The Cathartic Benefits of Horror Writing: ‘Loss’ – On the Beautiful Horror of Dying

“There’s nothing we fear more than our own Reflection. We scream at the monsters within us, hidden deep within our hearts. We run and hide from the terrors all around us- the different mirrors that we see.”

― Solange nicole

I’ve touched on some of my writing history already – how I enter the darkness, explore the darkness, write the darkness. I’ve said a little about why I do that, how I’ve always been fascinated by the imaginary horrors, the myths and legends and folklore that tell us about so much about how peoples view(ed) their lives and tried to make sense of the (un)natural phenomena around them. As we have advanced our knowledge of the world, we have created new horrors, have new concerns. Rather than vampires, werewolves and ghosts, these are now what many horror writers wish to explore – or at least vampires, werewolves and ghosts as they might appear in a modern world, as modern metaphors.

For me it’s more than that. As Solange nicole (writer of dark romance and noir chic) says above, we fear our own Reflection. We run from the monsters inside us, because we do not wish to face the side of us that roars, that rants, that would rend and tear if we did not keep those base urges quiet. If we did not have a common ‘morality’ to check them. We are afraid of what we might see in the mirror when we stare back at ourselves – metaphorically and literally at times, literally, for me being unwanted wrinkles, unwanted fat. So if I don’t like looking in the mirror, why do I do it? Why do I write about the horrors that live in my mind? And perhaps more importantly, why do I disguise them in the form of fictional horrors, when the real stuff is bad enough?

Well, part of it is, of course, that fascination with the fictional dark. I’ve been reading horror stories for as long as I can remember, alongside the myths and legends I so love. Then I started reading Stephen King and I found a new direction. I think part of it was how King captures the ordinary person so well in his writing. His characters are real. When he exposes us to the horrors they’re going through, we really believe it. King, I believe, is an underrated writer, and I didn’t just want to read him, I wanted to write like him – a typical enough reaction, initially, when you’re a beginning writer and admire a writer’s style. In the end of course, we start to write like ourselves – anything else is derivative. But something that King says is that ‘We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones’ – and I believe this to be the case. The fictional dark is more easily expressed than the real darkness. This bleeds into the poetics of my horror writing.Bruno Bettelheim says that:

“[A reader] may wonder why he is so deeply moved; and in responding to what he    observes as his emotional reaction, ruminating about the mythical events and what   these mean to him, a person may come to clarify his thoughts and feelings. With this, certain inner tensions which are the consequence of events long past may be relieved; previously unconscious material can then enter one’s awareness and become accessible for conscious working through.” (Bettelheim. 1977)

So why am I so ‘deeply moved’ by horror, and how does what I write ‘clarify’ my ‘thoughts and feelings’? How are ‘certain inner tensions’ relieved by reading – and in my case – writing out the horrors buried inside me? It definitely comes down to catharsis. Reading horror writing and watching horror films has been shown to be a cathartic act. It releases tension within you – you are terrified for a while – the terror comes out in raised heartbeat, restlessness as you read the words or watch the screen, wondering if the protagonists are going to fall prey to the monsters, and then, at the end, when they survive, you release a huge sigh of relief, maybe laugh at your own fear—because it’s not real, is it? – and then you can discuss the merits or otherwise of what you’ve read or watched. Catharsis. The releasing of tension. Or, as the American Psychological Association puts it:

“the discharge of effects connected to traumatic events that had previously been repressed by bringing these events back into consciousness and re-experiencing them.”

Is it a different experience, then, for writers? For me, I’d have to say yes. A resounding yes. While watching or reading a good (‘good’ being a value judgement) horror text may be a cathartic experience, in that there is that release of tension, it’s not the same as exploring those tensions through writing. As King says above, the horrors we make up help us to cope with – and I would add ‘explore’ – the real ones. A common saying – and I can’t remember where it comes from now – is that all fiction is autobiography, and all autobiography is fiction. I’m not sure I’ve even remembered it exactly, but I’d have to say that I believe in the inner ‘truth’ of the statement, and when I look back at my own work, I recognise it. Obviously my characters are not ‘me’ but I recognise the themes, the concerns, within the stories. Things that bother me. Things that keep me up at night worrying. It’s not as though I do it deliberately either – obviously my short stories and prose poems are not directly about ‘me’ or my experiences – but these things keep on creeping in. I think it’s inevitable.

Take loss, for example. And abandonment. Anyone reading my posts will know that these two things are terrors for me, and they almost always creep up in my writing somehow or another. When my mother died of Congestive Obstructive Pulmonary Disease – she also had Alzheimer’s, which is a particularly cruel form of illness because it strips the person of their personality – I didn’t really process it. I didn’t know how. I had my father to care for, because he was lost without her, and I was an only child. There was no-one else. My own grief – which I still haven’t processed and which has left unhealed wounds – wasn’t important. And yet I found myself writing about it unconsciously. A funeral scene in a novel, almost exactly the same as my mother’s funeral. People gasping for breath. People losing their minds. The last, given my mental health issues, is particularly close to home. But perhaps the closest I’ve come to catharsis on this subject is the prose poem ‘Loss’ below. It originated in a class taught by my partner, a class on experiment and innovation that encourages its students to look at language differently. To take the language we take for granted and twist it and reshape it into something new and unexpected. The poem below takes the language of death and dying and, I hope, turns it into something new, and for me at least, something strangely beautiful.

