Using the wisdom of Albus Dumbledore to reignite my excitement about Harry Potter…

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire really isn’t my favourite book in the Harry Potter series (although my least favourite is Chamber of Secrets) but there are so many quotes in it which are genuinely insightful and really helpful from a mental health perspective so I’m trying to channel some of them at the moment in an attempt to lift the horrible vacuum that’s currently sucking out my insides like an internal Dementor.

I really, really want to be excited about the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Saturday and I know that there is a part of me that is mega hyped about it even if I can’t feel or connect with it, and I really want to try to access it so I can really feel the emotion and absolute high of a new extension to the Potterverse- it’s been NINE YEARS since there was last an official ‘book’ extending the story (not including Beedle the Bard or Pottermore which are extensions of the Potterverse rather than the actual ‘story’) and I really should be excited about it!  It reminds me a bit of when the Half Blood Prince was released and I was in a similar vacuum of nothingness, and I hardly processed reading it.  I still finished it on the day it was released but I didn’t feel the same connection to it as I had done with the previous books and it took several re-reads to actually ‘feel’ the story even when Dumbledore died!

I really don’t want a repeat of that this time especially as it’s been nine years since Deathly Hallows and NINETEEN YEARS of HP obsession, and it’s changed my life so much in that time that I really, really want to experience the full excitement and emotional intensity (in a good way) that only comes with literally growing up along with characters that you connect to and learn from throughout your life.  I know I’m incredibly lucky to have been exactly the same age as Harry with every book release and not many people have had that experience (or the experience of waiting a year or two between each book release while trying to guess what’s going to happen- I still can’t accept that Snape was ‘good’ because I had ten years of hating him before DH came out), so I’m going to use my version of Harry Potter therapy to try to reignite those feelings again…

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This extract has always made me feel a bit weird and uncomfortable, and it took a few years to fully process it.  It’s from the end of Goblet of Fire when Harry’s just seen Cedric die and Voldemort return which is obviously an incredibly traumatic experience, and when I first read it I hated Dumbledore for making Harry recount it.  I’m still not fully comfortable with it but the reason I’m sharing it here is because of the quote “Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you actually feel it.”  It’s one of Dumbledore’s wisdoms that is so painfully true even though most people try not to admit it.  I’ve never experienced anything near as traumatic as Harry but when I was a teenager, I lost a lot of close friends through being ‘too intense’ (I’ve written about this a lot in other blog posts so won’t go into it now- see Friendships and mindfulness) and my way of dealing with that and the obsessive thoughts around it was to lose enough weight that my emotions ‘switched off’ completely.  It worked at the time but wasn’t sustainable and I had to eventually go into inpatient ED services which meant regaining weight, and the cycle repeated several times and with each weight regain, the emotions came back stronger and more intense.  I’m learning now that emotion regulation strategies are a much better and more effective way to manage and try to accept the emotions rather than ‘get rid’ of them but it’s bloody hard!!  (If you’re interested in DBT emotion regulation skills, have a look at TOO MUCH EMOTION which also links to Harry Potter).

I know that part of the vacuum-y nothingness feeling I’m experiencing at the moment is because I’m still trying to process the loss of a very close friendship eight months ago and I’m still getting very strong urges to contact her even though I can’t, and it feels like my insides have been sucked out which has left the space for the Dementor-like vacuum inside.  I can’t think or talk about it properly without crying and feeling like someone’s twisting a salted knife in my chest, and avoiding that is definitely adding to the nothingness.  I’m taking Dumbledore’s advice though and writing about it indirectly through blogging or creative writing, and hopefully that’ll make a difference…

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“Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.”  WOW.  I know Dumbledore’s wisdom is pretty well infinite but this is absolute truth.  When I first read GoF, I didn’t really appreciate just how true it is but fifteen years on, I’m starting to understand what Dumbledore meant.  I’ve been trying various approaches to ‘recovery’ (whatever that means) over the last 17ish years but it’s only now that I’m realising that you need to actually understand and ACCEPT what it is you’re experiencing in order to be able to recover.  As a teenager, I didn’t like how I was feeling and tried to ‘get rid’ of it in any way I could (usually food or weight-related) but because I didn’t think there was a real issue, it ended up making it worse until I was admitted as an inpatient.  After that, I started to accept that there might be a problem but I still didn’t really believe or understand it fully and the last ten years have been a mix of semi-recovery, relapsing, semi-recovery again, relapse again and kind of spiralling into feeling like there’s actually no point really and maybe I just need to accept that this is how I am.  But having recently re-read GoF, this quote really hit me and I’m trying to put it into practice…

For me, understanding is the hard part because what I’m experiencing at the moment (obsessiveness, feeling ’empty’ or vacuum’y, paranoia, intense neediness and anxiety etc) doesn’t fit into any ‘box’ or mental health category so it’s hard to actually understand what it actually IS.  Asperger’s covers part of it- the obsessiveness, need for routine, anxiety in social situations, meltdowns and feeling ‘weird’, but it doesn’t explain why I fixate on specific people, ‘need’ to contact people or they’ll forget I exist, can become very paranoid or the intense vacuum which really is like my insides have been sucked out.  But I’m still trying to apply Dumbledore’s wisdom and even though it doesn’t have a ‘label’ or ‘reason’, it’s still something I want to change and (this is the important part I’m trying to hang on to) it ISN’T PART OF WHO I ‘AM’.  That’s really important because up till recently, I thought I was just a horrible, weird, obsessive person and that’s why people didn’t want to be friends with me but weirdly I’ve got some really positive relationships at the moment which I really, really don’t want to mess up and they’ve lasted a few years now which is pretty unusual so I want to try to manage or change the obsessive intenseness so I don’t lose them.  So even though I don’t fully understand what causes it, I’ve got a pretty good understanding of my experience of it, and I think that’s enough to be able to accept it…

So, acceptance!  It’s kind of ironic that I’m coming from this perspective considering a psychologist I saw for a while last year used an ACT approach (accepting obsessive thoughts and urges without judging them) and I didn’t like it because I didn’t want to accept that the ‘horribleness’ was a part of me but I’m starting to realise now that you can accept that you’re experiencing something without actually accepting it as an intrinsic part of you, and that’s what I’m trying to focus on.  It’s the bitch in my head, not ‘me’, and that makes it a lot easier to accept and process.  And Dumbledore’s right- that does make it a lot easier to even contemplate recovery even if I don’t know fully HOW to yet.  But I think I’m in a much better place to be able to try now than I’ve ever been before because the understanding and acceptance really are essential for recovery to even be an option…  So thanks, Dumbledore- really needed that reminder!!

Anyway, back to the Cursed Child excitement!  Having thought a lot about understanding and acceptance, I’m starting to realise that the vacuum-y ‘nothingness’ is going to be there whatever happens but it doesn’t exclude the possibility of being actually excited or looking forward to the Cursed Child release even if it’s not full hyperness which maybe isn’t a feasible but that doesn’t matter.  I AM excited about it and I know I am, and even writing this blog post is helping to reconnect with that feeling even a little bit.  There’s so much to learn from Dumbledore and Harry, and it’s so important to remember that.  I’m practising my Patronus every day and that really does help to connect with a positive, ‘real’ part of you that sometimes doesn’t feel like it still exists but it does, it’s just clouded by other experiences sometimes.

Throughout Dumbledore’s life, he was affected by his feelings of guilt and loss about Ariana but he learned ways to manage that and to stay connected to his real ‘self’ even though sometimes it felt like it wasn’t possible and Harry learned from him that even though he had a part of Voldemort inside him, it didn’t make him VOLDEMORT and that wasn’t an intrinsic part of his personality.  I’m trying to see the bitch in my head as a sort of Horcrux that sometimes has access to my thoughts and feelings in a way that I don’t like but it’s not ‘me’ and I can learn to manage it and ‘close my mind’ through Occlumency (see Mental Health Awareness Week 2016, Part One: HARRY POTTER and Occlumency for more about ‘Harry Potter therapy’), and I’m trying really hard to keep practising it until I’ve found a way to get rid of the Horcrux for good!

Thoughts on Harry Potter Part One…

Warning: lots of Harry Potter-related posts coming up this week!  I still can’t believe that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child script book is being released this weekend- nine years since Deathly Hallows and I genuinely thought that would be the end of the Harry Potter saga.  It’s so, so weird and I can’t fully process it even though I’ve booked my ticket for a midnight release party and pre-ordered my copy.  One of the weirdest things is that Harry’s going to be ten years older than I am in this book whereas when all of the previous books were released, I was exactly the same age as him.  I’m a bit nervous about how the characters are going to have turned out…  Anyway, the first post I’m going to share about HP is something I wrote five years ago right before the release of the last film in the Harry Potter franchise.  A lot of my thoughts are still the same now and I think it’s a good place to start!  SO…

“Not really into notes usually but the last HP film is a big thing! Although I really don’t like the way people are saying it’s the end of an era… I grew up with Harry Potter (literally- the first book came out when I was 10 and got hooked from then on…read all the others the day they came out and happened to be basically the same age as Harry down to doing GCSEs the year he did OWLs and leaving school in his last year at Hogwarts). I’ve listened to HP audiobooks nearly every night since I was 11 and have no intention of stopping now!

Hogwarts was a kind of alternate reality when I was a teenager- was still waiting for a Hogwarts letter right up till I left school and, even though it never came, still ended up pretending I was there so much that when I read the books/watch the films now, it feels more like a memory of a direct experience than a memory of a fictional place. Imagination can be really powerful- sometimes I read the first three books and feel like they’re missing something, and I think it’s because I’d imagined being in them so much that I’d imagined more than was there and somehow convinced myself that it happened :s, although to me that makes it even more real! In between books, I tried to make up what I thought would happen in the next one and some of those things are as ‘real’ in my HP universe as what is actually in print, lol.

As far as I’m concerned, Dumbledore, McGonagall and Lupin were my favourite teachers (along with a couple of ‘real’ teachers). When I was at school, I used to pretend that I could ‘combine’ school and Hogwarts where I’d go to Hogwarts but it would have a ‘real’ school structure/timetable as well as a magical one, and some people from the ‘real’ world were there too (think I’d need several time turners for that one…still waiting for one to come through the post along with a Hogwarts letter so I can go back and go to school again but Hogwarts this time :p) which was a big part of my life from the age of 10-20, when the last book came out. By then, I’d grown up enough to actually ‘get’ a lot of the philosophy/ideas behind it so I feel really, really lucky to be the age I was for every book, think I was born in exactly the right year :), and to get into HP from the beginning. Even did my undergrad dissertation on identity/reality in the HP series which felt strange coz it was about a ‘fantasy’ world which was for me (and a lot of people) like a reality but glad I did, felt like a good form of closure although I’m still as into HP as I was as a teenager, just in a different way.

Talking of characters, there are a few in HP who are AMAZING. When I first ‘met’ Luna Lovegood in OOTP, I was 16 and a bit ‘weird’ (still am, lol, but don’t really mind as much now!) and was so glad to meet someone I could actually identify with and who was more weird than I was! She’s my favourite character of the series, think she’s amazing. I love Neville Longbottom too, and I love the way he ‘grows’ through the series. My other favourite character’s Dumbledore, mainly because of his incredible quotes:

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

“Time is making fools of us again.”

“That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.”

“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” (from the film version of PoA)

“In dreams, we enter a world that’s entirely our own.” (again, from PoA film)

“It is my belief… that the truth is generally preferable to lies.”

“If you’re holding out for universal popularity, I’m afraid you will be in this cabin for a very long time.”

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

I found the last book hard to read because of the ‘Dumbledore doubting’ but the end made up for it. Snape grew on me massively through the series- I always felt a bit sorry for him (and weirdly guilty at the same time :s) as a teenager, but when I read DH, he became one of my favourite ever characters. Also love McGonagall- I think she’s the best teacher in the series and I’d love to be like that when I’m older! She’s really fair and cares about the students but manages to be firm at the same time… Thought it was interesting how Maggie Smith saw her as an older Miss Brodie, hadn’t made that connection before but can kind of see how it fits.

I haven’t seen the last film yet (seeing it on Tuesday), since I’ve cried in both HBP and DHp1, I think I’ll end up crying, even if it’s just saying ‘bye’ to the characters (although it’s not really…). It’s weird, I don’t usually cry in books/films but HP still makes me :s, I must have seen HBP over 20 times and still cry at the end! Think it must be something to do with the ‘reality’ of the series, and how it takes on a greater ‘reality’ than just the words on the page. I don’t like the idea that the last film is the end though – I’m with Dumbledore on this one, as long as something exists in your head then it’s real! HP has been ‘real’ for me for the last 14 years…why should it stop now?! If anything, it’s more real because it’s an individual experience of the HP universe that’s carrying on, not someone else’s interpretation of it which, much as I enjoy watching, never matches up to my teenage ‘memories’. HP has been a massive part of my growing up (that really isn’t an exaggeration) and the film franchise has nothing to do with that, and I really don’t see why that’s going to stop any time soon!”

