Tell me a little about yourself Lynda
I was a Special Needs teacher for four decades on and off, employed in both the Primary and Secondary sectors across the UK, so have been involved with children from a very young age right through to the teenage years. My job was primarily focused on the literacy and numeracy skills of the children but increasingly it also included pastoral care and dealing with the sometimes difficult social circumstances many of my pupils had to cope with. As such, a number of these experiences provided me with better insight into some of the problems many of our young people now have to confront.
As a parallel job I was a Non-Executive director of one of the Health Trusts here in Northern Ireland, and this complemented my teaching role greatly as it involved working in partnership with Social Services on many occasions. It gave me an invaluable opportunity to link the two vocations as they obviously overlap each other extensively. It would be true to say that quite often I found there was not nearly enough communication between schools and social services but with lack of funding inevitably being a huge issue, it’s desperately hard to get things right and to please everyone. Consequently, this can have a detrimental effect on children of all ages.
And how does this career experience relate to your writing?
I came to writing quite by accident really. Sadly, one of my friends had died of breast cancer while I was abroad, and I wrote a very personal and honest piece about our relationship (I also had breast cancer) which I sent to a local newspaper back home. To my surprise, they not only published it, but asked me to do a series of articles concerning human interest stories, and that’s where my writing career began. I will always be indebted to The Belfast Telegraph for their faith in me at that time and for accepting other pieces throughout the years. It is important for me to be honest in my journalistic writings as I value my integrity above all else but I do worry these days about offering an opinion in the public domain (and ultimately social media) when there are so many people out there seemingly waiting to take offence.
I would later gravitate to the more creative writing side of things and begin to write fiction. Here, there was much more scope to use my imagination and dramatic licence comes into play constantly, so although the situations I put my characters in are often based on reality, they are not based on any real people. Something I have discovered about myself is that I like to take on uncomfortable subjects or themes that can be difficult to confront and these would include suicide, euthanasia or the loss of a child, for example.
And how does this relate to your piece?
The short story Two Voices was certainly not written about any specific situation I had experienced personally. It was more that I was trying to understand the thinking of any child who might have found themselves in an unbearable situation for which there was no obvious solution. As someone who has received counselling myself in the past, I knew that feelings of helplessness or hopelessness can be destructive in the most powerful way and sometimes lead to tragic consequences. Nowadays there is much more open discussion around mental health and therefore better awareness of the help available. This story, when I wrote it (before the real advent of social media), was an attempt to tackle the scenario of a child unable or unwilling to ask for help and although it was difficult to write I didn’t want to shy away from the truth that suicides can happen when all hope appears lost to an individual. For James, the protagonist in my story, life had become unbearable because of bullying at school, and although I have never in all my teaching career been witness to anything close to this scenario, the reality of it is that there is bullying in every school to some extent. Teachers generally do what they can but sometimes it’s just not possible to spot a pupil who is going through inner turmoil as they are often extremely adept at hiding their emotions. James is loved. He comes from a caring family. He is respectful and maybe a little old-fashioned but he doesn’t fit in and for this reason alone he is targeted. The sad thing is that for the perpetrators of the bullying, taunting James is only a transitory ‘bit of fun’ and afterwards they carry on with their everyday business, but for James it is an all-consuming ordeal that he believes he can never escape from. The conflicting voices in his head are his means of trying to cope when really he should be offering those thoughts up to another person – someone who will simply listen without judgement and not even necessarily offer advice. The fact that James blames himself (albeit illogically) for his situation and has internalised his emotional problems, means that he has isolated himself from the people who could help and actually give him the guidance and empathy he needs to find a way forward. The story could have ended more positively than it did of course, and perhaps if I rewrote it now I might give it a more enigmatic conclusion. However, at the time of writing, it felt like an honest attempt to face the reality that in this life not everything has a happy ending.
Do you think just having the time to listen to other people is important?
Yes, of course. I am not a counsellor, a psychotherapist or a doctor trained in the area of mental health. But I don’t think you necessarily need to be any of these things to be a good listener which is perhaps the most important healing skill of all. During my teaching career I have come across children who just needed someone to hear them, and to be told that it’s okay to voice their fears or misgivings. Regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, social background etc. we all face differing degrees of problems and challenges as we go through our lives and depression can occur for all sorts of reasons sometimes completely out of the blue. It can be triggered by any number of things but I imagine that loneliness is high up there in the list of causes and I don’t just mean the loneliness of being on your own. Even in an environment of supportive family and friends one can experience what I would call ‘loneliness of the soul’ and that’s a hard frame of mind to claw your way out of on your own.
Do you think social media plays a part in this?
Nowadays it's hard to ignore the growing issues surrounding social media. It can be a means of great good if used responsibly of course, but increasingly it seems to have taken over our lives in a way that could never have been foreseen even a few years ago, (in Two Voices I didn’t tackle this issue specifically as the story was set in a time prior to the present dilemmas that exist). I do feel really sorry for the younger generation these days though in that there is constant pressure to comply with what some total stranger has deemed the ‘norm’ (when it is actually nowhere near the ‘norm’). Also the constant and incessant need to be on the other end of a phone checking for messages, ‘likes’ and so on is gradually making us lose the ability to connect properly face to face. Nothing can replace a human touch that says; “You’re doing okay. You’re not alone. You don’t need to be something that you’re not.” Sadly, I don’t see a solution to this any time soon unless people start to communicate with each other away from a flat screen.
Do you have any advice you can give others feeling suicidal or self-harming?
I’m very reluctant to offer advice to anyone who might be suffering from depression or mental health issues, because every case is so individual and personal. But I do think that no matter how bad something may seem at that moment in time when you feel all is lost, it can get better if you can only give it more time. I don’t mean to be flippant when I say that any situation can look very different in the morning, for actually I’ve found this to be true. Even a few minutes of ‘parking’ something can change the way you feel about it and taking one tiny step at a time allows you the space to seek for the help and support you need. We could do worse than remember the words of the wonderful singer-song writer, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen:
“There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”
And I truly believe that there is light in all our lives if only we can give it the opportunity to shine.