fantasycon & the onion of joy

Fantasycon is almost upon us, and as I frantically attempt to get my game face on, I realise I’ve not amassed any kind of a schedule or plan as to where I’ll be at any given time. The only place I’m guaranteed to be is at the launch for Great British Horror 1: Green and Pleasant Land, which is on Saturday at 1pm.

The rest of the time I will likely be wandering around, possibly confused, almost certainly staring vacantly at the walls. Do not be alarmed. This is my natural state. Come and say hello if you like, I am a gentle sort.

Outside of Fantasycon, I am embarking on a small Twitter-based project: The Good News Onion, in which I post good news & inspirational stories from around the world. There is altogether too much negative news in circulation, and I genuinely believe it contributes to anxiety, depression and a general sense of malaise with the world as it is today. But I also believe that the world is a fundamentally good place: so, the Good News Onion, which is a means of trying to prove that not everything is terrible. You can follow me at @onionofjoy.

Lessons learned from being 20-something

I turned 30 a few weeks ago.

It doesn’t actually feel any different from being 29. Or 27. Or 25, which I think is where I stopped counting in my head. I felt no fearful anticipation at hitting this milestone, no existential terror, though I know a great many 20-somethings do. If anything, it was welcome: so much of my 20’s was a confusing, cobbled-together mess that 30 seemed like a nice, clean  number at which I might get my proverbial shit together.

I don’t feel significantly wiser now than I did at 25, or more mature, or better at Being An Adult. But when I look back at myself as I was in my early 20’s, I cringe a little at the sort of person I was – the sort of things I held as absolute truths. And if I could go back and teach myself a couple of important things, perhaps my early 20’s might have been a little less messy.

For example:

1.Your plans for your life probably won’t happen the way you think they will. And that’s actually not a bad thing. Making plans in your 20’s, for most people, is a bullshit activity – that’s not to say you can’t do it, and that none of your ideas will come to fruition. But certainly when I was 21-22 I did not yet appreciate life’s capacity for getting in the way and fucking everything up.

  • “I want to get my PGCE after I graduate and teach English!” – er, oops. Turns out you need a C-grade in GCSE maths. Which you don’t have. Not even close. So that degree you just completed? (Well done on that, by the way.) It’s actually largely meaningless in terms of employment. Have fun with that +£30k debt, though!
  • “Okay, well maybe I can go into publishing then?” – Ah, I’ve got bad news. See, you know how you had to work almost full-time during uni, which meant you couldn’t do a work placement? Well, it’s really difficult to get into publishing without experience, and ‘I worked at WHSmith selling books’ doesn’t really count. Also, you should have done that ‘Editing and Publishing’ module instead of the video workshop. Just saying.
  • “I’m going to save up and buy my own place once I leave uni!” – Well, you do get to do this, and it’s great for about a year. Then the economy crashes, and your financial situation goes to shit, as does that of your in-laws, necessitating the sale of your flat & 5 years living with said in-laws so you can all survive financially. (This one works out okay in the end, just about – you get to start again at 29. Not so bad, right?)

The fact is, ‘things not going to plan’ doesn’t equate to ‘my life is utterly ruined’, though the 20-something psyche often interprets it that way. You’re still starting out. It’s okay to have to stop for directions sometimes.

2. Be nicer to people. But also, be nicer to yourself. ‘Taking no shit’ should sometimes be tempered with ‘…but do no harm’. It’s tempting, after all you went through as a teenager, to take no prisoners and push with great force against every negative influence in your life. And sometimes, this is a good and healthy thing. But sometimes, you throw the baby out with the bathwater, and you can’t repair that. Someone you perceive to be attacking you might just be communicating ineffectively. There is a middle ground, and sometimes it’s the best place to be. (That said, some people are just arseholes, and you’ll lose nothing by cutting them out ASAP.)

…but while we’re being kinder to other people, allow yourself the same privilege. Self-care is not selfish.

3. You will fail. It’s not personal. There are jobs you won’t get, chances you’ll miss out on. Here’s a secret: these things are not finite. There are other jobs, and other chances. Nurse your bruise, but only for a little while. Dwelling on the unfairness of it all is a waste of energy, because you can’t change that. Better to get up, dust yourself down and try again. (Spoiler: you will eventually succeed.)

