Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Warehousing Society's Estranged: A Review of Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, by Anne Goodwin

This book review is written as an open letter to my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson at I’m NOT Disordered.


In the dying days of the old asylums, three paths intersect. A brother and sister separated for fifty years and the idealistic young social worker who tries to reunite them. Will truth prevail over bigotry, or will the buried secret keep family apart? (Anne Goodwin)

Dear Aimee,

You asked what I thought of the book I’ve been reading this week. I’m glad you asked because I think Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin is a book you’d enjoy.

A little about the author before I get going. I first met Anne a few years ago when Fran and I approached her as a potential reviewer for our book High Tide, Low Tide. (You can read her review here.) I met her in person in 2015 at a book launch for her first novel, Sugar and Snails. It was the first author event I’d attended and I loved hearing Anne talk about and read from her book. The cupcakes were fabulous, too! She got in touch recently and invited me to review her latest novel. She was kind enough to send me a free Kindle copy.

I should say up front that the book carries a trigger warning for mentions of rape and themes of mental trauma.

The story opens in Cumbria in October 1989, but also switches back to earlier periods in the lives of the three main characters, Henry, Matilda, and Janice. Many people in the book are referred to by different names (including titles such as the prince, the circus girl, and the shrimp-woman). This confused me a little, but when you think about it most of us are known by different names to different people at different times in our lives, and some people change their names altogether. You know me as Marty, but that name only goes back ten years or so. I’m Martin to anyone who knew me before 2011. Once I’d figured some of the different names out (I kept a notepad close to hand) I could see how they added to the story. For example, the lead character is variously known as Matilda, Matty, or Tilly. This gave me more insight into her situation and relationships than if she’d gone by one name through the whole book.

Anne grew up in Cumbria and worked there as a clinical psychologist in the NHS. This local knowledge shows in her use of dialect and real world references. I smiled at the mention of Keswick’s gift shops and Jennings bitter. I have fond pre-covid memories of holiday trips to Keswick, in particular the Pack Horse Inn which is tucked away just off the main street.

Origins, home, and family (especially mother-daughter relationships) are important themes. Most of the story takes place in and around Henry’s childhood home where he still lives, and the mental health unit where Tilly is living when the story opens. It’s hard to say much about the plot without giving things away, but there’s a strong whodunnit element (perhaps that should be whoisit / whereisshe). I found myself jotting down clues as I tried to figure out what was happening or would happen next. The threads of the story are very well interwoven and there are a number of twists along the way. Several times I had to scribble out what I thought I knew as the story unfolded!

I mentioned the trigger warnings. There are a number of accounts of rape and sexual abuse in the book. These are mostly brief, but no less potentially triggering for that, of course. I’d say these scenes are important to the story, although there was one incident which I couldn’t place or make sense of. The other trigger warning is about mental trauma. Mental illness and its treatment (and ill treatment, both in a clinical/professional sense and in terms of society’s attitudes towards mental illness) feature prominently throughout the book.

The main character Matilda spent fifty years as a patient in Ghyllside mental hospital before being moved to the smaller residential unit of Tuke House as the story opens. She’s diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated with antipsychotics but something didn’t ring true for me about her diagnosis. She has a very tenuous hold on reality, but to me (with very limited knowledge of the condition) her symptoms and behaviour suggested dementia more than anything else, especially given her age. “Does Tilly really have schizophrenia?” I wrote in my notebook at one point. Another clue? Maybe. If you read the book, I’d love to know what you think!

Stigma is very prominent. A few examples will give you an idea.

“George Windsor’s daughter would never go barmy.”

“Tilly a raving lunatic?”

“... a horde of nutters.”

“Crazies a stone’s throw from The Willows?”

Ghyllside hospital is referred to as “the loony bin,” and one professional talks of having a “schizophrenic moment” when he really means he’s in two minds over something. Suicide is seen as a shameful reflection on a person’s character, and a “lack of moral fibre.” A man who took his life is accused of abandoning his wife and child. The only explanation offered is that he “[m]ust have been wrong in the head.” You have to remember that the book is set in the 1930s and late 1980s. Our work with Time to Change and the many conversations I’ve had with you and other friends give me hope that society has moved towards a more compassionate understanding of mental illness and suicidality. But I also know there’s a long way to go.

Just about the only progressive voice belongs to the newly qualified social worker Janice. She values connection and has a strong saviour ethic. “This was why she trained as a social worker [...] for the human connection with people who were otherwise hard to reach.” She is my favourite character, not least because I identify with her relentless (or is it naive?) hope and optimism. I’ve been called pathologically positive in the past, and it’s not a compliment! The same could be said of Janice.

