Book Review: Headlands – New Stories of Anxiety, ed. by Naomi Arnold

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_headlands‘Anxiety sucks,’ says author Kirsten McDougall in her Headlands essay. Although this neatly sums up what it’s like to live with anxiety – and is echoed by other contributors – Kirsten and many others also write about hope and acceptance, gratitude and understanding. This excellent book makes it clear that many people with anxiety learn to live well.

Headlands is a powerful and comprehensive contribution to the New Zealand literature on mental health and wellbeing. Contributors write bravely and brilliantly about what it’s like to live with anxiety. Perhaps they are your friend or colleague, your parent or partner, your doctor, bus friend or the person you nod at on your morning dog-walk.

There may or may not be any outward sign that they experience anxiety. As the stories in Headlands show, there are many different ways that people learn to cope or cover it up.
Editor Naomi Arnold reveals that last year one in five New Zealanders sought help for a diagnosed mood or anxiety disorder. If you are one of the estimated thousands who have ‘stayed silent’, Headlands may encourage you to talk things over with someone who can help. Arnold has succeeded in her mission to draw together voices that offer ‘reassurance and validation’ to individuals and whānau affected by anxiety.

‘Bringing this collection together was a delicate task,’ Arnold explains, because ‘there’s still a stigma in talking about mental health.’ In total 31 contributors from a diverse range of backgrounds share their experiences. Most are living with anxiety themselves, although Headlands also includes chapters by a physiotherapist, a suicide prevention officer, and a couple of clinical psychologists who are exploring the use of micronutrients to alleviate anxiety.

Although the contributors use many of the same words to describe how anxiety feels – often referring to an overwhelming sense of panic, dread, or fear – there are lots of different ways that their anxiety is manifested. Some write about eating disorders, insomnia and nail-biting, others mention anger, self-harm, indecision and paralysis. Singer, songwriter and poet Hinemoana Baker has what she describes as ‘somatised anxiety’ where anxiety is expressed though physical symptoms that cause pain.
Donna McLeod (Taranaki born and now living in Motueka) offers her community’s voice in a strong and poignant poetic narrative describing the anxiety shared among wāhine Māori.

Some contributors can trace the probable cause of their anxiety, with several referring to childhood abuse. Others see a genetic link, recognising symptoms of anxiety across generations of relatives. Arnold observes that some people may not be aware that they have anxiety and consequently will not seek help. Yet a diagnosis is not the be-all and end-all. As Bonnie Etherington notes ‘…there are days when a diagnosis offers me room to understand myself and other days it does not’. Eamonn Marra explains that when he learned to use mindfulness to acknowledge anxious feelings as they surfaced rather than ignoring them, this was ‘the biggest step towards being able to manage [the anxiety]’.
Several contributors mention experiencing anxiety when they were children, although at the time they did not have the word to identify the feeling, nor yet the self-awareness to recognise what it was. Over time there may be a gradual realisation and awareness of what helps and what hinders. Holly Walker writes of an ongoing cycle of learning about what she calls her ‘limitations’: ‘It’s a strange thing, having to revise your ideas about yourself’.

What helps varies from person to person. Contributors have tried a range of methods – including self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Some have been admitted for psychiatric care. Others describe the benefits of meditation, yoga, running and other forms of exercise. For writer and actor Michelle Langstone, caring for sick and injured birds was central to her own journey towards wellbeing. Medication works well for some, although several contributors write about their reluctance to consider it.

I attended a panel discussion during Wellington’s recent LitCrawl event where four of the people who contributed to Headlands talked about their experiences. Editor Naomi Arnold chaired the sold-out session. Reiterating themes from the book several speakers mentioned the benefits of meditation and exercise, and one recommended having a conversation with a doctor about what’s right for you. ‘Medication’ said one panelist, ‘complements good life decisions’. Headlands makes it clear that there may be some trial and error involved to work out what will suit someone requiring support to manage their anxiety – and that what works best may change over time.

If the cover of this book was audible it would perhaps be a buzzing static or a low off-key bass hum. In particular, the cover art is a striking expression of Holly Walker’s ‘jangling world’ and its ‘cacophony of sound’.

If you are living with anxiety – or questioning whether you are – or if someone you know or care about has an anxiety-related disorder and you want to know how you might support and help them, Headlands offers ideas, insights and hope.

‘I wonder how many people live without anxiety? It can’t be that many!’ says musician Riki Gooch. Even if you are one of these people, this book is for you too. As Arnold reminds us, all New Zealanders – including whānau, communities, colleagues, and health workers – have a shared responsibility to learn, to listen and to accept, and to make it easier for people affected by anxiety to access appropriate help and support.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety
Edited by Naomi Arnold
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561896

Book Reviews: Brachio, by Jill Eggleton, illustrated by Richard Hoit; Don’t Think About Purple Elephants, by Susan Whelan, illustrated by Gwynneth Jones

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

Brachio, by Jill Eggleton, illustrated by Richard Hoitcv_brachio

Jill Eggleton will be familiar to many New Zealand teachers and parents for her literacy programmes and her huge catalogue of poems. Brachio is a picture book for up to 7 year olds which showcases Eggleton’s rich writing style.