LOSS

I. The Artist

An inventive underworld, a sardonic farewell toast by a woman dressed in shades of purple. The artist wipes at one of her nipples. Long dark-meat fingers lift her taffeta skirt, leave her cracked open and naked. A self-dramatizing invocation leaves you spellbound, the words reverberating in a throb of dizziness, visceral performers in a full moon winter. Morning vision hallucinates wonder, grasping at a desired object. Fingers of a hand, a paw cut into flesh, some moonlight off the snow turning the white red. Incidents hushed up by highly artistic persons, and the purple woman, all innuendos and imaginations, mockingly dubious of extravagant detail. Nihilistic prose portrayals, flamboyant extravagances and delightful uncertainty.

A madness that intoxicates, real or unreal word-worlds? Studiedly bloodless stares that utterly destroy you. Gathering small blank cards, standing in a mirage, brief rumbling abysmal resonance. Dancing classes: your reflection in a mirror door sees many naked limbs, revels in a stripped cleft, delights in grunts of satisfaction. Cracked body, aching with cold, many shudders and jerks. A fixed unnerving gaze to a seedy downtown. Sitting at a filthy desk scribbling a surge of panic, writing lies under soft black stars. Fear complicates. Your consciousness becomes crystallised and explicit in super-text knowledge, a fragmentary nebulous manifestation, deeply subtle and dreamlike.

A meditation of certain realities, obsession like an intestinal virus hollowing you out in the company of nightmares and recently suffered illuminations with no antibodies or antidotes and you can never live in the same way again. The permanent termination of a work, a detailed and disturbing awareness and overwhelming inspiration. Crippling expiration.

In a clear voice, a precise work of art, but barely a whisper in the babel of exaggerated disgust. Artistic impulse of grotesque experience – non-existent writing and your words fall away in a collapse of language. Extraordinary pain etched on a wall. Please. Help. Me. Self-estrangement, a terrible compromise. Bare-footed, a sing-song taunt, a giggling mischief. Innumerable damaged bodies. Dies away, a final echo of wheezing laughter and word-displays on a metal plaque: you are devoid of meaning. Tiny star-shaped flowers return to their places in a devastating reality. A waterstained sheet of paper. Blurred words, loss of clarity. Loss of meaning. Loss.

 

II. Degeneration

 

You segue into

a grey emptiness of surroundings. Penetration of outer cell walls degenerate. Amazement. Decay fascination, spectral outline of twisting passages. Delirious and dying words, hostile erasures. Advanced physical deterioration. Dispassion & displacement. The low/lying functions of an ordinary body perpetuate a network of bone, sinew, muscle, arterial-venous ventricles, tubes, tubules

opening out into

randomness and formless things, a chaotic semblance of life. The clawing of fingers, vicious creations. Mutable & un-enduring. A roaring physiological abyss echoes with advanced disease, unpleasantly warm to the touch in a vegetable stillness. A changeless quietude. Bloodshot eyes follow you unseeing, a gurgling death rattle penetrates, a sucking of breath in a reptilian-tongued mouth. Borderline gibberish in malformed brains creates language loss in the flesh-factories of the dying. Dates of nativity & death inscribed on birthing grave-bodies

morph into

fever-ridden heat hallucination, the surreal delirium of a permanently damaged brain. Derangement of imagination, hyperpyrexial phantasms in the back of an unused junk closet,  the scene a secluded graveyard seen through a cloudy haze. A gradual shutdown of operations. An echoing wreck. Skin and bone & emptiness.

 

III. Dying

 

she floats on relentless brain-music. dying. fearful. she whispers inside herself ears deaf & death to thought & consciousness. thought repeats thought repeats thought repeats: my work is not yet done. not yet done. not yet. not…

afraid of bad things. of mystery. of grace shimmer, glister voracious. the map of moments spreads out: seconds minutes hours days months years decades centuries millennia aeons. inevitable, decay thicker than water. desolate angel (wings torn away) fallen to the unhallowed ground of a hospital bed. fallen & broken on the ever-too-fast-spinning wheel of years. this is what she has come to. tumour invasion. the hardening of lung tissue. necrotic tissue. the ever/never-breathing emaciation. feels her body withdrawing. her mind drifting

on oramorph dreams in a place with no windows. hears the howling legion, dark water lashing. winter ghosts haunt their feeding ground, tread softly across far fields toward the bone factory. she follows, frostbitten beyond exile, a weeping apocalyptic beauty. joins the painted man on the dark road rising & he trades in skin, hungry hearts. carries contagions, disease & infections up a twisted ladder

to the hidden cities, a screaming silver body surfing on the riptide of souls. a kiss on a raven’s wing & seven deadly pleasures tempt her. pain. denial. sorrow. grief. fury. acceptance. surrender. reaches the outer gate & hears the groaning shadows & casts a cold eye as the tear collector scratches out the language of dying. elsewhere, thought forms in shades of blood & shadow. & she dreams of

resurrection. clothed in a robe of feathers, objects of worship casting away stones from the shadows of the closet in a house on the interstitial edge of the ghosting tide. an undertow beneath the surface boats the drowned life, a world of light-breaking cold. a time of absence in the shard-splinters of the tesseract & lucid dreaming. what happens when you wake to the sound of dead hands clapping? here she lies. cries her debut swan-song. her last & final lament.

