Quicksand

My near-escape from a sandy and watery death…

My near-escape from a sandy and watery death…

I was on holiday last month in West Wittering, renting a house not far from the stunning beach and scenic walks up on East Head. Given it was late November, the place was almost deserted and the tiny hamlet perched on the edge of the south coast felt more like a ghost town. For me, this only added to its charm. It was my second time here in as many months – I’d fallen in love with the place for its scenic walks and stunning sand beaches; as a Londoner this was something I’d always felt drawn to. In addition, I wanted to give my darling dog, Misha, as many fun experiences as possible and I he just loves the sea – not so much for swimming but for paddling and racing across the sand, spurred on by the crashing waves and high winds.

On our second day it poured, but by late afternoon the rain had eased off to a light drizzle so I set off on a long walk with Misha, and my mother, now in her late seventies. I was trying to follow a circular walk I’d found online, across East Head and down to the beach then back up to where we were staying through the village. After about an hour, I must have taken a wrong turn because there was no mention of quicksand or marshland on the trail. However, I couldn’t have gone very far out of my way and, shockingly, the way we approached at least, there was not a single sign or warning about the quicksand. Later, I’d discover that not only was this beach an area well-known to locals who knew all about its dangers, but people were constantly getting stuck there and having to be rescued: just a week before, two young women had needed to be rescued from the sand by the coastguard, and shortly before that an escaped cow and ended up there and had sunk all the way up to its neck!

To us, it looked like just another section of the beach – although there were some darker patches further out that I hadn’t noticed anywhere else and access to the sand was fairly difficult. There were lots of rocky and jagged pieces to walk across when we emerged from the woods and my mother didn’t want to get her trendy ankle boots wet so stayed back as Misha and I made our way out across the beach towards the line of the incomining tide. It was still raining lightly and beginning to get dark. Misha raced ahead and reached the sea in no time where he paddled and ran about quite happily. I was taking my time as the sea was still quite far out. I noticed the sand was starting to get very soft and sort of swampy as I moved forwards but my lack of countryside experience meant I thought that this was just due to the rain and that it was perfectly normal to suddenly find myself having to put considerable effort into pulling up each foot as I walked. Misha was still galloping about at the waterline and the sand looked far less murky and much, much firmer where he was, so once that walking like this became a real pain in the neck, it seemed to me to be more sensible to head for the firmer sand than backtrack all the way I’d just come.

And then very suddenly, as soon as I reached the sea’s edge, one of my Wellington boots disappeared into the sand as far up as my calf, and while I struggled to pull that boot up with my hands, the other boot did exactly the same thing. I kept losing my balance and falling over onto my hands until it got to the point where both boots were so firmly stuck that I couldn’t progress any further. I called out to my mother – now just a tiny spot in the distance – to give me a hand, but the wind was strong and she was so far back that she couldn’t possibly have heared me. Later, I found out she thought I was gesturing simply to get her to join me by the water’s edge, which she didn’t want to do.

I was getting annoyed at my situation by this point because my boots were now waterlogged with sandy water and I couldn’t remain standing upright because my boots were still stuck in a very awkward position. However, I didn’t realise how much danger I was in until I noticed my feet were not just stuck but actually still sinking, and that now I was on all fours with my backside in tha air, my hands and arms had started sinking as well. I had this sucking, cloying concoction of sand and water right up to my knees and elbows, so couldn’t even get up to gesture to my mother anymore, and the sea was now lapping all around me and it was getting properly dark. Worse, I could feel myself still sinking deeper and deeper. Then, I noticed the water around me was steadily rising – the waves were moving closer to me with each passing second. I remembered I’d checked the tides before we came out and that it would soon be high tide and completely dark. And at that point, I realised I was either going to drown as the water rose above me while I remained stuck on the sea bed, or I was gong to be buried by the sand.

That’s when I started to panic. I tried to pull my feet out of my boots but the sand and seawater had caused a kind of suction inside each boot making them absolutely impossible to dislodge (later, when we finally made it home, I had to cut my remaining boot off my leg the suction was so strong!). I scanned the darkening beach and woodland beyond – there wasn’t a single soul to be seen, the only sign of humanity was a house in the distance, with not a single light on – West Wittering is known for its abundance of weekend and holiday homes. We had walked so far and the weather was so bad that there was really no one out there for miles around and my mobile phone was now useless, swimming about in a pocket of sandy water. I could not move for the life of me; it was as if I had cuffs round my ankles and wrists and, as Misha came over to sniff and lick my face, I began to cry at the thought of him watching me die so horribly.

