The Other Me

I guess it’s that time again, that time I start to feel like something isn’t quite right, like something inside my head is being carried away in a swag over someone’s shoulder, someone shadowy and fast and mischievous, someone who I’ve known for far too long. It’s a “he”, always a “he”, nothing feminine or cute about this guy, he’s there with a baseball bat to beat me into submission when I least expect it.

Sometimes it’s okay, everything seems okay, and then suddenly it’s happening and I feel as if I got grabbed from behind and knocked off my feet in some dark alleyway and all the breath is gone from my lungs. Other times it’s like he flies in and out of my consciousness, flitting about like some kind of Tinkerbell, a Tinkerbell in rags and with sharp teeth, and all I can do is try to push him away, run faster, take a left turn and then a right, trying to get away.

Eventually he always catches up, and then the damage begins. It’s always just a matter of how much damage, not if, but how much. I don’t know how to explain how I feel, it’s like my brain is trying to breathe and it can’t, like someone took two of those paddles they use to jump-start a heart, and they put them on my brain and then suddenly I’m falling like Alice down the rabbit hole, gasping and motionless at the same time.

“RUN”, she says, the me, the old me, the real me, “If you stay healthy it’ll be okay. Do social stuff. Eat well. Read books. Run as fast as you can. Get some sunshine, hug someone.” And then before I know it it’s been 3 beautiful days of sunshine outside while I sit inside and lie in bed and eat and eat and eat. I don’t get dressed, I don’t brush my teeth, I start panicking. I check my phone for messages, turn it off, turn it on, turn it off, throw it at the ground, turn it on, cry and then force myself into something like a bike ride or reading a book or doing something, anything productive that might just have a chance of saving me. It feels so naive having this hope, this hope that maybe if I just do something, if I just keep moving, if I just keep doing, that maybe this time it’ll be okay.

But when it’s not enough, it’s not enough.

He’s there, he’s there and he’s pushing all those tiny black seeds into my brain, seeds that sprout into nails and push out all the good things, I can’t have good things apparently unless I can crush his horrible garden one plant at a time, a garden of wounds that needs my strength to take the nails underfoot and let it pierce right through me. One nail at a time I can pull them all out, whispering to myself “It will be okay, keep going, keep going, keep going” as I bleed and bleed and try not to let anyone else around me see that I walk this nailbed and that I’m hurting and hurting so much, I could bleed out through the floor and still some people would ask “Why?”.

But no matter how much that small-me, that little real-me that feels so suffocated, no matter how much she fights, the other one is always there, the boy-one, though boy makes him sound as if he has some aspect of sweetness, of innocence, but he is not that. He is a man, a rapist, a murderer, a thief, he takes everything from me and I always get up, so bruised, sometimes bleeding, sometimes tying the knots around my own throat and just waiting for someone to shout “no” before he flies away and I crawl out of that pit again, dragging the ropes behind me like chains, ropes that disappear and fade but the marks are always there, the places where he knows to tie them again when I make a mistake.

Right now it feels as if I climbed up so high, I felt invincible, like maybe now it would be okay, maybe that time was over, maybe I would be able to be me for once and that it would stay me and that I could just live my fucking life. And then I see him out of the corner of my eye, and I realise that somehow I walked into some street that I didn’t know was a dead-end and he’s there and he’s there and he’s everywhere I turn.

The worst part is that it feels like he’s laughing, I’m his hostage and he knows it, we both know it, we both know that he is me and I am him and that the girl-me, the woman-me, the person inside my head that desperately wants to live, she knows he is her and that she cannot escape no matter what she does, and all it really is and will ever be is a matter of survival. He knows exactly what will bring me down, exactly what will make things worse: alcohol, not enough sleep, isolation, and makes me crave those things with an intensity so strong I feel as if I cannot control it. The insomnia is the worst, and I cry so hard and deep into my soul, just knowing that every single second I lie awake is him tightening the ropes around the small me, the small but strong me who is so, so scared.

