Mental Health in Horror

A while ago, I shared a bit about mental health in my writing, inspired by a panel I had taken part in with Mothers of Mayhem. Although naturally nerve-racking and coupled with technical glitches on my end, it was a wonderful experience, and I’m grateful to Marian and Christina (MoM) for the opportunity. This episode of Mothers of Mayhem’s Hidden Voices in Horror has now aired. You can tune in on YouTube to this particular episode featuring me (Natasha Sinclair), Lucas Milliron, Allisha McAdoo, R.E. Shambrook and Gerhard Jason Geick. There is an excellent variety of episodes building — follow MoM to get notified when new episodes drop!

My original post here.

Mental Health and Writing

This may get heavy…

Bear with me. This will be a bit of a concoction — I am, at this time, rather raw, discombobulated and emotionally disfigured. I am feeling uncomfortably challenged. Feel free to look away from the car crash while you have time.

You staying?

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Let’s dive in.

Admittedly I have not done as much writing as I had hoped by this point in the year. January felt like I was playing catch-up to wrap up a few things from 2021 before my degree course started and I could channel writing energy into larger projects. I have also been heavily working on my novella release — finalising the manuscript(s), getting bonus content nailed, finishing covers, developing marketing materials, contacting reviewers, supplying ARC’s and all the other ‘back-office’ that goes into putting out a quality book. As I’ve shared before, so much unseen work goes into getting a book into the hands of readers, writing and editing is only a part of the machine. All in all, Asylum Daughter is feeling pretty pleased with herself. I’m proud to share this debut horror novella with readers and delighted with the positive feedback from early readers. It takes the edge of the nerves (a smidgen). And, of course, working with Word Refinery clients on their projects.

As part of February’s internationally celebrated ‘Women In Horror Month’, I was invited to interview with D&T Publishing. You can read the feature here.

I also participated in a panel for a podcast series about ‘Hidden Voices in Horror‘. The focus of the episode was on Mental Health in Horror. I had some technical hitches (as if my nerves weren’t already showing)! But the wonderful and inspiring creator and host was professional and understanding. It didn’t hold back the conversation between the host, myself, and the other awesome panellists of independent horror writers who stepped up to the plate. When I can do so, I will share more specific details when this airs and where to access it. I’m not in the position to share much yet. This panel was one in which I was nervous about taking part because of my mental health issues and reservations about talking so publicly about those, but I was keen to be involved because it’s a critical discussion that should be far less hidden.

‘Mental health’ can be a buzz phrase, along with the interlinked ‘wellbeing’ and other such sentiments. I always worry about the lack of substance behind so-called ‘awareness’ and ‘support’. My experience has proven such reservations to be true. As a writer, mental health issues come up regularly in my fiction and non-fiction work. Honest discussions without shame and judgment do not happen enough to break the discomfort of getting to the nitty-gritty about ill-mental health. I feel a profound responsibility, as a mother too, to strip any stigma from ‘real talk’. So here I am going to share some of that with you. 

I’m going to ‘talk’ and feel free if the notion takes you to do the same.

I’m ‘coming out’. Emerging from between the lines, out of my shoddy poetic disguise. For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with mental-ill-health — yes, childhood, (very) pre-adolescence. I actively covered it up and felt shame. The shame was most definitely linked to nurture and not nature. However, it has felt like nature in parts of my life due to its early, deep infusion. I like to thank some of that to those good old Christian’ values’ washed in through family and catholic schooling and, in a small part, my nature to consider things literally, which was misunderstood and shut down my voice from early on. The hypocrisy in those organised religious roots was (and is) blaring. Not the best of foundations. That’s my perspective anyway.

I secretly self-harmed (pre-teen — no, it was not cool, and it was not for attention). I hated myself. I had zero self-esteem, I struggled with friendships and social dynamics. I was bullied — inside and outside of the home. Every day was hard. And as a child, when I struggled to sleep, I begged inside my head to whatever’ higher power’ there may be to let me not wake up. I wanted to cease existing. I felt my existence was a mistake. I longed to die. I was a pre-adolescent child. I was entirely alone in my deep depression. Children often get ‘fobbed off’, talked down too — how could a child have such complex feelings? This was the ’80s and ’90s; maybe I should cut parents of that time some slack for that?

