It seems a simple enough concept, doesn’t it? We avoid what we don’t like, and lean towards what we enjoy; what brings a positive aspect to our lives. Meeting up with friends; choosing food for a meal; picking up a book from the library, to read on the train to work.
OK, with regards to that last one – the job we have may not be the ideal choice, but that’s also a natural part of life. As adults, with responsibilities and an adherence to laws that state we can’t have everything we want, we know that there are times when the boring / painful / difficult choice, is the right one. Sometimes, there is a convoluted path towards the things we enjoy. But overall, especially with regards to the simple things in life, many of us can and do find ways of expressing our freedom of choice. I won’t go into the intricacies of different cultures and religions, here. That’s too much of a grey area for me to handle with any kind of aptness, and besides, it’s not what this blog post is about. I’d only make a hash of it, and inadvertently upset someone. This is a lot of the reason why my blogging, my writing in general, has fallen by the wayside lately; I’m just too afraid to open my mouth, to get the words down, with the freedom of previous years. For all that I sometimes wish to have a good mouth-off about something or another, the fact is I’d probably fudge the facts, having not researched enough. So.
I just get on with what I do know, for now.
Anyway. 8.30pm on Saturday last, saw me standing in the aisles at my local Tesco, desperately trying to strike a balance between cost effectiveness (e.g. How cheap can I go without eating flavoured water?) / a chronic eating disorder (anorexia nervosa) / my mother’s lamentations that I don’t vary my diet enough (I do tend to stick with the same things day in, day out, for the dual purpose of saving cash and staying “safe”, calorie-wise.) So basically, I’m resorting to canned goods over fresh, and anything on the value-side of products … with the added bonus of sticking to healthier options, while trying to introduce variation to a stick-in-the-mud diet, to stay topped up on the vitamins and minerals, and the energy for this blue-arsed fly routine that is life.
I know I’m not the only one forced to make these choices between eating healthily and eating at all – but when you throw an ED into the mix, it all becomes that much more shady. In the end, I threw in the towel, with no small amount of self-disgust, and wrote out a rant on Facebook; a status update which, in retrospect, was highly irresponsible of me, considering I have friends who have been through similar experiences with eating disorders on this platform, and would no doubt dislike having the reminder of it rubbed in their faces on a scroll through their timeline. It went something along the lines of wishing for food pills rather than having to make constant choices about food. I know I’d have been triggered / upset, reading something like this elsewhere. But that’s just me, I can’t speak for everyone.
Walking away from the store, I could only concentrate on how difficult all the decision-making was, and how angry / futile this made me feel. By the next morning, I viewed it with more of a cold dismay – there was more of the illness speaking through me, than has been apparent for quite some time. Or maybe I just choose to notice it now. Whatever the case, the fact remains that there ARE a damn sight more ways I can improve my situation … if I’ve got the guts to go about making actual changes.
I don’t stop to think about things like this too often. Those were the bad old days; now, I prefer to obsess over things like politics, kittens and writing. I’ve narrowed down the types of exercise I actually like to engage in, as opposed to what burns off the most calories. I drink what alcohol is appealing to my taste – a rare concession, but this is Captain Morgan Original Spiced rum we’re talking about, here.
(Mixed with diet coke, it’s the praline green triangles found in Quality Street packs.)
And maybe this has been the problem. My new therapist certainly seems to think so. It is her belief that, in burying my head in other activities over the years, I’ve managed to shutter-down in a comfortable / complacent state of slow progression towards recovery, while not actually addressing the underlying problems. Her point now, is to find out what makes me tick; to help me push against boundaries again, so this Thing will be kicked into touch for good.
One of her aims is something that my landlady happens to advocate, too – “living in the moment.” Well, I always thought I was fairly good at this, since it seems I almost *hear* Time passing these days, and am frantic to get as much done as possible –
So, we’re going over my life with a fine-toothed comb, defining what I Want to Do v.s. What I think I Should do. Like stripping woodbine from around an oak tree, we’re gradually pulling away the ingrained tendencies that I thought were personal characteristics – parts of me that I don’t particularly like, with beliefs and ideals that now ring hollow. This is a very destabilizing thing, like the end of a relationship – gazing around, you wonder which items belong to who? Flicking through your iPod, you try to find a song that is not relevant to the partner who has been as much a part of your life as breathing. You wonder if any books on the shelf, will not hold a reminder of them.
You wonder where the parts of yourself that are unequivocally You, have gone off to.
A similar project took place as part of group therapy place on one of the eating disorders wards. We were tasked with rediscovering our true selves – what did we like to do, which might compromise the illness and challenge its place in our lives? What were the activities we engaged in which, on reflection, were not so enjoyable after all, but felt mandatory to existence?
