Trigger warning: References to sexual abuse.
My therapist tried this on me once. Back in Bethlem, sitting on that thin carpet which was as frayed as my mind, and as stained as I perceived my body to be, I was told to close my eyes and speak aloud the words I would like to say to myself. The person that was Me, as opposed to the white Thing, which was crouching inside my head, waiting with subtle whispers on a demon’s pity-me tongue.
We’re in this together. You don’t need the world. What has it ever brought you, but pain?
I did close my eyes, and counted backwards from ten as I had been told to do. My arse was already going numb. There had never been much to pad it out anyway; not that this had stopped the catcalling, when I tried wearing my sister’s jeans into town. Those words stay slotted behind my ears, and fetch out their claws from time to time, when I am red-raw with tiredness.
All I could see was my little brother’s pixie face. All I could hear, were the wintery words of anorexia.
Don’t give in now. You’re so close.
You mean death. I’m not ready yet.
You were ready from the day you were born. From the day the first one touched you. From the first time you were told to be quiet, to stop waffling on, to –
Oh, shut up. Things are different now.
And I had to open my eyes and, in tears, tell the therapist that I wanted to get up. My butt was killing me, and I needed to pace about, to get rid of these nerves.
“Nope. That’s not how this works. You have to sit with those feelings, and ride it all out.”
But you’ll get fat.
“But I’ll get fat.”
“From sitting still for ten minutes? That’s not you talking, Rachael.”
And so forth.
Truth is, I wasn’t ready then, to consider what she was asking for. Still two stone underweight, with a head full of white noise that is akin to TV static, I couldn’t think beyond the stick-lines of calories, exercise and – occasionally – what I was still alive for, things like my Lord of the Rings and Dragonlance books, and my baby brother. He has recently turned twenty – older than I was then, older than the age the therapist had asked me to mentally withdraw to, for the duration of that therapy session. She wanted me to write, or recite into a dictaphone, a letter to my sixteen year old self.
That age holds a variety of meanings across the world. Age of consent, age of gambling with the lottery; sweet sixteen, with (as I recall from my Judy Blume memory book) balloons coloured silver, purple and pink, hung up in the basements of big American houses. Sixteen comes with its cruelties and its expectations, its disappointments and its undeniable ecstasies. Exam passes and failures, one last cigarette behind the gym-equipment shed, before banging out through the double doors, passing beyond the walls that had held formal education, and into the glorious summer light and thick buddleia smells … with the looming presence of that first full-time job, the rainy afternoons spent hanging around the shop floor, bored and wondering Is this where it all goes downhill?
Dry skin around the eyes. Hair like straw, frayed on straighteners bought to align each kink; a diet to smooth out each curve, to achieve and sustain the perfection that the first “real” boyfriend (who broke your virginity) always said you possessed; and he in turn possessed you, called you his “trophy girlfriend” to your face, because he thought of it as a gift of words – the highest compliment he could give, though he lacked self-esteem.
People see you with me.
You had started out late on everything. Boys, make-up, socializing, clubbing, smoking, drinking. Always about two years behind your peers, and by the time you had caught up, they had mastered something else. Even as you laughed with a sound like breaking glass at all their stupid little self-imposed rules, the playground Goddesses and their little lackey-boys with lighters … You wanted to be standing with them under that lean-to roof by the admin office, out of the rain. You wanted to be at their house parties, and be able to talk like excited blackbirds the next morning, about all of their midnight-hour escapades. You wanted to fall out of their windows.
Instead, you fell into the wrong crowd. Or whatever “wrong” constitutes. You drank and smoked and gave lip, occasionally gave head – though that all stopped when the last one, the older one, got you so blind drunk with his girlfriend, that you couldn’t recognize his dick over that of the boy you loved at the time. They didn’t bother to tell you any different. They just smoked and sang and got high; and made sure that you finished the very tall bottle of cheap cider.
There are certain places in your old home county that still make your stomach clench up with fear. You can’t go into a seaside town, without breaking into a cold sweat.
