Tag Archives: Choices

Of triggers, traumas and taking control

There’s been a lot of talk on the interwebs of late about trigger warnings. What are they, who needs them, should we have them everywhere or nowhere, what good do they do? I’m not mad keen on them, myself – I can see a purpose in the basic sex/violence warnings you get on DVD boxes, since those are things that bother many people for many reasons, but I don’t see how they can usefully extend beyond these broad categories.

 

The thing about being triggered is that it’s completely different to being made to feel a bit uncomfortable. Triggers are part of living with PTSD. People who are triggered experience extreme, excessive reactions to stimuli – things like flashbacks, uncontrollable shaking, spontaneous nausea/vomiting, the fight/flight/freeze response. It can change your mood for days, give you nightmares, kill your appetite, prevent you from sleeping, cause dissociative episodes… Of course, not everybody experiences all of these things, but the point is that there’s a lot more to it than just not liking to see or hear something (and the people who co-opt the term “triggering” as a means of censoring and controlling those around them do none of us any favours).

 

Having dealt with PTSD for several years now, I’m no stranger to triggering and know very well the difference between something that triggers me and something that just upsets me. If I’m reading a book or watching a film or play and someone loses their loved ones through death or abandonment, it will upset me (if it’s done believably, otherwise it’ll just piss me off). I will probably cry. It probably won’t make me want to stop watching or reading, unless it’s really close to home. Breaking Bad came close once or twice, because Walter White strongly reminds me of my dad in terms of looks, temperament and physicality, and watching the character going through cancer treatment in the first season was tough. It made me very sad, and I thought about my dad a lot while I was watching it and missed him badly. It pained me that I’ll never get to show him Breaking Bad and tease him about the resemblance. But it didn’t trigger me. It caused me to have a perfectly normal response to being reminded of someone I still miss.

 

So what does trigger me? Well, the one I encounter most often is car crash noises. Some shows and films use very realistic crash sounds, and I find those hard to handle. I can usually rely on structure and lead-up to see it coming, in which case I’ll get ready and make sure I’ve covered my ears and am not looking at the screen when it happens. The trouble is that sometimes it comes out of nowhere, so there’s no action I can take. Last year I was at a book launch and part of the way through the reading, CRASH, sound effect out of nowhere! There hadn’t been any other sound effects, nothing to make me think that this might happen, so I was completely unprepared. I nearly leapt out of my seat, then sat there for a while twitching and shaking, trying not to scream or cry. I had nightmares that night. But at least it wasn’t as bad as seeing The Avengers: Age of Ultron. I remember almost nothing about that film except that there was a sequence that was just one crash after another, and by the time it was done I was curled up in a ball on the floor with tears streaming down my face.

 

Now, car crashes are pretty common so I suppose one could argue that anything involving a representation of a crash should bear a warning. Personally, I don’t agree. They are common occurrences, and most people are fine a short while afterward. They process the shock and fright, they recover, they don’t shake and cry whenever they hear the noise. I recovered just fine from the first crash I was in, when I was a child. I appeared to be fine after the pile-up in 2005. It wasn’t until the black ice incident in 2008 that I started experiencing flashbacks and other trauma symptoms. For a while I found it very difficult to be in a car at all, but EMDR helped me to get things under control to the point where I can drive and be a passenger. It’s just the noises that still trouble me, but that’s my damage and I don’t think it should be necessary to undermine a dramatic device to accommodate it.

 

Also, not all triggers are as obvious as that. The other one that affects me is the smell of lavender. While car crashes are commonly considered traumatic events with negative associations, most people’s associations with lavender are very positive. It’s a very popular fragrance for bath products or anything laundry-related, and it’s one of the most common oils used in massage or any kind of relaxation treatment. It’s remarkably difficult to avoid, but for me it’s tied in with memories of things that happened while my mum was dying, things people did that I still can’t talk about, even in therapy, because to process those things is too close to forgiving them and there will be no forgiveness here.

