Short story: ‘Jaguar’

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.

Tipping Point

Crackle spit heat

That frazzles fur

And blisters paws

Raging through the

Homes of tamarinds

And bright macaws.

Crouching cats are

Gripped in

Death’s fierce jaws,

Whilst world-wide

Leaders fight with

Kitten claws.

So we slouch

Towards flames

Fuelled by our flaws.

We cannot fail to act;

It must be done,

To wrench free

From the web

That we have spun.

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.

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.

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.

Shopping for a Therapist

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.

Key Points:

• 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:

https://www.rethink.org/resources/t/talking-therapies-factsheet

https://www.psychotherapy.org.uk/

https://www.bacp.co.uk/

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.

Poem: Home Sweet Home

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.

The A&E Merrygoround

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.

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.