It took me years to work out that what the experts tell you isn’t always right, no matter how expert they may be, nor how much you may have paid them to tell you what they’ve told you. Fiona Wright explores this theme in the passage below, in relation to her own experience of searching for a cure for her anxiety — a cure that the experts she has consulted have not, despite their expertise, as yet been able to help her find.
This was not supposed to be the lesson that I learnt, she writes. And that, right there, is the power that those so-called experts can hold over us: that they can make us feel that way; that we can come to believe, from them, that there is a lesson — one particular lesson and no other — that we are supposed to learn.
It’s enough, I think, to struggle with poor health, mental or physical or both, without also coming to feel a failure for not responding to the treatment or advice that the experts offer us. Betrayal is the word Wright uses — a strong word, but it is apt.
This feeling, I was right to be nervous, is to me the worst of all the things I think and feel out of anxiety, at least in part because it feels like a cruel joke. Clinical psychologists insist that the problem with anxiety is that the anxiousness — that tension in the gut and shoulders, the clamped jaw and cramping rib cage, the wildly circulating thinking and breathless panic — is always disproportionate, always misplaced; that the fear itself, that is, is always worse than the thing that makes us afraid. And so the treatment focuses on exposure, on deliberately coming into contact with the things we fear and then coming out the other side unscathed in order to learn the hollowness of the focus (and locus) of our fear. So when I get this feeling — I was right to be nervous — it always feels like a betrayal: this was not supposed to be the lesson that I learnt.
Note: Fiona Wright is an Australian poet and writer. In her essays, she writes with candid, almost forensic insight into her experience of living with chronic physical and mental illness. You can read more of her work here.
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.
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.
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.
The sunlit room is silent and there rises a kind of aural transparency through which a deeper background of sound emerges, intricately embroidered like an ocean bed seen through clear water: the sound of passing cars outside, of dogs barking and the distant keening of gulls, of fragments of conversation from the pavements below and music playing somewhere, of phones ringing, pots and pans clattering in a faraway restaurant kitchen, babies crying, workmen faintly hammering, of footsteps, of people breathing, and beneath it all a kind of pulse, the very heartbeat and hydraulics of the day.
From ‘Aftermath’ by Rachel Cusk
I’ve been saving this quote for a while. My copy of Aftermath came from the library, and so I can’t look the quote up again and remind myself of the context; but from memory, Cusk, who was at the time living and working in the British seaside town of Brighton, is in this passage writing of a visit to the dentist.
It’s easy to focus our attention on the beautiful things we see and hear around us. (I do it in my posts on this blog all the time.) But I love the way that Cusk does the opposite here: she takes an everyday moment — not a remarkable one, not even a particularly pleasant one — and describes it so vividly that the moment shines; it sings.
Sometimes, as I go about my own day — at moments when I am particularly busy, or grumpy, or stressed, or anxious — I make myself stop. I glance around; I tilt my head to one side to listen; I sniff the air. I make myself take everything in, just for that moment. It’s a way of stepping back, I suppose: of absorbing rather than participating. However unremarkable my surrounds at that moment, the act of stepping back from them and observing them creates a stillness inside of me.
That stillness is useful. It reminds me that I’m alive.
I suppose you could call this a form of anxiety management. I suppose you could say that I am teaching myself to be present, or trying to practise mindfulness. But I’m not consciously striving to do any of these things: the act feels more instinctive than that. It feels, simply, as though it is an important — no, an essential — thing to do, every now and then.
And that’s what Cusk does in this passage, I think: she grabs a very ordinary moment, she witnesses it and she breathes life (a heartbeat, a kind of pulse) into it.
And somehow, along the way, with the words she uses, she breathes magic into her day.
I don’t have a quote for you today: just a link to a post by the lovely Sophie of Wholehearted Eats, whose healthy-cooking blog I often drop in and read. In her post, Sophie, someone who has experienced anxiety all her life, suggests creating an anxiety toolbox — a kit you can (metaphorically) carry around with you at all times, full of techniques and strategies you can use when and if you need to. I’ve often toyed with the idea of sharing some of the techniques that I’ve learned over the years to cope with anxiety, she writes, but never got around to it.
Till now, that is.
