Please

Other people’s words about … chronic pain

I told [my parents] how that afternoon I had actually gone and seen another psychologist [for help with my chronic migraine]. I was just feeling so low and so down, and a friend had recommended her, and she could squeeze me in. I told her the pain would come and the pain would go, and that I couldn’t control it, that some days I would be fine, more than fine, ecstatic, but that other days the pain would return and I would slide into a depression so deep I could not see my way out. I told her I felt like a rat in an experiment, a rat made to drink water — sometimes the water was normal but other times the water shocked with an electricity so violent that I would swear never to drink it again, but then I would see everyone else drinks water and I would wonder why I couldn’t do that too. I told her I just wanted to drink the water. Sometimes I could, but mostly I couldn’t and I never knew when. I told her I just wanted to know why. It had been years since I’d had the initial migraine, but even now, right then, the pain had returned and I couldn’t read or write or — I told her I was sick of being an experiment, that I just wanted answers, someone to help. Then I asked her if she could help. I asked if she’d ever heard of anything like this before and then I told her please. I said, Please, I would just really appreciate it if you could help, and she just smiled and told me she’d seen it all before. Then she got out a piece of paper and a pen and told me to rewrite negative self-thoughts as positive self-thoughts. I asked her what she meant. She said, Well, you could rewrite ‘I am worthless’ as ‘I am special’; ‘I am alone’ as ‘I am loved’; ‘I am useless’ as ‘I am capable’. And then she sat back and pushed the pen and paper towards me and told me to try. I told Mum and Dad I just got up and left, then — because I knew she was just the same as everyone else — full of bullshit just like the whole world was full of bullshit. I told them it was like I was eight years old, and everyone was playing pretend.

from ‘Train Lord
by Oliver Mol

There was a period in my life some years ago when a headache settled over me which, despite all the cures and treatments I tried in response to it (both conventional and alternative) would not fade away. Unlike the chronic headache that Oliver Mol describes seeking treatment for in the passage above, my headache wasn’t a migraine: the pain I experienced was of a milder kind, what doctors call a tension headache. This meant that, unlike Mol, I could still function. That is to say, I could still present to the world an image of myself functioning. Unlike him, I could still read and write; I could still watch television and use computers; I could still get myself to work.

Still, the pain during that period was omnipresent. It varied in intensity: sometimes it was faint, just a light tingling sensation at the edge of my eyelids or (oddly) inside my nose; sometimes it was strong and persistent, as though someone had lodged a heavy, blunt object (a hammer? a mallet?) into the top of my head and was pressing this object — pressing and pressing it — down into my skull. Sometimes the headache made me feel dizzy and sick, and this, because of my phobia about vomiting, triggered bouts of anxiety that weakened my ability to cope with the pain. On days like that, I felt desperate. I made a mask of my face in social contexts; I disappeared from my desk at work to cry behind the closed door of a toilet cubicle; I made excuses and went home early from gatherings (or didn’t go to them at all). I felt myself, or the person I thought of as myself, slowly disintegrating.

I hadn’t known until then how much my sense of myself as a social creature, and as a socially worthy creature, was predicated on an assumption of my good health. I’ve since learned that this is an experience common to people experiencing chronic pain or illness, but I didn’t know that then.

Aldinga Scrub, summer flooding, January 2023.

Mol’s migraine lasted ten months initially (although later it returned for another few months). My headache faded away around the two-year mark. I still don’t know why, really — whether the cure was due to something I did, or to one of the treatments I tried, or simply to plain luck. Sometimes it returns, settling over me for a day, or a few days, or a week, or a few weeks — but eventually it leaves again. And because of this, because the pattern has changed, because I know now, or at least allow myself to assume, that the pain is only temporary, I have learned simply to wait it out when it visits. To let it run its course.

And yet. That word: temporary. And then I told her please, Mol writes, and that’s what it feels like, even now, when I’m in the midst of a long headache: a prayer to someone, anyone, to make sure that the pain is only temporary, that it won’t take over again the way it did for those two years. Because once you’ve felt it, you never forget it: the way pain changes you, the way it writes itself on you, the way it renders you powerless. The way it robs you of yourself.