A sonnet for Carrie Mathison

You don’t strike me as the poetry sort
unless, perhaps, it’s straight-laced with liquor.
But there’s an intensity, a flicker
of sideways-sharp awareness in your thoughts
that parallels your mind with metaphor.
How else would you see beyond the concrete
to know what others see as incomplete?
Hyper-everything, pure focus, hardcore
and yet
there’s a harsh vulnerability
that sometimes cuts too deep, a salted knife
in the heart’s open wound. Ability
to see too clearly and not unsee, life
heightened by emotions’ fragility.
You’re an ice-fire paradox of extremes,
nuclear fusion of hyperreal and dreams.

What I’m relearning from Sweet Valley High…

OK, I’m going to start this post by saying that yes, I know Sweet Valley is not ‘real’ literature, it’s commercialised teenage rubbish that people have told me a ridiculous amount of times over the last twenty years that I shouldn’t be reading, but I’ve been obsessed with SVH since I was 9 and have actually learned a lot of life and social skills (really) from various characters in the series as well as having the ‘safety’ of an alternate fictional world which had characters I could relate to and ‘talk’ to (via Sims or writing) and this was really important to me as a teenager in a similar way to how I used Hogwarts pre-Voldemort as an escapist world.  Once Voldemort came back when I was in Year 9, Sweet Valley seemed a lot safer than Hogwarts and for years I carried a Sweet Valley book in my bag ALL THE TIME so I could read it whenever I wanted to.

Yes, Sweet Valley books aren’t written particularly well (overuse of adjectives, too many exclamation points, superficial writing style) but they’re accessible and easy to read which I think totally outweighs the actual style of the writing.  I’ve been able to read Sweet Valley books nearly my whole life, even when I’ve been feeling rubbish and had the concentration span of a hyperactive fly, and they don’t need a lot of focus or brain capacity to read.  They’re actually a lot more complex than most people realise thanks to being a series of close to 500 books in total, and you get to know the characters so well that you feel like they’re a part of your life.  And that means that, weirdly, you learn a lot from them and that changes throughout your life depending on who you can identify with at the time.  I might get struck down by the literature gods for saying this (especially since I did an English degree!) but I’ve actually learned more from Sweet Valley books and Harry Potter than from ANY book I’ve ever studied at school or uni and I think more people need to appreciate that there is more to ‘good’ books than heavy themes or symbolism.  Yes, that’s important and it’s good for analysing/studying, but sometimes learning real, applicable life and social skills and being able to relate to and feel safe with fictional characters is just as important and, for some people, can be even more beneficial.  I might be slightly biased considering I wrote my undergrad dissertation on Harry Potter, my MA and PhD on fairy tales and The Little Mermaid in particular, and one of my MA essays about Sweet Valley but I did the whole ‘literature’ stuff too and found it really interesting but nowhere near as useful for ‘real life’ than books I could really relate to and with complex, escapist worlds where I felt safe.  So that’s why I’m not embarrassed at all to say that I still read Sweet Valley books when I’m almost 30!  I’ll probably still be reading them at 50… :p

One of the things I really like about Sweet Valley books are that they’re set in the 80s- pre-internet and mobile phones which feels amazingly safe and there’s much less anxiety and paranoia because of it.  They write letters and call each other or arrange to meet at specific places and there’s none of the Facebook-based paranoia or bitchiness or problems with over-texting etc that there are now.  When I first started reading SVH, that was how the world worked but now technology’s taken over and there’s a lot more anxiety about than there was 15 years ago (for me, anyway).  I think one of the things I find ‘safe’ about Sweet Valley is that reading the books is like going back to the pre-internet world without the constant paranoia or anxiety of mobile phones and Facebook.  Although, ironically, the reason I can re-read the whole series now is because they’re available to download for free on Kindle Unlimited which is pretty incredible!!  When I was younger, I could only get the ones that hadn’t gone out of print yet from The Works or from charity shops, and I can still remember the MAGIC feeling of being able to order them from Amazon when that because feasible.  Now it’s even more accessible through Kindle which is genuinely amazing.  I was re-reading one of my exercise books from primary school where we had to write about magic inventions we wished existed and I wrote about a magic book which could become any book you wanted it to…I think it’s called a Kindle!!  BEST INVENTION EVER.

Anyway, back to Sweet Valley…  I’m about a third of the way through the SVH books at the moment and I’m just as hooked as I was when I was a teenager but in a different way.  The description of the twins still bugs me (sun-bleached hair, turquoise eyes, perfect size 6 figure) and it annoys me that all the characters seem to be “petite”, “slim” or “willowy” unless specifically mentioned as otherwise in which case it’s usually in a negative context but I think we just need to accept that this is ‘perfect world California’ and that’s not real anyway.  But weirdly, the perfectness of it is part of what makes it feel ‘safe’ and it really is a perfect escapist world.  When I was a lot younger, I used to want to paint the walls of my bedroom like Sweet Valley so I could feel like I was actually there and part of what I love about re-reading the books is that the setting is STILL THE SAME in my imagination.

The reason that’s weird is that it hasn’t changed visually at all since I was in primary school and it genuinely feels like revisiting an actual place from when I was younger.  I think it’s linked to brain processing- it’s something I really need to look into properly but I think that when you imagine something, your brain can’t tell the difference between reality and not-reality so you feel like you’re actually experiencing it and in general, this is stronger in children than adults and when you re-imagine something from when you were a child, it feels like an actual memory.  It’s definitely a topic I need to explore properly!  Would also be really interested to find out if it’s different in autistic brains than neurotypical- most people I know don’t have the same intense, almost physical recollections of memories/imagined events that I do or difficulty distinguishing imagined events and ‘real’ memories (I often think dream events have actually happened) but I don’t know if maybe I’ve just got an over-active imagination?!

Sweet Valley Middle School is visually almost exactly the same as my primary school and that’s still how I imagine it but the high school is a bit different- it’s partly based on the building my classroom was in in Years 7 and 8 and a lot of SVH classes (in my mind) take place there but it’s also mixed with the school field, lunchroom and library from primary school and a few extra corridors I seem to have made up in my mind but probably came from TV shows about high schools.  The front of the school is partly based on primary school but mixed with the front door from (I think) the school in The Princess Diaries so I have no idea how that happened!  It’s so weird revisiting it though because it really does feel like going back to an old school and I keep wanting to go to the Oracle office (which is the same as a classroom in my primary school) or go to find Olivia Davidson in the art room (which is the same as my secondary school).

The town is the same- the beach is like Sandbanks in Poole which was where we used to go on holiday when I was little, the shopping mall is the Royal Priors in Leamington except as is used to be before it was redone (complete with the peacock which anyone from near Leamington over the age of 25 will probably remember), Guido’s is basically Pizza Hut from Tower Park in Bournemouth, Casey’s is Henley Ice Cream shop…  They’re not exactly the same because some of the details from the books are mixed in with real-life places (the shopping mall is based on the Priors but the shops are from the books, the pizzas in Guido’s are bigger and more American than Pizza Hut, the beach has white sand and aqua water etc) but it’s amazing how your imagination basically works like a synthesiser using actual places and described details to make a whole new imagined world which is constant over time.  That’s what I love about re-reading book series or books you read over and over as a child- it’s still the same world.  I have a very similar experience reading Harry Potter but won’t go into that now, but it’s one of the reasons I don’t like seeing films of books because it’s never the same world and feels ‘wrong’.

The other awesome thing about Sweet Valley is the characters.  There are a few ‘main’ characters (Jessica and Elizabeth, Todd, Lila, Enid, Bruce) who appear in nearly every book but each book focusses on a particular, more minor character and something that’s happening in their life and because it’s a series, you get to know the characters so well by their appearances in other books that it’s nice to get a real look into the life of someone you’ve ‘met’ through other characters but don’t know a lot about.  Once you’ve read the whole series, you know most of the characters’ back stories and that’s nice too because when you re-read them, it gives you a whole new context.  My favourite character is Olivia Davidson who you don’t really get to know properly until quite late in the series (she’s just known as an arty, quirky sort-of geek) but in the special edition Mystery Date, she uses internet chatrooms as a way to meet people and you realise that she’s actually really shy and insecure.  I could relate to it a lot at the time because I used to use internet message boards as a ‘social life’ and it was nice to meet a character who had a similar experience.  It’s weird thinking about it now because SVH was originally set in the 80s and the internet didn’t exist then but because the writing went on into the 90s and early 00s, the internet was becoming more mainstream and a couple of the later books mention it although there are still no mobile phones or social media which I think would have ruined Sweet Valley for me.

Re-reading as an adult, you realise again how unrealistic and overly dramatic the books are (not even halfway through and we’ve had three kidnappings, two deaths, a plane crash, drugs, attempted rape, attempted suicide, depression and a ridiculous amount of teenage drama) but that’s what makes SVH so interesting and even though you know that no teenager would actually be able to experience all that and still have perfect mental health at the end of it, the way the books deal with each individual experience is surprisingly sensitive and well thought out.  It’s  bit unrealistic how quickly the characters appear to recover from whatever’s happened to them but the actual experience is pretty well described.  I remember as a teenager re-reading some of them over and over because I could relate to the characters strongly although at the time, I didn’t know why (Wrong Kind of Girl, The Perfect Girl, Too Much in Love and Alone in the Crowd are the ones that spring to mind straight away).  I’d be interested to read Sweet Valley book with an autistic character though- I know autism wasn’t particularly well understood in the 80s and Asperger’s didn’t even exist as a diagnosis but there are some characters who show strong autistic traits (Bill Chase, Randy Mason, Olivia Davidson among others) and it would be interesting to see them more accepted rather than ridiculed for being ‘different’.  But this is perfect world California 80s!

The other thing that really struck me when I started re-reading the books is how controversial they actually are in the topics they discuss.  Considering the books were aimed at a teenage/pre-teen audience (I was reading them from when I was 8 or 9), they deal with some pretty heavy topics and a lot of my first ‘exposures’ to things like mental health issues or drugs were actually via Sweet Valley books.  I know I’m not the only person who’s never even been tempted to try drugs as a result of Regina Morrow’s death after trying cocaine (see Regina Morrow is the reason I never tried cocaine, The death of Regina Morrow or just google ‘Regina Morrow’ and see what comes up) and that’s a pretty major positive effect on a lot of pre-teen lives.  The second link sums it up perfectly by saying “The death of Regina Morrow in Sweet Valley High #40 On the Edge influenced my life more than any other fictional event in the history of my entire reading career thus far. Twenty-five years after reading about her death, Regina is still the first person I think of when I hear about someone dying from a drug overdose.  ‘Oh, I think. He/She must not have read about Regina Morrow.’  Yes, my brain seems to believe that nobody would ever struggle with drug addiction if only they had read On the Edge when they were fifteen.”  I AGREE.  And anyone who says that Sweet Valley books are just ‘junk food’ for literature can f*ck off as far as I’m concerned.  The book series has genuinely changed people’s lives for the better and that’s not junk.

It’s not just drug use that’s addressed pretty directly- Jess’s boyfriend Christian is killed in a gang fight, her boyfriend Sam is killed in a drink driving accident (which was also the reason Elizabeth ended up in a coma after a motorcycle accident earlier in the series and both of these events have meant that I would never, ever get in a car with anyone who has had even a tiny amount of alcohol which has been my rule since I was a teenager and first read the books), John Pfeifer attempts to rape Lila Fowler and then sets fire to her house before being killed by one of his own bombs and so many other pretty controversial events.  Not just over-drama either- Tom McKay’s realisation of being gay was dealt with sensitively and would have been a pretty big deal in the 80s, and it’s amazing that Sweet Valley chose to write in a teenage, gay character.  The stigma is clearly shown as well as Tom’s feelings and that’s pretty impressive for ‘junk’ literature.

For me, the most intense storylines that really ‘got’ me as a teenager were the ones involving mental health issues.  They were never explicitly described as mental health issues in the books which was partly why they were so accessible I think, and it made it feel more ‘normal’ because characters you know and accept are experiencing similar issues.  The ones that really stand out are Robin Wilson’s struggles with weight and with eating disordered behaviour, Annie Whitman’s feelings of being cast out and attempted suicide and Lynne Henry’s experiences of depression.  Although they appear to be ‘cured’ unrealistically quickly, the actual experiences are really well described although brief, but trying to cram something like that into 137 pages is a pretty big ask!

Robin’s experiences are particularly interesting because her character has had so many ups and downs already by the time she developed an ED (weight problems and bullying, falling for George Warren then dealing with her feelings through food) that the plotline seemed to develop naturally from what we already know about her.  The book itself doesn’t go into too much detail (thankfully) about her actual ED thoughts although the line I remember clearly from reading it aged 12 was that her top tip for losing weight is “WATER” underlined several times and I went through a phase of drinking a bottle of water every lesson at school after reading that in case it worked (it didn’t, I just ended up needing the loo a lot!).  But what it does do is show a wider picture of Robin’s ED issues- not being able to eat in front of people, obsessive fixation on ‘safe’ foods, controlling behaviour and snappiness around other people, her jealousy around George, general obsessiveness, excessive exercise, constant exhaustion…  Even writing about it now, I can feel exactly how Robin felt and how I did as a teenager but without realising that’s why I related to the book so much.  Even though it’s very unlikely that Robin would have been that ill and not had to go into inpatient treatment, it’s still a well thought out book.

