Ex-Hiatus: In which I question my fundamental humanity and try to navigate the path

My sense of myself has been all over the place in the last few days.

A nagging voice in my head keeps telling me to go and get an appointment with my GP about the state of my mental health, because my urges to self-harm have been coming back with a vengeance, and I really feel like I need someone to talk to following the news of my mum’s post-natal depression. I feel like this may be the beginning of an answer to the question “Why on earth am I scoring through the roof on the emotional deprivation schema when nothing is wrong?” that came up when I first accessed therapy in university.

But I am not registered with the local surgery any more because of changing to university, and it just seems too difficult to go and sort it out. I know I should, but I keep thinking of all the problems there will be. They’ll need information that I won’t have, and then I’ll probably not be able to get an appointment until all the paperwork goes through, and then I’ll have to go back and book an appointment which won’t be available for ages, and by that time I’ll probably have talked myself out of wanting to go anyway, and then suddenly everything will flare up again and I’ll be no nearer getting help at all.

But I still keep thinking I should go and sort it out.

My godmother has found out that her cancer has returned, very aggressively. She has it in her brain and her bones. She initially had breast cancer. Just like my mum. And now I can’t stop thinking about how, in twenty years time, will this be my mum? Will I get a text telling me all of this? I want to be strong, I want to be positive, I want to hope for the best, I want to be doing all the right things and managing to keep up with my own life as well. I want to be the same as I was when Mum had cancer, I want to just get my head down and deal with it.

But I can’t. I am a completely different person now, almost 5 years on.

I can’t cry about it. Well, I can, but only when I delve into really serious channelling, which helps for the anxiety and crushing sadness but doesn’t sort anything out in the cold light of day. Now, I know logically that worrying doesn’t help, that I can’t transfer this situation onto the future of my mum, and even if I did it wouldn’t help, and it wouldn’t change anything and you can’t change the future or predict it or spend your life worrying about it or stop your present just thinking about what the future might hold. But logic does FUCK ALL FOR ME when I can’t stop thinking about it no matter how much I want to just accept it and move on.

I wouldn’t choose to be this way.

I keep trying to think: I can’t control this, I have tried to communicate it but my parents are very emotionally closed-off, another reason why I should try and make that appointment just to have somebody to talk to. I can adapt to it by being supportive of my mum and compassionate towards myself, but that doesn’t solve anything, and then finally I can accept that I can’t solve this.

I can’t bear not being able to make this right.

Last night I fell asleep stroking my hair and telling myself hundreds of times all of the things I give myself permission to do: I give myself permission to cry, to care, to love, to forgive, to feel, to worry, to not know what to do, to be weak, to be strong, to live, to dream, to try, to fail, to make mistakes, to try again, to not understand, to be lost, to find myself again.

It’s laughable that I want to go into mental health in education. I can’t even deal with myself and my own life. I try and pretend, I go looking for courses and information and preparation, and it’s all just covering up the fact that I’m running away from my own problems and trying to fix someone else’s. Because that will give me permission to exist, a reason to feel worth something, a purpose to block out that instinct to hurt myself and punish myself for not being… enough, not being wanted, not being hugged and kissed and cuddled and played with and loved. And that’s changed massively, but that deprivation happened when it mattered, and I still feel this deep chasmic ache of loss. And I can’t deal with it any more.

I guess I should get round to making that appointment.


Family: How can we express our vulnerability when we were never taught the way?

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

– Philip Larkin, This Be The Verse

Last night I found out that my mum had post-natal depression with me and my brother. She has never talked about this before, not for lack of certainty or support, as both she and my dad were definite that she had been experiencing post-natal depression after each of our births, to varying extents. They mentioned factors such as not knowing what to do and being doubtful of their abilities as parents, moving house soon after my brother’s birth, and not having the support of a network of family or friends, as everyone they knew lived in the north of England and they have moved to the south.

