How to banish clouds

January is not a good month for me. Traditionally, if I dip back into depression or anxiety it will happen in October or January.

And this year it happened. Just anxiety, but that is bad enough.

Two weeks ago I started to get that familiar tightness and tingling in my chest. My dreams dove into surreal nightmare territory. I’d wake up at three in the morning and battle with my breathing and my mind to stay in control.  I’d feel like an internal Russian Doll version of me was trembling all the time, a kind of vibration that couldn’t be seen (my hands were steady as a rock), but which I felt humming inside me.

Now, for people who don’t know the difference between anxiety and Anxiety I’ll explain. Normal anxiety – the kind I pretty much always have – is when you worry about things, but you can still distract your brain away from things via such anaesthetics as television and books and Twitter and the folks you love.

Capital A anxiety is different, because you are inside your fear. You can’t stop worrying for a second any more than you can stop having flu for a second. When I am in this state, everything has to be perfect. I have to eat healthily, have to be in bed by eleven, and exercise just the right amount (for me, a morning 5k run is the right balance between two much and too little). If I mess up it gets worse. If I think of an actual worry, however minute (an email that hasn’t arrived, a negative comment a publisher said) it hurts like salt in an open wound. But mainly, the worry is the worry. Anxiety is the most postmodern illness. It is entirely self-referential.

Normally, I would be in this invisible nightmare for three weeks. This time, it was more like five days. And you suddenly look at the world in bewilderment, like people must feel after they’ve been to war. Everything – friends, trees, shops – looking exactly as they did before, as if nothing had happened. Still, calm, blades of grass, as calm and green and unknowing as ever.

I’ve worked out that anxiety can be beaten by believing it can be beaten. The more times I get anxiety and then get over it, the easier it is to believe this. Anxiety is the illness that feeds on itself. I was once trapped inside it for nearly three years. It nearly took my life, because it is an illness that can be infinitely horrible, because it is a disease of thought, and thoughts are infinite.

To paraphrase Horatio, anxiety is bad because thinking makes it so. You can’t simply think yourself out of it, but you have to hold on to the idea that it is beatable, and that it can be conquered.

Because even though anxiety feels like everything, it is also actually nothing.

Sometimes, just sometimes, a cloud can be banished just by knowing there is a sun.



Things people say to depressives that they don’t say to other ill people

Suicide is on the rise, and is now – in places including the UK and US – a leading cause of death, accounting for over one in a hundred fatalities. According to figures from the World Health Organisation, it kills more people than stomach cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, colon cancer, breast cancer, and Alzheimer’s. As people who kill themselves are, more often than not, depressives, depression is one of the deadliest diseases on the planet. It kills more people than most other forms of violence – warfare, terrorism, domestic abuse, assault, gun crime – put together.

And, even more staggeringly, depression is a disease so bad that people are killing themselves because of it, in a way they do not kill themselves with any other illness. Yet people still don’t really think depression really is that bad. Unless they would say these things to other potentially dying people:

–       ‘Come on, I know you’ve got tuberculosis, but it could be worse. At least no-one’s died.’

–       ‘Why do you think you got cancer of the stomach?’

–       ‘Yes, I know, colon cancer is hard, but you want to try living with someone who has got it. Sheesh. Nightmare.’

–       ‘Oh, Alzheimer’s you say? Oh, tell me about it, I get that all the time.’

–       ‘Ah, meningitis. Come on, mind over matter.’

I think it is time for us to stop seeing depression as a choice. It is something that happens to people for an infinite and not always identifiable number of reasons.Yes, there are decisions sufferers can sometimes make – exercise, diet, medication, meditation, therapy – that might help, but that is the same with all illnesses. We are still in the Dark Ages when it comes to our attitudes to mental health, as anyone who saw Peter Hitchens on Newsnight last night will be aware, but the light is slowly entering.

