sound of a small child, screaming. The screaming is a relentless, savage dirge that has been escalating in volume and intensity for a full hour. It is coming from the mouth of a confused, angry toddler, whose tiny fists beat against the door, demanding attention and reassurance, and getting neither.
Inside the room, her back to the other side of the door, braced against the screaming assault, a woman sits alone on the floor, her head resting heavily on her drawn-up knees. The woman is not crying, or covering her ears against the sound of her child’s inconsolable tears. Nor is she angry, or panicked, or scared. The woman is nothing. She is just sitting there, barely existing, letting the odd tear leak halfheartedly down her cheek, eyes wide, staring into the distance. The screaming and banging ramps up: the child is getting desperate now. The door thumps into the woman’s spine as the child kicks against it, demanding to be let in.
The woman is me, and the child is my son. I am in the full grip of postnatal depression, and my poor kid, my darling boy, my life and soul, who has no idea what postnatal depression is, is having a full-scale toddler tantrum, which is actually a very normal, healthy developmental thing. I am not having a healthy, normal reaction to it, however. I should be consoling him, cuddling him, or at the very least cautioning him with that ancient, somehow successful threat: the time-out step. He is still young enough that the time-out step carries some weight and significance. But because I have not managed this, we have moved beyond the point of return. No amount of cautioning or counting to three will help, here. All the kid needs is his Mother. All the kid needs is a hug, and probably a snack, and to have his snotty face washed clean with kisses.
But, alas, the kid’s Mother is not home right now. She has retreated inside of herself, and the shutters have crashed down, an instinctual, self-preservation response that she has little control over.
Eventually, the kid’s screams die down, dissolve into choked little hiccups and sad, horribly sad little murmurs. There is movement as he sits on the floor by the door, and slides a chubby hand underneath to see if he can reach me. As the noise diminishes, I very gradually recover a degree of awareness, swimming up from the depths of the blackness like bubbles of air rising to the surface of a stagnant pond.
Ten minutes later, I stand up, a little wobbly on my numb legs, and undo the door. The kid, exhausted, has fallen asleep on the carpet outside. I watch him, so peaceful, his chubby cheeks stained red with exertion, and my heart breaks into a thousand tiny pieces right then and there on the spot. But instead of getting the help I need, instead of calling someone, instead of accepting that it is not normal to feel this way, I scoop him up gently in my arms, lay him in his cot bed, and move to the kitchen, because there are piles of laundry to navigate and meals to prepare and work diaries to plan and nursery bills to pay.
Sounds grim, doesn’t it? It was, and it got worse. My trauma played out in private, never in plain sight, never in front of my nearest and dearest. It manifested in alcohol and substance abuse, eating disorders, insomnia, mania, obsessive behaviour, other things. I won’t dwell on those, although it is worth mentioning that eventually, I began taking long walks to places I shouldn’t: bridges, tall things, things with an edge. Precipitous, dangerous places. I was drawn to them like a sleepy moth to a flame, in a trance, often. But people didn’t know about this, any of this. I led a dual life: a dedicated working Mother, who, when questioned as to her state of wellbeing, would always say ‘Oh me? I’m fine, thanks for asking!’ brightly and breezily.
It was hell. But, like a lot of mental health conditions, it was a type of hell that was somehow, ridiculously manageable. I am the duck paddling furiously beneath the surface of a smooth and glassy pond: a high-functioning personality type, a person who likes to achieve. It was entirely possible for me to get promoted to the senior management team in my telecoms marketing job whilst slowly killing myself. Entirely possible to climb a mountain whilst struggling to remember what my legs were even for (I did, incidentally- I climbed Mount Toubkal in Morocco when the kid was two years old. After that I set myself an arbitrary target of a mountain a year, because I was an idiot. I didn’t need mountains, I needed therapy). Entirely possible to read and re-read The Gruffalo four hundred times in a day without faltering whilst wanting to claw my own brain out of my skull. I tried to protect my child from as much of it as possible, but the poison always leaks out, in the end. My depression mutated into a huge, all-consuming anxiety that had horrible side effects: panic attacks where I would rage and beat myself around the head with my fists, throw things, then collapse and shut down into a stony, muted state of non-existence that left everyone around me stunned and shell-shocked. I tried everything to control this anxiety: long walks, drugs, booze, weight-lifting. At one point I was deadlifting my own bodyweight, laughing hysterically at the roaring hypocrisy at being strong enough to lift a grown human being but not strong enough to handle a small child’s temper tantrum.
None of these things worked. What worked eventually, were four things:
Medication (SSRI and Hormonal).
‘You’re so brave!’ people say to me when I tell them I became a full-time writer. But I wasn’t brave, not one bit. My career shift was a natural byproduct of being made redundant twice, because, suffice to say, my work began to suffer beyond the point at which my employers could tolerate. I found myself suddenly with a lot of time on my hands. To a person with severe mental health considerations, time is lethal. I needed to fill it, somehow. I’d been writing for years, but never with much intent, focus, or intent.
Now, I was presented with an opportunity: time, and necessity. I bought a used laptop. I found a seat in a cafe, so I was surrounded by people.
I began to type.
I found a podcast I loved, listened to a lot of audio fiction, to quell the disquiet in my mind. It was soothing, and short stories suddenly presented a path to something hitherto denied me: completion. I was a starter, but never a finisher. I had no less than ten unfinished novels lurking in hard drives around the house. Short stories broke the back of my inability to finish. I wrote a story, submitted it to my favourite podcast. Miraculously, they accepted it, straight off the bat. I wrote some more. I began to form a routine: my kid started school. I dropped him off, walked to my cafe, wrote from nine in the morning to one in the afternoon. The words escaped from me in a trickle at first, and then, as I became used to the act, in great, cathartic torrents. They say you should write what you know, and so I did: I wrote pain, and sorrow, and joy, and love, and betrayal, and lust, and loss, and death, and life. The words wrote themselves, really, and I simply allowed myself to be swept along. Then, I published a book of short stories, and realised that other people actually enjoyed my words, a thing that still astounds me a year later, and probably will as long as I live.
And now, I have a total of four books in development, which is not bad for a woman once caught with her leg all the way over the chain-link fence near a certain famous suspension bridge.
So I suppose you could say I write to survive. I am, indeed, a full-time writer, now, and I have worked harder at this than anything else in my life before, aside from being a parent- because that is a type of work and responsibility that never abates. And, more than anything, more than happy pills and therapy and healthy living, it works. It works so well I am now utterly dependent on it, but this is an addiction I can bear. The words will always be there, won’t they?
I’m much better these days, for those wondering. The fog has dispersed, mostly, with occasional relapses. I have management strategies in place, a good doctor, loving friends and family, a brilliant relationship with a brilliant little boy, who thankfully, still loves me, and, behind and around all of this, I have words. Wonderful, healing, terrible, brutal, fantastic words. Liberating words, words that heal and rend and seal everything tight once again. With my words I can deconstruct and rebuild my entire being, time after time.
I am truly rich, for I have words.
And I always will.
One thought on “Trauma as fuel: writing through pain, and why I became an author”
Gemma….Thank you. I truly admire the person that you were and are.