World Mental Health Day

So it’s World Mental Health Day, and I’m watching a video made by a colleague for their students, explaining how they themselves live with anxiety/depressive disorder. It struck me as an act of bravery – the university as an institution would no doubt frown upon this act as being ‘unprofessional’ and ‘too personal’. I put these words in quote marks because I can imagine them being spoken by managers – and maybe by other colleagues too – who see our function are purely providing a service which does not involve too much personal involvement. And I can understand that. As lecturers, we are not counsellors. We cannot give advice, as such, because we are not trained to do so. We are, on a pastoral level, there to direct students to support services who can advise. But we can listen, and we must listen. If you feel listened to, if you feel that you can talk to someone without judgement, without bias, but with empathy and understanding, then surely you’re more likely to be able to build a bond of trust with that person. Perhaps, through that bond of trust a person who otherwise would not have sought help, will. Empathetic listening will, just possibly, save a life. And that is why I feel my colleague has made a big step over a line that the institution may see as something we maybe shouldn’t cross. But if we can help, maybe save a life, then that is worthwhile. And it’s why I believe that everyone in professions like ours should be helped to learn that most valuable skill.

For myself, someone who also lives with anxiety/depressive disorder – note I don’t say ‘suffering’, because although I do suffer, in periods of non-suffering, I’m still living with the condition – I am also open with my students. I mean, I don’t announce in class, ‘Oh hi, I’m Lesley and I have mental health issues!’ because that would be totally inappropriate, but if a student comes to me to discuss an issue, then – again, if appropriate – as well as listening mindfully, I can also reassure them that they’re not alone. That I have, in some way, experienced what they might be experiencing, or at least can understand their pain.

Empathy.

Despite this, I have wondered – sometimes worried – if I am too open (examples would be keeping and sharing this blog with anyone who wants to read it, having honest discussions with students on other occasions, posting on Twitter and Facebook) but watching my colleague’s video – a true and honest account of their own condition – has helped me to understand that actually, I’m a human being sharing my humanity, my story, and my experience and understanding. And in a time where as a society, we’re trying to raise awareness about mental health in the contexts of maintaining good mental health and helping others and ourselves to cope when we’re having issues, surely I need to be part of that on-going conversation. It would be wrong of me, immoral of me, a person who communicates for a living, not to participate in that conversation. And so I will.

I will say openly now that I’m struggling quite a bit. It’s an adjustment to a stressful time at work, which hopefully will begin to settle soon. And I’m trying to remember to use the techniques I learned in therapy sessions. Reminding myself that the world isn’t going to fall in if I don’t do something perfectly. Learning not to catastrophise. To make the most of the moments of peace that I do manage to find. It’s really hard now, but I feel I’m recovering a little quicker than I was before. And I’m going part-time too, to address the work-life balance.

I’m looking towards a future that might be better than the past few years.

The charity Mind has some great ideas about talking to people who may be vulnerable, or people you may be worried about. The ‘Ask Twice’ campaign (https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/asktwice/) for example, is worth taking a look at. People often ask, ‘are you okay?’ to which the answer may well be ‘yeah, thanks’. And people often are okay. But sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they may feel they can’t open up. Shame, fear, social stigma, not wanting to be a burden, and many more factors can stop us from expressing what we really want to say.

So today, on World Mental health Day, and then beyond, for those of who are able, let us join in the conversation about mental health issues. Let us use our humanity and develop compassion so that we are able to listen, learn to empathise, not just sympathise. Let us be open with people so that bit by bit, we can erode the stigma that’s still there.

Florence Part One: In Search of a Sense of Peace

‘Florence is considered to be the artistic, historical, and cultural capital of not only Tuscany, but of all Italy. Its physical elegance coexists beautifully with the il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing) lifestyle of the Florentines and it reveals the city in a strong, yet gentle way that makes us want to delve deep into its art, culture, and history.’ – (Remembering Florence and its Renaissance Beauty at https://www.globotreks.com/destinations/italy/remembering-florence-renaissance-beauty/)

 

We – my daughter Kat, and I – land at Florence airport late afternoon, and step into an inferno of sunshine. We have arrived, and I look forward to having a new adventure, but also to decompressing after what has been an awful year for me in terms of my mental health. Perhaps even finding some peace in my still too-cluttered mind.