More to the point – who were the people we looked up to, respected, admired? What had our childhood lives focused on, which made us feel secure and happy?
At first, as ever, cloud-shadows made more sound while passing along the carpet, than the people huddled on the circle of chairs. After some prodding, there were the usual expressions of admiration for top athletes, an inclination for high-impact / energetic sports. One staff member – I remember her face and name so well, we nicknamed her The Sergeant – cocked a very deliberate eye at us all.
Nope. You’ve got to try harder than that.
Eventually, we did get some more credible answers from everyone, myself included. The trouble was getting past the guilt that snarls up the throat, when expressing a preference for something that is unconnected to the rigid routines that were at once unique to us when played out as symptoms, and wholly universal in terms of the disordered mindset of self-worth. Speaking to others who have recovered from, or are in recovery from anorexia, I’ve learned that the fear of “punishment” from the voice in the mind, is all too real. It got to the point where, at my lowest state of health, I did not dare write or speak a single bad word against the illness, or complain about how tired / ill I felt, in case It – whatever It was – sought revenge. Exercise and starvation were not a “punishment” for my body and mind – they were there to keep me safe from distracting emotions and thoughts.
Such is the way of the starved mind. Perspective is hard to come by, when wrapped up in tightening wires.
For my part, I defined exercise as fulfilling only in terms of how it made me feel worthy of being alive, with a valid reason to eat. When we broke past that, I finally admitted to an admiration of, and a desire to keep the grace that is synonymous with ballet, rather than how it might rid me of food.
When the question was put to me, Could you engage in a less vigorous activity, which holds the same amount of poise? – I fell silent.
Those who were at the stage of awareness which I live in now, were more open and original with their answers. Artists such as Van Gogh and Bernini were cited as important influences; pastimes that could be classified as being more “sedentary” than “active”, were given as methods of entertainment and relaxation. Listening to them, I found myself at once inspired and repulsed. It took me back to the old journals I have been keeping since age 11; filling each page nestled between the pretty tooled covers with the flux-flow of adolescence. Letters exchanged with classmates are stuck inside, kept safe in their envelopes, along with tablet-sized pictures from an afternoon spent wandering around the old Clay Pits of my home town, under a pewter sky and among dry-rattle grass, with the gang of peers who were my best friends and confidantes. Pressed flowers and leaves; swatches of fur, plucked from barbed wire fences, with identifying scrawls beside. It’s all there – the map of my childhood and teen years, done up in sensory pockets of memory. Needless to say, once I was out of therapy, I asked my mother to bring those journals up on her next visit. Poring over them brought back such a sense of Self – the person I once was – that when I cried, it felt like the release that had been waiting behind my eyes for some time.
But it is not healthy or beneficial, to stay stuck in the past. Had I tried to reclaim that youth without progressing forward, I wouldn’t be at this stage of life now – suddenly aware of new possibilities, new interests which, while influenced by the old, are sure to take me off on a myriad different paths.
There is a balance that must be found between body and mind – I’ve spent too long trying to separate one from the other, believing that I can push through shock, fear, illness and the like, to continue a workout even while dying inside. Such was the case in 2005, when a relative of mine was killed in a road traffic collision; when my mother sent the text, I was standing in the gym changing rooms with trainers laced on my feet, and a painful heart. I lasted all of two minutes on the treadmill, before breaking off in a cold sweat of mingling fear, self-disgust and the inexpressible sorrow of losing a loved one. That I could not finish the workout because of the latter, didn’t occur to me then. I just felt like a failure.
I have suddenly woken to the realization that we are, undeniably, halfway through the year. Summer is here. Each time I lift my head from studying an article on my phone, or unplug my ears from whatever’s winding out of the iPod, it is to be hit with something akin to the wide-eyed amazement of a child on its first trip outdoors. Every sense has been triggered anew by what is growing and living outside; things appear refreshed and fulfilled, as though lifting themselves from the pages of a pop-up book. The golden bars of sunlight falling between sepia shadows of woodland, are almost solid; smells which long lay dormant throughout chill winter and muddy spring, now make a harlequin of the air.