4. Start writing short stories earlier. You’ll like it. A novel is not the only medium.

5. Moisturise. It’ll save you a lot of bad-skin angst in your late 20’s. By the way, you get crow’s feet at 28. Try not to freak out.

6. You are not always right. It’s okay to back down. Sometimes, it’s necessary to save your sanity. Be open to other points of view, and consider that you might be taking yours too far. (But don’t let anyone tell you it’s bad to have strong opinions.)

7. Shave your head. Just do it. It actually looks great.

8. Don’t be afraid of other people. Go to conventions. Talk to other writers, chat with editors. Make contacts. Sometimes, ‘who you know’ will take you further than what you know. But more than that, it’s actually quite reassuring to be a part of a community.

9. The source of your joint pain is still a mystery aged 30. It sucks. But: take less ibruprofen (stomach ulcers are not fun) and USE YOUR STICK MORE. Yes, people will stare. But you’ll spend fewer days gritting your teeth every time you have to stand for more than three minutes on the trot.

10. Reply to texts and emails on time. It’s just polite.

11. All those things you want to do before you’re 30? You won’t get to. It doesn’t matter. The gate doesn’t mysteriously close once your 30th rolls around. (Except for Club 18-30 holidays – but honestly, do you really want to be a part of that?)

 

a love letter to impostors everywhere

I’m an impostor. At least, I perceive myself to be: I am a fraud, a know-nothing, a talentless buffoon who wrote a story people liked and have cruised by on their goodwill ever since.

Is this true? Possibly, possibly not. My brain choruses YES at a deafening volume: yes, you’re going to get found out any day now. Your mediocrity is the world’s worst-kept secret. You are the emperor, cavorting naked while everyone politely averts their gaze. (I think I had a nightmare like that once.)

This actually has a name. It’s called ‘Impostor Syndrome‘. It affects all kinds of people, but seems especially prevalent among creative people, and especially prevalent among female creatives. Wikipedia describes it quite succinctly:

Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be

I happened upon this recently, when reading an article about writers & procrastination – frustrated by my own apparent inability, over the course of four days off work, to knuckle down and write more than 300 words in a day. And not only that, but two instances in which I have had ample time to hit a deadline, but have found myself with three weeks to go, frantically bashing out a short story I have had fully-formed in my head for a month or longer. Why do I do this to myself, I wondered? Is it some kind of executive dysfunction, or am I just lazy and badly disciplined?

(Well. I think there is certainly an element of the latter.)

But a quote from the Atlantic article put some things into stark perspective for me:

Most writers manage to get by because, as the deadline creeps closer, their fears of turning in nothing eventually surpasses their fears of turning in something terrible. But I’ve watched a surprising number of young journalists wreck, or nearly wreck, their careers by simply failing to hand in articles. These are all college graduates who can write in complete sentences, so it is not that they are lazy incompetents. Rather, they seem to be paralyzed by the prospect of writing something that isn’t very good.

So far, my fear of disappointing people is winning out over my fear of writing a pile of unreadable garbage. In the war of my many neuroses, I’m treating this as a win.

It strikes me, though, how many people I know who feel the same way, and not just writers but artists, videogame creators, musicians. For every confident, self-assured creative I know there are two more hiding in the corner, tearing their hair out for myriad reasons: other people are making better games than me. Other people’s art is more popular than mine. Other people write faster, better, produce more. Other people’s songs are cleverer, catchier. Or, if comparison isn’t a factor – and it isn’t always: my stories are objectively poor and I’ve just been lucky so far. My art doesn’t look the way I wish it did. Nobody is interested in the game I’m making and therefore it must be awful.

(And yes, I would say that the vast majority of these people happen to be women.)

