Paint me with a thousand stripes
And let my life heal in my face
Paint me with a thousand stripes
And let my life heal in my face
A little baby bird:
Such a tiny, fledgling soul.
Come, please come!
It’s time we met.
Your every little flutter
Makes my drumskin belly roll.
Come, please come!
The stage is set,
And never have I felt
Such a joyful, longing ache.
Come, please come!
But not just yet,
The thought of us apart
Is more than I can take.
Come, please come!
But not just now,
For never have I cradled
So much churning hope inside.
Come, please come!
But god knows how.
I cannot picture you,
My love, however much I’ve tried.
Come, please come!
At last, allow
Your patient daddy man
To hold you close with pride.
Come, please come!
For you will be
The first to join our nest
And make our two hearts three
Cold now are the fires that smoked real
Lives to choke sweet forest air.
Still the rancid taste of human
Cruelty fills the buildings there.
Terrified, we turn away our
Thoughts, or blindly stop and stare:
Helpless in the gaze of haunted
Children in tough soldiers’ care,
Sick to tears to think that those who
Stoked the flames had human hearts:
Human hearts and minds and bodies
As they pushed the dead in carts.
Chimneys puncture clouds and scream
Of school kids taught to hate,
Masking acts of humbling kindness
Bravely hid behind that gate.
People gave their only warmth, their
Last crust, or a smile,
Just to help another to
Survive a little while.
Even in the deepest horror,
Love found ways to sing her song,
Urging us to speak with courage
When we feel that things are wrong.
Auschwitz holds a mirror to the
Worst and best of human ways,
Standing tall and calling us to
Kindness: now, and all our days.
Every inch of everyone
Became, from baby softness,
Tough and marked by times to come.
But, if we treat each one with love
And treasure their uniqueness,
Then all will grow the legs to run
And heart to love their weakness.
To those who cannot be themselves,
I ask you to listen:
(Not to those with certainties
Or clear cut ways to be)
But to the place your eyes reach;
Wild paths your feet long to tread;
And the call and leap of
Rhythms you have not heard.
Close your eyes and go!
For many also dance
To their own song.
And, in your lost exploring,
You will find
Hands outstretched in love to
Hold your own.
Need the words today;
The space that aches in my chest
Is calling for words
To hold the hurt.
Pressing the page:
Paper stretched to translucence
By feelings too big.
Feelings to carve on slate
But certainly too big
To keep within.
Paper wins and so I build.
Sinking into the deep unthink
Of curving ink.
I burst the inner bubble:
(The one I thought was full of
Wolves and stretchy screams)
To find a flood of
Paint and song and dance
That needed me to give it only
Half a chance.
Dig your heels in
Do that hip swing thing
Hold your head high and
Let the rhythm make your tail spin
Plug your best sounds in
Hear the sound waves sing
Don’t walk to work
Take a twerk and have a swing fling
Highlight of my day
Making my way
With a private sashay
Every time I press play
In the sounds my hips turn
And silky joints slip mindlessly,
Pulled by a point inside.
Lost in the flow and jerk
Sweet unthinking velvet of dance,
Colours stream bended air.
Soft stroke of the breeze
On shoulders heavy from yesterday;
Should have stretched.
Now the wind kisses tired
Muscles better; bugs crawl on dry skin,
Back into perspective,
And the ache of bigger things is lost
In nature’s rocking arms.
I look up from my prey, immediately alert. I don’t know what it is but something’s changed. The air tastes all wrong: it’s bitter and dead. My handsome whiskers twitch with irritation. The jungle has always been moist and thick with liquid, earthy heat but not today. Today, it is dry, like a riverbed lost to time and drought. I don’t like it.
I shake my hide, rippling my patterned coat over giant muscles made for hunting and climbing. Then I start to eat, tearing at the leathery skin to get at the meat, the scent of food so good I am lost in the visceral delight of eating. Crack. My ears prick. I look up from my kill and my attention is caught again by the intensifying scent that has started to cling to everything. It is an acrid odour I’ve known before on the black patches of earth the humans leave behind when they move on. Crack. Nose in the air, I sniff and turn my head to check the dense forest around me. Here I stand and listen intently for several minutes, my powerful paws lazily holding my food down. Bold in my mastery of the environment, I challenge any scavenging simpleton to take it from me.
But that smell. It’s all wrong and it’s making my tail writhe with anger; or is it fear? Perhaps it is fear. That’s not something I’ve felt much before and it sits uncomfortably with me, like fur on a man. It’s making my hackles rise.
Crack. That noise. Crack. There it is again. Crack, pop. It’s happening more often and it’s getting louder. I need to move. Whatever it is, it seems to be closer. There’s a quiet roaring too: a kind of maddened heave that blows through the upper branches and sends hot shivers through the trembling leaves. Time to go.
I gather the bloodied neck of my prey, still warm and wet, and hold it in my jaws. The fresh, tender flesh is making me salivate. It’s excruciating: I haven’t eaten for days but I can’t eat now. Something is wrong. Tickled by the rough hairs on the deer’s wirey neck, I shake my head and the carcass shifts slightly. I turn away from the cracking noise, which has become a sort of constant crackling hiss. I start walking.
My paws, at once familiar and ghostly strange in a new creeping mist, are padding lightly across mulch and twigs. Around them, the scurry of tiny creatures is fast changing the landscape into a rhythmic, roiling sea. Another crack. Fire. Waves of frantic fur fall over themselves to flee from the flames I can now feel but not yet see.
The roar is getting louder now. It’s punctuated by the agonised groaning of failing trees. Trees that I have known. Trees my claws have scratched, my back has rubbed. Trees I’ve climbed for quiet naps in friendly branches. They held my colossal frame like it was that of a docile cub. Now those same trees are splitting, ripping from themselves, splintering. I can hear it all. I dig my claws in and run faster.
I’m fast and proud of it. I leap past beasts who passed me long before. They crawl along in fatal, tormented impotence, whilst I power gracefully through the fevered storm. The rancid, spitting air is thick with the feathers of brightly coloured birds. Flying creatures big and small, are fleeing now, fighting for space amongst the creaking twigs and scattering leaves of the canopy. They shriek and cry to one another, calling for their friends: screaming warnings.
My paws: the same old silent friends who stalk for prey, are filled with electricity. Tiny prickles streak up and down my limbs. I dare not look back now; dread has crept like wet cement around my heart and frozen my breath. I cannot stop, although my lungs are raging for clean air. But I have to drop my prey. I haven’t the energy to carry it. God knows when I will eat again. I am stumbling and my proud rib cage is heaving, surging, all out of rhythm. Unsure of itself. I try to steady my breathing.
The smoke has changed now. It’s dark and black and filled with bits that float like ghostly snowflakes. They taste like bile. My eyes are stinging: blinded by smoke and fear. Panic flits across my mind like lightning on a still lake. Impotence is not for the likes of me, nor a cage of fire. From somewhere deep within my frame, a guttural moan becomes a roar of thunderous rage that will be heard even in this harsh cacophony. I will not be caught as prey to the flames. I spring.
I run blind: long whiskers sensing the gaps, sensitive paws finding a path. Thrown off balance by broken branches, I roll and run again, pressing my sharp claws to the ground. I use my great weight and momentum to crash through the trembling undergrowth. All the time the heat is on my back and the noise is in my ears, suffocating my thoughts. Just run. Run.
