The Sleeping Beauties book review: my mom suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

I am very grateful to consultant neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan for writing both of her books, Its All in Your Head and, most recently, The Sleeping Beauties, about psychosomatic disease. It is hard to convey the quality of disorientation caused by having a disabled but not properly diagnosed parent. Even as an adult who has spent time thinking and talking and rationalising, I still find mom’s lived experience of disease confusing and distressing: how does a smart, beautiful woman in her twenties go from being energetic and self sufficient to bed-ridden and riddled with symptoms? And symptoms, no less, that don’t quite add up medically and, as she descended into chronic illness, symptoms that had to be justified and defended often, if not daily. I remember mom saying Chronic Fatigue was ‘real,’ and I remember her using bio-medical phrases she would pick up in self-published crackpot accounts of CFS like, ‘lactic acid build-up,’ and ‘holes in my brain,’ in a swaggering outlaw effort to break into some kind of legitimate disagnosis. To my knowldge, she never did manage to break into what O’Sullivan calls, ‘a better diagnosis,’ but, comfortingly, my mom is not the only person with unexplained symptoms who, ‘go on to spend a lifetime in that pursuit.’ Comforting because psychosomatic illness is incredibly isolating, not only for the individual, but also for their family. How do you talk about your mom’s illness when there is no label for it, other than the one she fashioned, DIY, out of message boards from 90’s internet? Are you allowed to claim the word, ‘disability,’ even when she does not identify or use it herself, just as some kind of place holder, maybe a way to try and explain what it is like to live with someone who requires your daily care and vigilance from before you can remember?

The writing in The Sleeping Beauties is compassionate and, usefully for me, gave me a few footholds in what has been very slippery terrain. Suddenly there are patterns: two thirds of people with functional disorders (a technical name for psychosomatic illness) are women. The book goes on to discuss, through some very compelling case studies, why this is so. O’Sullivan comments on this fact, ‘there are many factors but I am convinced that their voiceless position in society is one of them.’ With those words, she drops me on familiar ground. This is along the lines of Susie Orbach’s pyschoanalytic-feminist crituque of anorexia. (Orbach famously treated princess Di for her eating disorder) Women who have been denied psyches must resort to somatising. The flattening of psyhe-soma gets smushed into psychosomatic and communication is via the body and symptoms rather than words and emotions. I now have some kind of magnetic North or star to work with. This makes sense.

The other bit of ground I gained after reading her book was O’Sullivan’s ‘coding error’ explanation of how someone might start with a symptom and end with a chronic, mystery illness. All of us feel tired and achy or experience bouts of dizziness or headaches or random twinges. Some of us might go to the GP and if and investigation yeilds nothing, we might sigh with relief and maybe drink a bit more water and get some rest and remember to breathe when we feel stressed. But maybe mom, who felt exhausted and achy, went to her doctor and was not satisfied with his reasurrances. Maybe she felt abnormally exhausted (she diagnosed herself with CFS when the three of us were very young. I can only imagine how tiring it would be two have three little kids born within a year of each other) and felt she needed to medicalize her tiredness so she could access care. I get how knackering having a kid is. Childcare is exhausting and invisible and thankless and definitely in the 80’s much of that burden would have fallen to her, and her experience, I am sure, would have been dismissed as normal and not deserving of any kind of support or intervention. I can imagine mom wondering why she felt so tired when other moms seemed fine, seemed to be holding it together, and perhaps, at that point, she thought there must be something medically wrong with her. Maybe the tiredness became a symptom, a way of signifying that something was not right and she could not cope. I don’t know how or when she first heard of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome but maybe when she found out about it, it gave her permission to rest and ask for help. But also, perhaps it led to, ‘coding errors’ where she might have scanned her body for evidence of her diagnosis and ‘found’ symptoms. Symptoms that she would then obsessed about, medicate, label and reify. O’Sullivan describes a, ‘chilling’ comment by a patient who seems to have recovered but is still convinced the illness is inside of her, ‘It was as if she had become accustomed to the expectation of ill health.’ Mom became less and less active as we got older, giving up more of her daily activities: art, exercise, cleaning, cooking, socialising. She was too tired to do them. I can imagine that she did feel too tired, but also that she expected to feel too tired and as she sacrificed moving her body and looking after herself, she felt worse. Ill health became a habit and then chonic. O’Sullivan remarks, ‘it is very hard to extricate someone from a label once they inhabit it.’ Mom eventually, by the time I was eleven, would spend most of the day in bed, unable to do even simple tasks like make herself coffee. I would bring her coffee and Dad would cook. The cleaning was shared out between the three of us kids.