 

I control my environment where I can. I’ve got used to checking laundry products and toiletries to make sure I don’t inadvertently pick up something lavender-scented. If I book a massage I request that no lavender be used in my treatment and offer to bring my own geranium oil instead. But there’s nothing I can do to control the outside world, where lots of people like the scent and I can smell it on them. Nor would I want to restrict their right to enjoy the fragrance if they like.

 

A few years ago my husband and I went to see Puppet State Theatre’s wonderful show The Man Who Planted Trees. At one point there is a description of lavender fields, and by means of a beautifully simple effect they waft the scent out over the audience. I saw it coming, only just, and scrambled for the bottle of Olbas Oil I usually keep in my handbag to drown out any other smells. It broke my heart a bit that I couldn’t enjoy that part of the show the way it was intended (though I certainly appreciated it objectively and could see that it was lovely for everyone else).

 

The experience I had at that show always pops up in my mind when discussing trigger warnings. I don’t think it would be reasonable for me to expect Puppet State to have anticipated my reaction. How could they? It would be equally possible that someone might have PTSD responses linked to a particular quality of light, or the type of shirt one of the actors was wearing, or to an uncommon phrase that might have cropped up in the script. If triggers are very specific and personal, any aspect of a show (or film, or book, or everyday experience) might be someone’s trigger – so in order to provide total protection, it would be necessary to list every single component of the production and every word in the script, and at that point haven’t you just experienced the thing anyway?

 

My preferred option is to take responsibility for my own traumas and deal with them myself. I try to anticipate the car crashes in TV and film, and I carry my Olbas Oil to overpower unexpected lavender. And, increasingly, I try to get the better of the triggers. I’m on the waiting list for further EMDR to deal with the car crash stuff, and while I’m getting support from my current therapist I am training myself to be able to tolerate lavender without having a visceral response to it.

 

It’s been a long process, beginning with using CBT to control myself when I encounter the fragrance. Every time I would try to push myself a little bit longer before I blocked the smell out. I’d control my breathing, remind myself that the nausea was without cause, dissect the intrusive thoughts, try not to let myself shake. Later I acquired a bottle of lavender oil and started training myself to handle the scent at its strongest. Most recently I scented my bath with it so that the smell of lavender went wherever I went, and noted how it affected me. I’m almost entirely in control of it now. I’ve overcome the shaking, the nausea, the hyperventilation. I’m aware that I still experience heightened alertness and am quite jumpy when I can smell it. But it’s so much better than it was, and I’m still working on it. Whether I’ll make my peace with lavender to the point where I can have it used in massage I don’t know, but at least I’ve made it to this stage. I’m getting there.

 

Of course, overcoming triggers through exposure isn’t the right move for everyone, so I’m not suggesting that anyone who manages PTSD and may be reading this ought to do the same. It’s taken me a long time and a lot of mis-steps along the way. But I’m glad I’m doing it. I may not have dealt with the trauma that underpins the trigger, but I’ve managed to detach the scent from the experience and will, in time, reclaim it. Whether that’s healthy or not is up for debate, but I don’t know if I ever can have a healthy relationship with those experiences or how long and arduous the journey to get to that point would be. The important thing, as far as I’m concerned, is to deactivate the triggers so that I can deal with the trauma or not, in my own good time.

 

Do I have a conclusion? Not really, sorry. I can’t tell you whether trigger warnings should exist, I can only tell you that I can’t imagine they’d be helpful in my particular case because I’d need to know the thing I’m watching/reading thoroughly in order to know whether it would be triggering. But hopefully this post explains a bit about what it feels like when it happens, what I’ve been able to do to reclaim control and why it’s complex.

 

Enough for now. Whenever I write mental health posts I reach the point where I can’t keep writing long before I reach any proper conclusion. The urge to delete the whole thing kicks in. So I’m going to post and go and work on something else before that urge wins.


