Friday, July 01, 2016

Black Dog Dead - June

Come on, Black Dog, make up your mind. Are you IN or OUT?

Now, I’m sure I’ve talked before about how ideally I’d love to better manage my emotional reactions to the news, the world of politics and so on, and if ever there was a month to test my progress in that quarter, June 2016 was it.

So how’d I do?

In some respects, hopelessly badly. In others, pretty damned well.

For the most part, my personal focus this month was on one goal: completing edits on my Lethbridge-Stewart novel and submitting the MS on time to the editor at Candy Jar Books. That was the be all and end all on the work front and I must confess other things did slide – household chores neglected, social life (what’s that?) and general R&R.

If at times the editing marathon looked too packed and too daunting, I broke it down into short sprints. Even as little as half an hour, short break, half an hour, short break, through the afternoons and some evenings. It enabled me to largely ignore the big hill I had to climb and focus on the details, making the task easier to approach and, I hope, benefiting the writing.

And I did it.  Goal achieved. Hats off, hurrah, well done me and I remembered to award myself some R&R after it was done. Actually, I had more days off than I’d intended. I meant to move fairly quickly on to resuming writing on Evil UnLtd Vol 5 and did get to work on some notes and plotting, scribbling ideas here and there, but my creative brain demanded more rest and for once I gave into its demands.

I’m learning!

As with May, the busy daily timetable didn’t leave a great deal of room for contemplating my mental state. I continued my habit of the weekly morning swim and that remains beneficial, although I still have an occasional struggle just getting myself to that pool and there are feelings of anxiety and isolation that surface now and again during the swim. But I know the benefits and keep going. And I think it’s generally fair to say that if you’re not stopping to think about it, if you’re doing, then at the very least you have generated a revolving door which really confuses the crap out of the Black Dog and keeps the bastard out for a while.

Still, without adopting a completely hermitic lifestyle it’s impossible to shut out the world altogether. And in any case, if we care at all, we shouldn’t when there is an opportunity to have our say in a national democratic decision.

So I followed the EU referendum campaign as best I could in between the workathon.

What a horror show.

Worse because quite apart from the main feature it put me in touch with other world news. And in the midst of some of the basest level debate I’ve had the displeasure to witness, there came reports of shootings. Mass murder in Orlando and the murder of Jo Cox MP. And because I’ve yet to become inured to such things, it’s fair to say there was some sense of despair and hopelessness colouring my world view as the debate marched on towards June 23rd.

Obviously, discussion of the politics belongs mostly elsewhere and believe me I did my share. Suffice to say, I was deeply disappointed by certain aspects of the campaign going on before my eyes – lies, misinformation, ignorance, racism – and further dismayed by the result. Oops, just gave away which side of the fence I was on. Oh well. But in this context, it’s irrelevant. Because the country today is full of Remainers and Brexiters who live in a world of uncertainty and anxiety and some of us, whichever way we voted, were already suffering with mental health issues.

I don’t mind telling you, on Friday 24th June I was depressed.

Yeah, I was gutted, like any person would be, waking up to bad news. And I got angry and I vented on social media and all the rest.

But, and here’s the thing, this wasn’t Depression with a capital, clinical D.

We know the difference when the Black Dog strikes. I especially knew the difference because it did strike a few days later, on the following Tuesday. Yeah, that’s the day we went from ordinary old-fashioned blues to when the Black Dog voted itself IN.

Now, I know there were several contributing factors that just converged and became too much. Thinking back I can even recall the stages throughout that day combining to tip me over and sink me into a deep dark pit.

And I think that’s quite significant, because so many times before I have been totally unable to tell anyone why I’m feeling Depressed, to identify a triggering incident or chain of incidents. Often when you are dragged along in an undertow of emotion, it’s easy to lose sight of the source.

I’m hoping that I can retain some measure of that awareness and be alert for warning signs in future.

Anyway, what’s even more important is that I came through and emerged on the other side. Not exactly a ray of sunshine today as I write this – partly cloudy, might best describe my state of mind. But once again we have kicked the Black Dog out and if there is any depression lingering then it has shed its capital, clinical D for now.