Recovery for psychosomatic disorders is rare. O’Sullivan writes in the epilogue of The Sleeping Beauties about the, ‘bleak outlook,’ for sufferers. The cure involves an acceptance of psychological help (specifically CBT to help the person ‘rewire’ their responses to symptoms) and all the stigma of receiving a mental health diagnosis. This is the crux of the issue, for me. Mental health issues, in our culture, do not hold the same gravitas. They are often treated with suspicion, as if the sufferer is faking it or should be able to snap out of it, should be able to think themselves into a better state of mind. A mental health diagnosis is a less worthy diagnosis than a flesh and blood biological illness. It means accepting that your disability will be treated with less compassion than a physical disability, that the legitimacy of your suffering will always be questioned, maybe even laughed at, and there will always be a slight suspicion that it is probably your fault. This is indeed bleak, and I can understand why my mom would choose the purgatory of chasing a so-called organic cause to her illness instead of being saddled with a mental health diagnosis and all the baggage that goes with it. O’Sullivan situates the responsibility of cure with all of us. She says it is a social issue, that our response as a community is what makes the difference between ‘recovery or a descent into chronic illness.’ Only when our reactions to mental illness change- how we respond to those who suffer with anxiety, depression, psychosomatic disorders- will the ‘quality of that person’s experience [change].’ Maybe, all those years ago, my mom would not have had to get so sick if she could have accepted that her disease was not in her body, but in her mind, but only when we, as a society are prepared to give as much weight to our mental health as we do in our physical health will that be possible.

Copyright Diana Smith 2021

The Sleeping Beauties is by Suzanne O’Sullivan and if you want to support your local high street bookshop, you can order a copy from Hive.–And-Other-Stories-of-Mystery-Illness/25474764

Where can I live but 2021? 

I dropped my phone for the upteenth time and watched the glass screen crack as it hit the kitchen tile. I didn’t have insurance; I didn’t have a screen protector or a silicone sleeve; apparently I still had over twelve months of contract left to pay off my i-phone, the man apologetically informed me, I couldn’t get an upgrade yet, he said. Not till next November. I wasn’t quite sure what to do apart from cuss myself for my negligence so I carried around the little Nokia brick I had from years ago. It fits in my pocket and I can’t get my emails or browse on it. The predictive text is infuriating and I can barely be bothered to message anyone. There is no camera. The screen is microscopic. The urge to see if there are any updates just goes. There is really no point in touching my phone unless I need to call someone and that is rare and soon my phone started staying in my pocket and I didn’t miss the impulse to check it.  Soon I was reading on the bus again and taking an A-Z with me when I needed a map. ‘Can I just opt out of a smart phone,’ I asked my therapist. I know it sounds stupid but I needed permission even though I felt saner and happier.

 I have endured 2020 white-knuckled and furious. The flat is tiny. I have barely seen my friends. I hate zoom. I have grappled with some PTSD and wept and when I haven’t been able to cry I have wished for the capacity to weep. This has been the year I have reckoned with how I pay attention and I have hated every second of it. It used to be, when I was a kid, I could just climb up onto the top bunk, open a book and instantly blur all the sounds and smells and mess. Everything receded into a painterly blob of lillypads and pastels when I got absorbed. I would like to have done that with most of 2020. I am good at daydreaming; while other teenagers were studying and submitting essays and writing exam dates in their diaries and being on time to lessons and afterschool clubs I was daydreaming on buses in the jungle or daydreaming on my horse. I would like to have had that option during the pandemic but there was no privacy to lose myself in my own thoughts. 

Nobody tells you how gorgeous dissociation is. The jargon just says, ‘defense,’ but really I wish the mental health professionals called it a ‘duvet,’ like, ‘Diana is highly duveted’ or  ‘Diana, you have gone under the duvet again,’ and then I could be like, ‘yes, of course I have, I’m stressed out of my mind and it is so delicious under here, there is no time or space or pull or push, I feel like I’m all wrapped up and floating and eating wodges of mashed potatoes with butter, please could you give me one reason I might want to come out from under here?’ 

The only good reason to come out, lockdown has taught me, is because you have to come out sometime and when you go that far under the duvet- and for me it is so easy to get there- every interruption feels like an intrusion:

Someone knocking at the door 

Someone offering me tea 

Someone asking me a question

Someone making a casual remark 

Someone whistling/coughing/tapping/clearing their throat

Someone standing to close to me 

Someone touching me

… the list is endless and the sense of intrusion is excruciating. My skin crawls; the hair on my neck bristles. I jaggedly see-saw between feelings of grievance and guilt. And when you are stuck in a tiny flat with two other human beings and one of them is five years old, there are many interruptions. I needed to understand what this was about; I felt torn. I did what I do best and buried my head in some psychoanalytic essays, I drank them in like a mug of warm milk before bed. It seemed like I might re-frame my claustrophobia as a question of attention, how do I keep from going under the duvet?

