Whacking my mother’s mental illness over the head with a book.

Much to my amazement and great joy, I had a book published a few years ago. This book has nothing whatsoever to do with mental illness or mothers and so please believe me when I tell you I understand completely if you click back to the main blog and away from this distraction to our lives with mentally ill mothers.

The thing is, sometimes I give in to my imagination and wonder what my life would have been like if I had not had a mother with a serious mental illness, if I had grown up in a fairly normal family with a mother and a father who live together. What would I have done? What might I have been? This feeling made me:

  • Jut out my chin in a defiant way.
  • Scratch the chin and think intensely about things to do in my life to prove that my mother’s illness was not stopping me from GOING FOR IT.
  • Make sure I didn’t give up on these things otherwise my mother’s mental illness has not only swept my legs from under me, but is giving me an extra kicking while I’m down.

Writing a book was one of those things.

I researched it and wrote it just after my mother had been through a massive, long, long, long, psychotic episode, you know how it is: sections, psychiatric, social workers, etc, etc. I had to get this book done, because – I thought – if I didn’t, if I gave up on it, it would mean the mental illness had taken something from me, held it by the scruff of the neck and kicked it way off into the distance . Getting the book published was like giving my mother’s schizophrenia a good whacking.

So. I’ve already told you that this fist fighting book has nothing to do with mental illness but if you want to read true stories about pensioners who have abseiling equipment at the ready in case there’s a fire in their apartment and they need to swing out down the side of the building to safety like some elderly Jason Bourne , or the sound of bagpipes in a battlefield, or dogs who fly over occupied territory in World War II, then you may be interested in the book, I don’t know.

This is something I wrote once about writing the book:

Gun sites, medals and sweat .

A group of old soldiers are marching past us in Stratford –Upon –Avon. They have berets on their heads and medals on their lapels and they’re marching upright and proud because it’s Remembrance Day. I look at those old men and I think There are stories under those berets, there are stories in those medals, in that march.

When I go to bed that night I turn to face James on the pillow and I say hey James, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to track down old soldiers from Coventry, find out their stories and then I’m going to write a book.

 Every Saturday I spend the whole day at Coventry City library scrolling through old wartime newspapers. I scribble notes on bits of paper, photocopy articles. I knock the door of the man I used to buy pink sugar shrimps from when I was a child, take him a sponge cake with cream, press record on my tape recorder and find out that the limp I’ve seen him with since I was nine doesn’t belong to the old man but the young boy who was blown up by a mortar bomb. I take away his call up papers and photocopy them, scan his photographs. Every evening and every weekend I search those newspapers, make telephone calls, write letters. I visit houses with poppies strewn along the mantelpiece, stand in a fighter pilot’s living room and put on his flying jacket and hat, scroll my eyes down his Battle Of Britain log book. I visit people’s homes and sometimes they visit me. A white haired gentleman in jeans and dog tags demonstrates his killing techniques and holds me in a death lock in our living room.

In the middle of my research I go to a writer’s conference at a hotel in Rugby. I feel quite nervous since I’m not really a writer. Everyone else is staying at the hotel and gradually they surface from their rooms and line up outside the conference room door. A woman asks me what I’m working on at the moment. I see myself being held in the death lock by an elderly man, decide not to mention it. I swallow. I’m researching military stories from World War II I say, interviewing veterans from my city.

That kind of oral history’s over now. It’s had its day the woman says.

I think about all the people I’ve met who have related the oral history: of Grace who stayed at her gun site when shrapnel and bombs were dropping all around her, about the medal for courage she won from the king, the medal she hides inside a drawer; I think about Mr Barker Davies describing a man on fire from a phosphorus grenade, of Arthur fainting at the cinema from the trauma of his prisoner of war years. I think of leeches in boots, of body lice and worms, of dead Japanese soldiers propped up on their swords and old men weeping as they tell me of their war and I think they’re not over, they’re still having their days! and although this woman  makes me feel quite small, I know I won’t give up.

In my imagination I was blending in with crowds of other women as I milled round the room chatting and laughing with people at this conference. I was quite relaxed and jotting down names and numbers, swapping stories. In reality I’m sitting, stiff backed, round a large rectangular table as if I’m at a business meeting. The woman in charge says right, let’s go round the table and introduce ourselves.

Oh God I think and I start to sweat. I can’t work out why I’ve ended up at this table in this silent room when I could be lying on a beanbag with my legs over James eating a bag of Doritos. This is the worst way of spending a Saturday evening ever I think. And you did it to yourself.

People start to give their names and reel off work they’ve had published. My turn’s coming and I’m boiling hot with sweat. I take my jacket off and realise that I’m wearing a silk top that acts like watercolour paper if anything liquid touches it. I can’t put my jacket back on I think I’ve just taken it off. Putting it straight back on again will make me look mad and indecisive. Two dark patches underneath my arms spread out, wave at the room and shout this woman’s so nervous, look! She’s sweating! Someone’s talking about a poetry collection they’ve had published and there’s a woman at the head of the table with a box full of her novels. When it’s my turn I introduce myself, swallow and say, I’ve had a short story published about a woman with mental illness. People nod their heads and furrow their eyebrows at me in a serious way. Thank God mum is mentally ill! I think for the first time ever. For once in my life I’m really grateful that my mother’s schizophrenic as there has to be an upside to mental illness and maybe one amateur story in a magazine read by fifteen to twenty people is mine. At the break everyone goes back to their rooms but I don’t have a room since I’m not booked into the hotel so I go downstairs, phone James, say I hate it James and he drives to pick me up. I fling my arms around him in the car and say I love you so much as if we’ve just been reunited after a long prison stretch, vow to stop sweating and start writing.

******

And I did write and it took me ages. But this happened:

It’s not me, it’s you.

 Borders book shop in Coventry is packed with elderly men and women wearing blazers and medals. There’s a table with a pile of books on them. On the cover of the book it says Veteran’s Voices. Coventry’s Unsung Heroes of The Second World War and underneath, my name in small capital letters. Suttons publishers have published all my stories and here I am at a book launch and who’d have thought it? I run up to Mr Barker-Davies and put a book in his hands, open the page with his picture on it. Mr Barker-Davies, I say, look! It’s you. In a book! and I put my arms round him and his eyes fill with tears and my eyes fill with tears because it’s not my book at all, it’s his, it’s all of theirs.