Things I do for the sheer giddy hell of it

If you ask me what I like doing in my (ha) copious free time, most of my answers will be completely unsurprising. It’s mostly arty stuff, overlapping with my professional life – writing, music, reading, watching films, watching plays. I’m also fond of cooking and baking, and I like trivia quizzes.

There’s something that all of these things have in common. Specifically, I’m good at them. (Well, strictly speaking I’m not good at music, I am a terrible musician, but I’m a good singer so I can fool people into thinking I’m good at music.) I can interpret books, plays and films and discuss them endlessly. I am a repository of information that is never useful anywhere other than a quiz or when writing a play or a novel. My lemon drizzle cake is fantastic, and I make a killer Cullen Skink.

Without wishing to sound arrogant, I’ve always been pretty good at these things. Training and practise have helped, of course, but I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t do all of these things at an above average level.

Like many “gifted” people, my gifts came at the cost of my work ethic in my early years. Being naturally quite good at a lot of things, I was able to coast. I was clever enough to find workarounds for things that challenged me, but not quite clever enough to foresee the problems I was storing up for myself. Music is a good example here. I took singing lessons and, briefly, piano lessons when I was 14. For some reason reading sheet music was difficult for me, so rather than practise until it became easy I relied on having a good ear, decent pitch and muscle memory to see me through. It works for a little while, but I assume that if I’d been able to continue with piano for longer I’d have learned that there’s a stage at which you can’t just fake being good any more, you need to actually be good. I certainly reached that stage with things like languages. I got to university and suddenly the As weren’t quite as effortless as they used to be, so I found myself battling to acquire a work ethic at 17.

With all of that in mind, it always surprises me that one of my favourite hobbies is playing computer games. Let it be known that I am really, really bad at computer games. I can hold my own in some fighting games where furious button-mashing will carry the day. I’m decent at Tetris. But that’s about it. Where most games are concerned, including many of my favourites, I suck badly.

The first game I remember playing was Dig Dug. An uncle of mine had a home computer back in the days when those were rare, and he let me play it a couple of times. I loved it. I was bad at it.

Next came my cousins’ Sinclair Spectrum. They had Cauldron. I was probably about five and obsessed with anything witch-related, so I fell madly in love with the game. I don’t think I ever got past the first couple of screens, but that didn’t matter. There was this world in the computer and I could interact with it and I WAS GOD. This is probably the basis for much of my enjoyment of these games.

Eventually my dad set up a home office and I was sometimes allowed to play Solitaire on it, which wasn’t quite the same thrill as Cauldron. I continued to covet my cousins’ Spectrum, then their Nintendo, but eventually Dad let me expand my PC game repertoire with a pirated copy of King’s Quest 3. It’s a good thing I was dreadful at it and didn’t have a copy of the manual that had all the copyright protection spells in it – the pirated version was missing half the game, and I’d have been gutted if I’d successfully felinified the evil wizard only to be told I had to Insert Disk 2. Still, my crapness didn’t hold me back. I loved this unclearly-drawn world of magic and maps and I spent many happy hours trying in vain to climb down that bloody mountain path and typing in commands the game didn’t understand.

Then, at about the same time, my cousins got a Sega Megadrive and I got Sid Meier’s Pirates!, which still holds a place in my heart as one of my favourite games ever. At the same time as conquering the Caribbean (or failing spectacularly to), I was learning the delights of Sonic, Street Fighter II and Streets of Rage. Since my access to these games was severely limited, restricted not only by the infrequency of our visits but by the necessity of sharing with my cousins, I’m not surprised that I never became much good at them. But I loved them all the same.

