Saturday 6 October 2018

The Devil You Know

At high school, in the girl’s changing room, there was a mirror next to the toilets. It was long, but sat high up on the wall. I was a short teenager, a little over five feet for most of the time, so the bottom of the mirror only reached as far as the top of my neck, just below my chin. Apart from my bobble head peaking over, the majority of the mirror reflected back the high tiled walls and ceiling of the shower room. It was a bit like looking into eternity, a vast expanse of white juxtaposed by this little animal head, a wink of identity at the bottom of an expanse of nothing.

I remember staring into that mirror for what felt like endless acres of time, but it probably wasn’t that long. It was the intensity of the gaze that locked those moments in my memory. I suppose, on the surface, without context, this could be seen as the ultimate act of vanity, of narcissus. But that story was about a person admiring themselves, and finding in their reflection validation that their beauty was true. The face staring back at me in those days was also looking for validation, but not in the way I’ve just described. I was looking for reasons. Reasons why I felt the way I did, reasons why the things that had happened to me had happened, a cause for all of the pain. Slowly, as I stared, I tore apart the image in front of me, criticising and judging every aspect until, before long, I was even focusing on the tiny gaps between the hairs of my eyebrows. Each flaw I found gave me a kind of solace: Of course you’re unhappy, look at yourself.

Destroying my perception of self helped me to construct reasons that I could accept. I believe that we’re all programmed to look for cause and effect when it comes to the world around us, and the only common denominator I could see in all of my pain, was me. If I could find the faults in me, then, and only then, everything around me would make sense. I didn’t understand at the time, I didn’t understand until just recently, that the events surrounding me weren’t really about me. It’s not that the universe is unjust, it’s just… indifferent. Much of what was happening back then was being driven by other people’s actions and reactions. The rest was just the random physical realities of life, and death. I didn’t know then that I could also be living, in an active, rather than passive, sense. My focus was on reacting to other peoples’ actions, as it would be for many years to come.

But, let’s get back to how I came to be staring in that mirror in the first place, while all of my peers were still in their P.E. lesson (P.E. being Physical Education at school, just in case that acronym is not universal) 1998 was a really shit year for me. I mean, like, really, really shit. It was the year I turned 14 (which is not particularly relevant, I’m just giving you timeline) People say that things come in threes, but do you notice that they only say this about bad things? When something amazing happens for somebody, such as winning the lottery, you don’t tend to react by saying ‘oh man, you are now due two other awesome things happening to you in fairly quick succession.’ I guess the big picture is that we rarely ever know whether an event is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the long run. Seemingly awful things can have amazing consequences, seemingly good things can have disastrous consequences, but that doesn’t change how we feel about something in the moment. Our emotional responses come first, and it takes time for us to rationalise and accept things outside of the moment. The main exception to this rule of ambiguity is death. Death is rarely something that can, or will ever be, viewed as objectively good.

For me, 1998 was one of those years where I was hit by three major life events happening one after the other after the other. The first story did involve death, and loss. I’ve already told you that story. The second story was more the culmination of years of bad things coming to a head, so I guess that was more of a transitional series of moments, rather than one defined event. It was epically shitty, but I don’t want to tell you that story. The third story, well, this blog is about the third story.

At some point toward the end of that year, my back started to hurt on my lower left side. It was a pain that built gradually, in waves, over weeks, and eventually it affected my ability to walk and stand properly. I remember that Christmas holiday having to wait, each day, for my little sister to come into my room to put my socks on, because I couldn’t bend over to do it myself. This reliance on somebody else, for such a basic function that many of us take for granted, badly damaged my pride. As things got worse, and my dependence on other people grew, I began to feel a bit like half a person. Or, at the very least, an increasingly helpless person. Things finally came to a head on Boxing Day, when we were sat around my grandparents’ kitchen table eating dinner. The pain got to be so much that I couldn’t sit still anymore, and I moved to a sofa in the living room. My back just wouldn’t stop spasming, so my parents took me to A&E.

Once there, it took hours to be seen. A&E departments are always so much busier on public holidays. Too much booze, I guess. Maybe it’s too much time spent at home, where most accidents allegedly happen.  Or, it could just be a symptom of too much time spent in close proximately to family. Plus booze. Plus projectile objects. Anyway, I was tested for all sorts of sinister things, but the tests all came back negative, and I was vaguely diagnosed with ‘some kind of back problem’, which is not an unusual diagnosis, generally, but it is for someone under thirty. I was sent home and put on a waiting list for physio. I was also kept off school because, by this point, I couldn’t really straighten my back, let alone walk. Strangely, it forced me to lean backwards in a jarring manner when I did try to walk. It made me think of the Judder Man (do you remember the Judder Man from the Metz adverts? You will if you’re British and over thirty, anyway. Creepy AF) I remember in the mornings, after a night of lying in bed, my back would spasm so badly that it wouldn’t stop until I’d taken painkillers (do you remember the days when relatively mild painkillers really did the trick? God, to have a young nervous system again!)

