I am a writer.
I was born in South Africa and have British and Canadian citizenship. I have over 40 short story and flash fiction publications, including in: World Literature Today, The Irish Times, Descant, AGNI, The Fiddlehead and others.
My work has received a number of awards including winning the 2012 bosque Fiction Competition and the 2011 J.G. Farrell award for best novel-in-progress. I have been awarded Professional Writer’s Grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Arts Council of Ireland and Arts Council England. The novel I have recently completed, Ten Virtuous Acts, is a literary adventure set in Sri Lanka during the civil war.
I was a guest writer and panellist at the 12th and 13th International Conference on the Short Story (Little Rock, Arkansas and Austria); an invited participant at The Galle Literary Festival, Sri Lanka in 2011 and a six-time participant of the Sirenland Writer’s Conference in Positano, Italy. I attended The Banff Centre’s Wired Writing Studio in 2011/2012.
I administer the In Memory of Vučko and AWABosnia websites, raising awareness and funds to stop animal suffering in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
I live with my partner, David Crean and my foundling cat, Rónán.
A couple of days ago I had an unusual thought. Unusual for me, that is.
I thought, I feel normal. In body and mind. I can’t remember when I last felt like this – or if I’ve ever had this thought before, given how abnormal I usually feel.
I do not wake in the night in pain, I do not wake in the morning in pain. To think that just a matter of two months ago I could not stand on my left leg first thing without excruciating pain, and by the end of the day I’d be weeping with the relentlessness of my suffering.
The change is miraculous. I’ve used this word before in recent updates, but it is. If anyone has experienced chronic pain, and then the lessening of it, they’ll know what I mean.
I’ve also talked about feeling gratitude, and I mean really feeling it. Over the years I’ve listened to meditations or been instructed by spiritual teachers to ‘feel gratitude’ – to find something to feel grateful for. I’ve searched in my mind and usually found something, although it has sometimes been a struggle. But it’s been a thought, not a feeling. I thought, I feel grateful for X, but in fact I didn’t really feel anything. I just knew it was good that X was in my life, or good that I experienced X.
Something shifted in the past weeks, where I actually feel grateful. I’m not thinking it. I’m usually lying down, waiting for sleep, and a sensation washes through me, a deep relaxation. It’s not joy – joy can be so ephemeral, almost unreal, perhaps a bit ungrounded. But this sensation is very real, and very grounded. It also doesn’t last that long, but I have a feeling it stays in the cells. It’s like I’m a plant dying for water, and now the rain has fallen long and deep into the soil to the roots. Perhaps it’s closer to one of those moments of spiritual well-being, of connectedness with all that is.
If you’ve been reading these blogs you’ll know the main reasons behind my gratitude – the shift in my pain levels, certainly, but also the support I’ve received, enabling me to step on this path towards healing–both body and mind.
I’ve done a lot of therapy in my life, of all kinds, from shamans to psychiatrists. I have a history of what they call complex trauma (exposure to multiple traumatic events). But, perhaps I’m finally getting the support I’ve really needed. It could be the multi-pronged approach I chose to help me with the pain: acupuncture, cranial osteopathy and EMDR, that latter of which I had my first ‘real’ session early this week. In fact, my therapist used a slightly modified version, using bi-lateral body movements as I re-imagine traumatic events (in particular recent ones – see The Unendurable and The Unendurable Part Two).
Even my therapist was surprised at how deep the session went. You process fast, he said. I’m sure this is because I’d already had several weeks of the other approaches, and perhaps also because of all the work I’ve done over the decades. I’ve also taken on board the fairly radical theory of back pain promoted by Dr. John E. Sarno.
And—and this is the news I really meant to write about—thanks to so many of you donating and to three dear, amazing friends covering what remained, I’ve had the PEMF mat for nearly two weeks and been using it three or sometimes four times a day. In theory someone with a long-term chronic condition like ME/CFS would only see results after 3 months of use, but I suspect it’s already helping.
I think back to when I started on this path in early February, writing The Unendurable. And to what forced me on the path: a year long’s worth of suffering, my utter desperation and despair. And now? Yes, I’ve recently had two nasty viruses, I still have weird symptoms (my eyesight randomly going blurry), I still have to rest much of the day, and I still have pain. Mostly it’s discomfort rather than pain. But that I can sit here, I literally mean sit here on a chair and not be in agony…well, I know I’ve written a lot of words, but there are no words really to express my appreciation towards all of you who have been so kind and generous. Perhaps in French: Je vous embrasse.