I have become far more willing to discuss mental health around my parents, if it comes up in the news, because of having dealt with certain issues myself and to varying extents taking a supportive role while at university when I and many of my friends were dealing with their own issues, ranging from self-harm to eating disorders to anxiety disorders to depression to suicidal thoughts. Having come into contact with mental health facilities myself, and having a good working knowledge of the effects of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication, and various forms of therapy from my friends, I feel relatively confident in my views about how social stigma surrounding mental health needs to change, and how far better support needs to be provided, and how education needs to develop and improve (to some extent even exist) in order for mental health issues to be better understood and treated.

I think this kind of open discussion with my parents makes them feel more comfortable about talking about their own experiences. Certainly my mum seems to have more issues that she is still trying to deal with than I would ever have guessed. Along with the post-natal depression, which she has only just told me about, or talked to anyone about in any kind of detail, she opened up to me about how my maternal grandfather was jealous, possessive and controlling around my grandmother to the extent that she accepted it was an abusive relationship, and that they should have divorced, but that in those days it just wasn’t something that was done.

It’s been more than ten years since my grandma died, and my mum is only just now starting to talk about it. She said that when she was younger her parents wouldn’t talk to each other for months at a time, and she would have to take messages backwards and forwards between them. When she was ten her mum was confiding in her about how she wished she had never had children and all she wanted to do was leave the family. In her own words, her parents had ‘screwed her up’, and although I knew she had always had a strained relationship with her mother, and had wanted to leave home and live as far away as possible as quickly as possible, I had no idea it was such a dysfunctional relationship.

For me, the worst part is that my mum still wouldn’t consider talking any of this out, she just laughs it off about ‘being strong’ and ‘getting on with things’, and it breaks my heart to think that all of the things she’s been through that I will never know about, because she will never tell me about them, which have meant she’s inadvertently raised me to be the same as her, and there’s this unspoken gulf of sadness between us that we can’t cross. It is frightening that the words she uses to deny the significance of the things she has gone through, and dismiss any need for intervention or the benefits she could get from communication, are exactly those that I used to tell myself and anyone else, if I ever faced them at all.

Before going to sleep last night, I couldn’t help but think about the relationship between my mum and me. I remember when I was very young that I was always quite frightened of her. She was rarely around, and I was left with a child-minder because she was always working, and I remember thinking that she must love my brother more than me because she took him to work with her (I now realise this was because they had a crèche for very young children at her workplace, which did not exist when I was that age). Whenever she was at home, she was always exhausted and stressed, because of the long hours she worked (only to provide for the family, of course), and she wasn’t a particularly tactile or physically affectionate person, so I can’t remember hugs or other affectionate behaviour from her. Even now I feel very uncomfortable about kisses in a non-romantic atmosphere, because I have never experienced them.

It has only been in the last five years or so that our relationship has entirely changed, because of her experience of breast cancer. It brought us closer together than I could have ever thought possible, and I would now consider her my best friend. I know that I am so lucky to have grown up in a much better environment than she did, but I think there are still things that I missed out on, notably a secure sense of self-worth and being loved – a lot of the things I struggle with come from a profound sense of emotional deprivation, which is difficult to admit because things have changed so dramatically since I was a little child.

I think what I can come away from this knowing is that it takes someone to be honest and express their belief that people struggling with mental health deserve support, patience and compassion, in order for those still fighting their own personal demons to feel secure enough to begin expressing their vulnerabilities. It takes communicating your own vulnerabilities in some way for others to become more confident in expressing theirs. I had to make myself vulnerable in order for my mum to allow herself to be. As me and some of my friends have talked about before, we share a deep sense of gratitude and relief to have come to terms with how we feel by the age of twenty-one or twenty-two, in order that we might make a positive difference in the lives of our own children, so that they can avoid the pitfalls we have had to negotiate our way out of.

There is a chasm of pain in the generations that have passed before ours. My grandmother suffered through what would now be completely accepted as an abusive marriage, and she couldn’t do anything about it because she had no chance of financial independence and had six children who relied on her, so she tainted the relationship with her eldest daughter, my mother, because she had no one else to talk to about how she was feeling. Divorce was out of the question, and I doubt if depression or mental breakdown were even concepts that were acknowledged or even speakable in the north-east at that time. My mum remains fiercely independent and emotionally distant, and has instilled that in me, but she is trying to open up, just as I am. It is a process that happens in parallel lines, and though my grandmother and her daughter couldn’t reconcile their relationship, my mother and I have, and I hope that I never have to with my own daughter.

