Mistakes

“The truth is this: sometimes we display good qualities and sometimes bad. Sometimes we act in helpful, productive ways and sometimes in harmful, maladaptive ways. But we are not defined by these qualities or behaviors. We are a verb not a noun, a process rather than a fixed “thing.” Our actions change—mercurial beings that we are—according to time, circumstance, mood, setting.”

– Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff

For the first time in therapy I talked to my therapist L about the biggest mistake I have ever made. The long and the short of it is that I was abusive to my little brother, when I was 14 and he was 3. I was looking after him, and I couldn’t handle it. I screwed up, massively, and no matter how much I tried to make it up to him it felt as if I had a black mark on my soul, a stain on my character, a piece of me that was nothing short of evil. When he died 6 years later in a drowning accident, I felt as if I had failed him as a big sister in every possible way. I had hurt him, I had abandoned him when I left home, and I hadn’t protected him from the harms of my parents and their neglect. I pushed his memory to the side as much as I could, but despite my best efforts the memories began to resurface after I had my son, A.

My brother and A look similar: dark caramel hair, blue-green eyes, and a shining wickedness of mischief in their faces. I was filled with sadness, panic: seeing my brother “overlap” with my son when we went swimming, I imagined my son drowning. As my son got older, reached 3, then 4, I compared their lives and burned and raged inside at the unfairness of it all. My son is happy. Healthy. He’s safe, whole, growing, adventurous, explosive, and with a sense of humour that has us all laughing nearly every day. My brother was happy too, shining and bright in the midst of abuse, chaos, and terror. He was always smiling, despite his hand always bleeding from his obsessive finger-chewing, despite the bruises that always peppered his body. We loved him – all of us – me, my parents, my other brothers. None of the neglect or abuse came from a lack of love, just a lack of ability, a lack of control, a lack of support. I did what I could to look after him, and so did they. We all failed at it.

As I got closer to my therapist L, the black mark of my abusive behaviour towards my brother gnawed at me. I felt so ashamed, so guilty, and no matter how much I reassured myself that I am a totally different person now, that I regretted it, it fed upon me more and more. Finally, I crashed. Crying, I told L what I had done, feeling as if my entire body would just be swallowed up by the ground, as if my entire soul and heart was sinking deep into an abyss of guilt and pain. Steadily, she reassured me. She gave me a way through, a new way to look at the entire situation. I’m processing it, finding ways to discover the voice inside myself that says: “You did a bad thing, but you are not a bad person.” It feels horrible to try to reassure myself, as if I don’t deserve to ever feel better. I tell myself “Honey, you were 14. You were just a kid yourself. You and him were both in a horrible situation, together. He’ll always be your brother. Connect with him, don’t turn away from him anymore.” I’m still figuring out how.

It’s strange to admit: so often I apply a victim narrative to myself, a narrative of helplessness, hopelessness, abuse and harm committed against me. It’s true. But I have also acted as the perpetrator, the abuser, the harmful person, exerting power and control over someone much smaller than me, someone innocent. I know I did something wrong.

I have been reading a lot about how to process this, how to accept it, and how to keep moving: for the benefit of my partners, my kids, my friends, and everyone else who is still around me today. I work on myself to improve as best I can. The key thing I am discovering is that I can continue to choose healing over harm in every action I take: to the best of my abilities I can try not to harm others, and I can try not to harm myself. Yet, still beat myself up after nearly 20 years for my actions as a 14 year old. Why? Kristen Neff’s book “Self-Compassion” has been instrumental in supporting the techniques from my therapist, and attempting to find a way forward that is connecting and kind; I can focus on the now, rather than the past. She explains:

Rather than getting lost in thoughts of being good or bad, we become mindful of our present moment experience, realizing that it is ever changing and impermanent. Our successes and failures come and go—they neither define us nor do they determine our worthiness. They are merely part of the process of being alive.

The more that I think about these ideas, the more I can move. I keep reminding myself we are all one and the same: we are all wounded in some way, and we have all wounded others. It is not the wound that we create or that is within us, it is how we deal with it, and we are all in this life dealing with these things together.