Crackle spit heat
That frazzles fur
And blisters paws
Raging through the
Homes of tamarinds
And bright macaws.
Crouching cats are
Death’s fierce jaws,
Leaders fight with
So we slouch
Fuelled by our flaws.
We cannot fail to act;
It must be done,
To wrench free
From the web
That we have spun.
Neat honeycombs of cross-cross vines
Defend the land: salute the star-white
Sun of morning,
Whilst friendly olive groves, their upright
Neighbours mock, and dance for joy as
Day is dawning.
Trousers on your head,
Ears pressed forward
Like a baby elephant,
You arrive and ring the doorbell:
‘Hello!’ you say.
It’s a stranger’s voice,
Deep and posh.
There’s laughter in your eyes.
It’s you, my son;
I’d never have known!
It’s quite a disguise.
In the hum, alert and tired,
A mind swims. Morrison
Sha-la-las from tinny old
Pub speakers. Heavy-ringed
Hands rest on scratched leather arms.
Crumbs nestle into cracks in age-
Faded upholstery. Once
Proud Patterns, too tired to try,
Sag and fray under the long
Weight of time. And in the low
Buzz, wired and slow, a mind swims.
Why would I share it:
Show it to those
Who might throw it off,
Or take it away,
Make it theirs for some pay?
But such is art:
A frightening price,
A risky game to play.
Yet here I stay.
These lines and rhymes
I’ve thought about a hundred times.
I’ll trust you not to copy and paste,
Take my long hours in your haste,
Violate what I embraced,
Leave me with that bitter taste.
For into verse,
From birth to hearse,
We pour our lives.
And on this raft,
Built from my craft,
My soul survives.
Catch your eye
So flattered I
Find I’m shy
Feet trip, mouth’s dry
I would like to hide today:
Put my adult self away.
Find a place that’s still and dark:
Crouch on mulch and crunchy bark,
Underneath a veil of leaves,
Watching insects, chewing sleeves.
I just want to hide today:
Find my own safe space to play.
Here, where no grown-up could stand,
I would build my own wild land:
Among the dappled spots of light,
Nature’s toys would talk and fight.
Star-crossed stones would say their vows,
Pine cone friends have angry rows.
Leafy dragons, breathing flames,
Pick their prey and play their games.
Spider baddies lurk in caves;
Ants take orders as their slaves.
Earthworm spies would tell the queen
All the mischief they have seen.
In the midst of all this strife
I’d be happy with my life.
Ladybirds would climb my arms and
Flustered birds sound shrill alarms.
I’d lose track of time and space
In my damp and cosy place.
So I close my eyes and go.
No one else will ever know.
In the haze:
Watching the turquoise waves,
Dreaming of slower ways
In the haze:
Found my way from the maze,
Traded the London craze
On the stones:
Glistening ocean bones,
Laughter and ice cream cones
On the stones:
No need for mobile phones,
Far from to-do-list drones,
In the breeze:
Brushing my sandy knees,
I do just as I please.
In the sun:
Finding the small things fun,
Feel life has just begun.
Why the fear
Of Not Being Here?
Scuffed and tightly-filled, keeling
Over, heels propped up to support
Bags on knees, screens, tapping fingers
Nails bitten to white jagged cliffs
Or long and smooth: rendered strange
And cold by time and money.
Sandals play glass slippers: cracked,
Betrayed by earthy brown between
Caked, painted gold. And, in thick air, the
Hiss and click of headphones plays a
Nuanced soundtrack like an itch.
Urban heat: dark rounded veins shout
Angry calls and foreheads weep.
Holding sticky rails, old friends have
Happy rows and, with sweet noise, earn
Bitter gazes from the tired. Foot
Squeezed rucksacks, grin like thirsty
Dogs and jostle handbags: over-friendly.
Rocking to and fro, stumbling,
Graceless in our work-creased day clothes,
We are held together: jumbled
Bits and pieces in old drawers. But,
Like keys and crayons muddled:
Each, when found, will open doors.
Always the same:
I can’t escape the rhymes.
I’ve tried and tried
At least a thousand times.
I’ve tried to use blank verse,
Or keep lines clipped and terse,
But that just made it worse;
It’s like some kind of curse.
If I had got a pound
For every rhyme I’ve found,
I’d buy a magic pen
To write prose now and then.
But sadly, I have not.
I have not got a jot.
So every line I write
Is doomed to sound quite trite.
Sometimes all I can feel in my heart
Is this hollow, aching, longing, need
But I don’t know what the need is for.
Today it hurts inside and I don’t know why.
It hurts inside and tears smart in my eyes.
I am fighting an invisible army:
Silent: taught to play at pain.
Each time I turn, they slip away.
But, as they do, they catch my skin
With whistling blades.
Finish me: I’ve lost this game.
First page pressure:
Slick and crisp,
No grey corners.
Give me my old book.
Out of nowhere, magic phrases
Whisper stardust in my ears
And the days of growth and study
Flood my mind despite the years:
Books, that long ago forgot to
Hold their pages close together,
Still possess that spit of youthful
Fire that casts a spell forever.
Briefest dream: the fall is sharp and wrenches
Ribs up down with shocking force.
Eyes sudden wide with fear
And shock: I shout my ‘No!’
But choice has no place here.
Briefest dream: and hands, once clasped, release you
Back and back, away, so small.
Eyes sudden wide with fear
And shock: I shout my ‘No!’
But that won’t keep you near.
In longer dreams, the story seems to change:
Different scenes, new people face
New problems, so it seems.
But look again, look close,
And still the same old themes.
Rushing blurred light-lines
Drawn towards a
Brooding mass: this torrid storm.
And there, in potent space,
The shadow shape of them,
As yet unknown, unheard,
But felt with all the feel
Of stranger’s prickly touch.
I dare not,
Dare not go inside this
To tempt my waxy wings
In hubris heat.
Perhaps it’s better here
Playing hide and seek with fear
Under the mattress springs
With other dusty things.
Yes it is better here
With blood beat in my ear,
Where all the harm I do
Is done to me, not you.
When did I leave that urgent dark,
That plays a tune
On crisscrossed bark
To play amongst the coloured lights:
Sweet honey bees
On whimsy flights?
Today I run through blossom trees
And skip through waves
With sandy knees.
All grinding discord left behind.
Discarded bones: a
I like to think there’s nothing lost,
That day is gain
And night is cost,
But still a something lingers there
Of longing, grief
And musey flair.
How do I keep the richest thread,
If gritty truth
Is left unsaid?
I fumble through to feel for gold
In shifting sands that
And one day, at my fingertips
(Electric thrills and
I’ll find a way to join the two:
My summer yellow,
Slowly building mute frustration:
Will it ever flow again?
Sometimes words come swift and giddy;
Sometimes no ink in my pen.
Hours that turn to days, unanswered
Questions from my twitching hands.
Over time, wild space reserved for
Writing falls to life’s demands.
Nestled in warm breeze and scratchy
Grass, I sit and feel the page.
Now, on mud-cracked basin, flows a
Stream released from my mind’s cage.