I could go on about mental health in Sweet Valley for ages and might save that for another blog post!  It’s also interesting that there are other, more complex mental health issues alluded to and shown in characters (Nancy the librarian’s sinister obsession with the 70s and trying to recreate it, John Pfeifer’s arsonist tendencies and sexual harassment/obsession, Margo’s delusional behaviour, Philip Denson the “messed up” ex-employee of Nicholas Morrow’s dad, John Marin’s attempts to kill the entire Wakefield family and probably a million others I’ve totally forgotten about.  It’s interesting how, as a ‘light’ teenage book series, it’s actually more psychologically complex than nearly any YA book out at the time and deals with such a massive range of issues.  Especially since in the 80s, a lot of mental health issues weren’t fully understood or known about which makes the depiction in Sweet Valley even more interesting and because it’s not given a ‘label’ or ‘diagnosis’, you’re given a real insight into that character’s thoughts and behaviours without judgement.  Even if the novels are ‘easy read’, 137 page long teenage books, they cover a lot of pretty intense topics without seeming forced or fake and that makes it more accessible and easy to relate to than if it were explicitly explained.

Will end the post now before I get totally carried away and write synopses of every book in the series!  Definitely more Sweet Valley posts to come… 🙂

Autism and Creative Writing

Creative writing by people with autism is something that’s interested me for a really long time.  I’m a bit biased since I’m on the autism spectrum and happen to have done a creative writing degree but the connection came separately to even thinking about that and it’s something that, at the time, was one of those amazing ‘lightbulb’ moments when suddenly something ‘clicks’ and starts to make sense.  I was doing my undergrad degree in philosophy and was writing my dissertation about The Little Mermaid (the Andersen version, not Disney) when I came across an article online which suggested that Hans Christian Andersen may have been on the autism spectrum.  At the same time, the psychologist I was seeing in an eating disorder service had recently done an ASD assessment and concluded that she thought I had an autism spectrum disorder (Asperger’s) and my lifelong obsession has been The Little Mermaid so the whole thing kind of synced and suddenly everything seemed to make sense, and it was thanks to that that my interest in autism and creative writing developed properly.

Autism is defined by the National Autistic Society as “a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them.” It is a spectrum which ranges from severely autistic, where someone might not be able to communicate verbally at all, to high functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. People with Asperger’s Syndrome typically have difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination, and this could be shown through creative writing as stories with very little dialogue which are mostly based on fact and theory, or stories based around special interests. An autistic character in a story could also show preference for the physical, or sensory, experience rather than emotional and would demonstrate the difficulty that some people on the autism spectrum have with recognising or identifying emotions.

As part of a module at university a few years ago, I did a research-based assignment about different types of creativity and how they could relate to autism. Unfortunately, I misunderstood how to write a scale and accidentally measured the two types separately instead of comparing them so the results were not valid, but some of the research was really interesting. The report looked at two facets of creativity which are involved in creative writing: logical and emotional creativity. This is particularly relevant to autism because impairments in abstract imagination are part of the criteria for autism and Asperger Syndrome, and logical or more systematic thought is common in autistic people. I used the definition of ‘creative’ from the Oxford English Dictionary which defines it as “Relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something” (OED). In relation to creative writing, this would mean that creative writing can be defined as a piece of original writing which involves the use of the imagination. This does not exclude the use of factual information or theoretical ideas; instead, it would mean that facts or theory would be synthesised in an imaginative way such as the way in which Lewis Carroll explores ideas from mathematics and logic in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is written in a way that in very similar to the way in which an autistic person might write. The scenes appear random and disorganised, and don’t seem to follow a coherent structure but the internal rules of Wonderland and conversations with the characters themselves are very logical and literal. This would fit with autistic perception because people on the autism spectrum often have difficulties with central coherence, which is the ability to process and organise large amounts of complex material and events, and this can often lead to focus on details or distinct ideas rather than a coherent narrative.

Creative writing itself also has a variety of definitions- a short Facebook poll gave definitions from “An expression of thoughts, ideas and perceptions presented in an imaginative and original way” and “an act of writing which is directed by its author(s) for a specific purpose, towards a specific objective – the written work – in which creativity refers to problem solving efforts in the work’s construction and the author’s attempts to marry language, form, structure, and subject” to “the repeated banging your head against a wall for some mysterious purpose known only to dead, great people” (taken from a Facebook status asking for definitions of ‘creative writing’ that could be used as examples in a psychology report). The report looked at creative writing in terms of (fictional) short stories and poetry, without venturing into areas such as creative non-fiction or autobiographical writing.

The report looked at the dichotomy of two facets of creativity, which have been termed ‘logical’ and ‘emotional’ creativity. In a creative writing context, logical writing would be stories or poems which are structured, analytical or theoretical with an emphasis on information or ideas whereas emotional writing would be stories or poems which aim to provoke an emotional response in the reader. Writing is not one or the other; some writers use both approaches, but I have differentiated them in relation to autism because many people on the autism spectrum have difficulties with recognising or expressing emotions. In a study in 1999, Paul Hughes looked at how fictionalising the ‘self’ in writing can be beneficial for a person with Asperger’s syndrome in understanding their own Asperger self and how that understanding can be transferred to social situations and this is similar to a way in which the Sims computer game can be beneficial for children and adolescents on the autism spectrum because it allows them to simulate life and social interactions in a non-threatening way and to learn and practise important skills.

Ira Lightman, a conceptual poet who self-identifies as having an autism spectrum disorder, writes in an essay called ‘Untitled’ (2012) that “I will often write a poem based on a structural game, building my kind of mode around me; if I feel safe, I can discover emotion during the writing”. This exemplifies the ideas that this report is trying to explore. People on the autism spectrum often have very intense interests or obsessions and this is linked to a love of structure and routine, which can be used in creative writing as stories or poems based around a special interest. In 1998, a study by Lee and Hobson found that people with Asperger’s Syndrome tended to describe their personality in terms of their interests and often could not define personality and writing could be used as a way to explore this through the use of a special interest.

Many people on the autism spectrum find that they can express themselves more easily in writing than verbally, and creative writing can be beneficial for mental health because it can explore or articulate feelings in a way that makes them more accessible. It can also be related directly to any area of special interest such as an interest in science fiction or fantasy, or a fascination with a particular area of history. In 2009, Harbinson and Alexander’s study into students with Asperger syndrome and the English curriculum found that difficulties with the imaginative and emotional interpretation of creative writing and literature as could be a disadvantage for students with Asperger syndrome, and an exploration of a more logical and theory or fact-based style of writing could be a way to prevent this, and this would interesting to develop as part of further research into the way in which creative writing could be both adapted to an autistic population and how autistic people could use creative writing as a form of expression.

The quantitative method used to gather the data was to design an eight-level Likert scale to measure participants’ attitudes towards creative writing. There were eight questions that related to logical writing and eight questions related to emotional writing. Four of each set of eight questions were negatively weighted and the method was forced choice as there was no ‘neutral’ option. This measure was invalid because I misunderstood the instructions and accidentally designed two scales in one questionnaire and had a Cronbach’s alpha measurement of 0.267, which gave twice the amount of variables and was very difficult to interpret. Is this were to be repeated, it could be broadened to include qualitative research such as looking at transcripts of autistic people talking about creative writing, or asking neurotypical and autistic people to describe what ‘creative writing’ meant to them and how it could be used. Examples of writing from people on the autism spectrum could also be usefully examined. If the scale were administered in a practical setting, it would be used as a tool to identify ways in which creative writing could be made accessible for people on the autism spectrum. The influence for this came from Harbinson and Alexander’s 2009 study into students with Asperger syndrome and the English curriculum as they identified difficulties with the imaginative and emotional interpretation of creative writing and literature as a disadvantage for students with Asperger syndrome. The identification of this using a scale could be useful for both students and teachers as broadens the concept of what constitutes ‘creative’ writing for teachers and allows students on the autism spectrum to access creative writing in a way which engages them and allows them to develop their skills.

Another interesting and more useful comparison for future research would be to do a thematic analysis of some threads about creative writing from an autism internet message forum. In this context, qualitative methods could be more useful because the research question is open and could have multiple answers or perspectives. It would also be interesting and useful to examine different sources such as conversations, internet forums, examples of writing and focus groups. Both autistic and neurotypical samples could be used to compare various approaches with a view to looking at the spectrum of different ways in which people view and engage with creative writing. It could also be expanded to include benefits and applications of creative writing.

From analyzing a thread called ‘Link between Asperger’s and creative writing’ on the internet forum ‘Wrong Planet’, there were some key themes that several people mentioned. The main themes were a difficulty with writing imaginative fiction and problems with the original ‘idea’. These could then be split into sub-themes which included difficulties with creating and writing character, abstract concepts and finding the ‘mechanics’ of writing easier than the expression. The difficulties with imagination were linked by people in the thread to theory of mind and finding it difficult to imagine another person’s perspective and this would make sense in the context of autism. Members of the forum also suggested using pre-existing characters from fan fiction or real life, or writing semi-autobiographical fiction and creative non-fiction which are all interesting ideas for writers on the autism spectrum. A quote from the thread “Don’t approach it in a typical way, because it won’t work” seems to illustrate the way in which autistic writing can be approached differently from mainstream neurotypical fiction and in a way that could be more accessible for people on the autism spectrum.

The concept of autobiography and creative non-fiction is also interesting, and links to an article by Frith and Happe in 1999 who suggested that because of the differences in Theory of Mind between neurotypical and autistic children, they may also develop a different form of self-consciousness as theory of mind skills are learnt from experience and intelligence rather than intuition which could lead to a very reflective and explicit form of self-consciousness. Writing about this in his book ‘The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome’, Tony Attwood adds that he “would agree that there is a quasi-philosophical quality” to the autobiographies of adults with Asperger’s Syndrome. This relates back to the thread from Wrong Planet where several people suggested using real life or autobiography in writing fiction, and fictionalised autobiography is another interesting area which could be used beneficially with children or adults on the autism spectrum. It could also be useful in a similar way to a special interest, where it forms an alternate world as a form of escapism or as a way to practise or experiment with different situations.

As future research, the link between autism and creative writing could be very interesting and useful, both in terms of the actual writing and possible applications in educational or clinical practice, and it’s something I’m hoping to investigate further in the future…

Alice’s recovery from Wonderland

Alice (i)

As she grew, so did her experiences,
broadening, deepening in intensity,
sense-sharp spectrum of feeling.
When she shrank, the world contracted,
telescopic, microscopic microcosm,
narrowed perception through muted senses.
She’d been shape-shifting for a time
fixed in perspectives, unquantifiable.
In her mind, it began when her up-and-down
parallel lines softened in space, curved relatively,
and she realised she was already falling
down a rabbit hole of emotional vertigo.
It was a place where you run
until you choke on burning breath and
still only reach your starting point,
where surfaces shift through paradox.
She’s moving in all directions at once.

 

Alice (ii)

There are times when it’s easier
to pretend you don’t exist,
that you’re just a vehicle
for shifting perceptions of others.
Falling down the rabbit hole, she
reached magic constant velocity,
total release from self-imposed self.

Wonderland’s a mesh of mirror-maze
detachment and full-force feeling
and she rides the pendulum like
a long-distance run; time contracted,
relative to a microcosm of perceptions.
There are times when she’s sure
it’s all just a dream; except that
she doesn’t dream, usually, or not
that she remembers.  Memories meld
pseudo-memories, neuroplastic neurons
forged by transient imagination.

Logic-lost, she’s drifting in a world
where time has no meaning and
light-wave perspectives curve space.
You can run but you won’t get anywhere,
distance dissolved infinitesimally in
an illusion of motion.  Like herself.

Skin

She’s a mind map of story, tattoos
of ink, scar and stretchmark.
In certain lights,
you can read the braille of her life:
coded in topography, she lays her experience
naked, projected, distorted.

Inference is more accurate than interpretation.
Cartography is progressive.

Colours matter: recent red fades
to sepia memories.
Sometimes it’s what you don’t see
that matters the most.

If she trusts you, she’ll give you clues
to crack the corporeal code.
But before you do, think carefully.
Do you really need the history of maps
to find your way forward?

Alex in Wonderland: a story

S/he’s most used to running away at first: metaphorical running from anything that panics or overwhelms her. It’s a childhood habit s/he can’t seem to break, something that seems ingrained in the psyche, an instinct rather than a conscious thought. It’s not just that s/he’s scared; paradoxically, s/he takes a sort of stubborn enjoyment in challenge and the adrenaline of fear but when s/he can’t see a way out and the world spins with anti-logic and vertigo, thoughts jam in a blocked mind and nausea overcomes the senses, s/he runs desperately back to the safety of routine and familiarity that makes sense. S/he’d just turned thirteen when s/he realised s/he was in Wonderland and must have been for a while without consciously realising it. The rabbit hole’s hidden in the forest that marks the transition of adolescence and if you’re careful, you skip straight over it. But Alex, caught in the nervous run of a child who’s not sure when you’re supposed to grow up or how or even if s/he wants to (is a child ever ready, really?), must have fallen straight through the leaves and tree roots that hide the hole without even realising and carried on running.