Head on over and see what you think. Perhaps you, like me, will find some of Sophie’s techniques helpful.
Meanwhile, as for me, I’ve been out and about a lot on my bike recently, exercise being one of the greatest feel-good strategies I know and keep in my own toolbox. The gorgeous sunny weather we’ve been having this autumn and winter has added to the joy I’ve felt getting on my bike and pedalling away from home.
The photos in today’s post all come from one of my recent bike rides, this time around the Aldinga/McLaren Vale area. It was a still, sunny day, and every moment of that ride was uplifting.
I hope these photos leave you feeling uplifted, too.
To say that I ‘lost’ my appetite during those years would be a joke. On the contrary, I ate, slept, and breathed appetite. I thought about food constantly, pored over food magazines and restaurant reviews like a teenage boy with a pile of porn, copied down recipes on index cards: breads, cakes, chocolate desserts, pies with the richest fillings, things I longed for and wouldn’t let myself have. In truth, I had appetites the size of Mack trucks — driving and insistent longings for food and connection and bodily pleasure — but I found their very power too daunting and fearsome to contend with, and so I split the world into the most rigid place of black and white, yes and no.
from ‘Appetites‘ by Caroline Knapp
Appetite is a strange, fickle creature. I remember feeling, years ago, when I first read Caroline Knapp’s words in the passage I’ve quoted today, an overwhelming sense of recognition and kinship. I have always had a strong, keen appetite, and back then, when I read Knapp’s book, I felt ashamed of this fact; I fought my driving and insistent longings for food and connection and bodily pleasure.
I don’t feel that way now; my life is on a different keel. In fact, the periodic bouts of nausea I experience lead me to feel the very opposite. During these bouts of sickness, I would give anything — anything at all — to feel hungry.
Part of what I miss when my appetite is gone is the sense of anticipation that I, like all of us, experience with regards to food: the sense of looking forward to something I know will be pleasurable — whether we’re talking solitary pleasures here (sitting on the porch in the sunshine with a plate of cake on my knee and a pot of tea at my feet) or shared pleasures (a meal with family or friends). Anticipation, I realise now, is a pleasure in and of itself. Strip away anticipation and you strip away, with it, a great source of pleasure from your life.
Still, what I have learned is that there are other pleasures to anticipate, apart from food; other things to look forward to; other things, in a way, to hunger for, and then — finally — to savour. These days, the moment I start to feel a little better after a bout of sickness, the moment the nausea begins to fade, I make a big effort to stop languishing inside my house. I take a deep breath and then start seeking out, immediately, the things I know will bring me pleasure.
A while back, I quoted some words from Sarah Wilson about managing anxiety by (to paraphrase) simply doing it, leaving it, and moving on. Wilson’s words, I see, apply here, too. Anxiety, after all, is only one source of anguish: sickness is another. By not dwelling on our anguish, by actively making ourselves move on from it, we allow a sense of anticipation and pleasure to return to our lives.
We allow our appetite for life to flourish once again.
If I could go back in time and give my younger self advice now, I would counsel her to cherish her appetite rather than to be daunted by it (Knapp’s word). I would tell her that hunger and appetite are vital to life. I would tell her that hunger, like appetite, is a beautiful thing. And I would tell her to look up, out and around at the world. To savour the things she sees and experiences. To savour all the pleasures life has to offer.
I took the photos you see in today’s post on a recent bike ride around the Aldinga Beach/Port Willunga area. I had not been feeling particularly well in the days prior to this; I had slept poorly as a result; and I cycled slowly on that ride, feeling tired and not terribly fit.
Still, it was good to be out there. I had looked forward to that ride, and I enjoyed it. It felt good to be alive.
Sometimes I wonder why I come here [to see my psychoanalyst] when the coming is so iterative, so forced. Having to come here sometimes feels like the biggest problem I have. I feel like a lonely man visiting a brothel, the money changing hands, paying for understanding as some people pay for love. And just as that is not love, so this cannot be understanding. What, then, is it?
from ‘Aftermath‘ by Rachel Cusk
As I’ve mentioned here before, I spent several years in and out of therapy, being treated for anorexia and its aftermath. I will be forever grateful to the therapists I saw during those years. They treated me with respect, patience, warmth and compassion. And they listened. Oh, they listened.