 

Lesley McKenna. 27/03/2013

 

References:

 

Bettelheim, B (1977). The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and importance of Fairy Tales. London. Vintage.

Cherry, K. (2019) ‘The Role of Catharsis in Psychotherapy’ at Very well Mind:   https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-catharsis-2794968 (accessed July 11th 2019)

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Staring into the Abyss. A Fiction

 

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. (Friedrich Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil)

 

THERE was once a girl who gazed into an abyss. She didn’t know it then, because she was still innocent, but that abyss, with all its howling horrors, was the void of her own dark imaginings. The dark void of her own truths, if we can believe in truth, for we are all our own creations and we often twist ourselves.

And allow others to twist us.

Fascinated, the girl put a tentative foot over the side of the abyss and discovered that it had a gentle but slippery slope, and she began to descend. As she came closer to the lower levels, she began to hear the howls of the damned, the abandoned, and overcome with curiosity, she began to listen. Although she couldn’t understand that they were saying, she recognised from the tone of the voices that they were tales of horror and despair, of terror and misery, and although she tried to leave, because the stories were awful, she found herself rooted to the spot. She felt their voices enter her brain, twisting it and turning it into a battlefield where the forces of sanity and madness would fight for ownership for the rest of her life.

Finally understanding the danger, she freed herself, and returned to the surface as fast as she could, but the realisation had come too late.

So, she began to go further into the darkness. She sought out forbidden tales of the monstrous, became obsessed with myths and legends and the creatures that inhabited them. Hunted down evil hags who tempted young children with gingerbread (she didn’t know what gingerbread was but it sounded delicious and she wanted some), wolves in human form, and humans in wolf form, in the bloodsuckers of folk tales (she wished for eternity, although even this short mortal life was sometimes a burden), and the siren-songs of loathing that seduced not only men, but her too, as she listened to the melodies of those that lurked in the dark (under her bed, in the shadow-recesses of her wardrobe), and talked to the primal fears that all people have. Fears of loss, of death, of loss of control and chaos, and the darkness which whispered to her with the voices of the wandering and abandamned. As she grew she became fluent in their languages.

The languages of pain, which are:

Confusion

Denial.

Desolation.

Dread

Emptiness.

Fear.

Fury.

Grief.

Sorrow.

Submission.

 

Annihilation

She grew older still. The horrors continued to haunt her, and she began to write them down, to create tales of the monsters and terrors that the voices told her about, because writing their names gave her power, for by now she had long realised that the dark that consumed her was not a good dark. It was no longer attractive or seductive (those vampires, for example, weren’t really beautiful tortured artist-souls who grieved the loss of their humanity, they were malignant bite-your-neck-out vermin). But she didn’t know that giving them form gave them power too. But it was too late; their languages had become her language, and she had learned to be fluent in their dread tongues, and once you have learned their tongues, it takes powerful magic to unlearn them. So she ventured further into the abyss, until she came to the very lowest levels, and she explored the lands of the abandamned, and was accepted into them as one of their own. She inhabited her own city, and that city was named Despair.

There was no leaving it behind, and she became comfortable there, and Despair began to develop behind its own walls.

Her fame grew throughout the land, and acolytes sought her out. They clamoured from beyond the walls, banged their fists against the gates, wanting her to let them in. And so, unable to keep the lessons to herself, she let them into her city, and began to teach them the words, and they were eager to learn the art of writing. She began to discover that it wasn’t just her who understood those terrible languages; the acolytes had sought her out because they wanted to gaze into the abyss too. So they gazed, and they shared the same horrors, and together, they wrote the stories of the abandamned.

 

On the Stories We Tell Ourselves, the Fictions We Create. Part 4. Writing Myself: A Tentative Exploratory Foray into Therapeutic Writing

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”

― Graham Greene, Ways of Escape

 

Graham Greene sums it up, really, and maybe I don’t need to say any more than this. And yet, we all come to writing in different ways for different reasons. I’ve already explored this a little in other posts, how I’ve always been led by my imagination. Our imaginations take us to places known and unknown, allow us to meet people we already know of, and people who are strangers, and we invent people that we might want to know, who we may aspire to be. Alternatively we might meet (and invent) those who terrify us, who challenge us, who make us question our own motives, and sometimes, our otherwise unspoken fascinations.

But it’s more than that for me, and I can only speak for myself. And for myself, I think writing fiction was a way of not facing my reality head-on, but through the lens of fiction – usually through horror and dark fantasy fiction, which probably says quite a lot about my preoccupations. As Emily Dickinson says: ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant – ’ Slant, so I need not look whatever ‘truth’ might mean in the face. Plus, I never thought I had anything interesting to say about me and my life. That, in fact, I was not interesting enough to explore myself in memoir-type writing. And maybe I’m not. I’ve accepted it’s not my place to judge.