I pestered my parents briefly to let me save my pocket money for a console of my own, but my dad brought that dream to an abrupt end by explaining that such a feat would take me years, and even then I wouldn’t be able to afford the games. I made do with being allowed to play games on his PC at weekends. I started to get better at Pirates and the Sierra games, along with a handful of oddities that entered my life because I found them in the sale bin at Makro or because I’d got my hands on a dodgy copy. Without wishing to enter the current contentious debate about “girl gamers”, I found that liking computer games put me squarely in the company of the boys at school. I don’t know whether I was the only girl in my class (both at primary and secondary, now that I think about it) who played computer games, but I was certainly the only one who was open about it and part of the little circle of kids swapping disks and photocopied manual pages under the desk. By those means, games like Monkey Island, Theme Park and Dune entered my life. I fell head over heels for the wit and lateral thinking of Monkey Island (well, wit, lateral thinking and GHOST PIRATES), and while I found that the resource management of the other two games challenged my attention span, I enjoyed the feeling of achievement I got when something I’d worked hard at went right.

Unfortunately, once I started secondary school I lost my little coterie of fellow gamers. If there were people who liked computer games at my tiny secondary school, I didn’t find them. I continued to play alone, but my supply of new games dried up. Then I began to concentrate on theatre and spent less time on games, and they remained an occasional pleasure for some years. I watched with envy as the World of Warcraft craze began, but I never got involved because I’m too much my father’s daughter to play anything I have to pay a subscription for. One-off purchases and single-player are more my jam. As an adult I contented myself with stocking up on legal copies of all those games I had once pirated and completed some that had stumped me as a child, sometimes due to my own ineptitude and sometimes due to my inability to afford hint lines/hint books (on which note, fuck you Sierra for putting the unicorn bridle in King’s Quest IV behind another object on a screen that was only accessible once in the game and generally only found by people with hint books).

Eventually it occurred to me that as an adult, I could now buy a games console if I wanted. I still couldn’t quite bring myself to pay the price for a new one, but I bought a second-hand Wii from a friend. He left Street Figher II and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on it. A few years later when my now-husband moved in, we fetched his old consoles from his parents’ place and began to play through old favourites. I started searching the internet for old PC games that I hadn’t been able to find copies of, which led me to GOG, and from thence to Steam and Humblebundle… Indie game El Dorado.

Just as I loved the old, simple games that introduced me to the joys of pixels on a screen, so I love the gorgeous games that are being released now. There’s so much beautiful artwork, so many brilliant scores, such clever gameplay… Some truly excellent games, some that do really interesting things that aren’t quite successful but are still really cool… and some that I don’t enjoy but am still interested to check out, especially considering that games don’t cost a fraction of what they used to when physical distribution was the only option.

It makes me really happy to have grown up with games and seen the progression from Dig Dug and Space Invaders to things like The Bridge, Braid, Crusader Kings II, Pid, and the game that has been my favourite thing for the past year, Don’t Starve.  I’m not bad at the stunningly-illustrated puzzles in The Bridge, though I do get seasick from the spinning screen. I don’t quite have the patience for Braid but I love to watch my  husband play it. I truly suck at Crusader Kings II, but once I stopped trying to be a good ruler and embraced my capacity for tyranny it became lots of fun. Don’t Starve is probably the game I’m best at, though I’m still pretty terrible and I cheat like hell by using mods to alleviate some of the game’s less forgiving aspects. I will never be one of these people with a massive fancy base, breezing through Adventure Mode just for kicks, but I will be the one having a high old time fighting death-or-glory battles with beasties several times my size. Sometimes I don’t have to be particularly good at things. I don’t say this often, but… from time to time, just having fun is enough.

Occasionally I encounter people who really seem to have a problem with adults playing computer games. I’ve been told that I should have grown out of it by now, and that it’s sad/shocking/both to see “a grown woman” wasting her time this way. Unsurprisingly, this is not criticism I choose to entertain. Firstly it’s my spare time and I’ll do as I damn well please with it. Second, I don’t consider it wasted time (and I suspect that if the people who say these things knew more about the massive, diverse range of games out there, they wouldn’t either). I enjoy every minute of it, even if I’m not good at them. That was true when I was eight and when I was sixteen. It’s true at thirty-two. I fully expect it to be true at sixty-four, and be damned to what anyone else thinks.

And when I’m 64, I expect that I’ll still be asking my husband to defeat the Helmasaur King for me. I never could kite that guy, and sometimes a girl has to know when to ask for help.