After a while, as if by some miracle, my mother showed up. I hadn’t even noticed her approach. Small and incredibly light, she managed not to get stuck in the sand herself by moving very quickly across it. For several minutes she worked on trying to dislodge one of my boots from the sand but it was just impossible. So instead she tried to get my leg out of the boot. It took ages and was a major struggle but she has always been freakishly strong, and somehow she finally managed to pull my socked foot free. After a lot of wriggling, I managed to free my other foot, with its boot still on. My mother was shouting at me to spread out my weight across the sand and crawl but by this time, my fibromyalgia had properly kicked in, making me suddenly feel desperately weak and exhausted. Shouting at me constantly to try harder – Hurry up! Come on! Faster! – my mother somehow managed to crawl at my side while maintaining a vice-like grip around my upper arm, pulling me after her. I remember looking up from the wet sand I was now crawling through and seeing the huge stretch of beach that ended with the rocky section which was firm ground, and it was like staring at the mirage of an oasis in the desert – not quite real but so desperately needed, and so painfully far away that I thought I’d never reach it. I was now sobbing with fear, pain and exhaustion, crying that I just couldn’t go on while my mother shouted insults at me in the hope that in return my anger would somehow fuel my energy reserves. I knew why: there was no way she could drag me to safety on her own so I had to keep on moving, and at the rate the sea was coming in, by the time she would have made it back to the village for help I’d be in a tomb of sandy water. But all the fear in the world couldn’t force my muscles to keep going and I remember thinking what a weird sensation it was to tell a muscle to do something and have it simply refuse. Crawling through the wet sand, I first felt the muscles in my forearms give up and suddenly landed on my elbows with my face inches above the water. Next, the muscles in my left thigh just went and I had to drag my leg behind me rather than use it to push me forwards. My mother is a master at staying calm in even the worst of situations, but I knew from the way she kept yelling at me to keep crawling and move faster that the situation was bad, very bad. And she had been brought up by the sea and knew most of its dangers. I remember, between sobs, shouting back at her, thinking she didn’t understand it wasn’t my fault that my muscles were refusing to work. And finally I remember reaching the rocks, my waterlogged clothes so heavy with wet sand, and thinking there was no way I could be expected to take a single step. But we had to. It was dark and I was seriously cold – teeth chattering and shivering so hard I could barely speak. My boot hadn’t been the only casualty, Misha’s lead had also been abandoned in the silt, so we had to unfasten one side of his harness to use as a tiny lead. It was almost all dirt track going back so the ground was covered with thousands of those tiny, sharp stones that cut relentlessly into my shoeless foot.

I was on the point of complete collapse when a van overtook us on the woodland path and we flagged it down to ask if I could have a ride. Despite the fact I was soaking wet and even my face was covered with grey silt, the driver graciously let me into his cab and dropped me off by the house. Misha and my mother weren’t far behind and that’s when we had to cut off my remaining boot with nail scissors, the only kind we had – because the suction caused by the sand and water inside was just too strong for either of us, and nothing else was going to get the boot off my foot by this point. I stripped on the outside porch, went inside and had the longest and hottest bath I’ve ever had, falling asleep in it six times before I finally managed to drag myself out and collapse on my bed. That night I was afraid I’d have nightmares but instead I slept, without waking, for sixteen hours straight! I was glad to be alive and incredibly grateful for my mother, without whom I would have surely perished out there. The rest of our holiday was untarnished and simply wonderful, but I had a newfound respect not just for the sea but for the sand, too, which I now knew could be incredibly dangerous. So if you ever find yourself walking on sand or mud and your feet begin to sink, my advice is to always turn around immediately, however firm you think the ground ahead might be!

Depression and Me

The prospect of death was always terrifying but when you are that depressed, you see it as the only way out . . .

The prospect of death was always terrifying but when you are that depressed, you see it as the only way out.

I was inspired to write books about mental illness because it is something I have experienced first hand, something I have grown up with, something which came very close to destroying me. As a child I hated school and spent a lot of time writing stories when I should have been listening in class. Although I didn’t realise I was depressed back then, I found the daily routine stifling and wanted to spend more and more time on my own. By the time I reached secondary school I would lock myself in the toilets at break time just to get away from people. I felt increasingly alienated from my friends around me and out of step with the rest of my peers.

I knew there was something wrong but I didn’t know what it was and I blamed myself for not being more like the others. Finally, things reached breaking point, and I quit school completely at the age of fourteen and did my GCSEs and A levels by distance learning. It was around this time that I started to write – books about mental illness and suicide – a reflection of my deeply troubled state of mind. I studied French Literature at King’s College London and although I found the freedom of university easier to cope with than school, I was still desperately unhappy. My depression peaked in my final year and, just after graduating, I found myself walking around campus, looking up at the tallest buildings, trying to work out which one would guarantee me a fatal fall. In the end I chickened out, wrote a suicide note, and instead went to bed with several bin liners tied over my head which slipped off during the night, sparing me my life.