When I became ill recently, my imagination grew ill with me. In fact, it seemed to die. There was nothing but grey mist in my mind, darkness in my ‘soul’, although I hesitate to use the word, but write it here as a kind of placeholder. Maybe psyche is a better word. Whatever. There was nothing. There has been nothing before, at other times when I’ve been unwell, but it was nothing like this blankness. This inability to be able to ‘see’ as I had once seen in what appeared to be living, breathing, vibrant images. This was a yawning void that sucked me into its empty heart. For someone who lives in their mind, probably too much, this was like another disability. And no, I don’t use the word lightly. If I couldn’t write, then what was I? What was my worth? To an extent, it’s still like that now. I seem to have little imagination, in the way it used to be. I can no longer imagine the fictions I used to imagine; the images, sounds and characters are no longer vibrant in my mind, and this is really, really hard. I worry that maybe I’ll never get that back, that my ability to create in that way has been lost forever. I worry that my depressed self, which tells its own fictions, will take over forever. It’s a kind of grieving, I guess, for a self that once was. But as the light re-emerged, my need to invent other places and people seems to have been replaced by another kind of need. The need to express myself through myself. To use words as a means to explore me, to help me to understand what ‘me’ really means. To use words as a kind of healing. To explore the ‘madness, the melancholia, the panic and fear’ that Greene describes.

To stop telling the truth ‘slant’.

As a slight digression, I recently read that five thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians believed in the magical power of words, which were, according to their beliefs, at their most powerful when written on papyrus, a way of concentrating and focusing the magic that would drive out disease and demons. Sometimes words were dissolved in liquid, and given as medicine. The power of the word, in spells, in charms, in fictions and fact, is long understood. Words are power. Words can destroy, and words can heal. The healing aspect is something I’ve become hugely interested in, and it’s known as Writing Therapy:

‘For nearly 30 years I’ve had the same therapist. I’ve called on my therapist at 3am, on my wedding day, on a cold and lonely Christmas, on a Bora Bora beach, and in the dentist’s reception room. I can tell this therapist absolutely anything.’ (Adams. 1990)

The therapist Adams speaks of is her journal, and as she implies, the journal ‘therapist’ listens like no one else can. It will not judge you. It will not interrupt. It will not try to make you feel better with well-meant advice or platitudes. It will not be embarrassed. It is there to help you express in writing what you may not be able to express verbally, when words are too difficult to speak. It is there, in the words of the French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous, who ‘describes writing as the process of explaining yourself to yourself, of pushing into the places of your experience where you have no articulated knowledge of the world’ (Bell, J and Magrs, P. 2001). I’ve ‘pushed into those places’ but usually they have been places of the imagination, of dreams and visions, in works of horror and the darkly fantastic. But I’ve never really explored my own life in a direct way. I’ve never felt that I’ve had anything interesting to say. That I am interesting to anyone else. But now…. Now I feel driven to explore my own emotions through the way of expression that is the most ‘natural’ to me. Through writing. Could this be a ‘poetics’ of my writing and how it’s linked to my mental health? Is there such a thing? Exploring and discussing the facets of my writing that link to my mental health and vice versa? I’m not sure where I would go with this, but I think it could be interesting. I think I’m starting to understand now what my present type of writing is for, what this blog is trying to do.

So begins the exploration.

Adams, K. Journal to the Self. (1990). New York. Warner Books.

Bell, J and Magrs, P. (2001). The Creative Writing Coursebook. London. Macmillan.

Dickinson, E. ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56824/tell-all-the-truth-but-tell-it-slant-1263 (accessed 21/09/2019)

Pinch, G. ‘Ancient Egyptian Magic’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/magic_01.shtml (accessed 21/06/2019)

 

 

 

An Interlude: On the Joyousness of Birds

“She decided to free herself, dance into the wind, create a new language. And birds
fluttered around her, writing “yes” in the sky.”
―Monique Duval
“Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”
― Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice
I am an amateur birdwatcher. For me, there are few things more enjoyable than to go into a free and open space with my binoculars, and just observe, and wonder. Birds help to heal me. I watch them, flying so effortlessly through the sky, and I wonder at their perfection. Their freedom. My current favourite place to watch birds is RSPB Rainham Marshes, in Purfleet, Essex (http://cut.do/37) . Although it’s bounded by a busy train line, and the A3016, this reserve, in the Thames Estuary, is a marvellous space where the sky seems endless, and where the wet grasslands, marshes and ditches are alive with wildlife. Visiting there is like going on holiday. There’s always something new to look at, and I’ve got into the habit of recording everything I see in a notebook. Here is what I noticed last time I visited, on June 1st. Looking at the list has made me smile on a dull day.
Seen: Avocets and chicks by the Aveley pools. Black headed gulls scrapping and screeching in unruly gangs. Buzzard and marsh harrier hunting overhead. Blue tits and great tits on a bird feeder, and flitting through trees in the woodland area. Canada geese and goslings. Coots with their fuzzy chicks. Ducks: mallard, pochard, shovelers, shelducks. Constantly diving tufted ducks with DA hairdos. Little egrets fishing: do they have any (r)egrets, I wonder? Charms of goldfinches. Herons stalking along hidden ditches, fishing for rudd. Displaying lapwings pee-witting, tumbling and wheeling overhead in the way that reminds me of black and white tea towels flying through the air. Little grebes ducking and diving for their food, their chicks, who swim with them. Moorhens and chicks. Chicks everywhere, in fact. A lone oystercatcher out on the far marsh of the Target pools. Sparrows and starlings, chattering flocks of gossip. Swans (I am afraid of swans) and cygnets, gracefully gliding on calm pools. Reed bunting (initially easy to mistake for a house sparrow) swaying on the top branch of a bush, singing its heart out. Harmonious. Melodious. Heartstopping. A single singing redshank, standing on a post on a single red shanked leg. Bees abuzz. Small blue butterflies dancing in sunlight. Mating white butterflies on the wing. Spotted woodland butterflies spotted in the woodland. Dragonflies looking like biplanes. Blue damselflies, shimmering electric neon, joined in mating hearts.
Heard but not seen: Chiff chaffs chiff-chaffing. The mellow call of the cuckoo, first I’ve ever heard. A song that excites me. A song of summer. In the reeds: Cetti’s warbler; reed warbler. The insane weirdly gibbering laughter of marsh frogs.
Felt: Peace and tranquillity.