There are hundreds of reasons for these outcomes, but we see just one: a big red arrow pointing down at us, the creator. The words ‘loser’ may or may not be spray painted on our foreheads. It’s an optional extra. And what’s interesting is how hard we work to negate any successes or kind words that might work to counter our perceptions; it’s as though we have an internal filter sifting out all the gold nuggets and ensuring that our attention is focused solely on the piles of mulch. Who cares that you’ve been published X times, or that a piece of your artwork got thousands of likes/reblogs on Tumblr, or that someone looked at the progress shots of your indie game and said ‘this looks awesome’. Who cares about any of that? It was luck, it was a fluke.And even if it wasn’t – even if that award nomination/sale/good review was legit – it doesn’t matter, because you’ll never produce anything of that quality ever again. The future is one failure after another. You’ll be the literary equivalent of that person who turns up to parties – the one nobody really likes but entertains anyway because they all feel a bit sorry for them. You know the one.

This is cognitive distortion. It’s a form of disordered thinking common in OCD and anxiety disorders (as I learned in therapy)  – and when I look at the list of cognitive distortions I come to understand how similar impostor syndrome is to my own diagnosed disorders:

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The same lessons I learned in dealing with my anxiety and OCD can be applied to this as well. Disorders which deal in the illogical require proof in retaliation: when we say “I am a bad writer”, we owe it to ourselves to look at all the evidence and come to a balanced conclusion. Instinct and gut feelings are overrated. And the temptation is to say well, it’s difficult to change the way I feel, it won’t happen overnight, I’ve tried before and it didn’t work, but…

The only way to change anything it to make it change, right?

And while we’re talking changing attitudes, consider this: it’s okay to fail. Rejection hurts like hell. A bad review stings. Even being left off a ‘year’s best’ or failing to make an award shortlist can hurt, if that’s what you’re aiming for – or if it happened to you once and it’s never happened since. (“I’m an imposter!” the mind cries. “I’ll never write anything as good as that ever again!”.) And I’m not about to spout some pseudo-philosophical missive about how rejection is actually good for you (although that may be true? Someone more qualified than I am can substantiate.) But to fail isn’t to lose everything. It is literally not the end of the world, even if it feels that way.

Consider that every submission is an act of bravery. Every story you send out for critique. You’re showing your soft underbelly to the world, and who knows what kind of damage they might do? And if you can commit that singular brave act, what else might you be capable of? How can you call yourself an impostor when you are doing the work?

This is a challenge to myself, but also to my fellow impostors. Consider that failure is not the end; it is not proof of anything except that, in this one instance, in that one moment, something just didn’t work out. Failure ought to be a self-limiting phenomenon: it can’t leach out or infect anything else you do. It’s a singular instance, a moment in time. What does failure mean, objectively? Well, worst case scenario dictates it’s that you’re not good enough, but is that realistic? It could be that what you wrote wasn’t right for that publication; that your stories aren’t to that editor’s personal taste. It could be that what you wrote was really very good, it just so happened that someone else’s story was a little bit better (and that’s okay too – I feel like ‘other people are sometimes going to be better than you’ is an important thing to come to terms with as well. Someone else’s talent/hard work doesn’t invalidate your own – success is not a zero-sum game.)

And yes, it could be that what you wrote wasn’t the best example of your work. But that doesn’t prove you’re an impostor. Rather, it’s an incitement to go out and do better next time. Because you can, and because you will.

Because you’re not really an impostor at all. You just think you are.

Things I read in June

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Bodies of Water by V.H Leslie

I’ve been looking forward to this since it was announced, so I was very pleased that it lived up to all my expectations. I love the subtle, chilly kind of horror Leslie so often deals in – creepy, pervasive unease which seems to originate at the very core of the story. Parallel narratives are linked via the imposing Wakewater House, almost more an entity than a building, like the Overlook Hotel with its angry ghosts and unquiet spirits. There is a strong thread of femaleness in this story, from historical abuses and dismissals of women who do not (or cannot) conform to the connections women make, whether it be the tragic (and touching) love between Evelyn and Milly, or the conspiratorial friendship of Kirsten and Manon. Leslie’s smart, sensitive prose and clever plotting make for a fantastic read.

