a harm has been done to you

Greetings.

I have been noticeably absent for a while, mainly because I have actually – wait for it – been coping well! I know; I’m as shocked as you are. Sooner or later in life, I really am going to have to develop the habit of writing at times when I’m not going through some sort of emotional turmoil.

That isn’t to say that I’m unhappy now, because I’m not. It is to say that on Tuesday I had my first therapy session, after having been on the waiting list since July (because fuck the Government). It drew some feelings that I usually keep tamped down right back up to the surface – the same way, I guess, that oil rises in your pores when steam collects – and I’m going to collect a few of them here.

First things first, I very much like my therapist. I’ve seen a fair few over the years and every one of them has been very different. My favourite to date has been the last one that I saw, when I was at university, because I felt that she engaged with my way of expressing things and was on the same wavelength, as opposed to benevolently administrating from up-high. This latest therapist reminded me of her in her style, and was also very clued in on mindfulness and self-compassion, which are both practices that resonate strongly with me.

Even though it was only one hour long session, I felt really safe and left feeling like I’d made headway and come to some realisations. This is unusual for me; it usually takes me three or four counselling appointments before I ‘break the ice’ and feel like I’m actually getting somewhere. I don’t know whether this difference is because of my therapist (I should give her a name – we’ll call her Jane) or simply because some time has passed since I last engaged in therapy and I’ve gained some self-awareness. Whatever the reason, it’s welcome.

Another reason that I feel this course of treatment might potentially prove useful to me is that for the first time in therapy I actually was able to talk about high school. I’ve been in counselling, on and off, since I was fourteen, and one would assume – especially since my first high school and things that happened there were the original incentive for me receiving therapy – that those experiences would have come up in detail before now. They haven’t. I always found a way to evade and deflect, or outright say that I didn’t want to talk about it. Some professionals pushed, but they all eventually left it.

This is the first time that I have felt an actual desire to discuss this part of my past in a counselling setting, and I think that’s a good sign. My instincts also tell me that Jane is a good person to talk to about this. The style of therapy that she specialises in is one that I hadn’t heard of before, known as Transactional Analysis. It is based on analysing everyday interactions through the lens of four principles, which are drawn from Buddhism. She told me all four, but the one that really stuck with me was this one: everybody deserves respect, regardless of their behaviour. I agree with this fiercely, yet I find it hard to practise at times, both in regards to myself and in relation to people whom I harbour anger at. So that is something that I’m keen to explore further.

The mention of anger brings me to what was, for me, the biggest revelation of the meeting. We had talked for a while, about my history of mental health, the bullying at school, the main triggers of my anxiety, and it was nearing the end of the hour, when Jane stood up and went to the whiteboard (most therapy rooms have whiteboards, for anyone who is unfamiliar with them). I can’t remember exactly what we had been talking about immediately prior to this, but I have a feeling that it was to do with how lonely I was during my early teens. All I know for certain is that at no point – not throughout the entire time we were talking, if my memory is right – had I felt angry, or even mentioned the word anger. Yet, that’s the word that she wrote on the board, slap-bang in the middle, with a circle around it.

ANGER

Just like that.

Then she said, “Can you tell me what you think of when you see that word?” I began to think, but she said, “No, don’t consider it – just tell me your first thoughts.”

So I said, “Something to be repressed. Something that complicates things.”

“Why is that?”

“Because I’ll hurt other people, or myself.”

“How might you do that?”

“By saying things.”

“And why would that be a bad thing?”

“Because they wouldn’t like me.”

All of this wasn’t news to me – i.e. I’m aware that I’m not the greatest at expressing anger healthily; rather, it all builds up until I snap over something tiny and then feel awful and stupid. And I also already knew what she said next, which is that that particular attitude towards anger is a typical, socially-ingrained female response. Anger isn’t pretty, anger isn’t nurturing, anger isn’t becoming. Sure, we can cry when we’re angry – but we can’t shout. The convenient thing about tears, of course, is that they don’t verbally express anything; they have no power to move events in any direction. I was familiar with all of these interpretations.

But I was not expecting what came next. Which was that she drew another line from the word ‘ANGER’ and wrote, in capital letters:

A HARM HAS BEEN DONE TO YOU

She wrote that, and I read it. Then she said, “You know, anger actually serves a very important purpose. It’s an absolutely vital part of our survival as a species. Anger happens when we recognise that a harm has been done to us. Its function is to provide us with the drive to go out and right that wrong.”