How did I battle my way through?

Well, I didn’t put up a fight, I can tell you that much.

Gave in to it. Gave up, even. Allowed myself to crash, then slowly hauled myself out of the wreckage the following day, when I was ready. You have to be real careful when moving an accident victim.

In practical terms, what it amounted to was extending a break I was already supposed to be on after completing my novel. A planned couple of days off became three or four, carrying me right up to the end of June. Indulgent, but necessary. Carrying on with a few scribbled notes, just to let the imagination play and help me feel like I wasn’t quite out of the game altogether, combined with being kind to myself – a dash of comfort telly, a spot of video gaming, watching some tennis highlights, general vegging, curling up under a blanket and/or a cat, much like you would if you were ill. Which I was, of course.

And thanks to a bit of good timing on the part of the calendar this convalescent spell was nicely tailed off with an evening out for a mate’s birthday, right at the end of the month. Can’t say I was in the best spirits for partying at the outset, but I recognised the need for it and went out and took my medicine. And it did the trick.

After a brief and untidy and highly disorganised campaign, I voted the Black Dog OUT again. Hurray!

And here we are, next day, beginning of July. Another fresh start in a sense, where I’m reminded of my limitations and know how to proceed for the next thirty-one days.

Yes, we can change the world, but it’s a question of scale. You do what you can and that is all you can do. And sometimes if it looks hopeless or pointless, well, the only thing you can do is focus on yourself and your small world, where you can see and measure the differences you make.


SAF 2016

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Black Dog Dead - May

What with one thing and another, I’ve been too busy this month to think about depression. Why, I barely have time to dash off this blog post. But I’m going to squeeze it into the schedule because, if nothing else, I find it helpful to processs the last month before moving on to the next.

Actually, I say one thing and another, May has really been about one thing. Owing to various external pressures and life-torpedoes, I’d left myself too much to do on one project, one that has an actual deadline, and rather than do the unthinkable and request an extension I figured the only way to go was to just juggle the timetable, postpone other projects (heck, I even put my weekly Tortenschloss Chronicles on hold, and I never like doing that) and focus exclusively on the main one.

It’s unlike me, because I generally welcome variety. I find it useful, for example, if I get temporarily stuck or inspiration dries up on one thing to be able to just switch to whatever else is currently in the works and keep going.

Keeping going is good, but it can also create problems. Days tended to blur together even more than usual this mad month, with only weekly routines like my Wednesday morning swim (still going strong!) and the Thursday night pub quiz to help me tell the days apart. The concept of weekends has been long forgotten.

You pack yourself off to bed thinking about which chapters/scenes you’ll be working on tomorrow, you lie awake thinking about the same, when you do sleep you dream about it and your subconscious totally screws with your carefully laid plots and then you get yourself up and try to remember where you were, then press on with the day’s leg of the Great Writing Race.

At least in the face of the Mountain Of Stuff To Do I was able to apply some lessons previously learned. That is, if a task seems on the daunting side, break it down into manageable pieces and tackle those pieces one individually, try not to think about the Mountain, just one handhold/foothold at a time.

In this case, that meant setting myself daily wordcount quotas and breaking those down further: for instance, on a ‘heavy’ day, a couple of hours at the cafe, an hour after lunch, break, another hour, break, another hour, dinner plus a spot of TV, an hour and a half in the evening, break, then another hour or so to finish off. Lighter days would balance that schedule out to some extent.

There were days that I didn’t feel like doing anything, but that wasn’t an option. On the flip side, there were days that went really well and I met my quota ahead of schedule. There, I had to be a little wary and I’d generally not allow myself to go over my quota, the trick being to avoid burnout the following day. Discipline was key.

Where that discipline sometimes did me no favours was in the matter of leisure time. I’d occasionally polish off the day’s work, find myself with free time (what?) and be utterly stuck as to what to do with it. Empty hours and a total inability to decide what I felt like doing. Film? No. TV? Don’t fancy it. Video game? Meh. Read? God no, my eyes are so bloody tired.