But I stayed in therapy too long, I think. I believed at the time that I was seeking a cure for my constant sense of malaise. That cure seemed terribly elusive. Now I think it was elusive because, subconsciously, I knew there wasn’t one. What I was really reaching out for was understanding, and that is not something I found in therapy sessions.
Therapy is a strange process. It is, as Rachel Cusk says in the passage above, a transaction of sorts. When that transaction starts to make you feel worse rather than better, when you feel lonelier leaving the therapist’s office than you did on arriving, it’s time to stop. It really is as simple as that, though it took me some time to figure this out.
Post-therapy, am I still seeking understanding? Yes, of course — just like everyone else. Have I found it? Not really. Perhaps no-one ever does. What I have found, though, is solace. I find solace in pots of tea, and walks along the beach, and wanders in the Scrub. I find it in cakes I bake, and books I’m reading, and camping trips I plan to go on. I find it in birdsong, and in leisurely bike rides, and in the company of my partner and my dog.
Sit. Quietly. Turn your awareness to your heart space.
Now imagine you’re sitting on a small wooden bench with yourself. Imagine you’re doing so in that space in the centre of your chest. There you are, sitting to your right, the little nattering humanoid that you are, berating yourself for eating too much at lunch and debating whether to hang the washing out or not. This little nattering self is your little ‘i’. You (the big ‘I’) can watch it all. Yep, there you are, sitting quietly, looking out at a view, over treetops down to an ocean. On your little bench. Together. You’re just hanging, nowhere to go, nothing to do. The two of you …
From ‘First, We Make the Beast Beautiful‘ by Sarah wilson
It was my friend and fellow blogger, Anne, who first alerted me to the appeal of benches — I mean, real benches, in real life. In her ‘Bench Series‘, she posts photos of benches that she’s snapped from all over the world. I’d never really looked at benches before, except as convenient things to sit on while I rested and took a moment to enjoy the view before me. Now I find myself noticing them (and photographing them) all the time.
The kind of bench Sarah Wilson describes in the passage I’ve quoted above, though, is a metaphorical bench, one that you can only find within yourself. It’s a place where you can sit while you encounter, and learn to accommodate, your two selves: the busy, superficial, language-oriented self that churns out thoughts night and day, and the deeper, quieter, wordless self that lies beneath all the nagging chatter.
The idea of the two selves isn’t unique to Wilson. It’s an idea common to many systems of thought, one we’ve all become more familiar with since the recent popularisation of mindfulness-based practices and therapies. But I particularly like the way she uses the image of sitting on a bench to explain it. It’s a simple, vivid, accessible reminder of how easy it is to get caught up in (and believe) your own thoughts.
A thought, after all, is only that: a thought. It may be true; it may not. Thoughts and the truth exist independently of each other. When I first came across this idea (here), it seemed both counterintuitive and revolutionary to me. I’m still grappling with it.
And then it might occur to you that your little mate ‘i’ is just that — a little mate sitting next to you. And that this Big ‘I’ is who you really are. It feels deep and close and yet so vast.
Okay, I’ll admit I winced, at first, when I read these words. First, I’m not sure that the quieter self (the one Wilson calls the Big ‘I’) is deep or close or vast — or, indeed, in any way somehow ‘better’ than any other part of our self. I think that it just is.
Second, I was troubled by her use of the phrase little mate both to describe the thinking self, and to distinguish that self from the non-thinking self. I found the phrase overly colloquial, like some kind of condescending attempt to make a difficult concept more user-friendly to her less educated readers. But I have slowly come to feel the opposite way about her wording. The word mate implies friendship: it implies love, acceptance, forgiveness. Also fun. That’s helpful, I think. Why vilify a part of yourself, when you can instead smile and make friends with it?
Wilson uses meditation to find her bench. As you know, I don’t. But I don’t think that matters. What matters is that you know the bench exists — and that you know how to find it, however you get there.
And whether or not your prefer your benches real (like the ones in the photographs I took for today’s post, both of which are to be found in Aldinga Scrub) or whether you prefer them metaphorical, I wish you many sun-dappled, peaceful benches of your own in your life, wherever you happen to be.