On the Stories We Tell Ourselves, the Fictions We Create. Part 3: What DO You Look Like?

“To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself.”

― Simone de Beauvoir (1949)

 

Confidence. A word loaded with so much meaning. We ‘have confidence’ in something. We ‘take someone into our confidence’. We’re ‘self-confident’, an aspiration held up to us as one of the pinnacles of success. To be self-confident means to be go-getting, to present ourselves as someone dynamic who can perform without fear of feeling that we’re anything other than sure that what we attempt will succeed. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating, but not by much, and certainly not in these over-mediated times when self-exposure through social media has created a world of selfies, of being able to edit one’s photos so that the skin and body look perfect. To watch ‘beauty gurus’ on YouTube, who all of course look amazing (possibly through filters and good lighting and editing) in order to learn how to become one’s ‘best self’ who is ‘living her best life’. If you do all of these things, then you too can aspire to greatness, and supreme self-confidence will be yours.

So why doesn’t that work (not that I ever take selfies – never mastered the ‘art’)? Why do women (and increasingly men) think that they’re not good enough? Why do I feel (since this is about the fictions I’ve created around myself) that I am old, ugly and fat, despite losing almost 28 kilos since my diabetic diagnosis about ten years ago? Why do I have so little self-confidence? And why is it so many of the women I know feel, if not exactly the same then similarly?

For me it started young (what doesn’t?), when I hit puberty to be exact, a difficult time in anyone’s life, an in-between time when one is either child not adult. I was always a skinny child, and then, when I was around thirteen my body started to blossom. I grew, as women do, breasts and hips. And I was told, by my no doubt terrified-that-I-was-becoming-a-woman father, that I was ‘getting fat’. I absolutely don’t believe that he acted from any sense of malice or meant any harm – my dad would never knowingly hurt anyone. I honestly believe he was afraid of losing his little girl, because I was very much a Daddy’s girl. But that was inevitably happening, and so, in his eyes, breasts and hips meant I was growing away from him. That I would become prey for other men’s attention. Men who did mean me harm. Men who would take me away from him. But words stick. Words have power. And words cause wounds. Given that my mother was stick-thin all her life, it sounded to my ears, and looked to my eyes – film stars, pop stars, models (Twiggy in the 60’s, for example – name speaks for itself, right?) that women should not have curves. That women should have figures like washboards. Non-sexualised. And ultimately (because in the other ear I had my mother, also terrified of my growing up, that men ‘only wanted one thing’ and that ‘nice girls didn’t attract male attention’) I decided that my curves were dangerous. That everything to do with being a woman was dangerous. And so began my forty year habit of yo-yo dieting. Dangerous thoughts lead to dangerous habits, right?

Just the other day, I read a story written by a lovely young woman. She has anorexia. She starves herself. She works out relentlessly until she drops. She purges. When she’s not starving herself she restricts to 600 calories a day. Her periods have stopped. She has developed lanugo(downy hair) on her body. All because of a body loathing that borders on horror. She looks at other, ‘fashionably attractive’ bodies, and wishes that she was like that. It has taken root in her brain that she needs to aspire to and attain perfection, so that she can have the self-confidence to present herself to the world. She says that her anorexia is about control. Control over how she looks. Control over herself and her world. It’s heart-breaking.

I was never that restrictive. Not dangerously so. Nonetheless, this was what my diet was from when I was sixteen onwards, until I left school at eighteen. Note that during this period I was not having school dinners, which I often used to reject anyway, and which just increased a phobia of certain foods, which I still won’t – can’t – eat, or even look at. Breakfast: A slice of toast, with a scraping of butter or margarine, and maybe some milk. Lunch: Three Ryvitas. A small hunk (maybe an inch square) of Edam cheese. An apple. Dinner: a small portion of whatever my mother would cook. That was it, pretty much most days when I was at school. I’d ‘allow’ myself more food at weekends (I was very fond of a Sunday roast, for example; and fish and chips from the local chippy on Saturdays); but generally, I restricted. I got down from nine stone (I’m five foot three inches tall) to under eight stone. And even then I felt fat. Repulsive.

There are some feminists in the body positive movement who say that ‘fat’ is not a feeling, that it is a state of physical being. That those of us who say we ‘feel fat’ are being oppressive to and dismissive of women who actually are fat (that’s a precis of the ‘argument’). That attitude makes me angry, because it’s dismissive of those of us who are (unfortunately still) body-loathing. So I absolutely disagree with their assertion. Those of us who have been fat (at my heaviest I was obese), ‘feeling fat’ is absolutely a thing. Feeling fat is being constantly aware of every curve, real or imagined. Of knowing every bit of extra flesh on your body. Feeling fat is believing that people are looking at your body and judging it negatively. Feeling fat is wearing body-hiding clothes rather than enjoying your physicality because nice girls don’t want to attract attention from anyone, because a mature body means you’re prey.