On the outside, attitudes towards the complexity of the human experience of all ages may have evolved. But I fear (as a mother) that it is not enough. I left school and home sharp to escape my terrible relationship with my mother, which fed into my ever-dwindling mental health state. I had to escape. I was ridiculed, blamed, threatened, the emotional punchbag. I had no choice but to get a job — any job, and leave. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens and had moved out from the parental home that I sought professional support for my ill-mental health (too ashamed to try to deal with it while I was there when I had little privacy. I was desperately suicidal and had planned it down to the finer details when I sought that help.

It was rough.

I didn’t want to take drugs.

I didn’t want to ‘talk’ to a therapist (I’m not one of those Americans on TV?!) I’m British, even harsher – Scottish! We don’t talk about those things.

I didn’t want to admit my shame.

My weaknesses.

I didn’t want to be seen.

I was desperate.

In short, and let’s be honest, these things are never short in ‘real conversation’ terms — I have Major Depressive Disorder. I’ve also struggled with Post Natal Depression (much later than one would expect) and interlinked Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of course, mothers who have a history of depression are more at risk of PND. That’s another thing with mental health. Women are often not heard — ‘hormones’ takes much of blame, which does little to support solutions — for many folk with mental health problems beyond that. My lifelong depression has undeniably manifested in physical ways; insomnia, chronic headaches, chronic pain, chronic tiredness, anxiety and panic attacks (which can be separate — being in many ways depression’s opposite) and nausea. Depression does that; it’s an all-consuming beast.

Solutions?

I’ve gone through therapies, tried different medication regimes, mindfulness techniques. I’ve written and utilised art and nature as my therapies for as far back as I could pick up a pencil and make shapes with it and walk on my own two feet. I’m insanely self-aware. I will never be without this illness; I have accepted that and understand when a spiral is snaking in and darkening my days. I’ve been spiralling lately, though it’s easy for me to pinpoint the whys on this one — when triggers are circumstantial, it’s easy. I have coping mechanisms in place — boundaries where they need to be for my survival. I know what helps (sometimes) and (with certainty) what doesn’t. I still struggle. I still require prescription medication. Depression and ‘recovery’ is a selfish illness in many ways. Another thing that brought me ‘shame’ — I was never ‘allowed’ to be ‘selfish’.

This is still uncomfortable.

Is it the same for you?

So, I’m a writer, and such related posts are the prime focus in this space — why am I droning on about my mental health here?

Well, I was inspired by the candidness of my fellow writers in the horror community (which is bloody fantastic) on the podcast recorded recently. And I’ll share a little of how the subject links with some of my published work. A debatable move, and trust me, I am an over-thinker of everything. To compartmentalise or not? Eeeeek! To try to maintain a ‘brand image’ or be authentic and real?

Well, fuck it — this is straight-up raw, and you chose to keep reading.

The first book that I published in 2018, my mental health was a dominant feature during a specific window of time when one of my daughters was born and fighting to live in neonatal intensive care.

That experience taught me more than I ever imagined. It taught me how resilient and strong I am, through family estrangement on top of baby loss and having one (then another) in NICU and going through isolation and a troubled, strained relationship. I also (alone) dealt with the loss of my grandmother. I love her deeply and couldn’t physically be with her due to my circumstances, having a baby in another hospital. Winter has been heavy for so many years now. 

So many highly underestimate the HSP; I, like many, am very thick-skinned. Sensitivity is not necessarily weakness — a common misconception. Nor is my boundaries a ‘cold heart’. My heart is guarded for my protection. The cold reputation couldn’t be further from the truth.

I learned that to be the best mother to my children, I had to respect my boundaries (finally) and provide an example to them as they grow. Part of parenting is sorting out your own shit so you can be right for them. Brushing real stuff under the rug wasn’t a path that I was willing to fall in line with — not good enough for my children.

My honesty, protecting my boundaries has alienated me from the majority of my family. How dare I right? 

Trust me when I say my decisions as far as my family go were the last line when all else had been exhausted. Nothing was changing. I had no choice but to draw my last line of defence.

Mental health isn’t recognised as a thing — I wasn’t physically abused, unlike some, so it was all rosy as far as some saw. Emotional abuse is entirely dismissible. I imagined if someone treated my children as I had been. Suppose they had gone through snippets of it. If they had felt as hopeless, unsupported, unloved. No, it’s not good enough. It’s not easy being the one to break the cycle, but when my priorities were lined up — it was a quick, decisive cut. My inner child needed my support to protect my own brood. 

I’m mostly at peace with that, the alienation — being the ‘bad egg’. I’ve had to be. I know I’ve been the subject of gossip. There’s no love lost in that. I’m happy about the dilution of that blood. Opinions based on little to zero facts are meaningless idle static.

