A Psychological Thriller in #Sussex

With publication of LETHAL TIES less than a week away, I’ve been writing about my characters, the psychological issues that affect their lives, but this weeks post is about my book’s all important location: West Sussex.

Bognor Regis

I’ve lived here since 1996 and despite some of the adverse (and in my opinion), unfair publicity, Bognor in fact, boasts more hours of sunshine than anywhere in the UK, has a lovely stretch of beach and a unique coastal landscape to the west. The rocks lining the shore (Bognor Rocks) are haven to many fossils, a mysterious sight at low tide, even more so behind a sea mist or in the fading light of a sunset.

Bognor Beach

Woven into in the storyline, Sussex residents will recognise some familiar haunts: from meetings in the Waverley pub on the seafront, to a meal at Mamma Mia, and there is even a touch of romance when two character dine at Sen Tapas.

Bognor town centre features, as does the Job Centre and Marine Park Gardens. Maisie has a flat in Annadale Avenue (chosen for it’s proximity to the Station, a sneaky escape route through a garden) and Joe gets a job in Sainsbury’s as an online shopper, (a job I was hired for myself in 2016).

I have already mentioned the sea mists in Bognor Regis and in one scene, this creates an eerie atmosphere when characters find themselves at the centre of a police investigation.

sussex and the south downs

The story begins in Bognor. Maisie finds her old friend, Joe, sleeping rough in the beach hut opposite the Waverley and helps him to turn his life around.

That is, before Joe receives vile abuse on twitter. Clues in the tweets suggest they could be in danger but with a build up of suspense, one character is drawn further afield to other areas in West Sussex, fascinated by the countryside and various beauty spots.

Eartham

Nestling on the edge of the South Downs sits the village of Eartham, its idyllic pub, the George, and the Woods beyond. But when Maisie is invited on an impromptu day out, she has no idea what is in store for her.

The George at Eartham
The George is a pub where the characters enjoy Sunday Lunch
Eartham Woods
A lovely place for a walk… but for Maisie, forests cause panic.
Views from Goodwood Trundle
The view from Goodwood Trundle
The Pergola at West Dean Gardens
The Pergola at West Dean Gardens

The day takes many twists and turns. After nearly suffering a panic attack in Eartham Woods, (as a result of her phobia) she suggests heading over Goodwood way and a visit to West Dean Gardens, one of her favourite places. West Dean Gardens is an impressive estate which looks stunning in all seasons, notable for its pergola, mature trees and walled Victorian kitchen gardens.

“… as we strolled across the lawn, I could not wait to show him the pergola; a spectacular three-hundred-foot Edwardian walkway paved in flagstone. 
An air of mystery immersed us as we followed the path to the end; the climbing plants twisting around the pillars, a riot of wild roses fragrant against the feathery purple plumes of wisteria…”

East Lavant

The concluding part of the story takes place in East Lavant, a tiny village just outside Chichester. Maisie is lured to a mysterious but beautiful cottage nestling in the countryside beyond the village. Could this be the house of her dreams?

East Lavant, near Chichester

There is something about the remote woodland location that evokes suspicion in Joe. All he wants to do is protect Maisie yet fears she is becoming isolated. From the first trip to East Lavant however, the story gathers momentum, before the mystery that’s haunted them since childhood is revealed…

Pagham

The story ends in Pagham, with reference to the tranquil harbour, a nesting place for migrating birds and the tiny white herons known as egrets. Where do the characters go from here? You’ll just have to read the book to find out.

Pagham Harbour Nature Reserve, West Sussex

My debut Sussex based psychological thriller LETHAL TIES will be published this coming Sunday (April 18th 2021) and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.

It will soon be available in paperback too, and I am hoping to hold a Bognor book launch in the summer.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my blog in the run up to LETHAL TIES being published. For more information, stay in touch by networking with me on social media.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/author.helenchristmas
Twitter: https://twitter.com/SFDPBeginnings
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Website: http://www.samefacedifferentplace.com/

Seeing The Wood Through The Trees

Featured Image 'Seeing the Wood through the Trees'

Promoting a better understanding of mental health has been the theme of my blog recently and this time I’m writing about Asperger’s. There is a character in LETHAL TIES, (my debut psychological thriller, out soon) who has the condition: AS often affects more males than females, so it seemed more natural for this person to be a boy. Connor is fostered, yet there is something unique about his character.

Handling various themes behind this book, I have concentrated on the human element. I’ve shared important facts about my two main characters, Joe and Maisie, their personalities, their back stories and the struggles that affect them in adulthood. Connor however, is still a teenager.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CONNOR

  • The truth about his parents is kept a secret, as both are considered to be psychopaths with no compassion for others.
  • Connor’s birth mother (when released from prison) did not bond with him and cruelly rejected him.
  • So Connor has been in and out of care homes since infancy.
  • He has been in various foster placements, none of which were successful.
  • He is later diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum.
  • But two people tirelessly campaign to foster him to give him a chance.

Connor is not central to this novel and features very little. He is none-the-less a significant character who plays a vital role in the climax. With much of the emphasis on childcare and fostering, it is the way people bond with Connor, as well as his developing personality (as he gradually lowers his guard) that adds an extra string to this story; how youngsters are perceived and treated, especially those raised in care.

A Real-life Story about Asperger’s

With this in mind, I would like to focus on a real person (as opposed to my fictitious character), someone who is close to me but who I had the pleasure of interviewing a few weeks ago, particularly about growing up with Asperger’s. Being on the spectrum is not exclusive to males. Females too have the condition and although the core characteristics of Asperger’s does not differentiate between the two, it can affect them in other ways. 

Here is Rose’s story

Born in 1999, Rose began her early years a happy little girl at the March School in Lavant where she made lots of friends. Things changed, however, when she went to High School; an experience that sparked a journey of self-discovery. 

I began by asking her what happened there, and it emerged she had endured a spate of bullying.

Starting secondary school

“Girls are generally catty, especially at that age, but quite often things passed over my head. I felt isolated because I didn’t really understand myself. It was a big period of adjustment and I didn’t know who my friends were. I didn’t understand the jokes they made, why they could be a bit cruel, or how to cope in a friendship with anyone. My primary school friends were in separate classes and making new friends, but I found it really difficult. I was constantly self-conscious which can make you feel insecure and the smallest comment will stand out to you.”

I too was bullied in lower school and remember how it felt. But I was curious to know how she dealt with the situation.

“I didn’t feel I fitted in, so I left school. This was my decision and it worked quite well for me because it was in that period I was diagnosed with ‘Asperger’s’, so it was just a year to get my head together a bit. Time to figure out coping strategies, understand myself and other people to get that confidence back. But by the time I returned to school, it wasn’t as scary any more.”

Research

Looking online, I found a list of symptoms on Medical News Today which almost echoes this:

  • Jokes, sarcasm, and irony may cause distress and confusion.
  • The person may have a highly literal interpretation of the world. 
  • Irony and humour may be difficult for them to understand, leading to frustration and anxiety.

Going back to Rose’s diagnosis, I asked her what insights she got from her assessment.

“I wondered if I might have Asperger’s. Then we watched this one short documentary as a family and everyone looked at me and said: “that sounds like you.” This was diagnosed in one sitting, which does not happen with girls. The majority are mis-diagnosed or not diagnosed, but because I was at that critical age (joining High School) it seemed to fit the framework and they thought, yep, you’re definitely Aspergic, high-functioning, but it’s not necessarily going to hinder your life.