So I was under eight stone. I left home to do my nursing training. I was free, except I wasn’t, because I was (as you’ve probably gathered if you’ve read any of my posts) alone and away from home, and therefore had to look after myself. I had never done that before, never so much as made my bed (!), let alone cook a meal. I felt chained by my freedom. But I learned to cook, and my restricting became over-eating in a surprisingly short space of time. I didn’t put on much weight – my job was too physical and demanding for that – but I put on a little. And surprisingly I was okay with that. I mean, it was only a few pounds, right? Right. I had a couple of boyfriends (not at the same time), and kept them at arm’s length, like a good girl.

And then I met the man who was to become my husband.

My ex had (maybe still has) his own issues about his own body. He was naturally skinny. He thought that other people should be skinny too, especially, given my experience as both his wife and the mother of his daughter, female bodies. So although he enjoyed his food, and although we went out for many lovely meals together, he was constantly scrutinising my food intake and my weight. Was quick to notice if I put on weight, and comment on it. ‘Do you actually need that?’ (when I wanted a cheeseburger once, just as one example). ‘You’re getting bigger’ (on regular occasions); and ‘You’re so fat’ (also – especially towards the end of our marriage – a regular thing) and, ‘Do you really think that suits your body shape?’. So I started restricting again, mostly eating tiny portions, cutting out fat, sugar, for months on end. This was before I had my children. Funnily enough, when I got pregnant all that stopped, and I LOVED my pregnant body – maybe because I always thought it was what my body was for. Afterwards though….

Any woman who’s had children will know that, unless you’re quite lucky and absolutely determined to get back into shape, you’ll never be pre-baby shape ever again. I’m not making excuses, but my stomach, always rounded, has never recovered from two pregnancies. What with that, and the horrific post-natal depression I lived through after the birth of my son, I restricted again. Would feel (and sometimes be) sick if I had to eat even a small square of a sandwich. And so it continued. I restricted food on and off for over forty years in the guise of dieting, because that sounds ‘better’ than ‘restricting’, until I realised that it was enough.

So I stopped and just ate. And ate. And became obese. My self-confidence dropped to an all-time low, and my body loathing increased. But although I hated what I looked like, I didn’t stop eating. I ate pretty much whenever and whatever I liked, despite the remarks it earned from my ex (who, I might add, joined me in my snacking and never put on a pound!). I guess it was another form of eating disorder that went by the name of ‘comfort eating’. By the time my ex left, I was four stone overweight and well on the way to Type Two diabetes, which is often associated with something called metabolic syndrome, a set of conditions that includes insulin resistance, raised blood pressure, putting on weight, which leads to more insulin resistance, which eventually leads to T2 Diabetes. Many of us who develop metabolic syndrome are apple-shaped, potentially the most ‘dangerous’ body shape because of where we store fat – around our waist. I’ve always had a big waist, even at my thinnest. The tendency to metabolic syndrome is one of the reasons why not everyone who’s fat or obese gets T2, and why some of us do. But that’s digressing a little.

So I developed T2 at around 52 years old and the low-carb eating phase began. Now low carb eating actually is super-sensible for people with T2. Some people make it a lifelong change, because of course, carbs – whatever they are – are at their base sugar. So I low-carb’ed and lost, as said above, 28 kilos. It was the only time in my life I’ve eaten for my health, and it really helped my insulin resistance, and my blood sugar levels are in the normal range now.

But my body image remains poor. I won’t diet anymore, because I know that’s not healthy, but I’ve put on around eight pounds over the years, eat pizza and pasta and drink wine, and the body horror is coming back. Right now I feel out of control. Because my mental health has been so poor over the past year, and increasingly poor over the past three, I’ve lost any respect for the body that I worked so hard for when I lost all the weight. I know I have to get it under control because I’m again very aware of every single bit of fat on my body; and especially now I’m older, I feel more unattractive than I ever have. Other people tell me I’m slim, I’m still attractive, but, with no disrespect intended, it doesn’t matter what other people think, because the emotional brain doesn’t listen. The emotional brain goes back to every hurtful, damaging word that’s ever been said. To reiterate what de Beauvoir said in the quote above  – “To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself.’ But if you’ve never had that body confidence, how do you learn it?

It’s something that even at my age, I need to discover.

On the Stories We Tell Ourselves, the Fictions We Create. Part 2: ‘Dreams in The Haunted House’.

“People think dreams aren’t real just because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes.”

― Neil Gaiman

 

My dreams have always been vivid. Technicolour, stereophonic epics play themselves out in my mind whilst I sleep, complete with a sense of smell and touch. Dreams of being chased by Tyrannosaurus Rex (this has been recurrent since I saw Jurassic Park in 1993, where the park became a penal colony and I had committed some horrific crime of which I had no memory, dropped into the park and had to escape). Dreams in which my mobile phone becomes a device that can only play games, meaning I am unable to communicate my feelings, my fears, the fact that I am hopelessly lost and cannot locate the people who love me. Dreams that seem like past life regressions, in which I die, often painfully and too young, only to wake, still alive, but terrified. All symbolic of my fears: of utter abandonment, of being unable to express myself. Of dying unfulfilled.