In the past normal was never a descriptor I wanted applied to me. I wanted to be different, unusual. I prided myself on my so-called artistic temperament, my mood swings, my emotional upheavals. But I’ve come far from this—I’ll gladly accept all the moments of feeling normal that come my way (although Ronan might have other thoughts…).
Yesterday, one of my kind neighbours drove me from an acupuncture session back home. Accompanying her was a friend of hers, a young woman (well, I have no idea how old she is, I feel older than most women I meet these days). “This is Amie, who I was telling you about,” my neighbour said – someone else with an ‘invisible’ condition.
I asked Amie what was going on for her. “Oh it’s a very long story,” she said. I smiled. “Don’t worry, mine is endless,” I said. So she told me. And it is a deeply sad story, of someone who has gone through so much, struggled so much, with bizarre and strange and highly debilitating symptoms – including waking up one day to find the skin on her face suddenly droopy – and then the rest of her body following. It’s likely that endocrine issues and pyroluria are a part of what’s going on, but she still has not got to the bottom of it and doctors seem largely unable to help. She’s had to deal with this for so many years, and you’d never know unless you asked. To look at her you’d think she was fine, a bright, funny, gorgeous person.
Amie has found for herself a way of being in the world that helped create at least a small improvement on how it was, step by step, but what a path to walk.
I’ve talked about invisible illness before. I’ve talked about my own physical issues – a lot, lately – maybe too much for most of you reading. But after decades of not writing about what’s going on for me health-wise, this past year of, well, pain and suffering and crushing exhaustion, seems to have pushed me to doing a lot of things I wouldn’t normally do: write more about what’s going on for me, and ask for help – financial help! such a massive step for me to take – and help from neighbours to ferry me to and from various medical and therapeutic appointments.
I already knew I wanted to write this blog but synchronicstically a friend sent me a link to an interview with the poet Meghan O’Rourke, talking about her book, The Invisible Kingdom, Reimagining Chronic Illness. I didn’t know about Meghan, or her book. The interview is great, it’s short and well worth listening to.
Like so many of us with chronic conditions without clear treatments or even diagnoses, Meghan had to become a detective of her illness, and an advocate for herself.
She talks about the additional pitfalls of this approach: “It’s an irony of illness like this that the more invested you get in saying, no, here are all the little problems, and here are the labs that maybe point to it. The more you look like a hypochondriac.” She talks about how much support one needs – and, generally, money, given the lack in healthcare systems for these kinds of conditions. And what if there isn’t support or money? It’s extremely hard. I know all too well how exhausting and often disheartening it is to be my own advocate, to try to find answers.
“You have to have just incredible determination to live with a chronic illness, and in some sense, that’s really the subject of this book that I think I did not understand that before I got sick,” Meghan says.
She also describes some of what the “well” can do to help those who are not – simple things like accompanying them to a doctor’s appointment. And listening. Really listening, not offering advice.
When I shared with Amie about some of my issues and about the vax injuries, she said, “I’m so sorry.” I could tell she meant it. Most people tend to respond with something like It could’ve been worse if you’d caught the virus. Which makes me feel I just can’t talk about what happened to me at all – amongst other reasons which I mention here.
What I’m mostly trying to say is don’t take anyone for granted, don’t assume someone is doing fine just because they look fine.
Many of us will present ourselves one way to the outer world, but at home, in private, it’s another story. I suspect for the chronically ill, the ‘other story’ is usually even more extreme.
Here’s a little of what goes on for me. I wake up after a generally bad night (due to pain and a resurgence of hot flashes after five years of none, or my latest ‘fun’ symptom: my skin feeling like it’s been given a wrist burn, but all over…), I stick on my TENS pads, limp around until the pain eases, feed Ronan, take my various supplements etc, shower, feed myself, stand out in the sun for a few minutes, do a few movements to help my back, and by then I have to lie down again, usually with my ear pressed to a hot water bottle, so there’s that rigmarole. I get up, have some tea, try to check emails (standing, with my little standing laptop riser as I can’t sit for very long), make something to eat, then I have to lie down again (with another hot water bottle). If it’s a relatively “good” day I’ll walk around the block. I haven’t made it to 4000 steps a day yet, but that’s my goal. Many days it’s nothing close.