This is healing.

Hopping Trains: I’m far away from my arrival destination, but I’m on the right set of tracks

On Wednesday afternoon I graduated from university. As with an awful lot of things, I found it very difficult to enjoy, partly because any kind of success I just see as par for the course and a push to do better next time, if I can get past thinking I should have done better in the first place, and partly because there was so much to get done in so little time that I felt very panicky and stressed throughout the whole day, and couldn’t stop thinking about all the things that might go wrong.

More than anything else, I was dreading having to get the official photographs of the day taken, because the thought of it sent me right back to experiences at school of photography day, of a chubby faced, thin lipped, pig nosed, short and lumpy girl-creature with round glasses, lank hair and bad skin, who looked about twice her actual size because of those godawful round-necked jumpers she had to wear that did nothing for her too-big boobs and hips when every other eleven-year-old still looked like a little princess.

I do think I might have an issue about actually seeing myself in photographs. Bar a very few exceptions, whenever I look at myself, most of the time all I can see are things I don’t like about myself, and how terrible I look compared to everyone else in the pictures. I genuinely see myself as looking very different between photographs and in the mirror. In the mirror, I actually like what I see, almost every part of myself I can find something good about. But in photographs, I honestly don’t recognise myself. I look like a different person, and a horrible, ugly person. It’s really strange, because it’s not as though I act the same way when I see myself in a mirror, or in day-to-day life – my internal self-image is pretty much fine – but in photographs I just have to glance at myself and I feel nauseas. I have to look away, because there is a physical ache in my stomach seeing myself.

So I went and got the photographs at graduation taken, and I checked myself in the mirror and thought I looked pretty good – my fringe was a little ugh because of the wind and the stupid ridiculous hat we had to wear – but otherwise I was pretty happy. I loved the dress I was wearing and the robes felt pretty cool too. I had practised my smile, wide and genuine but without creasing up my eyes, but then I looked at what the photographer had taken and I just didn’t recognise myself. In fact, I really couldn’t bear to look. I had to choose the one I liked best and I just hated all of them, and all I could think was that that photo I chose would be with me my whole life, and would be in my parents’ house, and my grandfather’s house, and that’s how I look to other people, and it’s just disgusting.

When I got home, I thought about it some more, and my first thought was how I could limit my eating, how I could cut out all of these different foods, how I could skip breakfast and lunch and get away with eating less at dinner, how maybe I could skip dinner and act like I was making my own, and then all of these other thoughts came into my head like how on earth will I ever be able to find a nice hairstyle that actually suits me, and how will my skin ever get better, and why is my face so fat, and why are my shoulders so broad and why do I feel like I take up so much space?

But then I just felt a little voice in my head, a strong, defiant, fierce, angry, patient and compassionate voice in my head, telling me that I am fine just the way I am, that I am so bored and tired and done with limiting myself and purging and disordered thinking about food. I reminded myself about how I had actually felt genuinely hungry for the first time in ages right after my graduation ceremony had finished, once all of the nerves and panic had gone, all I felt was hunger, and I finished a chicken katsu curry from Wagamamas and actually had a dessert (with my family! while eating out!) without feeling even slightly guilty about it!! I had a chocolate fudge cake and shared it with my brother, and I loved it and it was so gorgeous and I ordered it confidently and didn’t laugh anxiously or take an apologetic tone while ordering it, I just wanted it because I was hungry and I thought it sounded good.

So, all of these things still hit me really hard, and I wish terribly that they didn’t, but it seems as though I can deal with them better than I used to, and I’m hoping that will gradually keep getting better and easier in time, if I stick at it and don’t give up.