She’s not working in a vacuum, though, and there are signs of progress. The old ways of the asylum (summed up in the book’s most powerful phrase as the “business of warehousing society’s estranged”) are changing. The patients in Ghyllside are assessed for relocation to Tuke House (and then on into the community) based on their individual abilities. They are to be “identified not by brand of psychiatric disorder, but by a systematic assessment of their skills.” On the other hand (and without giving the plot away) Janice’s compassion, inexperience, and compulsive desire to set the world to rights are not without consequences. She’s doing her best, but I was left wondering just how helpful that best might be. A sobering thought, seeing how closely I identified with her. If only good intentions were enough!

The stigma and shame surrounding pregnancy outside marriage is another recurring theme, leading in some cases to abortion, adoption, or abandonment of the child. Speaking to her adoptive sister, one woman says, “They [their respective birth mothers] would’ve kept us if it wasn’t for the stigma.” The ache for reconnection between siblings, and between children and their birth or adoptive parents, weaves the individual characters’ stories into patterns which remain frustratingly out of reach. There were times I wanted to scream at the characters — or perhaps the author! — as they come closer and closer to finding one another, but never quite manage to. (Or do they? — no spoilers, remember!)

I’ve rambled on longer than I meant to, but before I finish I want to mention how the book explores the origins or causes of mental illness. Genetics, trauma, and the environment are all suggested as potential factors, but it’s the last of those which receives the most attention. At one point, Janice the social worker seems to think removing someone from their hospital environment into the community will restore their humanity. “Detached from the hospital,” she imagines, “her passengers were transformed from patients to people.” To me, this says more about Janice’s attitudes than the patients. They always were people, whether inside or outside the hospital and regardless of their diagnoses or how long they’ve been there. I think you would agree.

Janice’s naivety is challenged by events. It would give too much away to talk about what led to Matilda’s incarceration, but by the end of the book, “[Janice had] learned a painful lesson about environmental influence: put a woman in a madhouse and she’d behave as a madwoman, but putting her in an ordinary house wouldn’t necessarily reverse the process.” In other words, we are affected, often deeply and irrevocably, by our circumstances and by those around us. We might have expected Janice to have a better handle on this. Earlier in the book it’s said that “[her] identity had been shaped by her parents’ choice to pluck her from the orphanage.”

So, after all that, what did I think of the book?! In case you can’t tell (!) I enjoyed it a lot and it gave me plenty to think about. I don’t have any direct knowledge or experience, but it feels realistic as to how things must have been back then, and how easily people could find themselves lost within a mental health system that echoed rather than challenged the stigma and prejudice festering beyond its walls. My only criticism is that not all the loose ends were tied off, but that leaves room for the promised sequel.

If you’d like to read it yourself, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home is published by Inspired Quill and available from the publisher or Amazon from May 29, 2021. You can find Anne Goodwin on her website or follow her on Twitter.

I can’t wait to hear what you think of all this!

Marty

 


The following information has been provided by the author.

Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home Blurb

In the dying days of the old asylums, three paths intersect.

Henry was only a boy when he waved goodbye to his glamorous grown-up sister; approaching sixty, his life is still on hold as he awaits her return.

As a high-society hostess renowned for her recitals, Matty’s burden weighs heavily upon her, but she bears it with fortitude and grace.

Janice, a young social worker, wants to set the world to rights, but she needs to tackle challenges closer to home.

A brother and sister separated by decades of deceit. Will truth prevail over bigotry, or will the buried secret keep family apart?

In this, her third novel, Anne Goodwin has drawn on the language and landscapes of her native Cumbria and on the culture of long-stay psychiatric hospitals where she began her clinical psychology career.

Find out more on Matilda Windsor’s webpage.

Author Bio

Anne Goodwin grew up in the non-touristy part of Cumbria, where this novel is set. When she went to university ninety miles away, no-one could understand her accent. After nine years of studying, her first post on qualifying as a clinical psychologist was in a long-stay psychiatric hospital in the process of closing.

Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, was published in 2017. Her short story collection, Becoming Someone, on the theme of identity, was published in November 2018. Subscribers to her newsletter can download a free e-book of prize-winning short stories.

Author links

Website: annegoodwin.weebly.com
Twitter: @Annecdotist
Link tree: https://linktr.ee/annecdotist
YouTube: Anne Goodwin’s YouTube channel
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Annecdotist
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Anne-Goodwin/e/B0156O8PMO/
Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Anne-Goodwin/e/B0156O8PMO/
Inspired Quill: https://www.inspired-quill.com/blog/anne-goodwin/
Newsletter signup: https://bit.ly/daughtershorts

Book Links

Matilda Windsor webpage: https://annegoodwin.weebly.com/matilda-windsor.html
Matilda Windsor link tree: https://linktr.ee/matildawindsor
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/57764021-matilda-windsor-is-coming-home
Matilda Windsor’s Twitter: @MWiscominghome
Matilda Windsor at Inspired Quill: https://www.inspired-quill.com/product/matilda-windsor-is-coming-home/

 

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Walking Through Darkness

by Jen Evans

Twenty years ago, when I was twenty-eight, and after a month with no sleep, I was diagnosed with a major mental illness. At the time this occurred, I couldn’t feel anything. My brain and heart were so completely shut down that when I was diagnosed, I had no reaction to the diagnosis and what the ER doctor was saying to me.