I might have a little time before supper to stand some more at my desk or I’ll be attending one of my therapeutic or medical sessions. Then it’s supper, and some uncomfortable sitting-up-straight watching TV and then some uncomfortable lying on the couch on my stomach (the only way I can lie without flaring up pain) to watch a little bit more. By 9 pm I’m smashed.
There’s my night time regime of meds and supplements and hot water bottles, shower, then I fall into bed.
What have I done? Virtually nothing. Writing this blog is actually a large undertaking for me.
There is the rest you wouldn’t see:
The past six weeks of having to wash and dress my incision three times a day from my laparoscopic surgery to remove a cyst and ovaries (not to mention having to use other ointments twice a day on other skin conditions, including nappy rash ointment on the blisters caused by using the TENS machine…).
And, I weigh 90 pounds (6.4 stone), when I should weigh 110 at least, but I can’t seem to put on weight in spite of pouring olive oil over everything and eating coconut butter by the spoonful and so on. I wear loose clothing so I look pretty normal, just ‘petite’.
Nor would you see the frequent crying jags when I get so overtired every part of me feels like its screaming. Or the chronic tinnitus in my head that sounds like a cross between a fire alarm and a grater on a violin string. It’s worse when I have a flare-up of ME/CFS malaise (like you’re coming down with flu), usually for at least a couple days each week. And this isn’t the half of it.
As I said, everyone hides aspects of themselves, or aspects are simply not visible, this is not unique to those with invisible illness.
And, there is this added dimension, a weight of carrying years of suffering, of living with conditions that currently aren’t treatable. The weight of staying determined, of not giving up. Of putting on a brave face, as I suspect most people – family and friends even – would struggle to witness ones true face all the time.
But after talking with Amie, and with my kind neighbour who drove, I felt lighter, happier. We laughed about star signs and being a Pluto person, and when I stepped out of the car and took my mask off, Amie said, “Oh, you’re beautiful!”. For a moment it was as if I wasn’t sick, as if I was a normal person.
It’s just over a month since I wrote The Unendurable, a month since I had my operation to remove a large ovarian cyst, and two weeks since I created my fundraiser. The response to the fundraiser has been utterly overwhelming, so too all the messages and notes sent to me, many from dear friends, many from people I’ve never met at all. I haven’t managed to thank everyone. I’m sorry about this, know that you are all in my heart and that I’m so very, very grateful.
Every day of these past two weeks I’ve wanted to write more, to express something that perhaps is inexpressible, a healing process I had no expectation of. Perhaps this process began when the pain started, last March.
I’ve not been able to write about any of this, because the operation triggered yet another severe ME/CFS “crash”. I was told recovery would be two weeks, but no matter how long I rest, tremendous exhaustion isn’t alleviated. Even my sutures aren’t healing well (I’ve just finished a course of antibiotics). Other ME/CFS symptoms are flaring up- swollen glands, feeling as if I’m coming down with something. There are precious few moments available to do something unrelated to my physical state–from resting or taking my numerous pain medications and supplements, doing my physiotherapy movements, or going to medical appointments and therapeutic sessions.
Most of these appointments I would not have been able to do without the support from the fundraiser, and I’ll write a little about these first.
I had a consultation with a private surgeon. Not an uplifting experience. The situation in my back, at least according to the MRI done last September, is rather worse than was initially implied. It’s not just a disc bulge but “an extruded prolapse on the back of a broad based prolapse eccentric to the left.” This pinches a nerve root, hence all the pain I’m in.
He listed my options (in his opinion):
– do nothing, many such issues resolve in a year, but my year is pretty much up. – have another nerve root block, but since the first one only helped about 15%, he didn’t think more would help. – have the operation, a microdiscectomy. He outlined all the (frightening) risks, and the post-op protocol – 5-6 weeks of no sitting, perhaps propped up in bed with pillows. This alone terrified me, given how long it’s taking me to recover from a relatively minor operation.