Like the fractious cry that soars from
Tiny lungs first tasting air,
Words, cascading, flood me with
Relief from hope’s expectant stare.
My value is innate.
I know I cannot lose it.
I will not give it up.
It is not mine to give.
My worth is at my core.
I do not need to prove it.
I cannot give it up.
It is not mine to give.
So I can look you in the eye
And hold your gaze across our tears,
Across our differences and years.
For every person holds from birth
A rich, unchanging,
Roots crushed by asphalt, Iris stands her ground.
In everything hopeless, hope can be found.
Coloured noisy shirts
That jostle brightly:
On wet icing,
Trace the long stemmed field
In well-worn wheels of
In every hard-pressed heart
A different song is sung:
One that moves
Light feet or knows
The beat of mournful drum.
Young ankles turn on
But just for now, from
Far off, their sunny
Sport brings smiles
To tired faces:
Pale and lined from endless
Office hours. Their gaze
For some, this light will
Blow out here, but not
For all. A
Bold white spark is
Thrown on restless kindling;
Nervous legs will come
Feet, unused to trainers,
Will regain their bounce
And eyes that
Lost their starry
Faith will glow once more.
Twitter bird bee hum
Damp grass plane growl
Little stones pepper earth
Ivy drape breeze wave
Scurry slight short legs
Quick thud wood peck
Hurry car engine grind
Mossy slow creep grow
Skitter snap twig crack
Wing flap fury
Purple buds pollen sweet
Clinking plates laughter
Here I sit listening
Slow in your sounds
Taking time for a rhyme
Soothing my tired mind
Tea and a cat
What could be better than that?
Watering can, little shoes,
April sun, baby blues,
Wet socks, soggy flowers,
Tired eyes, long hours.
Chubby cheeks, half-formed words,
Drone of cars, songs of birds,
Deepest love, smothered rage,
Silent protest, mother’s cage,
Eager eyes, sticky hugs,
New to nature, eating bugs,
Scraped knees, mummy kiss it,
‘When it’s gone,’ they say, ‘you’ll miss it.’
In fresh air, short of breath,
Should he nap? What if: cot death?
Filled nappy, teatime tears,
Guilt, resentment, shameful fears.
Fences, hedges, walls divide
So many of us trapped inside,
Feeling we are not enough,
Scared to say we find it tough.
I find it hard. How do you find it?
Do you ever wish you could unwind it?
Do you cry on cold baked beans
And plug your babies into screens?
Join the club. Come and share.
There’s others like us everywhere.
When we hide our fear and pain,
Depression smugly smiles again.
We saw humanity itself,
Cut into flesh and bone,
Of young and old:
That love and love’s self-righteous fire
Ignite the icy flame
Of hatred cold;
That cowardice and bravery
Alike can end in tears,
Or beauty hold;
That jealous rage and parents’ love
Are sibling seeds to sow
The end of days.
Competing vanity of gods,
Like clouds in still water:
Our mirrored ways.
The tide is changed by whim, or turned
By heartfelt quest for truth,
But wet it stays.
In Homer, just as now, we live for show,
And miss the mad adventure as we go.
The richness and the poverty of all
Is in the savage beauty of her fall.
To burst through the blank:
It’s harder now.
Quick full days that laugh
At slower life
And suck the spark,
In thrall to life’s quick call.
To find the thought space:
Long moment where
Noise fades and my eyes,
To finger point,
Find their click in
Dream haze of writing ways.
On hot London tube,
With resting heads,
And all the world in
Smells of spice, dry
Smoke, leather and
Old flat seats. My mind, at
Last, can nestle in.
It’s sweeter now:
For long empty wait.
I write the old
Inkwell of tears
And heart spring joy of art.
Fierce garish horses trotting
Up and down with groundhog rage;
Paint chipped and reins long-handled,
Chasing nothing in their cage.
There’s something in the chiming
Tinny clatter of the songs
That speaks of childhood toys and
Rocks like parents’ well-loved wrongs.
And so she rides again, enduring
Sickness all the while,
Because it isn’t home without
That raw nostalgic bile.
There’s no use telling her to
Change the route of her old horse
Because she’s bound, with it, to
Take the same old dizzy course.
If only we could stop it:
Take her arm as she stepped down
And show her all the other ways
To play in this wide town.
If only we could stop it:
Take her gently by the hand
And show her she could live a
Life much sweeter than she planned.
A life that feels so strange at first
Without the seasick dance,
But one where love and happiness
Will grow with half a chance.
Now in the nightmare lights
We just slide by in coloured streams.
She slips from rescue reach,
Like whispered words from fading dreams.
In the stale car, it’s hot
And smells of crisps.
The tinny sound of old
Cartoons through headphones
Mixes with the birdsong.
I don’t want to go back
Please don’t take me there
Creep of pressured hands
I don’t want to go back
Shriek of throat tight fear
Clammy touch of need
I don’t want to go back
Stuffy sleepless rooms
Love that leaves no air
I will not go back there.
That thing which frightened me:
It found me.
I knew with total certainty
I would be
But sometimes we surprise ourselves;
Our strength is
I fought the thing I dreaded most
And I have
In the falling dust:
A baby cries her mother’s tears,
Cradled in soft sheets,
Haunted by her mother’s fears.
In the dewy grass:
Curling toes that clench each blade
Totter to the slide,
Climb the ladder, unafraid.
In the classroom roar:
Unsure where to go from here,
Scared to run and play.
Taut hands holding Mummy near.
Kiss me once and go!
Give me back my fears at last.
They are not for now.
Let us leave them in the past.
Kiss me once and go!
Time we both found our own way,
Chase our own bright dreams.
We’ll feel smaller if we stay.
Kiss me once and go!
You have your own path to tread.
But you must come home.
We’ll share stories before bed.
In the friendly gloom:
Plan adventures, wild and free.
Cradled in soft sheets;
You are you and I am me.
If you woke up, still you, but gay,
You’d be the same in every way.
No less rich or strong or bright,
No more wrong and no more right.
You’d still feel joy, excitement, fear;
You’d still grow older every year.
You’d still know love, and cherish those
Who wiped your tears and kissed your nose.
You’d still have interests, hobbies, jobs.
You’d still feel grief’s chest ache wrench sobs.
The only difference might well be
In who you love: the they, she, he.
And yet you, Sultan, have declared
That those, who only love have shared,
Deserve to die.
And when they do, they must feel pain:
Bone-breaking, cracking, smashing rain
Of stone that flies until you fall.
Until there’s no love left at all.
I see you; but I do not see
Your heart and your humanity.
In the crunch tight
Heat creep of my fear
I sway to ill face,
No space, breathless.
You, the faceless,
Walk past, wondering,
Not wondering, in
Your high-ground flow
Of real life; no
Knife, no need to feel
Pain to stay sane, too
Busy to hurt.
You and your friend
Chat, laughing with red
Cheeks, dogs tasting run
Joy, chase toy, free.
I ache with wild
Eyes, mute cries, searching
A parched place, stumbling
And sand blind, lost.
Patter of fur paws,
Small claws, follow my
Right side. Our two worlds
My mind tide. You,
Just a small dog, look
With your brown eyes, see
Through my disguise.
Water for dry
Lips, first drips, beat skips,
Knowing that you know:
Feel, care, somehow.