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

I have nothing against YA fiction – I actually quite enjoy a lot of it. I don’t quite understand how The Lie Tree ended up classed as YA fiction, however – is it because the protagonist is a young woman? The story itself is incredibly dark and thematically mature, especially from a theological perspective, but that’s no bad thing – and quite honestly it’s great that young people have access to this kind of story, which doesn’t patronise or coddle. The Lie Tree, like Bodies of Water, is an interesting commentary on the historical roles and limitations of women, and on overcoming these through strength of will. The central premise – a plant which feeds on the propagation of a lie and rewards the liar with visions of a particular truth – is brilliantly imaginative and and also a little terrifying. And the sense of place is wonderful.

Under The Skin by Michael Faber

I find myself divided about this. Part of me liked it very much – the deliberate ambiguity of the setup is very clever, as is the subtlety of the worldbuilding. For a long time, you’re not entirely sure what the nature of Isserley and her situation actually is. There’s genuine tension every time Isserley picks up a hitchhiker, and the deterioration of her emotional state adds to this. But I felt it was also heavy-handed at times, not least with its allusions to the meat industry and to capitalist society (and I say this as a socialist vegetarian!) There’s a lot to like here, and the imagination of it is undeniably brilliant, but it fell short in some areas for me.

The Bricks That Built The Houses by Kate Tempest

The debut novel by south London poet and musician Kate Tempest, of whom I am admittedly already a fan. Kate’s lyrical prose will either delight or irritate, and the bluntness of her storytelling might not appeal to everyone, but I found it brilliantly authentic and relevant, a heartfelt and honest tale of three individuals and their very human flaws, the way they orbit one another and the collisions that ensue. There’s a fairly standard plot involving drug deals gone wrong, but the real magic is in the way the characters interact and speak to one another.

A-Z of Books

As shamelessly stolen from Thana Niveau.

 

AUTHOR YOU’VE READ THE MOST BOOKS BY- A quick glance at my bookshelf suggests this title goes to Stephen King, followed by China Mieville, Margaret Atwood and Tove Jansson all pretty much tied. I started reading Stephen King aged about 11 so it’s not really a surprise.

BEST SEQUEL EVER – ‘The Year of the Flood’, by Margaret Atwood. I know she doesn’t care a great deal for the ‘sci-fi’ label – more’s the pity – but I’m always impressed by how weirdly plausible Atwood’s corporate-slogan, hellishly commercialised vision of the future actually is, and how hilarious the book can be whilst simultaneously revealing this horrific vision.

CURRENTLY READING – ‘The Crashers’ by Magen Cubed – unwilling superheroes talk about their feelings and try to bring down a domestic terrorist. And I’ve just started ‘The Lie Tree’ by Francis Hardinge, which has been on my to-read list for a very long time.

DRINK OF CHOICE WHILE READING – Only a nice cup of tea will do.

E-READER OR PHYSICAL BOOK – There was a time when I would have decried e-books as a great evil and I want to go back in time and punch myself in the face for my snobbishness. E-books are an incredible gift to those of us living in small spaces, without easy access to a library, for people with mobility issues for whom bookshops are hard to navigate, those of us who can’t afford £7 a pop for a single paperback. I still love physical books best of all, but my Kindle has been an absolute godsend.

FICTIONAL CHARACTER YOU WOULD HAVE DATED IN HIGH SCHOOL – I had to think very hard about this as I was a very particular type of outcast weirdo introvert at secondary school. And, thinking about it, it would probably be Miriam Black from Chuck Wendig’s ‘Blackbirds’ series, because she’s as sharp and dour as I was. Only Miriam is a hundred times cooler.

GLAD YOU GAVE THIS BOOK A CHANCE – ‘Two Caravans’ by Marina Lewycka. A funny, touching and very clever story of a group of immigrants working and living on a farm in Kent. Not my usual read, but I really liked it.

HIDDEN GEM BOOK – ‘Dark Matter’ by Michelle Paver. Picked it up off the shelf for no better reason than I liked the cover. It’s gone on to be a firm favourite.

IMPORTANT MOMENT IN YOUR READING LIFE – Picking up a copy of James Herbert’s ‘The Rats’ at my nan’s house, aged 10, and realising I liked reading scary stories.