When Kat suggested we should go to Florence for our annual break together, I was initially not overly excited. Last year I’d completely lost my heart to Rome, a bucket list destination, and Florence had never really been on my go-to list. How could it possibly compete with the Eternal City? I’ll hold up my hands now and say, I was wrong. Totally and absolutely. As soon as I set foot on Florentine soil, I have the sense of homecoming, much like I’d had with Rome last year, but in a quieter, more gentle way.

A quick tram ride from the airport takes us to our hotel, The Apollo Guesthouse (http://www.apolloguesthouse.it/en), which is set in a huge apartment building. We enter through a big wooden communal door into a large atrium and an old-fashioned lift takes us up to the third floor into a lovely small hotel, where the manager shows us into a big, bright and airy room. He tells us a little about our location – a mere ten minute walk from Florence’s Renaissance centre. I’m excited to begin to explore, to leave behind (if that’s possible) at least some of my worries and concerns for the upcoming academic year, and try to live in the moment.

After unpacking and a brief rest, we leave our hotel and make the short walk through narrow streets to the Duomo – the Cathedral of Santa Maria Fiore – where I am left almost speechless by what I’m seeing, by its sheer size and unexpected beauty. I’ve seen it in photos, read about it, but that hasn’t  prepared me for actually seeing it, just like last year, when I wasn’t prepared to come face to face with the Colosseum or treading in the footsteps of Julius Caesar. I’m suddenly in tears, overwhelmed and moved by what I’m seeing. How it speaks to some deeper part of me. To the dreamer that is so often repressed by the pressures and stresses of my ‘real’ life. These monuments from a long ago past affect me so much; their timelessness, the knowledge that I’m in the presence of the genius of their creators, and the feeling that I’ve been transported to a kind of fantasyland, makes me want to create. So it is with my first view of the Duomo, with its intricate facades, its light and shade chiaroscuro. I’m not a religious person, but the sense of the numinous in this place that transcends words is so strong I can almost touch it.

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As we explore, we discover that Florence is a city of narrow roads and alleys, which suddenly widen into piazzas that bubble with life. Around every corner there’s something new, something that will take the breath away. On that first early evening we wander, quite by chance, into the walled garden of the Palazzo Medici, built by Michelozzi for Cosimo Medici between 1444 and 1484. We linger a while in the garden, with its fruiting lime trees (something that excites me almost as much as the architecture) absorbing the atmosphere, which, despite the few tourists who, like us, are admiring the classical statues, the mosaics on the floor, is peaceful and respectful. This was to become, in the few short days I was in Florence, a feeling I carried with me. That sense of peace. It wasn’t that the city was empty, because it wasn’t  – it’s August, after all, the height of the tourist season, and the city has a vibrant feeling of life – it was just that it induced that hoped-for sense of peace in me. An absolute sense of peace that I’m trying to hold on to, now I’m back.

We wander a little more – well, I say wander but in fact we’re in search of gelato (apparently gelato originated in Florence). Kat and I LOVE our food, and she’s done a lot of research into places to eat and drink. On this late afternoon, we’re specifically hunting for a gelateria in the close-by San Lorenzo area, My Sugar (https://my-sugar.business.site), a tiny independently owned shop tucked away down the Via di’ Ginori. The owners are a young couple, and today we’re looked after by the female half of the partnership, who takes our orders, which we make in badly pronounced Italian, but hey, we’re trying, and we experience our first Florentine gelato. I have to say that I can’t remember what Kat had, but I choose the dulce de latte, served in a cup, and the first bite is soft, smooth cold heaven. We move slowly now, savouring the sweetness, toward the Mercato Centrale (https://www.mercatocentrale.com) the covered market complex which has an upstairs eating and drinking area, for a pre-dinner glass of wine, a local rose, taking in the buzzy, vibrant atmosphere. It reminds us a little of the Time Out complex in Lisbon, where we spent some of evenings, and the Mercato will become a similar focus in evenings to come. We chat for a while, excited about what we’ve already seen, and then we go to dinner.

