When I started this blog nearly a year ago, I was being pursued by the Black Dog of depression. It's been snapping at my heels for most of my adult life. For many intensely creative or talented people, chronic mental or emotional vulnerability is trotting faithfully along behind its master, Brilliance, and the leash is both invisible and indestructible.
So many of my artistic heroes were victims. Brett Whiteley's paintings are unique and heart-stoppingly beautiful, but he saw the world through a veil of heroin that eventually entangled and engulfed him. Van Gogh, another unique voice, amputated his own ear in a moment of psychological agony. Tchaikowsky, a seemingly endless fount of glorious melodies, drank water that he knew to be contaminated with cholera just to break the cycle of despair. Schumann, a virtuoso pianist as well as a composer, became so fixated on perfecting his piano-playing technique that he invented a machine to strengthen the fourth fingers of each hand; the use of this contraption crippled him so that he could no longer play at all, and he ended up in an asylum for the insane.
I'm sure you too can think of endless famous creative or talented souls who have lurched into substance abuse or extremist behaviour in an attempt to escape the demons in their heads. Amy Winehouse. Elvis. Kurt Cobain. Go on, add your own.
I may not be anything approaching that famous, nor do I have dangerous addictions or obsessions; but if I eschew false modesty, it should come as little surprise to those who know me well that Aunt Annie the storyteller, poet, musician, composer, blogger, dramatist, puppeteer, wisecracker, teacher extraordinaire and effortless entertainer of little children has a shadow following her. I might not be in Tchaikowsky's stratosphere, but I can sure understand why he quaffed that glass, as can anyone who's ridden the roller coaster from 'creative euphoria' to 'severe depressive episode'.
If you want a gut level understanding of clinical depression, I recommend this cartoon by the amazingly talented blogger Allie, of Hyperbole and a Half, who has spent the best part of the last year crippled by this illness despite the appearance of 'having it all'- a genuine talent for witty, hilarious writing, a zillion blog followers, a great boyfriend, a pending book deal. She's captured the symptoms perfectly. This unutterable blackness... from someone who can have us rolling around the floor laughing with posts like this one? No, I'm not surprised really. I know. One day some brilliant medical scientist will discover a physical relationship between talent and depression. There has to be one.
But anyway, I won't be drinking from Tchaikowsky's poisoned chalice just yet, because you- yes, you, out there reading this- you have saved me from myself. And so in this, my 100th post, I want to thank you for being there and for the way you receive my work. For reading, for coming back to read more, for sharing my words with others, for daring to be frank without being cruel in your comments.
Writing a blog has been, for me, a magical way to break the relationship between the glass of intoxicating joy and the chaser of despair. When I write this blog, I still get the joy of creation every time; each post is written and rewritten as carefully as any poem, each draft tweaked and polished until I think it's ready to meet the world. Then when I read it and finally feel that explosive, tingling burst of brilliant firework joy that most women associate only with bearing a real life human child, I read it over one more time- yes, I admit I indulge myself, because it's so good to feel that creative blast that I want to feel it again- and come back down to earth while I'm still feeling good about what I've written. I re-engage with reality. I send it out with a click of a button to the wide blue yonder- to YOU.
And instead of the long, heartbreaking wait of trying to get my writing to the readers who might need it or appreciate it- month after month of waiting for the invariably negative response from a publisher, whose first priority is whether my writing will make the company money, whether the work of my heart and soul is worth taking a financial risk on- instead of that grinding road to hopelessness, within hours I have a genuine indication of whether my writing was really any good. Whether it made a difference. Whether, today, I have been the change I wanted to see in the world.
It's you who makes the difference. You tell me, honestly, about my life's work by coming back again and reading- or not. By commenting- or not. By reposting- or not. By doing these things, you tell me whether my writing is a contribution to a better world, or just a case of Narcissus looking into the pond in a flurry of self-delusion.
And that matters to me. It matters enough to make the difference between despair that needs medication, and sadness that I can control by looking into the mirror and saying 'This too will pass'.
Any writer can sit at home reading his own work, telling himself how wonderful it is and cursing the world and the publishers for not seeing its value, blaming the few who've read it for having no taste and reminding himself how many times Harry Potter was rejected. Put it out on a blog instead, and there's no deluding yourself. The general public, YOU, will soon give Narcissus a measure of his true beauty. And in my case, the result has been so positive; so many of you have come back, over and over again. I have evidence that I must be doing something worthwhile, after all.