I remember at that time I was very, very rigid. Like if anything changed, even for the better, I wouldn’t be able to compute it and it would trigger a weird panic! When I understood that I wasn’t just being a brat, I wanted to work on the side I thought was negative. With a year out, in my own little bubble, no interferences, I sort of got myself into the right headspace to make the most of my situation. To try and not lean on it and think well, I’ve got this diagnosis, which means I can be a twat and get away with it… more the opposite. I can work on myself and I will. Yeah, I was definitely in a better place to go back to high school when I did.”

Reactions to stressful situations

When she was in her own little bubble, with her own routine, without anyone coming along and changing anything, it made her feel safe and in control. But I wondered if she could remember a scenario that triggered a panic response.

“When I was very young, we were going for lunch next day at Gun Wharf and I can’t remember where I wanted to go but had it in my head we were going there. But when lunchtime came, they wanted to go for tapas and I absolutely lost it! Like it was so unjust and so unorganised. I had already planned what I was going to have and it felt almost robbed from me. But I soon learned this was only going to upset me in the long run and those I was with. It was somewhat difficult when you had someone kicking off like I was in that situation a few years ago.”

At home or with family, she was more likely to release bottled up emotions through meltdowns, another symptom mentioned in the article on Medical News Today. But how did she feel once she returned to the school environment?

Friendships

“I’d be grateful for any friendships really. Friends were a good influence in many ways and helped me build my confidence. I am quite trusting. There was a period of time through secondary school and college, when everyone would constantly describe me as being ‘too nice’ and ‘a pushover.’ I didn’t like people saying that. Being called ‘kind’ is a positive thing but everyone took me as a proper ‘people-pleaser’ and constantly singing the praises of me doing anything for anyone to fit in… Yet if I was ever anything but amenable, I’d be made to feel like I was being unreasonable.”

In other words, whenever she felt like being assertive?

“These people were tactical bullies. Bullying is not the sort of thing that gets to me, it goes over my head because you don’t necessarily care about that person or their opinion. It’s people who are close to you who tactically and emotionally abuse you. Its also camouflaged, like it will go on for years before you realise that person is not a good influence. With this one particular friendship, I felt it for a long time but every time she complimented me it was a back handed compliment – even things that sounded caring, there was an underlying threat. Tactile, manipulative stuff – it was clever and it was bitchy – proper narcissistic behaviour. Eventually there was a turning point when I didn’t like her any more. I felt on edge and she demanded so much time. Genuinely nasty people latch on to you, play the whole best friend card but its not what a friendship should be, i.e. someone you can talk to, have a laugh with.”

I was sad to hear this, it seems to reflect the classic social isolation suffered by those with Asperger’s; difficulty in developing social skills, making and keeping friends. Like males, females on the spectrum are likely to experience bullying, which may manifest itself differently based on gender. No matter how subtle or overt, exclusion and bullying can be profoundly traumatising and affect the self-confidence and sense of security of the target individuals. 

I asked her what strategies she had devised to avoid stressful situations.

“One thing with Asperger’s is you’re also likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. I developed a ritual, (which I’ve managed to shift now). When I tried to get help for it, they said, ‘if you didn’t have a diagnosis of Asperger’s you’d now be getting a diagnosis for OCD and this is just another symptom,’ but put so much stress onto one tiny thing. This one tiny ritual, it was ridiculous really. I remember once, I was talking to a professional (I think she was meant to be an OCD therapist) but with these rituals, you attach to something to them; like if I don’t follow this ritual, something bad will happen, like my family is going to die… So I would touch wood. I would touch it in a certain way. If I tried to stop myself from doing it, I’d think well, what if I don’t do it and something bad DOES happen? It’s easier to just do it! Yet this therapist looked at me in the most condescending way and said ‘how long have you been keeping your family safe then?’ I thought fuck off, you should understand, and I know it’s not fashionable, but that pissed me off so much.”

Stopping a ritual would have been a big deal for her, since it is reported: ‘People with AS may have rules and rituals that they methodically maintain to reduce confusion. A surprise change in routine can sometimes cause upset or anxiety.’

Still on the subject of anxiety, I was curious to know what other interests/obsessions she had i.e. what brings her comfort or makes her feel happy.

“Listening to music, walking the dogs. I really like walking the dogs on my own. I put music on (those little earbuds) and because I like writing, I start imagining one of my screenplays and let the music inspire me. I am quite a creative person and use this as my creative time. It gives me ideas.”

I’d like to mention at this point that after sixth form, Rose studied for a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. She graduated in 2020.

“Music is really important in writing. I used to always like writing short stories but screen plays are my favourite format now. In everything I’ve written, characters have been central. I’ve written a comedy, a thriller, and a sort of teen drama/ghost story. So they do also have a lot of plot. This was what I wanted to do for my dissertation but it was also very serious and I wasn’t in a very serious headspace. I didn’t actually want to write anything ‘head wanky’ or dark. So I thought, I’m just going to write a comedy and I don’t know if it was particularly ‘funny,’ but it was in the style of the Royal Family/Gavin and Stacey. Good characters.

My screenplay, set in a Welsh village, was about a local pub burning down. The pub was the hub of their community, a real tragedy for the locals, and became a bit of a witch hunt to find out who was responsible. I chose to do a creative dissertation, as there was no way I was going to write a 10,000 word essay, because quite frankly, I didn’t think I would stick at it… so I thought I’d write a screen play and then, after I’d submitted my idea, my lecturer told me that no one has ever gotten a 1st on a creative dissertation. I thought, okay so I’m not going to get a 1st on my dissertation but I’ll do my best… and I did get a first!”

I told her I would love to read her screen play and asked what her ambitions were? If there was anything in the world you could have, what would it be?

“A detached cottage in the countryside, dogs, a partner… my family close by and screenwriting. It’s completely down to luck and some stuff is so subjective, you don’t know who’s going to be reading it. You send it to a publisher and you don’t know what they’re looking for.”

On UK Lockdown

The coronavirus pandemic hit the nation pretty hard and has exacerbated mental health problems especially among young people. How did she cope with this?

“I loved it, I was absolutely buzzing… No really! Lockdown was fine, we get on well as a family, we have a garden, the sun was shining and there was a lot we could take advantage of. I didn’t like my job at the time. This was at Nando’s and it was a good job – I mean, if you’re going to work for a restaurant I couldn’t imagine working for a nicer company, but I was never going to do well because of the hours and lack of routine. My shifts were changing every week. It could be any day and at any point of the day. Office hours suit me so well, because it’s routine and I know what’s what.”

Her words yet again reflect how important routine is.

“But it was also very scary and I was particularly worried about Mum. What would happen if Mum or Grandma got it? I mean some people get just like, a flu and some people get this long COVID and they’re buggered for life! Potentially even someone my age could end up dead! What I’m finding the most anxiety inducing thing is – like in the summer when I could go to the pub and mix with my friends, I was loving it… but I’ve also been scared I might become a hermit. The thought of going into the supermarket is like, there are other people and other people are dirty and might have the virus. I’m worried that could escalate into not wanting to mix with people!”