The more sufferers who speak openly about it the better. Because stigma not only prevents understanding, but in this case can actively exacerbate symptoms. Having an illness of the brain is no more the sufferer’s fault than if it was an illness of the lungs or heart. Ill is ill. And depression is serious. We need less judgement and more help, for an illness that claims the lives of thousands every day.



Snobs kill books


I know I bang on about this, but I think it is important.Indeed, I think snobbery cripples the world of books.

Only this week a leading university creative writing course advertised itself by proudly boasting its students won’t write ‘mass market fiction’ or ‘children’s fiction’.

The week before – when the World Book Night list was announced (I’m honoured to be on it) – there were a few Twitter whinges about there being too many YA and ‘supermarket novels’ on there. This was doubly ironic as World Book Night is aimed at people who have been put off books, often because they feel they have been made to feel they aren’t for them.

These are just two tiny examples. I have more.

But many people are in denial. I believe STRONGLY that books are for everyone, in the same way that film and music can be.

Books are the backbone of society. They have founded religions and political viewpoints. They emancipate minds and imaginations, encourage empathy, and lead to better societies. Yet so many people of influence in the world of books seem to be anti certain people reading.

The very fact that ‘mass market’ is a negative term is telling. I mean, I bet some of these people who shun mass market fiction enjoy ‘mass market’ music like The Beatles and Bob Dylan and Bowie and the Arctic Monkeys, and ‘mass market’ films like Gravity. There is an automatic assumption with books that anything popular is bad.


Here are a few ‘mass market’ writers I like – Graham Greene, Roald Dahl, William Shakespeare, Patricia Highsmith, Stephen King,  Jeanette Winterson, Patrick Ness. Whenever I write anything like this I get tons of people (snobs) say things like – well, the snobby tastemakers don’t have anything like the influence of supermarket chains and the people publishing thrillers that are often dross. My point is not that there should be more dross. My point is that taste is fine. But prejudice isn’t, because it leads to less readers and worse books. It leads to a two-tier publishing industry where you have publishers cynically publishing stuff because they think readers will buy ‘any old crap’, or they publish obscure and exotically difficult books for the kudos and the prizes. Meanwhile, proper intelligent and unsnobby storytelling falls through the middle.

So yes, have taste. Read, write and publish things because you genuinely like them. But snobbishness is never okay. When things like thrillers and women’s fiction and kids books are dismissed in a blanket way then that is wrong.

Intelligence doesn’t always have to be inaccessible. Even the most elaborate piece of architecture needs a door.

It is the easiest thing in the world to write a difficult book no-one likes except a handful of highbrow reviewers (I wrote one of those in 2008). A million times harder to write something that actually speaks to different kinds of people in a meaningful way. Whether those people are children or people who shop in a supermarket. Isn’t the purpose of art articulation? Anyway, I’ve said it before, if books ever die, snobbery will be standing over the corpse.


A blog about my son

My son is six, as of tomorrow.

He is very much looking forward to this. So I am trying to look forward to it with him. But a part of me feels sad. I think it is because he is no longer going to be five. And five, in case you don’t know, is the age. I mean, five rocks. Five is when the person inside your baby starts to emerge. Five is going to the cinema and telling the story of the film in a slightly longer space of time than the film lasted. Five is telling the most terrible of jokes (‘Why did the pig cross over the road?’ ‘Because he had a bottom.’) Five is laughing until you cannot stop at nothing in particular.

Today we were on the beach. We threw stones into the water. We made up stories on the train. We had a silly dance competition. ‘This has been my best day ever’,’ Lucas said. It was mine too.

I wish we could pickle and preserve such days. Yes, we can take photos and films on our phone. We can even write blogs about them. But we can’t FEEL them, again. Only as a memory. And a sweet moment in the present always becomes bittersweet when remembered in the future.

To be a parent is to be constantly losing the child that just was and gaining the one that is becoming. I never felt time before I was a Dad, but now I feel its ticktock all the time. I feel that there is such pressure for children to grow up too soon, so I feel immense pride in the fact that Lucas still likes Postman Pat and picture books, as well as Toy Story and comics.