The answer is simple and annoying and maybe impossible. You make a life that is worth paying attention to, with the people you live with, and then you live there instead of trying to duvet your way out of it. ‘What are days for,’ Phillip Larkin’s question echoes in my mind often. ‘Days are where we live,’ I reply, call-and-response style, in my head, and then I whimper his plaintitive line, ‘where can we live but days?’ I feel coy when I quote that line because really I know exactly where I live when I am not living in days. But I want to know how to live in days, in these days, pandemic or no. Family film nights? Some dull, funny, boundary-making in purple crayon, stuck to the fridge so that any of us can gesture to the rules in a fit of pique and say, ‘NO BOSSING, remember?!’ Trying to wield my attention, not just let it be eroded by my now smashed smart phone? Family game nights? Ice skating back in tier-3? Therapy where he gives me some of his attention and tops up my own supply? Making an effort with one another? Nicer furniture in the flat? A new house? More walls? More walks, time in the garden, more eye contact and trying to stay attuned? I used to know what days were for before the pandemic: they were for seeing friends in and walking the city in and doing reasonable amounts of childcare and being needed and wanted just enough but not too much. But days are for something different in 2021 and I am not quite sure how to be in this new life I find myself living in: No i-phone, as little Zoom as possible but a new landline; David Bowie’s mural in Brixton is easier to walk to than Blake’s grave so I pray there now on my lunchbreak; the kitchen is getting new worktops; we eat dinner together most nights; we play dominoes often; family film night is Sunday at 5’oclock; I roller skate when the walls close in on me. 

Copyright 2021 Diana Smith 

Linda Cundy’s blog article on being avoidantly attached during the pandemic

As well as her books: Attachment and the defense against intimacy/Anxiously Attached 

Stan Tatkin’s compassionate articles helped me re-frame my claustrophobia in terms of a question about attention and helped me understand why I experience interruptions as intrusions. These two are my favourites.

And of course, Larkin’s magnificent poem, Days

PTSD daydreams of doors and tables

When I was a kid, spending time indoors was a kind of prison. It was nowhere you would want to return to. The vast expanses of desert, and later, tropics surrounding our houses were more hospitible than the shelter we slept and ate in. There was no solace among the piles of unwashed clothes and cluttered corners and table tops. I remember fishing cockroaches out of tubs of peanut butter to make myself lunch in Arizona and in Costa Rica I remember the smell of paperbacks rotting in boxes we never quite managed to unpack no matter how long we lived there. There were cobwebs and blackwidow spiders but also, maybe worse, moods that hung in the air. Often I could walk into a room and brush up against a silken thread of despair fastened to a corner or else a little bit of displeasure, spit out and strewn from one end to the other. The snapshot taken of the three of us in Costa Rica sums up much of our existence together: clinging together for survival and sacrificing privacy. In the photo, Sasha blaring bagpipes while I try to read in my muddy hiking boots. The shiny white breeze block walls and fold- out camping bed under a tin roof folding in on us. There are many many more memories of squalor and claustophobia but they are too many too list here. Suffice to say there was a reason that the three of us would flee the house: in Arizona, despite the soaring heat, we would roam the neighborhood, playing among the mesquite tress while the other kids were at school, we would scramble into dumpsters in local business parks and retrieve objects we could use as coins or props for whatever game we were playing and when we moved to Costa Rica, I would get on Agatha’s warm back and ride for hours into the mountains to escape the cigarette smoke and dirt. When I was a mostly stay-at-home mum I did anything but. My impulse is always to bolt. For as long as I could carry him, he spent his hours and days, first on my chest, in the cloth sling feeding, and then, until he got too big in late toddlerhood, on my own warm back and we walked the city together. I did not want to be indoors with him.

My husband gave me an image: of french doors leading out into the garden. He wants to move to the suburbs to a house. We start looking at properties and I realise I do not know how to use inside, or at least, interiors do not spark my imagination the way walking the city does. The dream of french doors leading into the garden (we could have our morning coffee in the sun, he said) feels alien. I cannot find my hunger for it, it is not something I want, yet, but it is a lovely image and I am curious about my lack of desire. So I go to my bookshelf and rummage for Gaston Bachelard’s the Poetics of Space which I haven’t read since art school. I read it and understand that I do not, in his words, have much good memory to draw on, much to ‘daydream’ about. I love the whole book, how much meaning he allows for corners and wardrobes and smells and shelters but he seems to talk about the interplay between ‘intimacy’ and ‘solitude’ and the penny drops. Solitude is not a word I associate with home, though it is something I seek out when I do my customary bolting. I begin daydreaming about the french doors leading out into the garden and find the first hunger pang. Maybe it is possible to have intimacy and solitude in the same place. Other psychoanalytic writers and religious writers have used different language but I think it is maybe a very human longing: is there space here for both autonomy and connection, or, at this table, when I drink the wine and eat the bread, can I experience both imminence and transcendence?