Beyond Morality: Hannibal through a Freudian lens

Today, as part of my preparation for starting the ‘English: 1850-Present’ MA at King’s College in London this September (I still can’t quite believe I’ll be a post-grad, it sounds so grown-up!), I read Totem and Taboo by Sigmund Freud. This book is a collection of essays in which Freud expands upon some of his most (in)famous theories, such as the horror of incest and the Oedipus Complex, as well as considering his approach towards psychoanalysis compared to that of sociology and anthropology. If you can get past the language of colonial privilege and don’t tend to see animist or totemic cultures as ‘primitives’ and ‘miserable savages’, this is an incredibly interesting book that delves into cultural taboos and their effect on individual and group mentalities and behaviour. 

One of the key points in Totem and Taboo concerns the process of imprinting an understanding of taboo, which in essence represents something both instinctively desired and socially forbidden, something with a sacred yet dangerous power, that encompasses life, death, community and individuality. Coming to understand a taboo in childhood involves a primal desire to undertake something enjoyable, yet frowned upon (Freud uses the example of masturbation). Having been told to refrain from taking part in this activity by an authority figure, usually a parent, a child’s respect, love and fear of the parent overrides their desire and they stop. However, their desire is not removed but merely repressed, creating a sense of ambivalence in which the activity is both desired yet feared.

Interestingly, one of the examples of taboos Freud uses is that of cannibalism, which got me to thinking about the portrayal of Hannibal Lecter by Mads Mikkelsen in NBC’s Hannibal. According to Freud, it is the unconscious ambivalence we feel about taboos such as cannibalism, a primal desire coupled with a fierce knowledge of it being forbidden, that almost terrifies us into not engaging in such behaviour (although the case of Abu Sakkar, the ‘heart-eating cannibal’ in the Syrian conflict, might suggest that in circumstances such as war and conflict these societal-behavioural structures can simply collapse).

In my opinion, Hannibal Lecter is such a compelling character because he is first and foremost beyond morality, and by extension beyond categorisation. As others have said, Hannibal likes to throw around labels such as ‘psychopath’ and ‘sociopath’ precisely because in doing so they illuminate the inadequacy of such terms when faced with the agent that is Hannibal Lecter.

In Freudian psychology, to commit a taboo is to break from the control of society’s bounds, to be totally free, and by necessity alone, isolated and ostracised by the vast gulf of moral standards between the taboo-breaker and society as a whole. In Totem and Taboo, Freud makes the point that laws are not put in place without there being something that is an instinctively desired activity that is recognised as detrimental to society should it be enacted. Therefore, deep in our primal unconscious, there is a desire to kill and to consume, because survival (if not necessarily the survival of the individual than survival of the wider collective body or of a loved one), is our most basic instinct.

I won’t go into the trauma of Hannibal’s childhood as explored in Hannibal Rising here, because I am more interested in how Hannibal Lecter traverses the taboo of cannibalism, and does so magnificently, and horrifyingly, in relation to how he completely subverts the Freudian expectations of resultant taboo-breakage. Freud believed that it was the primal fear of death, of slain enemies, and ultimately the fear of demons, which ensured that members of those cultures who practised ritual slaughter and sacrifice took special care of their victims after their deaths: wishing their spirits to be at peace, asking their forgiveness and lamenting their state as foes. While consuming another human being could be acceptable for ritualistic purposes of taking on their strength and positive qualities, it would be wrong to consume a weak, cowardly or otherwise deficient person, as the cannibal would take on their weaknesses.

Hannibal completely defies this. The whole point is that he eats the rude. If there was ever a legitimate purpose to cannibalism, it was to adopt the strength of the slain by consumption. Hannibal does it for power, humiliation, control, because he can. Furthermore, he subverts the concept of the ritual feast, in which tribes would, on significant occasions, indulge in cannibalism in which all were aware of what they were about to consume and paid appropriate homage to it. Hannibal, through his dinner parties, typifies the ritual feast, except that he is serving human meat to guests who are entirely unaware of what they are consuming. Clearly, Hannibal finds exquisite pleasure in this act of dishonesty and manipulation, and again it reveals that his motivation is more along the lines of satisfying his godlike complex and revelling in the knowledge that no one else shares in.