At first, s/he didn’t know s/he was there at all. Something seemed different, but teenage years never make sense and hormones merge feelings, thoughts and behaviours in dizzying spirals that never seem to stay constant from one day to the next. Sometimes s/he’d go weeks in the real world where the hint of Wonderland was a distant trace in the imagination; other times s/he’d have months of increasing vertigo and shifting perceptions, and the world was constant change. Yet Alex never noticed that s/he was running constantly through a world where truth was relative and rules shifted from place to place until, suddenly, s/he ran straight into a mirror.

S/he fell backwards, landing in a pile of leaves which, now that s/he looked more closely, were arranged in an unusual way, spiralling outwards in regular helices that seemed to follow a pattern. As s/he looked closer, s/he noticed that the number of leaves in each coil was equal to the sum of the two previous coils and for some reason, s/he felt safe. The leaves in the forest of adolescence had been irregular and messy, spreading across the forest paths so that you slipped on them as you tried to walk or run. S/he got to her feet, brushing dirt from jeans and stood to look closer at the mirror that blocked the path. It was barely visible in the darkness, a shimmering forcefield of reflections and moving shadows. As s/he stepped closer, s/he could see an image staring back at her, both familiar and strange. You never see yourself, really, and Alex found it hard to align the features to form a complete face; instead, s/he saw a collection of topographic details that seemed to swim across their gaze. Away from the reflection, s/he couldn’t visualise their own image in their mind and mirrors were scary, mirages and illusions that seemed to change each time s/he looked into them. S/he looked different somehow but couldn’t work out how; as s/he focussed on each individual part of the face, it seemed alien in the context of the whole but somehow still Alex, whatever that meant. As s/he turned away, the reflection spoke.

“Where are you going?” Alex’s own voice, disembodied in the darkness, was a shock and s/he turned around to see the reflection still staring. S/he walked slowly back towards the mirror, raising an arm experimentally. The reflection stayed still, watching.

“Who are you?” Alex asked, feeling as though s/he was talking in the distant voice of a dream, slightly out of sync with thoughts.

“Who are you?” repeated the reflection. It was more of a statement than a question. “Who you are.”

Alex stared at the mirror, confused. The reflection stared back. “You’re me? Or I’m you? Or is that the same thing?”

“What are you?” the reflection continued. “Is there a ‘you’ or is that just something you use in your language to make an identity that isn’t there?”

Alex started to feel confused, thoughts clouding their mind and eyes blurred. “I don’t know.” The reflection continued to stare, expressionless. “I can see, hear and feel, and there must be something that is seeing, hearing and feeling.”

“But is that you?” the reflection persisted. “If I cut off your head so that you could still see and hear, would that part of you be different from your hands which could still feel objects around you?”

Alex’s head spun more and s/he began to feel dizzy. “No. I mean yes. I mean, I don’t know, really. Maybe there’s more than one of me. Maybe it’s a collection of feelings.”

“So you are your feelings?” The reflection didn’t seem happy with this. “What if you didn’t feel? Would you stop existing?”

“That would be great.” Alex stopped, surprised. S/he hadn’t meant to say that and wasn’t sure why s/he had. “I meant emotional feelings then, obviously. Physical feelings are different. They’re OK, most of the time.”

“What makes them different?” asked the reflection, looking genuinely interested for the first time.

Alex was surprised. “What do you mean? They just are. I mean, you can understand physical feelings- hot, cold, pain, hard, sharp et cetera, but emotional feelings don’t make sense. You don’t know what they are, and they’re sort of physical too but different because you don’t know what causes them.”

“What do you mean, ‘sort of physical too’?” The reflection looked as confused as Alex felt.

Alex looked at the reflection. “You know, like making you feel sick, or hot and cold, or shaky or something but without a real reason to.”

“No, I don’t know,” the reflection replied. “I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

“Not at all?” Alex was shocked. “But how can you exist? What are you?”

“I thought that was the question we started with.” Alex felt completely confused again and the reflection continued. “I’m you, or you are me, it’s about the same thing. Or a part of you anyway, if you want to go with the view that there is no actual ‘you’. You’re a collection of experiences and memories, an experiencing body which is where we differ. I have no physical body, and it’s up to you to decide if I exist or not.”

Alex’s mind was still spinning with the conversation and began to feel a bit nauseous. “But does that mean you don’t have feelings?”

“Feelings is an interesting word,” the reflection answered. “If, by ‘feelings’ you mean emotions then no, I don’t. But the word itself implies a physical sensation, which seems to be what you are describing an emotion as. Aren’t emotions also physical feelings? And in that case, you would need a physical body to experience them.”

“So you don’t exist?” asked Alex. “If you don’t have a physical body? But how are you talking to me?”

“Does that mean you don’t believe in ghosts?” the reflection replied. “Or God, or spirits or anything? Or am I a figment of your imagination? Or can I be, if I’m saying things you’ve never thought?”

“Or maybe I don’t exist.” Alex had no idea where that thought had come from. “Maybe I’m the illusion, maybe I just think that I’m thinking and really I’m someone else’s thought. Or maybe thoughts themselves don’t exist and there’s nothing outside of the body and everything’s physical and you’re really just my reflection in the mirror and I’m imagining this whole conversation. Or maybe it doesn’t even matter and the fact that I’m having this conversation at all makes it real.”

“Then maybe the real question is, does it really matter?” The reflection looked directly into Alex’s eyes and s/he edged backwards uncomfortably.

“I don’t know.” S/he looked at the forest around her. Branches arched overhead like witches’ fingers and shadows moved in the darkness. Alex’s heart beat faster and felt a stomach-swoop of vertigo. “I don’t really want to be here on my own.”

“Why are you running?” The strange question took Alex by surprise.

“What do you mean?” The reflection didn’t reply. Alex stepped closer to the mirror, hands pressed against the glass. The reflection mirrored the action and s/he leaned closer. Suddenly s/he felt herself falling forward as the glass seemed to dissolve to nothing. S/he slipped through the frame of the mirror and stumbled onto a path not dissimilar to the path s/he’d been following previously. There was a definite change though; although the trees lining the path seemed different from any trees s/he had seen before, they formed a sort of pattern with colours and shapes of leaves and as s/he walked cautiously through the trees, Alex tried to work it out. The path itself seemed to twist and bend in spirals and the air merged with colours like the inside of a rainbow. Alex felt strange, as though s/he’d been here before somehow but wasn’t sure when and the feeling of vertigo intensified. Thinking of what the reflection had said (or maybe s/he had only thought; the further s/he walked into the forest, the more unreal the conversation seemed), s/he began to run, disjointedly as through jarring disconnected limbs but slowly s/he found a rhythm and feet pounded the forest floor like a drum beat.

It was the first time s/he’d paid attention the act of running and it felt strange. Alex’s body seemed to know its own rhythm; s/he hardly had to think about legs and arms seemed to move naturally. After a few minutes, Alex’s mind began to drift and the vertigo seemed to subside slightly. S/he ran on, following the path through the trees. After a while, s/he felt strangely euphoric, as though s/he had realised something amazing and s/he was suddenly alert in the rhythm of the run. It scared Alex slightly and s/he slowed to a walk, breathing deeply. The forest seemed less intimidating and s/he continued to walk further into its depths. S/he walked for what seemed like hours, and the sun stayed high in the sky. Time seemed to pass differently here or maybe not at all; snow lay metres away from parts of the forest which breathed with the humid air of a rainforest and sometimes Alex felt as though s/he were hardly travelling at all even though s/he had been walking for what felt like a very long time and s/he was beginning to get tired. S/he checked the time on a pocket watch and was surprised to notice that only five minutes had passed from the time s/he had first fallen through the mirror. S/he felt out of sync with time, as though mind had detached somehow from body and s/he realised that the vertigo had returned in waves alternating with detachment. As s/he walked down the path, s/he tried to focus on the surroundings but they kept changing; bronze leafed trees shone golden for an instant before waning to skeletons glittering with frost without any apparent continuity and the path itself seemed to be shifting even as s/he followed it. It was as though all time were present at once and her usual constant forward trajectory had broken somehow and s/he could see all of time as the present moment. The sun still shone through the trees as brightly as it had when she had first arrived in the forest and it did not seem to have moved its position in the sky. S/he half thought she might be somewhere near the North or South Pole but even there in high summer, there were variations in light. S/he wondered vaguely how people here slept with constant daylight, or even if there were people here at all. S/he hadn’t seen any sign of life so far although there was a definite sense of a pulse around her, as though the forest itself were alive.

The further s/he walked, the more unreal the world around her seemed or maybe s/he felt unreal herself. S/he felt floaty and detached and the forest slipped around like liquid, and Alex’s mind seemed to drift slightly out of focus, brain exhausted and thoughts flowed viscously but senses seemed hyper-sharp and even the slightest noise jolted Alex’s heartbeat. More as a distraction than anything else, s/he started to run. Gradually, the world became the beat of footsteps once again, regular and constant and s/he breathed deeply as though s/he could inhale the essence of the forest around her. Brain slowed to the low frequency waves of pre-sleep, s/he ran in an almost meditative state, not connected or disconnected but breathing the rhythm of the forest, inhaling its oxygen which in turn was absorbed back as carbon dioxide into the trees in cycles of photosynthesis. Alex’s mind became a vacuum of trees and green light as s/he ran down the path deeper into the forest. The floatiness had shifted; s/he still felt lightheaded and detached but it was as though s/he were a part of the forest’s heady cadence, running through its substance as though detached from Alex-as-a-body rather than the world all around. Thoughts drifted like autumn leaves down a river, fragile and transient, and s/he let them sink through consciousness until they faded into green light. S/he ran without thinking about how far or how long s/he had run, lost in the rhythm of footsteps.

The path opened out to a wide lake that shone silver in the pale sunlight. S/he slowed down and gradually became more aware of the surroundings. The lake shimmered in the clearing like liquid moonlight and the sky above was the pale blue-white of icicles. Alex walked closer to the water and looked across the glasslike surface. The water barely rippled in the still air and s/he could see through its depths to the sandy floor. As s/he stared through the water, she could see a reflection on the still surface. After a few moments, the refection started to speak.

“So you ran away again.” Alex jumped backwards, tripping over a tree root. The reflection stayed on the surface of the lake, watching.

“What do you mean?” Alex asked. The reflection didn’t answer. “I haven’t run away from anything. I was just…running.”

“Just running,” repeated the reflection. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” Alex replied slowly. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.” The reflection continued to look at Alex closely and s/he began to feel uncomfortable.

“When you run, how do you feel?” asked the reflection. “Can you feel yourself moving? Are you aware of your body as you run?”

“I’m not sure.” Alex was confused by the question. “I can feel it, obviously, my feet hitting the ground and everything but after a while, it sort of becomes automatic and you’re not totally aware of how you’re moving.”

“So you’re not completely aware of your body?” the reflection pressed. Alex thought for a moment.

“Yes. No. Maybe. I’m not sure.”   S/he stopped and thought for a moment. “It’s weird- when I wasn’t running, everything felt strange and unreal and when I started to run, it all sort of merged together and I was me and not me at the same time, and everything seemed to be there all the time. It was like everything was present and linked but temporary at the same time.”

“That’s interesting,” commented the reflection. “I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

“But you don’t have a body,” Alex replied. “Or not a physical one, anyway.”

“So where does that fit?” asked the reflection. “Can something exist without a physical body?”

“I don’t know,” replied Alex. Brain starting to blur with overloaded thoughts, s/he sat down at the edge of the lake and breathed in its stillness.

“How do I know that you exist?” The reflection broke the silence and Alex looked up. “I mean, all I know is that I can see something that looks like a physical presence but I don’t know that. All I know is how it appears to me. If I were something else, a tree for example, you might look completely different.”

Alex was confused. “But you can see me.”

“Can I?” countered the reflection. “Or do I just think I can?” Alex didn’t reply. The reflection continued, “Everything I think I can see is in my mind- it’s all perspectives and interpretation. Everything depends on your point of view. I’m assuming you exist because you look the same as the Alex I met earlier, just like you think that your body exists because it appears the same to you every time you see it. You infer that things are real because they seem consistent to you. What if you looked in a mirror and saw somebody else, but you still felt like the same person?”

“But I wouldn’t be,” said Alex, getting angry at the questions. “How could I be the same and different at the same time?”

“But you’re not the same as when you were born,” replied the reflection. “Most of your cells have regenerated and you’ve grown up and your thoughts and ideas have changed. Does that mean you’re a different person?”

“Of course not!” exclaimed Alex angrily. The reflection stayed silent. “I’m still me; I’ve still got memories and experiences and… But maybe they’re not me either. Maybe me doesn’t exist.”

