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Perpetual Tigers

shutterstock_322463783Tiredness leapt upon me and pinned me down. “You shall neither rest nor achieve,” it growled. It had come to take advantage of a body and mind left vulnerable by Anxiety who was still watching me from the darkness, plotting and sharpening its claws. 

Fighting for their turns to tear at me; to feed from my body, their potency has grown as I have weakened. They have sucked away the vitamins and minerals I need for energy, thought and deed. Anxiety at my head, my back, my heart, my belly and my skin; Tiredness at my lungs, my muscles, my brain matter and my bones. Clawing, draining, claiming me until I fear I no longer belong to myself. 

Not vultures politely waiting for the peace of a spent body, but murderous carnivores attracted to a living being with fight and the potential to rejuvenate. Parasites slowly depleting and giving nothing in return. 

The weapons to defeat these monsters are complex and many, yet they are short-lived. They are made of paper and candy and smiles, of dreams, of songs and laughter. They can all too easily wash away in a storm. But we who have learnt how to, fold them, sing them, dream them up, write them into our lives; can conjure pictures with no monsters, and pictures where monsters are defeated. You cannot turn away from these monsters, they curl like a snake around and around but if you squeeze your eyes tight shut, balloon your chest full out with air, and hold your weapons close, you can see beyond them to all that you have that they cannot hold; all the space that they cannot fill, all the good dreams and good words. You can see sleep and a calm body. You can see paths to the light and the future. Good things are there if you can reach them.

They will come again, the monsters, they fight me still because they are part of me, within me. But I win. I will always win. Scratched, scarred, exhausted and traumatised, I always make it out alive into the light where my words and my smiles and my dreams are my own.  I own my body – even the scars. 

Ghosts

img_3545There. Right there. On that spot. We stood right there where the worst of the worst memories hung in the air, lay on the ground, and circled around. I told my little girl nothing. I teased her with taking phone photos and showed her the leavers’ photo from my year: 1986.

How many people remember the floor of their school corridor 31 years on, I wonder? How many people picture it on a regular basis? How many people had to go back years later and stand on the same spot outside the very same room. She has the same tutor room I had. You couldn’t make it up.

It took me three weeks to ask her: ‘What’s your tutor room?’
‘Room 1,’ she replied.
I’d delayed asking her as if I knew already.
I shared some brief memories but shared no pain.

We met her outside. I did jazz hands and was allowed a hug. Cheerful and chatty, we were early and hung about. So much had changed and yet so much hadn’t. The floor tiles rose up to greet me, tease me, loaded with history, with DNA, and I remembered the sounds of 1980’s shoes echoing, of voices egging on my tormentor, of books and folders slapping hard on the cold surface. I remembered her words and my reply. I remembered trying to punch her ankle and trying to shout ‘Bloody bitch!’ as she turned and left me spreadeagled amongst my belongings on the bruisingly hard floor. But my voice came out reedy and tight with self-pity or shock or from the beginnings of tears. I’m not sure which. I just remember I felt weak, ineffectual, beaten.
I didn’t cry though. I went straight into Room 1, collapsed in my usual place at the table I shared with the some of the other girls in our tutor group, and ranted a little. I was pissed off, confused and stunned.
It never happened again. She’d done it. She was pleased with herself perhaps or maybe she got into trouble for it. I never reported it, though, never complained. Maybe someone else did.

The torment didn’t stop though. The name-calling, the looks, the bitching, the drawing other girls into her campaign against me. The constant, daily chipping away at me. I was unaware that the emotional abuse was bullying too. I just knew I hated it, hated her, hated school, hated myself. I feared my every move, my every garment, too much make-up, not enough make-up, too thin, too tall, too clever, too musical? Which was it she hated the most? Who else hated me? I had my suspicions. The subtle abuse continued too: bitching loudly in groups about me so that my closest friend would come and tell me the worst. I found out I was short-sighted that year. I didn’t wear glasses but walked around in a haze and couldn’t see the teachers’ writing on the boards in class. Everything else fell apart because of how I felt about myself.
I ran a mile home for lunch every day, I stopped attending choir – although singing was my favourite thing. Teachers began to dislike me and misunderstand me. I wasn’t aware that I appeared different or difficult but they reacted to me as if I did.

I don’t think about her. Not as a person. I don’t really care about her. It’s more that I feel broken by school and those months that bruised me so badly.

Do I feel better now I’ve been back and stood on that spot again?
Yes and no.
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Yes, I’m glad my child and my husband stood grinning on those cold cold floor tiles and helped me water down my visual memories with new ones.
And, no. No because I don’t like how I feel now. I don’t like it at all.

Mascara and Alcohol: when getting away with it got too heavy. 

mascaraeyeIt was the early two thousands, maybe 2003. I was still booking things, still agreeing to things, but in recent years had gradually begun to back out of more and more plans, and increasingly clocked up more no shows; strangely grateful for a child’s sniffle or a phone call to say things had been cancelled, and yet still in denial, still making excuses, still convinced I could do everything that I wanted to do. And still convinced going out and socialising was fun, was what I wanted. The tiredness or hormones of motherhood were making me enjoy home more perhaps? Being so busy in daily life meant I’d run out of time to get ready or the energy to stay out at night, right? There were well-argued reasons for every time I chose to stay at home. I would often truly feel ill when an event was upon us and I had genuine headaches, genuine stomachs problems. It all felt like real reasons and not excuses, and so the times staying at home built up and up and up like a brick wall. And it happened so slowly and I was so good at convincing myself that it was just this once we’d cancel, just this time we’d stay home because… because… Because, after all, going out is fun. Everyone likes it. Everyone. If you don’t there’s something wrong with you. Humans are social creatures. Fun, fun, fun times…

My grandmother had suggested I was depressed when she noted my increasing insistence for staying in, staying home but I looked at what I had and I was happy with my lot. And I could always always reason my actions. Until that day, one Christmas holidays, I was sure I was making my own choices and was in complete control.