I have no doubt he is the greatest boy who has ever lived. He continually surprises me, and seems to have a gentlemanly spirit inside him that must have been passed down via Victorian DNA. I am sure he will be as wonderful as a six-year-old as he is at five. I suppose the sadness comes from the fact that they are getting closer to the adult world, and the adult world is not quite as I would want it to be.

As a parent, you can play God. You can edit the world and present it to children. The world in Lucas’s eyes is one in which Father Christmas looks over everybody, checking they’re all being nice to siblings and friends. It is one where the most obvious career options are astronaut and superhero. Or, at a pinch, being in the Beatles. It is one where everyone says ‘please’ and gives money to homeless people and where everyone is kind and where the only crime that happens is exactly like that depicted in Burglar Bill. It is a world where literally everything – cardboard boxes, bird poo, hand dryers in toilets – is a source of infinite wonder.

Is the role of a parent to usher in the adult or to preserve the child? I think we live in an overcomplicated age, where kids are being facebooked and iphoned and GTA’d out of their childhoods too fast. I think we lose as much as we gain as we grow older, and maybe we should keep hold of that wonder for as long as possible. Maybe we need more of it.

As John Lennon said: ‘When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They said I didn’t understand the assignment. I said they didn’t understand life.’

I hope Lucas retains enough of his five-year-old self to realise that any assignment that doesn’t have his or other peoples’ happiness as its goal, is never really an assignment worth worrying about.





1) Stare out of the window.

2) Feel a bit hungover.

3) Wonder if you had enough love as a child.

4) Make toast.

5) Sleep badly.

6) Have trust issues.

7) Resist physical contact.

8) Fight anxiety with Merlot.

9) Eat peanut butter.

10) Speak to geese.

11) Stare at a Word document until nothing happens. Hold that moment for seventeen minutes. Then go on Twitter and annoy people.

12) Write some words.

13) Look at the words.

14) Delete the words.

15) Sigh.

16) Get drunk.

17) Punch your computer in the face.
18) Have bad hair.
19) Get stomach pains when another writer wins something.
20) Be lonely.

21) Sit in front of a Word document for 7 hrs. Write 860 words. Delete 920 words. Then drink half a bottle of gin.

22) Watch unfunny Youtube videos.

23) Google illnesses you might have.

24) Forget to call your parents.

25) Eat stale pretzels.

26) Turn up at an event where only one person shows up. Have her be a friend of your mother.

27) Feel tired.

28) And grumpy.

29) Take an hour and a half to sort the recycling.

30) Wish you were Neil Gaiman/Stephen King/Jonathan fucking Franzen.

31) Think about dying a lot.

32) Ignore deadlines.

33) Stare at rain.

34) Write another pointless blog.

35) Silently recite the author’s mantra: I’m a genius. I’m useless. I’m a genius. I’m useless. I’m a genius. I’m useless. I’m a genius. I’m useless. I want some toast.

36) Wonder why your agent hasn’t called in a while. Wonder if you actually have an agent.

37) Be a liability on white wine.

38) Be wrapped up in yourself.

39) Look at your royalty statement. Keep looking.

40) Consider every book you read to be a little bit overrated.

41) Feel the melancholy wonder of train stations.

42) Phone your mother.

43) Imagine what it would be like to win the Booker Prize. Give a little imaginary acceptance speech.

44)  Wear a dressing gown at all times.

45) Think about writing more of your book.

46) Be scared of pylons.

47) Tense up when someone hugs you.

48) Be slightly bipolar.

49) Eat peanut butter.

50) Want to be a cat.

51) Be terrible with money.

52) Hide from window cleaners.

53) Forget to eat breakfast.

54) Be generally quite worried.

55) And slightly unbalanced.

56) Create awkward vibes.

57) Stare at people without realising.

58) Have back pain.

59) Eat  some more toast.

60) Write.