You wanna know how I got these scars?

Most people don’t notice the largest scar on my face. It hides in plain sight. It’s very pale, I’m very pale. But it’s quite long, starting about an inch above my left eye, running all the way up my forehead and ending about an inch and a half past the hairline.

The smaller facial scars are the ones that make their presence felt, because they’re the ones that interfere with the shape of my right eyebrow. It always looks a bit oddly plucked.  This annoys me far more than the deep, pale scar on my forehead.

Then there’s the scar on my left knee. It’s ugly and unmissable – or at least it would be if anyone ever saw my knees. That seldom happens. I don’t have much of a summer wardrobe, living in a place where warm weather is not abundant, but even the skimpiest of my dresses tend not to show off my legs. There’s not much about my body that makes me feel self-conscious, but the scar on my knee does. I hate it.

All of these scars are from the same incident, and they all turn ten years old today.

On the 8th of March 2005 I was involved in a five-car pile-up. I was still singing back then, and I was on my way home after a performance. The crash took place on Queensferry Road, just past the Quality Street junction heading away from town. Having grown up in the north-west of Edinburgh, it’s one of those places that has always been part of the landscape of my life.

At about 23.30, someone swerved out from his side of the road and onto mine. Despite the time of night, the road was busy. There was no evasive action I could take. All I could do was brake and hope.

The approaching car hit me. The car behind hit me. Apparently two other cars hit mine as well, though I don’t know how. My awareness ends with approaching headlights and the thought “I fucking refuse to die here” and resumes in the wreckage, watching blood dripping onto the airbag and realising it could only be mine. My passenger door was open and someone was telling me to stay calm and wait to be cut out of the car.

With impeccable shock-logic, I reasoned that if I didn’t have to be cut out there might be some chance that my car – my Mum’s car – might be saved. So I unbuckled my seatbelt and climbed out. Via the passenger door, because mine was staved in. As I hauled myself out I noticed that my left wrist was probably broken. Didn’t clock the multiple pelvic fractures, though. I staggered around for quite a while, trying to get someone to tell me what had happened and whether it was my fault (at this point I couldn’t remember the events prior to impact), before the paramedics arrived.

The twenty minutes or so that I spent in that ambulance were among the worst in my life. I was bleeding, frightened, in pain – and when the paramedic asked me if they should call someone, I had no answer. I desperately wanted my Mum and Dad, but Mum had been dead for over a year and Dad for eight months. Instead I lay there, trying not to freak out as they strapped me into the neck brace, and wondered what time it was and which of my friends would not mind being disturbed. I knew I was nobody’s first priority. It was an incredibly lonely certainty. I asked them to call the friend I had given a lift to that night, on the grounds that she would probably still be up, then I channeled my fear and loneliness into bickering with the paramedics about how long it would take us to get to the hospital. They said ten minutes. I said that from Queensferry Road to the ERI with a head trauma patient was never ten minutes. I had some vague memory of Mum telling me that ambulances don’t speed or put the siren on when the patient has head trauma, and I knew exactly how quickly you could get to the hospital, whether by staying within the speed limit or by breaking it, thanks to Dad’s tests and then his stroke. In those facts, in that knowledge, there was a little bit of them. It was the best I was going to get. Those poor paramedics…

What followed was a jumbled, nightmarish experience. In that overheated A&E ward I drifted in and out of consciousness. Sometimes I’d come to and someone would be doing something – plastering or stitching me up, wheeling me off for scans, taking blood. They took blood so many times. I was terrified that they’d found the same cancer in me that killed my parents. I had been warned that I might have it too and opted not to be tested. They kept taking my blood and not telling me why, and I was sure that they were making certain before telling me I was going to die. I didn’t have cancer, of course. I’m still here. It was just bad luck that my first couple of vials got contaminated.