Lockdown ravaged my pysche. It reminded me what it felt like to live ontop of one another again, trapped in a family, trapped in a country not of my choosing, what it felt like to have little choice and little privacy. I have recognised that some PTSD was probably triggered and I woke up often in the middle of the night, heart pounding, white knuckle fear electrifying my body. I dreamed of houses collapsing, of kidnappings and basements and trapped, shoeless horses tethered and starving in tiny, dark stalls. 2020 taught me that as much as I love my family and enjoy spending time with them, in order to feel safe, I need some space. Not neccesarily a room of my own, but some differentiation between rooms. A staircase and a floor or a room or a door between us sometimes. Something between us, sometimes. When I talk about edges and divides my therapist looks amused and suggests I might be talking about “boundaries.”

I have started daydreaming of the new house, of thinking of my own ‘poetic of space.’ A friend gave me another image to play with, one that she has dreamed up for her own house: a kitchen table. Here is a bit of furniture that keeps everyone close, so there is intimacy: the kid can do their homework and I can get on with my cooking and perhaps there could be a chair for someone else to read or sit in. There is a gravitational centre to pull us all in and keep us together, somewhere to meet, but there are rings of orbit as well, a trajectory that loops away for a turn or two. With a table between us, there is some scope for solitude. We could be asborbed in our own thinking and doing without disturbing one another. I could be in my elaborate cooking reverie, the kind where I’m listening to 80’s power ballads and chopping things and reading recipes and he could be playing just outside in the garden, just beyond the french doors or else absorbed in playing under the table or pouring over some school assignment or drawing. And this is only the beginning of my daydreaming. I have a little time before we buy. Could I think up how we might all be if we had a games room, a study, bedrooms, reading nooks? What if it is possible to dream up the space for solitude so that a home is something to find solace in, a place to return to, a place you might want to stay and live from, not just a place to flee from.

Copyright Diana Smith 2020

I am very grateful to my sister Sasha for bothering to archive family snapshots. And for responding to my cold sweats and nightmares by sending me family photos and videos to remind me that it really happened and lockdown triggered some PTSD for a reason. And to both Sasha and Ariel for helping me survive our childhood

Luminous virgins and pillowcase angels

They told me not to wear a dress when they dunked me so I wore something practical to my second baptism. A floral onesie. My priest-grandad had sprinkled creek- water over my pulsing fontenelle when I was a baby but by the time I was seven or eight and attending Pentecostal churches in all of their 90’s tack and splendour I needed another initiation they said. And then when I was fourteen, wearing a scratchy brown scapular under my T-shirt (for a while, the teenage fanatic I am, I wore her laminated image in the shower) and stumbling through the unfamiliar words of the mass, I was confirmed Catholic. I still have the certificate and I still awkwardly can’t quite remember all the responses in mass. Usually I blush.

I am drawn to car-park Marys and Dissenters graveyards alike. On Wednesday after work I’ll leave a rose and say a halting Hail Mary at Crossbones graveyard in Southwark because it is Mary Magdalene’s feast day and I pray to her sometimes, I love her mad hair and her ability to shock the disciples with her kinky acts of devotion to god. I wear a silver Fatima medal: I am devoted to her, our lady of grubby, attention-seeking children. I am devoted to Blake as well, I go and pray to him too, I tell him stuff. And recently, in a little shop in Brixton, I found a luminous virgin statue. Glowing, she is crushing a serpent under her little moulded plastic foot. She gets a nod in the morning before I do my first downward facing dog.

I have been a pillowcase and tinsel angel. I have whimpered my share of Our Fathers. Permanently etched into my memory is the sparkly navy blue veil I wore when I was miraculously chosen one year to be Mary for the nativity play. I think I knelt, all devout six year old me, overawed, in front of the manger and wished the newborn messiah simulacra could have been a flesh and blood baby. For the sake of authenticity. I know the reason I dance the way I dance to 80’s music is because it is how I danced to 90’s synth praise n worship music in the aisles of the mega church. Arms in the air, heart pounding, moved by the Holy Ghost.

I feel an imposter in all my faith traditions. I can’t remember the words and I have been baptised either too many times or not enough. I don’t remember Bible verses properly. I have not confessed enough and I don’t feel relief after doing penance the way a proper Catholic would. And. I love to kneel, I really love those cushions, I love the tussle with the little brass hook and the thud onto the cold floor after communion. I love sacred ground. I love the gesture of the bowed head and clasped hands. I love little pilgrimages across the city to stand on some holy earth. I like feeling my sore feet, the way they ache when I get to somewhere that could be called blessed. A car park with a resin Mary in south London or an unconsecrated sex workers graveyard in Southwark.

I like awkwardly making the sign of the cross and taking a few breaths.

Copyright Diana Smith 2020

Lockdown reveal: I am a nightmare to live with

I am a nightmare to live with, lockdown has taught me. I knew already, at least theoretically, that I was. I had laughed at Alain de Botton’s talk on marriage when he said if you think you are easy to live with you’re deluding yourself because no one is and I recognised the truth in what he said. But there was a part of me that could plausibly deny the relational chafing I inflict. Self deception runs deep especially if you pride yourself on being fearlessly self-examining. Did I not read endless marital and childcare self-help books and follow their guidance, using the, ‘when you…I feel,’ frames and hadn’t I done crazy amounts of therapy in order to better love, and didn’t I ask for things non-violently and with an open heart and hand? I asked for date nights. I organised date nights. I practice respectful parenting. I made cards and didn’t avoid conflict, I listened consciously and didn’t utter defences.

