My Body Battles

(Warning…not strictly writing related…unless you have read The Mess Of Me or intend to one day…Monday was World Mental Health Day and this post is somewhat inspired by that.)

I feel like I have always been at odds with this flesh covered vehicle of transport I call my body.

I think the only time we’ve been on the same side is when we were trying to push out babies. (Although possibly not during the fourth labour, but that’s not a story anyone wants to hear today!)

I remember how I viewed this casing of skin as a child. I can’t remember ever feeling like it fitted me right. It always felt too big. I can clearly recall being about eight years old and noticing the thin, brown arms of a boy sat close to me in the classroom. They were like little brown matchsticks, and when I looked back at mine they seemed too big in comparison. I couldn’t understand why. They were just too fleshy…just too much.

When I was about ten my body began to develop. I had womanly curves whilst still playing with Lego. I hated it. And I hated all the friendly euphemisms for being a big child as well. ‘You’re a big girl, aren’t you?’ ‘It’s just puppy fat.’ Ugh. I didn’t really want to be a fat puppy, funnily enough.

As I grew I became increasingly aware of my unwanted flesh. I had breasts that jiggled and moved. I had hips and a bum. I had rolls of fat when I bent over or squished up. None of it felt like it belonged to me. It all felt like it needed to be shredded.

The weird thing is, if I look back at old photos of me, I really wasn’t as big as I thought I was at the time. I had a brother and two sisters who were all like stick insects, and I was bigger than them and I looked big for my age, but I wasn’t really fat. I was just developing. Still, it was not the body I wanted or felt I should have, and that feeling has never really gone away.

As a teenager my weight went up and down, and more often than not, I simply loathed the human suit I was forced to wear. I wanted to unzip it and step out, revealing the true me. I would have long, thin, shapely legs. Matchstick arms. A flat, hard belly. A neat, trim waist. Angles on my face. I would shed my skin and emerge looking like the girls I saw on TV and in magazines.

At one point in my teenage years, I submitted to my body and gave in. I hated sports because I felt so fat and slow, so I avoided them like the plague, shut myself away in the imaginary worlds of books and writing, and hence got bigger. I thought I was stuck with this flabby cage forever. I did not want people to see me. I often wished I could cease to exist.

During my later years as a teenager, a full on battle commenced. Much like the one Lou goes through in The Mess Of Me. I went to war with my body. I fought back. I kicked its arse and got control of it. I aimed to change it and remould it, to make it into something I could be proud of. It all started off sensibly enough, but as you can imagine, it soon all got rather messy.

I figured out ways of fighting back and rebelling. I told my body to fuck off. I discovered ways I could eat without getting fat. I figured how easy it was to just not eat at all. I realised that I could run and that once I started, it was hard to stop. So I ran faster and faster and faster, doing all I could to outrun the fat girl, to leave that chubby loser far behind.

During my early twenties, this battle continued. It’s fair to say I treated my body like utter shit. I hated it and felt like it hated me. We would never be friends. I would punish it any chance I got. Away from parental control, my University days were not good for me at all. I became obsessed with feeling hungry. With feeling for ribs and hip bones, with feeling the enthralling darkness of pleasure and fear. At my thinnest, I got more compliments than ever. I got noticed by boys, flirted with, asked out. Things that had never happened much when I was bigger. I loved it when people told me how much weight I had lost. I went to a family wedding and people did not recognise me. The only thing that ever scared me into eating  was each time my periods stopped…and only because I was desperate to be a mother.

I’ve always said having children saved me from myself, and it’s true. The first pregnancy we had ended in a miscarriage and I was devastated and completely blamed myself. I’d still been exercising, still watching what I ate, still waging war with my flesh.

The second pregnancy was a success and in the years that followed I threw myself into being the best mother I could be, and although I worked hard to get my body back, it didn’t occupy my mind in quite the same way as it had. There just wasn’t time. Through pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding I did, at last, learn to feel pride in my body. It wasn’t just a clumsy machine to be hated and abused, it was actually quite amazing. It could grow a baby. I could feed and sustain and nurture a life. Although I am far from happy with my body today, I do feel an element of pride in wobbly bits and stretch marks. They are part of who I am and what I have chosen to do with my life.

I’ve struggled over the years not to return to the old, messed up me. I was lucky enough to receive therapy before I became a mother, and I truly believe that opportunity set me on the correct path of health and fitness and sensible attitudes.