Brachio is much bigger than the other dinosaurs and mouse lizards, so there’s bound to be a few problems when he heads out to join in a dance party. Being a kind and thoughtful kind of dinosaur, Brachio has a few solutions in mind.

Eggleton’s language is full of poetic language, with onomatopoeia, alliteration, rhythm and rhyme, and simile dripping off the page. This is helped by clever text design, which gives the reader lots of clues about where the emphasis should be, and adds visual interest for young readers. Not that visual interest is lacking – Hoit’s illustrations are vivid and colourful, full of the joy of dancing with your friends, and the problems that occur when dancers get a little too enthusiastic!

My class of 5 and 6 year olds love listening to the language as I read to them, and the book was in high demand afterwards, because, dinosaurs! This book also comes with a CD, read by Eggleton, with loads of expression and a fun backing track of dinosaur noises.

Don’t Think About Purple Elephants, by Susan Whelan, illustrated by Gwynneth Jonescv_dont_think_about_purple_elephants

Sophie is a busy, happy girl. She likes school, enjoys her loving family, and has good friends. The problem starts when she’s not busy. At bedtime, as she tries to go to sleep, worries crowd in on her, keeping her awake. All of the suggestions to help her sleep – a special book or teddy, or a drink of warm milk – just give her new things to worry about.
Children’s worries are often dismissed by adults; adults often don’t consider the things children worry about as important when compared to adult concerns. Most children do have worries, however, and to them they feel very real. A quick survey of my class of 5 and 6 year olds showed up common themes: not having someone to play with, someone being mean to them, something bad happening to a loved one, forgetting a book bag or lunch for school, not making it to the toilet on time, not being picked up at the end of the school day.

Whelan and Jones have put some thought into Don’t Think About Purple Elephants; they clearly know children, and they don’t dismiss Sophie’s worries, but try to resolve them. The illustrations are lovely – brightly coloured and happy when Sophie is busy, and grey and ominous with oversized objects when she is worried. The resolution to Sophie’s worries is relatively simple and one of those “why didn’t I think of that?” moments that parents and teachers have.

This is an enjoyable picture book to read together for children up to 8 or 9 years old, regardless of whether or not the child worries – but it would be a particularly good book to read with a child who is suffering from anxiety, it might just do the trick.

Reviews by Rachel Moore

by Jill Eggleton, illustrated by Richard Hoit
Published by JillE Books
ISBN 9781927307809

Don’t Think About Purple Elephants
by Susan Whelan, illustrated by Gwynneth Jones
Published by EK Books
ISBN 9781921966699

Book Review: The Feel Brave Series, by Avril McDonald, illustrated by Tatiana Minina

Available in bookshops nationwide.

feel_brave_septemberThese beautifully illustrated books are designed to lead children through issues that they may find challenging, especially from an emotional point of view.

There are 5 books, listed below, plus a guide that helps the adult/adults work through different issues with activities that are designed for specific areas such as craft activities, physical exercises and drama games. The books’ reach is broad but everything is neatly tied together.

The story books that accompany the guide book are simply gorgeous, the illustrations perfectly fitting the text. Finding Calm, Self Confidence, Making Relationships, Anxiety and Fears and Change, Loss and Grief cover a lot of ground but it is ground that can often be a part of a child’s life on a daily basis and not in a good way. These books step in and provide support, comfort and solutions that are relatable and reasonably easy to make a part of a child’s emotional thinking. Changing our thinking is really what it boils down to when we face an issue that grips and won’t let go, and these books are an excellent tool/resource to help us do so.

Designed for the 4-7 year age group, this resource could be a great at-home resource and a very valuable resource for any Primary School.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

The Feel Brave Series
by Avril McDonald, illustrated by Tatiana Minina
Published by Crown Publishing

This series is comprised of the following books: 
The Wolf’s Colourful Coat
ISBN 9781785830204

The Wolf is Not Invited
ISBN 9781785830174

The Wolf and the Shadow Monster
ISBN 9781785830181

The Grand Wolf
ISBN 9781785830198

The Wolf and the Baby Dragon
ISBN 9781785830211

Feel Brave Teaching Guide
ISBN 9781785830167

Book Review: Anxiety for Beginners, by Eleanor Morgan

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_anxiety_for_beginnersIf the fluorescent cover doesn’t catch your eye, the title will. In Anxiety for Beginners, Eleanor Morgan tells us what it’s like to live with anxiety and why it’s so important to identify and learn to manage it. She leads off with a raw account of her own experiences, then explores what anxiety is, why it happens and what can be done about it.