Our fears and our memories linger in our dreams. Some of my biggest fears, I believe, stem from the house in which I lived when I was that scared little girl I wrote about in my previous post. A two up, two down later-to-be-condemned tenement in Hackney which I shared with my grandfather, my uncle, and my parents. I shared a bedroom with my parents for the first thirteen years of my life. There was no privacy. Nowhere for me to be me, or them to be them. We had an outside toilet, to which I used to creep, alone, in the middle of the night, too scared to wake my parents, absolutely terrified of the shadows that crept about in the downstairs scullery. Afraid of the dark and the spiders that lurked within the outhouse in the yard outside the kitchen door.

I’ve been pretty scared of the dark ever since. Always sleep with the landing light on.

Below is a piece I wrote from a recurring dream I had for years, as a result of (memories of) that fear. It’s tidied up of course, but overall, it’s pretty much how I dreamed it. This dream haunted me around once a month, sometimes more, sometimes less. And it was a haunting, because the ghosts of past places, of past terrors, returned to haunt

I decided that as the dream was recurring, and in a way, so worrying for me, that I’d write it out. I did that the very next time I had it, and the below piece is the result. It’s interesting that I haven’t had the dream since: writing it out seems to have cleared the decks, as it were.

Does all this perhaps go back to that only child place? That emotional space where I was surrounded by unquestioning, unconditional love. Except: love is always conditional, and the love of my parents for their only child meant that I was the epicentre of their world. Their sun, moon, stars and universe. Some people would regard that as heaven, and I understand that. Love is something that so many children lack. And yet… And yet…  Being everything to someone else is a huge responsibility for anyone. Too big, at least in my experience. My writing, I  think, know, often comes from that place. The place where I feel stifled, oppressed, inadequate.

Powerless

 

Memory Revisited

 

… You walk down the street, wondering how you came to be here. Were you wishing for this place? Does desire make something so? You’ve yearned to be a child again so often; adulthood is a burden you can no longer bear.

You search for clues that this is the place you remember from those (remembered) happy days decades before. The houses are in the same alignment – terraced, back-to-back, two up, two down. They line the street as they always did. Even the pub on the corner where the drunks used to spill out, shouting and fighting, into the road at closing time still stands. But now there is an air of decay, the houses blank-eyed spectral tenements, wavering in and out of your sight. As you sniff the air, you can smell the rot on the cold winter wind that whistles round you, inside you, until it bleeds your dead heart white.

No people live here anymore; like you, the streets are empty. Your friends and family have disappeared into the abyss of recall, leaving haunting memories of (what once felt like) vibrant life. The only inhabitants are curious tumbleweeds, who crowd round your feet, perhaps drawn to the no-longer-life in you. The whining of the cold wind makes them rustle, bestows upon them a curious language of their own. Do they speak to you, and if they do, what do they say? You cannot grasp it, their language. If it means anything at all. At any time, you realise as they crowd closer, they could wind their dry-grass tendrils around you, and bind you, and you will become a tumbleweed too, drifting, pushed this way and that at random, dizzy with chaos.

You shuffle your feet and the tumbleweeds skitter away. Relieved, you look again at the houses. At your house, where you lived and loved, where you took your first steps, spoke your first words, kissed your first kiss. A house always full of firm, unyielding love. Now it appears like the others. Flimsy. Not quite there. Its red bricks have turned translucent grey, like the hair on your head. It wavers in your sight, a flickering projection from a faulty reel of film. You cannot bear to lose it – reminiscence binds you successfully where the tumbleweed failed – and you run toward it, hurry inside, before it fades entirely.

The door opens into a grey-grained passage. A black and white horror movie-set. No wind blows, but the chill here is deeper, like you’ve stepped into an abattoir where your memories hang, frozen corpses on hooks. Bare cracked lino curling up at the skirting boards like bread in old sandwiches covers the floor. Dusty cobwebs hang from the ceiling. Shrouds. They caress your face and whisper words, as only cobwebs can. You brush them away, but like the tumbleweed, they cannot resist you or the life you bring here. Damp-infested wallpaper peels from the walls in jagged strips. It sees your fading hope, and flays away more layers. Strips you bare.

Upstairs, the safe place where your mother rocked you and told you that she would protect you forever and ever and ever, beckons. But the stairs have collapsed with your own advancing decay, and so you must go forward, down the passageway to your grandfather’s bedroom, hoping for solace. You hear music playing – his favourite tune, although you can’t remember its name – but it’s discordant and jarring, and still the memories scream and writhe on their hooks, begging for release.

Past your grandfather’s bedroom is the scullery, that place where the darkness lives, and where the floor is covered with putrescent treacle that willfully impedes your movement. You don’t want to go down here, it leads to oblivion, but you hear the memories cry for you again, and you know you must face annihilation rather than abandon them. So you step into the living dark, you allow it to hold you in its arms, you endure its penetration, become utterly filled with emptiness, and you survive the ordeal, to emerge at the kitchen door, where freedom and memory wait for you to liberate them.

You open the kitchen door and step outside.

You walk down the street, wondering how you came to be here…

 

 

On the Stories We Tell Ourselves, the Fictions We Create. Part 1: ‘The Little Girl Who Was Afraid’.

 

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” — Jonathan Gottschall, (2013) The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Mariner Books.