Our first meal in Florence is in a restaurant opposite our hotel – Malatesta (https://www.bracieremalatesta.com/en/)  – and we have a money off voucher. This is very handy, because we’d planned to eat there anyway. We’ve already decided to order the bisteca alla Fiorentina, the traditional Florentine steak, cut from the Tuscan breed of cattle, the Chianina. The waiter – friendly and helpful on what to choose, takes our order, and we wait, drinking a very good house white wine and nibbling on bread. When the steak came, we gasp at the sheer size of it (a Florentine steak is meant to be about three to four fingers high, and we’ve ordered the traditional cut, all 1.5 kilos of it!), the Australian couple next to us laugh. The waiter, as he cuts the very rare meat from the bone, seems to think we won’t  manage it all, and that it might be too rare for us, so we take that as a challenge. It’s hard work, but we eat it. All. And since we both like our steak rare, that isn’t a problem. I think the waiter is impressed!

 

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And so ends our first evening in Florence. We go back to our hotel, just across the road, full of steak and wine, and watch Friends on Netflix. I realise, as Kat and I laugh, and chat away about the day, that I can feel a sense of letting go, of having lived in the moments I’ve experienced, AS experiences, instead of being preoccupied with what might stress me out, of what might go wrong or make me anxious or unhappy. I mean, don’t misunderstand: my anxiety is ever-present, even though my depression has gone for now, but today, this evening, here in a magical city, it’s further away than it’s been for an age. I embrace that, and fall asleep easily for the first time in a long time, and look forward to the next day.

 

 

Post Holiday Reflections – I Need a Word

I’ve just come back from an amazing four day break in Florence (taking in a day trip to Venice). It was my second time in Italy (last year I went to Rome) and I’m hopelessly in love with what I’ve seen and experienced (more about that in other posts, once I’ve had time to think about how to present them), so I’ve decided to write a reflection on how I feel now I’m back, and it’s not great. It’s not that my depression has in any way returned – and that’s something I need to keep in mind and perspective – but that I have the strong feeling of being unsettled, of an inner agitation, a sense that things are not right, for me, for now. Being away, and now coming back to ‘real’ life, if you will, has made all that surface again.

I’m aware, of course, that being on holiday is a very different way of life. When we’re away, our worries and concerns (hopefully) disappear, or at least lessen, and we enter a kind of existence that (again, hopefully) frees us, liberates us, from what we’ve left behind. Take last year, for example. Before I left for Rome, I was, and had been for months and months, a depressed and anxious mess. It was so bad just before the holiday that I honestly felt like cancelling it, which was a terrible way to feel, considering that I was going away with my amazing and supportive daughter, and that Rome was a bucket list destination for me. Trying to act normally, but feeling as though I was dying inside, I wanted to cancel up until the point when we were on the plane. I didn’t believe it was possible, given the state I was in, to even think about enjoying myself. And yet, when we arrived in Rome, and I saw the Trevi fountain, busy with tourists (including us, of course) I just burst into relieved tears that I was there. But they were also tears of appreciation of the beauty. Beauty, I have found, however you may define it, has that effect on me. It feeds me, and helps me to feel positive. So that holiday was an amazing experience. I joked about living in Italy for a year, but the actual feeling itself wasn’t a joke. And it isn’t a joke now.

When I saw the sheer beauty that is Florence, when I stepped out of Venice station onto the concourse and saw the Grand Canal, I cried again – again, more on this in later posts. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Why should I be ashamed of being moved by beautiful places, beautiful things? I cried when I left too; it was as though part of my heart had been ripped out and left behind. And that feeling has resurfaced again now I’ve returned. While I was away, I didn’t think about anything else but where I was. I lived in the moment and for the moment.  Now I’m back, I’m living yet again in an uncertain future. I want to be somewhere else that isn’t here in Luton, doing something that isn’t what I’m doing now – not the teaching side of my job, mind you, never that –  but the rest of it, the sense that I’m just working as a cog in a machine that no longer values people, or that treats us respectfully. I go back on social media to find the same divisions, the same hate for anything that is considered ‘wrong’ – ‘You don’t believe the same things as I do? You’re a bad person.’ And I’m less tolerant of it than ever.