However it wasn’t until I was twenty that I finally made the link between the horror of my existence and the term depression. I remember wanting to die for a very long time. In fact I think that wanting to die is the wrong expression. The prospect of death was always terrifying and completely final. But when you are so depressed that life is completely and utterly intolerable, you see it as the only way out. It’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place – you’re terrified of dying, of never seeing your family again, of destroying your family as well as yourself, of the pain, of the terrible irreversibility of it all – but you know you cannot go on living. Being alive is simply, totally and absolutely unbearable and you get to the point where you would do anything, and I mean anything to make it go away.

I finally found the courage to speak out about my depression in my twenties and went to seek help. The first doctor I saw to told me I was not depressed at all. Like most severely depressed people I had become expert at hiding my emotions and so the doctor told me that there was no way a depressed person could smile and chat and be so eloquent. Instead of offering me help, he offered me a job! Being told my depression was a figment of my imagination was like a fist in the stomach. But I went on to see other doctors and was referred to counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists. Over the last fifteen years I have tried many different types of therapy and more than twenty different anti-depressants, many in combination, as well as anti-psychotics and mood-stabilisers. In 2014, I even agreed to undergo ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). Some medication I’ve had to quit due to intolerable side-effects, some have made my condition worse, many have had no effect whatsoever. Occasionally a drug has helped for a while before wearing off. However, my official diagnosis is ‘severe refractory depression with bipolar tendencies’ which is rare. Most mood disorders respond well to drug and/or therapy.

Although the illness is always there, these days I am so much better than I’ve ever been at any other period during my life (see my other post Loss and Recovery). On the whole, writing about my experiences through fictional characters has proved an amazingly cathartic experience. It has also allowed me to share what I have been through with others. Even though all my books are fictional, I draw heavily on my own experiences and this has definitely helped me make my writing more real. Whilst in the throes of depression, I often force myself to sit down at my computer and write down exactly what I’m feeling, the exact thoughts that are going through my mind. Later, I try to incorporate those sections into the book I’m writing. Since my very first book came out, so many people have contacted me to say ‘I went through that’ or ‘it was like reading a book about myself.’ This allows me to talk to them about my own struggle with clinical depression and for readers to tell me about theirs. It has been an absolute revelation to discover there are so many people who suffer or have suffered from some form of mental health problem and it has been so reassuring to realise that not only am I not alone, but I am actually in extremely good company! Mental illness is alienating by definition. Breaking out of that bubble and making contact with other sufferers is an enormous and crucial first step.

It has been a long road, shuffled from doctor to doctor and from therapist to therapist and trying just about every medication in the book. However, I still hold out good hope that I will eventually be free of this illness: advances in the treatment of mental health conditions are being made all the time. Nowadays, the vast majority of people who seek help get better very quickly and there really is a lot of help available out there if you have the courage to speak out.

Originally published in SANE’s magazine, Your Voice

Mental illness is still a taboo subject, however it is a biologically-based brain disorder which cannot be overcome through willpower and is not related to a person’s character or intelligence. The simple fact is that mental illness is rapidly on the increase and is fast becoming a massive problem in today’s high-pressured society. A staggering one in four people suffers from some kind of mental illness, 20% of all deaths of young people are by suicide, and suicide is the most common form of death in men under 35. In this country alone, there are estimated to be 24 000 cases of attempted suicide by adolescents each year, which is one attempt every 20 minutes. If you think you or someone you know may be suffering from depression, there are many sources of help available. Depression is an illness, and like most illnesses it can be treated and cured. But you really do have to speak out. This is the only way to get help. If you often feel unhappy, you need to speak to an adult. You could speak to a parent, a guardian, a foster parent, a teacher, a friend’s parent, a doctor, a school nurse, an adult you trust, or contact one of the organisations listed here. Millions of people in the UK and all over the world suffer from a mental health problem. You are not alone.

Welcome to this Blog

This is a new path I’ve decided to take, and I hope you’ll be willing to come along with me . . .

This is a new path I’ve decided to take, and I hope you’ll be willing to come along with me . . .

I’ve been thinking about starting a blog for quite some time now – partly because in the past, I always kept in touch with my readers via Facebook, but now that I hardly use it anymore, I need to find a new way. Partly too because I don’t want all my writing to always be restricted to the confines of a novel. And finally because I thought it might be interesting for readers, writing enthusiasts and others to find out in greater detail all that goes into planning, writing and publishing one’s own book, as well as how all that fits into an author’s general life. I am also very aware that due to illness and good old writer’s block, it’s now been a whole six years since I’ve had a new book published, and I feel I owe my readers something else while they wait, as well as regular updates on how that latest book is progressing.