The thing is, you can’t hurt yourself when you have children because you realise that if you did, you would also be hurting them.

And now here we are. Me and my body which is fast approaching it’s fourth decade and still feels to me like it’s not really mine. I can’t say that we’re friends yet. In fact, lately it has been frustrating me more than  ever. It just won’t let me lose weight. I swear it feels like it’s getting revenge for those years of punishment. It’s getting its own back on me. It’s hanging onto the baby weight my two-year-old left behind like there is no tomorrow. He was a large, overdue, ten pounder who has certainly left his mark. There is fat to spare and my body wants to keep it all! It’s not making milk any longer, but it won’t let the post-baby body shrink no matter what I do.

This battle has been ongoing for six months now, and I am starting to take things up a notch out of sheer desperation. I’ve barely touched a drop of alcohol. I am running and skipping almost every day. I don’t make excuses. If I have a cold, tough. If I only have ten of fifteen minutes, tough. My new motto is Do It Anyway!

Is it making a difference? Slowly. Oh, so…slowly.

My body is now a snail, a slug, a tortoise.

It sneers and rolls its eyes and tells me to fuck off.

I jump on the scales every Friday morning and wonder if they are in fact broken.

I get out with the dogs and run faster and further and harder.

I feel my jeans getting looser in the legs and around the waist.

And then the scales say otherwise…

I honestly don’t know what is going on. I mean, maybe it’s just me? Maybe I’m eating more than I realise?? Maybe there is something up with my metabolism!

I only know that I am not going to give up. I am not going to quit and say, okay body you win, I will accept this body wrecked and ruined by childbirth and age. I will take it and be grateful, and I will eat cake and drink wine and never mention it again.

But the problem is the mirror. The old enemy resurfaces. I can’t hold my head up high or look people in the eye when I don’t feel I’m in the right body.

I know it can’t be perfect, and to be honest, perfection was never really the goal. Just feeling happy with it was.


What Comes First? The Characters or the Plot?


What comes first? The characters of the plot? I guess the answer is different for every writer, and often different for every book. I’ve been thinking about this since one of my daughters showed a rare interest in my writing and asked me what came first; my characters or my plots? My immediate answer was the characters, as this is how it so often feels. But as I went through the novels one by one, I had to admit that it’s different each time. For example, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side was an idea that grew into a character, followed by a more complex plot. The Tree of Rebels, which will be my next release, was undoubtedly plot before characters, more so than any other book I’ve written. I’ve blogged before about how difficult this made the process, and how it has taken longer for me to understand my characters and feel comfortable with them. With Elliot Pie (a book only in its first draft) it was the character first, but his character, in being someone who was intrinsically curious about strangers, was the plot. So they evolved simultaneously.

Having thought about it for some time I realised that my novels, This Is Nowhere and The Mess Of Me both have something in common. They were both written in the same way. I had the character first, and then had to create a plot to go with them.

I’m not sure this is the best way to write a book, but it’s just the way it worked with these two. With This Is Nowhere, I had the character in my head for some time, and with the character came the whole feel and tone of the book. Slightly sombre, dark around the edges, yet gentle, confused, struggling through mystery. I knew the character was a male in his late twenties or early thirties, and I knew he was rootless and aimless, a drifter. He had never grown up, but why was that? I knew he had a bad relationship with his father but the rest of that came much later. I knew he had a recurring stomach ailment, and had turned his back on the religion he had been brought up with. I had images in my head of a boy running across a sun baked field, though running from what I had no idea. The whole thing seemed to evolve in my head through feelings and images. I got the idea for the plot involving his missing mother when I was walking my dogs in the woods one day. I’m pretty sure, though it is hard to recall now, that my daughter had spoken to me about a missing persons case, and that had set something off in my head. What if this drifter was to return to his small home town in order to find out what happened to his mother, who vanished when he was a child?

With The Mess Of Me it was harder. In this case, I would probably not advise coming up with the character before the plot, although in all honesty I had absolutely no control over this!

Lou Carling started talking to me when I was about half way through writing The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. This was fantastic to me at the time. Having had a long break from writing, in tackling The Boy I was giving it all a go again, seeing if I still had the urge and the passion. When Lou started talking and grumbling, I was overjoyed because I had that feeling again. Of fireworks and ideas exploding in my head, of panic and excitement knotting in my belly, of wanting to hurry home to the laptop, of needing to scrawl notes onto scrap paper so I wouldn’t lose a thing. Essentially, Lou let me know that it was back. Writing was back.