It happened, once, on Facebook – one listless afternoon, when the now grown-up girl was recommended to you, as a “mutual friend” of an old class mate. You were almost-certain nearly-sure that it was her. The sheath of champagne hair hadn’t changed. The puckish face. The fuck-you eyes. Her tone had shifted, though. So self-effacing, she might have been dragging herself by her hair, back through the door. You wondered how long she lived with him, when they ran away together.
You almost did it. Almost sent her that message, which would have torn her pretty little life apart. But who holds truth in their hands, without evidence? You have nothing but memories, scribbled over with alcohol, charred by time’s swift passing, and anorexia’s cunning ability to make a mess of anything long-term. There are large swatches of your life, which will always be blank.
So you left her alone, for now at least. You haven’t tried to find him either, though only his first name comes to mind. You’re not sure if you ever actually learned the second one. If it would make you throw up again.
Fast forward. Rewind. Repeat.
Stand still, for once. Sit with it all. Actually feel something, without the need for distractions. For numbness.
You’re in a good place now. You live with a woman who is as tall and beautiful as she is elegant and kind; a living diamond, with two precious-jewel children. They came home from their holiday with arms full of presents and smiles and freckles, and they have since grown another inch. You feel yourself part of another family; though the ties with your original one are as cobwebs, they still hang in the sky, and waft in the changing winds.
Your baby brother has grown tall, with a lion’s heart and more empathy than he should bear. He’s seen his own share of pain and misunderstandings, and struggles through dark times. You wish you could see more of him. Of anyone, he is the person with whom you are the most honest, without the need for stars and constellations, for petrol rainbows trailed all around the block. Your meaning is clear as his hair, under the summer sun.
Your father, by comparison, has become blurred around the edges. You wonder if this will always be so; if you will exist in the same world, and apart … And perhaps it is for the best. But you miss the presence of your grandmother, her bird-bone wrists, her shadow on the wall; her words, her music, The Green Field of France; the long talks about wars and history, shipyards in Tyneside. You look to the paling sky, and watch the birds make their to-and-fro flights in readiness for the long haul, and wonder if this will be your final year in the city of ancient walls and bones, fashion and fortunes.
You need to keep in contact with her more; to remember that incoming-outgoing tide, the restless hands of the clock.
You are gaining confidence, in your words and in yourself. There are still the old inhibitions – you find it difficult to look people in the eye, and come across as shifty, unreliable. That’s only half of the truth, for you still shun responsibilities that land, unbidden, in your lap. But when it comes to choice – when the focus is yours – you will chase something down until all else falls away, until it seems as though you’d stepped through the clock and frozen Time itself; though you have to remember that this is not true. Life, the world, people, all go on. Regardless of whether a conflict has grabbed your attention, or a man, or a kitten, or a tragedy, a book, a story you are writing for yourself and possibly about yourself. The tide will still come and go, the pendulum will swing on.
Details will always be your enemy. Bogged down in them, you lose sight of the bigger picture.
You haven’t lost sight of that dream, though – the silver glinting skyline, threaded with pearls set into deep windows; the snaking trail of train lines, and the black-diamond sky. You still long for the Big Smoke, for the Big Apple, too. You still trawl through the horse market in Camden, and wander down the sticky-elegant Portobello Road, on the hunt for The Perfect Trunk, cracked at the corners and plastered over with pale peeling postcards. Other worlds. Places you want to be, to see, though they represent the sort of changes you have always feared, and still long for. You look across the face of the world, and see the fracture lines appearing. You feel the changes in the air with every word you read, though they are but a particle of what is going on; and you cannot hope to understand it all, without actually smelling the iron tang and seeing those blackened skies, the noir streets.
(You listen to the Last Shadow Puppets, and still believe yourself to be in a film, for a little while at least – dodging beneath a forest of umbrellas, to the next golden porch.)
You wonder if you have the courage or the skills to go there, anywhere; to give others a sense of reality in words.