When the doctor told me that I had bipolar disorder, I stared blankly and flatly ahead of me, disassociating from the reality of this diagnosis and the surreal experience of sleeplessness and mania that I was experiencing at the time.

Although I had heard of the illness, I knew next to nothing about it. I certainly didn’t believe I had it, no matter what this doctor was telling me. He must be mistaken. But, something was wrong because a person just doesn’t stop sleeping for no reason.

Years ago, when I was fourteen and got my first period, odd things began happening in my day to day life. Though the circumstances I was living in at the time were challenging, I was a happy kid. I had never experienced either depression nor mania. I was/am a creative person so when the illness struck me and I went through mania, in particular, I thought this was part of my creative process. I thought it was natural because during mania, I wrote and thought and felt so much at one time. To me, this was simply my way of being. I never thought I had an illness.

Bipolar disorder also known in the past as manic depression, is an illness characterized by changing moods and is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders:

People who live with bipolar disorder experience periods of great excitement, overactivity, delusions, and euphoria (known as mania) and other periods of feeling sad and hopeless (known as depression). As such, the use of the word bipolar reflects this fluctuation between extreme highs and extreme lows.

In the ER that night, bipolar wasn’t really explained to me or maybe it was and I simply don’t remember. Either way, I had no clear idea about how this illness would affect me nor could I know the epic, sad and tiring journey I would take with it. Honestly, if I had known what was to come, I might have ended my life right there.

But I didn’t know. I was forced to move back to my birthplace because I wasn’t stable enough to work at the time. I didn’t want to go home at all but, I needed to. After four years, I started therapy and began the work of recovery which will probably take me the rest of my life.

There is a lot of debate about the causes for bipolar disorder. For me, it is epigenetic. That is, it occurred in me because of my genetic make up and because of the trauma I experienced from a young age that continued into my early adulthood.

My dad has ADHD and probably some other psychological disorders. He has never been diagnosed with anything, because he never felt he had a problem. My mom is chronically depressed. So, between the two parents, I had some genes that helped to cause my illness.

I’m not going to lie, I don’t like having this challenge in my life. I hate mania and depression is just as bad. It’s not fun to get up each day and deal with this ongoing situation. But, recovery helps. I have tools and ways to confront the illness when it’s at its worst. I am still learning about the illness and I suspect that I always will be.

But, there are some blessings with the illness that I see in myself and others like me. I have become more compassionate towards others and their struggles. Because there has been a great amount of pain in my life, I am better able to walk with others through whatever journey they are on. I wasn’t always like this. But, my illness can be very humbling. I have been to some dark places on this journey and walking through darkness has given me a lot of strength and resilience. For this, I am very grateful.

Though I wish I didn’t have this illness, I have come to believe I was given it to help others. As I say that, it seems strange. But if I can help future generations in any way with my writing, than I am doing my job. If I can help fellow sufferers on their current path, than I am blessed indeed. It isn’t easy and if you’ve just received a diagnosis, take heed and realize, you are not alone.

 

Photo by Jordon Conner on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

No One Is Too Far Away to Be Acknowledged

As any author will tell you, compiling the acknowledgements page is not the simplest part of writing a book.

We learned so much compiling the acknowledgements for our first book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder that we wrote an article about it, in the hope other authors might benefit from our experience, and our friends and readers might understand how we went about it (and, perhaps, why they were — or were not — included). It is the most read post on our blog.

You can read our acknowledgements for High Tide. Low Tide here.

The publication of a new edition of our second book No One Is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship offers us the opportunity to again share our gratitude here on our blog.


Acknowledgements

Fran and I would like to thank Sarah Fader and everyone formerly at Eliezer Tristan Publishing for inspiring this collection and publishing the first edition. We are grateful to Kingston Park Publishing for the opportunity to bring our writing to a new and wider audience.

Many of our articles are inspired by conversations with friends. There are too many to mention individually, but we thank you all for your encouragement, wisdom, and caring support. Fran wishes to thank Bob Keyes, Diane Atwood, Donna Betts, and Donna Murphy for being there in so many ways. I’m grateful to Aimee Wilson for encouraging me with humour, creative suggestions, and advice as I prepared this new edition, and to Jen Evans for her gentle support and colour sense. Special thanks to Vikki Beat who contributed to several pieces in this collection.