I’m all too aware of my extreme idealism, because I know that’s what it is. I know that many people feel that way about their jobs, and their lives, and I think it’s sad. I know I should be grateful for what I have, and on one level, I am. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to tolerate, and post-holiday, after being in a place that inspires me, that makes me want, more and more, to just discover more in general, and myself in particular, what drives me, how I learn to be driven by my passions, my heart yearns to do it. It yearns to really live life, rather than just be a passenger, drifting on the currents.

It all comes back, I guess, to needing change. That elusive ‘something’ that I can’t put my finger on, or define. I know I can’t just up and leave, for many reasons, not least financially, but the temptation to do just that is becoming almost overwhelming. While I was in Florence my daughter and I watched the Italian section of Eat, Pray, Love again. I love that film, it’s hopeful, and celebrates a freedom most of us can only imagine, but it’s a freedom born of despair and misery. But we can’t all afford to take a year out, and we don’t all have the courage to travel alone, as the writer Elizabeth Gilbert did. Again, much of that comes down to courage and the willingness – not just the desire – to change, and a huge amount of faith that one can change one’s life in profound ways. Anyway, I cried (yet again!) watching the beginning of that film, because whatever else Gilbert may be, however privileged she is, she still experienced that desperate unhappiness with her situation, a situation that many people thought she should be grateful for, that they thought she should tolerate, because why would she want to throw it all away? But surely sometimes we have to find the courage and the means to make those changes, take those positive steps to our own peace? Surely sometimes we have to tear it all down to build something new and more meaningful.

Anyway, those are my feelings now. This has been a really difficult year for me, as I’ve written before, but I’m emerging, still emerging, from the deadening cocoon of depression into what needs, so desperately, to lead to a new way of being. Something that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Italian friends said in the film during a discussion about finding a word that sums up where they’re from, and which represents themselves was interesting. It made me think a lot about myself: Elizabeth Gilbert said that she was a writer, but she was told that was what she did, not who she was. Maybe, someone said, she was a woman in search of a word. I kind of couldn’t stop crying at that, because it sums up my emotions now. Coming home to a place that is stagnant (my word for where I live), back to a profession that is ‘lecturer’, which is what I do, has made me think about that line again. Maybe ‘teacher’ is more what I am – and I think there’s a big difference between ‘teacher’ and ‘lecturer’; ‘writer’ is definitely who I am. One of my friends tells me I should be happy because my being a lecturer in creative writing enables me to be a paid writer, but he doesn’t get that it’s not who I am. It’s not the same, although his words, of course, have some logic to them.

So although I’m probably not going to run off to Italy to find myself, tempting though that is (I’d get on a plane right now if I could!), I am going to search for my word, and live it before it’s too late and I’ve lost it forever.

The Parakeets of Hyde Park (and their mental health benefits!)

 

 

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Originally from Africa and southern Asia, ring-necked, or rose-necked parakeets ‘were kept as pets in the UK. They escaped into the wild, however, and have become naturalised in the south-east especially, aided by warmer winters’ (The Wildlife Trust) are birds I can’t resist. According to the RSPB website, they’re ‘large, long-tailed and green with a red beak and a pink and black ring around its face and neck. In flight it has pointed wings, a long tail and very steady, direct flight. Often found in flocks, numbering hundreds at a roost site, it can be very noisy.’

And they are all of those things.

I first came across them in Greenwich Park a few years ago. I heard bird sounds I didn’t recognise – not that I recognised very many then (and don’t always now, either!). Still, despite my inexperience, I knew instinctively that this was something different. The calls were tantalisingly close, and yet, crane my head as I might toward the sounds, hunting for any sight of the bird that made it, but seeing absolutely nothing except the green leaves of the trees, I couldn’t make anything out. I’ve since learned that their brilliant green plumage means they’re superbly camouflaged; seeing them when trees are in leaf is pretty difficult. So I went away that day wondering what I might have heard.

