Dusk

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.

Immortality

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.

Daydream

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.

English Summer

In the haze:

Watching the turquoise waves,

Dreaming of slower ways

To be.

In the haze:

Found my way from the maze,

Traded the London craze

For sea.

On the stones:

Glistening ocean bones,

Laughter and ice cream cones

For me.

On the stones:

No need for mobile phones,

Far from to-do-list drones,

I’m free.

In the breeze:

Brushing my sandy knees,

I do just as I please.

Easy.

In the sun:

Finding the small things fun,

Feel life has just begun.

You see?

Rush Hour

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.

The Rhyme Trap

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.

Bewilderness

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.

The Second Coming of Yeats

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.

 

Writer’s Postscript
I have loved the poems of W.B.Yeats since my dad showed me one of his poems back in his dusty, book-lined study at home. I had read poems before but never been that excited by them. There was something about the guttural, grief-stricken anger of Yeats’ political voice combined with the ethereal quality of his imagery that caught me. His work took me to a different world. It got me seriously interested in history, politics and human rights. It inspired me to write poems again: something I hadn’t done since I was at primary school. His poem The Second Coming was one of my favourites and still is today. Written in 1919, it is full of brooding tension and contains a stark warning: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.’ It strikes me that this continues to be relevant: those who are full of love, moderation, tolerance and empathy tend to be quieter in this world than those who are full of hate and judgement. It is so important that we don’t leave positions of power to those who shout the loudest and in the most binary, dramatic terms. Make your voice heard! Don’t leave it to others to speak up for what you believe in. Those with messages of love must learn to be loudest.

Hypnagogia

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.

 

 

Writer’s Postscript
I’ve always found dreams really interesting. For years I have had mini dreams just as I fell asleep and woken up very suddenly. I recently learnt that this stage of sleep is called ‘hypnagogia’- it is the transition between being awake/conscious and being asleep. It is an interesting stage where your body and your mind are both switching off, sometimes at different speeds. There is some fascinating research about it at the moment if you’re interested in it. It has made me reflect on those bits of sleep more from the point of view that the thoughts, images, dreams may be fragmented or distorted as the brain is processing the change from wakefulness to sleep. But somehow the dreams for me are quite repetitive- not the kind of random jumble you might expect. If you’re interested, see if you can try to remember bits and bobs from this stage of your sleep cycle and be curious about what is going on for you.

Fromm’s Fear

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

Labyrinthine dusk,

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.

 

 

Writer’s PostScript
For any who haven’t read Erich Fromm’s book ‘The Fear of Freedom’ – (Die Furcht vor der Freiheit, 1941) –
it is a really good book about the difficult balance we all face between wanting to be free to make choices but feeling overwhelmed and frightened by too much choice/responsibility. It is just as relevant to politics now, as it was when he wrote it in 1941. My poem is about the way that this fear applies to individuals too. In particular, it is relevant to my situation at the moment returning to the workplace. I am really torn between a renewed sense of liberating confidence and the familiar self-doubt and anxiety that has dogged me for years. I wonder if it rings true for anyone else returning to work after a long break or taking on new responsibilities. Thanks for reading!

Change

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

Stranger’s mind.

 

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

Dreams unfold

 

And one day, at my fingertips

(Electric thrills and

Tummy flips),

I’ll find a way to join the two:

My summer yellow,

Winter blue.

Dammed if she didn’t

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.

Look Inside

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,

Human worth.

Sports Day from a Distance

Coloured noisy shirts

That jostle brightly:

Sugar strands

On wet icing,

Trace the long stemmed field

In well-worn wheels of

Summer sports.

 

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

Dried footprints.

 

But just for now, from

Far off, their sunny

Sport brings smiles

To tired faces:

Pale and lined from endless

Office hours. Their gaze

Rose-tinted.

 

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

Again soon.

 

Feet, unused to trainers,

Will regain their bounce

And eyes that

Lost their starry

Faith will glow once more.

Happy memories

Open doors.

Breather

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

Mat Leave

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.

Troy

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.

Underground Poetry

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.

Helpless

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.

Separation

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.

Dear Sultan

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.

Rescue

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

Collide, changing

 

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

Friend.

April Fools

Long lost and prodigal, you return.

But like the spoiled cat

Refused the fish,

We turn our backs,

Pride wounded

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

And suddenly,

Invited to life’s dance,

We lift our skirts

And gamble in the fields.

Laissez-fur

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.

Something Rotten

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.

A Good Day

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,

Hair everywhere,

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.

Depression

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.

Panic

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.

They multiply.

 

Spinning like a child’s toy,

Hands shaking, hold them back!

I haven’t got the

Knack. They crawl around

On human ground.

School days

Through the smudged window

The snow falls.

A small wet sort:

Inconsequential, unsettling.

 

Smeary handprints:

A glimpse of fun and mischief.

A reminder of

What’s to come.

 

This last bit

Afternoon Nomansland

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

Delicate miraculous

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

 

Babes, rosy-cheeked,

Books-read and pegs-brushed,

Wondering why we ever

Were anywhere else.

 

Very sensible, the Cat.

Poem: Quiet, in bed

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.

The Pub

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.

Poem: January Blues

My pen is stuck on a January day

When the splurge and flat of clouds

Hovers like

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

Money shuns.

 

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.

Poem: Semantics

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.

Words Matter

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.

Who am I and what am I doing here?

Featured

Hi, I’m Amy and I’ve started this site to share some of my writing. You should expect: poetry, 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.  Thanks for reading.