The Problem of Achieving a Quiet Heart

So, it’s been a long time since I last wrote. Interestingly, my last post was around the time that I started therapy with a wonderful woman called “L”. This blog started as a way to express my thoughts, to chronicle my attempts to choose courage instead of fear, to reinvent my life and pull myself out of the mental swamp that I was tired of living in. A lot has changed. So much has changed that I feel almost like a new person, renewed and fresh.

Therapy is such a weird process, one of the most challenging and beautiful and painful processes I have ever gone through. I say “gone through” as if it’s in the past, when I’m still in it. As much as it pains me though, I know I am nearing the end of at least one phase of it. I feel a deep ache at the love L has given me, over and over and over, the patience and the kindness, and the thought of our time together changing and closing. I know some of my intense feelings are just part of how therapy works. Yet, some of it is so much more than that: a genuine, deep, and meaningful connection, a striving for balance; tranquility and growth at the same time. At certain points the sessions were excruciatingly difficult, while these days it slowly settles. We still have moments where everything feels incredibly consuming, but mostly I feel a sense of peace and a knowledge that I have to take steps into my own independence.

My first post on this blog was about beginnings. My friend J’s correspondence art project and mission statement were what I started this blog with, and the concepts in her words still resonate with me:

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

I wasn’t thinking too hard about endings years ago, I was all about reinventing myself, making conscious choices to move forwards. But beginnings and endings are all part of one and the same cycle.

My therapist L introduced me to the I Ching, also known as the Book of Changes. The truths that fill this book are a special kind of wisdom about life’s rhythms, and the natural laws that govern our beautifully changing world of flux. It makes me happy more and more that the tattoo on my left arm is a tree with all four seasons. When I got it, it represented change: my changing moods, the cycles of my life, and the ways in which I tried to come to terms with the shifting multitudes in me, many of which I struggled with immensely. It was an attempt to see the beauty in something that tore me apart, a mixture of positive and negative. The tattoo on my right arm is one of flowers: growth, memory, and a re-writing of my past into something beautiful. Beginnings and endings are woven through the I Ching in a tapestry of life and death, acceptance and struggle, polarities in good and evil, the shedding of the old, approaching the new. In the first Hexagram it states:

Here it is shown that the way to success lies in apprehending and giving actuality to the way of the universe [Tao], which, as a law running through end and beginning, brings about all phenomena in time.

I realised recently that I’m afraid of the next ending. Ending therapy, finding my autonomy. I read back through some of my old posts on this blog, many despairing, confused meanderings through the darknesses of my mind. Those dark moments didn’t stop when I started therapy, though they come less frequently now. They are less deep, less severe, easier for me to pull myself out of. The light and the gold and the brightness that has come into my life is of a magnitude that is indescribable.

When I’m grateful to L, she often says that I’m the one doing the hard work. But I cannot imagine the responsibility of having other people’s minds in your hands, their happinesses, their traumas, their dreams, their fears and abuses and angers and loves and failures. I am doing the work in my own journey, but she has been right there alongside me showing me the path. With her help I have transformed in ways I never thought possible. L’s Dad passed away early this year, and I went through my own mini-grieving in response to hers. Over the last few days I kept thinking “I suppose none of us are getting out of this alive,” and for some reason it has given me a strange comfort and drive to be more brave, more open, more loving. I wrote a post some years ago talking about the “small but strong” version of myself that was scared of my depression, scared of my moods, scared of the darkness in me. I know now that my heart is stronger than I ever thought possible, more courageous than I dreamed. I can look at my moods, the darkness flitting around the edges and smile at it. It doesn’t beat me to a pulp anymore. The fear never leaves me, but most days now I can turn towards it with curiosity and an open heart.