Did she miss going out and socialising with other people, though?

“Yes. If you’d asked me a year ago I would probably have said the opposite; because I didn’t like my mates. I think it’s about the friends you have. The friends I had this time, last year, would have been pressurising me to go out and break rules and it’s like – I’m just going to follow lockdown, thank you. I don’t want to go out. Just want to watch telly, do some internet shopping, have a beer…

One thing that has always been a pickle for me socially is the distance from town. I haven’t really got any friends in the village. So, if I’m going out with my friends, I’ve got to drive, which means I can’t drink (not that it’s all about drinking) but if you’re meeting in a pub it can be a bit bloody annoying. If I do drink I have to walk back and I have done this, but it took bloody hours!”

Vulnerability and Threat 

I wanted to say this was dangerous; going into town, drinking and walking back home in the dark. I asked her if she was aware of the perils in life.

“God yes, I mean we were walking up to the Trundle the other day and saying this is hazardous underfoot. And then I remembered that’s where we used to do our long-distance running, when I was at the March School and thought, that’s a health and safety nightmare, running on the Trundle but we used to do it. That was only what, 10 years ago? And things changed so quickly.”

The paths around the Trundle are very uneven with chalky dips and hollows.

“And that was another thing about the Trundle. There were people there bombing down on bikes and I was thinking, oh that’s so scary! But I remember when I was a kid – and Mum and Dad as well – cycling full pelt, then somersaulting in the air because I got caught on a stone, crashing down… and I just got up again and got back on my bike. I didn’t make a fuss, none of this ‘health and safety.’ Whereas now I’m thinking God, they’re so reckless! I used to be tough with injuries and now… I get a paper cut and I start crying.”

Something else she told me that I found alarming was: 

“Women with Asperger’s have an 80% chance of committing suicide and 90% chance of becoming addicted to drugs and I thought ‘fucking hell, those are awful statistics.’ That’s not a great position to be in but they’re just statistics.”

This begs the question, what help is available on the NHS for anxiety?

“In regard to getting help for mental health (Time to Talk), you’re either not mentally ill enough or ‘too far gone’ and if you are somewhere in between the two, you are added to a two year waiting list by which point your problems have gotten out of hand.”

It is reassuring to know mental health problems are better understood but from this statement, it strikes me there is still a lack of provision. I know Rose has Asperger’s but one of the last things she confessed is how much she really wants to rise above it and turn it into something positive. That symptoms like depression, anxiety needn’t be a problem. (NB. names were changed to protect some people’s identity and the stats quoted might not be exact as quoted by Rose on the date of her interview).

Featured Image 'Seeing the Wood through the Trees'

INSIGHTS

A most enlightening conversation, this got me thinking about my own character again, Connor, and whether I could see any clear comparisons. 

Historically, women have been less likely than men to be interested in transportation, computers, or astronomy. Connor is fascinated by science and nature, has a powerful need to understand the world around him, loves to hide and be the silent observer.

Girls are more likely to be passionate about literature, the arts, animals, environmental activism (you only have to think of Greta Thurnberg), and other topics with relational themes. There are no limits to the variety and depth of interests or expertise for both females and males with Asperger profiles.

Signs of AS include obsessive interests, formal speech, rituals, social isolation, clumsiness or awkwardness, a lack of empathy and sensory difficulties. Rose revealed a couple of these signs but not all. Other conditions related with AS are anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Young children with AS are often unusually active. By young adulthood, they may develop anxiety or depression. 

For more information on Asperger’s visit: https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/what-is-autism/asperger-syndrome

Connor like Rose, has suffered bullying, feels isolated from his peers who consider him ‘weird’ and towards the end of my book, he is even accused of being ‘a psycho’ amongst the less educated.

ANOTHER INTERESTING STORY

Dan Jones, my author friend who I’ve mentioned in previous articles, has written a book on the subject; ‘Look Into My Eyes: Asperger’s, Hypnosis and Me.’

Dan too has a diagnosis of Asperger’s. His book is an absorbing and fascinating autobiography that offers rare insights into the workings of the autistic mind from babyhood to adulthood, the impact it had on his family and how he learned to cope with the condition.

Dan gave me a lot of help in shaping my new book, offered priceless advice about his work in children’s homes, introduced me to the late Graham Lovell, (whose life story provided some powerful insights) and his book comes highly recommended. On Dan’s YouTube channel, he publishes guided meditations to help people relax, manage stress and sleep easier, essential resources for this strange new world we live in.

What’s next? In the run up to publication, I’ve exposed some of the complex psychological issues embedded in my characters, while at the same time trying to raise awareness into mental health issues. Next time I’m taking readers on a tour around the story’s West Sussex setting, some specific places mentioned and their context in the plot of LETHAL TIES.

Girl in a forest: FACING YOUR CHILDHOOD FEARS

Facing your Childhood Fears

Continuing with themes behind Sussex thriller, LETHAL TIES, with a special emphasis on mental health, I would like to introduce another main protagonist in this story. Maisie. She might appear professional on the outside but on the inside, her world is falling apart.

A possible survivor of child abuse like Joe, Maisie turns to psychotherapy. This post looks deeper into the symptoms of abuse, a turmoil that affects her every day life, as well as other young adults like her.

  • What are the origins behind Maisie’s recurring nightmares?
  • For what reason does she have a phobia of forests?
  • What causes her to suffer anxiety and panic attacks?
  • Maisie finds it hard to settle into relationships, lacks confidence, has a fear of intimacy.
  • But can psychotherapy regress her enough to unlock those painful childhood traumas?

What could have happened in Maisie’s life to trigger such powerful responses? Let’s start by examining her experiences, starting from her early childhood.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT MAISIE

Maisie Bell, a character from LETHAL TIES
  • Maisie lost her entire family in a car accident when she was small.
  • Traumatised beyond reason, she became withdrawn, froze people out, shied away from relationships and made herself unlovable.
  • Condemned to live in a children’s home, she befriended Joe and later Sam.
  • She also remember’s the home’s creepy owner, Mr Mortimer.
  • Her memories are vague, but something bad happened in that home, something that has haunted her right up to present day.
  • Her lucky escape came when she was fostered by a loving couple in Kent, with whom she spent the rest of her childhood.

A character driven thriller, there is a mystery at the heart of this story.

Maisie has never forgotten Orchard Grange, the children’s home she and Joe lived in, nor the parties Mortimer dragged them to. Neither can they forget their friend, Sam, a vulnerable 11-year old boy who disappeared one night… He has been missing for twenty years.

Nightmares 

Trees seems to be a common theme in Maisie’s thoughts. In addition to her unusual phobia – where the very thought of walking into a forest brings on a panic attack – she sees trees in her recurring nightmare; specifically a spidery network of branches silhouetted against a night sky.

Maisie has no recollection of what happened on the night of the party she was taken to, other than what Joe has spoken of himself. It’s as if this memory has been erased, leaving a terrifying black void. But from leaks in her subconscious mind, (resulting from therapy) she begins to form the impression that whatever trauma happened took place in some forest…

Tree branches silhouetted against a night sky

Why Panic Attacks?

Thinking of a conversation I had with a senior officer from the Metropolitan Police, who handled child abuse cases, I was advised that recovered memories from psychotherapy cannot be relied upon. He did say however, that one of the most powerful triggers in recalling memories originates from smell, e.g. a particular aftershave at the time the abuse took place. 