The surgeon told me he typically gives an 80 to 85 % chance of surgery benefitting my kind of symptoms, but due to my health profile, it would be 70 – 80%. My gut instinct is it could be even lower.
I was quite depressed after this consultation. Thankfully, just afterwards, I had a face-face consultation with the lovely NHS physiotherapist I mentioned in the fundraiser, the one who’d talked to me about central sensitization, where the brain sends out ‘this is dangerous pain’ signals when perhaps the pain is not as bad as that (and just to be clear, the pain I’m feeling is as bad cuaas I feel it, but it’s possible, due to the trauma of the past year and ME/CFS, my pain threshold is lower than it might be). He was lovely, and suggested I at least try another approach, a kind of CBT of movement of the body, very, very gently teaching the body-mind to try movements I’ve so far freaked out about – and not done if at all possible – for fear of them causing me pain. It was a relief to at least consider something else before going for surgery, and would take time, weeks, months.
The next day my throat lump was scanned. It’s a benign thyroid nodule, nothing to worry about. A huge relief (unfortunately the drive there and back, about an hour and a half in total, caused excruciating sciatic pain for the rest of the day/night. Car seats seem designed to do this!).
In the meantime, thanks again to the generosity of everyone donating to the fundraiser, I’ve been doing sessions of acupuncture with Nik Tilling who specialises in pain. Initially he treated the ‘reason’ for my pain, the disc prolapse, but then he worked on settling my nervous system (in constant ‘fight/flight’), and, well, my whole being. Nik is one of the most empathetic people I’ve ever met, sessions are closer to therapy/healing sessions.
I’m seeing a cranial osteopath and she too is focussing on settling my nervous system, and healing the damage done by the operation, and misalignments of my spine/sacrum. I’ve had one clinical massage session with another specialist in this area and will be having one this coming week.
Also, my dear partner has been doing healing bodywork on me, something I’ve not been comfortable with in the past. Partly because it is his ‘job’ and I felt it would just take too much from him to be working on me too, in particular at this time, when his own work situation due to the pandemic and Brexit has been horribly stressful, uncertain and worrying.
With all this, the pain is still there–last night it was as if my calf was being squeezed in a vice and as I write this a burning snake of pain wraps itself around my thigh–but something else quite profound is shifting in me.
And it is this I really wanted to write about.
As I said in that fundraiser, “To be asking for help, for funds, for myself, feels absolutely the opposite of what I ‘should’ be doing, when I know there is so much suffering that I could assist in alleviating. The truth is I’ve never found it easy to ask for help, of any kind.”
Well, in addition to the fundraiser, I steeled myself to make a post on a local neighbourhood website to see if anyone might be willing to ferry me to and from some of these appointments, in exchange for writing help. I didn’t expect any response, but over a dozen people volunteered, and most don’t want anything in exchange. Amazing.
And the other night I spoke to someone who knows physical pain intimately, an animal rescuer amongst other things. A very dear friend (who also truly knows pain) put me in touch with her. In addition to sharing what has helped her, this lovely woman invites me to her house in Ojai, California (one of my favourite places in the world ) where I can soak in her warm pool and learn from her experience. A total stranger, inviting me to her home. What a gift! The dear friend who introduced us has also invited me to her home in the States, in a town that abounds with amazing practitioners and another friend to her home in Austria where she would give me sessions…
So, how to fully express what it means to me to be receiving such incredible generosity? Of course I’m grateful, but it’s more than that. Something seems to be working through layers of past trauma, breaking down an unhealthy idea of how I should ‘be’ in the world. It’s kind of crisis of identity. I’ve had ME/CFS for 25 years but I’ve tried to pretend it wasn’t there and pushed myself to continue to be an independent, ‘strong’, do-it-alone sort of person. And now I can’t be this person anymore. The pain has forced me to surrender, to let go of who I thought I was, who I thought I should be. And in letting go, support and kindness and love just keeps flowing towards me.
I’ve often thought of my mother in the past while. Yes, wanting her to be alive, so I could hear her voice, but also because of who she was, how she behaved in the world. Such an extraordinary person. Someone who also believed in being independent, in not needing help. Someone who helped others, not the other way around. She was a powerhouse of a woman – a force of nature, people said – until her 70s, when things started to crumble, when her way of dealing with life was no longer possible (make a sculpture, build a house, organise a community centre, dig a garden). She was suffering from a variety of debilitating issues (including pain) yet spent the last years of her life alone, lonely, isolated, because she could not bear to be seen as vulnerable. She pushed people away – even dear friends, and family. She once told me she’d wake up in the night weeping.