Just a few short
Steps, with you at my
Side, then, sharp, a shriek,
Call, throw ball. Gone.
Walk on, still in
A dark land: sounds grand,
But it’s a crass shop.
Sharp drop, tools that
Are missold: too
Old, broken and tacky.
Bright paint and cheap glue
Making them seem
New. But now your
Brown eyes, steady and
Soul kind, pierce through my
Heart rind: unwind the
Pain bind. I have a
Long lost and prodigal, you return.
But like the spoiled cat
Refused the fish,
We turn our backs,
By your long withheld warmth.
Now your caress is quick to
Melt our bitter hearts
And head-to-heel when we
Are heated through,
Satisfied and tingling,
We relax our limbs.
But not for long, for spring
Has lit a fire in our soles
Invited to life’s dance,
We lift our skirts
And gamble in the fields.
Kiss of heat
Coats come off
In the sun your fur is tiger brown:
A reddish light that warms my heart.
Your tummy flat, black nose lifted high,
Eyes that dart and glint, quick green,
Legs that spring with power coiled,
Jaws that snap and click to catch
And landing with the softest touch
On grass that takes your paws with love
And holds you, nonchalant with easy pride:
Master of the Spring.
Smug in the trappings; wisdom and time,
Smile like a child’s plastic jewel.
You finger our lives.
Gilded treatment hides the reaching rot,
Leaving only musty cloying
Damp to warn us off.
Smile and smile and still be a villain:
Hidden in clothes of congruence.
Wolf walks in wax wool.
Delicate footwork skates thin ice.
Mask slips; screech within
And fall into the pain of unloved skin.
Today we made a green robot.
It had cardigan buttons
For cheerful eyes
And glitter on its chest;
An old black thing
To press and beep.
It was done: without doubt the best.
Today we took out your skateboard
And had a go on the path.
We laughed and clung
To each other with fear.
Step up with one,
Push with the other,
Then fall with aplomb on your rear.
Today we hunted for nature;
You had a takeaway box
And filled it with
Flowers, acorns and leaves.
Red in the face,
All sorts of damp bits up your sleeves.
Today we created three masks
For superhero figures.
Each had its own
Logo: complex and small.
Card to cut out,
Paper to stick,
And a place on each bedroom wall.
Today we went to the fun pool:
The one with the slide and jets.
I was the beast
For seeking and hiding;
You swam away
Squealing with glee.
I was the whale for riding.
At bedtime, cuddled on my lap,
You smelt all lovely and warm.
We read a book
About life’s rights and wrongs.
You brushed your teeth,
Not without fuss.
You slept whilst I finished your songs.
And now you’re in bed and I’m tired,
But I’m not stressed out this time.
I leave the mess,
Admire the cat’s repose.
I have to take
These little wins
And hold them close.
Being with the breeze
And the sway of the trees
With a notepad on my knees
I just forget it’s you that pulls me down.
I sometimes think it’s me, that I am bad:
A useless mother, weird, a waste of space,
A coward: lazy, pointless, going mad.
I just forget that you wait in the wings
For your first chance to sing about my faults;
You wait with sweaty palms and gritted teeth
To mock me, shamed, before the real adults.
Then, suddenly, you speak your words in flames,
They dash across the blank grief of my mind.
Your drawl, smooth and familiar, shrinks my spine:
And fondled, touched, my memories unwind.
With glee, you fling my laughter to the dogs;
Achievements, skills are torn, mocked and defaced.
You hop and dance and kick salt in old wounds;
You push away the ones I once embraced.
So under this internal, cruel abuse,
I cower, cringing, knocking my scarred knees
And, jeering, spitting, come your playground friends:
A crowd of puffed-up bullies. Angry bees.
The first is Shame, who laughing, climbs my back
And, forceful, presses down my thumping head.
She covers my white eyes with rancid claws
And calls to Guilt, who comes with heavy tread.
Before them, I am naked and alone.
I search blind for a person I once knew.
But, sickly sweet, it’s Suicide who comes:
Seductive, painting death in a new hue.
So sudden is the onslaught, I am lost.
Her subtle voice, that slides beneath my skin
Is leaking poison, spreading, gaining ground.
It wants the very root of Self within.
I stop. That core is fragile but it’s mine.
To build it I’ve worked hard on self-reflection.
It’s taken years of honesty and pain
And anxious re-starts when I lost direction.
I will not give it up, despite your taunts,
Although you’ll hide it from me for a time.
For I have grown within a seed of hope:
And from it springs a ladder I can climb.
You told me I was making their lives worse.
You told me just to leave the life we shared.
But now I’ve found the friend within myself.
We will outgrow you. Soon you will run scared.
Like a swarm they descend
And hover out of reach
But the buzz and hum
Screech in my mind’s ear
Is all too near.
Losing patience, my hand goes
To snatch one from thin air,
Stroke it in my palm.
Care: to halt its stings,
Love: its fierce wings.
Becalmed, I rest in sweat-
Wet respite from their roar.
Shiver on my skin.
Corner of my eye.
Spinning like a child’s toy,
Hands shaking, hold them back!
I haven’t got the
Knack. They crawl around
On human ground.
Click and drop of water pipes,
Slightly off the beat,
Startles silence, cracks the hum;
Sacrifices sleep for heat.
Plaintive howl of aeroplanes:
Tired, waiting to land,
Dragging those who fled the grey
Back again from sun and sand.
In musty air, the gentle speech
Of ones who seem to know
About the world and politics
And how things ought to go.
But in my bed, I stretch my feet.
I wriggle my hips down.
I am the queen of duvet-land;
The pillow is my crown.
And, just for now, it sinks away:
The complicated stuff.
This sleep-soft world is all there is
And maybe that’s enough.
No I could never wash myself enough.
I do not wish to be a British girl
And yet I’ve had the good of empire wealth
Hard won by others’ hands and others’ health.
So in complicit luxury I kneel
And kiss the feet of those we used to steal.
In sweaty filthy dark we chained you down
In service to our tastebuds and our crown.
We trod you underfoot with polished heel
And gave you numbers so as not to feel.
No ‘sorry’ now could ever bring to life
Your children or your grandpa or your wife.
No ‘sorry’ now could ever make you feel
The way you did before he made you kneel.
No ‘sorry’ now could ever bring back days,
Or clothes, or food, now lost to British ways.
No ‘sorry’ now could take back words that stole
Your childhood; spray paint insults take their toll.
No shame, or guilt, or ‘sorry’ now could clean
Our monied hands of their blood-sugar sheen.
And even now I sit in candied bliss,
In clothes that maybe felt the slaver’s kiss
And drink my tea and wonder where it grew
And if the one who grew it got paid too.
We tend to think of slaves as those who died
Long long ago, brought here by whip and tide.
But slaves are kept in farms and brothels here
They live today in pain, exhaustion, fear.
No I could never wash myself enough.
I do not wish to be a British girl.
And yet, if I’m to take rich empire gains,
Then I must wear its rancid greedy stains.
It is not much to pay for what we took,
So I will hope to hang from history’s hook.
I do not wish to be a British girl,
Great Britishness: it makes my white toes curl.
Through the smudged window
The snow falls.
A small wet sort:
A glimpse of fun and mischief.