I was fortunate, though, very much so. My parents arranged for me to get some physio treatment, which, through hours of painful manipulation and supervised exercise, got me walking again. During this period, I was quite low. I ate a lot, because it was one activity I could still enjoy. I played a lot of Nintendo, read, anything that could absorb me enough to distract me from the pain. By the time I went back to school, I was on crutches. But nothing was back to normal. I had to use the one precious school lift to get between lessons, and my poor friend had to act as my buddy, carrying my rucksack around and just generally making sure I got from A to B. I never felt so weird and different in all of my life as I did then.

The doctor told me that one of the discs in my back had ‘slipped’, as they like to say, and hardened around my sciatic nerve. While this is, unfortunately, quite common, it isn’t as common for someone that young, which only served to make me feel all the more abnormal. It turns out that this was caused by some genetically inherited back condition, the name of which I haven’t even bothered to remember, because it’s just a term for describing something that is. This apparently means that, as I grow older, it’s likely that more of my discs will do the same thing, and eventually my vertebrae will have less gooey stuff preventing them from rubbing together. Because my gooey stuff isn’t the right sort of gooey stuff, apparently.

I was lucky, though, very lucky. After months, well, years, of physio and practice, my back got better. My parents stopped the physio once I was (just about) mobile again, and eventually my NHS physio kicked in, which helped me to get through the rest of the journey. After a couple of years, the pain receded to a low background hum. It’s all but gone now, but occasionally it still reminds me of its presence. The majority of the time it’s like a ticking clock, you don’t hear it unless you focus on it. The brain is very good at de-prioritising pain, physical and emotional, given enough time. A ticking clock is an apt metaphor as well because, for the reason I gave above, back problems are likely to be in my future as well as my past. But I’m not really hung up on this. My dad has the same problem, and he’s going on 66 and one of the most physically active people I know. So, my thinking is, as long as I also stay active, it will be something I can handle. And by ‘handle’ I mean ‘stubbornly fight against forever’. Because I know that enemy, and I’m determined to be resilient, if it ever comes for me again. I think it’s likely that my back healed as well as it did because I was so young, which in itself is a gift. I’m grateful every day that I don’t have to live with a long term physical disability. Perhaps more grateful than I would have been had I not experienced this brief window into that world.

It didn’t feel brief when I was in it, though. Because the world was still pretty new to me, I had no real comprehension that what I was feeling wouldn’t last forever. As I recovered, I tried to return to P.E. I’d do okay, at first, and I would start to believe that this time I would get through a whole lesson. Some days, I could manage it. But occasionally, the pain increased to a deafening volume. I’d try to weather it, but sometimes there came a point where I’d have to stop. Or, I’d literally stop because my back would go from under me. I hated those moments, because to me it was a public humiliation - to be revealed to still be as weak as I had been in what felt like forever. I would then have to return to the changing rooms, with all of those pairs of eyes watching me. I was convinced that my classmates would think I was faking it, to get out of having to do the lesson, because nobody could see any external evidence of my pain, no cast or physical footprint, just as intangible a concept as pain that only I could perceive.  

During those walks of shame, I would rage at myself, and my body, for being so useless. For failing me, for leaving me feeling so isolated, despite being surrounded by people. I remember on one occasion getting back to the changing rooms to find that I’d been gripping the keys so tightly in my palm that my hand was cramping with the effort of it. All of this would bring me to the mirror, alone. Here, I’d glare into my reflection, interrogating it for answers. Not just for my back, but for all of the shitty things that were going on around me. Searching for the validation that somewhere, in me, was the reason why I was undeserving of anything better, that I was guilty of my own downfall. And you can rest assured that if I was doing this with my appearance, I was sure as hell doing this with my character and thoughts, pulling them apart, judging them, trying to find fault. 