And you've been honest in your reflection- more so than the pond was to Narcissus. I thank you for that, because kind words of criticism can be as nourishing as praise. I've learned so much from what you've said to me. For example, there's Lisa, who gently explained that I'd misunderstood the distinction between sexuality and gender identity in my post about prejudice, and had used an insensitively placed pronoun in my story. It opened my eyes to another layer I wasn't aware of, in the shady world of discrimination. Thank you. Please keep telling me the truth.
Another reader urged me to read more about recent research before recommending controlled crying across the board- I learned from that, too, and edited the post on children's sleep. What a wonderful thing the internet is, where we can correct our mistakes instead of having them seared on our foreheads in perpetuity because the book has already left the printer.
Those are but two examples of many. Thank you for being my kindly teachers as well as my students. That's what the best relationships are like, you know- we can learn from each other, and I want so much for you to believe that you have something to contribute. Pedestals are for statues.
And you've been encouraging. It's hard to find the words to express my gratitude to those like Janet Lansbury, Scott from Brick by Brick and Teacher Tom, just to mention a few. These people haven't just made encouraging comments to me- they've also shared my posts on their far more established sites, so that I've reached whole worlds of new readers across the globe. They've made a difference to the life of someone they've never met by being bothered. It's easy to read someone else's writing, think it's good, and keep it to yourself. Putting up links to others' words from your own territory takes not only time and effort, but also a lack of ego.
This encouragement does more good than just nourishing my self-esteem. Seeing these fine people taking the time and making the effort, devoid of the ego which might stop other bloggers from sending readers away from their own sites, gives me faith in the depths of my frequent darknesses that there are decent people out there in the world still, no matter how badly the politicians and bankers and media magnates and industry tycoons and warlords might be behaving on my television every night.
That matters to me, too. It puts the one percent back in proportion, even on days when I feel like I've fallen victim to the one percent's proteges in my professional or personal life.
And so this, my 100th post, is dedicated to you, the invisible but essential partners in the blogger-reader relationship. Thank you for what you've done for me this year.
I can't finish without giving you a thank-you gift. It's something I made at home...
...I've been sitting on a story I wrote that's important to me, hoping that someone would publish it in the Real World. I haven't heard a word from any Real Publisher, even though I believe that this story could be a breakthrough tool for those of us who are struggling with some aspects of the inclusion of children with ASD in mainstream classrooms.
Well, I'm over struggling. You deserve to have this story, because you've been here for me and you've been kind and patient. Maybe you need this story.
I hope you enjoy it. Copy it and read it to the kids if you think it will help. It needs pictures, of course; I'm not a good enough artist to do those. Maybe you can take pictures of the children in your class, and use those.
So here's "Being Friends with Bodie Finch". It's dedicated to Kalob and Ella, a pair of 5-year-olds- one with ASD, one neurotypical- who taught me a lot of what I know about inclusion.
BEING FRIENDS WITH BODIE FINCH
There's a new boy in our class. His name is Bodie Finch. I don't like him.
When I make a tower out of blocks, Bodie Finch knocks it down.
When I play in home corner, Bodie Finch snatches my baby and runs away.
When I make a cubby house, Bodie Finch gets in it.
Mummy said “Zara, ignore Bodie Finch and walk away.” But when I walk away from him, Bodie Finch runs after me. Bodie Finch can run very fast. I hide behind the teacher and she tells him to STOP.
Mrs Baker is a nice teacher. I love her lots.
Bodie Finch doesn't talk properly. He says “AR” a lot, and “WISH”, and “NO”. He says “AR” the most of all. Most of the time I don't know what he means.
Mrs Baker doesn't know either. Sometimes she does a big sigh and says “Bodie Finch, I wish I knew what you wanted.” She looks at Bodie when he kicks our blocks and snatches our toys and chases us till we cry, and her face is all sad and twisty, like she's going to cry too.
When Bodie Finch gets cross, he throws things. I get scared. One day he threw a chair at me. Mrs Baker made him go home. I didn't want to come to school the next day. Mummy rang up Mrs Baker and she promised to fix it.
After that Miss Tinker came in our room when Bodie was there. Miss Tinker is Bodie Finch's special helper. Mrs Baker doesn't look so sad now Miss Tinker has come.
Miss Tinker made us stand on the mat really close together. We were so close we were all squeezed up and touching each other. I was next to my friend Lilly, but I was next to Eric too. I don't like Eric. He says mean things.
Some people thought it was funny, but I thought it was horrible. Miss Tinker said “How do you feel? Are you too close?” and I said, “It's yucky! I want to get out!”