This, I think, is what Mol’s psychologist failed to see. Perhaps the worst thing, when you are experiencing chronic pain or illness, is the sense of betrayal that accompanies your pain. You feel, first, as though your body has betrayed you, this body you have been lucky enough never really to have thought about before, which until now has performed for you mostly without pain or grievance; and then, second, as though the people around you — the ‘experts’ you have consulted — have betrayed you, too, with their so-called treatments and cures, with the promises they make you, with the money they take from you, all to no end; and then, third, as though the world itself has betrayed you, in its refusal to operate in a way that is manageable or meaningful for you in your pain.

If, in the end, you are lucky enough to get relief from your pain, what you never quite forget is that when you were in pain, you changed. You no longer knew yourself. You became a person who said, Please.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Speak

Other people’s words about … despair

She sat across from him. For some reason, he removed his glasses and set them on the gold table. His naked eyes were as dark as the burnished leather they sat on and held a startling amount of despair. The effect struck her as indecent, as if he’d disrobed. ‘Put your glasses back on,’ she wanted to tell him. ‘For God’s sake.’

from ‘Vacuum in the Dark
by Jen Beagin

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the things people say to each other and the things they don’t. And about subtext, which is not quite the same thing but is part of it all the same.

Over the last couple of years, having written and submitted a middle-grade fiction manuscript to my agent which has as yet to find a home with a publisher, I’ve been writing a literary fiction manuscript. I haven’t mentioned this here till now, in part because my writing in that area is still so new and tentative, and in part because when I say the words, ‘I am writing a literary fiction manuscript’, all I hear is my own internal mocking laughter.

You? says the voice in head, that little internalised voice. How could you possibly presume to have something to say in the literary fiction field? How could you assume that much writing talent of yourself? That much wisdom?

Bracken fern, light and shadow, January 2023.

It’s impossible to say whether what I’m writing will ever be something complete, let alone publishable. That’s the risk any writer takes, whether they have had previous books published, as I have, or not. But what I am writing about in that manuscript is in part what Jen Beagin describes so beautifully in the passage I’ve quoted above: our unwillingness to witness each other’s despair. Our inability to talk about it or bring it to light. Our constant need to reassure each other with upbeat, optimistic conversation and good cheer.

I am not by nature a cheerful person. Nor am I an optimist. Nor am I a skilled conversationalist. At fifty-two, I still find myself getting midway through a conversation with another person, only to realise that I have revealed too much of myself: my fears, my doubts, my sadnesses. (Actually, ‘I still find myself’ is the wrong way to put this; in fact, the right way to put this would be, ‘I increasingly find myself’.) Maybe this isn’t evident to the person I’m talking to, or maybe it is. I’m never sure. But I often feel like the man Beagin describes in the passage above: glasses off, the truth in my eyes revealed. This is not a comfortable place to find myself.

But increasingly I believe in the importance of confronting the secrets we see in other people’s eyes. I believe in meeting those secrets head-on. I believe in talking about them. Perhaps what I am saying here is that secrets don’t have to be the subtext to the conversations we have with other people: they can be the essence of our conversations. They can be where we meet.

Common everlasting flowers, January 2023.

Lately I’ve been reading …

A question

Other people’s words about … therapy

My scores and answers [on the psychology questionnaires] indicated, among other things, [the therapist] had said, a lack of excitement about the future. Sleeping a great deal or sleeping very little. An ongoing melancholy.
My laughter burbled up again, helpless, irrepressible. It was the first time I had been this disrespectful to a grown-up.
If you ‘cured me’ of all of these, I told her, I don’t even know who I would be. It would be like getting lobotomised. I would not recognise myself.
Setting the clipboard down, I thanked her, still chuckling lightly. Walked out.
What the questionnaires had not asked that might have been useful to me:
Do you wake up each day for yourself or for someone else?
Do you believe your life to be your own?

from ‘All This Could Be Different
by Sarah Thankam Mathews

I’ve written before about how, many years ago now, I quit therapy. I’d been seeing a therapist for many years, but I’d come to the conclusion I couldn’t see him anymore. That therapist — I still remember him with great respect and affection, and I still remember my last session with him with great rage. I think my rage had been growing for some time, and I think, if I am honest with myself, that it was as much about what I felt my life might look like post-therapy than it was about the therapist himself, or about any failure I accused him of that day. Nonetheless, I did accuse him.