It was the Christmas period. I’d booked pantomime tickets for what was then the four of us plus my parents. Getting ready for Christmas as a whole was difficult for me, it left me in a constant state of list-making, obsessing over minutiae, sleepless nights and panic, and the extra socialising completely drained me. I had to drink a lot to cope with anything social. I thought it was the same for everyone but I was chaotic for weeks, and every moment was taken with pinning down my panic and attempting to appear organised. I did appear organised but appearing organised was actually all I managed. It was a performance so convincing I managed to carry it off for years. I once admitted to being shy to a friend and she laughed and said “You’re not shy!” I really had pulled it off! So I just kept turning up for things and drinking and talking crap. I remember telling one of my Open University tutors that I got through Christmas on mascara and alcohol, and she told me I should write a book called Mascara and Alcohol. Maybe I will.

As our children were still young, I’d booked matinee tickets for the panto. Already in a flappy state (I didn’t know I had anxiety. I wasn’t even kind enough to give myself the gift of a label those days. All I knew was that things made me flap, made me worry, made me stressful. I got stressed. I stressed out), I found myself getting hotter, trembling, focussing on negatives about my appearance, obsessing about a pimple, unable to draw that line that said “finished getting ready” and walk out of the bedroom, downstairs, to the front door. I’d got the children ready, given my parents a picking up time, my husband was downstairs ready and waiting to start the car. I’d organised every thing and every one but I was Not Ready. I would never be ready. I couldn’t complete getting ready because that would mean leaving the house and I was trapped inside a forcefield that was insisting I stay home.

I’d met that forcefield before. Once as a teenager when cycling to a holiday job I cycled into the forcefield and it span me around and I found myself heading home again. At the age of five I refused to leave the house and go to ballet lessons because I knew I simply couldn’t go. I loved ballet but I never went again. I danced alone at home instead. Forcefields existed around doors and I couldn’t walk into certain rooms or areas at school.

But all these years later I still wasn’t joining the dots and putting together the picture of someone who physically and mentally couldn’t socialise regularly.

Upset, my family went to the Panto without me. Upset, I stayed home alone. I was relieved and comforted by the escape but incredibly upset.

What had gone wrong?

I’d done what I always do when going anywhere: I’d been in control of planning everything, I’d chosen in advance what I would wear, I’d pictured us there, I’d placed myself in amongst many people, imagined the claustrophobic crush in the entrance, pictured sitting under pre-performance lights, pictured people sitting all around us, imagined being spotted by people we knew, people we half-knew, people I couldn’t remember because (as I now know) I have a degree of face-blindness, imagined what I would say to people, realised I didn’t know what I would say, and knew deep down that I wasn’t going to cope – some other time, yes but not this time. But it was deep, deep down and I wasn’t really sure what was controlling my actions. My subliminal knowledge that I’m not coping or that I won’t cope often simmers away in the background until I meet that damned forcefield, and WHAM! – can’t do this. This one event in itself was not a big thing but everything else had circled around and around until I felt that just doing this one thing was like entering a black hole.

That day was a biggie for me. I’d let a lot of people down. And I haven’t been able to trust myself since. Other people in my life no longer want to take the risk with me either and I’m rarely invited to anything. I’m not entirely sure what I want to risk committing myself to anyway. My husband will never plan surprises for me because he too doesn’t trust me. This is not necessarily a bad thing because he’s not a fan of too much socialising anyway, and I think his habit of being a grumpy, unsociable git at times is what attracted me to him!

So these days what I want to do and what I’m able to do sometimes overlap beautifully like a Venn diagram, and sometimes they stay firmly separated in their big old lonely circles. Often I will put myself through what is uncomfortable because it’s probably what’s best, other times I will actively seek out peace. Lying awake at night after an event (sometimes for weeks or years afterwards) and remembering how you cocked everything up is no reward for pushing yourself through something. It’s hell and it’s not worth the pain of clocking up yet another bad experience, yet another disaster. So instead it’s a lifelong project of daily self-assessments now. This self-awareness has given me a more joined-up picture of someone who has to carefully measure and weigh up what’s going on, what’s necessary and what’s doable on a daily – sometimes hourly basis. I have to give myself permission to make plans for fun things but I also have to be able to admit that not doing something is also okay and sometimes crucial. And I have found comfort and beauty in just being and not always seeking outside experiences. I do like time at home. I like it a lot. It’s not just something that I have had to force upon myself. It’s often something I have to fight for.

At a wedding a few years ago, I was struggling to cope and someone next to me was involving me in conversation. After a while of getting limited response from me she turned to her companion and muttered something about “…so rude…”. I’m not rude. I spend my whole life adjusting myself to people and situations in order to not be rude. It’s exhausting. Why push yourself through things if you’re so overwhelmed you’re just going to appear rude? Humans are complex beings (no shit) and we can respond very differently to different situations, and there’s nothing quite like feeling trapped in situations that other people clearly find fun and enjoyable.
There’s something about socialising less that makes you look like you’re coping less. But I’m not coping less these days; I’m just coping differently.

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