JUST FINISHED – ‘The Loney’ by Andrew Michael Hurley. Another one I took a shamefully long time to read. Almost unbearably atmospheric, like a painting crafted with words – you can feel the sting of sea air and the oppressive drizzle. And ‘Bodies of Water’ by V.H. Leslie, which I described on Facebook as ‘genuinely chilling and evocative, surprisingly emotional, subtle but powerful in its commentary about womanhood.’ It’s very, very good.

KIND OF BOOKS YOU WON’T READ – There aren’t any specific types of book I ‘won’t’ read, although there are books I don’t seek out. So-called ‘chick lit’ (I loathe that title – it implies that stories by or about women are by default fluffy and insubstantial when, in reality, it’s a very specific subset of stories about/by women.) I don’t tend to read much hard sf or high fantasy. But honestly, I’ll give anything a try if someone I respect tells me to read something.

LONGEST BOOK YOU’VE READ – I’m not sure, but the unabridged edition of ‘The Stand’ by Stephen King has got to be up there.

MAJOR BOOK HANGOVER – I couldn’t stop thinking about Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ for months after I read it the first time, in my first year of university. The Tiger’s Bride and The Company Of Wolves in particular warranted re-read after re-read.

NUMBER OF BOOKCASES YOU OWN – I’ve just moved into a new house, so I currently only have one. There are piles of books all over the floor right now.

ONE BOOK YOU’VE READ MULTIPLE TIMES – ‘Watership Down’ by Richard Adams. I actually bought a new edition of this recently as my old copy has all but disintegrated. I never get tired of this book – the rich mythology, the clever linguistics and the soaring epic-ness of it all.

PREFERRED PLACE TO READ – I can read anywhere there’s a seat, and often standing. One of the nicest places I’ve ever had the chance to read was a bench by a canal in Bruges. June sunshine, the shade of the trees and the water trickling by.

QUOTE THAT INSPIRES YOU FROM A BOOK YOU’VE READ – From ‘Moominland Midwinter’, by Tove Jansson:

“There are such a lot of things that have no place in summer and autumn and spring. Everything that’s a little shy and a little rum. Some kinds of night animals and people that don’t fit in with others and that nobody really believes in. They keep out of the way all the year. And then when everything’s quiet and white and the nights are long and most people are asleep—then they appear.”

I knew, after finishing this book, that I wanted to write about the night animals.

 

READING REGRET – that out of sheer bloody-minded rebellion I refused to read any of the books my English teacher recommended until I reached university. Just the thought that I might have had a head-start on reading Angela Carter makes me want to shake 15-year-old me firmly by the shoulders.

SERIES YOU STARTED AND NEED TO FINISH – Actually, there aren’t any right now! I tend to devour series in one go. Unless you count the ‘A Song Of Ice And Fire’ books, which is really down to GRRM and not me…

THREE OF YOUR ALL-TIME FAVOURITE BOOKS –

‘Moominland Midwinter’ by Tove Jansson.  Yes, yes, it’s a book for kids, but it’s also not for kids at all. It’s a beautiful, sensitive, dark tale of loneliness, of not fitting in, of anxiety and fear and pushing through those things until you emerge, not quite the same as you were before, but a little braver.

(Edit: someone rightly pointed out that I had only put one of my favourite books here. Evidently I got far too excited about the Moomins!)

‘The End Of The Affair’ by Graham Greene. What’s interesting about this book is that I found neither the protagonist nor his lover especially likeable – much like Pinky in Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock’, I found myself drawn to his story all the same.

‘The Scar’ by China Mieville. The sheer scale of his imagination is baffling and amazing; the Bas-Lag books are masterpieces in worldbuilding. This book is about a pirate city which sails the seas of Bas-Lag, cannibalising passing ships to expand itself. It’s also about the lust for power, the secrets people keep, and, fundamentally, about how little we can really ever know about anything at all.

UNAPOLOGETIC FANGIRL FOR – Resisting the urge to say ‘the Moomin books’, so instead I will say the comic book series More Than Meets The Eye, written by James Roberts. If you’d have told me two years ago that I would be heavily emotionally invested in, and actively foaming at the mouth for each installment of a Transformers comic, I would have laughed you out of the room. And yet, here I am…

VERY EXCITED ABOUT THIS RELEASE – Justin Cronin’s ‘The City of Mirrors’ – the follow-up to ‘The Passage’ and ‘The Twelve’. (And actually, here’s a series I haven’t yet completed!)