A reminder of
What’s to come.
This last bit
Where I wait for you,
Is tense and still.
Tendrils of anxious
Electricity creep down my arms
Up my throat.
How will we be today?
The Cat knows.
He is expectant,
Ears pricked ready
For the onslaught.
He is like me.
He loves you with every
Fibre of his being.
But the rough noise
And reckless motion
Send him, tail low, ears back
Dashing from the room.
Very sensible, the Cat.
But I will stay.
I must. To endure
My own inadequacy
My joy, my fear, my pride
Your love, your hate,
Your tears, your exquisite
Humanity and daily grind mundanity
Because I am mum.
So I’ll stroke you now, the Cat
And later, we’ll meet again
And cuddle with the sleepy
Books-read and pegs-brushed,
Wondering why we ever
Were anywhere else.
Very sensible, the Cat.
In grey tablet light
Hands twitch, clawlike,
Waiting to free write,
Itching to ink white,
Held in the gap.
Held in the taut gap:
Wait shake, where words
Cry out from shut trap,
No keyboard soft tap.
Can it come out?
Can it come help out,
Free me, take me
To new space, weight free
Floating to safety?
Words that fit right.
Words that have real bite,
Taste, smell, hear, touch,
Gaining fresh insight:
Gut real and skin tight.
Ink holding dreams.
Ink holding wild dreams.
Stanzas rocked by
Milk arms of my themes,
Safe in my rhyme schemes.
Firelight and moonbeams
In my pen.
Eaten into dark beams,
The breath of those
Both strange and same.
Beer-soaked wood is sticky
With long tired relief
Of workdays old
And in the grimy folds
Of cracked-seated chairs
Sit our short lives.
Warm light, as though flame-shone,
Enfolds us like a
Mother’s happy myths.
Amongst the heated noise
A shared mad question
Of our purpose
Hangs and waits in amber
Whilst we laugh. For some
It waits through tears.
And left to feel the vain
Weight of knowing first,
The pub endures:
Feeling in its bricks, which
Crumbling hold, the quick
Of mortal joy.
For still we come to play,
And maybe always.
Finding in her years
The truth of our days.
Some days are made of coloured paint.
I can follow you to your world.
I am light and made of stars
And it is warm and smells of
Gran: pavlova, sugar aprons.
You look like you should,
With flying hair, eyes dancing
And the fiery
Strand between us
Glows and holds.
On other days, the silence
Cloys and rings against
Your clamour. How to hear
Your world through all the
Jangle of my own.
I feel so far from you:
Lost in my loud breath.
I ache under my ribs
To know the glow again.
I knew you then.
When I am lost and broken,
Don’t you wait.
Go off and play, please,
Dance and sing
And I will find you soon.
Then I will hold you close
And wait in fear.
For it will come again
And take all I hold dear.
On Tuesdays it is film night
And you sit there, pink cheeks,
All snuggled with your fizzy drink:
A grown up treat,
Only on Tuesdays.
On Tuesdays we don’t need to talk;
Our heads rest and our hearts meet.
Fluffy blankets hold
Only on Tuesdays.
On Tuesdays we conspire and eat
Delicious lollies from the
Ice crunch garage freezer
With cold hands:
Only on Tuesdays.
On Tuesdays, when the film ends
And the credits rise, we dance
And laugh and fling it all
Away, silly and giggling:
Only on Tuesdays.
And when it’s time for bed, we crawl
Upstairs, dancedrunk and exhausted.
Reading to you, I fall asleep
Surrounded by your teddies
Only on Tuesdays.
My pen is stuck on a January day
When the splurge and flat of clouds
The edge of thought. Twiggy trees, sad and brown
Stand defeated. Words which once
Flew are caught.
A new year and we will, should, must feel the
Bounce and flip of stomach hope.
But if you
Can’t, then swim through last year’s deadlines of the mind:
Lost to urgency, tar-stuck
In artist gloom.
In all the rustle scrunch of Christmas wrap
We dropped our threads and now search
For split ends.
We watch The Briefcase Ones who stand tall in
Their stripes and see our slow start
Through their business lens.
But since this only highlights business cracks
Against the sky shard metal
Of the funds,
It fails to show the human need for art.
Paint’s perfect imperfection
And so, uncertain, we must take our time
And know that meat is richer
And more tender for slow cooking.
We turn our minds but gently
To the page and trust it will
Hold riches for the looking.
My child is the loudest child in all our blue-green world.
He shouts out with his chin up and his ten tight fingers curled.
He calls with every neck vein taut and both his arms up high.
We ask him to be quiet but he can’t see why.
Why would he say it softly when it’s such fun to make noise?
To stomp around and crash about is one of life’s great joys.
Why would he hum it quietly when roaring sounds much better?
Why tiptoe in the shallow end, when splashing makes you wetter?
Yes my child is the loudest one in all the Milky Way.
Just when you think he’s finished, you find he has more to say.
He sings with great aplomb and smacks the beat against his thigh.
We ask him to be quiet but he can’t see why.
Why build a castle carefully when you could bash it down
Or read a book to daddy when you could tell half the town?
Why leave a person sleeping, when you could wake them up?
Imagine all the fun they’d have, if they’d just give sleep up!
Yes my child is the loudest child in all the universe
And when you try to silence him, it only makes it worse.
We tried and tried but we gave up because we were so stressed
So we decided to join in and set a noisy test.
We got up well before my son with saucepan lids and spoons,
We wore gold bells and whistles and we played some jolly tunes.
We borrowed Grandad’s tuba and some strings from Alf next door,
We got Aunt’s Edith’s double bass, some timps, some flutes and more.
Aunt Anna sent eight speakers, which she used for punk rock gigs,
And Grandma brought her cockerel, seven donkeys and the pigs.
The massive engine came from Godfrey: he likes mending jet planes
And Clive our builder joined us with a band of all terrain cranes.
That day we made a splendid racket all before the sun rose.
We sang and played and drove around and stomped away our woes.
It wasn’t long before my son was begging us to go.
He promised he would always whisper, if we’d stop the show.
But something strange had happened. The music had a hold.
Our limbs felt fast and flighty. Our hearts beat brave and bold.
So one after another, we took off down the street,
A strange, eclectic carnival of hooves and wheels and feet.
Astride his growling engine, bearded Godfrey crooned melodious
Behind him frolicked Grandma and the pigs, thick-skinned and odious.
Atop Clive’s cranes, the tuba blared the tune both strong and wrong
And seven donkeys eed and oord a descant to our song.
But, suddenly, we saw ahead a child we knew before,
Who stood in train pyjamas with a frown by our front door.
Once loud, now mute, his downturned mouth appeared to still be saying:
It was time to stop our noise and end our early morning playing.
‘I’m sorry, son,’ I mumbled from behind my saucepan lid.
‘I never knew how to have fun but it’s clear that you did.
You’ve shown me how to discard all my stressed-out adult ways.’
You’ve taught me how to smile again and dance through all my days.’
At that, my loud son found his voice from somewhere deep inside,
Addressing all the people who had come from far and wide.
He said that he was sorry for the past din he had made
But that it thrilled him to the core to see our odd parade.
The whole town hugged and sang aloud a new and hopeful song
And, arm-in-arm, my son and I skipped happily along.