Then she said, “Imagine if a friend of mine broke something that I loved, say an ornament of sentimental value. I’m angry and I tell them that I’m angry, so they apologise and replace the ornament. Issue resolved: I can let go of the anger. But what if they don’t apologise? What if they say, ‘I did nothing wrong and I’m not sorry?’ Well, then that get’s more complicated. It means that in order to let go of the anger I need to reach an acceptance of it.”

While she was talking I was listening to her and just reading and re-reading this phrase that she’d written: A HARM HAS BEEN DONE TO YOU. And I felt that prickly feeling in your eyes that you get when you want to cry. I didn’t cry; I don’t cry very often, which is something that I’m sure would surprise anyone who knew me as a child, because I was a real crybaby. But as I grew up the opposite happened and now I rarely cry, even if I want to. And never, ever in counselling sessions, even though I’ve had a lot of them over a period of nearly ten years.

I’m trying to take this as a good sign, even if it’s a bit of a scary one.

I wondered why Jane had focused on anger, despite my not showing or mentioning it, and she told me that she just thought it was to be expected that I was angry, given that I’d never really gained any closure from the bullying situation (read: I ran away. Though she didn’t say that). And she said that anger repressed enough can manifest as anxiety, or as a multitude of other unpleasant emotions, and eat away at you until you express it.

The idea of expressing it frightens me. But then, a lot of things frighten me and I do them anyway. Such is one of the few advantages of having an anxiety disorder: if I can leave the house, I can do anything.

Though, I can’t help but wonder – how can someone atone if what they broke was you? They can’t replace me with a shiny new version of myself, the person I might have been if they hadn’t decided to hurt me. I don’t think I even want them to. So what do I say to them? Nothing, I expect. I think I might as well bypass that part and move straight onto finding acceptance, both of their behaviour and of mine.

I don’t know how to do that, either.

I hope 2018 is the year that I learn.

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facing it

1.

You can recognise them, but only if you know what to look for. That bird-beak tautness of the face and the squinched lines of the jaw: these are the calling cards of the walking wounded.

2.

I have said goodbye to you in a thousand different incarnations and not one of them has stuck.

3.

The weird thing about death is, it consigns everything to definite. I don’t just mean in the obvious way, as in yeah, the person’s definitely dead and yeah, they’re not coming back. But what no-one tells you before it happens, is that their death, it’s going to define you forever, in relation to whatever you were to them. Or whatever you weren’t. You never see it any vacuities in obituaries, do you? No, ‘Sort ofs’ or ‘almosts’ or ‘on again, off agains.’ Just the concrete things. Husband, sister, mother, friend. That sort. Or nothing at all. There’s no room for anything that isn’t static, when the rest of the world’s turned upside down.

4.

How do you mourn when there isn’t space for you to do so?

5.

We were drawing at your coffee table, thick paper and lead-smudged noses. You rubbed out my face and inserted another. Your pencil pressed the page harder than mine did, so that even when I rubbed so hard the paper tore, I couldn’t quite erase your marks.

6.

You were the colour of melted wax, strung up to bags of sugar-water from your nose and wrist. I imagined that they were wicks and the steady stream of nutrition running through them was fire, lighting your veins with the candle-flame flicker that you had lost. I said, ‘How are you?’ and you said, ‘Can you look at the IV for me, at the back of the bag? I want to know what they’re pumping me full of.’ I pretended not to hear and you huffed a breath, pissed, but still held out an arm to me. I sat on the bed and you took my hand and it was all bone and bloodless capillaries, your fingernails clubbed and mauve, your knuckles mottled like chicken skin.

I said, ‘When do you think you’ll be out?’

‘Fuck knows,’ you said. The word was too big in your mouth and you held it carefully, presenting it bloody and broken like a cat with a kill, and I pulled my breath in so that my nostrils flared. I turned my voice to syrup, to toffee, to meringue, and said, ‘Oh, that’s a shame, we all miss you so much,’ and stayed as smooth as a chocolate river for the rest of the time I talked.

7.

I lost you when I was nine. I lost you when I was eleven. I lost you when I was fourteen, seventeen, eighteen and twenty. Over and over, the emptiness has re-entered me and there are times when I feel that all I am defined by is absence.

8.

The Nile ain’t just a river in Egypt, and I became good at swimming it. I carried Splenda in the pockets of my heart and whenever affairs became too jagged I dunked a couple into my dialogue. That’s what I became brilliant at, rowing myself along that river on a constant chatter of empty sweetness. Only I knew how empty I was, that besides all that sugar I was running on nothing but the white-hot fizz that sets up shop in your limbs when your heart is dying a long and terrible death. How could I tell anyone? I needed to protect them, and if my innocence was a comfort to them, that was what I would be.

The more you shrank, the more space you took up. The more space you took up, the more I shrank to accommodate you. A feeding cycle, of sorts.