‘Surely no one would want to be your friend if you were like that,’ my therapist suggested, gesturing to how hollow and ‘neat’ that relational way-of-being is, his face receding into a flat, painterly sketch over Zoom. And my husband gave me an image that made me laugh and also wince in recognition when he described my stress-response: ‘You are like a regional manager at Tesco: Cleanup on aisle seven.’ I joked about the polyester trousers and no-nonsense manner, my pettifogging practicality. Lockdown has been incredibly stressful and it has been an (unwelcome) invitation to witness the way I deal with psychic distress and an (unwelcome) opportunity to have it reflected back at me. I sort of knew already that I could get a bit ‘older-sister-messiah-captain-of-the-ship,’ but I didn’t fully own how much of my relational DNA are coded with that way-of-being. I see the code now.

It is funny how something so basic, so structural can be so invisible. It was hard to see the ways in which I am responsible for deadening connection because on the surface I was doing everything ‘right.’ I had dogma. I could dish out advice. I knew what to do.

I didn’t understand that it is that very quality of taking-over and running the show, keeping the world on its axis, having my hand up and the right answer on the tip of my tongue that makes real relating impossible. I guess the blindness of the self-righteous is…apocryphal. It is really hard to perceive. My therapist playfully recommended I slam more doors and try being, ‘petty and self-pitying,’ as I have accused others of being from my god-like position of enlightenment.

I am emerging from lockdown a little more sad and humble. Maybe even human. If I started lockdown on a high horse, on the moral highground, maybe I’ve dismounted and come down the Mountain of Smug. I don’t feel qualified to dish out marriage advice now. I do not know the answers. I have a few skills and tools which are useful but which do not lift me out of the messy business of relating. They are flares and maps but I still have to muddle around finding the path. And relating, if I am doing it properly, if I am attuning to the other person and entering into the heat of the moment properly, is messy. Sometimes it involves saying the wrong thing in the heat of the moment and bearing the regret and anxiety that comes from being wrong. It is agony. It requires a bit of good faith that if I put my foot wrong the other person will forgive. It requires all the trust I can muster and it turns out I do not have much of that. (There is a reason I am the nightmare I am. I survived because I learned how to make my own food, kill black widow spiders in the laundry bins and be a zit-faced know-it-all. There was zero cavalry and other people are never to be leaned on) I feel closer to my son and husband now but it is not a closeness that has been engineered by me. I do not entirely know how we got here. I could not replicate these results or tell anyone else what to do- there are no neat words or memes or formulas, only the willingness, on my part, to bear my relational misteps and to keep nosing my way toward the people I love.

Copyright Diana Smith 2020

References: Allain De Botton has many fabulous articles and videos on the subject of marriage which I highly recommend especially if you think you are easy to live with

Finding sloppy

I have been seeing my (former? eternal? sometimes? on-off?) therapist over zoom for the past few weeks. I needed him again when quarintine began; those first few weeks my internal world collapsed and he responded to my claustrophobia and desperation by giving me some chewy interpretations, the kind that need gnawing before I can swallow them. One of his interventions was as tough as beef jerky: ‘It is all too neat,’ he said, referencing some of the relational moves I was recounting. His face froze on the screen, his voice lagged. I missed the smell of his consulting room, the joke we make as I come in and hang up my coat, the seat I always choose to sit in and the history it gestures to when I say, ‘I won’t be lying down on that thing,’ pointing at the couch. ‘There is trouble with my wi-fi,’ I say, apologetically. The silences are not quite so natural, but we find a rhythm.

It takes two hours for the five year old to fall asleep every night at bedtime; I am exhausted by the end of our tussling and often fall asleep next to him. He is wired, wild, screechy, tired. I get it, no school, he is adjusting too, but the fourteen hour day with no evening is getting to me. I call a good friend (who also dabbles in the dark arts of respectful parenting) for some advice, hoping for a magic bullet or a potion or some kind of easy to follow formula. Instead she gives me some wise words, riddles and some perspective, and then we hang up. Unwinding is a process, a set of skills maybe, and I do what I can to help: I put my half remembered baby massage knowledge into play, I light a candle and we listen to accousitc guitar ballads until he is sleepy. I read him stories and I offer to hold him. I bought him lavendar pillow spray in full knowldge it is probably a con, but hey, maybe it adds to the calming ceremony. It still takes about two hours for him to unwind. Result? Another confession: my yoga practice is erratic right now. In the honeymoon period, I used to wake up at 6 and do an hour a day, seven days a week. At the moment sometimes all I can coax myself into is a minute in mountain pose before I make coffee. Other mornings I manage half an hour after lounging in bed smelling the cats head and reading the same sentence over and over again. I was so proud of my routine before, my serenity, my ability to self-regulate with a forward bend and now I am humbled by how little I can manage most days.

