Rift

How we see ourselves

Stella had noticed that the woman in [the painting] ‘The Jewish Bride’ wore pearls. Also earrings. Maybe that was why she looked so intimately self-assured. Stella hadn’t had her ears pierced until her sixtieth birthday. She’d been squeamish about it but thought the pain would be balanced by the confidence the look would give her. She would become — finally — a woman taking her own decisions, a woman with authority over herself.

From ‘Midwinter Break’
by Bernard MacLaverty

The year I turned fifteen, I grew up, physically. That was the year that I turned from a slightly plump, almost-flaxen-haired girl into an adolescent woman with breasts and hips and thighs and lank, dirty-blonde hair. I wasn’t the kind of girl to celebrate any of these things: in fact, I wanted to turn back the clock. I didn’t want breasts and hips and thighs and lank, dirty-blonde hair. I wanted something else. I wanted to look the way I thought I had once looked, but I knew that I couldn’t. Not any more.

The strange thing is that the way I’d thought I had once looked as a child wasn’t the way I had actually looked as a child. I’d thought — all my life I’d thought this — that I had been skinny and elfin and girlish. In fact, I hadn’t been that at all, ever. But it wasn’t until my mid- to late teens that I understood this.

When I did, I was deeply shocked.

Looking for the horizon (1)
(that line of disconnect between the sky and the sea)

Somewhere around the time of that realisation, and for a long time afterwards, I stopped eating enough. I’ve touched on this act of mine — of abstinence — before. In the early years, it was a conscious, deliberate act: an effort to force my body to a level of thinness that I thought had once been my natural state. Later, it became both a less strict and a less conscious act; indeed, it became more of a process than an act. I think that what I was trying to do, all those years, was to make abstinence a part of who I was, rather than all that I did.

It took a long to stop doing this, and even longer to stop trying to do it. In fact, it wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I really allowed myself to eat without any kind of enforced abstinence at all, though by then the things I abstained from were barely noticeable to anyone other than myself. Still, if such a thing as recovery from an eating disorder exists, that’s when it happened for me — halfway though my thirties. Not before.

But though I did eventually lose the compulsion to abstain, to this day I have still not lost the shock I feel when I am confronted with the real image of myself — in photos, in the mirror — as opposed to the image of myself that I carry around in my mind. I still think of myself, unconsciously, erroneously, as skinny and elfin and girlish. As light and slender and ethereal. As pretty. I am not any of these things, and I never have been; but that’s not how I feel.

I think we all live with a certain level of disconnect between the way we perceive ourselves and the way we actually are. You know that feeling you get when you turn forty (or fifty, or sixty, or seventy) and you think, ‘But I don’t feel like I’m forty (or fifty, or sixty, or seventy); I feel like I’m still twenty-five’? That’s the disconnect I mean, right there. I am not sure that everyone experiences it as strongly as I do: for me, it seems to run through my entire perception of myself. I’ve always had it, and always will; adolescence was just the first time that I was confronted with it. Even now, each time I am confronted once again with my misperception of myself — with the difference between the ‘me’ that people interact with and the ‘me’ that lives inside of me — I feel the same shock anew.

Looking for the horizon (2)

I like to think that this sense of disconnect between perception and reality is what Bernard MacLaverty is touching on, very lightly, very deftly, in the passage I’ve quoted above. Sixty-year-old Stella tells herself that getting her ears pierced will give her confidence; she genuinely believes that her new look will enable her to become a woman with authority over herself. But the earrings do not bring about the sense of intimate self-assurance that she seeks. Of course they don’t. Stella never becomes — finally — the woman she seeks to be: the woman she believes she is capable of being; the woman, I think, she secretly believes she might already be.

Perhaps here I’m reading too much into MacLaverty’s words. If nothing else, there is an affectionate sadness in his words to which I respond. Still, on those days when I feel deeply disconnected from my two selves, from the interacting ‘me’ and the internal ‘me’, I find solace in passages like his. I like to think that — like Stella, like me — you, too, are puzzled by the rift between your internal you and your external you. I like to think that you, too, feel as though there is a different — a better, a lovelier, a lonelier — you inside of you than anyone ever sees.

I like to think this, because thinking it lessens somehow the sense of disconnect I have between your experience and mine: between your world and mine. That, at least, is a point of connection. And a connection is the opposite of a rift, after all: it is a kind of affinity.

First person

Other people’s words about … writing

Back in my room, I put down my bags, undressed, wrapped myself in blankets, put on Christmas music, and watched the snow fall outside my window, a picture-perfect postcard winter scene, wide lawns of white, thin black arms of trees holding up the white sky. I thought of writing. But what would I have said? I’d long since stopped writing, real writing, my own writing. No words ever came anymore. I’d lost the sense of first-person, the sense of being in the world that writing requires. I guess I had nothing to say for myself. I turned my face into the pillow and slept.

from ‘Wasted’
by Marya Hornbacher

It is a strange thing, but the words above — which form part of Hornbacher’s memoir about anorexia — speak to me as much about writing as they do about starving.

(Let me pause here to say, in passing, that Hornbacher writes about anorexia better than anyone else I have ever read. She writes with a vividness and intensity that is rare and moving and unforgettable. At the time she is describing in the passage above, she was at her lowest weight, close to death. She could not work, or eat, or read, or sleep. Of course she could not write.)

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I don’t know if you could call what Hornbacher is describing here ‘writer’s block’, although certainly she is describing an inability to write. I don’t even know if writer’s block exists. I do know that, like many writers, I have experienced times when I have been unable to write anything I deemed meaningful or worthwhile. For me, like Hornbacher, that feeling is powerfully tied up with a sense of despair, of loss. The despair comes first, and then the inability to write — not the other way around.