I could so easily have walked the same path, ended up alone and isolated and afraid.
After one of my healing sessions I had such a powerful wave of loneliness wash through me. Not that I don’t know loneliness – chronic illness and chronic pain are lonely conditions—but this felt deeper, stronger, a loneliness I’ve probably had most of my life, ever since the car accident that killed my father when I was seven. Or earlier. Perhaps, even it’s my mother’s loneliness, or further back, her mother or her mother’s mother, or even further back. This wave of loneliness seemed almost touchable, so that I could truly acknowledge it. And in other sessions, acupuncture, for example, something similar is happening around feeling joy (I can hardly remember when I last felt joy), seeing if I can allow an opening for this, and for transformation in all areas of my being.
So, while I’m still in pain 24/7, still crying with it sometimes, I sense a possibility. I can’t see how it will look yet, but it’s brighter than where I’ve come from.
I have you to thank for this, all of you who manage to read these long posts; all of you who have reached out to me in so many ways. Thank you.
What is next? The NHS has put me forward for another kind of injection, ‘radiofrequency denervation‘ (essentially cauterizing the nerve). I’m a bit nervous about this and the surgeon didn’t even mention it, but it’s not till May so I have time to consider. [Update: I was given incorrect information – it’s just another kind of steroid injection.] I have enough in the fundraiser to explore not only acupuncture, cranial osteopathy and clinical massage but other modalities for several weeks. I’d so love to take up the kind invitations to stay with people in a healing environment–I’ve often said if I could wave a magic wand for myself it would be to be in nature near warm water–but I need to be much stronger to make any kind of journey. I wonder if this will ever be possible, given how unwell I’ve been for so long, over and above the pain. I’ve known of some approaches that have worked wonders for others with ME/CFS, intravenous glutathione and vitamin C or a PEMF mat – pulsed electromagnetic field therapy – for example (some studies used PEMF for Long Covid and chronic pain). And these would eat up my entire fund and more, so in the meantime I will try to keep myself open for ‘what wants to happen’ – an approach I use in writing, actually!
[Update: a friend just read this blog and said that in my wording of the very last sentence she heard the old voice of scarcity and limitation, that I shouldn’t assume the support I’ve been given would be over… so once I feel more sure about what might help, perhaps I’ll do a new fundraiser –argh, even writing this feels once again SO uncomfortable!]
In her beautiful memoir, The Shapeless Unease, Samantha Harvey talks about having to endure her life when it’s unendurable. She writes specifically about insomnia, but much of what she says feels so close to my own journey. This phrase, enduring the unendurable, has come to me many times in the last year. I’ve had chronic illness for a quarter of a century [Edit: I originally wrote quarter of a decade… brain fog!], and often my symptoms and the fall-out from the disease have felt intolerable, but then things changed in March of 2021. Since then I have been enduring the unendurable.
It actually started before March, perhaps late 2020. I developed a condition with an almost laughable name: Burning Mouth Syndrome. I thought it was a version of dry mouth, one of my many symptoms, but then it got worse, and worse, an ongoing sensation that I’d gulped down a hot cup of tea, that my tongue was scalded. Sometimes the tip was red and sore to the point of affecting my sleep. I’d weep with the awfulness of it. There’s something about pain and discomfort in the head/face that is particularly distressing. I eventually discovered two things that helped, holding chamomile tea in my mouth, and, bizarrely, pasting the affected parts of my tongue with cayenne pepper. At first I made a solution with water and powdered cayenne pepper, and then I just used straight cayenne pepper as it was easier…
And then, came March 2021. I did not want to write this blog, partly because of how much energy it would take to do so, but mostly because of what I’m about to write. I had my first AstraZeneca vaccine in March. It caused the worst ME/CFS crash I have ever had. I spent many days and weeks unable to do anything but lie in bed – doing what so many with ME/CFS know well: ‘resting’ but without ever feeling rested. I slowly began to recover and took the decision to have the second vaccine in June. The reaction was not as severe, but just as unrelenting. I am still not back to my pre-vaccine state. Essentially I have moved from mild/moderate ME/CFS to moderate/severe ME/CFS. All of my usual symptoms are doubled or tripled in intensity: fatigue, light/sound/skin sensitivity, brain fog, tinnitus, dry mouth, dry eyes, inability to walk for more than a block or so… And then there were other little delights, for example, at some point in September I had mouth ulcers so painful I thought I had an ear infection.