Thrown up in the air, they settle into the jumble of reasons you got ill in the first place; because you couldn’t make up your mind where you wanted to go, who you wanted to be.
You are still that chameleon, changing colours to suit the walls. But you’ve learned about accent and dialect, about language convergence and divergence, and you know how to keep things sweet with some, while gently tearing apart others. Still … it is difficult – isn’t it? – to know when to stop, to back up and say No. To put across your own point of view. As much as you enjoy a decent debate, when it comes to confidence in your own opinions, you are still standing outside in the rain.
(But you’re getting better at finding your own shelter. You read, learn, find reasons to argue and still more, to make up your own mind. Then there are No Excuses not to know, to have your own voice.)
Voice. Oh yes. You’re a writer again – didn’t anybody tell you?
Turns out, we’re all on the rat-race of envy and pride. There’s always a bigger school, a person with a unique way of expressing him/herself. You thought yourself to be a fraud, a copycat, nabbing ideas from your childhood favourites.
Turns out, everyone else is doing it, too. Only, we call it “inspiration”. It’s only plagiarism when the words are a sort of copy ‘n paste mulch, smeared over the page or screen by someone unwilling to break out of their own confines.
Speaking of which – you have found others like you, who find safety in symbolism. They too, paint with words. The trouble is, when throwing pictures at each other, all of the colours bleed down the walls to make a meaningless mess of the floor. One picture becomes another, becomes another.
You’re starting to sketch with graphite pencils, too, in the hope that they would follow. But you are not an apt teacher, for all that the lines were stark, carved into a sky turning pale. You tried more than once, but the lines were blurred, along with your resolve.
Time has this funny habit of moving, like the shadows of a sundial, when you’re not looking. The next thing you know, it’s almost autumn again. There are scars in the ground and in your heart, and you’re laughing at yourself even now for that terrible cliché. But with a slight undercurrent of Joni Mitchell’s infamous bittersweet-almond tones, because if there’s one thing you have learned about love, it’s that it is in no way linear. Nor is it dependable, or able to be packaged away at the back of a closet, in plastic wrapping, like a neatly-pressed shirt.
It is wildfire; it is whisper-whisper forest fire. It is waking with sore eyes, after crying so hard that you couldn’t breathe, and your mind went so white you thought you would never see again. It is learning how to cope with this, how to deaden it down, eclipsed by a blue-steel smile; because there is only one way for you now, and that’s forward.
You still hang banners across the sky, throw cotton balls for kittens, and look to the west with its bleeding-heart sun. But you don’t hope for too much. You write, instead.
Which is how this letter has finally come out, to you, my sixteen year old Self. I couldn’t do it then, in that threadbare therapy room, when only a scant two years had passed. It was too soon, and I didn’t know myself enough to want to live (or to die, either.)
Oh yes – you have finally learned the true meaning behind the blue rose, your emblem. The world has, as you once thought it would, got in the way; but then, the lasting question hung on this quickening breeze, is How much did you allow it to be so?
Not always the clearest of ways.
The mythical, the unobtainable. That which cannot be interpreted fully. A language of petals and thorns, of talons and wings, where clarity exists in a single droplet of rain ready to fall; in the angling wheel of a kite.
You have found trust again, friendship such as you had not dared to hope could exist; and love. And love again, though the two don’t always walk the same path; but we make our own journeys.
P.S: Those colours in your head? That’s synaesthesia! It’s actually a Thing. You’re one of many, with a palette for a mind, and a weird habit of crossing comparisons that will cause others to look at you with “Huh?” written all over their faces.
Just watch out for loud noises. They always did get on your nerves, in more ways than one.
P.P.S: All those dreams you had as a small child – the jungle temple, and your Nanna’s house made large and black-gold with midnight and candlelight, twisting staircases and secret rooms behind walls? The red-rock canyon, with its crimson sun that would not die, and the black-blood ground where bodies of friend and foe were scattered together like autumn leaves, united at last?
Keep an eye on those.