My sisters jokingly call me, ‘guru Di,’ because I often step into the role of advice giving bossy older sister. When I was a kid I would make little mud huts for my miniature plastic dolls, lovely, neat little huts with carefully stacked piles of evenly snapped twigs and painstaingly lined pebble paths. I could spend hours forming thick little walls and pushing them into perfectly arranged squares and grids. The play was satisying. It was soothing, absorbing, numbing play. I guess it was my way of coping with the chaos of my childhood. But I think my old ways of coping: neat, tidy dogma, mud hut walls, tip-of-my-tongue advice, pat answers, are not enough now. They do not go deep enough into the relational mess of love and life. In psychoanalytic terms, they do not enter into the dyadic realm of ‘mis-attune, rupture, repair,’ the relational dynamics that make trust and growth possible. This is sacred ground and I hate it, I am uneasy here, I am challenged and I am scared. I don’t have the right sentences, I don’t have the right words to make it all better. ‘When you, I feel,’ only gets you so far.

‘Are there any good metaphors for therapy?’ I asked over zoom, we were both laughing. Over the years we have joked about how awful so many of the metaphors are: suitcases, mazes, balls of wool. We spent a few minutes critiquing them and then I ventured, ‘sloppy…’ I had been re-reading Daniel Stern’s gorgeous book on intersubjective consciousness and I loved his use of that word to describe moments of meeting between people. Maybe sloppy is a good metaphor for therapy, for relationships, espcially for those of us who can turn to rigid, formulaic ways of being-with in times of stress. ‘I don’t think it will get you any new clients,’ I add, just before our session ends. I like the frog plop, muddy sound of the word, the way it makes my skin crawl with shame and discomfort, the picture it conjures of something that isn’t quite right, the wrong shape, too loud, too invasive, too abject, badly made, risky, an image that doesn’t quite fit the diagram.

Copyright Diana Smith 2020

Daniel Stern, psychotherapist and infant researcher writes movingly and precisely about many of the subtle invisible processes of therapy in his book, The Present Moment

Love is not a victory march

I could feel the imaptience rising in my throat. We had been for a lovely long cycle ride after being cooped up in the flat all week. There is a quiet trail by the river we could take and R has just learned how to ride a bike. I thought it might relieve some of our claustrophobia. R loves his new bike but he is still learning how to look after it. We had stopped for a rest on a bench in the sunshine and he let it drop into the path just as someone was walking past. ‘I can’t let you do that,’ I said, calmly, picking up the bike and setting it next to him. This is the usual respectful parent style-limit setting, and I am comfortable in my role as adult-in-the-relationship who makes him feel safe, shows him where the edge is, stops him doing harm. He dropped it into the path again, just as someone was walking past. I picked up the bike again but I was fuming. Since social distancing and his school closing we had been talking allot about ‘being considerate’ of others. There are so many new routines and new rules and he has been doing his job of testing those limits beautifully. He wants to know the edges of his new world, where the cliffs and fences are, where there is room to wiggle under and how to walk the strange new bridges. This is all new territory and he learns by pushing. I know all of this. It does not change the fact that I was livid. All of my usual release valves are gone. I don’t have work to give me space to myself, to remember my not-mum identities. I can’t re-charge with my friends, giggling and sipping a glass of wine in the pub. I barely have time to read, I feel lucky when I can carve out a bit of time to do yoga and meditate in the mornings. My own world has totally collapsed in the last two weeks and my pantry of patience and generosity and goodwill are running low. I am finding it hard to self-regulate as quickly as I am sometimes able to.

I hate being frozen out. Of all the ways someone can show me they are angry at me, the silent treatment and stonewalling are the most painful for me. This kind treatment was a feature of my own childhood and in therapy I have come to recognise the interpersonal harm it does. I think shutting out a child, going cold on them and ignoring them does enormous harm. As kids we are reliant on our parents to ‘keep us mind’ as child psychoanalyst Winnicott would say, and going slack-jawed and flat-faced, we, as kids, can feel erased, dropped, confused, disorientated. It is agony not being able to read a parent’s psyche, not being able to access them, it is a kind of imprisonment. I know for myself the effect was that I became focused on trying to ‘reach’ them: through humour, talking, entreating, being ‘good,’ at the expense of my own emotional growth. You can’t focus on getting to know your internal world if you are focused on trying to get the attention of your caretakers.

