Did you know that May is Mental Health Awareness Month? Mental health is a topic that is very close to my heart. I believe that it is something that needs to be talked about more to fight the stigma that is so often associated with it. And I believe that fiction is a great place to get that conversation started.
I spent a lot of time with my grandparents as a child. Mum had always been close to her parents, so they were a big part of our lives. And when my grandmother fell ill, Mum spent every weekend helping to care for her, looking after their house and doing the cooking. As Dad was working multiple jobs, including weekends, my brother and I spent the weekend with Mum at our grandparents’ house.
When my grandmother sadly passed away, we continued our weekend ritual so that my grandfather had a clean house, and food to eat for the week. However, he was very old fashioned in his views, particularly about women. My brother, being a boy, was the golden child. Whereas I was taught that the old saying of children should be seen and not heard, was taken one step further and in my case, I shouldn’t even be seen.
As a result, I learnt to be invisible. Or at least as invisible as anyone can realistically be. I learnt to be quiet. To keep out of the way. To people please. And to accept every single criticism that was fired in my direction.
But I didn’t just accept them. I believed them.
Growing up believing that you are always wrong, that you aren’t good enough and that somehow you are responsible for everyone else’s happiness, is a heavy burden. And even as an adult, it is hard to escape from the weight of those beliefs.
But perhaps the most heart-breaking part about my past is that no-one else saw it. There is a skill involved in tearing someone down so effectively, and yet so subtly, that from the outside you are the one who ends up being in the wrong. You are classed as oversensitive. Accused of exaggerating. And somehow the person who has made your life so miserable, has become the victim.
As a result, I learned from a young age, that people can have two sides to their character. I had the misfortune of seeing behind the curtain, mostly because I wasn’t deemed worthy of seeing the act. And it was an act.
My family realised in later years that my grandfather wasn’t quite the way they had always seen him. They initially thought that grief and age had changed him and made him jaded and manipulative. But eventually even they realised that he had always been that way, he just hadn’t shown that side to them before.
I’m often asked why my novels focus so strongly on emotional abuse, and mental health, and the reason is simple: Because they are important.
Spending weekends at my grandparents isolated me from my friends. I was away from my home, my room, and my toys. All I had was a small bag which I crammed with my homework and things to keep me occupied. The most important thing in that bag, aside from my ragdoll, was my notebook. I filled it with poems and stories. It was my escape. My lifeline. My friend.
Perhaps it is therefore hardly surprising that writing has become such an important part of my life. Journaling helps me process things. Writing song lyrics kept me going when I was struggling with anxiety. And writing novels has completely transformed my life.
I have always loved to read and even as a child I would lose myself in the pages of a book and be transported somewhere else. Somewhere better. But the stories never fully resonated with me. The lives depicted didn’t match my own experiences. As my self-confidence dismissed and my anxiety grew, I felt even more disconnected from the world around me. I felt as though I was the only person who felt the way I did. I simply didn’t fit.
When I published my debut, The Perfect Daughter, I drew upon my own experiences; not for the story, but for the emotions. I could easily put myself in Jess’s shoes and image how she felt. Isolated. Lonely. Not good enough. Because I had felt it all too.
I wanted to write a book that raised awareness of important issues. Of topics that are so often shied away from. I wanted to write a book that I wished I could have read. A book that, whilst it might not have solved the situation I was in, it might have provided comfort and reassurance that it wasn’t my fault. And it wasn’t normal.
After publication, I waited with bated breath for the reviews. Would anyone else get it? Would they understand Jess’s trauma? Would they want to read about anxiety and mental health?
The resounding answer was yes, they did. So many people wrote to me to say how my characters had made them feel less alone and even a little less broken. I can not even begin to describe how that felt, not just the relief but the acceptance. The understanding.
For my second novel, The Other Girlfriend, I was braver, and this time I drew from my personal experience of battling with agoraphobia. I had white-knuckled it through college, university and an entire career as an accountant before it was finally diagnosed. I had learnt to be so invisible that no-one had even realised how much I was struggling. I’d faked it through a huge chunk of my life, until eventually, I couldn’t.
A few years ago, I couldn’t imagine my life being different. Being better. And yet now, I can’t imagine how I survived for as long as I did living that life. That lie.
I hope that my books continue to be a comfort to those who find themselves in turbulent relationships. That they help people to feel a little less alone. Because the truth is, as alone and isolated as we might feel, I now know that the opposite is true. Sadly emotional abuse, trauma, and mental health struggles are more common that we realise. But perhaps in that discouraging fact there lies hope: because we are not alone.
And as bad as it feels, it can get better.