In Maisie’s case, it is the musty smell of forests, traces of leaf mould and damp soil that has her reeling in fear, every time she goes near them.

TYPES OF THERAPY

For people like Maisie who suffer some form of trauma in childhood – something that impacts on every day life – there are various types of help available. 

In the first instance there is counselling. Just talking about problems can be a huge help as opposed to bottling them up inside. Even a fear such as a common spider phobia can be attributed to something harrowing in the past. Facing childhood fears is never pleasant, but in some cases may act as a release valve and once addressed can help the individual to move forward.

Counselling is available on the NHS but in some cases, may not go deep enough to get to the root of more complex traumas. This being the case, the next stage may be to look for a less general, more specific type of help.

Psychotherapy

When stressful events that people experience or witness make them feel unsafe or vulnerable, psychotherapy can help by eliminating or controlling troubling symptoms, in order to function better and improve well-being. Like counselling, psychotherapy is designed to get people talking about their symptoms, and devising coping strategies to improve mental health. 

Regressive Therapy involves placing a patient into a relaxed state, or inducing a mild hypnotic trance, so they can recover painful memories. These may include childhood traumas. 

Anyone considering this type approach needs to do their research though, make sure the therapist complies to accepted medical standards and is accredited with governing bodies such as BABCP (British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies), BPS (British Psychological Society) or UKCP (UK Council for Psychotherapy). Some examples of regression can be dangerous and have even been known to implant harmful ideas.

CBT

CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, reference: Mind-health.co.uk) is designed to help patients understand their current thought patterns. This may include such things as their mental image and beliefs, but is used to identify harmful thoughts and misperceptions, anything that may be holding them back in life. It is possible that negative thought patterns can be reversed by trying to do things differently, which may in turn help the patient discover new paths in life.

IN THE CONTEXT OF MAISIE 

Maisie’s phobia of woods, anxiety attacks and nightmares are the cognitive responses that have a negative impact. But at a deeper level, her fear of intimacy is the more harmful issue that stops her from enjoying a happy, fulfilling life and settling into a lasting relationship. This is not unusual in abuse victims as I have read in various blogs I’ve researched. Thus, in one of her therapy sessions, she describes her first sexual experience as traumatic; that she became so frozen, so tense it felt more like consenting to a rape. 

A hooded figure used as an illustration in my blog

LETHAL TIES is a work of fiction, intended as a suspenseful, twisty novel, but also addresses some of the mental health issues that prevail in today’s society. Next time, I’m writing about Asperger’s with a view to promoting a better understanding of the condition.

Confronting The Demons Within

A homeless man

In the run up to the publication of Sussex thriller, LETHAL TIES, I’ll be discussing some underlying themes behind the story. If anything good is to come out of this though, it is to raise awareness of some of the complex emotional issues modern-day people face.

The abuse of young people is nothing new. People will have read about cases such as the Rotherham children’s homes (2015). Even footballers have spoken out recently of being sexually abused by their coaches, as revealed in a long-awaited report, ‘Football’s Darkest Secret‘ broadcast on BBC1.

But when I started writing Lethal Ties, I wanted to focus more on the long term psychological effects, rather than the abuse itself. 

  • The sense of powerlessness.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Anxiety and depression.
  • Addiction to alcohol and/or drugs.
  • Serious mental health disorders leading to suicidal feelings.

This story was always intended to be character driven, an emotionally charged psychological drama that delves deep into the minds of the characters.

Abuse can take many forms, be it physical, emotional, sexual or neglect, but leaves a scar of damage on the victims. Thinking of my characters, the long-term effects are very different. Maisie seems content. Raised by kind, caring foster parents, she has a successful career, a flat, the stuff most young adults dream of. Yet deep down, she is troubled; suffers anxiety and panic attacks, finds it difficult to form relationships. Joe on the other hand has made a complete mess of his life and with no career prospects, spends his life drifting from place to place, sleeping rough. 

Joe, however, is the one I want to focus on, starting with his experiences.

What you need to know about Joe

  • Joe has suffered a troubled childhood, including physical abuse at the hands of his violent criminal father.
  • Incarcerated in a children’s home, he is abused in ways he does not even understand yet, a truth that comes to light gradually.
  • Being suspicious, Joe has stood up to the boss, Mr Mortimer, but with terrible consequences. So when an 11-year-old boy vanishes, he fears the worst.
  • It is a slow drip feed of fear and threat that forces him to escape the home, but a campaign of intimidation that follows him into his adult life. 

The Consequences

Like many abused kids in care, Joe, the runaway, falls into a downward spiral of crime, prison, drug addiction and ultimately ends up homeless. This is not uncommon. Abused boys tend to gravitate towards trouble in the same way as girls turn to prostitution. For kids made to feel worthless, this often becomes their path in life. Nobody wants them, people have treated them badly, so therefore they must be bad. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Joe Winterton, a character from LETHAL TIES

Research into Joe’s Character

Writing the first draft, I had never really met a man like Joe, but all that was about to change when in September 2019 I was introduced to Graham Levell, by my author friend, Dan Jones. Dan, who worked in a number of children’s homes in the 90s, (the era of Joe’s back story) shared his own experiences, which went a long way in helping me depict the hostile environment inside the children’s home. Introducing me to Graham however, turned out to be the biggest inspiration behind Joe’s character.

The best part of Graham’s story is how he turned his life around. I have included a tribute in the book, but feel a powerful need to get it out there. For those who download my book, the tribute appears at the end, but publishing it on my blog is important  – not just to spread the message, but to make his life more meaningful.

Tribute to Graham LEvell

Graham’s story began when he worked at Butlins but at the age of fourteen, decided to leave home and spend the next fortnight sleeping under Bognor Pier. At no time did I get the impression this was traumatic, more an adventure, as he colourfully alluded to the homeless culture in Bognor. 

“That was before they put down anti-homeless alarms. Sit on a bench for too long, it makes a horrible noise so you can’t sleep.” 

Graham had dreams of going to college, to avoid the predetermination he would follow the path of many local youngsters and work at LEC. The more he talked, the more I got the impression he was unhappy with his life. Working at Butlins however, the next turning point was Dan’s girlfriend discovering he was sleeping rough; as a result, they invited him to come and stay with them. This was 1997, at a time when he had been gravitating towards other troubled youths, getting into drugs and alcohol. He described himself as quite a suspicious, cynical person.

“I mean I don’t have any lasting relationships and Dan was just about the only person I had a long friendship with.”

Dan Jones and Graham Lovell 1999
Dan Jones with Graham Levell 1999

Shortly after this, the police got involved. His mum had reported him missing and Social Services intervened; said he couldn’t stay with Dan (19) and his girlfriend, and that as a fourteen-year-old runaway, they felt uncomfortable about it.

In the next part of Graham’s life, being in care, some really enlightening stories began to emerge. I asked him about the process of being fostered, which he described as being “really scary… where they used to force us into these gatherings. It was all well-intended, but all a bit weird and false. Social workers present, theatre groups… others were just ‘happy clappy’ Christians.” 

During these gatherings, he would meet all sorts of people – girls who had been sexually abused – but with the lads, he remembers a sense of brotherhood, the usual teenage dominance (chest beating), and then laughing and joking about the different foster carers they’d had. 