We are grateful to the many guest writers we’ve published on our blog, especially mental health blogger and author Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered, and best-selling author and coach Julie A. Fast. Your passion, authenticity, and determination inspire us and remind us why we do what we do.

Above all, we thank you, our readers. Without you, none of this would mean a thing

From: No One Is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship


Whether your name is listed here or not, we are glad to have you in our world!

Marty and Fran

 

Thursday, 6 May 2021

It's Not Boring! An Open Letter to My Best Friend on Our 10 Year Anniversary

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born. (Anais Nin)

Sunday, May 2, 2021.

Dear Fran,

I’m writing this sitting on the bench that’s been my regular stopping / thinking / journaling place since we first went into lockdown last March. I’ve had calls with you here many times, and I’ve taken you along on my walks — sharing my world in photos and chat, and voice and video calls. We’re three thousand miles apart but we still use all the tools and means available to us to bridge the distance and keep our friendship and lives vibrant, aligned, and alive.

Ten years ago we’d not yet met. That was still a few days into my future and yours. (It’s a constant reminder that transformational change can appear at any moment.) And then that evening came — May 6, 2011 — and I posted seven words to a friend’s Facebook wall. A friend who was struggling. In pain. Suicidal.

Flooding light and love into your world.

Unknown to me, you were there too, at the same time on the same Facebook wall. How my naive words, intended to soothe our mutual friend, enraged you! Had my words been less hopelessly inadequate, you might not have been moved to respond as you did.

Sometimes, even too much love can be overwhelming.

The irony isn’t lost on me. Had I shown even a little more empathy and care, you and I would never have met. Likewise, if I’d not dared to post on her wall at all. How easy it would have been for me to just click away. It’s a scary thought. I can’t imagine my life without you in it. It is upon such moments that our lives turn. Our friend isn’t here to share our anniversary with us. She knew of our meeting that night on her page, though. It pleased her, I think. She is not forgotten.

You’ve told me many times that you’d not be here if it wasn’t for me. If not for us. I take you at your word, and there are no words to express what it means — how it feels — to believe you. And I do believe you. I would be here today, even if we'd never met. But the person I am today — the man sitting here writing to you — did not exist ten years ago. Or perhaps he was always there, but not yet awake.

“Does anyone call you Marty?” you asked. No, I replied. And in that moment the new me was born. I didn’t save you (No pedestals!, remember!) but we have helped each other save ourselves. To become, together and apart, who we truly are.

Most days, we meet for evening calls, but today you’re out visiting friends on Peaks Island. Your life on the mainland is much richer, but I miss those days on Peaks. Your little house. Walks on Centennial and around the island, me following along in photos, words, and the tracking app we used to use. We’ve come a long way since then. So much has changed, and so much hasn’t. We are here for each other as much now as back in those early days. We’re stronger. We have grown, in trust, and in maturity.

I was looking back over our ten years to pick out some highlights. Our first and only day together in person, in Southampton, is right up there, but there are so many more! Many of our moments and memories are private but a good deal of our friendship has been lived out on a wider stage. I’m writing this letter, for example, with the intention of sharing it on our blog. And it is ours, even though these days it’s me who provides most of the content and maintains the site itself. Pretty much everything we do in the wider mental health space is “us.” Teamwork makes the dream work, as they say. Gum on My Shoe is our creative and public platform, and it’s an important part of our story and journey together.

I know there’ve been times when you regretted suggesting I write a book about what it’s like to be friends with someone living with mental illness — but you did suggest it, and I (we) did write it! As you reminded me once when I was doubting myself: “You wrote a book.. A whole fucking book.. Don’t you give yourself credit for that?” High Tide, Low Tide is our great endeavour and achievement. I will always be proud of that. I refer to it a lot myself, to remind me of things we got right — and things we got wrong! Republishing it this year (and our book of blog posts) was an act of pure love.

Our blog. Our two books. Our online presence on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere. I’m deeply committed to them all. But they are not us. They share our story and our message of hope, but we know the stories, tips, strategies, and techniques we write about because we have lived them. Day in. Day out. Ten years. 3,653 days. (And yes, I looked it up, to be sure I had the leap years right!)

I’ve loved it all, Fran. Not always liked it or found it easy — we’ve had our share of hurt and darkness, some of it our doing, some of it not — but I’ve always loved being with you. I told you once “I never don’t want to be here,” and that’s still true, no matter what is going on for you or for me. That commitment has kept our friendship strong and endlessly reinventing itself. The dark times and the light, the low and the high, the well and the unwell; they are all part of what we’ve shared and continue to share. As I’m sure I’ve said once or twice along the way, it’s not boring, being your best friend!

Thank you, Fran, for every one of the 3,653 days we’ve shared. Here’s to the next 3,653!

Marty