'I was genuinely terrified dad would kill us and mum had been trying to pluck up the courage to leave him ... shortly after they did separate he took his own life on Christmas Day'
Belfast author Carolyn Jess-Cooke tells Stephanie Bell how putting pen to paper acted as an outlet to help her come to terms with her traumatic childhood and cope with its legacy of anxiety and depression
Successful Belfast-born author and academic Carolyn Jess-Cooke learnt very early in life the benefit of writing to escape trauma. Creative writing carried her through a horrific childhood when she lived in constant fear of being killed by an abusive father who took his own life on Christmas Day when she was just 13.
It was only after becoming a mum herself that the trauma of her childhood years caught up with her and four years ago Carolyn battled severe anxiety and depression which saw her hair fall out and her weight plummet. Once again it was writing that helped her through it.
Now fully recovered, she has just published another bestselling novel, I Know My Name (published as CJ Cooke), which is to be made into a TV drama series.
Carolyn also lectures in creative writing at the University of Glasgow, where she leads research on how it can help tackle mental health and is planning to hold a conference on the subject in March.
She says: "There are two groups - one which sees writing as a therapy and who don't regard it as art, and those who think it is both therapy and art, and there is a bit of tension between the two groups. I think it can be both.
"It was ultimately how I coped with a traumatic situation as a child. I poured myself into stories. It was an escape and a form of empowerment. I couldn't control what was happening around me and writing allowed me to feel as if I was creating something.
"It was just the act of putting together a story that I could control and shape while my life was so out of control and completely chaotic and stressful, which really helped me to cope. While there is research to show that writing for trauma about you and your life is therapeutic, for me it was the creativity and writing about what was going on, but in a fictional way, which was a source of strength.
"If someone asked me to spend 20 minutes writing about the worst thing that ever happened to me, I couldn't think of anything more distressing than that."
Carolyn's own story reads like a plot from a bestselling novel. Her abusive childhood, a whirlwind romance and marriage, instant success with her first book and then a mental breakdown have all given her a wealth of experience and empathy to draw on as a writer.
Today she has overcome the darkest of depressions to enjoy a happy life beside the beach in Whitley Bay on the north-east coast of England with husband Jared (36), a self-employed financial advisor, and their four children Melody (11), Phoenix (9), Summer (7) and Willow (5).
Carolyn says it was only when she had her own children that the horror of what she suffered as a child finally caught up with her. She recalls a bleak and terrifying childhood up until her mother, Carol, separated from her father, Philip Jess, when she was 12 years old.
"My mum had been trying to pluck up the courage to leave him for years and when she finally did I was genuinely terrified that he would kill us both," she says.
"There was no support for her and he was so violent that I really felt we would be on our own and he would kill us. My father had mental health problems and he had suffered a lot of violence as a child.
"When I was growing up it wasn't uncommon and there was domestic abuse all around me.
"It was traumatic. I hated the thought of going home where the atmosphere was so strained and unpredictable. You never knew when things were going to kick off and there would be some horrific scene.
"You never knew just how bad it would get.
"I used to go to my room and sit on my bed listening for my father's voice trying to gauge what kind of mood he was in and if he was going to kill my mother. I did tell a few adults but it was so prevalent back then that nothing was done."
Carolyn, now 39, believes that her father's death by suicide on Christmas Day shortly after he and her mother finally separated was in itself an act of violence.
She says: "I think he turned it on himself instead because he couldn't get to us. That was a really tough Christmas."
Her mum, now 56, happily remarried 12 years ago. Despite the horror Carolyn suffered in her early childhood, she excelled at school and went on to Queen's University where she studied until the age of 25, obtaining a BA in English, then a Master's Degree and a PhD in film adaptations of Shakespeare.
She loved learning and had hoped to carve out a niche for herself in film academia. She did go on to publish four academic books between 2007 and 2009 on Shakespeare and film sequels, two of which she did on her own.
But after graduating, Carolyn found there were no openings in Northern Ireland and reluctantly accepted a post lecturing in film studies at the University of Sunderland.
Remarkably, she had been in England just one day when she met her future husband.
She says: "I didn't want to leave Belfast and it was very stressful for me as I didn't have any connections at all in England. The day after I arrived I went to church and a lady there invited me to her home for Sunday lunch. She had other friends there and one of them was the man who was to become my husband."
The couple enjoyed a whirlwind romance and married nine months later. It wasn't until she became a mum that she found her vocation as an author. While pregnant with her son, Carolyn suffered from a condition called pelvic girdle pain and was confined to a wheelchair. The only respite she got was soaking in a hot bath for hours every night. To relieve the boredom she started to read novels.
She recalls: "I started to get my own ideas for a novel and wrote 50 pages and sent them off to an agent. She contacted me the next day and asked for the rest of the book and I wrote The Guardian Angel's Journal in 11 days.
"She signed me up after she got the book and a month later it was translated into 10 languages and eventually into 23 languages."
Carolyn then went on to write The Boy Who Could See Demons, set in Northern Ireland, which was critically appraised by the New York Times, the Guardian, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and The New York Review of Books.
She has also published two poetry collections, Boom!, in 2014, and Inroads, in 2011, which received a number of prizes, including the Society of Authors' Eric Gregory award, a Tyrone Guthrie Prize, a major Arts Council of England award, and was shortlisted for the New London Poetry Prize.
In 2013, she founded the Writing Motherhood project, resulting in a tour and an anthology featuring the work of 85 writers which was published this year. Throughout everything, Carolyn managed to push the trauma of her early childhood away. However, it came back to haunt her after she had her fourth child in 2013 leading to a breakdown.
She recalls: "Becoming a mother and having four children in five years was really tough and as a mother I started to see and remember things from my own childhood.
"I would be looking at my four-year-old and suddenly I would see myself at that age being taken into an alleyway by my dad and punched in the stomach.
"It was like I was reconnecting with myself in a different way and remembering how bad it was.
"I couldn't sleep and physically I was very poorly. It took every ounce of resilience out of me and then everything came crashing down.
"I had never had counselling or dealt with it, apart from through my writing. I was surprised by how terrible the physical element of having an anxiety disorder is. When it's at its peak it is not just a feeling of terror, your whole body suffers.
"I lost weight, my hair fell out and I couldn't sleep. I remember saying to my husband that I would happily give birth with no pain relief rather than go through a panic attack.
"I eventually got antidepressants and they really worked and made me feel myself again."
Now recovered, Carolyn says that, once again, writing helped her through. Today she is focused on managing her anxiety levels and trying to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
She says: "I now try and keep on top of it and be careful. I think I found writing such an escape. I was becoming a bit of a workaholic. I have coping strategies and I know that I can burn myself out by working too hard and I am more careful how I manage things."
Carolyn has just finished another book which will be out next year and she is excited that her latest novel is to be turned into a TV series.
She adds: "I've often thought about putting a novel on screen and how you would re-imagine it. TV dramas used to be so cheesy but now they are so brilliant and so well made - I loved The Missing.
"It is really early stages and it will be the next year or two before it will be on our screens but it is really exciting."
I Know My Name by C J Cooke is published by HarperCollins, £7.99