“Maybe not.” The reflection sounded thoughtful, which, to Alex, was hardly surprising since s/he was really just a thought itself. “Maybe all you perceive is everything there is, and you can’t know about anything else. Maybe everything’s just perceptions.”

“But when I run,” Alex said slowly, “there seems to be something else. Definitely something physical.” The reflection looked up and s/he continued. “I mean, I’m not sure if it’s physical or mental or what, but everything sort of merges together into one something. It’s like nothing exists, or everything exists, or maybe there isn’t a difference. I’m running and I’m the run, and everything forms a part of that experience. Just for that time, I’m pure experience and that’s it. No I, no me, just running.”

“Do you ever get that when you’re not running?” The reflection looked straight into Alex’s eyes and s/he felt a sudden sensation in her stomach, as though someone had punched there hard and s/he flinched and looked away.

“I don’t know,” s/he replied. It was the truth but s/he felt as though s/he were hiding something. The reflection continued to stare intently. “I don’t know. I’ve only been here a day!”

“But haven’t you been here before?”

“Been where?” Alex felt more confused than ever and turned away from the lake.

“Watch out for the Red Queen,” the reflection called after Alex as s/he entered the forest once again.

S/he walked quickly back down the path into the trees, hardly noticing where s/he was going. The trees merged above in green shadows and the path seemed eerily quiet, air heavy and close after the calm stillness of the lake. Something jarred in Alex’s ribcage, jolting the heart with surges of electricity and s/he felt nausea creeping up in the region of the throat. There was something about the mention of the Red Queen that disturbed Alex, something just beyond the reaches of memory and s/he felt sick with a sudden, abstract sense of guilt or something similar. S/he half walked, half tripped down the path in an effort to escape the familiar but unfounded feeling and found that s/he was breaking into a run, breathing the oppressive air until s/he felt their chest loosen and heart beat oxygen-purified blood fast around the body. S/he ran until the feelings faded to the pulse of the run and once again, the world merged to a rush of green. S/he ran on and on, building the rhythm until s/he tripped suddenly over a tree root.

The path ahead was lined with roots spaced evenly towards a darkened clearing. S/he picked through carefully, trying not to fall over. As s/he reached the space where the trees opened to shadows, s/he could see something glowing in the centre. Looking more closely, s/he realised it was a pair of cats’ eyes and s/he walked towards it. In the centre of the clearing was a large black cat, eyes glowing green in the darkness. The next thing Alex noticed was its size: it was nearly as tall as s/he was, tail swishing like a python and fur like dark wild grass. And then s/he looked more closely at the trees, towering over her head like skyscrapers with trunks as wide as cars. S/he looked up through the branches, alarmed. The pale sun shone through the trees like a golden mirror spilling light over the branches, huge and distant. Everything seemed suddenly bigger than before but Alex hadn’t noticed the change happening, hardly perceptible like the movement of the hour hand of a clock. S/he shivered and turned towards the cat.

“Who are you?” s/he asked.

“I thought that was what I should be asking you,” the cat replied in a slow voice that sounded as though there were a faint purr hidden behind its words.

S/he looked more closely at the creature’s face. It reminded Alex of something but she couldn’t work out what; something in the odd asymmetry of the cat’s face and the ruffled fur on its back, prickled slightly as though defensive. S/he looked into its pale green eyes and flinched instinctively, looking away in an intense wave of intrusive feeling. S/he spoke again.

“I’m Alex,” s/he said uncertainly.

“I know that,” answered the cat, sounding slightly amused. Alex felt more confused than before. “I want to know who you are.”

“Alex,” s/he repeated, frustration causing the tongue to jam and Alex’s words sounded strained. “That’s who I am, I think. My name is Alex.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere.” The cat’s voice sounded still more amused and the hint of a purr more pronounced. “Your name is Alex. That’s what you were called. At least, I’m assuming you had no say in the matter.” Alex stayed silent, staring at leaves the size of dustbin lids that littered the ground and began to pace in circles. “What I want to know is, who are you? In your own words, or maybe I should say in your own mind?”

Alex frowned. “I don’t understand what you mean.”

The cat purred softly. “Yes, you do. Think about it.”

Alex stopped pacing and gazed into the shadows, thinking. The sunlight was fading fast, leaving a silvery glow through the trees. “Look,” s/he started.

“Where?” replied the cat. Alex ignored it.

“Look,” s/he continued. “I have no idea what’s going on and I’m getting really fed up with it. First I run into a mirror and my reflection starts totally confusing me about what or where I am, and now you’re trying to get me to think about who. I don’t even know what that means any more. What is this place? Where am I?”

“That’s what I was asking you,” answered the cat, annoyingly. Alex glared at it and its purrs grew louder. “I’ll ask you again: who are you?”

“I’m Alex,” Alex replied stubbornly. “That’s it. I’m Alex, I’m a person, I have a body. I also think I have a mind, or the fact that I can think seems to show that anyway. I’m not a part of this stupid world.” Alex turned to run away from the cat, but s/he suddenly stopped. S/he looked at the carpet-sized leaves on the ground. “Why does everything keep changing, anyway?”

“How do you know it’s changing?” asked the cat, infuriatingly. Alex glared back once again.

“Because it is,” s/he replied. “One moment, everything’s normal-sized, and the next it’s massive. I’d be walking through the trees and they seem giant sized and everything’s slowed down and spaced out, and I don’t know why. And then it’s like I’m detached from my body somehow, like I’m floating above my head and everything’s out of sync and my mind seems a few seconds behind my body. It’s weird and horrible and I don’t understand it. Why can’t everything just stay the same?”

“What if everything is the same?” asked the cat, looking intently at Alex. S/he flinched and looked down at the leaves once again, feeling as though the cat were trying to see straight into their thoughts. “What if it’s just your perception that’s changing?”

“But- what?” replied Alex, confused. S/he looked around her at the tall trees, the moving shadows and the pendulum swing of the cat’s tail. Its eyes shone in the darkness like green orbs. “What do you mean?”

“Perception,” repeated the cat slowly. “Perception, perspective, viewpoint, awareness, impression. What you see, what you hear, what you experience. How you interpret it. What makes your reality.” Alex didn’t respond. S/he stared at the ground, thoughts tangled in a confused mind. The cat continued.   “You can’t know if things around you are changing, or if it’s you. Think of when you were growing up. Don’t things that seemed big when you were little seem so much smaller now?” Alex stayed silent. “That’s perspective. And here, nothing is constant- everything’s in a state of flux, including you. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be here.”

Alex looked up suddenly. “What? What do you mean, I wouldn’t be here? Where is here, anyway?”

“That’s for you to find out,” answered the cat annoyingly. Alex glared at it once again. “I can’t give you the answers. I can only help you find them out for yourself.”

“Well, you’re not being very helpful,” Alex replied stubbornly. “Thanks for your help.” S/he walked back towards the path, then, struck by a sudden thought, s/he turned back to the cat. “By the way, who’s the Red Queen?”

“That depends why you want to know,” answered the cat and Alex clenched fists in frustration. “You’ll find out soon enough, if that’s what you’re here for.”

“But I don’t know why I’m here-“ Alex started but the cat was gone, leaving a grin of dinner plate teeth gleaming in the darkness. Alex shivered and walked back along the path.

The trees towered above, casting mazes of shadows. The sky through the branches looked darker as the silvery grey faded to blackness. S/he could hardly see the path ahead and edged carefully through leaves the size of bicycle wheels, climbing over stones and fallen twigs like an obstacle course. Every now and then, giant mushrooms shone in the darkness and cast a rainbow glow across the path. S/he made her way through the trees for what seemed like hours along a path that threaded the forest in spirals. Sometimes s/he thought s/he’d been here before, others s/he had felt lost in the vastness of gigantic trees and vertigo shadows. But still there was a sameness s/he couldn’t quite identify, something that felt like a distant familiarity but somehow scary, like a forgotten nightmare that deep down, s/he still wanted to revisit. As the darkness closed around, s/he could feel its pulse, far away but still present. S/he shivered again, walking more quickly.

As s/he walked, she heard a voice nearby. Startled, s/he turned around but there was nothing there. Something jolted the mind into a vertigo of fear. S/he broke into a run, tripping across twigs and leaves. The voice seemed to follow. “You’re going the right way…don’t stop…keep running…” It persisted almost inside Alex’s head and s/he ran still faster, leaping stones and branches in a way s/he would never have thought possible. “You know what to do….” continued the voice, and s/he kept running. Alex’s heart beat the voices from their ears and s/he slowly became calmer, running the rhythm of the trees and the noise of her footsteps was the only thing s/he could hear. S/he slowed to a walk once again, breathing deeply. The voice seemed to have gone.

There was a sinister feel to the forest which grew stronger as s/he walked. The echo of the voice reverberated in Alex’s head, disturbed thoughts and made Alex feel more uneasy. S/he felt like s/he’d heard it before but didn’t know where, somewhere beneath the mess of screenshot memories that mazed her mind. S/he shook her head to clear it and began to run again down the pathway, feeling the now-familiar anaesthesia of the run, calming the mind and loosening muscles. As s/he ran, s/he realised that s/he was running more easily than before, covering much more distance without even thinking about it. S/he kept running, feeling the beat of feet calming the mind. S/he felt strangely real, as though s/he had somehow lost sense of their own reality without noticing and when s/he ran, s/he was suddenly present and alert once again.

S/he thought about this as she ran; the constant detachment that had become part of how s/he experienced the self suddenly seemed odd, and s/he started to question it. Running clarified thoughts, sharpened senses. When s/he ran, s/he felt connected to the world around her in a way s/he hadn’t experienced for a long time, not since before s/he’d fallen into Wonderland for the first time. S/he slowed down, really looking all around for the first time. The trees appeared smaller than they had done, and time seemed to have sped up; the heavy dreaminess of the forest had distilled to a sharp freshness, clear and distinct. Through the branches overhead, s/he could see the scatter of stars on a sky as deep as the sea. S/he ran slowly, breathing deeply. S/he inhaled the connection, feeling something stir in their chest and spread through the body. It was at times like this when s/he wished she could run forever.

Then, suddenly, a voice hissed in Alex’s ear. “Run faster.” S/he stopped, whirled around but could see nothing. “Don’t stop,” the voice continued, with an edge of anger. “Keep running. You’re nearly there.”

S/he started running again, more urgently this time, heart beating painfully against the breastbone and breath burned Alex’s throat. The voice receded slightly. “That’s right, keep going. You can do it.”

“Do what?” Alex asked out loud, coughing as the words jolted breathing. There was no response. S/he continued to run down the path as fast as s/he could. One knee started to twinge painfully and the muscles at the back of their legs felt tight and sore. But as s/he thought about slowing down, an echo of the voice whispered persistently and s/he forced her legs to move more quickly. This was a different kind of running: a paradox of choice and compulsion. It was Alex’s body, their decision to keep moving and s/he knew that s/he could walk if s/he wanted to but something was urging them to keep running even though it was painful and muscles were seizing with exertion. And then suddenly, the feeling changed as though someone had switched off the sense of pain. S/he was no longer sore; s/he ran as though detached from the body and Alex’s legs moved automatically. S/he was floating above the body, sensing rather than feeling its movement. Time slowed to irrelevance; s/he barely noticed the sun begin to stain the horizon and shadows lengthened through the trees. The voice was silent.

The path opened suddenly into a clearing and Alex stopped abruptly, looking around. In the middle of the clearing was a table set with a multitude of mugs, teapots and plates, many of which were chipped or broken. The table itself appeared lopsided, as though one of its legs had broken. Sitting at the head of the table was a very tall man with a large top hat. Alex approached him nervously. He didn’t seem to acknowledge Alex’s presence and poured hot liquid which s/he guessed to be tea into one of the mugs. It seeped out of one the many cracks, trickling slowly across the table but the man didn’t seem to notice. He took out a newspaper and began to read. Alex stood by the table awkwardly, unsure of what to do. S/he didn’t want to interrupt him, but didn’t want him to notice is s/he walked away. S/he began to feel slightly nauseous and the mind seemed stuck on the question of whether to go or stay. And then the voice spoke in Alex’s head, sounding angry, “Stupid girl. Why didn’t you keep running?” Alex wanted to turn and run but their legs seemed to have seized up and s/he couldn’t move. S/he realised s/he was shaking and sweat trickled down their back as s/he stared at the scene, trying to focus on the table in front of her. Alex’s vision blurred and s/he felt floaty once again, as though their mind had levitated above the body. Part of Alex wanted the voice to speak again, to give instructions or reassurance but it had gone. S/he pinched their arm hard in case s/he was stuck in a strange dream, but nothing happened. The sharp pinch brought Alex suddenly back to the forest, and s/he could see the table clearly again although in Alex’s mind, s/he was still seemed stuck on the same dilemma.

And then, the man spoke. “Did I invite you to my tea party?”

Alex jumped, heart thumping erratically. “Wh-what?”

“Did I invite you?” the man repeated, sounding impatient. “You arrived from who knows where into my personal space, and I can’t remember if I was expecting anyone or not.”