Essentially, on top of ME/CFS I have vaccine-induced Long Covid. I am a “vax Long Hauler”, as some call it. Yes, there are others like me. I am not an anti-vaxxer, and I know talking about my reaction will fuel the anti-vaxxers, which I do not want. It’s important I also say some people with ME/CFS improved after getting the COVID vaccine. I want you to read that sentence again before jumping to the conclusion that the COVID vaccines are inherently toxic. I’ll write it again: some people with ME/CFS improved after getting a COVID vaccine.
Unrelated to the vaccine, a low-grade sciatica I’ve had for years began to ramp up. And then it ramped up again, and again. To the point where I couldn’t stand on the affected leg in the morning the pain was so piercing, to the point I was weeping in pain (weeping is something I’ve been doing a lot of this last year). I went to a physiotherapist and he put me on an exercise regime, but I wasn’t getting better, I was getting worse. Finally I had an MRI in September which showed “Left L5 nerve root compression” or a disc bulge in my lower back that’s pressing on the nerve going down the left leg. Some googling and an osteopath put me on a different regime, but the pain is at times intolerable. Sitting for more than a few minutes increases the pain, lying down increases the pain.
Writing, reading, and resting have become almost impossible. To have ME/CFS and to be unable to sit or lie down is, well, a tiny form of hell. I can’t look forward to watching a mindless TV drama in the evening any more, as the only way I can comfortably watch TV is in cobra position. I’ve had to teach myself to sleep on my stomach, not exactly comfortable.
I was, I am, living on a variety of pain killers. I had a steroid injection in December, which for some can be a miraculous cure to nerve pain, but not for me.
The pain lessened, and then got worse, and now I’m in constant 24 hour pain or discomfort. Sometimes it’s as if there’s a burning coal buried in my calf, or that a hot iron is pressing against the back of my thigh. I can wake up in the night feeling as if someone has kicked me in the sacrum. I used to have some periods in the day without discomfort, but no longer. All this in spite of the pain medication. I’m waiting for another steroid injection, as I’ve been told sometimes it needs to be done in a slightly different place, but right now all I see in my future is pain, and fatigue.
Most of my waking hours revolves around trying to alleviate discomfort or heal my body. I meditate for long periods twice a day (lying flat on my stomach, the only possible position). I consume all the appropriate foods and supplements. I’m lucky to have a couple of skilled friends who generously offer their time and knowledge. I’d love a month or more at a spa with thermal waters and clinicians / body workers specialising in my various issues… or a series of MDMA trauma sessions in the Netherlands to give me a totally different experience of life, even if only for a little while.
But even if I knew where to go, these things are, for me, unaffordable.
My Burning Mouth Syndrome did improve, it’s not gone, but it’s much better, so there is that to be grateful for. And lately I started developing other weird symptoms: nausea and a short lived spike in my body temperature after eating or drinking something hot; my eyesight suddenly going blurry. And then, the other day, I was doing my cobra-position TV watching, and noticed a lump on my throat. It’s probably been there for a while. I haven’t exactly been paying much attention to how I look. My doctor thinks it’s a thyroid goitre, and has booked me in for a scan, most likely it’s just a watch and wait situation. It’s not giving me pain, and although I freaked out for a couple of days, it feels the least of my concerns.
What else about the year? Anything good at all? Well, yes. I try to remind myself. I turned 60 in August. I spent an afternoon with wolves.
And, I finished my novel in late spring, the novel that won the 2019 Bridport Prize. I finished it largely thanks to a Project Grant I received from Arts Council England, and The Literary Consultancy assessment and mentorship process that was part of the Bridport prize. Jonathan McAloon gave the initial assessment: a highlight of my writing life. He wrote “…of the fifty or so novels I have written reports on through the TLC, whether from first time novelists, those who’ve won a read like yourself, or established authors, your novel seems the most complete, and has given me the least causes to criticise.” My TLC mentor, Anna South, wrote in one of her final reports: “It’s very likely Samantha will prove to be one of those rare first person narrators who’ll live on in my memory long after I’ve turned the book’s final page.”
