suffering

Some thoughts on an anniversary

Last weekend marked a year since we lost our home, which in turn marked the start of the gradual disintegration of ‘we’ back into ‘I’.

It’s been the longest year of my life and at the same time, it still feels as if everything happened last weekend. So much has happened, changed and not happened, not changed. There’s no reason a year should yield up particular wisdom, why a year after closing the front door on my old life that I should have any remarkable insights or life-changing advice. But it’s an anniversary and there are some thoughts in my head, so here we go:

1) The storm is part of me. It does not need to pass.

2) Thinking about writing is way more painful that writing.

3) Getting fitter made me feel better. Getting thinner made me feel worse.

4) Happy endings, just deserts and karma are fairy tales. If you turn to these ideas for comfort, if you offer those who are in the darkest moments of their lives these fairy tales as wisdom, you are denying the rawness and madness of suffering. Pain does not happen for a reason; to give it one by tying the pretty bow of narrative around it is to leave those in pain alone, silent and scared.

5) Time alone won’t make things better; it’s what you do with the time that starts to create the distance between you and what happened. New memories start to cushion you from the old.

6) Things do get better, but never in the way you expect and if you’re too wrapped up in fairy tales, you won’t notice.

7) Silence is the worst thing you can do to someone in pain. ‘Giving someone space’ when they haven’t asked you for it is the excuse we make when we are too afraid to face the vastness of suffering. If you don’t know what to say, find the person, phone the person, write to the person and tell them that you don’t know what to say. There is nothing to say in the face of trauma, grief, sorrow. But being there, being a presence, recognising the unspeakableness of what someone is facing, that is how you help people start to find their way back from the formless mess that’s swallowed their lives. Your presence and words alone are enough to start anchoring someone’s world again. Silence is the worst thing you can do, because you leave them at sea. Don’t give people space. Give them your speechlessness.

8) People are awesome, in the proper sense of the word. People will find ways to let you down, to twist a knife, to destroy the most basic foundations that let you exist in this world which are so beyond the horizons of what you can image that before the rage and pain can kick in, you are left winded and opened-mouthed in awe. People will find ways to reach into your darkest hour and hold your hand, will pull you into the safety of their lives when you’re spiralling off into danger, will make the smallest gesture that somehow captures what it means to be cared for and to care. It’s a quieter, gentler awe, but it’s equally breath-taking. What a fucking spectrum.

9) Leaving Facebook has done my mental health and my friendships a world of good.

10) Anniversaries mean fuck all.

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Being well and well-being – aka grief and flu

I’ve been ill for the past few days, horribly glandy-achey-headachey stuff, which has been rumbling on for a while but actually only properly wiped me out two days ago. And really, I’m not fit to be writing this now, but I have to in order to stay vaguely sane – because it turns out that being physically unwell quite rapidly equates to taking a mental swan dive when it comes to grieving.

The week before last was probably the first time in a long time when I started to have flashes of feeling ‘normal’, seeing a bit of colour in the world again, actually fully enjoying the odd moment and starting to get a sense of my own strength returning. Then something resembling a cold started to make itself felt last week. At the same time, I found myself repeating cycles of thought and dwelling on ideas that just a few days before had been slipping into the past.

It didn’t immediately strike me that the two states were a consequence of one another. But then the moment I started to feel too physically unwell to do the things that are the makings of my new life, the ghosts of my old life and the grief I’ve been grappling with suddenly seemed overwhelming once again.

It’s partly because you can’t get on with the things that have been filling your days and helping you move on. Partly it’s because you’re tired and bored. Partly, it’s because there’s an intense loneliness to being ill which is made worse by remembering just how recently there was someone there to take care of you when you’re unable to take care of yourself. But underpinning all this is the sense that being physically vulnerable means you’re more vulnerable to your emotions.

Recognising that I’m feeling emotionally shit because I’m feeling physically shit does help. It takes some of the disappointment out of finding yourself back in a hole that you thought you’d clambered out of. And it does help you take it a bit easier on yourself, realising you’re not really back in the hole; you’re just ill and when you’re back on your feet, you’ll probably be able to see the same horizons you could before.

But still, grief adds a whole other level pain to being ill. The loneliness of being stuck in bed all day multiples infinitely when it serves to remind you that there is no one coming home at the end of the day to make things a little better. Your sense of life being out of control grows exponentially when you’re not in a fit state to do anything productive or proactive. And you’ve got time on your hands in which you can do little but feel rough and think badly-formed thoughts.

Tears and flu are not a good combination. I’m pretty sure that one makes the other worse. So along with the various medicines I’m taking for my body, I’m writing this as medicine for my mind. I’m fuzzy headed, feverish and aching all over – i.e. in no fit state to write – but getting some of the thoughts out of my head and onto the page feels like it’s just as important as sleep, medicine and lemon tea.

Shoreline

(for my father)

 

We saw the first wave coming,

standing together on the shore of my changing life,

and knew you would have to leave me soon.

 

As the wave’s shadow lengthened,

You said ‘I wish I could save you from all this’

before we even knew what all this would be.

 

Well, I’m in it now and the waves keep coming.

 

But as you keep watch from the distance of your life,

know that in the brief moments between surges,

your words are anchors in a tsunamic world,

 

Saving me from all that lies beyond the stability of land

even as my fragile world is swept away.

I will meet you again, but on an altered shore.

