Peace of mind

PUBLISHED: 13:46 25 February 2014 | UPDATED: 13:46 25 February 2014

Author Julie Myerson at Southwold.; Photo: Andy Darnell

Author Julie Myerson at Southwold.; Photo: Andy Darnell

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It was when she found herself unable to step on to the escalator in John Lewis that Suffolk author Julie Myerson realised she needed help for her lifelong anxiety. Here she reveals her formula for stability. Steven Russell reports

Author Julie Myerson at Southwold.; Photo: Andy DarnellAuthor Julie Myerson at Southwold.; Photo: Andy Darnell

Dear Julie Myerson. Her default setting – a laudable desire to be as open, honest and helpful as possible – can lead her into tight corners. Asked if she’s got any tips on parenting, she so wants to oblige, despite the klaxons going off in her head. She gives some … observations, we’ll call them. With a plea. “Please make it clear: that I don’t want to advise on parenting.” Other media might pick it up, she worries, “and say ‘Julie Myerson tries to be parenting guru.’ Seriously, they will!”

You can sympathise. Nearly five years ago there was a painful period when her book The Lost Child revealed (albeit without directly naming him) her son Jake’s use of cannabis. Newspaper articles put domestic strife firmly in the public arena. There were also ructions when she was revealed as author of an anonymous column in a national paper about living with teenagers.

The author, well known for regular appearances on BBC2’s Newsnight Review, found herself accused of being a bad mother and of betraying her offspring.

She rode out a “few years of intense stress” for a while, but then the anxiety that has followed her through her life seized its chance. There were repeated panic attacks, and live TV and radio appearances were given up. Being unable to step on the escalator in John Lewis made her realise she needed help.

Julie says she’d been anxious from childhood, despite generally being a happy person. “The anxiety goes hand in hand with a kind of optimism and, I suppose, a love of life. That’s never changed.”

It was husband Jonathan, a dramatist and writer, who four years ago said, “Come on. You’re not happy. This is awful. You’re in a state.”

Referred by her GP, Julie attended a six-week NHS mindfulness-based cognitive therapy course (MBCT) at Maudsley Hospital, Camberwell. It changed her life.

Was it the domestic turbulence and the glare of publicity that weakened her defences?

“Yes, I think it probably was. But I think it could have been anything, to be honest. In my 30s I had a real wobble. I had such serious heart problems they were worried there was something wrong with me.

“In the end, they decided it was stress, and the only thing I could think was I’d just trained to be a Childline counsellor. I was quite enjoying it but, looking back, I had three very young children (and) it is quite a difficult job. I think maybe it was that. But who knows? It’s very hard to tell.”

“I think just having someone say to you, ‘This is anxiety. We know what this is. There are ways to cope with it’ is always a help. It’s very lonely when you’re feeling all these things.”

Then it was a case of sticking with the course. She adds, “I’m still a very anxious person. It’s simply a way of dealing with it. Mindfulness is about feeling a feeling and not trying to react or do anything about it. In the past I would think, ‘Right! Got to fix this!’

“Mindfulness is exactly the opposite of that. It says, ‘OK, I’m feeling something quite uncomfortable; let me try and see what happens next – and whatever happens, it will be fine. You don’t have to do anything about it.’

Having a highly-developed imagination is probably a mixed blessing, she acknowledges. A few years ago she drew strength from a book called Manage Your Mind.

“What the book seemed to tell me was that a big imagination was great if you were trying to earn a living as a writer, but it’s actually not very good for everyday life!

“I was tending to take notice in real life of the things my imagination told me, and that’s disastrous, because of course you’re on edge. The things that go through my mind during the course of a normal day are...extraordinary. Not things you want to listen to.”

She’s used meditative techniques for the past four years and hasn’t missed a single day.

“If I’d done it a few years ago, I might have found dealing with certain problems less stressful, because I wouldn’t have taken so much (inside).

“It’s difficult being a parent, and there’s no perfect way of handling any situation. You learn on the job, but I think a mindful approach to the things teenagers throw at you is a good thing.

“It’s about stepping back, and it’s very difficult to step back from situations with people you care about. But if you can stop for a moment…and experience the moment, rather than dreading the future or harking back to the past.

“I’m a terrible planner-ahead. I’m always trying to avoid things that could go wrong.”

Speaking of which, she’s giving nothing away about her new novel – her 10th. I

“It’s not me being secretive; it’s because if I even tried to say it (the plot and theme) to myself it wouldn’t sound any good. Until it’s finished, I can’t say what it is. The reason I write, actually, is to try to find out what I want to say.”

These days discussion of children Jake, Chloe and Raphael, now aged 24, 23 and 21, is off-limits. “I did sort of promise...I wouldn’t – until they emerge with their first novels and start talking about me!”

She insists she’s the last person to offer advice on being a mum or dad.

“I think what I’ve learned about parenthood is that whatever crisis you’re dealing with – whether they’re massively difficult ones or ‘Is so and so going to give up the cello this year?’ – it feels like as bad as it could get.

“We found, when going through our worst problems, talking to other people about it was helpful, and I was astonished how many people were suffering something similar and it wasn’t being talked about.”

She explains: “To bring it back to skunk (strong cannabis) – which I didn’t really mean to – it is a big deal. People were scared of it and they didn’t really understand it or know about it. You always feel better if you read someone is having a similar problem. It helps.”

One thing she’s sure of is that love and support from people close to you is crucial.

“A happy marriage helps. I feel very, very lucky. I can imagine how problems can pull marriages apart. God knows, dealing with that kind of thing on your own would be very difficult. Very lonely.

“It isn’t lonely for us. We’re a good team. I think it infuriates the children, sometimes, actually. I think they’d rather we weren’t so!

“That’s the only advice I’d give, actually: work on your own relationship. Don’t neglect it because your teenagers are being foul.

“I think a lot of people – particularly the mothers, perhaps – invest so much energy and time in their children in those years that they turn around and don’t really know who they are or what their life is.”

n Julie’s novel The Quickening, about a Caribbean honeymoon that turns sinister, is published in paperback in April at £7.99.

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