As though I’d locked my brain into work gear and it was the only thing it knew.
My epic journey through old Doctor Whos continued, with an episode to accompany breakfast, and I had series to follow (The Expanse, Orphan Black) one episode per day with dinner, but any available time outside of that routine was difficult and sometimes scary. Later in the month, I chanced across the game Life Is Strange on special offer and that offered a bit of rationed escapism that restored my enjoyment of video games at least. Playing music good and loud was also a helpful release and this month I journeyed through my complete collection of Yes – which is pretty affirmative.

There were also times when I stopped when there would be tears. I guess just a release of stress and built up emotion, which is to be expected. There was perhaps one major low and that was provoked by having to complete my tax credits renewal form, a task I’d put off and put off because I knew what it would entail.

It’s an easy form to fill, not many boxes to tick or fill in, but one of them pertains to your self-employed income. And I confess, having to put that ZERO in really fucking hurt. All the familiar plague of Negative Automatic Thoughts returned, including my archenemy, “What’s the point?”

Yeah, that day was a battle. And I slipped behind schedule.

But somehow I got back on my skates and caught up, actually had a really successful and productive day the very next day. I couldn’t tell you how, with any certainty, but I can only assume it had something to do with the compartmentalisation. I.e. because I’d broken down the month into manageable segments, it was a matter of sort of throwing away yesterday’s broken piece and getting on with the following day’s share.

Anyway, there in a wordy nutshell is my month of May.

In some respects, the level of busy-ness proved helpful, but it can be something of a carpet that problems get swept under. At the end of it all, I am able to say I dunnit. The project is complete, to first draft, and so I’m able for June to just address edits before submitting to the editor – within deadline, yay! – and have room to return to those other projects which had to wait so patiently in the background.

For that, self-congratulations are due. And I firmly believe that’s something we should never be afraid of – to give ourselves credit, even a big shiny medal and a glass of something to celebrate, why not. Given how much we beat ourselves up for the things we don’t manage, we owe ourselves that.

My main reward though at the end of all that, is to reintroduce that concept of weekends into my routine. Doesn’t have to be a full two days, nor does it have to necessarily be on a Saturday/Sunday, but I think one day per week where I give myself permission to switch off my brain will be truly valuable.

Before any of that, though, and because I promised myself this as far back as May 1st when I broke that Mountain up into bite-size chunks, June will commence with *THREE* *DAYS* *OFF*

Amen to that.

SAF 2016

Friday, April 29, 2016

Black Dog Dead - April

Last month, I talked mostly about anger and its debilitating effects. Although still a clear and present danger, especially in that the root causes don’t appear to be in any hurry to uproot and plant themselves elsewhere, I’ve met with some success in managing that emotional response better.

And while my fifth Evil UnLtd book remains in the works, I do have somewhere I can redirect and channel any politically motivated anger in a more positive and humorous outlet. Well, at least the few segments of that I wrote this month made me chuckle and that has to count for something.

Creatively speaking, April’s focus has been on other projects. Two main ones, along with some bits and pieces on the side. And work has progressed through the usual mix of good days and bad days. Much as you’d expect.

In reflecting on such a normal unexceptional month, I’m conscious of three factors that stand out in the context of their effects on my mental health. One of which is probably more damaging than last month’s anger, but there are two which, I’m glad to say, have been of significant benefit.

Within the first week of the month I managed to self-publish a collection of short fantasy stories (The Tortenschloss Chronicles, currently available for Kindle, folks, plug plug plug) and, in that spirit of celebrating the small victories that I’ve discussed before, deserved a pat on the back just for achieving that and for meeting the deadline I’d set myself. Yay!

But just as the act of submitting a manuscript to agents and publishers comes with the inherent and unfortunately likely risk of rejection, the act of self-publishing and the necessary self-promotion that follows comes with its own set of risks. Chief among them being releasing your labour of love to a deafening chorus of indifference.

Yeah, that’s a slap in the face.

Frankly, it’s heartbreaking.