For various reasons the novel was ‘on hold’ for the rest of the year but it’s now on submission to agents.
And, also thanks to Arts Council England and to Sam Ruddock at Story Machine, I wrote four blogs that are mostly aimed at supporting writers living with chronic illness or disability. You can find them here. We recorded two podcasts where Sam interviewed me about my work and my life as a writer with chronic illness. I’ll make a post as soon as they’re live. Also part of this ‘project’, I led a webinar for writers with chronic illness, disability and other chronic conditions. While we did not discuss our situations in detail, the participants expressed how relaxed they felt knowing they were writing with others who knew chronic suffering. Some of them were experienced writers, including two playwrights. I shared my approach to writing, and the work that came out of the exercises was vibrant and exciting. What I did not expect was how nourished and energised–and relaxed– I, as workshop leader, would feel. Normally leading workshops on Zoom drains me, but not this time. Thanks in part to Sam Ruddock’s lovely hosting, but the main reason was simply being with those who understood what it meant to have one’s writing life impacted severely by physical challenges. Several of the participants expressed interest in further workshops, I’m truly hoping Sam and I will be able to do this.
But, after I’d finished my novel and was waiting for the next step in its journey, I stopped writing fiction. For the first time in many years I didn’t have a novel or short story to attend to, instead I attended to my multiplying physical issues. My mental health kept on spiralling downwards. I stopped reading. I haven’t read a book since October 2021. Normally I read at least two novels a month. I can’t read other than in cobra position–lying on my back or my side hurts too much, but mostly I stopped reading because I was just too depressed or too involved with all else.
I have felt so isolated in all this. My friends are, for the most part, dotted all over the world and I’ve found it hard to keep the connections. I send an email, and can’t follow up. I start a WhatsApp conversation, only to drop away for days or weeks – or months. And if I do manage an actual conversation, talking exhausts me. I used to be heavily involved in animal rescue on Facebook. No longer. Some days I can barely manage a single email. My to-do lists become longer and longer, or just get lost in the morass on my desk.
An astrologer friend of mine who I’d lost touch with, reached to me out of the blue. I managed to tell him a little of what was going on. He decided to check my chart: it is as if you have been in the centre of the world’s chaos. He also said things should ease gradually, oh that this be true!
I started The Shapeless Unease in January and while I’m reading it very, very slowly, perhaps this marks a shift. In the (distant) past I had an extended period of not writing, yet when I started up again I was, as if by magic, a better writer. I have to trust this will be true for me this time.
Sam Ruddock has invited me to write more on what it means to be a writer living with chronic illness, to share any supportive tips I might have. I’m excited about this, and daunted, given my recent track record of zero creative writing… As I put this sentence down, I realise I need to re-think what “creative” writing means to me. In November I started the Page-a-Day process with a dear writer friend. It seems to me I’m just cataloguing my woes, but my friend insists not. Perhaps she’s right. Perhaps one day I’ll read through, and find something beautiful.
I recently managed–forced myself really — to attend a five-day Arvon writing workshop in Devon where Samantha Harvey was one of the tutors (she’s just fantastic). This in itself is a massive achievement, I’ve not been anywhere for 2 years (I’m paying the price however, with a kind of tiredness you might feel after several back-to-back transatlantic flights). But…. I did make lovely connections, and have some unexpected ideas for another book, thanks to a chat with one of the participants over supper. How does a comic memoir about a ruby deal going catastrophically wrong sound? Synchronistically on Twitter I saw that Ruth Millington heads up an Extreme Holidays Podcast… I asked if she might be interested and she is!
And, the physical story isn’t over.
In two days, on Sunday, I’m having laparoscopic surgery to remove a large and growing ovarian cyst. I’ve been putting this off but finally felt it was time to do it. They’ll remove both ovaries and my remaining fallopian tube. The last time I had laparoscopic surgery I healed well, apart from my belly button incision, but I was not as debilitated as I am now. If you can think of me, that would be lovely.