I told my therapist that day that I left each session with him feeling sadder than I did when I arrived. I told him that I was tired of the words ‘recovery’ and ‘cure’ when they were used in reference to my sadness. I told him, repeatedly, that this language we used in our sessions, which was the language of illness, made no sense in the context of my sadness. I told him that I didn’t want to speak this language anymore. And I left.

In my time I have filled out many questionnaires like the ones that the therapist in All This Could Be Different asks the narrator, Sneha, to fill out. And like Sneha, I’ve been given labels to use about myself as a result of the findings from those questionnaires. Ultimately, though, it’s the stuff I feel that isn’t diagnosable that is the hardest to sort through. To live with.

What would therapy be like if the first questions our therapists asked us — the questions our therapists repeated to us at every session — were Sneha’s two questions? What would life be like if those were the two questions we asked the people we love when we were worried about them? I don’t know. Sometimes I feel as though I’ve been trying to have that kind of therapy, that kind of conversation, all my life.

Tell me, do you wake up each day for yourself or for someone else? Do you believe your life to be your own? And what does it mean if your answer to both of those questions was ‘no’?

Lately I’ve been reading …

Replenish

Other people’s words about … being alone

As the train left the station, I felt a sense of relief. I wanted to walk in the woods and among the trees. I wanted not to speak to anyone, only to see and hear, to feel lonely.

from ‘Cold Enough for Snow
by Jessica Au

I’ve been thinking a lot this year about solitude and loneliness, about participating socially and withdrawing. Though popular scientists and the mainstream media continue to exhort us to maintain our social connections as we age, both for the health of our brain and for our psychological wellbeing, I have come to believe that it’s just as important to be comfortable in your own skin as it is to be comfortable in a social context.

Garden pickings (1), October 2022.

Some years ago a friend said to me that what she admired most in me was that I am a person who has a rich inner life. I have often thought about her words and what they might mean. I tend to think of myself as introverted and shy, a social choker, and I often find myself wanting because of this. But the truth is that when I let go of my expectations of myself as a social creature, I am happy wandering the avenues of my mind.

I think that’s why I find such accord with Jessica Au’s words in the passage I’ve quoted above. What if loneliness wasn’t just a negative version of solitude? Why not embrace it for itself? In fact, why not seek replenishment from it?

Truly: why not?

Garden pickings (2), October 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Roar

Other people’s words about … country and city life

Ramesh was used to the sounds of the suburbs. He never noticed barking dogs or level crossings. On the train to work every morning he turned up the volume of his audiobook so it was louder than other passengers’ mobile phone conversations. But [tonight he was in] the country [and it] roared. He could hear the air move in the trees. He had grown up in Croydon, moved to Glasgow at seventeen, back to London at twenty-three, then Sydney at thirty-six. As a child he’d stood outside his parents’ bedroom listening to his father’s whistling snore. He liked living in places where he could hear others alive. He reached for his phone where it sat charging. For an instant he saw his hands illuminated in the bluish light of its screen. He set his rain sound app to the setting called ‘Harbour Storm’.

‘What are you doing?’ Henry croaked. His face was pressed to the pillow. ‘You don’t need that tonight.’ 

Ramesh opened his mouth to argue, then he heard the rain outside, like gunfire on the corrugated iron roof.

from ‘Pulse Points
by Jennifer Down

I love this passage, not because I’m in accordance with Ramesh, but for the opposite reason. I love the ‘roar’ of the country. I spend most of my time living in a house in the suburbs. It’s close to the beach, which I love, but it’s even closer to the railway line, a line that trains zip up and down every half an hour from five in the morning until midnight.

Sunset, early August 2022.

I don’t mind the sound of trains, actually — as suburban sounds go, I find it vaguely comforting — but when I leave my house to stay outside the city, to visit Aldinga Scrub or to camp in Yorke Peninsula, I feel a knot inside my chest of which I wasn’t even aware releasing itself.

Sounds I love when I am away from the city: the dull roar of the ocean at the end of the road (yes, another roar). The whistle of a hot wind through the trees. A frogmouth letting out its low, persistent, booming call at dusk. A shrike thrush singing. A magpie warbling. Frogs croaking. Insects clicking in the grass. And, yes, like Ramesh, the rain drumming on the roof.

Still, the photo accompanying my post today, like so many of my photos on this blog these days, comes from the suburban beach at the end of the street I live on. The sand is being eroded away and there are car parks dotted along the coast line and on most weekends a food truck selling hot donuts sets up shop during daylight hours.