Morgan reassures us that feeling anxious need not be a life-sentence – that it is possible to get on top of it and that we can learn to deal with the intrusive chorus of ‘What ifs?’ that roll through our minds. She reminds us that some anxiety is okay, even essential – especially in situations that are in some way threatening, where anxiety prepares us to act. It’s when anxiety takes over and our response is disproportionate to the threat that it causes distress. That is the point that we should seek help – or support someone else to seek help if we see that anxiety is dominating their life.

I share her belief that spreading knowledge about what anxiety is – and the different forms it may take – is beneficial not only for people living with anxiety, but also for their partners, families and friends. She’s quite frank that anxiety can ‘creep or crash’ into anyone’s life without warning. This means that even if we are not living with anxiety ourselves, there’s a good chance that someone we know is: someone we live with, someone we study or work with, a friend, neighbour or colleague.

Morgan tackles a serious topic with empathy and humor – and a generous smattering of f-words. Her first experience with anxiety was at age 17. She describes feeling that she was about to detonate or crack down the middle like an egg – her legs hollow, her breathing ragged, her guts fizzing. She’s open about the challenges she continues to face – although she has, over time, learned how to manage her anxiety on an ongoing basis. Even so, she admits that – like many of us – she’s still searching for that elusive ‘sweet spot between allowing [herself] to relax and pushing [herself] to do more’.

Morgan does a good job of helping us to understand what’s going on inside the brain and body, the physiological basis of anxiety. In exploring the causes, symptoms and consequences of anxiety, she’s spoken with psychologists, psychiatrists, behavioral neuroscientists and academics, as well as others, including several well-known people, who live with anxiety disorders. Morgan is based in East London and so draws primarily on material from the United Kingdom, although there’s a sprinkling of information from other countries too. She’s written a well-researched book with information and resources drawn from diverse sources, although none of it from Aotearoa/New Zealand. There are plenty of references throughout most chapters, as well as a bibliography and a detailed index. It’s a book you can go back to if you want to learn more or point a friend towards resources.

Morgan makes it clear that although there are common symptoms, there can be tremendous variation in how each individual experiences anxiety. She’s a firm believer that people should be offered a choice about how to manage their symptoms, although cautions that it’s easy to get swamped by information during the search for relief. Despite knowing the importance of finding good, informed care and support, some of her own experiences with helping professionals have been of variable quality.

There’s a surprisingly brief chapter on how to help someone else with anxiety. It points to a range of websites, as well as reminding us to be patient and non-judgemental.

Morgan tells it like it is. She wants readers to understand that although there’s no perfect antidote for anxiety, there are a number of things that are likely to help over time. For her, cognitive behavioural therapy has made a world of difference. For some people living with anxiety medication will be effective, for others it may be therapy, exercise, meditation or mindfulness – or a combination of different approaches. (Dogs may have a role to play too: the single photo in the book is of Morgan’s re-homed schnauzer-cocker spaniel cross, Pamela – a Hairy Maclary lookalike bringing ‘joy, routine and purpose’ into Morgan’s life.)

I appreciated Morgan’s honesty, humour and optimism. She’s encouraged by society’s gradual shift towards considering mental health problems as less of a stigma and more a part of what it means to be a human being: ‘a bump in the road, rather than the end of it’. She stresses the importance of improving public education and awareness of anxiety and other mental health problems, so that all of us know what is available and what might help. Her book is an excellent place to start.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Anxiety for Beginners
by Eleanor Morgan
Publisher: Bluebird (a Pan Macmillan imprint)
ISBN 9781509813261

Book Review: Boys in the trees: A memoir, by Carly Simon

cv_boys_in_the_treesAvailable now at bookshops nationwide.

Memoir as a form occupies an ambiguous status. It makes us ask ‘Why is this being told? Is this self-indulgent reflection or a confessional?’ Memoir brackets off a selected span of time, and is more about how the author remembers this period, than the period itself.

Memoirs also beg the question ‘What has been left out and why?’ It seems in Carly Simon’s Boys in Trees, not much has been. The book is anchored by the major male figures in her life, from childhood up until her public divorce from fellow musician James Taylor in the 80s, and rewards the reader’s false familiarity with a string of famous names and the emblematic times that they hailed from. It follows a turbulent and passionate three decades, which she lays bare unabashedly and with a good dose of the overblown. But then again her life, by our standards, is rather over-the-top.

Carly was born into a lush childhood of privilege and cultural opportunity as the third daughter of the famous, erudite and troubled publisher Richard L. Simon (co-founder of the publisher Simon & Schuster). Dinner parties at the family house in Stamford comprised a heady mix of showbiz people, classical composers and fast-witted authors. The keen sense of performance, that border between public and private, is evident right from the start, whether in the dual between outward confidence and inward suffering, or in a more literal sense: ‘Singing at the dinner table was nothing out of the ordinary; our entire house was an opera’.