Through the entire first season of Hannibal, Hannibal has got away with it all. This is the ultimate subversion of Freud’s theory of the taboo, because Hannibal manages to break the chains of primal moral society and can sit back and smile while doing so. According to the Freudian model, he is supposed to be vilified, despised, feared, and although in time he will be, for now there is something magical in the rare spectacle of a character so beyond our moral sphere that he can captivate and entrance an audience despite most of whom already knowing exactly who he is and what he does. That is the Hannibal Lecter spell.


“You’re never going to be a looker”: Why, no matter what women do, their worth is still predicated on their appearance; and why uninformed apologies are not actually addressing this fact

Yesterday afternoon, Marion Bartoli won her first Grand Slam tennis title in the women’s final at Wimbledon, without dropping a single set in the process. She described the experience as ‘beyond perfection’. After her victory, three-time men’s Wimbledon champion and BBC pundit John McEnroe said that she ‘absolutely will inspire millions who will all be thinking, “Hey, anything is possible!”‘

Well, anything is possible, except perhaps that a woman could succeed without her physical appearance being called into question, even and especially when it is entirely irrelevant to what she is doing. Earlier in the day, on Radio 5, John Inverdale made these comments about Bartoli:

“I just wonder if her dad, because he has obviously been the most influential person in her life, did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14 maybe, ‘listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker.

“‘You are never going to be somebody like a Sharapova, you’re never going to be 5ft 11, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that. You are going to have to be the most dogged, determined fighter that anyone has ever seen on the tennis court if you are going to make it’, and she kind of is.”

So, are we to assume that at the age of 12-14, when most girls are going through puberty, and are apparently meant to transform – chrysalis-like – from cute caterpillar to beautiful butterfly, vapid and vacuous and definitely no threat to the patriarchy, that Bartoli’s father told her she was ugly and so would have to work harder than the pretty ‘Sharapovas’ of the world, because her physical appearance was an inherent and irredeemable weakness?

Inverdale has described his comments as ‘ham-fisted’ and both he and the BBC have apologised for ‘any offence caused’, with the BBC describing his comments as ‘insensitive’. But let’s think about that word for a moment. Isn’t it really the case that both Inverdale and the BBC are actually apologising for the slights against Bartoli’s appearance, rather than the far more wide-reaching issue that is equating a woman’s appearance with her worth, and, by extension, negating the success of a hard-working and talented woman if she fails to measure up to society’s standards for her physical beauty?

Therefore, by this model, mustn’t Maria Sharapova’s worth be derived more from the fact that she is a beautiful, tall, blonde, athletic woman who is pleasurable for men to watch play her sport, than the fact that she is immensely talented at tennis, and just happens to be traditionally attractive alongside this? Inverdale’s comments, and his and the BBC’s failure to acknowledge the deeply problematic culture they protect, ultimately reveal that what the patriarchy is doing is sitting back in the Wimbledon crowd and allowing women to indulge in their silly games, which are never given the same weight or coverage as the men’s, provided of course that the women who play the sport provide an adequately beautiful spectacle for them to watch and appreciate.

It is acceptable and beneficial for women to be involved in sport, but only if they are first and foremost attractive to watch while doing so. If they are also talented, so much the better, because (double-standard alert!) a beautiful woman that has time to spend becoming good at something instead of working on her appearance is, in the mind of the male-gaze media, something to wonder at, a rare specimen indeed (I think I was just sick in my mouth).