“There were some right bastards out there caring for people… One couple used to have the kids living in a caravan at the end of their garden and then drag them indoors for bridge games every Wednesday night, and the kids would be made to work this huge great big garden and were generally slaves and dogsbodies around the house. These days, they wouldn’t pass the fostering board.”

An interesting transition from being in care arose when Graham ended up working in care himself. But before this could happen, he needed an education. He missed a lot of schooling, messed up his GSCEs (was even threatened with suspension) but turned things around in the sixth form and finally achieved his dream of going to college. It was amazing how fast he adapted, joyfully describing how this was the making of him; first studying a National Diploma in performing arts and a Diploma in vocational education in business. 

“They worked me ragged for four years but I had some wicked tutors and started mixing with people who were fairly decent.”

Graham Lovell (17) receiving an award for Educational Achievement

Best of all, Graham achieved a National Diploma, went on to do a Professional Development Certificate, then a Professional Development Diploma (which is a level 5 certificate) and was hailed as 1 in 10,000 kids to come out of care with a degree level qualification (in Health and Social Care).

I feel blessed to have had this one-to-one with Graham, who gave up his time entertaining me with his stories and accomplishments. To an author this was gold dust, and as the conversation gathered momentum, he became more animated, describing his work in care homes with troubled youngsters, one of which was for young offenders and substance misusers. 

“They would get wrecked and come back late after staff had locked the doors… and I was a bit of a soft touch, because one of the rules was ‘three warnings and you’re out’ – and I wanted to keep the kids with me until my dying breath. There was no way I was going to let anyone else look after my kids, because I knew what it was like to have no one you could depend on around the corner. I mean, they used to throw me through doors and everything… I got the shit kicked out of me loads of times BUT no one else was going to look after them. Not as good as me and my team.”

So when did Graham turn his life around? He was quite frank. 

“When I got my ex-wife pregnant. With a little baby on the way – the first of my three daughters – I got a job selling mobile phones to retail. Business supplied the learning and I found myself taking on a lot of what they taught me in terms of sales and communication. Knowing Dan, too, was a massive help.”

Graham won various awards in quality of business (still has the glass statue), and even Dan said he felt like a proud father to see him achieve success. This was the start of his professional development.

A darker side of Graham’s musings emerged in some of the stories he came across about kids in care; from a high functioning autistic boy left to fend for himself in a studio flat who became almost feral – to a three-year-old child raped by his adoptive father. He ended up in a foster placement and it completely went undetected, but he used to sleep in the same bed as his foster father and nothing was ever said. 

“He was schizophrenic when he came to me, because this had been a repeat pattern with every placement, but looking after him around 2007, he became the abuser. If it happens from an extremely young age it becomes a sense of normality…”

This was one of the last things Graham spoke of, the referral files he used to read, which would make him cry; cases of abuse that emotionally floored him: 

‘Awful. Absolutely awful. This is why I would never let my kids go, because I’d seen what they’d been through… I could never be a social worker because I would KILL people.’

I will never regret meeting Graham, not only to hear his amazing story, he became the biggest inspiration behind Joe’s character. I’ve even included some of his quotes, one being that kids in care have a huge chip on their shoulder. 

“You’re either a victim or a fighter.”

Anyone who knew Graham might recognise a little piece of him in Joe, from his flickers of insight to his sunny personality, his compassion and sense of humour. For all the while we were talking, I sensed neither bitterness nor regret. Graham was a genuinely lovely guy – had the gift of the gab, portrayed life in a colourful, humorous way and had a wicked laugh. 

What I did not know at the time, though, was that he had mental health problems and battled with bi-polar disorder. Sadly in 2020, with his existing problems exacerbated by the impact UK lockdown had on single people during the coronavirus pandemic, Graham died from an overdose of his medication. It broke my heart to discover the loss of this inspirational man, but he often spoke of suicide among males and took his life before I had a chance to properly acknowledge his help. My time with Graham is a memory I will forever hold dear. So I hope I have, in some way, kept his spirit alive in sharing this emotional tribute.

******

Conclusion

There are better safeguards in place for children now, especially in residential care and foster care, as Graham refers to in one of the sound clips I kept.

There is also more awareness of emotional problems, a better understanding of conditions like Asperger’s, bi-polar disorder, anxiety and depression. Social media too, plays a vital role.

There is no doubt that abuse has a terrible impact on people lives and on society as a whole. But what else can be done to break the cycle? 

The underlying premise of my book is that victims MUST come forward and report their abuse, a mantra one of the senior police officers I spoke to insisted on.

If abuse carries on undetected, nothing can be done, the cycle continues and some victims may themselves turn into abusers. Victims should always be listened to and while it is known there are fantasists, some who invent stories for personal notoriety or compensation, genuine victims have nothing to fear or to be ashamed of. 

Raising self-esteem is another form of help, which goes a long way in helping some people turn their lives around, but this does not just apply to abuse victims. This applies to anyone with underlying mental health issues, which stem from a variety of causes: Job loss and redundancy; the stigma of unemployment; excessive weight gain; a relationship crisis such divorce or bereavement; alcoholism, drug addition, debt, homelessness… the list seems endless but what I am trying to say is that if you can find it in your heart to be kind, to listen to people instead of maligning them, it could make a huge difference to the way they feel about themselves.

To conclude, here is another sound clip from Graham.

Graham Lovell 2020
Graham Levell 2020

In my next post, I’ll be introducing another character; Maisie, the deep underlying traumas that affect her every day life, not to mention the invisible enemy who is watching her. LETHAL TIES will be launched on April 18th 2021.

Back from the Beta Readers

Bognor Beach at dusk

Beta readers are essential. Beta readers will reveal aspects of your writing you may not be aware of and I have come to rely on honest feedback to fine tune my works of fiction. You may not like it. On the other hand, you may be thrilled by the response you get, but ironing out these potential flaws is what makes your work stand out above others. So be brave, ask someone impartial, someone who isn’t a friend or family, who might otherwise be afraid of offending you.

Latest Update

Time is marching on and I am delighted to report the news that my debut psychological thriller is close to completion.

The cover has been decided. I appreciated everyone’s feedback, but the 3rd design was a winner and stood out clearest as an Amazon thumbnail.

Lethal Ties by Helen Christmas

This post however, is a heartfelt thanks to those who were kind enough to give ‘Lethal Ties’ a first look. This book underwent numerous edits and re-writes and by the time it was as polished as it could be, I sent it to an editor (who I’d also like to acknowledge). But first allow me to share some of the views that came back from the beta readers.

Pacing and Style

The first of my beta readers thought ‘the pace was a little slow, with perhaps too much descriptive content which tended to slow the plot down.’

I take this onboard, while at the same time thinking about personal preferences – i.e. this is not a high-octane action thriller, but a psychological suspense thriller, which tend to be slower paced. Having read many books in this genre, I realised in my earlier draft that I revealed too much too soon, and it killed the suspense. This slow drip feed of action was done for a reason. Having said that though, the descriptive content needs looking at so I will cut this down to a reasonable level. Descriptions add colour but less is more. There is no point overdoing it and any ‘overly elaborate literary language’ can go. I was also advised on dialogue tags, e.g. trying too hard to avoid the word ‘said.’ Even my editor pointed this out, another area I can improve on. 