By the end of the night, as the shock and morphine began to wear off, I knew that I had been in a crash with a combined speed of 100mph. I had five pelvic fractures, damage to my pubic bone and sacrum, my left wrist was broken and had been re-set, the laceration in my knee went all the way to the joint, glass had been removed from my right eyebrow area, and my forehead had been split open. Apparently my skull was visible, but no-one would give me a mirror. I can understand why, but honestly – how many chances am I going to get to see my own skull? Hopefully not many, but I would have been really interested to see it while it could be seen.

Scar 1

The doctors who treated me expected me to be in hospital for at least a month. I was having none of that. The hospital smelled of nightmares. The last time I had been there was when Dad had his stroke and I spent two days waiting for him to die (which sounds brutal, but we knew about the terminal cancer so swift death from a stroke seemed like a far kinder option). I wasn’t going to spend a minute longer in that place than I had to.

I forced myself back onto my feet and was home a week later. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have done that. I might have avoided some of the permanent damage if I’d stayed in. But… I couldn’t. Not that being at home was much better, in a hastily set-up bedroom in what was usually the dining room. That was where we had laid out Mum’s coffin. To me, it always smelled of formaldehyde. I managed two nights in there before I became convinced that if I stayed there I was going to die too and started dragging myself up the stairs to my own bed. I had specifically promised the doctors I wouldn’t do that, but needs must. I had thought that I’d have someone to take care of me while I got back on my feet, but… well, let’s just say that I learned a few excruciatingly hard lessons about trust after I came home from hospital. I was on my own, negotiating the house with a crutch in one hand, a cast on the other and a massive feeling of being kicked while I was down.

I healed, mostly. The facial scarring, as I’ve said, healed cleanly. The one on my knee stayed hideous, but easy enough to conceal. I never regained full strength in my left wrist, there was some permanent damage to my lower back and my neck, and I was left with involuntary eye movement and deteriorating vision after the head injury. I haven’t needed a walking stick for crash-related reasons since 2007. My confidence didn’t recover, though. I learned how alone I was. I learned a very particular kind of fear. It threw everything I had lost into sharp focus. And even now, ten years later, I can’t stand the sound of car crashes in films and TV shows. If I don’t see the crash coming and cover my ears in time, the trauma reaction kicks in and I start twitching like a fucking idiot and have to fight not to scream.

That’s quite a legacy for someone’s brief fuck-up. To this day, I do not know why it happened. I don’t know whether the other driver was high, suicidal or having a seizure at the wheel. I don’t know whether he was suspended or banned from driving. All I know is that he was male, speeding, alone in the car, and he escaped with just bruises. That’s what I got from the police and hospital staff. I don’t even know whether I should be angry for him or sorry for him. All I know is that something this person did, voluntarily or otherwise, left me with damage that will be with me for the rest of my life. Scars on my face, my leg and my psyche, and I still don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about it.

Scar 2

 

At least I could feel legitimately insulted by the compensation I was offered. Someone – his insurance company? – offered me £440 to compensate me for my medical expenses. I set the cheque on fire. £440 barely covered the amount I had to spend on getting to and from the hospital for cast removal, stitch removal, physio and god knows that else. It did nothing to cover the ongoing physio or my glasses or contact lenses. Those are costs I’ll always have to meet out of my own pocket, because someone drove his car into mine. I could have fought for more, but I was a traumatised 22 year old with no family and no-one who would support me through that process. I just couldn’t deal with the paperwork. I couldn’t handle reliving it and having the validity and severity of my injuries questioned. Dealing with the horrible, arbitrary nature of what had recently happened was enough, and if someone, somewhere was willing to price my well-being so low… fuck them.

Ten years on, I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing this. I feel the need to mark the day, almost to the minute. I need to remember what happened and how it felt, and how difficult it has been to set aside over the years. The reminder of the car crash is there every single time I look in the mirror. Facial scarring is strange. I’m incredibly lucky that it wasn’t disfiguring. It so easily could have been. But even so… it’s my face. Mine. My visual identity. And it’s got this big line down it because someone caused me to get hurt.