WORST BOOKISH HABIT – Buying books for cheap and letting them pile up in the corner, unread because I have more books than time.

X MARKS THE SPOT: START ON THE TOP LEFT OF YOUR SHELF AND PICK THE 27TH BOOK – ‘Red Dragon’ by Thomas Harris

YOUR LATEST PURCHASE – I just bought ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang on strong recommendation from a writer I respect very much

ZZZZ-SNATCHER BOOK (LAST BOOK THAT KEPT YOU UP WAY TOO LATE) – I started reading Berit Ellingsen’s collection at 11.30pm, intending to read just the one story before bed. I ended up devouring the entire thing, then going back to re-read stories that had struck me as especially good.

Magical Thinking: Not As Fun As It Sounds

It’s mental health awareness week, and in that spirit I think it’s time I talked a little bit about OCD.

I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder last year, after struggling for some time with increasing anxiety, a spate of panic attacks and somewhat bizarre behaviour tics I’d developed to cope with these things. I didn’t believe I had OCD to begin with: I’ve never been obsessive about germs and hygiene (I work in a lab handling bodily fluids!) I don’t wash my hands a hundred times a day, and I don’t exhibit any unusual ‘checking’ behaviours – returning multiple times to check that the front door is locked, for example, or opening & closing the car door three times before feeling safe enough to drive.

But I do have OCD. The form I have is lesser-known, and rarely depicted when discussing or showing characters with the disorder. OCD UK lists the different subtypes – The ‘Checking’ and ‘Contamination’ types are what we typically think of when someone mentions OCD, the ‘classic’ model of the disorder, and quite possibly the most common – or at least, the most commonly diagnosed.

I have what is known as ‘magical thinking OCD’, which is described by OCD UK:

….is the fear is that even thinking about something bad will make it more likely to happen – sometimes also called ‘thought-action fusion’. Sufferers are beset by intrusive bad thoughts. They try to dispel them by performing rituals – magic rituals, in effect – that are often bizarre and time-consuming and involve linking actions or events that could not possibly be related to each other.

Before I talk about some of the rituals, I want to go back in time for a moment. Back to 9-year-old me, and when my mental health problems first made themselves known. At that time my parents were divorcing – a fairly traumatic experience for any child. I was staying at my dad’s, and I picked up a ‘bizarre science’ type magazine he had lying around (I was a very precocious reader, which was not always an advantage…)

In this magazine was an article about the Ebola virus, which, in 1995, was still on the fringes of Western consciousness – not as it is today, following the horrific outbreak in West Africa a few years ago. I can actually recall entire paragraphs from this article – it was quite graphic, especially for a nine-year-old, written almost as a fictional narrative but ostensibly about a real-life individual who flew to Africa, encountered a man dying (horribly) of Ebola, and returned home incubating the disease. Of course, he too died horribly.

The article didn’t scare me at the time. But afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And at that point the floodgates opened. I suffered debilitating panic attacks at the thought that my family might die suddenly. (Not necessarily of Ebola, I might add, but I think the knowledge that such terrible illnesses were out there, waiting to metaphorically pounce was an awful lot for a 9-year-old brain to deal with.) Things escalated, and eventually I was seen by a child psychologist. I don’t recall an awful lot about that except that she commented several times on how active my imagination was.

(And, well…some things never change, do they?)

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Back to the present. I learned to tolerate anxiety as you might a small, annoying child in the back seat of the car screaming “you’re going to crash and kill everyone!” at intermittent moments. But OCD sort of creeps up on you. You don’t really comprehend how weird your behaviour is becoming until you’ve accumulated enough rituals that your day-to-day existence starts to revolve around them. And they are bizarre. For example, I began to avoid specific pieces of clothing that I had been wearing when I felt unwell. I could not change any of my jewellery, because a small voice in my brain suggested that to change them would be to invite terrible possibilities – my husband would die, for example (this is my brain’s favourite potentiality.) I could not step on three drain covers in a row, because if I did, by the time I got home/to work something awful would have happened, and it would be my fault. (That led to several collisions as I swerved to avoid the drains on the street. Try explaining that to the miffed bloke whose coffee you just knocked out of his hands.)