Now, two weeks on, the mayor says every grown-up has to spend
Six hours a day with children, being driven round the bend.
In these mad hours, the children choose the games, the toys, the volume.
At their command the stairs will be a handmade duvet log-flume
And when the little darlings want to make a glitter carpet,
Create slug-slime, form a rock band or bet on the stock market
That’s just what they shall do and not one person can say no!
For that half-day, the grown-ups have to let their rule-books go.
But for the other half a day, each child will learn to play
In quiet ways, or reading books or making things from clay.
If mummy wants to meditate or daddy wants to write,
Each child will let them do it, with no shout or whine or fight.
If granny wants to water-ski and grandad wants to bake,
Each child will watch in silence eating cake around the lake.
And so I’ve learnt to party, to cavort and jive and caper.
Then afterwards I sit in blissful peace and read the paper.
Back when we thought in black and white we couldn’t see each other.
But now we think in happy grey: a loud son and proud mother.
For many people in England, talking therapy is something you have to wait weeks, months, even years to receive on the NHS. For others, however, paying for therapy is an option. But when you go looking for private therapy, how do you find it? What are the potential pitfalls or advantages of shopping for a therapist? I am not claiming to be a great expert in the subject, by any means, but my experiences of receiving therapy and studying to become a therapist have given me some thoughts on the subject, which I hope might be helpful to other people.
When I first needed therapy, I didn’t know anything about it. I had no idea that there were different models to choose from or, more importantly, that therapists vary hugely in their natural competence and their training. I have now had various therapists who have received different training and work very differently to one another. More than one have been genuinely helpful and one in particular has supported me in transforming my life to be richer and more meaningful. The more I have learnt about the field of counselling and psychotherapy, the more I feel that it is a world that needs to be explained to society. There needs to be transparency about how to access therapy and how to choose the type that works for you. If you have the luxury of choosing your therapist, then you need to know how to find a good one.
• Shockingly, there is still no government body that regulates therapists or counsellors. This means that people can set themselves up as a practising therapist without any qualifications. They may not have received any therapy themselves and their motives for helping may be dubious. It is therefore very important when you choose a therapist, that you do it through an accrediting body, such as the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) or the UKCP (UK Council for Psychotherapy). It is also advisable to ask to see the therapist’s qualifications when you first meet them; any therapist working within the ethical guidelines of these bodies will be happy to show you their qualifications.
• I am going to use the words counselling and psychotherapy interchangeably. Although there is debate in the field as to the differences between these terms, to all intents and purposes they are forms of talking therapy which do similar things. When you choose a therapist, it is more important to look at the therapist’s experience, qualifications and what they say about their own practice, than it is to worry about the terminology they use.
• The therapist themselves and the relationship you develop with them are key to the success of therapy. Choose someone who seems to ‘get you’ and with whom you feel comfortable.
• No therapist can ‘cure’ your mental health problems by themselves: the best results in therapy come when the client works together with the therapist and commits to the process. For this reason, try not to give up straightaway. It can be scary starting with a therapist: after all, you might not have shared your feelings with anyone before, especially not a complete stranger. Plenty of people do give up after one session. But it’s worth giving a new therapist a few sessions to see if you might be able to work together.
• The therapeutic process can be cathartic, reassuring and helpful. Sometimes, however, you might have to feel uncomfortable emotions in order to truly process them and this can be scary. If you have developed a good relationship with a therapist but it starts getting too heavy and painful, you might want to walk away. But try, instead, to share this with the therapist. They are there to provide a safe space for you to explore these difficult thoughts and feelings, so if you’re not ready to do that, it’s ok to say so.
There are many different types of talking therapy- too many to mention here but I will attempt to describe some significant ones.
• At the moment, the NHS mostly recommends CBT: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This is for a number of reasons. It is partly because it has been shown to be effective in certain clinical trials and partly also because it is a time-limited form of therapy, which is therefore cheaper for the NHS and easier to structure because they know how many sessions each person will get. If you haven’t tried CBT before, it is worth trying it. It is particularly useful if you do not wish to talk about your childhood experiences, but you do want to learn some new strategies for improving your wellbeing. I can only talk for myself but I found CBT really helpful for my OCD and for my anxiety but much less effective when I struggled with severe depression. However, different people respond to different types of talking therapy differently. The key is to be curious, try things and see what works for you.
• Psychodynamic counselling explores the way in which your childhood experiences have formed an unconscious pattern of feeling and behaving that continues to occur throughout your life. Expect a therapist who might be reserved and does not give much away about themselves. Possible positives: if you’ve had enough of advice or had your fill of structured sessions with homework to do, then this might be for you. The therapist is likely to sit back and listen a lot, giving you space to explore your own problems and find your own way out of them, with the goal that this should be an empowering experience. Possible criticism: strictly psychodynamic therapists might seem cold and unfriendly. Sometimes it might feel like there is more of an unhelpful power dynamic in this sort of counselling- with a reserved expert quietly analysing and a patient at the receiving end of a mysterious treatment.
• Humanistic therapy was developed as a backlash against the more deterministic outlook of psychoanalytic and behavioural approaches. It takes an essentially optimistic view of humanity: that every individual has intrinsic self-worth and that every human has the capacity for personal growth and fulfilment in life. Possible criticisms: may take longer to see results than with CBT. Possibly easier to avoid the most difficult bits of your past, which might need dealing with at some point. Possible positives: you are likely to find a warm, welcoming therapist, who treats you as a fellow human, struggling with shared human difficulties. Also, if you develop a good therapeutic relationship with your therapist, then you will feel safer and more able to take risks to explore difficult stuff in your own time and when you’re ready.
• An integrative therapist will draw on lots of different models to offer you therapy that is tailored to your individual needs. Possible criticism- jack of all trades, master of none. Possible advantages: will not make your complicated human situation fit their rigid model. Should not come with a preconceived idea of what exactly will help but work collaboratively with you to help you understand your difficulties and ascertain what you want to achieve through therapy. This is my preferred model and the one that I am studying, since I believe it gives me the best opportunity to treat each person as an equal and an individual.
There are so many other models and they are all interesting but I know that it can be overwhelming to have too much choice. If you need any more information, these pages can be helpful:
I wish you the very best of luck finding a therapist. Good therapy is out there. When you find it, given time, it might enable you to transform how you feel about your life.
Seems so strange: the way we all
Expect perfection once a year.
Resist change: stay neat and small.
No self-reflection welcome here.
Play the game by the same rules,
Your place set in our house of cards.
Do the same: frogs to home pools,
Tricked by the past’s power. Bauble shards
Mirror us in distortion.
New angles to shine: double light.
If only we had their truth:
Their way to sparkle: broken, bright.
No need to fit the old mould.
Rather build beauty in new skin.
We can find warmth in the cold
If we allow our real selves in.
To find love we must accept
Ourselves and others in true form.
Do not fear to be different.
For that is how babes all are born.
In the dank and mulchy winter chill
Slump the sunken cheeks of England’s child.
One who danced to school and dawdled home
Now sits hunched, her eyes both wide and wild.
How to hold her dignity and faith
Now she hides her shoes in sleeping bags,
Frightened of the faceless few who come
Late at night to look for clothes and fags.
