Meanderings

 

I don’t know why I’m writing this. I don’t have anything to say that can possibly be any different from what other, more articulate, people have already said better than I can say it. I don’t have anything inspirational to say about this awful situation. I can find no inspiration. My mind is blank except for this constant and overwhelming dread. And now I sound like some B character who’s about to die an unremarkable death some B movie. Forgettable. Undefined. Completely unimportant in the grand scheme of this pandemic horror show that’s playing out in front of our unbelieving eyes.

And yet today, when I’m really struggling, when I can’t stop weeping, I feel the need to write this down. To expel it, vomit it onto the page in the hope of bursting the abscess festering in the pit of my stomach. I’m a writer, aren’t I? Someone who’s supposed to live through words. Not this fraud who’s forgotten what words are, who lives, right now, in a maelstrom of useless emotion. So I’m writing. It may not be my best writing, but I’m writing for now, because now is all there is. Cliche without the accent. Words without meaning. Meaning without… meaning. Besides, when I was having counselling, my counsellor advised that writing it all down would concretise my thoughts. Give them shape. And ironically, before this, I’d wanted to work towards helping others through writing, become a writing therapist. So let’s try it on me, shall we? I’ll try to be my own therapist and see if it helps. A little.

My mind has gone blank, so I’ll write through it. I’ll write a list of what I miss. It’ll be a list, in no particular order, and it’ll be a list of things, no doubt, that other people will miss too, depending on their own circumstances. 

I miss…

Seeing my children.

Hugging my children.

(Those two things are in fact top of the list because – to be brutal – I’m afraid that… I can’t put that into words. Read the dots as you will.)

Socialising with my wonderful colleagues, who are also my friends. 

Eating tapas in a tapas bar.

London (yes it’ll still be there when this is over, but I miss it now.).

Work – or at least going into work, having the face to face interaction with students instead of this facsimile of a sham of online teaching that feels so sterile, so… unsatisfying (but yes, I know there’s no choice, and it keeps me busy!).

Shopping for trivial things that are, in all honesty, meaningless. I realise, at least, the difference (now) of want, not need. I guess that’s a Good Thing. Check my privilege, right? 

Going to bed at night without the dread of closing my eyes because of the things I imagine in the darkness of my brain.

Going birdwatching, especially to RSPB Rainham Marshes, with its wonderful vistas. Soon chicks will be hatching. I wish I could see that.

Decent chocolate. 

Going shopping in a big supermarket.

My imagination – or at least the part of it that dreams up fiction and wants to write it. I do not miss the part of my imagination that tells me that there will be no end to this. Ever. Because that’s still there, louder and more vivid than ever before.

Enough of that for now. I feel the abscess tensing. Not quite yet at a head. Not yet ready to burst. 

So let’s make a gratitude list. Because despite it all, and under all the pain, there is gratitude. I know all too well how privileged I am to even be able to write this at all. That knowledge doesn’t always help. But it’s there. So the list, again in no particular order.

The love I feel for my children, and the love they feel for me. I’m lucky to have that.

Talking to my children on the phone, on FaceTime, via WhatsApp, on Instagram. Knowing that although they’re not with me physically, we are together virtually, and bound by something stronger than touch.

My partner, who abandoned his own home without a second though to move in here with me when the lockdown went… down. 

My friends, who are all, in their own way, coping with this in their own ways. Unity in hardship, in difficulty, in pain and, importantly, again, in hope and love.

That I have enough food. That I can afford to buy food.

That I still have my job, that I’m still being paid to do it.

Books. Without books I couldn’t stay even slightly sane.

Food TV. Thank god for shows like Masterchef, Great British Menu, reruns of Rick Stein and the Hairy Bikers.

Beauty YouTube. My safe space.

My own home, with no mortgage.

(So far) my physical health. People I know are ill from this vile disease. May they recover soon.

Sunshine and fresh air and being allowed, for a short time, to be out in it. At a safe social distance of course.

Those are the things I can think of for now. Of course there are more. I will discover them, I hope, these lights in the darkness. 

I don’t know if this has helped me (or anyone else), but it has indeed put the sucking whirlpool thought in black and white. Given them form, rather the formless chaos they were before. In fact, writing this felt like an act of self-preservation, the page a place of safety. So I guess more words are needed.

Love and hope to all. 

 

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…