I found out a few weeks later In Richmond when Keith and I walked the River Thames from Richmond to Kew. At the riverside in town, we saw male mandarin ducks, looking like painted toy ducks, which was pretty cool, and then when we walked out of the town centre, we heard that sound again, even more raucous and squawking. And this time we saw them. Loads of bright green birds flocking in the trees on the opposite bank, outside several small apartment blocks. They were clearly visible but we got our binoculars out, of course, and began to watch. And immediately I was in love.

Firstly I couldn’t believe I was watching wild parakeets in London. At the time I didn’t know the extent of their colonisation of London and the South East of England. In this one place there were so many of them – as the RSPB says, a huge flock – we gave up counting. As we continued to walk, we observed more and more, many flying over our heads to the opposite bank, squawking loudly as they flew, something I’ve come to love to watch, like bright green feathery arrows, or fighter planes zooming overhead.

Since then I’ve seen them in all sorts of places. When my daughter and I went to Rome last year, there they were, flying around the top rows of the Colosseum. At that time, despite being in a city I’d always longed to go to, seeing all the things I’d always longed to see, so happy to be there, I was really struggling with my depression. Seeing the parakeets made me ecstatic.

And then Keith and I found their feeding spot in Hyde Park, one of the original Royal Parks in London. Hyde Park isn’t my favourite park. I find it a little uninteresting compared to, say, Regent’s Park, or St James’s Park or the bigger parks like Greenwich. But I do enjoy a walk around the Serpentine, a huge artificial pleasure lake, where people can hire boats and pedaloes, or swim in the lido. I don’t go for any of that. I go for the wildfowl that have colonised the lake. True, it’s not as varied as in some other parks, but I love to watch the mute swans (although I’m quite scared of them) the Canada and Greylag geese, and the zombie-looking Egyptian geese which are, in fact beautifully marked. I enjoy the squabbles of the coots, and especially the cheeping of their young. But best of all, there’s that spot in Hyde Park where parakeets come to be fed. Or rather, where visitors to the park come to feed them. I don’t know how or why this happened but it has, and when you visit the spot, just back of the Albert Memorial, it’s captivating.

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So this Saturday just gone, we were in the area. I was feeling, for whatever reason, pretty anxious and needed a fix, if you will, of parakeets. There were a lot of people there when we arrived, all standing around watching. At first it seemed as though nothing much was going on, but then they came into view. Then I saw people with parakeets on their hands, on their heads, flying around them, as they swooped in for the food that was being offered. Immediately I felt the anxiety drain away, replaced by a feeling of absolute joy and amusement. Now, I understand that animals aren’t here for our entertainment. More and more, I’m furious with so-called human beings who kill other animals for so-called pleasure: big game hunting, fox hunting, murdering raptors on grouse moors, killing the grouse themselves just for fun. I loathe it with a passion. It makes me feel that there’s no hope for humanity, or the creatures we kill. But watching animals – birds especially for me, of course – brings joy and, yes, entertainment. It’s increasingly being shown that interacting with nature (and okay, the parakeet isn’t a native bird, but then the grey squirrel, and rabbit, aren’t native animals either and most of us love watching them, and they’re still part of the natural world!), has beneficial effects on our well-being. For those of us with mental health issues, such encounters have been demonstrated to have healing effects on or overloaded brains. And this how I feel when I see the parakeets of Hyde Park, when I watch them interact with us, cleverly using us to get free food, while yes, we use them too. I feel like all the dark or anxious thoughts are cleansed, replaced by something – well, maybe more light and pure,

Whether or not that’s entirely ethical as a reason to watch wildlife, I don’t know. How do we measure that? But what I do know is that watching wildlife brings joy for so many of us, and we need to appreciate that more. Understand that we’re all interconnected, that everyone benefits, including and especially the creatures we take for granted, and in taking them for granted, seeing them as nothing more than resources or things to be cleared for so-called ‘advancing civilisation’, we are all rushing toward destruction.