Dialogue Tags

Set up and pay off

Reading the response from my second beta reader got me thinking about character motivation and this was a real eye-opener, especially where the evil protagonists are concerned. 

The baddies in this story don’t feature much. They are shadows in the background, their presence so subtle, you won’t know who they are until later. This was also done for a reason and being a suspense novel, I want to keep my readers guessing. Yet I don’t want to ‘stretch people’s credibility’ too far, so this needs looking at too. Investing more time in setting up the bad guys, as well as their motives, will have all the more impact when the final twists are revealed.

A shadowy figure

The final edit

In response to this feedback, I am in the process of a final edit now, taking on board all the comments. I can reveal that ‘Lethal Ties’ is on Amazon and available to pre-order, while at the same time, I’m approaching digital publishers and agents. Having the backing of a professional company will get this out to a much wider audience, if successful; but if I have to stick to the self-publishing route, so be it.

and finally…

With publication getting close, I am so excited to reveal who my editor was. Joel Hames is a best selling author who has written many books in the corporate world of finance and law. His newest book, ‘The Lies I Tell’ is a brilliant psychological thriller about identity fraud and has just been relaunched by ‘Spellbound Books.’

The Lies I Tell by Joel Hames

Joel gave my book an extra polish in his copy edit, but his response to my book was very positive.

‘I really enjoyed this and I think you’ve hit what you were aiming for here. It’s tense and thrilling, and it was impossible to know what was going to happen, even with the benefit of the prologue.’

******

In my next blog, I’ll be exploring another theme and that is child abuse in its various forms, the impact on victims and how the cycle can be broken. This will include a special tribute to Graham Lovell, whose chat was the biggest inspiration behind one of the book’s main characters, Joe.

Book Cover Ideas

Inspiration

On a freezing cold winter’s day in lockdown, too drizzly to even venture out for a Sunday walk, I started thinking about book cover designs. I’ll keep this post relatively short but I ended up with 3 designs and would very much welcome some comments, here, with regards to which one works best. Bearing in mind that when designing a book cover it is more than just a picture; more a shop window for promoting your master piece, so the balance of imagery text and colours is important.

Lethal Ties is a tense psychological thriller set in West Sussex.

Two characters, who met in a children’s home, share traumatic memories. But as they attempt to seek the truth and trace a missing friend, they are plunged into a vortex of online threats and intimidation… until a police investigation is launched.

DESIGN 1

Book Cover idea 1 for Lethal Ties, a spine-chilling psychological Thriller by Helen Christmas coming soon.

The thinking behind this first design is fairly simple. Female lead character, Maisie, has a recurring nightmare, where she finds herself trapped in a forest. Staring up, she sees a circle of trees, the night sky just visible through the bare branches.

It is a chilling image and the lack of any other detail leaves an element of mystery, but is it too understated? Perhaps a little boring?

DESIGN 2

Book Cover idea 2 for Lethal Ties, a spine-chilling psychological Thriller by Helen Christmas with photo by Annie Spratt, Unsplash.

I was wondering if the inclusion of a character would make the cover more appealing. Sam, an angelic but vulnerable 11-year-old boy vanished in 1995, never to be seen again. But 20 years later, Maisie is haunted by a vision of a similar looking boy stood on a dark wooded roadside.

I’ve blended in the same trees image from the first design. My only concern is the boy in this photo and although he seems traumatised, he looks younger than 11.

DESIGN 3

Book Cover idea 3 for Lethal Ties, spine-chilling psychological Thriller by Helen Christmas - photo by Annie Spratt, Unsplash.

This photo was taken by the same photographer (and could be the same boy) but the back-of-the-head image portrays a sense of departure. When Sam disappeared from Joe and Maisie’s lives they never knew what happened to him. The tree in the background is very evocative of Maisie’s nightmare, as if the two are connected.

But is this image attention grabbing enough to make you stop and look? What about the title and wording? Would it tempt you to read the synopsis?

Now the book has now been professionally edited and soon to go out to beta-readers I’d love to get some opinions on the three designs. Please leave a comment in the box below to reveal your favourite cover.

First Book Review for 2021

Forest in Scotland

It is rare I dedicate an entire post to a book review, but this deserves some recognition.

For the benefit of the unconverted, I’ll explain something about the series first. ‘Six Stories’ by Matt Wesolowski is unlike anything I have read. These novels do not follow a conventional story arc. They are unique. The what is going to happen has happened, but what lurks beneath the story? Six Stories is more of an aftermath, a series of podcasts, in which six people pick over the bones of what they think happened… it is up to you, the reader, to work it out.

DEITY (SIX STORIES #5)

Journalist, Scott King, reviews a case, interviews six different people over the death of an enigmatic pop star, Zach Crystal. Think ‘The Beatles,’ ‘The Bay City Rollers’ and it may call to mind thousands of hysterical fans – something akin to religion…

But with super stardom comes a sense of invincibility. Starting out with sister, Naomi, the ‘Crystal Twins’ hit fame in the 90s until eventually, Zach goes solo. Just before his death, darker rumours about the megastar begin to surface; chilling video footage of two girls trapped in a cave, sobbing and terrified. And in a case similar to Jimmy Savile’s, accusations of abuse come crawling out of the shadows.

Who is lying?
Who is telling the truth and at what price?

This fascinating medley of view points inspired me to make some comparisons of my own, thoughts I’d like to share.

DEITY (Six Stories #5) by Matt Wesolowski

Episode 1: Monster Busters

You’ve heard of online grooming, internet predators using fake portraits on social media to attract victims. This phenomenon appeared in Matt’s second series, Hydra: Monster Busters (or pedophile hunters), adults who pose as children to entrap the online groomers – and if they agree to meet – game’s up! Here, we meet Ian Julius who claims to have caught Crystal trying to arrange meetings with underage girls but as the ultimate iconoclast, is turned into a figure of hate. 

I had to ask myself why?

If someone is famous enough, they become almost untouchable, while genuine cases, where youngsters are abused sexually by their ‘heroes’ are not believed. The ‘accusers’ are threatened or compensated. Likewise, Ian the monster buster suffers trial by media, with sparse evidence to prove what he’s uncovered about the star. The upshot is Crystal turns the tide, suing the Monster Buster £millions after his claims go public. 

Think Jimmy Savile, a man who covered up vile abuse against victims for decades and got away with it. Could this be a similar story?

Episode 2: Zach Crystal Stan

The second character Scott interviews disputes such claims, YouTuber and super fan, Sasha Stewart. In the first part of her podcast, Sasha lashes out at Crystal’s accusers. Dismisses their claims as ‘bullshit,’ quick to demonise them for exploiting the megastar to make money. In Sasha’s eyes, Crystal can do no wrong, a benevolent star who invited vulnerable girls in care to stay in his amazing woodland fairyland. He donated masses to charity and she is 100% dedicated to defending him.

Think Michael Jackson, another megastar who built an ultimate fantasy attraction.

This episode put forward a different perspective, one I could easily be swayed by. I never believed the stories about MJ, a child like figure, if not a modern day ‘Peter Pan’ who lived in a surreal bubble. The similarities are unnerving, victims offered huge sums in compensation. It begs the question were these stars easy targets to exploit?