I let her babble on for a while, mostly because she really amused me. She had just finished her GCSE’s and had a long summer before A-Levels ahead of her. She was deeply cynical about everything and everyone, and had a rather filthy mouth. Her best friend was a boy called Joe, a lanky, hazel eyed boy whose mother was her mother’s best friend. I could see Lou and hear her. In fact she barely left me alone. She would have constant conversations in my head, really interesting little nuggets of dialogue I just had to scribble down for later. But I had no plot. What was this book going to be about? What was going to happen to her? What did she want? What did she fear?

It took a while, but I got there in the end purely by listening to her, and being witness to the world that started to build around her. The claustrophobic council estate, growing up without money, feeling exasperated and embarrassed by her family. Hating everyone, especially herself.

I’m happy to admit that large parts of Lou are based on me, on my own experiences, on my own views and feelings growing up. In many ways, she is the character closest to me, at that age anyway. But I allowed her more freedom, letting her express herself when I was too shy to. Immensely liberating, I can tell you. The plot I ended up with actually came from a strange childhood memory.

When I was young, my mother had a friend who had five sons. She was a larger than life kind of woman, large in build and large in voice. She would sweep you in for a cuddle and nearly break your bones. She used to make jokes about swapping my mum’s daughters for her sons, and I used to think she was serious, and I was just a little bit afraid of her. I loved going to her house to play though. With her two youngest sons, me and my sister and brother used to trespass onto the grounds of their local school and play games with their pet dog. We would climb and hide in trees and bushes and behind walls and the dog would look for us. I can also remember playing with a huge mound of cardboard boxes in their back garden, making dens out of them, climbing up them and leaping off to crush the boxes below.

Her three older sons were teenagers when we were small. They flitted in and out of the background, and as I was so shy I probably never spoke to any of them. I watched them get the odd clip around the ear. One even had his mouth washed out with soap one day. But they were like mysteries to me. Part of my life, and yet totally unknown. They could have been anyone. They could have had any kind of life without me knowing. I had no idea who they were, where they went to, what they did, or what they dreamed about.

One day we were coming up the front path and one of the teenage boys was sat on the doorstep with his head in his hands looking absolutely miserable. In the cool dark of the kitchen, I overheard my mother’s friend telling my mum he was in so much trouble. They muttered and murmured in there for some time, while he remained on the doorstep. I never did find out what he’d done wrong.

So somehow, for some reason, this all crept into Lou’s world. The house full of boys. The mother on the warpath, driven to distraction by her unruly brood. Having these people you’ve grown up with, and yet never really know. Mysteries that unravel just out of reach and over the heads of young children who are told to go out and play.

The drug running storyline was of course utterly fabricated. It could have been anything really, the trouble the boys were in. Everything else from here on was pure imagination!

In many ways the drug running activities of Joe’s older brothers, and the way both Joe and Lou get pulled into it all, is a sub-plot to the main one, which is simply Lou’s journey over that summer. Her determination to lose weight and get skinny. Her finding herself, without it sounding too much of a cliche, was central to it all.

So that’s the story of The Mess Of Me. Where it came from and how it happened. It is probably my most character driven book, with the plot almost taking a back seat to the characters.

What about you? As a reader, do you ever wonder what came first, the plot or the characters? Can you ever tell?

What about you writers? Is it always the plot first, the characters later? Or the other way around? Which way does it happen for you, and does it make it harder to write if it happens in a way you are not used to?

Feel free to comment below!






When I’m Thinner…(The Mess Of Me)

The Mess Of Me was never meant to happen. It was never a plan, or a decision that I made. I was busy rewriting my novel The Boy With The Thorn In His Side; a book and a plot which had been with me for over twenty years. It was finally, blessedly getting its time. It was happening. I was writing again. I didn’t know who it would be aimed at, and I certainly did not see myself as a Young Adult writer. No, Lou Carling was not wanted, or invited, or planned. She just showed up one day, and the funny thing was, she had lots of things to say, which were sort of similar to things I wanted to say.

I know that if I look up and see his face, then I won’t be able to say any of the things I am thinking. Is that the way it is for everyone? Or are there some lucky people who are able to voice their exact thoughts and feelings in such a way, that everyone understands them instantly?’