My skin has thickened, and that is no bad thing. It’s survival. Responsive to experience.

Back to that book, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back — a condensed, diluted snapshot of my reality in my early motherhood. I shared it for my children and in camaraderie with other families struggling through that particular trauma — a little to take the edge off the isolation, perhaps for someone who may read it when going through or reflecting on their NICU journey.

The reception of that book was interesting — predominately supportive. I was inundated with messages of support, many from the staff we had been supported by in the unit. However, the flip side was a few nasty reviews, several who hadn’t read the book but jumped on the attack bandwagon to try to discredit me and ‘defend’ what they viewed as an attack on the nursing staff. You spend every day for 106 days in a ward — trust me, mistakes and lapses in care are made. NHS staff are human and make mistakes. My grandmother’s death mentioned earlier was also the victim of such a mistake. My baby, like many other people and loved ones, are on the other side of mistakes and oversights. I was expected to overlook these and paint a rose-tinted picture since my child survived. Gratitude only. My honesty doesn’t negate my gratitude for those that did their work well and saved the lives of my children. To not mention (some) of the bad would’ve been disingenuous to the book and painting that honest view as a NICU parent. The irony of direct attacks (on a mother who had gone through trauma) by care professionals didn’t go unnoticed. This is a reality that I’ve faced in person when I’ve opened up about my mental health struggles — and trust me; it’s been rare that I talk about this thing that is embedded into me, my everyday war. My demon.

The second book was fiction, published later that year; a trio of short stories all with the central theme of one character’s suicide; A Life of Suicides. Fiction, yes. But it’s not gratuitous, exploitative or designed to shock. No, I will admit here, publicly to you despite my deep discomfort. I have sat on that rock, stood on the windowsill, waded into the loch to my knees. I’ve played out those suicides and many more of ‘my own’ in graphic detail. I’ve done it all but the execution.

I am a survivor of suicide — a survivor of myself. In many ways, ‘Rebecca’ is me. I admit it, and I am not ashamed. The subject of suicide is another riddled with shame and ignorant judgement. I’ve heard it all — it’s for the ‘weak’, it’s the ‘easy way out’, a ‘sin’, it’s a ‘coward’s way’ — is it?

Try it?

It is no coward’s way. Nor is it the easy way out or any other ignorant sentiment. Something that cut a little deeper than it should was some reactionary comments from ‘friends’ who couldn’t read such a piece because it would be too uncomfortable, too ‘triggering’. Honestly, being so intimate, this was akin to “You can talk to me” then being shut down cold if ever attempted. Talk, but not about that!

This struck me again as to how ill-equipped many are to genuinely support someone who is deeply depressed or/and suicidal. It’s easy to say ‘reach out’, ‘I’m here for you’, ‘you can talk to me’, until someone does… again, I know this from experience.

A number of my short stories have been published since then. I enjoy the freedom of frolicking in the horror field. Not all of my work is steeped in these notes, but there are crumbs here and there, no doubt. Writers so that we scatter pieces of ourselves — blood spills into each story, even the more extreme, fantastical and unlikely of places, sometimes just a light aroma, but it’s there.

Moving on again to Asylum Daughter. The novella — the events, the characters, the entire story is fiction. But themes sprinkled through this horror are strong elements of mental health, stigmatism, abuse, matriarchal control, and corruption. 

True horror has nothing to do with gratuity and shock value. True horror is born of reality.

It’s March now, and I have some serious writing to do with a vivacious and magical red-headed horror queen. More blood to be spilt, and I have a phenomenal accomplice. And academic assignments to tackle — it turns out that I still love essay writing after all these years. They excite me.

I’m spiralling, but I recognise it, and I’m clinging on for dear life instead of planning my death today. I have to be strong for my family. They need me. And I realise that I have to be strong for myself too, even when I don’t always like her and it feels too selfish — mental health matters.

If you read this all the way… what is wrong with you?

Hahaha! 

No, I actually mean — thank you.

Natasha )O(

— The misunderstood, depressed, arty type. Such a cliche! The Clan Witch.

World Prematurity Day

A personal post

November 17th is World Prematurity Awareness Day.

I now try to let such days pass by. There’s a day for everything, isn’t there? It’s impossible to acknowledge them all, thoughtfully, every year.

This year though, I’m dipping my toes in to share a little on the messy, sticky web.