She captures the betrayals and dark undercurrents that run through the household. Cuckolded and having had his business forced from him, her father is a shadow of his former self: distant from his daughter, retiring, padding around the house in a dressing gown. Carly’s mother Andrea has moved her twenty-year-old lover into the family house; Carly is exposed to other unwanted sexual improprieties. She develops a stutter and severe anxiety, which she calls The Beast, a constant life companion. Enter music – a soothing respite from the troubles of this private world.

Part Two examines more formative years: a music debut in the folk duo the Simon Sisters with her sister Lucy, the harassment of producers, the spending of her inheritance and years of her life on Freudian analysts. Then the ‘dazzling and uninhibited’ 70s arrive, where her song writing takes off – ‘It was the beginning of the beat to a different life.’

So too does her list of lovers. A series of romantic encounters of varying length and intimacy accumulate – Cat Stevens, Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger, Kris Kristofferson. The accompanying anecdotes come thick and fast. Carly visits her analyst after spending the night with Warren Beatty and admits this to the analyst, only to learn that she is not the first patient that day to make such an admission. Stories of songs being written are set against a series of New York apartments filled with interesting people, empty wine glasses and overflowing ashtrays. We learn that ‘Anticipation’ was written while Carly waited for a running-late Cat Stevens at her apartment, while chicken with cream and cherries heated on the element.

The memoir builds inevitably towards its third part, which details her eleven-year love affair and marriage to James Taylor – a relationship that had a momentum of its own (which we are repeatedly told in a variety of ways). She describes their partnership as a perfect fourth, a melding of voices that then painfully unravels through cheating, depression, anxiety and drug abuse. This is where the pace slackens through over-analysis and an increase in repetitions and redundancies. Language becomes flowery to distraction: ‘James was my muse, my Orpheus, my sleeping darling, my “good night, sweet prince,” my something-in-the-way-he-moves’.

Carly comes across as smart, tenderly honest and funny – with a tendency for the over-the-top and over-analysis. In her remembering she is always looking for meaning, forcing its hand at times, which does become tiring. Yet this unconventional life is entertaining reading despite the need for more rigorous editing. The ambiguous memoir suits Carly’s portrayal of the ambiguous status of much of her life and loves.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Boys in Trees: A Memoir
by Carly Simon
Published by Constable
ISBN 9781472124036

Book Review: Maia and the Worry Bug, by Julie Burgess-Manning

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_maia_and_the_worry_bugMaia and the Worry Bug was thought up by a Christchurch psychologist, Julie Burgess-Manning, and teacher Sarina Dickson. This book is part of a programme which assists families in managing anxiety. Children and families affected by the Christchurch earthquakes are the target market (and in fact, junior and middle school children in Christchurch have been provided with a copy). Anxiety is not, however, just related to natural disasters, and as such, this is a really useful family resource. It has been reviewed by other psychologists and is recommended by the Children’s Commissioner, Russel Wills (a pediatrician).

Maia’s family has a worry bug come to stay. It is quite small, and gets to work on Maia’s Mum, getting her to start compulsively checking on the soundness of the house and the wellbeing of the family. The bug feeds on the worry and the worries spread to Maia’s Dad, and then to Maia. The now rather large worry bug enjoys the family spending all their time worrying, and eventually the family feels better just staying at home together and cross-checking all the safety checks that they each make. Nell the neighbour points out that all the checking and staying at home is not making them feel any better and the family addresses the worry bug.

The story is concluded with a family toolkit – good questions to ask each other to check on anxiety levels and to explore how each family member reacts to anxiety. Children are encouraged to draw their own worry bugs and to explore the anxieties that might feed them. There are a list of resource organisations at the end of the book and a link. This website has a tool to measure anxiety, and further suggestions for people and organisations to contact if you need some help managing anxiety.

Having experienced the odd family crisis myself, I really value the idea of resources being available in the home for parents to use with their children during difficult times. I have sought out such resources previously and have a couple of books hidden away in the wardrobe in case of crisis! This though is a book useful to keep close by, as it is quite easy for anxiety to get out of hand. Using the tool at the back of the book I learnt (one) of the reasons why my daughter had trouble going to sleep – she didn’t believe that we would hear the smoke alarms while we were asleep. She had jumbled up some information learnt in her school based fire safety programme! We were able to provide her with the correct information and help make her worry bug a little smaller!

Review by Emma Wong-Ming

Maia and the Worry Bug
by Julie Burgess-Manning, illustrated by Jenny Cooper
Published by Kotuku Creative
ISBN  9780473319250

The school part of this resource is called Wishes and Worries, here is our review of it.