She was hard to ignore, but I tried for a while, because I so needed to get The Boy With The Thorn In His Side done. It had been bugging me for years.  Like a lot of the characters that end up in my books, sixteen year old Lou wouldn’t go away, or shut up. She was a persistent voice in my head during dog walks and time alone. I started listening to her more and more, and God, she made me smile.

I could be so much more, but I can’t seem to be bothered. I want to do nothing. Be nothing. Have nothing to say….I am stuck I suppose. I am jammed. I am unable to move on. I am oddly incapable of development. But I am very good at shrinking.’ 

And so I gave in. The Mess Of Me was written very quickly, during a three month period of rest from The Boy. The Boy was with one of my beta readers, and so I had a window…

Lou didn’t even give me a plot to start with. She was extremely fond of swearing, and she had a cynical, narrow-eyed way of looking at the world she lived in. Her world was small, and reminded me of the one I grew up in. Council estate, identical houses, playparks and graffiti.

I think, look at this here, this is my entire life! This is it, right here. This park, and this field, and school, and the walk over the bridge to get there, and the town, and the bus ride in, and the Priory church and a terraced house, and noisy neighbours, and the parade of shops, and everyone knowing who you are, and where you live, and the working men’s club, and the car parks and the alley ways, and the Provident loan lady and the Avon calling, and the Christmas hampers that take all year to pay for.’

The more she talked and moaned and bitched, the more of her life I could see unfolding behind her. I could see her so clearly, and knew her so well by the time I started writing the book for her. And it was for her. It was to shut her up and get her out of my head, but it was more than that. I wanted to build a plot and a world and story around her character, and the way she masked self-loathing with scorn and contempt for just about everyone and everything.

The truth is, she reminded me a lot of me at that age. How I was convinced that everything would be better when I was thinner. I would be happier, more popular, things would go right, I would know who I was and what I was doing. All of that, and more. In short, life was on hold until I got thinner, and when I did get thinner, everything would be perfect and I would know what satisfaction felt like. I would know what it felt like to look in the mirror and smile and be proud. I truly and naively believed that being thinner would solve all of my problems.

I was all grown up with kids of my own when Lou started talking to me about her problems, but right away, she brought back so many memories I had forgotten. Like her, I can remember having a ‘never again’ moment with a doughnut.

I can still remember the day I snapped. I can still remember the jam doughnut that I crushed inside my fist, instead of inside my mouth. I guess it made me feel stronger somehow, more in control, more savage. Less of a fat loser.’ 

I was house sitting for my mum’s friend, and she had MTV, which was excellent, because we didn’t. This was back in the day when MTV was just the one channel that played music videos every day. I saw the video for the Aerosmith song ‘Cryin’, the one with Alicia Silverstone in it. I remember thinking how pretty and blonde and thin and perfect she was. I sat there on the sofa, eating doughnuts, and feeling the reality of my own squidgy flesh trapping me in a body I loathed and wanted rid of. I knew it was not going to happen by thinking about it, or moaning about it, or crying about it. I had to actually do something about it. And if I did something about it, one day I could be like the girl in the video. And everything would be better when I was as thin as her…

Lou was funny and sad. She was bitter and cynical and snarling in my head, and she sounded so much like me, and she thought a lot like me too, but she was braver. She was bolder, smarter and funnier than me. When I was her age I kept my mouth shut and my feelings to myself. Lou was less likely to do this, and it was such sweet relief to let her take over for a while, to let her loose. Like me, she also allowed the words she could not say or contain inside her head, to spill out across the walls of her teenage bedroom.

Life is fucked up in broken wellies…’

As she loses more weight, Lou discovers a power she never knew she owned. It starts innocently enough, with a calorie controlled diet, and a new found enthusiasm for jogging. But as the weight begins to fall off, Lou finds it then becomes harder and harder to eat. In fact, just thinking about food grips her with fear. She starts to avoid it. She skips meals and she lies. And as she gets thinner and thinner, she experiences an increase in attention from friends, family and boys.

Her best friend Joe and his older brother Travis start to show an interest in her. They even fight over her at a drunken party. Her best friend/enemy Marianne, encourages her to lose more weight and stick to her diet.