Yet in another way I was reminded of the Rochdale abuse scandal. These too were ‘vulnerable girls,’ groomed and raped by a gang of Muslim men but instead of arresting the perpetrators, police feared the right wing backlash. Worst was the way the victims (some as young as 12) were portrayed, as if they were to blame.

Episode 3: The Secrets of the Whispering Wood

With extracts from a live interview between podcasts, this episode is quite spooky, but I’ve started to notice a common theme. All ‘Six Stories’ books include some folklore or monster in the background; in the first it was the hideous Marsh Hag, Nanna Wrack, ‘Black Eyed Kids’ in ‘Hydra’, the ‘wood-knockers’ in ‘Changeling’ and a vampire in ‘Beast.’ Deity unmasks a terrifying creature, known as a Frithghast, some form of apparition that takes the form of a deer, half rotted, exposing glowing red eyes and antlers. 

Local groundskeeper, Craig, describes the legend; a man employed to manage Crystal’s estate, a vast area of forest in the Scottish Highlands, where the megastar created his famous treehouse lit with fairy lights. Craig has seen the fans Crystal invites here (12-15 year old girls from troubled home backgrounds, or in care). But whilst security is tight, there is something sinister in the atmosphere. Rumours of the Frithghast abound, alluding to the video footage at the start… and it’s a bit gruesome.

Nothing is conclusive, only that it ends when Scott discovers a note left on his windscreen, a lead to the next interview…

Episode 4: The Special Girls

Here we meet Marie Owen, mother of one of the girls who stayed at Crystal Forest. This I found a particularly sad episode, in so much as her daughter vanished to join a vigil of mourning fans. All I discovered in this episode was how obsessed and infatuated the girls became with their idol and it made me wonder if they were looking for an escape, or a crutch, in a similar way to religion.

This story is of a mother’s pain, someone who has tried everything possible to fulfil the her daughter’s dream, yet lost her in the process. Furthermore, she is vilified in the media – so I have to ask:

Why did the megastar choose to rehouse them, from a council estate to some exquisite mansion? Was this an act of kindness or a means of compensation to suppress something more sinister?

Episode 5: You Get to Go Home

Remember Skexxixx, from Hydra, a fictitious superstar in his own right? Describing the religious care home he was brought up in and manipulated into thinking he was evil, he tells of a secret alliance with the megastar, in so much as he was contracted to write his songs after the split from his sister. Conversely, he has also recognised a darkness in him. 

“Something evil lived inside that man. Something cold.”

There is an unusual thread to this story, one that intrigues me, that when Zach Crystal went solo, he and Skexxixx formed an almost symbiotic relationship and he dated his sister, Naomi. Throughout this podcast he reveals that Zach was no angel and no genius so how did he became almost God-like?

This naturally leads into a discussion about the victims – or ‘accusers’ as they are called with a very interesting play on words: “If I punched you in the face right at this moment and you called the cops, you’d be the victim of an assault by Skexxixx; you wouldn’t be ‘Scott King the Skexxixx accuser.’”

This once again highlights the power surrounding the megastar.

Episode 6: Being Nobody

There are many strings to this story; a disgraced star, the unaccountable death of his friend, James Cryer, in the forest, a terrifying legend, accusations of former fans, the enigma surrounding Crystal’s temporary disappearance, a live TV interview in which he announced a sudden come-back and finally his demise. 

Zach Crystal’s woodland mansion and tree house were destroyed in a fire, where it is believed that he too, perished. But the loose ends floating around in the ether are too numerous, to an extent that no one really has a clue what happened.

I am not going to say much about Episode 6 but it blew me away; the man behind the mask revealed, the truth of his death and that of his friend explained in a manner that ties up the entire mystery. After reading all episodes, this book concludes with such a brilliant twist, I cannot tell you how chilled I feel… 

You just have to read it.

Dark misty forest in Scotland used to Portray the book DEITY (Six Stories #5) by Matt Wesolowski

The Finishing Touches

Bognor Beach

After two years writing my first psychological thriller I have finally reached the end, though looking back, it seems hard to believe it was in 2015 when the idea of this story first came to me. 

Inspiration

Walking the dog along the beach, reflecting on stuff in the news, I would occasionally stop to chat to a group of homeless men in one of the beach shelters – but somewhere in my sub-conscious mind, the threads of a new idea were beginning to unwind.

A professional career woman whose life appears balanced.
A homeless man who has lost his way in society.
Two characters poles apart, yet friends who share memories; a year they met in a children’s home, a sinister place where a third friend went missing.

This weekend, I will be sending the complete draft off to an editor. I won’t reveal who yet, but let’s say, I am both anxious and excited. 

So today I took another walk along the seafront and happy I chose my home town, Bognor, as the setting for this book. This blog is about some of the places I have featured but with many more to add as I go…

The Waverley Pub

The Waverley Pub. Bognor Seafront

The Waverley provides the local watering hole for main characters Maisie, her friend Jess, and later Joe. With outside seating it faces the sea. It was also at the Waverley I interviewed Graham (see previous post) so it has a special meaning now and a place I would most love to hold my launch.

Waverley Pub opposite the sea in Bognor

Mamma Mia Italian

This friendly Italian restaurant (which lies within walking distance from us) is a venue where two characters feel a first spark. It offers a nice selection of pizza and pasta dishes and just around the corner for a Waverley.

Mamma Mia Italian restaurant in Aldwick

Bognor Beach

Like Maisie I am always taking photos of the beach in different seasons which I like to post on Instagram. Her feed would be very much like mine, as mentioned during a conversation in Mamma Mia.

“Beach shots are my favourite. The way the light shines at different angles, it changes the colour of the sea…”
Scrolling through her photos, he understood her passion; the calmness of the sea at dawn so still it shone like glass – a stark contrast to the next image, a thunderous black sky folding shadows into the waves as they went galloping over the breakwaters.

My Instagram feed, showing beach shots

It is one of my favourite places for walking, where no two photos are the same depending on the time of day, the tide and weather.

Seaside Apartments

At least Jess doesn’t have to walk very far and with her own seaside apartment, she resides only a couple of blocks from the Waverley. The seafront is lined with flats, so it could be any one of these.

Bognor Promenade

The white posts at the bottom of the road led to the prom, the blueness of the sea dazzling. Gulls sat like sentinels upon a column of breakwaters and today it was high tide. Glancing out to sea, I heard an explosion of froth as the waves hit the shore, the rattle of pebbles that followed.

A bit like today then… a refreshing breeze perfect for blowing the cobwebs out and I always like to revisit the places I write about.

White posts at the bottom of Victoria Drive leading to Bognor Promenade

What will do with myself when this book goes off for a professional edit I do not know. Thinking about promotion, arranging blog tours for reviews, wondering whether to approach a few publishers or agents… we’ll see.

In the meantime I hope everyone gets to enjoy Christmas and let’s hope 2021 will be a better year.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Christmas is going to be different in 2020 but as a 2nd wave of coronavirus recedes and we enter a new tier system, one of the first things you notice is how much earlier people have been putting up their decorations. It’s been a horrible year for so many and for those who believe the pandemic was a huge Government conspiracy, take time to consider the 60,000 unnecessary deaths that occurred in the UK alone and what it feels like for millions of mourners across the globe who lost loved ones. So whatever we can do to inject a little cheer and love into this world, we should embrace it.