9.

I’m lonelier than I remember how to be and God, I have never cried over anyone the way I cried over you.

10.

I received a card from you when you were in hospital, a red and gold peacock crested on the front, flowers and leaves ornate around the edges. There was something of a Faberge design about it, and I knew what you were doing, knew it in the pit of my gut even before I released the squashed-ant scrawls of your biro. I read it six times over and then I fetched the kitchen scissors and severed your love and promise and please into kaleidoscopic fragments and on each of the broken pieces of the whole I wrote my words over yours.

11.

How do you carve a crevice for yourself out of the ruins of what used to be?

12.

If you think that you will beat me down like dough to be kneaded or earth to be tamped, then I have a whole world of contradictions for you locked into this head of mine. I am more than what was, more than what I regret, more than what was made of me and more than what I failed to make of the glittering vestibules thrown at my feet. I am fire and water, earth and air, scars and stories and I swear with all of the marrow in my bones that I will keep on living and oh, I will set this nebula on fire. The world began with the destruction of a star, so let mine begin with it, with the implosion of light and loss that your absence in the world has gifted me with, darling. Ungive: in a faded language, this means to thaw. I will ungive myself, day by day and night by night, until these memories lay claim to me no more and I can mourn for you as a whole and walk this path not as a ghost or a wraith or a banshee but as a being whose footprints will mark this earth like stamps. Don’t cry for the loss of stars, because the universe is made up of them and without loss there would not be growth. Without change there would not be movement and without movement there would be no summer, no winter, no day or night, no sunlight, no starshine, and it is true that none of these things exist in your absence, but that will change and I know that you would wish that. Movement. That’s all we can do really, isn’t it? Just keep on moving until we stop.

13.

I live off these words, they are my breakfast, lunch and dinner. I breathe them in and they fill the space inside me like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, slotted in neatly to stopper the weeping of my wounds. Words and wounds: what difference, really, is there?

14.

You hurt me. You hurt me. You will never stop hurting me. Past, present and future, it is what it is, and you are what you are, but what you are not and never will be is a regret. You are my greatest fear and my deepest sorrow and you are the wheels that keep me moving onwards, down this path, wherever it might lead. I am scared of you and I love you and I hate you and I laugh at you and I am beginning to make my peace with all of these things existing as one, together and apart. Together and apart, that is you and me. Together and apart, imperfect and scarred, is how we have to be.

15.

When there isn’t a word to describe how you feel, do those feelings cease to exist? When there isn’t a space in your culture’s vocabulary laid aside to you, do you yourself cease to exist? Do you become invisible? Or do you just become deeply, deeply desolate?

16.

You came into my room and lay on my legs. You pushed your face into the hollow of my back and I felt you say, ‘I’m not enough, am I?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘You’re too much.

17.

The other day I saw a girl who had your face.

18.

As time goes by I see more and more of them, the people with your face. Less is more, and the lesser they are the more I see you in them. I wonder sometimes – did I ever see you at all? Or every time I laid eyes on you, on your mug holder ribs and ski-slope hips, was I in fact seeing, and loving, a different creature altogether?

– about that time someone I loved starved herself to bones and carved herself into mine.

bumblebee

A bumblebee flew into my hair

And you were surprised that I was not scared

Because you have seen me when wasps

Buzz and bluster around

Know how I tremble into a statue:

Don’t hurt me don’t hurt me don’t hurt me –

You said, Why aren’t you afraid?

 

Because, I thought, the same stripes

Don’t make two beasts siblings

And wasps will sting for no better reason

Than to feel you shudder as they pierce

You, spurt their acid into soft flesh;

I feel they triumph in seeing me cry.

But bees can’t break my skin without losing

A part of themselves, cannot take from me

Without the tenderest part of them dropping

Right out, leaving them unwhole.

 

I do not wish to hate

A creature

That is just trying to

Survive.

 

growth

I dream of my mother. She is kneeling in front of me with her arms full of cotton wool, antiseptic wipes and swathes of white bandages. She is wrapping them around my feet, first bunching up the cotton wool, then wrapping the bandages tightly around them, tenderly. She is telling me that growing pains are normal for girls my age, that cramps in the feet are common, that this will help. She is wrapping my feet around and round, and all the while I am telling her that the pain isn’t there at all.

glacier

“This pain

It is a glacier moving through you

And carving out deep valleys

And creating spectacular landscapes.” – John Grant, Glacier*


It’s been a strange week.

I’m working through some things at the moment, but am finally at a point where instead of it stalling my writing, I’m able to channel it in. As I alluded to in my last ‘personal’ blog, the project I’m currently working on is based more strongly on my own experiences than anything I’ve written since I was sixteen. I’m finding that scary, but also cathartic and I’m rather enjoying the novelty of it.