I do feel guilty towards my readers at times. At least towards the very faithful ones who have read all of my published books and who have patiently been waiting for me to give them a seventh since my last book was published in 2013. They are the ones who mean so much to me, since they have been sending me messages through my website and Facebook account for years, and hung on to me as an online friend even when my posts went from regular writing updates and snippets from my seventh book, to just the occasional post about my puppy, Misha. Especially when many of you may have absolutely no interest in dogs at all. But even if you haven’t continued to read my posts there, perhaps you have still continued to hope that I will someday write another book, and for that I am extremely grateful. Grateful, too, for those who haven’t read any of my books but have discovered me online nonetheless, perhaps through a shared interest in writing or creating, and have become my friends, even though we may have never met. In starting up this blog it’s for you guys that I write, because you have supported me over the years and many of you who’ve read my books have taken the trouble to write to me. And I write here because I also have things to say which don’t always fall neatly into the structure of a novel and also because, in a strange way, I feel as if I owe it to you.

However, I should underline the fact that this blog is not here to replace my novels. A blog can’t do that, anyway. It’s here to keep those interested up-to-date on my writing. It’s also in order to ask you questions, so that you can help me with my writing. I’m not only going to be posting about my work-in-progress, but if that’s all you’re interested in then that’s absolutely fine. Just do please subscribe to this blog all the same and feel free to delete the posts you are not interested in straight out of your inbox when they arrive. I won’t be able to let you know on Facebook every time I post here, as those of you who are still following me closely know that I’ve completely fallen out of love with FB, that I hate all the ads and the way the newsfeed gets so cluttered. So in a way, this blog is to replace how active I used to be on FB too. I promise not to flood anyone’s inbox, though. I don’t know yet precisely what my upload rhythm will be, but I will work it out very soon and let you know – once or twice a week should suffice. In addition, as most of my posts will be non-fiction, it shouldn’t be too problematic for non-English speakers to use Google Translate (see bottom of the sidebar). I know I have many readers from abroad who only know me from Forbidden in translation (11 languages now – yay!) and you have been so good and so patient with me that I really want you to be able to access this blog too. Feel free to write comments in your own language and I will just use the translation tool on my side to understand and respond.

So what is this blog actually going to be about? Well, it’s an important question but not one I can give a precise answer to yet. As you can see, I’ve already written three posts in three different categories, but there are going to be many more categories than the ones you see now. Writing updates about Book 7 are a promise and in my first post in that category, I shall attempt to explain why I haven’t published anything since 2013. It’s for more complicated reasons than you might think. A lot of things in that area of my life have changed, making it far, far harder for me just to get my work published now. But I’ve also not tried to get anything published since 2013, mainly because of health problems. But I’ll explain it all, I promise, and will give you regular writing updates as well as excerpts from my current book. I will also be asking you for some help with the plotlines and even the subject matters that I write about. I think it’s going to be fun! However, the reason I can’t give you a more precise answer to what the blog is going to be about is that, for the moment, this is a new path I’ve decided to take, and I hope you’ll be willing to come along with me. I will be guided by your interests as well as my own. I will let you tell me what you would like to read about and I will write about any topic that takes my fancy! So yes, you can expect to find quite a few puppy tips and dog stories – my 2 y.o pup Misha is the only reason I’m still here after some of the mental and physical health hurdles I’ve had to endure in the last few years – so he is such a huge part of my life that it’s impossible to separate the two. Eventually I may even try writing some fresh, new fiction just for this community – short stories without too much plot which are mainly to help you get into a better head space, a more relaxed and calm state of mind. I will also be writing about mental health in general and will share everything that has helped me in my recovery; I will welcome other people’s stories as well as any questions.

Since my own terrifying journey through depression began, when I was only seventeen, I have finally reached a place where I am more stable and recovered just about enough to be able to look back and discuss the subject with more objectivity. Although it still lives with me, it’s not such a live fuse in my life anymore, no longer waiting in the shadows to be ignited by some unfortunate incident or a torrent of negative thoughts. I don’t know if that’s due to wisdom come with age, or the many different pills I still have to take, or just the fact that I’ve learned to be more observant of the very simple things in life that we enjoy. But the last couple of years have been the most peaceful and stable I’ve had in my life so far. I’m not cured of course, I am still mildly depressed most of the time and I struggle with many things people usually take for granted. I still have to be very careful about the situations I put myself in, about what I read and watch, about my thought patterns, about getting enough rest and sleep. But my simple daily routine with Misha, which forces me to be out in nature for a couple of hours every single day and gives me someone other than myself to focus on, has somehow calmed my thoughts and brought me back to a much slower pace of life – one where there is the room and time to notice and be grateful for all the small things which we so often take for granted. And a lot of these things are ones that I strongly believe would be helpful to everyone – or at least everyone who leads a life that is not quite perfect, or who finds themselves getting down, stressed or overwhelmed from time to time. So that is what this blog will be about too.

So yes, I’m better. And looking forward to going on this new journey with you.