I am all the more keenly aware of the kinetic world, for my absence from it for some time. As ever, this obsessive personality has had its way in taking me a bit too far down the road. In researching the wide world – its politics, its economics, its cultures and religions and all the lives that fit in between – I had somehow lost myself along the way. Looking around, I find the myriad tiny changes that have happened without my noticing them – the twins are a bit taller, the days are longer (while slipping quietly back downhill), the woodlands are full of tree shadows and glittering glades. I have missed those routes through the wilder places of the world – such is the way of an independent life spent as a perma-pedestrian, that I tend to walk everywhere to save money, and so spend a lot of time on the cobbled pavements and heavy-tang tarmac. This gets the dull chores and the shopping done … but it is a bit of a snorefest, and my phone holds a ream of worlds, waiting in literature and friendships formed through social media and a meeting of minds.
But in detaching myself all too often from where my body is, I’ve found stagnation when it comes to writing. I don’t know about you, but I can no more set out a scene that is lacking sensory angles, than I could live off a diet of paper and stick-lines. There is only so much we can glean from literature, from the language of others, before there is a need to experience such things for ourselves – to head out under a murderous sky, to know the rise of hair along our arms and the rise-fall of fear and anticipation in the chest, with the low chuckle of thunder. When the faces around us are little more than absent moons, who are we to draw characters from?
Then there is a need to to go outside of our comfort zones, to strike a match of creativity. Forcing the hand to march out line after line of words to fit some count or another, is a futile exercise when there is little emotional context to fall back on. The writing process itself becomes arduous.
In point of fact, this entry began in the stop-start manner that has come to define my writing process over the past few months. Where once the words were as oil over ice or a skein of geese thrumming home, they are now husky, rattling cough of an old man, the tottering steps of a newborn. I think I’ve become too aware of myself in writing, in the way an actress may be struck with stage-fright with the glare of lights in her eyes. In trying to remember her lines, to avoid fucking up, she forgets those lucid moments of presence that were found in front of the mirror and in rehearsals, alone and with others, awake and asleep, when the purest joy was knowing the merest trace of an expression would carry to the farthest members of the audience.
Is it possible to feel claustrophobic inside your own mind, while at the same time locked out of your own soul?
A child is singularly powerful in knowing its own wants and needs, its likes and dislikes. I like to observe this in my landlady’s twins. They are two of the most charming, intelligent and inquisitive children I have ever known, and I have great respect for their mother in raising them towards this yin/yang balance of personalities. While they are very close, they are not obsessed with one another; they can be apart, though prefer to keep within each other’s zones of awareness. But it is a wonderful thing to watch their very different preferences at work.
Winter moon can chase summer sun across the sky forever, and never truly know her face; summer sun may ask for the coolness of that crescent blue, and never really learn to bask in its shade. But still, they are in keeping with one another, and between them they share the world. While one will exert authority in a golden rise of temper and laughter, the other – with a curve of a smile and the quietest wit – will unpick the sibling’s fine points, until they are at odds with each other and in so subtle a manner that you would think a spider makes more noise upon its web.
Night and day, I like to call them. Into everything, and bringing a fresh perspective to each others’ lives through their different observations … and to mine. I had no real interest in children before meeting these two, but they are just small adults in waiting. Sometimes, one will say something to the other – or to the open air, the wide-eye sky – and it will make me stop and stand still, listening to the thrum of my heart and the wavering heat of the day, the lake-heart silt of evening.
I think they are old souls. I intend to learn from them – to become part of the “moment” that their mother speaks of, and my therapist is urging me to engage with by occasionally shutting off from the world, to be quiet and still, to come back from whatever country my mind has travelled to in reading a story or article. To live inside myself, without the distractions of radio and music, literature and technology. Language becomes the sifting of dust motes, the trail of reacting to a shift in the light and the air of a room. The heaviness of buddleia sprays, their thick liquorice smells and buzzing acquaintance of bees, are as chapters to read against a pastel sky.
It is no one else’s fault but mine, that what may begin as a pleasurable experience should turn into an inability to switch off. But switch off I must, from time to time, and disappear to regain that sense of Self; to know the various shades of Time, outside of a quick-scrolling platform of social media and reading material. There’s a need for us all to escape our own heads once in a while, or to be alone inside them. If nothing else, it will save me from any more bruises – a throwback to childhood, when walking home from school with my head in a book, saw me collide with as many lamp posts as brick walls. I’m fairly sure that anyone in possession of a mobile device, has been through this rather embarrassing / painful experience themselves.
So. As it is now a golden Sunday evening, and I have finally completed this overlong entry, I am going to bugger off outside for a walk, sans mobile and iPod. When all is said and done, we have enough responsibilities and expectations on our time, without putting pressure on ourselves to always Be Somewhere, Saying Something. In switching off, we come back refreshed, and with far more to say to the world and the page. We gain experience to fill out the words, and – in taking a step back – can assess the larger picture. All the small efforts of others, their words and actions which are done for our benefit, suddenly make a lot more sense.