One of the things that gave me the strength to keep going in this war against my physical pain, and more importantly, my emotional pain, was a TV show. Yes, I do mean Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, yes, I know I’ve spoken of this before, at great length, so no, I’m not going to put you through that again, except to say this: At my weakest point, that show gave me a hero who had hidden strengths, and not just physical ones. Buffy and her friends were different, they were weird, they didn’t fit in with the world around them, and they had all of this nasty stuff to deal with that none of them had asked for. But not only did they deal with it, they dealt with it with humour and a sense of perspective. Watching those characters do that, helped teach me to do that. Because no matter how bad something feels in the moment, nothing is the end of the world. Not even the end of the world. That show made me feel less alone. I felt connection, even a sense of community. It helped me to feel understood, in some fundamental way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

My current job is all about relationships. It’s about connecting with, and listening to, the wants of other people. I’m quite good at this, because I’ve spent my whole life trying to read other people’s subtexts. There are all of these theories on donor relations, on how to effectively steward and cultivate a relationship, but, for me, all of these ideas come back to one certain principle – we all crave to be seen. Not just seen, we want to be seen, understood, and appreciated, for exactly who and what we are. But I believe that many people are still afraid to show who they really are. I know I am. It’s a fear that becomes more apparent the closer I get to truly expressing who I actually am, because the terrifying question is this: what if the world sees who I am, understands who I am, and ultimately rejects who I am?

I re-watched Mad Men recently. It’s a really excellent show, and, if you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend that you do. It’s an incredible social satire, which explores how American culture drastically transformed over the course of one decade. But, at its heart, it’s really just a story about one man’s journey of coming to terms with who he really is. This story is relatable, because it’s all of our stories. At one point, Don (do I really need to explain who Don Draper is?) speaks to a woman who wants to read his destiny using the I-Ching. She asks him to think of a question, in his own head, and says that the coins will give him the answer. Don storms off. He is super high at this moment, but I think his reaction would have been the same sober. Later in the episode, the woman tells Don that she knew the question he had asked: ‘does somebody love me?’ Don’s face tells us that she has hit the nail on the head. When he asks her why she would even think such a thing, she responds with: ‘it’s the only question anyone ever asks.’

We all want to be loved. We all want the truth of us, to be loved. Not just the version of us that we parade around in public, or the tailored copies that we have for nearly every scenario in life. That’s why connection is so powerful, the idea that for one moment, just one moment, we’re seen and appreciated by another soul, and, for one moment, we see and appreciate theirs. This idea is so powerful that people will often try to move heaven and earth to get and retain that feeling. Because somehow this feels, deep down, like the most important thing, despite our lives being filled with joy and meaning in so many other ways. If you read, and listen to, enough ideas around connecting to yourself and mindfulness and meditation, you’ll come across this idea that separateness is an illusion. That all of our stories are just one story, and there is an underlying truth that connects you to everything and everything to you. Maybe that’s why a moment of connection, outside of your own cage, can feel so significant, because that’s the moment when the walls fall down, and, for a split second, you’re not alone anymore. 

I did a Tarot reading the other day. Now, I’ll give you my usual speech about how I don’t believe a bunch of cards can tell you your future, it’s just an exercise in consciously thinking through and giving a framework to a problem. It’s a process of considered reflection. The cards can’t tell you anything you don’t already know, but they will always show you exactly what you do know. Not just your wishful thinking, but your fears as well. Whatever explanation you create to explain why this works is redundant. To me, in a way, science and spirituality are just different languages you can use to tell the same story. Which language makes me most sense to you depends on your context. In any event, what the cards showed me, in my immediate future, was The Devil.

I was taken aback by this initially, The Devil is not a good card to get. My first reaction to this reading sprung from an underlying belief that chaos can never lead to positive change, and pain is something to be avoided at all costs, hence the interpretation of that card as inherently ‘bad’. But the more I pondered on it, the more I understood that, of course, for me, The Devil is the right card to represent what’s going to happen next, I’ve just misunderstood its place in my story. The Devil can represent a number of things, but largely, it’s tied to the concept of the dark half of your identify. However, our perception of what we consider to be the ‘dark’ aspects of ourselves, is skewed by our overall perception of ourselves. I’ve always, on some level, regarded my passions, desires, ambitions, confidence, and opinions that aren’t necessarily those of everyone else around me, as transgressions, as agents of chaos, because those parts of me aren’t about being contained so that other people will like me, they’re about who I actually am. What I’ve learned over the last couple of years is that living in this way, repressing those aspects of myself, has led to some terrible personal consequences. Through not accepting who I am, I’ve abandoned myself. This, I now see, is my true shadow self, this is my Devil. The dark parts of me, while including all the usual vices such as, sometimes, just generally being a dickhead, break down into the behaviours that have torn me apart. These are, broadly, my hopelessness, my depression, my judgements of self and in turn other people, my pain-numbing and self-avoiding patterns, and, the biggest one: overthinking everything to the point where I can never let go, even for a second, of my focus on the stakes and potential consequences of every action that I take. 