Endings feel like they are a part of everything around me. I am planning to move away from Berlin to travel some more while the kids are still young and not in school, and I get sadder and sadder at the prospect of leaving. I told L that I was thinking of whether or not I wanted to have a personal relationship with her instead of a therapy relationship, and for the first time in a long time I am struggling to untangle the courageous choice from the fearful one. Am I afraid of the relationship ending, afraid of not having her in my life? Perhaps the courageous choice is to just let her go and focus on my own autonomy. Or am I afraid of attempting something new and different, following what I know my heart wants? Perhaps the courageous choice is to take a risk and try it. This odd bubble sits in my chest as well, reminding me that I am not the only person involved in this decision. Can I even fairly put her in a position where I would ask her to answer me? Am I being foolish even considering the idea? It’s an ethical minefield, no doubt. Maybe my courage and hope aren’t balanced enough with consideration, seriousness, and contemplation. Maybe the answers are clear, and I just don’t want to accept them.

One of my previous posts was about a relationship I was considering starting with a woman called A. My post was about my hesitance, my refusal, my resistance to her. Nonetheless, at some point I decided to go for it: falling head-first in love, it became one of the most fundamental and heart-rending relationships I have ever experienced. She made me feel alive, she woke up pieces of me that had been dormant for a long time, and she also broke my heart into a thousand tiny pieces, leading me on a journey of self-discovery, reflection, pain, and growth. Wandering in and out of each other’s lives by virtue of both proximity and a tiny red thread of enduring connection, we began something new. Our friendship has bloomed from the ashes of our romantic love, and I never thought I could feel so happy and calm with the way things have turned out.

I suppose this is what informs me with L, because I don’t want to live a life of regret. It’s hard to know what you should take a chance on, and what you shouldn’t. The main things I regret are the times I have harmed others, and I know that this is something L is fearful of. It is true that potential for harm lies in attempting to change our relationship into something else, and that staying in the safety of the therapy relationship is significantly less risky. Whenever I think about risk though, I smile when I think about how she often says “No risk, no fun”. So far, she has been totally right for everything I have encountered – I question now where the limit is. There are certain kinds of risk-taking that are akin to leaping off a cliff! At least for now I decided to do nothing and accept that everything comes in its right time. Maybe there never will be a right time, because it’s just not the right thing to do. I don’t know. What I do know is that when something is right, you feel it and experience it without so much internal conflict: it just happens. Something interesting about the I Ching is that “After Completion” comes before “Before Completion” (the two final Hexagrams).

While the preceding hexagram offers an analogy to autumn, which forms the transition from summer to winter, this hexagram presents a parallel to spring, which leads out of winter’s stagnation into the fruitful time of summer. With this hopeful outlook the Book of Changes come to its close.

A natural cycle governs everything in life. I could never have dreamed years ago that I would be able to consider anything with even some sense of the confidence and harmony I feel many days now. Pulled from side-to-side by my own mind, I felt only chaotic, wild, and out of control. One part of me hopes that actually it will never be fully tamed, because I grow to enjoy having a little bit of wildness in me. Anyway, I know that this path is not a linear one. As L says, we all do the best we can in the time and space that we do it in.

The Other Me

I guess it’s that time again, that time I start to feel like something isn’t quite right. It feels 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 always a “he”, and 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 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 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. When he’s with me 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 – suddenly I’m falling like Alice down the rabbit hole, gasping and motionless.

“RUN”, she says, 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 have a chance of saving me. It feels so naive having this hope that maybe if I just do something, if I just keep moving, that maybe this time it’ll be okay.

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

Once he starts pushing all those tiny black seeds into my brain, they sprout into nails and push out all the good things. Every single time I have to take a deep breath and uproot this horrible garden one nail-plant at a time, using all my strength, whispering to myself “It will be okay, keep going, keep going, keep going”, bleeding and bleeding all the while. I try not to let anyone else around me see that I walk this nailbed and that I’m hurting so much, I could bleed out through the floor and nobody would know why.

But no matter how much the real me 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. The real me is so small, and she always gets up, so bruised, sometimes bleeding, sometimes tying the knots around my own throat and just waiting for someone to shout “no”. Every time I crawl out of that pit again I’m dragging the ropes behind me like chains, old marks lingering in 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, maybe that time was over, maybe I would be able to be myself for once 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 we both know it, we both know that he is me and I am him and that the person inside my head that desperately wants to live cannot escape no matter what she does. 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 deep into my soul, just knowing that every single second I lie awake is him tightening the ropes around 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.

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.