With a vaccine around the corner, finally there is hope. This must come as a great comfort to those who are shielding, such as the elderly but with Christmas around the corner we need to be there for each other like never before.

Writing Update

For the past two months I have been editing my book like crazy and love how it’s all coming together. I struggled with the first half for over a year but during the first lockdown, it finally began to take shape. I am days from finishing it now, and about to write the epilogue, before handing it over to an editor.

But in my last post, I also pledged to include a tribute to Graham Lovell, a local resident whose stories gave me much inspiration. I am pleased to say last weekend I wrote that tribute, a process that evoked heartache, more so when I saw Dan’s tribute on YouTube, snapshots of a friendship which lasted 23 years. It is a beautiful film and very moving, it captures the person Graham was, so I hope he won’t mind me sharing it.

Invisible Illness

With the impact the pandemic has had on mental health, it seems ever more important to recognise it. It can strike at any time, sometimes with devastating consequences. Anxiety, depression, insomnia, paranoia and panic attacks are things I have known in my own life and I feel blessed to have conquered them, through mindful practices such as positive thinking, keeping busy, creative hobbies (especially writing) and have the support of my loving husband and family.

There are people in our world who carry terrible sadness inside, but it is not always obvious until it is too late; a reason to keep in touch with each other, especially in these strange times. We might not be able to meet face to face, but we can still call each other, network on social media, Face time or zoom. Yes, it feels a bit weird and there was a time when I couldn’t imagine life would ever get back to normal, but at least there is hope. I would like think we will come out of this a more compassionate species and that somewhere, at the end of a very dark tunnel, a glimmer of light shines at the end.

Stories that tackle mental health issues

To end the year, I’d like to include some favourite books and as an avid reader have ploughed through some excellent novels but I especially want to concentrate on those that tackle mental health issues.

The Faerie Tree by Jane Cable
Deals with family bereavement, self-blame, depression and guilt.

Beast by Matt Wesolvski
Deals with the exploitation of vulnerable people with complex metal health issues

Spare Room by Dreda Say Mitchell
Tenant Lisa finds a hidden suicide note. The story is who wrote it and why?

I Found You by Lisa Jewell
A man is discovered sat on a remote beach in a fugue state. Deals with trauma.

The Secret by KL Slater
A story of how the burden of adult conflict and secrets can affect a child.

Sunset on Bognor Beach 2020

HAVE A VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS.
SEE YOU IN 2021 WHERE HOPEFULLY I WILL BE PUBLISHING NEWS OF MY FIRST PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER.

Second #Lockdown in the UK

London during Lockdown source CNBC

Oh well, here we go again. We’ve turned the full circle and with COVID-19 gaining the upper hand, we’ve been forced into lockdown for a second time.

My gut feeling is the government didn’t want to do this but in a worst case scenario, do we really want to see our NHS stretched to breaking point with a deluge of COVID patients before Christmas?

The way things are going, numbers have soared this autumn yet the 3-tiered system is not working. Scientists have warned the virus will spread, working its way gradually down south, so why make towns in the north suffer alone? We are all in the same boat, so it makes sense – and if the whole of the UK can buckle down for one month, let’s pray we can get the infection rate down again.

It is sad but unavoidable so what can we do?

For me personally I have to look at this as an opportunity. Our work has dried up but there is still plenty to do around the house and garden. For example, I never did get around to painting the kitchen but it really needs doing and it would be great to get another DIY project ticked off the list. I also want to look at gardening websites and YouTube videos, to adopt some new practises for my own garden. Growing Dahlias for example. Inspired by a trip to West Dean Gardens and their fabulous display of dahlias, it would be a dream to establish such healthy plants but all this requires a little work and planning.

Dahlias at West Dean Gardens

Christmas will be different this year but I like a challenge. I am already considering what home made gifts I can come up with and getting creative in the home can be very therapeutic.

Yes, it will be harder for others but my advice is it’s essential to keep yourself busy during lockdown. Long periods spent dwelling, wishing you could do things that you can’t are not good for your health. You are allowed to exercise so get out and about even if it’s just for a walk. I’ve seen many people take photos, write blogs and channel anxiety into something good. So here are some photos I took at Leonardslee Gardens yesterday afternoon, a last minute treat before the countdown started and I shall cherish the memories.

But this brings me onto the more negative side of lockdown.

Mental Health

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown has triggered a sense of fear and anxiety around the globe especially among young people. Much of this is down to loneliness during lockdown and in particular, a lack of physical contact with friends and family, boredom and the frustration associated with not being able to engage in activities that have been a part of their lives.

I try to put on a brave face and stay positive but some mornings I wake up with this paralysing fear – not only of the virus but the thought of losing loved ones. It has been touch and go with some family members; one elderly relative admitted to hospital with heart problems and another with Crohn’s disease (an auto-immune condition which has a tendency to flare-up in times of stress). Both are okay, but vulnerable and have to shield, since the effects of contracting COVID could be devastating. 

The true cost of COVID-19 on mental health however, has not yet been realised and something happened last week that hit me very hard.

I heard on the grapevine a friend of a friend had died. I met Graham last year and only as a result of some research I was engaged in for my current novel. I have my friend, Dan Jones, to thank for introducing us, an author who I met via Chindi (local network of independent authors in Sussex). Dan worked in a number of children’s homes in the 90s. Yet he was happy to share his experiences with me.

As the book is centred around a group of fictitious children’s homes, I was intrigued by what he could tell me, until ultimately his best friend came into the discussion. Graham was in the care system through the late 1990’s and Dan met him when he was homeless. Regardless of his problems, he turned his life around and after completing a degree in social work, ended working in care himself, looking after troubled youngsters in homes. He also won an award for being someone in care who had achieved something.

As Dan said (and I quote) “He would have stories to tell you, spent time homeless, missed education, mixed with all sorts of people, yet turned things around. So he knows what the scene was like here in Bognor during the 1990’s for teenagers in a difficult home environment and in the care system.”

I feel blessed he agreed to meet me and within the space of an hour, gave some fascinating insights into the feelings of kids being brought up in care or fostered (thank God I kept the recordings). His answers provided the last pieces of the puzzle and not only that. He shared some amazing stories and in manner that was humorous and colourful. I would even go as far as to say he was the inspiration behind Joe, one of the main characters, a great guy who turned his life around and left a lasting impression.

But I wish I had got in touch. If only I had told him how much his little anecdotes helped me and out of respect, I am definitely going to include a tribute.

News of his death weighs down heavily but brings it home to me how temporary and fragile life is, especially in the era we are living in now.

Do you know anyone who might be affected? Make contact to check they’re okay and stay in touch. It might make all the difference.

To end on a positive note, I am still in the process of editing my novel and 50% through so it is all coming together very well indeed. I would also like to say a few more words about Dan, who’s heartache is unimaginable.

So for those who are feeling anxious, suffering from stress and have trouble sleeping, Dan creates therapeutic relaxing sleep stories for adults and you can check these out by subscribing to his YouTube channel

I have a few favourites of my own, one being Lake Of Inner Discovery 😴 SLEEP STORY FOR GROWNUPS 💤

Stay safe and stay sane in the second UK lockdown.

HM Government poster to protect the NHS during the Coronavirus pandemic