He holds up a baseball bat, and I crouch down on the ground.  I wait for the beating to begin, one eye always looking to the side for a way out. Other eye to the ground, knowing that maybe, maybe, if I just stay very still, I’ll still be alive at the end of it.

The Words We Cannot Speak

“[T]o love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.”

– Exit West, Mohsin Hamid

So much of life is about loss, and how we deal with it, process it, keep moving afterwards. I told my best friend M that I love her, and that this feeling scares me because love is like my lungs have been scooped out and replaced with pop-rocks. She told me she sometimes feels as if she loves in a surface way, shallow and never quite getting so deep. When she loses someone, when someone dies, she cries and then keeps on with life.

I feel right now as if someone tied me up with red threads, as if the world is so much tinier than I imagined and all these connections are pulling me in different ways. What do I do with all the loves I have? How do I explain to people: I adore you, I miss you, I love you so much that the base of my spine turns to butterflies when I think of you. I can’t help but feel so alone sometimes with these feelings, like nobody else feels so strong and keeps it all so pushed inside. I store it in my bones, in my blood, and yet when the time comes to actually say the words I can’t, I can’t, and instead all that comes out is tepid.

The flipside of that coin is that I’m fickle, easily extinguished if I don’t get enough to keep the flame alive. I cannot say that either: if you don’t love me enough, if you don’t show me enough, the fear fills me again and I will leave. But where do I go? I can’t say what I need to say, and the sadness of losing someone makes me feel so scared that I just push it away and move backwards, move away, put something in between us so that the loss will not be so much. But all the feelings are still there, everything still simmers underneath, I just need the right thing to wake it up.

I think when it comes to my flight or fight response, I’m all flight.

I met a girl on Thursday who had a tattoo of a cormorant on her back. She told me that the cormorant stretches its wings out after diving, to dry them. It’s one of the only aquatic birds in the world that does not have fully water-repellent wings.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Tomorrow is the 9 year anniversary of my brother’s death. Discussing it is still so hard for me, and yet I’m increasingly realising that I must find better ways of dealing with it and talking about it. When I recount how he died, when I explain everything, I somehow feel like I have to give people a disclaimer.

It’s a pretty morbid story. I don’t know if you want to hear it.

I tend to avoid talking about it. But when someone starts asking about the scars on my arms, or about my depression, or about being a teenager, inevitably the topic of my stepdad comes up. And then through talking about my stepdad, I talk about my brother, and the whole dark and twisted story comes out. There’s no good way to talk about it all, there’s no simple way to say it. When I push the words out of my mouth it’s like I’m shoving them through a barrier of cotton wool, as if by uttering them, the person I’m speaking to will be so horrified that they will disappear in a puff of smoke.

He drowned, okay? He had a seizure and drowned in the bathtub.

If he was alive he would be 18 years old now. I can’t even imagine what he would be like, what his life would be like, what any of our lives would be like. When I think about him my chest feels tight and heavy, and I feel as if my mother must be consumed by this sorrow so large that she cannot even begin to climb it.

I remember stroking his hair in the hospital when he was in the paediatric ICU. His hair was flattened into a Johnny-Bravo-style peak, from everyone stroking his hair in the same way. It was so soft.

The doctors had to test if he had any brain activity remaining, so my parents could decide if they wanted to switch off the life support or not. The doctor shone a torch into his eyes, and I stared so hard at his pupils just hoping and screaming inside my head: “React! MOVE! JUST DO SOMETHING”. But nothing happened, they turned off the life support, and that was it.

I hated his hugs, because he was always sticky and slimy and he was so skinny that his hugs were bony and painful. He would hug me and say “I love you, Leah”; he’d wake me up at 3am, standing by my bed, wanting me to play with him; my boyfriend and I would babysit him and take him places and look after him as if we were our own little family. But then he was dead and the hugs were gone and I wished with every piece of my body that I could go back in time and love him better, pay him more attention, spend more time with him, make sure he knew in his bones that I adored him even though he drove me crazy.

Four brothers seems like a lot to most people. But to me it seems like such a tiny number, just four. Four doesn’t seem like enough, when it should have been five.