Once she had a teddy and a home,
Tried to learn her lessons, do her best,
But, like all of us, she made mistakes.
Hers were not forgiven like the rest.
Where to go when daddy shuts you out?
Who to tell when mummy lifts her hand?
What to do when gifts from those you trust
Become code for sexual demands?
Better: in the tunnel by the tube.
Better: disregarded and alone.
Better: facing danger on the streets
Than to suffer in your so-called home.
Children sleep on sofas and in tents
Scared of shelters they have never seen,
Told of dirty rooms and scary folk,
Kept from help by those who’ve never been.
Many were in care: a safety net,
Where they tried to build themselves a space.
But their eighteenth birthday marked a change:
Leave and work. A new child needs your place.
Now our girl has been let down too often.
England’s child has got nowhere to shower.
Snuggles down inside her cardboard coffin,
Colder every minute, every hour.
You laughed as he stumbled and raved,
Lined with grief and mopping his tears:
An actor, yes, but aren’t we all
Learning lines, denying the years?
You laughed as he jumbled his words.
You showed us you read the York notes;
Focussed on drinking your wine;
Selfies for cultural boasts.
You laughed as the mad led the blind:
The alien parent and child.
You laughed as he rode on a broom,
By years and by power defiled.
But Lear’s lostness held flashes of Gran
And the thief who stole half her dear brain,
Who dishevelled and scattered her days
And muddled her John with her Jane.
And Lear’s lostness held flashes of Grandad,
The way that he talked of his mum:
The mum that he lost as a wide-eyed boy.
Still at ninety he longed her to come.
And in Lear’s wild eyes, my Anne’s blind fear
Of things seen, unseen, around her,
As she sat in her new home, not home,
Fighting thought-gaps that threatened to drown her.
Anne needed someone to hear her;
She didn’t know anyone there.
She couldn’t get out in the sunshine.
She spent all her time in that chair.
And then she was gone one Tuesday.
Gone and lost to us all.
Memories and dreams and life long lived:
Now hidden by death’s silent wall.
We went to the theatre on Friday.
Wednesday we fought to end stigma:
World mental health day, progress made,
Your laughter is Lear’s enigma.
But how to respond when we face it:
‘Second childishness’ wears a fool’s mask,
In the slapstick and word play,
The tangles and plaques,
Time dead tissue can’t do what it’s asked.
So next time you chuckle, just picture a day
When you mix up your Mavis with Mabel,
When you lose all the words you are trying to say,
And fall when the world feels unstable.
When you don’t know what happened
Last weekend, last year,
Or who is your son? or what is most dear?
When you look in your handbag
Again and again
But you don’t know what’s gone, or who took it, or when.
Yes, next time you chuckle, just think of that day
And think of the fear of losing your way
And swallow your laughter. Choke on your tears.
Hold out your hand to those with long years.
Hold out your hand til they need it no longer.
Old age is cruel but friendship is stronger.
You take all the threads
The knotted and tangled threads
And tease them out.
We work. We pull and push and
Struggle to find
A bright reflective
Stream of thought that clarifies
And breaks the chain.
It comes all at once,
Resonating deep in my
Gut: it just clicks.
It’s not just sense.
The grind and click of logic
Replaced by the
Purity of feeling.
Like cold water on my wrists
A truth spreads its
Through my veins. The past, my life,
Enthralled by a
New hue. Like a child
With a kaleidoscope, I
Can only gaze,
Wide-eyed, and wonder.
Framed by this transformative
Idea, my life
Looks alien and
Unfamiliar. It hurts:
Loss of a firm
Perceived sense of I.
There is fear there, uncertainty.
There is hope, too.
Because through this new
Window of perception I can
Jump. Not to fall. But
To fly, expanding
My beautiful half-formed wings:
Your laughter dances with the bubbles.
You change direction drunkenly
Heavily leaving limbs behind to
Follow where your red face leads.
Elusive baubles flirt and burst and spin
Fragile victims of the wind’s rough play:
The breeze that longs for even bubbles’ brief
Visual matter, their ephemeral chance to shine.
Tripping in giggling distraction
You fall, muddy knees and shaking shoulders,
As rainbow pearls descend to crown your
Innocence and joy with soapy jewels.
Knees weak with glee, up you get to
Reach again for spinning, leaping air
And I can only grin from ear to ear.
Up from somewhere deep within
The grey and muffled lostness of my joy,
Laughter froths and bubbles,
Irresistible as a sneeze or tears.
It erupts and you are both there,
Crowned by sunshine and fun:
A pair of mad, delightful, independent souls
With so much to explore,
So much still to love.
How the words work: matters to me.
The way they sound, where they ought to be,
The tone of voice, the click of tongue,
The silence when the words are done.
Tell me you didn’t hear, that it doesn’t matter,
That I’m over-sensitive, that it’s only chatter.
But how the words work matters to me.
The space they find; the space they leave.
Phrases echo in my head;
They catch and pull like knotted thread,
Stroking others long-forgotten,
Old, enchanting or half-rotten,
Showering me with painted rain
That, dancing, sings an old refrain
In new language; or leaps away
Inviting me to come and play.
But, like sweet sirens on the rocks,
Words call me to Pandora’s box,
Leading me to wander blind
Towards a labyrinthine mind.
To wonder what the speaker meant
Is poisoned by my temperament.
I worry and I follow breadcrumbs
Cold, alone, until the witch comes.
Far better now to look instead
At what the words spark in my head.
Why the language resonates,
Why it flatters or berates,
What that comes from, who and why,
Why it makes me laugh or cry.
Then I need not be just reader
Rather, find the page and feed her.
Words are power, gavel, sword,
Music, danger, peace, discord.
Sometimes darkly rich, intrusive,
Sometimes maddening, elusive.
Whoever spoke of stones and sticks
Had never felt the stabs and kicks
Of lifelong, inbuilt, guilt and shame
Every time you hear your name.
Now I own words, they can’t claim me.
I am learning to be Amy.
There is a fantastic, thought-provoking BBC documentary on the iPlayer in its second series at the moment: Ambulance. It leaves me with enormous respect for the work of paramedics and an overwhelming sense of the human potential for suffering. However, I am incensed by the treatment of mental health patients in crisis.
Over and over again, viewers watch these patients being ferried to A&E, which is completely the wrong place for them. A&E can be a very triggering environment at the best of times, with traumatic injuries coming in, distressed children, angry people waiting, tears, frightening sounds and long delays. To somebody for whom the basics of daily life are overwhelming, A&E can be a suffocating, frightening space. We must stop sending people to A&E when they are experiencing the intense psychological pain of a mental health crisis. Those people need specialist care from people who understand their difficulties. You wouldn’t send someone with a broken leg to the dentist. You wouldn’t send someone giving birth to an optician. The current system is senseless and broken. It causes great harm to patients and enormous frustration to the paramedics stuck helpless with patients they don’t understand and can’t help.
If none of those reasons are enough to convince you to provide proper resources for mental health, then consider the insane expense to the NHS. Currently we are sending ambulances over and over again to the same people, so we can take them into A and E, where they become frightened or disillusioned and leave, or are offered an endless waiting list for therapy. The patients go home to continue experiencing the same problems. They feel unsafe and call again the next day, the next week, month and year at huge public expense. People who reach out for help and don’t get it are going to look for help elsewhere: perhaps the permanent quiet of suicide, perhaps drugs, alcohol, smoking, food, violent abuse of their loved ones, the list is endless. The cost to society is endless. The cost to our humanity is endless.