When your advertising budget is zero, social media is one of your few avenues for promotion and it’s seriously disheartening to see posts relating to your pet project go ignored and unshared by 99% of your online followers, contacts and friends.

Obviously, my huge heartfelt appreciation goes out to the 1%. Many many thanks to them.

But it’s worth clarifying, this is not about that vast majority. Everyone leads busy lives and it’s fully possible such posts go unnoticed in a lot of people’s timelines and twitter streams and what have you. I daresay I miss loads from others and for that, what can I say, I apologise.

This is purely and simply about how it affects me.

This, in many respects more hurtful than the persistent rejection from agents and publishers that was such a feature of the traditional publishing approach, is tremendous nourishment for the Black Dog. It invites that worst of NATs  – my old enemy, “What’s the point?” – right back in to take up residence. And my brain does a little danse macabre around the notion of quitting altogether.

Yeah. It’s probably one of the highest-yield fuels for giving up that I’ve encountered in recent years. And that’s hard, because my writing is me, it’s my life, and ultimately its purpose, its raison d’etre, like mine, is to be read. If it’s not, then I’m living in a vacuum.

What’s especially frightening about that life-hurdle is that for right now I have no answer. All I have is to keep going – keep writing – in hopes of different results. And that, my friends, is close to the definition of insanity.

So, yes, April had its unhelpful share of black days. Days of derailing that, despite my having skated close to getting all caught up, put me right back to behind schedule. With the sense of constantly chasing just to get nowhere.

Scary. Although fast-approaching deadlines is at least a terror I can deal with. 

Applying a little temporal juggling, pushing back a few projects by a couple of months I’ve at least made the weeks ahead look more manageable. 

Luckily, the actual horror days were few. Not something that could be said to have characterised my whole month. They were a significant and worrying feature and a pitfall I have to be very much aware of – not least because I have to come up with some sort of answer to them. Some better way of dealing with them. Ideas on a postcard, please.

Countering them were those factors that lifted me and helped keep me afloat. Factors that, now that I come to write about them, strike me as the simplest, trifling things. They’re not actual trifles, mind you. I didn’t binge on puddings. Tried that before, you just get fat and depressed.

First and foremost has been my weekly morning swim. Every Wednesday morning, I’ve been hauling my insomnia-heavy carcass out of bed and dragging it up the hill to the local leisure centre to go several lengths of the pool. It’s been a daunting adjustment and many a Wednesday morning has been a battle, I don’t mind telling you.
But this month, something changed.

On the eighth week of this enforced habit, I sensed a shift between the swim being something I made myself do to something I wanted to do. It wasn’t some dramatic revelation or epiphany or anything, but it was a change that dawned on me nevertheless as I emerged from the pool on the second week of April. Breathlessness almost – almost – felt like exhilaration. And whereas before I was always mindful to congratulate myself on just getting out of bed at stupid o’clock, that day it felt really good.

Now, take it from me, I have no natural inclination towards physical exercise – well, not solo anyway – and I’m a long way from physical fitness, but I thoroughly recommend something like this in anyone’s ongoing fight against depression. Aside from two very unexpected anxiety attacks in the pool on separate Wednesdays – both of which I think I coped with and reined in pretty well – I’ve found that the Black Dog doesn’t seem to like water. It hasn’t, so far, seemed to want to join me on my swim.

Even on the gloomier Wednesdays, when reticence was at its peak and I walked up the hill like a leaden sloth, my head and heart were relatively clear as I swam. And hopefully, if my experience in April is any indicator, this is one habit that’s going to continue to be beneficial.

In addition to the swim itself, I maintained the habit of reporting on the swim on Facebook, I guess to keep me honest as well as to reflect on the experience and assess my progress. But I feel like I can just now embrace it as part of my weekly routine and drop the reporting. And maybe, as and when finances permit, step it up to twice a week or more.

Something to aim for.

Another element that has been surprisingly good at colouring my April days has been comfort TV. One particular low evening I couldn’t face any kind of work and wasn’t even feeling up to frittering away the hours on a video game so I turned to Friends. That’s Friends with a capital F, the TV show.