The inflated sense of responsibility in OCD is crippling. You are fully aware that what your brain is telling you – screaming at you, really, because it is like a foghorn in your ear at full blast – is a pile of horseshit. It can’t possibly have any bearing on the Real World. How can changing my earrings cause my husband to contract meningitis? How can stepping on three drains cause me to be fired? And yet the act of removing my trusty old earrings would cause such a spike in my heart rate that I couldn’t do it, any more than I could walk out into traffic. It was a dangerous act. You are responsible, somehow, in some nebulous way, for all the bad things that might possibly happen – and when a bad thing does happen, you connect the dots to some innocuous activity or thought you might have had. Wham: a new ritual is born.

(As a quick aside, I only developed two writing-related rituals, both of which I am yet to shed: I never include the title in a manuscript or file name until the piece is finished – because to do so will mean I’ll be unable to finish it. And I never admit out loud if I think a finished piece is good or that I’m proud of it – because to do so will mean that nobody will ever publish it. Some habits die harder than others.)

My therapist liked to say that OCD lies to you, and that’s accurate. You start off indulging these rituals because they’re relief in the short term, and they make you believe you have control over all the things that wake you up in the middle of the night – is my husband still breathing, are my cats alive, is the house on fire, am I dying – but the truth is, you don’t. You never do. And the rituals by their very nature become consuming, because they prove themselves wrong: bad things continue to happen no matter how strictly you adhere. So you create more rituals, until your entire life is a catalogue of things you can’t do, and things you have to do ‘just so’. It’s bonkers, and you’re entirely aware even as you’re studiously avoiding drains and wearing the same shabby earrings for three years on the trot that you’re being irrational. But you can’t stop.

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In the end, it was a kind of exposure therapy which helped me shed – or at least control – most of the weird rituals. My therapist challenged me to do the things my brain expressly dictated were verboten, starting small – wearing the t-shirt I wore the last time I was ill – and building up to the most fear-inducing. At the same time, we worked at deconstructing the misconceptions I had been wilfully labouring under for so long: I am not responsible for keeping everyone around me safe. Intrusive thoughts are not real, and could not hurt me – thinking ‘my tattoo might go septic’ is not enough to actually make that outcome happen. The world is a strange and utterly random place, and the unknown is scary, but it can also be wonderful and exciting, and it’s okay to not be in control all the time.

And I learned other things, too. Anxiety is my brain’s way of protecting me, even if it’s misguided in its application, so I should try to be tolerant of it. Panic attacks are unpleasant, but they can’t really hurt you, and they don’t last forever. The worst case scenario is usually highly unlikely, but even if it does happen, the world doesn’t fall to pieces. You can cope.

It’s hard to accept sometimes that you’re never really ‘cured’ of any mental disorder – you learn to cope and to control it, but it never really goes away, and sometimes it’ll spike just when you think you might never see it again. And though I’m more in control than I’ve ever been, I still struggle – mostly with anxiety (especially in social situations, and worse, when travelling abroad – which happens to be one of my favourite things to do). It’s a process, I keep reminding myself, and a slip now and again is not the same thing as defeat.

It strikes me as ironic sometimes that the same mechanisms which cause the delusions, paranoia and catastrophising that make up OCD also give me the ability to create new worlds, and people to populate them; the part of me that creates terror at entirely imagined situations and weaves causality out of thin air also creates strange creatures, purple-tinted prose and weird plots. My ability to write – and to write about fear and terror specifically – seems inextricably linked with the malfunctioning parts of my brain. And if that’s the trade-off, is it so terrible? I sometimes wonder if being drawn to horror is a more unconscious process than I first imagined – if, perhaps, it’s a coping mechanism of sorts, a way for my brain to spill out all its fears and invented situations in a controlled (or semi-controlled) fashion. Perhaps writing horror is healthier than I’d been led to believe…?

(And look! After three years of irrational panic, I’ve finally been able to change my earrings as often as I choose:)

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