What I’m not enjoying so much is the memories it’s bringing back, the majority of which I thought I’d processed and got over. I think  this might be why I’ve historically avoided writing stories with teen protaganists, and, in my actual teenage years, veered away from YA fiction as though it bore the plague. There are some things that really only do with being experienced once.

Minds are weird things. Sometimes they wait until you’re in a healthy place, with a clearer perspective than in the past, and then – BAM! Time to feel that pain all over again, just when you thought it couldn’t touch you any more.

Writing is helping, though. So is talking about it. I’m lucky that my friends are patient, and present, and that people are kind. I’m also lucky that my protagonists are complying with my whims. Long may it last (I suspect it won’t last for that long; the characters I create rarely do what I intend them to).

I suspect that a key trigger behind my current foray down memory lane is, in fact, my characters. Namely my main character. I didn’t intend, when writing her, for her to bear similarities to myself at that age, but she does. I didn’t intend, either, for her to be a particularly likeable person, at least not initially, and she isn’t. She’s all snark and sullenness and awkward anger, inexpertly plastered down over her wounds. She’s hurting hard, and she’s her own worst enemy, and she’s got a hell of a road ahead of her.

I guess the difference, this time, is that I know she’ll be okay.

Running through my head over the past week or so has been a note that I wrote to myself yonks ago – nearly ten years, in fact – in the margin of a workbook: ‘One day this pain will be useful to you’.

I think that day has come.


*This quote, and the title of this post, is from a song called Glacier by John Grant, which I discovered very recently and have been listening to fairly obsessively. It’s number one on my playlist for this writing project, and it may have made me cry at my desk just a wee bit today when I listened to it while working. Anyway, here it is.

 

gardenia

I dreamed of you, last night. We were standing in the garden over the river, with the round wall that we sat on all those years ago, eating from lunchboxes. I could smell gardenias, knew bumblebees would be lurching about, drunk on the scent, and you were beside me, and we looked out.

The houses are huge in this part of the city. Sprawling over the banks, they stretch out like cats in the sun all the way to the meadows, where the grass runs parched and gorse bushes reign. Did we go there as children? I can’t remember. I don’t think we did, I think we only went down to the river, with school, and school is how we would have been there together, that was the link that fused us.

I wonder, in the way that I have lately, in the loosened moments between asleep and awake, why that bond was ever enough to hurt me when it was cut. We were not friends in any context other than classrooms, strangers who smiled in the street, guilelessly when we were five-six-seven, bashfully when we were nine-ten-eleven, and then not at all, or mocking, or ashamed, I never could tell: your glasses frames hid your face too well.

Anyway, this is a dream and we are standing together, in the curve of stone above the river in this city where we grew up in classrooms together, and I say, ‘Why?’

I don’t know if it is before or after this that you begin to cry, but you do, and perhaps I am a better person in my dreams than I ever have been in flesh, walking silent behind you when others shouted, hiding in taciturn terror, telling myself I was justified in my hypocrisy. I must be better, because I put my arms around you, first round your back, then your head, because you are warm and crying and I want you to stop, I do not want you to hurt.

So we stand there, in the curve of the cusp of the city and the care of years falls away, the gardenia-smell is strong and you are alive and I am glad you are, and gladder still that so am I, heart a-thrum with a beat that it would never have learned without everything that came before. And I feel a tremendous sense of grace.

When I wake, I understand that I have forgiven you.

ungive

If you think that you will beat me down like dough to be kneaded or earth to be tamped, then I have a whole world of contradictions locked into this head of mine. I am more than what I was, more than what I regret, more than what was made of me and more than what I failed to make of the glittering vestibules thrown at my feet. I am fire and water, earth and air, scars and stories and I swear with all of the marrow in my bones that I will keep on living and oh, I will set this nebula on fire. The world began with the destruction of a star, so let mine begin with it, with the implosion of light and loss that your absence in the world has gifted me with, darling. Ungive: in a faded language, this means to thaw. I will ungive myself, day by day and night by night, until these memories lay claim to me no more and I can mourn for you as a whole and walk this path not as a ghost or a wraith or a banshee but as a being whose footprints will mark this earth like stamps. Don’t cry for the loss of stars, because the universe is made up of them and without loss there would not be growth. Without change there would not be movement and without movement there would be no summer, no winter, no day or night, no sunlight, no starshine, and it is true that none of these things exist in your absence, but that will change and I know that you would wish that. Movement. That’s all we can do really, isn’t it? Just keep on moving until we stop.