“Um, no,” s/he answered, confused. Alex’s voice didn’t seem to work properly and s/he could only manage a squeak.

The man looked frustrated. “Well, if you don’t want to stay for tea-“

“No, I do!” Alex was surprised with the sudden eagerness and flushed crimson. S/he breathed deeply to try to calm her thoughts.

“Well, sit down then,” said the man irritably. Alex sat at the opposite end of the table, feeling more awkward than before. The man poured out some more tea, and pushed a mug towards Alex who took a sip, hands still shaking. “Who are you?”

Alex sighed in frustration. “I don’t bloody know. Who are you?”

“It’s rude to answer a question with a question.” The man seemed offended. Alex went red and apologised quickly. “Don’t worry. Just tell me something about yourself.”

“My name’s Alex,” Alex said, uncertainly.

“Well, that’s a start,” replied the man. He picked up a plate of flapjacks and handed one to Alex. S/he took it and put it on a plate. “Where are you from? And what are you doing here?”

“I don’t know,” Alex answered. The man looked annoyed again. “I mean, I know where I used to live- I lived in a town by the sea but it’s so different from here that part of me thinks I might have imagined it. You know, like a dream that you don’t know if it’s real or not.”

“OK,” said the man. “I’ll go with that. But if you can remember it then it must have been real for you at some point, even if that time was in your head. Time’s not very reliable anyway. One of the most temperamental people I have ever met.”

“People?” asked Alex, surprised. “What do you mean?”

“Time is a person, of course,” replied the man, looking at Alex as though s/he was stupid. “Did you believe all that rubbish about time being something abstract and permanent? That’s just a concept made up by people to regulate a world they don’t understand.”

Alex was amazed. “So, have you actually met Time?”

“Unfortunately for me, yes,” replied the man. Alex stared at him in amazement. “He’s not a nice person. Not always constant, has his favourites and can change faster than the sun can rise. People are unreliable, and Time is no exception. I offended him once by mistake, and his punishment is to keep time for me at always 6 o’clock- tea time. Days pass but time stays the same. So I’m stuck drinking tea and reading the same newspaper for eternity.”

“Well, at least you’ll never get old,” Alex remarked.

The man didn’t look impressed. “Can’t do anything else either.” He sighed, picked up his tea and took a sip. “But let’s not dwell on that. You were going to tell me why you are here.”

“I…I…think it’s safe here.” Alex stopped suddenly, shocked at the words which seemed to come from somewhere outside of their thoughts. The man stared intently. “I mean, compared to the outside world, or whatever isn’t this forest. Here, it’s strange and changing but it’s constant somehow, like everything has a reason. In the other world, nothing does- it’s all random and nothing seems to make sense.”

“That doesn’t sound like a very nice place to be,” the man replied, looking at Alex so intently it was though he was trying to see into the mind. “But there, time is constant?”

“Yes,” Alex answered, “it’s about the only thing that is.” She took another sip of tea. “Even if it is a concept that’s made up, it works. And actually, I think I kind of knew that already- timetables and routine are human constructs made to structure what would otherwise be chaos. But that’s not a bad thing- the construct, I mean. If it works for you, what’s the problem?”

The man didn’t answer and stirred his tea before looking up at Alex. “Everything changes,” he replied. “You can’t rely on anything. Not even something you made up yourself.”

“But if it’s in your head…” Alex started.

The man looked at her disbelievingly. “Don’t believe everything you think.” Alex stared, confused. “The only thing that’s real for you is the present moment,” he continued, “and even that isn’t infallible. Be careful, especially around here. If you’re here for the reason I think you are…”

“And why’s that?” asked Alex desperately. The man didn’t reply and s/he banged her mug down angrily. Tea splashed over the table but the man didn’t flinch. “Who are you, anyway?”

“I’m a hatter,” replied the man. “Some people say I’m mad but I’m not, and I don’t like that word anyway. There’s no such thing as madness, especially somewhere like here. But all I do is drink tea and read the same paper, so from other people’s perspectives, that seems strange and therefore mad. But can you judge a person by their situation?” Alex didn’t reply. “A bit like you, really.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” s/he asked, angrily. The hatter looked at Alex intently again and s/he poured another cup of tea to distract from his stare. Then s/he suddenly remembered something. “Who’s the Red Queen?”

The hatter stiffened and concentrated on stirring his tea. “I have no idea.” He sipped his tea purposefully and looked at Alex. “Have another flapjack.”

“I don’t want one, thanks,” Alex said, determined to get some sort of answer. “Anyway, I haven’t had one yet so I can’t have another. And I’m not hungry anyway- I haven’t been since I came to this place. That’s another weird thing. And time seems to slow down and speed up, and sometimes I’m all over the place and others it’s like I’m part of the weird structure and I’m meant to be here. I don’t get it. And I’m sure the Red Queen’s a major part of it but I don’t know why.”

“Maybe you already know,” replied the hatter, avoiding Alex’s gaze. “Or maybe you don’t need to. Do you have to understand everything?”

“Well, understanding something would help,” said Alex, starting to feel more frustrated.

“But I thought you said that Wonderland made more sense than your other world,” commented the hatter. Alex stayed silent. “How can something make sense and not make sense at the same time?”

“I- I don’t know.” Alex was confused. “It’s not that it doesn’t made sense here- there’s definitely something that, I don’t know, sort of regulates things but I don’ know what it is. It’s safe and not safe at the same time. Safe because there’s some sort of logic to it but not safe as well because I don’t know what that logic is and it seems to change all the time.”

The hatter didn’t speak for a moment and Alex felt suddenly shy and awkward. Then he looked directly again. “You like running.”

“Um, I think so,” Alex answered, feeling more confused. “At least, I think I do. I hadn’t really thought about it properly before I came here.”

“Have you heard of Achilles and the tortoise?” asked the hatter. Alex shook their head. “It’s about a race between Achilles, who’s a very fast runner, and a tortoise who is obviously slow. To be more fair, Achilles gives the tortoise a head start of a hundred metres. Who will win the race?”

“Achilles, obviously,“ said Alex, thrown by the sudden change of subject, “unless the race is only about a hundred metres long.”

“It’s definitely a lot longer,” replied the hatter. “Let’s assume they both run at a constant rate and neither of them stops. So for every hundred metres Achilles runs, the tortoise covers ten metres. Correct?”

“Yes,” answered Alex, trying to keep up.

“But every time Achilles runs ten metres, the tortoise has moved further ahead, even if by only a small amount. Yes?” Alex nodded. “So Achilles can never catch him up.”

Alex’s brain spun with confusion and s/he tried to make sense of it. “Well, yes, logically there’s an infinite number of half-distances so you’d have to cover that before you actually get there so OK, logically he can never catch up. But he would, in real life.”

“Why?” asked the hatter. “Isn’t logic part of life?”

Alex thought for a moment. “No,” s/he answered finally. “I wish it was, but it isn’t. Things have meanings that change and depend on situations and interpretations- everyone’s different and no two people see the world the same way. So logic can’t always apply. But it’s still the safest way of thinking about things.”

“So for Achilles, his perception of running would be different to the tortoise’s?” asked the hatter. “So you can’t really compare the two?”

“Not exactly,” replied Alex thoughtfully. “Just that you need to look at the bigger situation, not just the distance. But logic is cool; it makes you think about things in two different ways at the same time and that’s definitely a good thing.”

“Well done,” said the hatter. Alex looked at him in surprise. “Keep that way of thinking- it’s the only way you’ll survive in Wonderland. So how does that work in your situation?”

“What do you mean?” asked Alex, feeling as though time had shifted again.

“How does it apply to you?” continued the hatter. “As a person, and in running. Because running’s obviously a part of being here, for you anyway. It could save you or it could keep you trapped here- that depends on you.”

“I don’t understand,” said Alex slowly.

“I think you do,” replied the hatter, “or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Just don’t forget it. Wonderland’s a dangerous place. Nothing is exactly as it seems, everything has simultaneous meanings- just like Achilles and the tortoise. Don’t trust anything you perceive, think or feel. Especially what you think- there are people here who can twist your thoughts without you even realising. Everything you see will change; that’s the nature of the world we’re in. And sometimes you won’t even notice until it’s too late. Stay aware and keep reminding yourself of who you are. Don’t lose yourself in the vortex.”

Alex didn’t reply, not sure how to react. “But, I think I want to be here,” s/he answered, slowly. “Or, maybe not want exactly, I don’t think you can want something if you don’t know about it already. But it feels safer here, weirdly, than the other world. Less confusing, and less chance of messing things up. I don’t think you can mess things up here- there’s no expectations or hidden agendas, or people who don’t tell you what they’re thinking until it’s too late. There’s a sort of structure or rules underlying Wonderland that feel safe and even if they do change, they’re always logical. And I feel different here too- calmer, and more in control. Which is definitely a good thing.”

“Be careful,” said the hatter, staring at her intently. “Keep hold of your self.”

“But-“ Alex started, and then stopped abruptly. S/he felt threatened, as though the hatter was trying to take something away from her, or stop Alex from progressing through the forest. And then s/he knew that s/he wanted to go, the urge sudden and intense. A harsh anger flashed across Alex’s eyes and the hatter flinched instinctively. “I know what I’m doing.” The hatter continued to stare and s/he avoided his eyes. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m fine; I know what to do. Just leave me alone.”

Alex’s eyes shone with a fervent intensity that s/he had never displayed before, at once guarded and fanatical. The words seemed to come from a part of the psyche that s/he had never expressed before, something hidden that s/he somehow knew had always been there but s/he had never realised before. It was something powerful that permeated the membrane of consciousness, not-quite-known in the recesses of Alex’s mind like a silhouette of something much more intense. Something sharp and clear as icicles, and just as cold. But s/he knew that it was on the same side, that it would protect them from whatever dangers or chaos were in her path or even in Alex’s own self. It wasn’t trust exactly but s/he knew s/he could rely on the force, whatever it was, although sometimes s/he feared it too, was scared of its obsessive control and merciless power. But this was part of the self, and s/he didn’t want to lose it. This was safety.

S/he turned and walked back into the forest and away from the hatter. Anger still burned in Alex’s throat and s/he was shaking uncontrollably, face hot and sweat trickling down the spine. S/he didn’t know where the rage had come from and s/he felt odd, slightly detached from the surroundings and Alex’s brain seemed clouded and slowed down. Thoughts merged and s/he couldn’t distinguish one from another; they crowded her mind and ears started to ring as though s/he were underwater. S/he couldn’t see straight and the trees swayed into shadows, blurred into fog of muffled sounds and shapes. Alex felt frozen and feverish at the same time.

And then suddenly, the voice came again. “Run.” Alex jumped and their heart jolted painfully. S/he started to run, awkward and shaky at first but soon mind and muscles loosened and s/he could see more clearly, running through the darkened shadows of the trees. The sun had set completely and s/he could see stars prickling the night sky. The surge that shook Alex’s body and mind had dissipated; s/he still felt shaky and slightly nauseous but thoughts were clearer now and s/he could move more freely although s/he felt totally exhausted, as though the brain surge had drained her energy. As s/he ran, the shakiness subsided and s/he felt real and connected once again, breathing in the night. The voice spoke again through in Alex’s ear. “Run faster.” Alex’s heart jarred in her chest and a rush of guilty nausea flooded their stomach. S/he forced legs to move more quickly, feeling the strain in leg muscles. Alex’s throat seared with sharp breath and pain shot through their feet. S/he ran faster still; hardly aware of the surroundings, s/he pounded the night with a jarring rhythm. “That’s better,” the voice continued. “You don’t have to enjoy it.” The voice didn’t scare Alex anymore; it seemed as much a part of the surroundings as the trees and the path s/he was following. S/he carried on running, felt the nausea seep from the body with each footstep and s/he forced legs to keep moving. Soon, s/he hardly knew she was running at all; the forest blurred a heavy blackness and the air hung thick with anticipation. It wasn’t pleasant or unpleasant. S/he ran as though slightly detached from the body, moving automatically. S/he didn’t really feel anything at all. And then, once again, s/he ran into a mirror.

This mirror seemed a lot more solid than the one s/he had seen earlier. Its metal frame was all angles and sharp edges, and the glass itself seemed crystal clear. S/he leaned in closer, and the reflection appeared once again. It appeared different but s/he wasn’t sure why, and Alex didn’t like it; s/he felt nauseous and uncomfortable, and had a sudden urge to hit, scream or kick. S/he kept silent, trying not to look into the mirror.

“How’s your running?” asked her reflection. It wasn’t a query- more of a confrontation, and Alex jumped back.

“OK,” s/he replied. S/he wasn’t sure what the reflection meant. “Why are you here? I thought you’d gone.”

“Gone where?” The reflection sounded almost mocking and Alex felt suddenly uncomfortable, vertigo dizzying their body and guilt surging inexplicably through veins. The reflection stared straight at Alex and s/he had the horrible impression that it was looking right into the mind. “I can’t go unless you go. I’m your reflection, remember? Although you don’t seem to have been paying much attention to me at the moment.”