I have a self-defeating drive to attempt to control the outcomes of all of my choices for everyone else. This is an impossible task, because I’m me, I’m not anyone else, so how can I even begin to understand the full context of others, yet alone have any influence on their reactions? And when I’m not caught up in that unwinnable war, I’m going to great lengths to numb my own emotions, because it’s less painful than feeling them. What’s been happening recently is that I’ve been allowing myself to feel my emotions, and not trying to run from them. And I don’t just mean the emotions that I’ve previously considered ‘acceptable’ for me to have. This can be… overwhelming. Especially as I’m now engaging with emotions that I’ve not had much practice in managing, such as anger, that’s a big one for me. Acknowledging those feelings is not the same as being beholden to them, or just reacting to them. I’m trying to learn how to let these feelings inform me, rather than control me. To allow them to break through those other beliefs that have kept me stuck, and not moving forward.

If I stare into the mirror now, I know I won’t find any answers there. I can’t control the way I look, any more than I can control who I am. I can only control my behaviour. 

I know that expressing my true self is fraught with the risk of rejection, and I’m incredibly afraid of that, but it’s also the only state of being that carries with it the risk of connection. Connection with others can only be reached through connection to myself. This means ignoring the Siren Song of my Devil, and trying to fight back against my emotional pain, just as I had to with my physical pain, with humour, perspective, self-awareness and acceptance of just how weird and different I feel at points. Because I think, I hope, that the end result of this path might not be separation at all, the answer to my isolation might be that we all feel it, and connecting in different ways to others, while connecting in every way to myself, is a way to feel less alone.

Being who you are, by its very essence, comes down to actions. And yet, in thinking about acting (because I’m really fucking good at that) I then turn to writing. This might seem like further analysis paralysis, but writing is not just thinking, it’s a form of creation. I used to believe that writing was the best way for me to connect with other people, but I now understand the reason for this is that writing is the most effective tool I possess to connect with myself. Because when I write, I’m honest. To write my story is to give it context, and sharing that is sharing my context. Which some of you might understand, and others not. Context is the doorway to understanding, and understanding can turn into compassion. Everyone’s context is unique and complicated, and we naturally make judgements before we understand context, we can’t help it. We observe something and make the mistake of assuming that what we’re seeing is the whole story. I know that the worst offender of doing this to me, is myself. I still fantasise that I can see myself through other people’s eyes, and invariably this view is negative. But what I’m imagining is an illusion, it’s a projection of my Devil onto other people. People may think I’m a wanker, or they might think I’m awesome, and every shade in between, but that’s none of my business, not really. Nobody cares about or thinks about my life as much as I do, and nobody thinks about or cares about yours as much as you do. But this isn’t a bad thing, or an obstruction to connection, it’s actually a very liberating truth.

I no longer stare in the mirror, or into the depths of my character, to try to find answers to explain why some shit has gone down in my life. I no longer feel that my context and my story is something to feel shame over, and I know that by writing this, I’m peeling away another icky layer of separation that, as the ghost of it moves through my fingertips, I can already feel it dispersing away into the air. Just another experience offered up to the infinite universe. I know that everyone has a context and a perspective, and this is just part of mine. Everyone has shit to deal with, and none of it is comparable, it’s all relative. Writing is one of the only activities I experience that captivates me in such a manner that feels all consuming. Once I’ve started a story, it burns through me until it’s done. And while I’d like to stop telling my story and pour these ideas into more fictional contexts, because I want my life experiences to inform me and help me to create something different, I can’t help the fact that writing my story is still a part of my process, just as much as sharing it is. Plus, being an actual real life writer is tied to my ambition and self-belief, ideas that until fairly recently I’d considered best avoided. I’m getting closer to who I am, closer to my context, through doing this. And I know that you are, too, during your journey, in your own way. A journey that, if I know you, I only understand a tiny bit about, if at all.

I’m going to leave you with the words of one the world’s greatest philosophers, Eric Idle, because as I finished writing this, this song randomly popped into my head. And, if you’re not entirely sure how to end something, you may as well go with a nonsensically abrupt gear change, Holy Grail style. Because it only serves to reinforce the fact that, while all of the ideas I’ve just pondered upon are important, relevant, and deserving of the upmost consideration, they are also, at the same time, completely meaningless, fleeting, and pretty funny, at the end of the day.  

‘Our universe itself, keeps on expanding, and expanding,
In all of the directions it can whiz.
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute, and that’s the fastest speed there is
So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there’s intelligent life, somewhere up in space
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.’

No comments:

Post a Comment