I choose to own it. Back in the ghost tour days I used to rub lipstick into it to make it look recent and livid, because it freaked people out. I knew it had the capacity to freak people out. When people do notice it, it’s ghoulish. I went to the release of the last Harry Potter book with my scar proudly displayed because sometimes you just have to make the joke before anyone else does (and believe me, when the scar was still easily visible I heard every fucking Harry Potter joke ever). I part my hair in line with the scar. I refuse to hide it. It’s barely visible, but I’d rather leave it available to be seen than brush my hair over it and look like I’m trying to hide it.

Bizarrely, I sometimes catch myself wishing that the scar had not faded quite so perfectly. Sometimes I wish it had stayed visible so that it didn’t look like I’d made an effort to conceal it. I haven’t, and I never did. The scar is a visual signifier for something I haven’t forgiven or forgotten, something I probably should forgive and forget but I don’t know how, because I don’t understand the event itself. If I could just be angry about it or just know that it wasn’t his fault, I could feel something fairly. Instead I feel nothing but confusion and pain, even now. I would probably have let go of the emotional pain years ago, were it not for the literal, physical pain that accompanies it. I feel the pain, it makes me angry, and all the feelings come flooding back.

I’m not sure I want to let go of the anger, anyway. Destructive and unhealthy it might be, but it’s mine. When I began to let go of the anger regarding the bereavements, what I found underneath was something much more complicated and harder to deal with. I don’t know if this would be the same. It might not be. But if it is… it’s easier to be angry. I know how to do that. I’ve mastered the art of a nice, passive rage that sits below the surface, kept at bay until I need it. Any time it starts to burn a little low, I can look in the mirror and the scar is right there to refuel it. Long, white, less visible than it was, but clear enough. A reminder of 2003 – 2005, and the last of the three events that hurt me badly and shaped the course of my life. The last of the Decade.

Scar 3

(This was taken earlier today. Ignore the facial expressions, this is what we call “resting brunch face”. It’s just that the scar was noticeable, and it prompted this post so I thought I should include it.)


A response to Desire Lines from a grassroots theatremaker. Looooong.

It’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts and decide how best to write about Desire Lines.

 

For those of you who, by dint of not being attentive Edinburgh arts folk, have not heard of Desire Lines, it is this: http://www.desirelines.scot. It’s a project started by a handful of people working in the arts in Edinburgh to provide a way for artists to communicate with the Council and with each other. The first meeting took place on Monday 8 December at Summerhall.

 

First things first: It was a remarkably positive event. Like many people, I was concerned that we might spend the evening unproductively bashing the Council, or that it would be a tedious few hours of listening to people from large organisations droning about key stakeholders and service provision and so on. These things did not happen. While there were plenty of people with a great deal to say about licensing issues and the Council’s apparent preference for focusing on the Festivals rather than Edinburgh’s year-round cultural life, the artists expressing their views did it vehemently, not aggressively.

 

I was a bit disappointed that we never directly got to grips with the event’s title question, “What makes Edinburgh a culturally successful city?” or the implied sub-question – is Edinburgh a culturally successful city? How do we define cultural success? Is the city successful because it has lots of Festivals? Because Edinburgh started the trend for Fringe Festivals, or attracts high-profile international companies to the International Festival? Or is Edinburgh successful because the arts form an important part of the lives of ordinary people (by which I mean non-tourists and non-artists) living here?

 

The latter question seemed to be on the minds of the people in the room. Unsurprisingly, artists want to share their work, and not just because it’s financially beneficial. When you make something and you care about it deeply, you want other people to care about it too. You want to touch people’s lives, brighten their day, get them to think or whatever else your work sets out to achieve. And you don’t want to be limited to August or to the specific audience that goes to the Festivals.

 

Or at least, that’s the case for me. Judging by the voices in the room, I’m not alone. The perception that the arts in Edinburgh are only for some rarefied crowd of champagne-sippers (not that all Festival-goers fall into that category, of course, but I’m using the prevailing stereotype) is inaccurate, and there are plenty of the city’s artists who would be happy to break it down.