We must start taking mental health seriously and treating everyone as we would wish to be treated. Because the reality is: it could be any of us struggling next time, left running in a hamster wheel of panic and sirens. It could be any of us.
Without compassion, society cannot function.
Please read with care: the following content could be triggering.
I am fed up with people being reckless with their use of words around mental health. I want to share some particular examples with you. They are symptomatic of a deeper lack of understanding in society about the link between language and shame.
A few years ago, I overheard the following conversation in my kitchen. My friend (let’s call her Daisy) said, ‘Today, a girl at my school tried to kill herself.’ She rubbed her eyes and cleared her throat. ‘It was awful. I had to go with her in the ambulance.’ Daisy was understandably shaken up. She added, ‘Thankfully, she later came around.’ I don’t know what I expected my other friend (we’ll call her Lucy) to say, but it definitely wasn’t what she said. She replied, with energy:
‘Well, I hope the silly girl was ashamed of herself.’
Daisy looked confused and shifted her weight. ‘Yes. I’m sure she was.’
Of course she was. Of course she fucking was.
I have tried for so long to understand how someone who is normally kind, like Lucy, could say such a hard thing. I have come to the conclusion that what she meant to say was that the suicidal girl had been thoughtless and nearly caused her loved ones great pain. But Lucy has completely misunderstood the causes of suicide and the way to help someone who feels suicidal.
The girl who tried to die was ashamed before her suicide attempt. She was so ashamed and full of self-loathing that she went against every animal instinct to cause herself pain and try to take her own life.
Suicide is not silly. It’s the very opposite of silly. Silly means frivolous, flippant. Silly means dressing up as the donkey called Bottom, or baking pancakes shaped like llamas. Silly doesn’t mean cutting your own skin or swallowing endless pills with the hope of inducing irrevocable liver damage to yourself. If we want to understand her decision, we’d have to ask the girl herself why she felt that life was hopeless. Why did she feel that it was more painful to go on existing than to face the gaping void of death, the pain of cardiac arrest? We’d have to ask her.
But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t out of some silly whim. And I’m pretty sure she was ashamed beforehand and now she is even more ashamed. And that judging her, and shaming her again, does not help.
Why is it that people who are normally kind and generous behave like emotional fascists when faced with suicide? It’s not just suicide: it’s self-harm, addiction and eating disorders too. Visible emotional pain terrifies us. Our knee jerk response is to alienate the person in pain, to judge and shame them, so that we do not have to feel our terrifying shared humanity.
Yesterday, I sat next to a girl in a coffee shop. Let’s call her Fiona. Fiona was on the phone loudly discussing her mental health problems with a friend: anxiety, suicidal thoughts, OCD and alcohol addiction. She was expressing huge frustration about the lack of understanding she had found from GPs, friends and the general public. At one point, she looked around the coffee shop and expressed her loneliness. She commented that lots of the people there might be suffering but that no one talked about it.
At this point, I couldn’t stay quiet any longer. I passed her a notepad, on which I’d written: I have severe depression and anxiety. I was nervous she might find it intrusive but it was a risk worth taking in the hope of reducing her sense of isolation. As it happened, she looked at me warmly, squeezed my arm and enthused to the friend on the other end of the phone that ‘the lovely lady next to’ her had just passed her a note. When she got off the phone, we had a conversation about our shared experiences and coping mechanisms. We swapped numbers. It was a life-affirming moment for both of us about the human ability to reach out and feel connected to each other.
One point from my conversation with Fiona particularly stood out to me. Recently, she had found herself in the grip of an eating-disorder again. She had sensibly reached out for help. She wanted to tackle the feelings before they got a strong-hold and became totally debilitating. At this point, when Fiona was so vulnerable, the situation required praise for her courage in confronting her illness. She needed a system to make her feel safe and show her there was hope. Instead, what she received from the doctor was the unbelievable line: ‘You’re not thin enough to have an eating disorder.’
Imagine the damage: the potential for shame, the deterioration in your mental health as a direct result of this ignorant, throw-away comment. The stupidest thing is that the only natural response to this would be for the patient to go away and lose lots of weight in order to get help or prove her illness. At that point, fundamentally the doctor would be responsible for causing the return of a life-threatening condition.
The most alarming thing is that this is not an isolated incident. I have lost count of friends who have been told that ‘unless they’re suicidal’ they can’t see a therapist for at least two years. Are we now at a point where we are encouraging people to self-harm, as it’s the only way to access basic support? Even if people don’t make a conscious decision to do that, it is deeply unhelpful to people that support is out of reach until you are desperate. Like cancer, prevention of many serious mental health problems could be greatly improved by early intervention and treatment.
I have a friend who was suffering from severe depression at the tender age of seventeen. Her only real ‘coping’ mechanism was self-harm and she desperately needed some expert help. One day she was so ill at school that she felt unsafe, so she took the mature decision to speak to the doctor about getting help. Many teenagers would have bunked school, got drunk, taken drugs, had some risky sex, been violent, or taken another rash decision in these circumstances. But no. This girl called her father and asked him to take her to see the doctor.
The response from her GP was hugely irresponsible. He said:
‘Shouldn’t you be at school?’ After giving her a speech about being over-sensitive and over-dramatic, he sent her away with the unbelievable words: ‘I hope you’re not going to go away and do something stupid, like hurting yourself now?’ An incredibly damaging, belittling line, even from someone with such little compassion. Perhaps, through his thick, cyborg skin, he had felt the faint waft of an emotion we humans like to call guilt.
Fortunately, my friend was with her dad, who quite rightly marched in, gave the doctor a furious speech and made him write a letter of apology to his daughter. But even this is not enough. That doctor should not be allowed to work until he has learnt some basic counselling skills for dealing with people who are suffering from painful emotions. He is irresponsible and could have caused this vulnerable child to come to great harm. In fact, with the help of some empowering, empathic counselling my friend came through this time of great pain. She is now studying at university to become a teacher in a school for children with special educational needs. She has great value to society. She has great value to all of us who love her and could have lost her, thanks to the emotional immaturity of this one GP.
It’s wonderful that mental health is being discussed and that the stigma is (very slowly) lessening. But we must, as a priority, start educating people about the way in which language can induce shame or, on the flip side, be therapeutic. The way we talk to people in crisis matters. The way we talk to people about their normal everyday feelings has an impact too. Our choice of language can show we understand or that we don’t care. It is one of our most amazing tools, distinguishing us from animals, enabling us to form societies, help each other and make progress. But with that enormous potential for shared human development comes a responsibility. When we discuss our feelings and those of others, our words must be chosen thoughtfully and with compassion.
Hi, I’m Amy and I’ve started this site to share some of my writing. You should expect: lots of poetry, fiction, rants, thoughts about mental health, vague attempts at sketches, ideas about feminism, responses to the news and a general eclectic mix of stuff in which you might be interested. I write because it find it therapeutic. Hopefully some of it will resonate with you in some way, even if you disagree with me on things. Thanks for reading.