Even as he attempted to apologise for his comments, Inverdale managed to fetishize female athletes by describing them in the public perception as usually ‘6ft tall Amazonian athletes’, their success, talent, physicality and athleticism by definition a threat to patriarchy that must be contained by, as Inverdale has managed to do wonderfully, always reminding the collective consciousness that what a woman is truly and ultimately defined by is her physical appearance, and is only worthy of anything if she is attractive and appealing to the men around her. Good job, fucker!


email: biafi@hotmail.co.uk

Mindfulness: Life in the Present Tense

Today I’m feeling restless. What I usually do at times like this is to write a list of things that I want to improve about myself, and then explore how I could work on getting through the list. At the moment, my list would look something like this:

  • Get a job to get through buying the things I need
  • Exercise more and lose weight
  • Work on getting started on career plan

These three things are really tying me in knots at the moment. I’m acutely aware of the fact that I have little to no money at the moment, and even though there are only a couple of things I want to spend some money on, and even if I bought all of them right now I could probably just about afford them, I would still be left fairly close to my overdraft limit without much idea of how I’m going to get back on the good side of the line.

My parents are being so good about supporting me, letting me live at home during my MA and trying to convince me that they are happy for me to stay as long as I need to, that they love having me around. But I still feel so aware of the fact that I am almost 22 years old and still don’t have a job or a real idea of how I’m going to get one, or even what that job could be and how to get there. Or, actually, I know what sort of careers I would like to get into, and I know how to get into each of them, but whenever I think about it I just find myself collapsing under the weight of fears about not being good enough or being good enough but not having the opportunity, or being good enough and having the opportunity but being beaten out by somebody with more experience or more charm or something more than me.

My mum even said she and my dad would help me pay for some things I want for summer, that I just need to ask them, but I feel incredibly guilty asking them for things, so I think I should just ask them and get it over with, as there are only one or two things I would like and they have already said that it won’t be a problem. So, it doesn’t look like it’s actually having the money to pay for the things I would like that’s worrying me, but the whole issue of getting a real job, starting a career, and probably actually getting started on life “in the real world” that’s frightening me, because up until now my life has been so well planned and everything has seen itself though, but now it’s all up to me and it’s so terrifying.

And, of course, when I’m frightened, I start obsessing more about my body and the way I look. I somehow keep getting stuck in the rut of thinking that if only my stomach was perfectly flat, if only my thighs were slimmer or my upper arms were slimmer or I was a little taller or my face was a little less round or my hair had more body or my skin was in better condition, then I would suddenly, magically be absolutely wonderfully happy forever and all my other problems would vanish and nothing would ever worry me again and I would be an entirely different, better person who wouldn’t have to think about the things I think about when I’m inside the body that I actually have right now. (Not forgetting that I’m actually the happiest and most secure I’ve ever been with how I look and feel in myself right now, this is so ridiculous.)

It seems as though always having that overhanging fretting about the way I look and the way my body is and the size that I am and how that reflects on me, it’s just another excuse for me to live in my own head rather than getting involved in the real world and my actual life. Really it’s the world’s best procrastination technique, because I’ve somehow managed to convince myself that worrying about how I look and planning to do more exercise or lose weight or sort out more diet restrictions is in fact something real and productive, rather than just an avoidance tactic to stop me from having to face up to my real future.

So, instead, I’m thinking about mindfulness today.

Mindfulness is emphasised in Buddhist philosophy as an awareness to cultivate in order to fully appreciate the present moment. It can be developed through paying attention to the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, and can be applied to anything in your life. Focusing on how the world around you is processed by your senses is a great way to bring yourself back to the present moment. Emphasising the importance and value of the present moment is also a great way to alleviate some fears and anxieties about the future, because “worry pretends to be essential but serves no useful purpose” – no matter how much I worry about the future, there is nothing that worry is doing to make the future better, and is in fact eating up my future every moment I stop to worry about it! How silly!

At this moment, it is a lovely, sunny day, the sky is almost cloudless, and I can smell the fresh air outside and feel its warmth around me. I am in my sweet little room, which I love, writing a blog that I am really enjoying and finding helpful to my continued recovery. Tonight I am going to introduce my mum to one of my favourite films, and tomorrow I am going into London with one of my best friends to see Ben Howard and Mumford & Sons. I have a lot in my life to appreciate, and I have my graduation ceremony to look forward to next week. Other than that, I don’t need to worry about the future, because no matter what happens, it’s getting closer, it’s getting better.


email: biafi@hotmail.co.uk