But it’s still the beach. It’s still wide and beautiful and open and … The sea still roars.

Lately I’ve been reading …

It’s a lengthy list today, because I’ve been reading far more than I’ve been posting. But I hope you find something interesting below.

Only [dis]connect

Other people’s words about … beauty

I wondered if a more complex language like [my mother’s native language] Korean had a singular word to describe the feeling of getting off a long shift of a physically demanding job and finding that, for at least half an hour after, everything, every last thing, was too beautiful to bear.

Jenny asked the question so simply — ‘Okay, what do you want to talk about?’ — and I nearly reached across the table and grabbed her hands back, whispered thanks against each of her knuckles. I was about to ask her opinion on lakes and oceans — which did she prefer, contained and musty, or vast and salty? — when she suddenly sat up straight, eyes wide. ‘So — what did you think of that meeting today? Hold nothing back.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I don’t know, it was fine.’

from Pizza Girl
by Jean Kyoung Frazier

I thought of Sally Rooney’s novel Beautiful World, Where Are You? when I read the passage above. In Beautiful World, Rooney’s characters variously mourn the loss of the sense they used to have that they were moving through a beautiful world, or they lament the ugliness of the everyday world, or they remark upon what Rooney calls a hidden reality: the presence at all times, in all places, of a beautiful world.

Sunset, early July 2022.

I think this is what Kyuoung Frazier’s narrator is getting at. She wants to tell Jenny about the beautiful world she sees all around her — but Jenny, like everyone else in the narrator’s life, either doesn’t want to hear what she has to say or doesn’t know how to hear it.

Some years ago when I was going through a difficult patch, a friend of mine offered to exchange a daily photograph with me via text message. ‘We’ll just send each other a picture of something we see,’ she said. ‘Something we like. Something that makes us smile. We’ll share our pictures, and it’ll be a way to reach out. To say hello.’

Dune flowers, early July 2022.

We ended up exchanging daily photographs for over a year, and it was a way to say hello, but it was also so much more. What I loved most about our exchange, beyond the sense of connection it gave me with another human being, was the knowledge that we were each finding something beautiful in our day and then sharing it with someone else. Passing the beauty on.

Maybe we should all share more beauty. Maybe it doesn’t matter if beauty is fleeting and makes us feel fragile. Maybe that’s exactly why we should keep on sharing it.

Before sunset, early July 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Revelation

Other people’s words about … secrets

‘Philip,’ [his mother Rose] said. ‘There are things I could tell you.’
‘Tell them,’ Philip said.
‘No.’
‘Why not? I’m prepared.’
She turned, looked at [Philip’s father Owen] slumped on the sofa. ‘Because I don’t believe that just because something’s a secret it therefore by definition has to be revealed,’ Rose said. ‘Keeping certain secrets secret is important to — the general balance of life, the common utility.’

From ‘The Lost Language of Cranes

by David Leavitt

I have always been fascinated by people like Philip’s mother Rose in the passage above: people who keep their own counsel. I have a tendency to do the opposite — to over-share, to talk to people for advice, to feel guilty if the life I lead isn’t entirely transparent. I’m not sure why. I may just be wired that way, but I suspect that years of therapy during adolescence and early adulthood ingrained this way of being in me. When you are used to talking things through with someone on a weekly basis, it can feel odd — unsafe, even — once you stop.

Gnarled trunk, early July 2022.

I like Rose’s matter-of-fact statement that secrets don’t have to be revealed. Sometimes, when I am uncertain about a course of action or a decision I have to make, I think of the oath that I’m told doctors must take: ‘First, do no harm.’ I find this oath, applied to life in general, one of the most useful creeds I know.

And so I find myself thinking that Rose may be right. If keeping a secret doesn’t harm anyone, then why feel compelled to reveal it? Why not learn to live in silence with one’s own truths?