It occurred to me, observing the pleasure that parents and their children shared together watching these bright and beautiful noisy birds, that maybe the seeds of something good were being sown. That maybe there is some hope after all.

So, although you can’t read this, thanks, parakeets. Thanks for being part of our urban world, however that happened. Thanks for your bold interactions and allowing us to watch you, and helping us to focus – even for a little while – on something other than the increasingly conflicted world we live in.

 

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https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/ring-necked-parakeet/

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/birds/parakeet/ring-necked-parakeet

https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park

Some (short) Musings on Self-(re)discovery

“And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself?” ― Rumi

 

“Why escape your intended purpose by copying and trying to be someone else? You will discover who you were meant to be only after you have shown confidence being yourself.” ― Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem

 

Every day is a day of recovery. Every day I learn more about myself. It’s a long process and I’m unlearning a lot of previously learned ‘truths’, and while I’m still not entirely well – and what does ‘wellness’ really mean, since it’s a continuum that takes in states of illness-wellness, as proposed by Dr. John Travis in the 1970’s, who stated that ‘Wellness is a process, never a static state’ (link below). I think that wellness for me will involve developing a sense of inner peace, a sense of having and doing things in life that are nurturing, rather than damaging.  My recovery is a process, that continuum of illness-wellness, but I now have to try to work more along the wellness side of the continuum, because I’ve accepted that I may never be entirely well, and that’s okay, it really is, because this kind of knowledge is power. A movement to the side of wellness. As long as I can feel joy, love the people I’m with, do the things I like to do with a sense of pleasure and achievement, and be appreciative of the good things in my life, then that really is fine. I want to write more about that here. To chronicle what gives me joy, whether that be new writing, talking about new or established places that uplift me, or watching and writing about nature, wherever I may find it.

I’ve always been self-reflective, I know myself very well. But this recent breakdown (and it is still relatively recent and I’m still in the healing process) has taught me more about myself than anything that’s gone before. I think this was and still is elicited by an extreme fear of it happening again, and fear can be a great motivator. So I’ve forced myself to look deeper, to really continue, rather than begin, that long journey into myself, in order to recognize and acknowledge the things that that help me, and the things that harm me. I’ve learned that I must accept more of what nurtures me, and can, in a positive way, reject things that cause harm, and to start to build my life into a model of something I can feel comfortable with and excited by.

This will involve a lot of changes, and change, for many of us with any kind of anxiety disorder, is really scary. Up until now, utter terror has kept me static. I still feel that I’m static, mostly because I feel as though I can’t properly move on and plan for my life without certain situations, over which I have limited control, have been resolved. I can’t quite say, ‘screw it, I’m going to do it anyway’, and I’m very aware of time slipping through my fingers. But maybe fear is just an excuse. I have to explore this stasis. What, exactly, other than fear, is holding me back? Why am I allowing myself to remain in situations that are bad for me?

Suzy Kassem’s words hit home to me when I found them. I was searching for quotes about self-discovery for this post, and it occurred to me – as I’ve said in other posts – that I’ve spent my whole life trying not to be me. Reading Kassem’s words put that in clearer focus for me. I’ve copied and tried to be someone else, but I don’t know who that someone else really was. I guess it was someone prettier, thinner, more intelligent, less afraid, more confident than I’ve ever been. Now I think that person doesn’t exist, except in the nagging and critical depths of my nagging imagination. So now I have to consider – who am I meant to be? That looping question – what is ‘myself’? – will be another focus of my continued journey along that continuum. I’m scared of that journey, and I’m scared of what lies at the end of it – although I guess the journey itself will never be at an end.

Life is not some three act hero’s quest fantasy. Life is real, painful, joyous, chaotic, and ever-changing. I really really want to live it to the full before it’s too late.

 

What is Wellness? at http://www.wellpeople.com/WhatIsWellness.aspx

 

Suzy Kassem at https://suzykassem.com

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)

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.