Unravelling and re-threading

I’m not a fan of similes and forced metaphors. Things get very cheesy very quickly. But the ones that occur in daily life are pretty startling. I don’t if it means you can learn something profound from them, or whether the only similes and metaphors that work are the ones that give you pause for thought. The ones that snap you out of the flow of daily life and make you aware of something bigger going on behind your day, behind your thoughts.

I’ve made a lot of claims about going through difficult times on this relatively young blog. So I apologise for the blatant moaning. But I guess it’s not surprising that things continue to be difficult – and even get worse – because once certain events happen in your life, they set off a chain that has to play itself out for a while. That said, in the shit-storm that seems to have been my world for the past couple of years, the last two weeks were an extra-special low. The last vestiges of the life I had finally unravelled. And I unravelled with them.

I’m not entirely sure how I’ve gotten from then to now. It’s hazy. But between now and then, somehow (I really don’t know how), I’ve managed to produce two of the most beautiful tapestries I’ve done in my short career as a stitcher. I actually don’t know how I did them, but they’re there. They exist and they sparkle with light, the very thing that has been almost completely absent from the past two weeks.

It struck me today, the first day I could say I’ve been properly present for a while, that this is one of those metaphors that happens in life but would be awful in fiction. I unravelled and got through it by stitching. And I made two of the best tapestries I’ve done so far. Can’t take more from this than what it is, but it made me stop and think.

DSCF2797

Perilous narratives

One of the major signs that you’re creeping into depression is the narrative you’re telling yourself. If you’re managing to piece together random misfortunes and turn everyday slights into reflections on your worthiness to be alive, you rapidly start to construct a story in which the world is telling you that you don’t deserve to be here. Being able to disentangle these arbitrary connections is key to clambering out of the depressive pit, opening up life’s possibilities again and helping you recognise discrete moments in life for what they are: random, unconnected, survivable.

Weaving a narrative around certain aspects of your experience is perhaps unavoidable. As many many others have argued, there’s something about the way we experience time, moving from one hour to the next, passing from this day to the next day to the next, that invites us to think of our lives as following some kind of progression, or some kind of causal logic. Narrative, be it linear or not, is a way of thinking about motives, experiences and our present moment that helps us make some sense of where and how we are in the world. Just try and imagine explaining who you are now without relying on these things and you realise that things start to feel hideously chaotic pretty quickly when you peel back the narratives.

The danger comes when we forget that these narratives are fundamentally arbitrary, that they are created by us as a means of organising the vast array of stimuli that life throws our way. In order to work, this organising process is incredibly selective, constructing a story out of the most salient details and consigning the rest to silence. Again, as people like Hayden White have discussed in detail, narrative is as much constituted by what it excludes as what it includes – a story can only be told by choosing not to all possible others.

When the depressed mind stitches together fragments from everyday life into a self-loathing narrative, it does so by choosing to ignore all the equally present and equally random information that speaks of how you are loved, of your belonging, and the overwhelming evidence that none of us is exceptionally welcome or unwelcome in this universe. All the while, the depressed mind disavows its role in creating this bleak narrative and presents this story as fact, an undeniable, indelible truth. You can see how rediscovering the arbitrary nature of narrative works to open horizons up again as you come through depression.

But what’s struck me in recent months is just how perilous positive narrative can be. Putting ideologies and grand narratives to one side, it’s been the impact of the positive nature of the day-to-day stories that we tell ourselves that have unveiled to me the power and the dangers of our need for narrative.

The caring assurance that it will be alright in the end, that this will make you stronger. The positive assertion that you’ve worked so hard that you deserve this, so just hang in there. The knowledge that you are good, kind, have done all the ‘right’ things and hence good things will come. The certainty that there is something to be learnt, understood, or somehow taken from even the bleakest moment or most horrific event.

Why is a willingness to try and find a positive in the midst of the awful a problem? It isn’t necessarily. The problem comes when this is our default setting, our immediate reaction. The rush to narrative, the immediate impulse to insert the painful, tragic, traumatic into a larger story of strength, the need to find the positive angle straight away – making these arbitrary connections between present suffering and some unrealised future is actually a way of avoiding addressing that suffering. These narratives are not responses to the present; they’re a decision not to talk about the details of the present in order to construct the ‘other’ story, the positive one, the one that progresses towards a happier time.

The speed with which we look to the positive at the cost of tarrying with the actual experience of sorrow, despair, pain, leaves us utterly incapable of telling a narrative that really responds to the nature of that experience. Instead of slowly allowing a narrative to emerge that is shaped by what we’ve been through, we turn to the readymade, the stereotype, the way it should be. The cancer patient has a valiant, brave and touching fight for life. The addict reaches the lowest point and has a revelation that turns their life around. The dedicated artist suffers and struggles for decades before eventually receiving the fame and recognition they deserve. Insert own version of the positive narrative here.

All of these narratives only work by silencing the other stories: the horror and disintegration of living and dying with cancer, the absolute abject nature of an addict’s existence, the misery and boredom of sacrificing a life for a dream. As well as the stories of the people who don’t make it, because we can’t all have made it. It is physically impossible for the happy ending to come to all of us. And sometimes, something is just shit. It is so appalling or so banal in its ugliness that to try and take something profound from it is to outright lie.

If recognising the arbitrary nature of the negative narrative is vital to bring the depressed mind back to life’s possibilities, could we not say the same about the inanely positive? If we can’t recognise and respond to life’s challenges according to what they are, aren’t we just living half of the story? And in leaving the other half untold, aren’t we condemning the ones we love to suffer in silence?