Over the course of the summer between school and college, life unravels fast for Lou, Joe and Marianne. The drama centres around Joe’s decision to help deliver drugs for his older brothers. Leon and Travis are paying him attention for the first time in his life, which makes him risk everything in order to help them. Lou is pulled into the drama and the madness, and all the time, quietly in the background, she continues to lose weight. At one point, she catches sight of her face in the mirror and for a brief moment does not recognise herself at all.

But then I realise that it is me, it is my face I am staring back at, and how very peculiar not to recognise myself? I do not know whether to feel glad or sad, and I suppose that I feel plenty of both.’

The book starts with her lying in bed and running her hands over the bumps of her hip-bones and ribs. She wonders if she will be happy when she is as thin as she wants to be. I can remember doing the same thing at the end of the day, when the hunger was at its angriest. I would feel the lumps and bumps of bones rather than fat, and I would feel calmed and affirmed.

Like Lou, I had been a chubby youngster. I surprised myself as much as anyone else the day I said ‘no’ to pudding. But once the word ‘no’ came out of my mouth, I realised that I could say it and mean it. It became easier and easier to say. No. Would you like a second helping? No thank you. Would you like ice cream? No thanks.

The ‘no’ was my friend, and on my side. Unlike everyone else, it wanted to help me reach my goals. The trouble was, the ‘no’ voice gets louder and more insistent. The ‘no’ starts to speak up more and more and more. So that you go to prepare a healthy breakfast, and the voice says ‘no, you don’t need that’. Or you tuck into your dinner, a smaller portion than normal, of course, and straight away, the voice pipes up; no, don’t do it. No. You can’t have that. It gets harder and harder to ignore that voice.

For fans of the book, I can confirm that a sequel has been started, but is on hold while I complete other projects. I do however, know exactly what happens and the entire book is plotted out. Titled The Mess Of Us, the book is set two years on from the first book. Are Lou and Joe together, or are they still just friends? How has Joe’s personality been effected by the ordeal he suffered towards the end of the first book? Does Lou still worry about her weight?

I stand sideways and run one hand over the bumps of my ribs, and for some reason this just makes me collapse in tears, because when I look at her, when I look back, I can still see fat where it shouldn’t be.’

It would be unrealistic to suggest that Lou’s eating problems have magically vanished. Readers of the book will know that she does manage to get herself together towards the end of the book, partly due to the intervention of her mother, and partly due to what happens to Joe making her realise other things are more important.’

Like Lou, I grew up and got to grips with things. Like Lou, I never totally succumbed to my inner demons; instead I fought them off and pushed the ‘no’ voice away. Not all people who experience eating disorders are able to do this. I was lucky enough to receive help which enabled me make sense of so many things, and made me realise what I wanted out of life. Funnily enough, even at that young age, the thing I wanted most of all was to be a mother, and I knew that my ridiculous eating habits were damaging my chances to be one. I had something to work for, something to hold onto. Motherhood is explored in The Mess Of Me, and in the sequel too, but in different ways and for different reasons…

I’ve always said having kids saved me. I became in awe of my body. I was proud of it. I didn’t hate it anymore, and even more importantly than that, once I had daughters I felt a responsibility not to pass my body issues on to them. In our house, we try to focus on health and happiness, not looks. But it is hard, in this society, which still values the thinness of women so much. You only have to look at the way the media portrays women; focusing on whether they have lost or gained weight, what dress they are wearing, what haircut they have, rather than on the job for which they are famous.

I’ve had four children, and my body is not what it was. Time and child bearing have taken their toll, and rightly so. I am not hung up on it anymore, but I would be lying if the ‘no’ voice had completely gone away. Just as it would be unrealistic to expect Lou to have completely recovered between the two books, it’s unrealistic to expect anyone who has experienced eating disorders to be over them forever. Like other forms of addiction and compulsive behaviour, these things become part of you, and to a certain extent, they are always there. There are days that go badly, days when you feel down, days when you look in the mirror and that gloating little voice pops up to whisper in your ear; ‘things would be so much better if you were thinner…’

The Mess Of Me happened because Lou Carling invaded my head space and bitched about everything that annoyed her. Parents. Friends. School. Having to grow up. Everything. Funnily enough, the book jumped the queue and ended up being published before The Boy… It was ready to go, and became my debut novel in 2013. At the time I still wasn’t sure who was meant to read it, or who it was aimed at. These days, I am extremely proud to call it a Young Adult coming-of-age novel, and although I do write books aimed at adults as well, they always seem to have young people in them too. Weird.

The Mess of Me by Chantelle Atkins