The moment when he dropped the bike onto the ground for the second time I sensed a choice. I felt myself closing down, wanting to get on my bike and ride home in punishing silence. I was consumed with anger and fear-for him, for the safety of passers by- and I was not able to down-regulate back into neutral. My other option was to share, simply, my feelings with him. I do not do this very often, but sometimes, when I feel like he is in control enough of his behaviour to actually choose (i.e., if he is not acting impulsively) and I am in the throes of a big feeling, rather than leave him guessing I think it is useful to tell him how I feel and tell him what I need from him. I am a big fan of Non Violent Communication and I use the technique often in my own marriage. We are so used to thinking about feleings as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and using them to hold power over others that sharing a ‘negative’ emotion can sometimes feel like a risk. When we ‘view our feelings from a place of safety,’ as attachment researcher Peter Fongay says, we are free to see all emotion as part of human experience. Anger, regret, sadness all become something we can experience, own, and share with another human being, especially if we learn how to share them in a way which respects the other person’s autonomy and isn’t a ploy to manipulate them. It is vulnerable because it is owning our own feelings and speaking from ‘I’ rather than an accusative ‘you.’ It is telling the other person what you need from them, open handed and open heartedly asking if they can offer that to you. It honours our inter-dependance and acknowledges both our separateness and our intimacy. There is a possibility of connecting when we share these parts of ourselves in a boundaried, respectful way.

We were, by now, standing together, about to mount our bikes and go. He had been trying to chat to me and I was too preoccupied to respond. I dropped to my knees so I was on his level and faced him, ‘I am angry with you,’ I said, looking into his eyes. His face fell and he started crying. Sobbing. I continued, stating my need: ‘You dropped your bike into the path. I want to go for cycle rides with you but if we are going to cycle together I need to know I can trust you to be responsible for your own bicycle. I need to know you can take responsibility for your bike so we can be safe.’

He stopped crying and my anger fizzled out, which I think is what happens when a feeling is owned, whether it is shared or not. He said simply, ‘I am ready.’ We cycled home together, a little more tenderly. I felt close to him and I’m pretty sure he felt closer to me. It is difficult right now. Everything is slippery. We are trying to work out how to be together, how to share psychic space as well as physical space. How do we negociate cycling together and how do we respectfully, not violently, balance everyone’s needs for space and autonomy and safety in our family right now? How do we make space for all of our subjective expereinces, our own truths, our own psychic lives and needs. The process is kind of sloppy and imperfect and there are collisions. I keep thinking of Leonard Cohen’s hallelujah . Human connection is not easy, intimacy is laboured and skilled and takes practice especially when I am comitted to respectful, non violent ways of being in the world. So often when it goes right, I don’t feel triumphant, I don’t feel I can fly my ‘flag on the marble arch,’ I feel sore and tender, a little tear stained and softer, pedaling home slowly in the sunshine, trying to dig deep for more kindness and courage to face one another.

Copyright Diana Smith 2020

Janet Lansbury has taught me how to practice respectful parenting

Marshall Rosenberg is the author of Non Violent Communication

Scrooge’s darkness is in me

I did not realise how Scrooge I am until I sat on the sofa, clutching my knees to my chest and sobbing at BBC adaptation of Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. I am Scrooge sometimes: Guy Pearce’s numb, ‘the most hard done by’ self-pitying, defensive, ‘I did no worse than any other businessman,’ version of the character. His portrayal swirls with depth, psychological complexity and sensitivity: I am simultaneously rooting for him to find his soul and face his (significant) demons (there are at least two harrowing scenes that gesture to his childhood trauma) and also I am repelled by his subtle dissociative behaviours of counting and intellectualising, by his inability to, as one spirit says, ‘only see what was done to you, not what was done for you.’ I did not know that Dickens’s hard-hitting Victorian moralising could be updated with some gorgeous writing, acting and cinematography but evidently it can be; Scrooge moved me to confront my own apathy and I found myself weeping with the conviction that I too, like him, do not seek absolution or redemption- those narratives that centre on restored innocence are beside the point, they side step the question of the pain and harm he has caused the Other. ‘Remember,’ the spirit of Christmas present says, sternly, kindly, ‘this is not about you.’ The moment of transformation is not situated in the erasure of Scrooge’s sins but in the realisation that it is possible to effect change, that actions matter, that it is better to be pricked by ‘pins and needles’ and feel connected to humanity than to be holed up in one’s head, that while his own suffering exists he has always had a choice: to use his suffering to connect him to his own tender heart and humanity or to wall himself in. The gut sobs came when the truth landed in me: that I have been complicit in various forms of oppression by my silence and apathy. I cannot be let off the hook any more than Scrooge can, and besides, that isn’t the point. ‘There is so much more work for you to do, spirit of Christmas past, present and future,’ the final words of the series haunt me, and I know they will do their work in my heart the same as they did in Scrooge.