Waterways, early July 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Mysterious

Other people’s words about … ageing (yes, again, but bear with me …)

I was not a happy or a healthy young person. I had chronic asthma exacerbated by smoking; I was unfit; my diet was ordinary. ‘Orphaned’ by 29, I spent most of my 20s and 30s in grief. I was deeply anxious with little confidence, my fretful neediness causing relationship problems. For many of those years, I cried every week.
The day I turned 50, I felt a mysterious surge of what I could only think of as power. A deep optimism, energy and peacefulness took up space inside me. Give or take a few crises since, it hasn’t really left. In my mid-50s, I’m physically and emotionally stronger, healthier, more calmly loved and loving, more productive, more organised, smarter, wealthier and exponentially happier than I ever was in my youth. In the past four years I’ve really cried about three times, on one occasion because a good friend died.

From ‘The Luminous Solution

by Charlotte Wood

In my last blog post I talked about how a feeling of invisibility is something many women complain of experiencing as they grow older — and about how that feeling of invisibility doesn’t have to be (only) a negative experience. I talked about how feeling invisible can confer a certain grace and dignity to the way we live our lives.

It was my mother who reminded me subsequently of Charlotte Wood’s words about ageing. I have heard other women in their fifties and sixties express similar things and while so far I can’t say I share their feelings or their experiences, I find a certain comfort in their words. In my early fifties, I am, unlike Wood, neither more energetic nor healthier than I was as a younger woman; nor am I more productive or smarter. And I certainly don’t cry any less frequently.

And yet. The words optimism and peacefulness resonate deeply with me. I have fewer expectations of life than I did in my twenties and thirties — less hope, perhaps, but also, strangely, more joy.

Optimism, peacefulness, hope, joy. These are all invisible things. Maybe that’s what makes them feel so profound.

Shining sea, Late May 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Spectrum

Other people’s words about … being invisible

Sandra is the contrail of light left on the back of the eye by the sun. Like so much of Muriel’s life she is invisible. Muriel thinks that there is some dignity in that, yet it leaves a life so immaterial it may be erased in a blink.

From ‘On Swift Horses

by Shannon Pufahl

The older we get, the more invisible we feel, or so the story goes — particularly if you are a woman. I think it’s natural to feel some grief in response to this. For so many of us, it can feel as though we are losing something — our sex appeal, perhaps, or our looks, or our matriarchal role in the family, or our authority in the workforce.

Ragged sky, May 2022.

When I was a younger woman I was proud of how articulate I was. I was fluent with words, both spoken and written, and I felt that people were listening to me, hearing me, because of this. As the years pass, though, I feel this less and less. Moving from early to middle age and beyond feels to me like a process of being muted. That’s not the same thing as feeling invisible, I know, but it’s clearly on the same spectrum.

But I like Shannon Pufahl’s perspective on invisibility, particularly invisibility of the female kind. I like the way she weighs up both the dignity and the immateriality of an invisible life, its grace and its insignificance. It seems to me a metaphor for everything that we think of when we talk of a person’s life: the sorrow of it. The joy.

Ragged sea, May 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

 

How to go on

Other people’s words about … hard work

He worked construction down on the river, where they were putting up a new footbridge. His own job involved the careful freighting of materials onto the platform where the crane rested on the water. There were times when he thought he’d get sick from the motion of the barge, the constant shifting underfoot. There were times when his hands hurt from lifting and pushing and turning, tightening the straps until they wouldn’t give, tightening them until it seemed impossible that anyone would ever be able to set them loose again. Days when his back ached and his stomach hurt and his hair was peppered with grit, when his eyes burned, and his nose burned from the stench of oil and of the river, which was dying a slow, choked death via a series of minor diversions. But then, on bright winter days, he’d look up and see the geese tracking across the sky, moving up there free as air, and he’d think that there was something beautiful left in the world. And he could go on like that, as long as there was something beautiful left in the world.

From ‘Filthy Animals

by Brandon Taylor

I work in a call centre, an office job, unlike Brandon Taylor’s character Hartjes in the passage above. It’s not a physically demanding job. Even so, there are days when my head aches from breathing in stale, recycled office air, when my hips ache from sitting too long, when my voice croaks from talking for hours on the phone, when my stomach hurts from choking down my emotion after a difficult phone call. In the end, just like Hartjes, I feel my job in my body.



Neighbourhood frangipani tree, Taperoo, April 2022.


What grabs me most in the passage above is the river, in all its symbolism, dying its slow, choked death. Like Hartjes, I find myself looking up from my day, seeking the sky, seeking the air, seeking a glimpse of beauty and wonder.

That brief hint of beauty. That brief reminder of how to carry on.

Lately I’ve been reading …