I’ve always loved making up stories. We all love them; as highly complex social creatures we have evolved to be curious about the lives of others, and stories help us feel connected. We read about heroes, and wish we were brave. We read about antagonists and recoil at their evil (or unwillingly admire it). We read about cute little animals dressed up in human clothes, and smile at the anthropomorphism, because we relate everything back to ourselves, remind ourselves of our humanity. We crave stories that engage us, that thrill us, perversely, even tales that terrify us. To experience vicariously the lives of others. And we are all storytellers. We enjoy recounting our experiences, our loves, our hates, our political opinions, to others who will listen and who then tell their own stories as a reward. So we can relate. That is in the nature of being the complex, highly developed social animals that we are.

And then there are the stories we tell ourselves too. We tell them in the silent noise of our memories, in vivid daydreams, and the too-real depths of nightmare sleep. Those stories are often as unreal as any fictions; although the events recalled may be accurate, the perceptions are often misremembered (memory is notoriously unreliable); or they become tangled and twisted and end up becoming our own horror stories, worse than any writer could create. Because in our over-developed, modern brains, these tangled twisted misrememberings are real.

As mentioned before, I’ve grown up as a people-pleasing, body-loathing, anxious person, which has led to several bouts of deep depression. The stories I’ve told myself – I’m rubbish at everything, I’m stupid, I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m unlovable – have developed over many years into patterns. Into fictions I’ve learned to believe.

 

Once upon a time, there was a little girl. She was adored by her parents, who used to told her how perfect she was, how much they had longed and longed for her, so much, that when she came along, she was more precious than all the jewels in the world. She was cared for and cossetted, wrapped up in soft cotton, especially by her mother, who believed that the world was a Bad Place for her little girl to go out into.

‘You might be taken away if you leave the safety of our home,’ the mother would say. ‘There are Bad People out there who would do anything to hurt a precious creature such as yourself.’ And she would look out of the window at the Big Bad World, and the Bad People who lived in it, with terror in her eyes, and the little girl would look too, and she began to feel afraid.

 

Who really knows where our anxieties stem from? Through a lot of counselling – this time, and others – I’ve come to learn the origins of my own. I was a cossetted only child, I was, without sounding ungrateful, loved too much. So much that I always felt I had to prove how much I loved back. Of course that didn’t go through my young mind – not exactly like that – but pleasing my parents, respecting my parents and those older than me, members of my family who would protect me, was all I knew. If I did anything to rock that particular boat, then I would suffer, and everyone I loved would be hurt. And so the storyline began: I can’t be on my own. If I’m on my own, Bad Things will happen. And the people I love will suffer.

And then my mother went out to work. Or tried to.

 

The little girl doesn’t understand what’s happening. Her mother is dressing herself up; she looks different somehow, although the little girl can’t really say why. It’s quite early in the morning too, and yet they’re getting ready to go out. When the little girl asks why, the mother says, ‘Mummy has a new job. So you’re going to meet a new lady who’ll look after you.’

            The little girl doesn’t like the sound of that. She knows that having ‘a job’ means leaving the house to go somewhere to ‘work’. She knows this because her father goes out to work and brings home money to live on, and to buy her new dollies. But although she feels scared, she doesn’t believe her mother with leave her, and so she allows her mother to get her dressed, and follows her like a lamb to the slaughter (although this is a term she has never heard, but I’m saying it here now, because that’s what she was).

 

I was about three years old, pre-school anyway, and this was the very first time my mother had ever left me with anyone else. Including, at that stage, my father, because our activities at weekend were always family events. So being faced with Something New was scary. But even as we walked away from our house, round the corner into another street, I didn’t believe anything would really change. That’s the thing about children – even in the worst scenarios, they trust.

 

The little girl looks toward the house they’ve arrived at. It’s a house much like the one she lives in, a terraced house, but it looks looming and forbidding, somehow tumbledown and threatening, like one of the scary castles she’s learned about in fairy tales. She clings to her mother’s hand more tightly, and looks up at her. Her mother looks down at her and smiles. She drags her feet as they walk to the front door. It’s black, like the sealed entrance to a cave, and the little girl doesn’t want to go in, in case there are monsters. She feels tears threatening; her throat closes up. She clings tighter still to her mother, who has knocked on the door. A witch opens it. She is dressed in a wrap-over housecoat that looks tatty and stained. Her hair is hidden under a scarf tied like a turban, but the strands that escape it are grey and flimsy. She wears no makeup on her coarse features, and she is smoking a cigarette, which she holds between two yellow-stained fingers. When she smiles, it’s like the opening of a grave. The little girl’s mother doesn’t seem worried though. Instead she smiles and tells the little girl the witch’s name, and that she’s going to stay with her while Mummy goes to work. The little girl doesn’t take it in, doesn’t understand. All she understands, with rush of utter terror, is that her mother is going to leave her with The Witch. With a Bad Person.

            She opens her mouth and begins to scream.

 

In the end, my mother did leave me with the woman, who of course, wasn’t a witch at all, but a reliable adult who never intended me any harm at all. But I screamed all morning, and all the next day too. I screamed and cried so much that my poor mother had to leave her job and stay at home with me again. She didn’t get her next job until I was at school, and then it was part-time; she was always home when I was. Now I understand the sacrifice she made then. Now I understand the need she had to be something other than a mother – it was never good enough for her. But of course that little girl I was then didn’t understand. And so a terrible fear of abandonment was added to the list of narratives I was beginning to tell myself.

I’ve always loved making up stories…