It is time to unfurl

When a metaphor haunts me, I heed it. Alice came to me after work most days this autumn, smashing through the ceiling in her stripey stockings and hunching awkwardly in the rabbit hole she had outgrown. I would see her, like an apparition, all of the sudden too violently too big and unwieldly, uncomfortable in her ungangly positions, all knees and elbows. One Saturday morning I pulled down my copy of Alice in Wonderland from my bookshelf and squinted at the iconic illustration. Yes, that is exactly how I felt. Cramped and uneasy: I closed my eyes and imagined blowing up my life. I imagined bearing down with all my weight on those cartoon dynamite levers, the kind that blow tunnels through mountains and make holes. I needed a bigger hole to sit in. So I did it. I am leaving the education sector. Ten years ago, back in September 2009, I was so excited about equipping kids with the tools to change their lives and I am still excited about that but the changes in education mean I have been increasingly unable to use my hard-won skillset. I found myself cornered into more tick-box work that was pushing students towards attainment at the expense of teaching literacy and lifeskills they need to decode and access their world and flourish and build a life they want to live in. Alice haunted me and told me my soul was dying and I was in danger of suffocating here: I blew open my life and I am starting a different role in the social care sector in mid- January in a job that will enable me to do what I love doing, equipping people with the tools they need to forge a life they can flourish in. 

But I don’t think I am finished blowing up my life. I have so much to give, and, with joy, it occurs to me that no one is stopping me from giving it. I am not going to ‘shrink from touching my power,’ as Adrienne Rich chastises me, in her poem, Hunger. I call myself a writer, but that doesn’t mean I have to use my big, gorgeous voice to write a novel. I can use it for whatever the hell I want! It is my creative libido, and I want to wield it to create a world I want to live in, that is humane and just and gorgeous. I can write letters for Amnesty International #writeforrights or use it to write letters to my friends or use it to advocate or amplify concerns and voices and injustices. I can spend my privilege. I have so much to spend. I can take risks and protest and speak truth to power because I have leisure time now that my kid is older and I am able to choose not to have another one, I have an able body, a support network, emotional agility and pretty good mental health from years of expensive therapy, I have the credibility that white skin and a middle-class pattern of speech buys. I have a neurotypical mind. I have the anchor of a stable family life and I have enough financial stability to own a flat in London and buy nice vegetables. My right to remain in this country is no longer precarious. I need to spend this privilege. I do not want to live in a world where I am disconnected and helpless, watching greed strip the most marginalised and vulnerable of their fair share, their dignity, their breath and sanity because I am not free if I am silently complicit, if I stand by and watch it happen without putting up a fight. But I have more than fight in me. I have an opus in me. I want to join (I am late to the feast, I know) the great work that others have been doing. I want to add my voice, my time, my energy, my money, my power to everyone else who is already effecting change. 

Alice is no longer haunting me now that I have decided I refuse to be small and powerless. Instead, now I bring to mind the suffragette statue of Millicent Fawcette in Parliment Square. If there was ever a time to unfurl a banner, ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere,’ 2020 is the year to do it.

Slipshod mountain over Blake

I discovered ‘mountain’ pose by accident, I landed into it, slipshod, when I fell out of ‘tree’ one morning and now it’s maybe my favourite position to pray or meditate in. It felt so delicious to stand like that, catching my breath after a series of haphazard warriors and a wobbly tree and some wonky downward facing dogs and I reckoned it must be a ‘real’ yoga pose it felt too good not to be- a quick google afterwards gave me the word for it. I am all lengthened spine and firm sole when I take my stand in it.

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of endings and beginnings. I started work again full time for the first time since he was born and he started school. This is end-of-an-era stuff, I am not so needed, my identity is shifting again and I feel unsteady, shaky, a little tense and kind of exhausted. He is tossed at sea too: his SOS in a bottle washes up at bedtime and when I leave the flat and at the school gates and anywhere he can assert himself, anywhere there are limits or thresholds. Bathtimes, mealtimes, goodbyes. His instinct is to throw his weight around, push the (shifting) boundaries to find out where he still holds power. He has not chosen any of this and he is trying to find purchase, a grip, where does he exert control, where the limits of his autonomy begin and end. I respect his process: he is deft at thinking his way through problems in his play. After the tears, the superhero cape comes out and the plastic power tools and the boats get bombed in the bath, sink and then bob back up again. He plays at omnipotence and mending things and resurfacing after the blast and it looks so satisfying.

And my instinct is to play too. I find myself at Blake’s grave again, I offer him a single stem of crimson and sunlight petals that looks like one of his etchings. I find myself taking my stand in ‘mountain’, astonished by ground under my feet that is sacred ground of lunatic dissenters. In front of me, Blake, behind me, Defoe. There is a place here for the ones who don’t quite fit, the crazy misfits who wanted do their own thing, who were not cowed by convention or institution, who chose to stay uncomfortable. There is a place, it is called Bunhill fields and it is just outside the City of London, this is the place where they buried the ones who stood their ground. They did not like being told what to do or how to live. I said a prayer for the soul of my fierce son, wished him some dissenter’s courage, hoped he would keep a hold of his soul and assert his autonomy when faced with challenges that are not of his choosing. I breathed a few breaths for myself, prayed to keep touch with my soul during this transition. And standing there, I could breathe again, I could feel that ground under the soles of my feet and I feel it is my ground too, it connects us all.

Copyright Diana Smith 2019

Reveries of a mum on the psychoanalytic couch