We like to tell ourselves that there is a link between depression and genius, between suffering and artistic ability. (Mozart, anyone? Van Gogh? Plath?) But most writers who have been through a period of depression will tell you that they write despite their depression, not because of it; and that they write their best material after a period of depression, not during it. Even those writers who choose to write specifically about their depression — like William Styron in ‘Darkness Visible‘, and Andrew Solomon in his particularly fine book ‘The Noonday Demon‘ — do so after the fact.

Is despair a different thing from depression? In the clinical sense, I guess, it is. Whatever its cause or pathology, it can certainly affect a writer’s ability to write. It can certainly keep her quiet. I’d lost the sense of first-person, Hornbacher says, of her own encounter with illness and despair: the sense of being in the world that writing requires. And that is how it feels.

The corollary of this, for me at least, is that when I write — when I can, when I do — it comes from a good place. Because here’s the thing: to have a sense of being in the world is to have a sense of belonging, of groundedness, of being alive. It is to have a sense of joy.

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I will leave it to Matt Haig, another writer who has chosen depression as the theme of one of his books, to close this post:

I want life. I want to read it and write it and feel it and live it. I want, for as much of the time as possible in this blink-of-an-eye existence we have, to feel all that can be felt.

from ‘Reasons to Stay Alive
by Matt Haig

Those are words that can keep you alive, if you let them, though they will not keep you quiet. I want. I want. I want.

Quietness, anyway, in my opinion, is overrated.

Recovery

Other people’s words about … therapy

And perhaps not coincidentally, he also found himself doubting therapy — its promises, its premises — for the first time. He had never before questioned that therapy was, at worst, a benign treatment: when he was younger, he had even considered it a form of luxury, this right to speak about his life, essentially uninterrupted, for fifty minutes proof that he had somehow become someone whose life deserved such lengthy consideration, such an indulgent listener. But now, he was conscious of his own impatience with what he had begun to see as the sinister pedantry of therapy, its suggestion that life was somehow reparable, that there existed a societal norm and that the patient was being guided toward conforming to it.

‘You seem to be holding back, Willem,’ said Idriss — his shrink now for years — and he was quiet. Therapy, therapists, promised a rigorous lack of judgment (but wasn’t that an impossibility, to talk to a person and not be judged?), and yet behind every question was a nudge, one that pushed you gently but inexorably toward a recognition of some flaw, toward solving a problem you hadn’t known existed.

From ‘A Little Life
by Hanya Yanaghihara (p. 568)

When I was sixteen, I received in-patient treatment for an eating disorder. Though my weight loss wasn’t life-threatening, I had become stuck in a pattern of abstinence that my doctor considered a risk to both my physical and my mental health in the long term. And so, into hospital I went.

I am grateful for the treatment I received during the six weeks I spent on that ward. I am grateful to the dietitian who laughed when I told her I didn’t like Mars Bars, and said, ‘That’s your anorexia speaking.’ (Actually, I genuinely don’t like Mars Bars, but I am extremely fond of Cherry Ripes, so I think I pass the test.) I am grateful to the plump, curly-haired nurse whose pudgy feet squelched in her white shoes as she plodded down the corridor carrying a bedpan, who said, ‘If you can’t help yourself to a biscuit from that tin on the table just because you feel like eating one, you’re not better.’ I am grateful to the patient in her mid-fifties who sat opposite the dinner table from me one evening, asking me to pour her a glass of water, ‘because, you see,’ she told me — and her face was a maze of articulated wrinkles and creases as she leaned across the table to speak, her shoulders prematurely humped, her voice husky from years of smoking instead of eating — ‘my wrist bones are so fragile from osteoporosis that I can’t lift the water jug in case I get a fracture.’

I am grateful to these people, because they helped to strip starvation of its glamour for me. Because they helped me to escape.

Regular weigh-ins were a part of the hospital treatment ...
Regular weigh-ins were a part of the hospital treatment …

During my time in hospital and afterwards, my therapists talked to me about getting well, moving on, recovering, leading a normal life, finding happiness. Because we talked about these things, I assumed they were not only achievable but also desirable — essential, even. Many people make the same assumption.

But now I am not so sure. I don’t think therapy’s orientation towards focusing on health and happiness and normality is sinister (Yanaghihara’s word). But I do think, like Yanaghihara, that some people’s lives are not reparable, or that some aspects of their lives are not reparable. Some people suffer terribly, some people less so; in either case, there are times when a person’s suffering cannot be eased, either through therapy or through other means. In that context, perhaps there are qualities other than health and happiness which a person might explore. Resilience, for example. Dignity. Grace. Surrender.

I think of Viktor Frankl, who wrote so eloquently and poignantly about people’s need to find meaning in their suffering, if that suffering was unavoidable. I think we shy away from that word, these days — unavoidable. We form goals, we foster dreams, we try to shape our lives, based on that act of shying away. I think this is a mistake.

... but the number on the scale is only one factor in the equation
… but the number on the scale is only one factor in the equation

There is only so much you can can say in one post, and so I will leave the rest for another day. Instead, I will finish with some more words by Yanaghihara — words that, I think, complement these thoughts, though the millennial New York society she writes about is so far away from the terrible world of Frankl’s concentration camp:

But these were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.

(p. 41)

This is a tricky subject to write about, not least because it involves personal disclosure, if only on my side. But I would love to know what you, my readers, think about this. Please leave a comment and let me know. Your thoughts matter to me.