For the lifetime of my first premature baby, I have struggled to acknowledge Prematurity Awareness without also acknowledging baby (and infant) loss.

I lost two before my two survivors.

Every birth affected me profoundly. Even the first, which I readily admit was a pregnancy I didn’t want. Yes. I admit that. I wasn’t ready to be a mother. I wasn’t in a supportive relationship. I was in an awful state of depression. Even with that, I still grieve for the life that formed inside my womb, those rapidly multiplying cells that suddenly stopped. I remember the pains ripping through my abdomen. I recall the loss as intimately as the babies I actively (desperately) tried to conceive years later.

The second pregnancy (baby) was very much wanted; every moment her heart beat, and every moment after — when it fell silent — is preciously held in my soul. My womb remembers her place there. Those horrendous words at the ultrasound, “I’m sorry, there’s no heartbeat,” still haunt me. Days of her silence within my body, knowing she was dead and willing her heart to (miraculously) start beating again, wishing for a mistake, they missed her fluttering. There was no mistake — her labour and birth in that silent hospital room and everything after is etched in my bones. The love is agony.

I didn’t trust my body. I felt betrayed by the perceived failure to protect and nurture the life within it.

My third pregnancy was riddled with anxiety. Words are frivolous when even professionals can’t give the answers. There’s no reassurance anyone can offer, just a wish for their life. Their existence. Hope through the torment and desperation.

My third child was born alive just 25 weeks into the pregnancy. The Neonatal Intensive Care journey that followed was another world entirely as was finally bringing her home. Writing about those initial four months was cathartic and not something I really planned on doing — it just happened and became something that I hoped may help other families thrown into that world feel a little less alone. It can be a deeply isolating experience — having a very premature / sick child — and the ongoing battles, fighting their corner and protecting them, making arduous decisions. All this carries on after they’ve been discharged from the unit — at least those fortunate enough to survive.

My last pregnancy ended when my baby was born at 28 weeks gestation. That Neonatal Intensive Care Journey was another experience altogether. Medically it was smoother, and the surroundings, staff, routines and procedures were familiar, comforting (in ways). It was no less difficult — additionally so with another young child to care for — a toddler who was still at risk of things such as RSV, and this birth like the one before was also bang-smack in the middle of winter. My soul was ripped down the middle — and I mean utterly eviscerated. I was a walking, talking, gaping wound that appeared on autopilot. And I don’t think there’s a way for those cracks ever to be restored.

I’ve accepted it all, each of those journeys, the losses, the trauma and the toll it took on our family.

I have let go of the crippling guilt of events I had no control over — advice for life. Learn and let them go.

So, November 17th is World Prematurity Awareness Day. It means something a little different to those who are aware through their own experiences.

I published my first book on my first prematurity survivor’s NICU journey. Having my children gave me more than I can ever put into words. They are my reason to not wilt quietly in a corner, my reason to speak up. They are my inspiration, my pain. They taught me a love that I never knew and so much more. They are my reason to keep going and try to set a positive example of self-worth even when I feel entirely worthless. My children are worth so much more. (All our children are.) They continue to do this every single minute of each day because they exist — against the odds (which were very beak at points).

I’m not going to spiral into talking about the impacts of the pandemic on all of this. It’s hard to refrain because it has had an impact. And knowing how tough those journeys in NICU were for families prior to all of this, let alone now. For those (medical staff and preemie families) having to manage those additional risks and contend with vaccine refusers and conspiracy theorists….

Anyway, it matters. Our actions have consequences that we cannot imagine.

I’m babbling now and trying to stem the flow so, here I sign off my (public) acknowledgement of World Prematurity Day 17/11/2021.💜

Hand in hand, always.

Blue Hue

My Daughter in NICU, 2014

This picture doesn’t look real…
Like there’s a filter; to enhance, to hide, deceive the eye.
Shielding a painful reality; it was a painful reality.
The mind, like the camera, does this all on its own.
This picture doesn’t look real…
A reflection of how it felt; a blue hue, a hazy dream.
Everything thrown out of balance.
A reality that swallowed you up, yet one that could barely be touched.
Spinning lost through electrical sparks.
A new reality at the edge of everything.
At the edge of all the mattered and all that didn’t.
A steady calm or frozen panic; so close to the same.
Something else on the edge; the blurred borderline where the unreal is real.

© Natasha Sinclair

Read more about our experience through NICU in my deeply personal memoir, ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: A story of love & survival through NICU.’