I have a wonderful new GP who told me to do some grief work around this operation. When I said I’d never wanted children, he leaned close and repeated firmly, Do some grief work. My partner has gathered stones and seaweed from the beach. I’ve added a stone from the ocean where we spread my mother’s ashes in Crete. I wish her to be with me now, more than ever. We’ll do the ceremony on Saturday. I hope for sun. I hope for a good day.
I simply hope.
For my book to be published. To be pain free. To no longer be in the centre of the world’s chaos.
And there is much to be grateful for. My partner, who goes through all this with me. It’s easy to forget sometimes it’s as hard to witness a loved one suffer as it is to suffer. I’m grateful for my brother, who checks in on me from whereever he is, Portugal, Brazil. For the friend who brought tea and food when my partner was away and I had to go to Accident and Emergency, and waited for me in the cold for hours until I was seen. I’m grateful for Ronan, who seems to know something is wrong.
I’m I’m grateful for trees. For stars.
And I’m grateful if you’ve managed to read this far. (Please forgive spelling /grammatical mistakes and looping repetitions, my mind is not at its best, to say the least!). There is an update below the tree.
Update, 20th February 2022 The operation went well, as far as I know. I was not warned about post-operative gas and experienced the most extraordinary pain for about 24 hours because of this. And then, the sciatic pain doubled. To the point of utter despair. I made a fundraiser to try and help me find answers, and it tells more of the story. I will soon write another blog about my process around this, which has not been easy – to ask for help.
I have another guest post on Story Machine– an interview where I discuss finishing a writing project – a novel in my case. There are a number of questions, for example, “How do you maintain momentum to finish a first draft?” and “If I need help with my work, a professional editorial eye, where can I find it?” You can read my answers here.
Ronan waiting patiently (not!) for me to get off the computer….
I have a new guest post at Your Writing Launchpad that talks about what I do to help me get back to writing when my illness (ME/CFS) has chomped away at my confidence, or I am only able to write for a very short amount of time per day. The tips work for anyone however, and are focussed on how to create a daily writing practice that you can stick to. You can read the blog here.
My ever trusty ‘nurse’, Ronan (he does great acupuncture…)
I planned on posting about this interview with me on the day it was published, in the hopes of getting the word out about this fantastic competition before the deadline, but then I had an M.E. relapse. Well, the First Pages Prize IS a fantastic competition, and now you have a year to plan to enter the next round! I wrote about my experience in 2019, and since then the Prize has gone from strength to strength. The prizes are exceptional, a substantial cash award, partial developmental edit, and consultation with an agent. So… sign up to their newsletter so you recieve news of when they are open for submissions again (they also now have an additional prize for creative non-fiction).
As I say in the interview:
For me, entering competitions is always worth it, even if I don’t place. It encourages me to look at my writing with a different eye, the eye of a reader. It encourages me to polish and edit.
And, I find deadlines extremely useful in getting me to the desk and working. I’m not sure I ever would have written as much as I have if I hadn’t sought out competitions to enter (and literary grant applications to complete!).
I was wondering why my phone was bombarded with tweets yesterday, I didn’t check what they were at the time as I was having a conversation with my better half in a café, a rare treat, and I didn’t want to interrupt that. And then I got home, and…. well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I’d forgotten I’d entered this wonderful, fairly new competition. And then to see my name, and the name of my novel, presented like this, I couldn’t believe it. Just last week I’d finished a truly gruelling ten month editing slog getting Seagull Pie ready for submission to The Literary Consultancy for manuscript assessment and mentorship (part of my prize for winning The Bridport Prize First Novel Award) and then I came down with my expected physical crash, bedridden for nearly a week. Well, as you can imagine, this news perked me up quite considerably! There are some exceptional writers on the short and long list so I am truly honoured to have won. Catherine Cho was the judge, an agent at the prestigious Madeleine Milburn Agency.
This really does feel like an extraordinary end to an extraordinary year. In some ways I have been lucky, focussing on editing the novel has given me some respite from the pandemic. Some structure to my day. It’s not been easy, although I’ve so far managed to avoid COVID, my health has had many unpleasant twists and turns, but I was so glad I had this one thing calling me, every day, this story that means so much to me.
Thank you all at Grindstone Literary for your hard work in this competition, and to all those who have said such lovely things on hearing my news.