It was always a favourite of mine and for me it’s the definition of comfort TV. Alongside the continuing Doctor Who rewatchathon (which has the additional benefit of inviting Facebook discussions) it’s proven a great mood-elevator, just an episode (or two, if I’m up early enough) over breakfast or maybe one for a half-hour break between writing sessions, that sort of thing. The fact that I’ve enjoyed the episodes all over again is no surprise, but I was surprised by how effective it’s been as a therapeutic habit.

It’s a simple case, I guess, of a little bit of what you fancy doing you good. So whatever your own choice of comfort telly might be, I recommend it. And it beats comfort food because, you know, you don’t put on weight and make life difficult for yourself when it comes to those weekly morning swims.

Obviously, at some point I will run out of Friends, but I’m already thinking ahead to what other favourites I might turn to when I reach the end of the series.

Hopefully, between fun entertainments and the swimming that should go some way to keeping me sane. (Relatively speaking!) And help counter anything that comes along to work in the opposite direction.

Now faced with an ultra-busy month ahead, it should be interesting by the end of May to see which side is winning.

SAF 2016

Monday, April 11, 2016

Happy Ever Afters!

Someone left the cake out in an internet domain! Check out what we baked for you!

A short while ago in a galaxy close enough to this one to be considered pretty much the same galaxy, a friend of mine asked if I had any plans to release my Tortenschloss Chronicles in book form. My answer at the time was 'possibly', or words to that effect, but now that possibly has become reality.

We're pleased to announce publication of The Tortenschloss Chronicles ebook!

And this baby comes with FREE DLC. That's right: one purchase and we'll be adding to the stories contained in this collection.

Here's the cover blurb to explain and tempt you:



Welcome to the worlds of the Tortenschloss Chronicles.

These are worlds of Singing Swords, Prodigal Bulls and Extreme Unicorns. Of woolves and pandas and investigative jesters. Where bee-stings can be magical and cups can grant wishes without the aid of saucery. Where heroes might not always be heroic, but they will certainly be colourful.

This is a short story collection that will continue to grow after reading. Every few months, this Kindle version will be updated with two more stories, FREE bonus content, complete with accompanying illustrations and author’s notes. Just download when your device notifies you the updated version is available.

Pour yourself a cuppa and grab yourself several slices of fantasy adventure.

(Suitable for dunking.)



Now available for Kindle

The Tortenschloss Chronicles

And remember, you don't need to have a Kindle in order to enjoy this book. The Kindle app is free to download for PC and phones.

So go on. Treat yourself and tell your friends.

Enjoy some wholesome home-baked fantasy fiction.

SAF 2016

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Black Dog Dead - March

Last month I talked a lot about those pesky NATs (Negative Automatic Thoughts) and while I’ve not found the perfect insecticide to clear my head of them altogether, I believe I have made some progress.

It’s not the kind of progress that’s as easy to measure as, for example, the daily wordcount on any given project. And if I gauged my success by that, I’d have to report that March has been a variable month indeed. Up days, down days, active days, rather stay in bed days. But on the work/writing front I’ve kept things moving on the whole.

Even faced with the real struggle days, when the words are sluggish and my brain snailish, I managed to drag myself up and out for the morning and write something. And generally that had the beneficial side-effect of helping me feel that little bit better about myself. One definite improvement I’ve noticed is my conscious ability to congratulate myself for the minor wins.

Hurrah! Yay me! Etc.

But before we get too carried away, we’d best admit to the points we lost, whether through double faults, collapse of serve or whatever other tennis analogy you care to use.

Your sport of choice may vary, I just happen to prefer the tennis one, despite this month’s Sharapova-related disappointment – Maria, you let me down! But it’s still her mental approach to each point that I’d like to be able to adopt in the game of life. A setback should be just that – a single point, signal to move on to the next with the belief you can still win the match.

So, the principal enemy this month has been anger.

I’m angry with myself just thinking about it. For allowing it to get the better of me to the extent it has this past month.