“What do you mean?” asked Alex, confused and scared. “How have I not been paying attention? You’re just a reflection.”

Just a reflection,” repeated the reflection quietly. “I’m a reflection of you. I’m your perception of yourself.” Alex didn’t reply. “That is, if you’ve worked out who you are.”

“I don’t know!” shouted Alex, surprised with the force of her voice. “How am I supposed to know? There isn’t a me anyway. I don’t want to be me.”

“How can you know you don’t want to be you if you don’t think there’s a you in the first place?” asked the reflection. Alex stayed silent. “Maybe you need to decide who you want to be.”

“But how can I do that?” asked Alex, frustrated. “I can’t change other people’s perceptions, and that’s what matters really. Doesn’t really matter whatever you actually are- you could be the most amazing person in the world but if people saw you as, I don’t know, selfish or horrible or something, then you may as well be.”

The reflection looked at Alex directly again and s/he felt its gaze penetrating the mind. S/he looked up at the distant stars through the network of branches. The reflection spoke again. “I think you know what you need to do.” Alex didn’t look down. “Listen to what your mind is telling you. Do whatever you need to do.”

“Whose side are you on, anyway?” Alex felt angry again. “It’s like everyone here is against me and I don’t know where I’m going. I really don’t get it, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. All you’re doing is confusing me, and making me feel bad.”

“I’m your reflection,” the reflection repeated. “I’m how you see yourself. And if you don’t like it, maybe you need to change.”

Alex looked at the reflection. It shimmered in the darkness, not fully visible, but what s/he could distinguish made her feel uncomfortable and s/he shivered. There was something unfamiliar about it, dominant and greedy, and s/he flinched. Its edges curved through the shadowed trees, in and out of focus as though it were ever-present and dangerously pervasive. A sudden urge to hit, scratch or bite tensed Alex’s body. Eyes narrowed, the body trembled inexplicably. S/he felt fingernails digging into their hands and s/he had a sudden image of lashing out at the reflection, scratching nails down its face in scarlet streaks. The thought scared Alex and s/he clenched fists tighter, biting the tongue and trying not to react. S/he shook with hotness and eyes burned with unexpected tears.

“I hate you!” s/he shouted, scared with intensity. “I really hate you! You’re such a stupid, annoying thing and I wish you’d just disappear and leave me alone. You’re not me. You’re, I don’t know, a weird freak who thinks it’s OK to question and confuse people. It’s your fault I’m here and now I don’t know who I am or where I’m going. I just want to get rid of you.”

The reflection didn’t respond. It hovered in the trees, watching Alex. Sweat trickled down Alex’s spine as s/he glared back, still shaking. Then s/he turned and ran through the trees as fast as s/he could. Footsteps pounded the forest floor aggressively and the shadows seemed to close in, oppressive and heavy, choking Alex’s lungs. S/he could feel their heart in their throat and blackness hazed across eyes. Still s/he ran, pushing the body harder through the forest. It wasn’t Alex running anymore; something external seemed to be motivating to keep moving, a paradox of fluid movement and frozen velocity. Something that gave Alex power as long as s/he was submissive to its indirect control. Control that, deep down, s/he wanted to give because it seemed easier, freer somehow. It’s strange how easily you get caught in the bell curve of control, swinging from one side to the other like a pendulum of emotion. Alex hardly noticed the burning feeling in their legs as s/he ran; pain overwhelmed to numbness and the mind spun an oxymoron of thoughts, building and whirling until they merged into white light that flashed across Alex’s vision. S/he ran as though distanced from the body, hardly aware of where s/he was going. The now-familiar voice spoke again. “Don’t you feel better now?”

Alex stopped, looked wildly around but there were only trees and shadows. The voice whispered insistently. “Don’t bother looking for me; you’ll know when you’re ready.”

“Know what?” Alex asked out loud. There was no reply. All s/he could hear was the rustle of leaves and muffled noises that s/he assumed were creatures hidden in the trees. And then the voice spoke again.

“Why have you stopped? Don’t you realise you’re almost there?” It seemed different now, harsh and close as though it were right inside Alex’s skull. S/he ran. Heart burned in their chest, beating hard and irregular like a desperate prisoner trying to escape. Alex’s legs shook as s/he forced them to move. As s/he ran, she felt the tremor of over-exertion vibrate the body and muscles felt stiff and weak. This wasn’t like the running s/he was used to; this was something completely different, something out of Alex’s control but somehow seemed the only way to get out of the chaos of Wonderland. S/he kept running, hating every moment but knowing instinctively that it was the only thing to do. The voice whispered in Alex’s head, encouraging with veiled threats. S/he felt safer, more calm now that the voice seemed to be content with the efforts and s/he ran harder. The pain seemed to ground her, sited in a body which was the only known reality and control. S/he felt a lightness s/he hadn’t felt before, a detached sort of purity, connection with the world around. For the first time, s/he felt like something had settled inside and the vertigo that had overwhelmed Alex since before s/he’d even entered Wonderland had dissipated. It was an amazing feeling and s/he ran with a sudden rush of energy, high on a paradox of emptiness and fulfilment. The voice stayed silent but s/he could sense its approval pulsing through the body. It was inside Alex now, a part of their thoughts or maybe it had been all along. S/he ran on and on, lost in a world of hazy relief and detachment.

Have you ever been in a haze so strong that the boundaries between sleep and waking blur in a semi-permeable membrane of dream feeling? It’s a state where feelings in dreams seem stronger than in reality and it’s hard to tell which is which. Alex wasn’t sure if Wonderland was a dream or if s/he’d just dreamed her life before entering the forest. And did it really matter? As s/he ran through the trees, the constant present of the run overwhelmed the senses and it felt like s/he existed only in a dreamstate of connection to the forest, as though if the cycles of nature were broken, s/he too would cease to exist. S/he was running; s/he understood it now. She felt as though running made the self whole, gave it some sort of meaning. Running was existence. And yet s/he could never reach an endpoint; the goal was fluid, shifting further and further and Alex’s mind slipped relatively. S/he was an existence of perspectives like the mirrors in a funhouse, never knowing which was real. The body was language as the mind was trapped in the limitations of perception and the voice seemed to have forgotten words. The only communication came from the voice inside Alex’s head, at once commanding and reassuring. As long as s/he did what it said, s/he was safe.

Alex’s mind was still and consciousness sharp as she ran down the forest path. S/he gradually became aware that the surroundings were changing; the sky was getting lighter and a morning heat haze hovered above the ground. The stillness permeated Alex’s consciousness, increased the sense of connection to the forest and s/he breathed the humidity of the morning. It was the half-light you only see if you’ve been up all night and Alex felt more surreal, as though s/he had run straight through a fairy tale and was still running. S/he wondered vaguely why s/he wasn’t tired but it felt natural just to keep running. The trees and plants around were also different; red flowers like Venus fly traps grew between tropical-looking bushes and the trees were a mixture of yew and elder, old and strong.   The ground beneath was rusty and rich with moisture. Alex felt uncomfortable, as though their cold, detached body did not belong in the luxurious warmth of this new part of the forest. The voice spoke again, cutting through the discomfort. “You’re nearly there now. Just keep running- don’t stop. You’re past all that now.” Alex ran on, thoughts clashing to a blur of renewed blankness. S/he breathed in the energy from the trees and kept running.

The voice whispered continuously, reassuring and constant. If s/he slowed slightly, it would turn slightly menacing but as soon as the fear began to register in Alex’s slowed mind, it became gentle and encouraging once again. It was their only companion but it was all that s/he needed. It was as much Alex’s thoughts as the mind was; the difference being that it guided Alex and kept them safe. It helped Alex to see how dangerous a chaotic mind could be and the effect of thoughts on unchecked emotions. Now, s/he was free of the chaos of feelings and thoughts were strict and controlled. Just keep running. The voice made sure s/he did not slip from the path and s/he obeyed with a faith stronger than any s/he had felt before. It was a part of the self, the only part s/he could rely on totally and s/he didn’t want to lose its security. It made Alex free to be Alex without the usual selfishness of being and s/he valued that beyond anything else. S/he felt as though s/he had a direction, something to aim for that was constant in its unattainability. S/he knew s/he’d never get there; that wasn’t the point. The only way to succeed was to literally run the self away, run until s/he or the world disappeared. And until then, running was enough.

As s/he ran, the voice grew stronger and more tangible. At times, s/he thought s/he could see it, a shadow in the trees but it never materialised. And then suddenly, it was there in front of her. A tall woman wearing a dark red cloak and a silver crown studded with rubies. Even before the woman spoke, Alex knew that it was she who had been speaking to her through the forest. There was a chill to her in contrast to the surroundings and her black eyes were cold. Her impassive stare seemed to cut straight through Alex’s flesh and s/he stopped running abruptly. The woman’s dark hair hung straight around her white face and her dress was pure blood. There was a sinister sort of symmetry to her body; her face seemed too perfect, her skin flawless and her clothes pristine and balanced. She stood, tall and thin and still as a china doll but without its delicacy. This woman was as strong as the forces of logic and just as arcane. She was very beautiful. She stood perfectly still, looking directly into Alex’s eyes. And then she spoke.

“So you made it here,” she said and Alex flinched as the familiar voice came from the woman’s mouth. S/he didn’t reply. “Well done. That’s half the battle won already. But here is the important part. Now you need to decide if you’re really willing to commit.”

“What do you mean?” asked Alex, voice broken with lack of use. The woman smiled but her eyes stayed cold.

“I’m offering you an apprenticeship. I’m the Red Queen and I control this world. I have the power to trap anyone who enters, either by choice, curiosity or stupidity. But I don’t just want anyone. To stay here, you need to be special.” Alex looked up at the Red Queen who was still smiling. “You can do it. I know you can.   You’re different from the others, stronger and more controlled. Look how well you’re doing already. You know the truth. You understand the pull of equilibrium, the importance that the world stays in balance. You have control.”

Alex still didn’t answer, avoiding the woman’s gaze. S/he felt a strange attraction, as though this woman held the key to the disjointed world s/he was living. Thoughts began to press through the blankness of the mind and s/he focussed intently, trying to work out what s/he should do. “I- I- I’m not sure,” she said, body starting to shake uncontrollably. The Red Queen’s eyes flashed.

“What do you mean, you’re not sure?” she said, her voice cutting Alex like knives through a mermaid’s tail. Alex flinched and their heart stung with pain. It was as though the woman could somehow read their mind and wound without moving. “How can you not be sure? Don’t you realise what I’m offering you? This is it, pure control of your mind, body and emotions and the chance to lead others to the same salvation. How could you even think of turning it down?”

Alex’s thoughts raced a battle with the Red Queen’s; s/he could feel the inner conflict tormenting their body. S/he had the sudden urge to run. Not the Red Queen’s harsh, precise strides but real running, the freedom of long distances and varying speed and absolute connection. S/he turned to face the Red Queen, focussing the mind hard on thoughts that s/he knew were their own. “I like to run.”

“Good,” said the Red Queen. “Running is good, it keeps you safe. Just make sure you’re focussing on the outcomes- don’t just run for the sake of it. Keep it strict, controlled and limited.”

Alex felt their mind slip to the Red Queen’s gravity and s/he forced it back, intent on keeping their own thoughts. “That- that’s not running,” s/he managed, coughing with the effort. The Red Queen glared.

“Of course it’s running,” she replied coldly. “It’s exactly what running is: scientific and precise.”

Alex’s thoughts pulled further from their mind and s/he began to feel dizzy. “No, it’s not,” s/he gasped as their throat started to seize up. Their body was still shaking violently and s/he dug fingernails into their arm to ground in the body, breathing deeply and forcing nails into flesh. “It’s not running. It’s- it’s- it’s like running but it’s not. Running is free. It’s a way to express yourself, to develop and to escape in a way which grounds you. It’s not forced, or painful, or restricted. Running is what you want it to be.” As s/he spoke, Alex’s thoughts grew clearer. The Red Queen stood still, her silhouette sharp in the lightening forest. She did not look beautiful anymore; her face seemed unnaturally perfect and her eyes were cold as onyx. Her skin was so pale that Alex shivered and her angular frame cut shadows across the forest floor.

“So what do you want?” she asked, her voice steady and calm. She looked directly into Alex’s eyes and her gaze penetrated deep into Alex’s body. Alex felt an intense fusion of feelings; one part was desperate to accept the Red Queen’s offer and stay forever in the safety of Wonderland with its logic and rules but there was another feeling too, a growing sense of uncertainty and doubt. S/he knew what s/he thought s/he wanted, but suddenly s/he wasn’t sure it was really Alex who was doing the wanting. All s/he knew for certain was that s/he wanted to run– really run with no boundaries or restrictions. S/he wanted to be, to feel the oneness with the world around and their place in it. Alex wanted to be real.

“I want to run,” s/he replied, returning the Red Queen’s gaze. “I want to just run, not for any reason or goals. I want to get lost in the run and find who I really am.”