It Only Took Me 29 Years

I’ve been thinking about beginnings. A friend of mine, J, told me once that moving to a new city is a chance to reinvent yourself, to start over.

But I have always lived two lives anyway: my real life, and my reinvented, sanitised life that I present to people. I simply don’t talk about a lot of stuff, as if the details of my world are somehow shameful or unimportant. That inability to talk, that reluctance to be open, is something that has slowly eaten away at me over the years, and it made me feel inauthentic and hollow. Now that I’m getting to know J, and another friend S, I’m starting to feel like maybe I should be more like them.

J has a correspondence art project between herself and another artist. One of their mission statements is this:

Conservation of Energy (knowing– exactly –when to “end”/knowing what is a “beginning”)

In my eyes, a beginning is about change. Often it’s a conscious choice to change state; a movement in ideas and approach, with the result that things are new, refreshed, and unique.

The other friend, S, writes about the shift in her worldview when she moved from new York to Mexico, and then the turbulent relationship with her son’s father. When she found out she was pregnant, he left her. In a Mexican farm town in the middle of nowhere, he left her and didn’t come back. She says she won’t tell her child this story, she will only say that he chose fear and she chose love. It’s her own story of beginnings, as well as big decisions that change your life forever.

The choice between love and fear is one I live every day, with every person I interact with, including myself. Against my own desires, fear seems to be my default choice. I’m anxious, untrusting, wary. With certain people, choosing love is a struggle. With J, it’s a struggle. I am more afraid than I have been in a long time, in my interactions with her.

But I decided years ago to choose love wherever I could, to push myself to be brave.

Six years ago, my friend T was just about to get married. He and I had this complicated sort of love. He was dedicated, completely, to his fiancee. I had just begun a relationship with my now-husband, M. But T and I had this connection that felt so thick, like a twisted piece of boat-rope, linking our hearts and pulling them together. Whenever I looked at him, I felt as if there was someone else inside his head, a much older person just hiding behind his face, loving and loving and loving, pushing it outwards like brilliant light.

I travelled to his wedding alone, and on the day of it we found little pieces of time to connect. He had a million people to talk to and thank, he was busy getting married, of course. But it felt like every moment he had spare, he would come and stand with me, smiling, warm. He danced with his wife, his mother, his sister, and then me.

Four months later, I got in the car again to go back, this time for his funeral. Living in his new house with his new wife, he had died of a brain aneurysm in the night. As I held his wife’s hand, I wondered what it felt like to be her. I imagined that her soul had been cut out and doused in kerosene; she was watching it burn with the life she had planned.

Whenever I think of what happened, I just feel so angry. T embodied love, he was absolutely everything that love should be. It felt so unfair that it was him who was gone, like the world had suddenly become a much worse place.

Before him, I had always blindly chosen fear, not recognising that I was torching my own life one piece at a time. I’m the girl who has never been dumped. The second somebody starts to seem like they might reject me, I reject them first. Walk out the door, close off my heart, never look back. I was so afraid of being hurt that I could never really love anyone.

After he was gone I couldn’t do that anymore. I felt as if I would be disappointing him. I chose love with M, and I chose it again and again and again, even in moments where previously I would have been out of there so fucking fast I’d leave a me-shaped hole in the wall.

The beginning here is this: to start to choose love with my own broken, messed up brain, to allow myself to love others, and to value my own experiences. I’ve been so afraid, for the longest time, of everything, of what others think of me, of the thousands of ways in which people can rip my heart out and throw it on the ground.

But this fear wasn’t born in me, it was made. My Dad left, and then my stepdad came and broke all the pieces of me that were still whole. And then something happened inside me, a black rot in my stomach that slowly took over my body and mind. I was so scared of being rejected, so scared of being hurt, that I slowly became a shadow of a person, barely breathing at all.

But fuck all of that. I started on the road to change things a long time ago, but now I need to take a conscious step towards being less afraid, more trusting, more loving, and simply taking the risk of whatever comes. A beginning is a choice to change things, and I choose this.