Miss Tinker said that's what it's like for Bodie Finch all the time. People are too close and he doesn't like it. That's why Bodie likes hiding in cubbies.
Miss Tinker helped us learn some of Bodie's words. She said “AR” means he's sad and he wants to go home in the car. Bodie Finch can't say car. It comes out as “AR”.
Lots of things make Bodie Finch sad. It makes him sad when we get too busy playing inside. It makes him sad when too many people are talking and laughing and running and painting and building at once.
That's when he says “AR”. Miss Tinker takes him outside by himself now when he says that. Bodie doesn't throw chairs any more.
I like Miss Tinker. Bodie Finch is nicer since Miss Tinker came. I think she's magic, like Tinkerbell.
I didn't know Bodie Finch was sad.
Miss Tinker says that when Bodie Finch snatches our toys and runs after us he's trying to play with us. Bodie is still learning how to play nicely.
I didn't know Bodie Finch wanted to play. I thought he was just mean, like Eric.
Miss Tinker says that Bodie is very clever, even though he can't talk properly. She showed us. She gave Bodie Zac's toy car that was broken and Bodie fixed it, just like that. Zac was so scared Bodie Finch would throw his car and break it even more, but Miss Tinker said “It's okay, Zac. Bodie isn't sad now.”
Bodie Finch can fix anything.
Mrs Baker got the big blocks out for Bodie so he could build his own stuff instead of knocking ours down. Bodie Finch is very strong. He can pick up the big blocks easily. This is what he built.
I said, “What is it, Bodie Finch?”
Bodie smiled at me. He sat on the front of his thing and pretended to throw something. Then he started winding and winding with one hand. Bodie Finch said “WISH!”
I couldn't believe it. I yelled out, “Mrs Baker! Look, Bodie made a boat! He's fishing! When he says wish, he means fish!”
We were being so dumb. I mean, Bodie only says WISH when we have lunch and he's throwing his food on the floor.
Now the cook gives him fish fingers for lunch most days.
When it gets busy inside I make Bodie Finch a cubby. Mrs Baker helps me. We hang a sheet over the table and I say “Bodie, cubby. Come.” I make a roof shape over my head and I point to the cubby and hold out my hand, and he comes with me.
Miss Tinker told us to just use a few words when we talk to Bodie, and use our hands to talk too. It's kind of fun talking with our hands. Sometimes at rest time I talk to Bodie with my hands when we're meant to be sleeping. Mrs Baker tells us to stop, but she always says it with a happy face.
The first time I made Bodie a cubby I was so excited I grabbed his hand, and he pulled it away and yelled like it hurt. Miss Tinker says it's hard for Bodie Finch when people touch him. She said it's like he hasn't got any skin.
I thought about the time I took all the skin off my knee. It hurt when I touched it. Then it grew a scab and didn't hurt as much. Miss Tinker says Bodie will get better too if we're kind. She told me to say Bodie's name first, and then hold out my hand so he can touch me if he wants to.
Inside the cubby we play with the dolls and cars till it's quiet outside. I sit at one side and Bodie sits at the other. We don't talk. Miss Tinker says there's too much noise in Bodie's head already. She said that the inside of Bodie's head gets like a crazy circus, with lights flashing too brightly, and rides whirling too fast, and people yelling and music playing too loudly, and bangs and crashes and animals growling and balloons popping all the time.
It's not fun when you're not really at the circus, and you can't make all the crazy stuff stop and be still and quiet. I think I'd say “AR” too. Except I can say “car,” and people would know I wanted to go home.
It must be horrible when you can't say what you mean.
Bodie Finch is really good at playing chasings. I say “Bodie, chase me!” and start running, and he takes off like a rocket. Then everyone else wants to play too. Bodie can catch everyone except me. I'm a really fast runner too.
Today Mrs Baker was doing letters with us at mat time. She made an E for Eric, and a W for Willow, and an L for Lilly with the long blocks.
Bodie was in his cubby. He doesn't like mat time, but he sits in his cubby and listens. All of a sudden he climbed out of the cubby and grabbed the blocks from Mrs Baker, and made a shape with them.
It was a Z.
“That's my letter,” said Zac. He was really surprised.
Bodie shook his head. “NO. AR.”
“Car starts with C, not Z,” said Eric. He had that mean look on his face again, like he knew he was so much smarter than Bodie.
Bodie banged his hand on the floor hard. He frowned. He pointed his finger at me, without looking. Bodie never looks at anyone, not even Miss Tinker.
Then he pointed at the Z. “ARA”, said Bodie Finch.
Z is for Zara.
Bodie Finch said my name.