“I thought you already knew that,” said the Red Queen in a measured tone. “Haven’t I shown you how to be yourself, in a safe and controlled way? Why would you want to throw all that hard work away?”

Alex didn’t reply, still feeling the clash of emotion inside. “Because…because that isn’t me,” s/he answered finally. “I wanted it to be, and I thought it was and maybe it is, partly, but it’s not real. It’s false and restricted and I want to be more than that. It’s a half-life, a safe existence but nothing else. And I want to live.”

“Since when have you bothered about reality?” asked the Red Queen harshly. “What does that matter? You’re live in your mind and body; that’s all that matters. And that’s the control I’m offering you. Control of your whole world.”

“But it’s not!” shouted Alex, surprised once again with the force of her words. “That’s not all there is. It’s all you can know, yes, but there’s a whole world out there. And I want to feel it, not just see from a detached point of view. I want to explore, to run and to feel. And maybe that’s not safe but that’s life.”

“You’re making a big mistake,” replied the Red Queen. “Once you leave, you can never come back. You’re putting your own selfishness over your own safety and you’ll regret it. You’re giving your greed and laziness a chance to grow unchecked, to take over your mind and body and you won’t even realise it. Without restrictions and rules, you’ll be as selfish as you always have been. Only I can offer you salvation from that.”

Alex’s head spun a vortex of vertigo and their body shook more violently than ever. Then s/he turned and ran through the trees, feet hitting the earth hard and arms swinging a powerful rhythm. The Red Queen’s voice rang in Alex’s ears but s/he didn’t pay any attention to it, running as fast as s/he could. After a while, s/he noticed that the forest was dark green and leafy once again, and the sun had fully risen. Alex’s thoughts had calmed and muscles ached comfortingly. S/he slowed her pace, breathing the forest air and relaxing into the run. This was running, the way her footsteps beat the rhythm of the trees and the mind flowed freely. Awareness of every moment, recognising thoughts but never judging or dwelling on them. The freedom of fluidity. A spectrum of feeling and sensation.

It’s strange, the way the mind wanders during a long run. It’s almost as though it’s released somehow, untethered from the limits of the body and free to explore in a way that would be impossible in the prison of flesh. Alex felt lighter, more liberated, running as though s/he were flying. S/he breathed the dark stillness of the forest’s night air which seemed to purify her from within. Her vision blurred in the darkness but it didn’t seem to matter; s/he ran on, light and smooth. The voice did not speak but s/he knew it was still there, dormant in her brain while the mind flew through the trees. What is a body? The physical manifestation of the spirit, a collection of atoms animated through consciousness, a fluid becoming of selfness, a sculpture to be moulded into an identity, an illusion, science, life, God, energy…the possibilities seemed to dance in the shadows of the run. The only real thought that stuck in Alex’s mind as s/he ran was the freedom, the temporary escape from the physicality of the self. The irony of losing sense of actual bodiness through motion, as though the blurred movement of the body made it somehow less solid and limiting. The lack of conscious awareness of the self, calm connection to the outside world. An escape from the insistent heaviness of flesh. Fluidity of movement. Even years after s/he left Wonderland, that was the feeling s/he missed: the intoxication of limitlessness.

Every story needs an ending. Alex knew s/he had to exit Wonderland sometime, leave behind the vertigo and detachment and surreal safety that comes with escaping the real world. But few people can stay there permanently; only those who wish only to live a life of shadow and illusion or worse, have lost sight of the physical world altogether, absent in a haze of dissociated coldness. Those are the people to pity and to admire, a semi-living paradox of existence and non-existence. The personification of desperate control. Alex was not one of those people. S/he knew, even through the warped logic of the Red Queen, that s/he could not stay there forever.   But the route out of Wonderland isn’t straightforward. It’s a three steps forward, two steps back, hop over a river and fall off a stepping stone, get back up and battle through the thorns sort of journey. Sometimes you think you’ve made it but there’s always a pull back to the forest hidden in many forms. Alex knew s/he had to stay vigilant, and keep running.

When do you truly leave Wonderland? Is it when you leave the rabbit hole and negotiate the knarled adolescent forest alone? Or do you need to break free from the forest completely before you can know for certain that you’ve escaped? And once you’ve been there, it’s impossible to forget. Most people think that once the marks of Wonderland- the distant not-quite-there haze across the eyes and the intense obsession- have gone, you’re free. Alex knew different. Even years after s/he’d left the forest, the voice of the Red Queen still whispered in their thoughts, trying to pull Alex back. Some people manage to block it and they’re lucky. Others, like Alex, learn not to ignore it but to listen, accept and disregard. Ignoring her only makes her angry, her voice more insistent and anyway, it’s rude. The key is acceptance, both of the Red Queen and your own thoughts and feelings. The body speaks much, much louder than words and it’s up to you how you communicate.

Everyone’s journey through Wonderland is different, and so is each route out of the maze of paths and possibilities that ultimately lead to only two choices: to stay or to leave. And it’s your choice. Don’t let the Red Queen decide for you. It’s your life.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2016, Part One: HARRY POTTER

This was up in the library at college this week and I thought it was AMAZING.  As any regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a massive Harry Potter fan and I think there is so much in the Harry Potter series which is relevant and useful for mental health awareness and management.  So that’s what I’m going to focus this blog post on, and I’m also going to write another post later on in the week about relationships which is the focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK.

The obvious link between the Harry Potter series and mental health issues is the one most people know about- Dementors being a sort of metaphor for depression.  This is something J.K. Rowling has said herself, and it’s probably the idea that most people reading Harry Potter can relate to because even people who haven’t experienced clinical depression can relate to feeling low, sad or numb.  When I first read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban aged 12, the Dementor on the train terrified me and I couldn’t listen to that part of the audiobook going to sleep because it really freaked me out and I would see Dementors behind the curtains in my bedroom or hovering by the ceiling.  Lupin describes them to Harry as “among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself- soulless and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”  This is very close to how a lot of people experience depression- soulless, numb, drained, only able to think of negative thoughts and experiences…

At the time when I first read about Dementors, it scared me how close that was to how I sometimes felt and was weirdly comforting that Harry experienced something very similar when a lot of his classmates weren’t as affected by them and the idea of a Patronus (a charm to fight Dementors) fascinated me.  It’s only recently that I’ve started to actually use the Patronus idea after seeing a psychologist last year who suggested using imagery to respond to the bitch in my head, and I’m finding that the concept of a Patronus (focussing intensely on a positive feeling or memory and trying to channel that against negative thoughts and feelings) is actually kind of useful, especially when I link it to Occlumency which I’m going to talk about later on in this post.  I didn’t really know what depression was when I first read PoA but I could relate to it intensely and I think that the recognition of Dementors and Patronuses really helped prevent it from becoming too overwhelming when I was a teenager.

There are so many other concepts in Harry Potter that could be relevant to and potentially useful for mental health issues.  One of the main ones for me is Occlumency- the ability to close your mind to external penetration of thoughts or emotions.  I don’t hear voices or experience thought insertion or anything that someone with psychosis could experience on a daily basis but I do have a ‘bitch in my head’ who criticises me, shouts and makes me feel guilty all the time and I’ve found it really useful to think of it in a similar way to how Voldemort alters Harry’s thoughts and feelings.  I’ve been practising Occlumency- trying to clear my mind of thoughts and emotions before going to sleep at night, and it makes it easier to try not the let the bitch have full access to my thoughts and feelings during the day.  It’s really hard and often she gets in before I’ve even had time to try to prevent her, but focussing on Occlumency and really imagining my mind closing to her influence and stopping her from accessing emotions has started to be helpful in reducing how affected I feel by what she’s saying.  I think that, like with Voldemort, I can’t stop her from trying to access my mind but I can try to make my mind more resistant to penetration and that’s the whole idea of Occlumency.

As a teenager, I really identified with Luna Lovegood as a character.  When I first ‘met’ her in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I was 16 and having a lot of social issues at school- I didn’t fit in with my year group, most of my friends were several years younger than me, I was a bit ‘weird’…  Discovering Luna was amazing because it was like meeting myself in a book, and I really identified with so much of her ‘weirdness’ and social awkwardness.  I also loved how she didn’t seem affected by what other people thought of her and really wanted to be more like that.  There are a few moments especially which really get to me.  When her things have been taken near the end of OotP and she says “I think I’ll just go down and have some pudding and wait for it all to turn up – it always does in the end”, it makes me feel really weird and guilty because she’s so used to people taking  her things that she’s not even upset about it any more.

The quote that really, really gets to me is when she says to Harry, “I enjoyed the meetings, too. It was like having friends.”  I can totally relate to that- one of the reasons I worked with kids so much as a teenager was because it made me feel like I had friends, and when we see Luna’s bedroom in Deathly Hallows the description made me cry the first time I read it: “Luna had decorated her bedroom ceiling with five beautifully painted faces: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Neville. They were not moving as the portraits at Hogwarts moved, but there was a certain magic about them all the same: Harry thought they breathed. What appeared to be fine golden chains wove around the pictures, linking them together, but after examining them for a minute or so, Harry realised that the chains were actually one word, repeated a thousand times in golden ink: friends … friends … friends …”  Friends are so important to Luna and people don’t realise that about her.  When Harry invites her to Slughorn’s party as his friend, her reaction of “Oh, no, I’d love to go with you as friends!  Nobody’s ever asked me to a party before, as a friend!” really shows how much it means to her.  She’s the nicest and kindest character in the whole series but people tend to miss that because she’s a bit ‘different’ and doesn’t try to fit in.  I’m sure a lot of pre-teens/teenagers have related to and learned from her as a character, growing up.

There’s a lot in Harry Potter about identity too, which I’m not going to go into too much detail about because it could be a dissertation in itself (and was, actually, during my undergrad year…).  There are different aspects of identity- self identity, perceived identity, social identity, physical identity and so many more, and they’re almost all referenced in some way in the Harry Potter series.  I think the most relevant aspects to mental health are the ideas of split identity- Voldemort’s Horcruxes and how it relates to Harry, and Harry’s self identity.  I don’t want to write too much about this because I’ve never experienced full dissociation or alters but I think that the idea of Voldemort splitting his soul into seven pieces is significant for someone experiencing dissociative identity disorder, especially in the context of part of that soul being a part of Harry.  The whole idea really scares me and I was terrified of reading DH at night for years, but the idea of a part of a person’s soul being in another person really is terrifying.  Voldemort’s influence in Harry’s thoughts could work as a metaphor for psychosis (thought insertion, thought disorder, hallucinations, delusional beliefs…) and the whole idea is so scary.  But I also think that ‘externalising’ psychoses as something like Voldemort trying to infiltrate thoughts and feelings could actually be helpful in trying to manage it.  Obviously I have no idea since I have never *touch wood* experienced psychosis but it’s definitely helped me to manage obsessive or paranoid thoughts, and reduce the influence from the bitch in my head.

Paranoia is also a prominent theme in the later Harry Potter books, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who found this weirdly reassuring given the parallel rise of paranoia in the world in general after 9/11 which also happened to be the year that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was released and Voldemort finally returned.  Coincidence but (to me, aged 14 anyway) a really, really scary one.  Alastor Moody is the classic example in Harry Potter of someone who’s overly aware of attackers but most of the characters experience paranoia to some extent, particularly after the battle in the Department of Mysteries.  The part that’s more important to me though is Harry’s own paranoia about Dumbledore in OotP.  He’s worried about Dumbledore ignoring him and when he isn’t chosen as Prefect, that reinforces his growing paranoia that Dumbledore isn’t talking to him.  This fear grows throughout the book, and he fixates on it as he worries and gets more and more upset.  As someone who’s often fixated on the idea that someone isn’t talking to me, I could totally relate to this and it was so comforting to know that it wasn’t just me.  The Dumbledore says to Harry near the end of the book (about Kreacher) that “Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike”, he could have been talking about his own relationship with Harry and it’s one of the lines in the series that I can identify with most.

The last idea I’m going to talk about here is obsessive thoughts and how they are experienced and managed in Harry Potter.  Voldemort is obsessed with living forever and achieving absolute power, and Harry experiences this with his fixation on the Department of Mysteries in OotP.  The way that Snape teaches Harry to deal with this is Occlumency, which I’ve already talked about and is equally relevant to obsessive thoughts.  Snape himself is still obsessed with Lily Potter decades on and the intense emotion and thoughts be feels in relation to her affect everything from how he interacts with Harry to his role in the Order of the Phoenix.  In Deathly Hallows, wearing the Horcrux necklace causes the wearer to become obsessed with thinking about things that make them feel vulnerable or angry, and it nearly leads to the end of Harry and Ron’s friendship before the Horcrux is finally destroyed.  In Philosopher’s Stone, Harry becomes obsessed with the Mirror of Erised before Dumbledore reminds him that “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live” which is another quote that I’ve found really, really useful to remember when I’m experiencing obsessive thoughts or fixations.

There is so much in Harry Potter which is relevant to mental health issues and I’m sure I’ll talk about it again in later posts!  If anyone has any suggestions or feedback, please email me at rainbowsandrecovery@gmail.com 🙂