Never really had anger issues until one upstairs neighbour embarked on a nine-month campaign of DIY (Do-It-Yourself and Daily Irritate Yourneighbour). Through the course of that constant daily noise and disruption, anger somehow embedded itself as part of my depression. Became a damaging additional symptom, almost, driving my stress levels through the roof long before the neighbour drove a hole in our ceiling. And made matters worse by laughing about it, through said hole. Perhaps the anger was an entirely separate ‘condition’, but it was tough for me to view them as distinct.

Anyway, once the Neighbour From B&Q Hell departed, the aftereffects remained and too often the smallest disappointments, frustrations, problems magnify into disproportionate irritants. It’s something I’ve struggled to control, because it’s an emotional, impulsive response and I’m at heart an emotional person. How do you govern what plays to your nature?

Still, I’ve managed to some degree.

Although I still swear profusely at my computer and anything technical that goes wrong. It’s inconsiderate, I know, but I expect machines to be dutiful slaves and do what they’re bloody well supposed to. I’m sure I’ll be one of those first against the wall when SkyNet launches its machine rebellion.

That aside, most days I have learned to take deep breaths, count to however many I need to count to see the spilt milks and other trifling mishaps in the appropriate perspective.

Most days.

But if exposed to anything that actually matters, I am prone to explode. And those days even the trivial stuff promotes itself right back to major annoyance.

News, global and national, is a frequent cause of that kind of volatility. So naturally I’ve had to avoid much of it or ration my intake. Even to the detriment of our pub quiz team’s performance in the current affairs rounds. But heck, there’s always a price to pay.

This month, the Tory plans to slash benefits (aka vital financial support) for the disabled in order to fund tax breaks for the already comfortably off, thank you very much, fuelled what was (obviously) entirely justifiable rage. And there was as little I could do about the anger as I could do about a government policy that even odious slimebags like IDS can’t defend.

Clearly, I should get angry about that sort of thing. Anybody in their right mind would. But when you’re not entirely in your right mind, your heart being in the right place can be a problem.

Anger can motivate action, of course, but what action can anyone take against a government so reprehensible? Beyond signing a petition or protesting or spreading word of their vile deeds on social media, etc. And I can’t actually enter into politics as a career, because I’d be completely unable to remain polite or civil in the face of these Right Dishonourable bastards. (And there I’m exercising restraint because with the written word I at least have a moment to pause and edit myself.) Anger and powerlessness are a recipe for a sense of futility and as such a dangerous source of sustenance for the Black Dog.

One consequence I became acutely aware of was that, even on some days when the writing wasn’t a struggle, while I could congratulate myself on what I’d achieved my subconscious would undermine me with the old poisonous questions: Why? What’s the point?

Toxic indeed. And as discussed last month, it’s essential to meet those NATs with positive answers. It can feel like mental warfare. With the enemy dropping dirty bombs and either you don loads of protective gear, isolate yourself, or you go out and meet the threat with whatever weapons you can get your hands on. And keep moving.

That latter approach has been key to my March.

While I’ve yet to come up with a concrete answer to those NATs that doesn’t just crumble some days and require rebuilding, I have stuck to my guns and I’ve all but put myself right back on schedule after those two weeks lost due to illness at the beginning of January.

I daresay I could have made myself busier and progressed further. But we don’t help ourselves by measuring where we are against where we could be. On the road to recovery, we do ourselves more favours by gauging our current position against where we began.

And if I can’t expect to control anger, then I might at least learn to compartmentalise it. Maybe use it.

In the face of opposition you can do nothing (or precious bloody little anyway) about, then the best you can hope is to use such enemies as anger to motivate unrelated action. Fuel for yourself, instead of food for the Black Dog.

In my case, that translates as continuing what I’m doing. Sticking with the plan. Working on my different projects, working on my mental good health.

And as luck would have it, part of that includes writing the fifth volume in my Evil UnLtd series, handily titled Vote Evil. So there’s some chance of channelling a quantity of the political anger into something positive and – hopefully! – funny.

If the darkest clouds lack for silver linings, I guess painting them on yourself is the way to go.

SAF 2016