 

With that in mind, it was great to see grassroots figures being invited to speak. Morvern Cunningham, Caitlin Skinner and Olaf Furniss all work wonders to keep the city alive with music, theatre, visual art and film all year round, and often outwith the city centre. It’s a pity that they didn’t get to speak until the end, by which time the event was overrunning (which was inevitable considering the massive scope of the conversation) and the representatives from Edinburgh Council had long since gone home. I would suggest that at future Desire Lines events, it would be worth letting the artists speak early on. Responding to what the people with the money say is what we do all the time – this could be one of the exceptions.

 

It might also be nice to see Desire Lines challenging the format of their own events. The setup was pretty standard – a raised platform for the chair and speakers, with everyone else in attendance sitting in the audience, waiting for the roving mic if they wanted to speak. Having worked in the Dissection Room I know that it’s a tricky space, especially when you have such a large number of people to accommodate, but I can’t help feeling that there must be a way to set things up less formally. Something like an Open Space format might be interesting, making things feel more laid-back and perhaps more equal. That’s not to say that the current structure didn’t work well – but I’m always keen to see people experiment and find egalitarian ways of doing things.

 

 

Ever since the event I’ve been thinking about the state of grassroots theatre in Edinburgh. I mean, I do that all the time, of course – but I’ve been trying to work out how to explain the particular challenges facing the grassroots scene in Edinburgh just now and how that impacts on less experimental work.

 

The main challenge that we face is a lack of infrastructure. How many small theatres can you think of in Edinburgh? Less than 100 seats? There’s the Netherbow with 99. There’s Discover 21 with 35. There are some spaces in Summerhall. Traverse 2 can be a 99-seater depending on its configuration, but it’s been a long time since the Trav was a little experimental theatre rather than a major player in the British theatre scene.

 

There are other spaces that can be theatres if you’re willing to equip them. If you’re willing to bring in lights, sound equipment, possibly seats and drapes, and get the place licensed, anywhere can be a theatre! We learned that from August, right?

 

But that’s the trouble. If you’re a small company making experimental theatre on tiny budgets, the cost of hiring all your equipment, transporting it and paying for the extra time you need in a venue to set everything up can be prohibitive. Grassroots companies are often self-funding, supported by the artists’ day jobs. Every extra cost incurred takes us a step further away from breaking even, let alone making a profit or actually getting paid for our work.

 

That was one of the main reasons for setting up D21. Edinburgh seemed to need a small space with seats, lights and licenses in place, where all a company has to do is turn up and concentrate on its work, and where the costs are clear and as low as we can make them.

 

Over the past year we’ve found that several groups and individuals have made work in D21 that they might not have made if they had been faced with the expense and inconvenience of creating a working performance space. We’ve launched Collider, a project designed to introduce theatremakers to potential collaborators through mini-productions, and 21@21, a residency offering three weeks of free studio time to experimental theatremakers. Creating our own permanent (or at least semi-permanent, thanks to licensing and short leases) space has been expensive, but considerably less expensive than building a temporary space for every project.

 

So why aren’t more people doing this? First, it is expensive, and exhausting. Dave (my co-founder) and I work bloody hard to cover the theatre’s costs, as well as to run the theatre itself. That’s essentially two full-time jobs each. It doesn’t allow for a lot of free time or spare cash. It means cheap groceries and holidays not taken. It meant that I kept the cost of my entire wedding well below what most brides pay for the dress alone. It means that I try hard not to think about the things I could have and could be doing with that money. It’s not a sacrifice that everyone is prepared to make, and I completely understand why. But to pursue funding just now would mean clarifying and quantifying what we’re doing in a way that would not be beneficial at this point. For now, at least, we need the freedom that comes with self-funding. That will eventually change – but D21 can’t become the thing it needs to be without going through this early, free-flowing experimental stage, so for the present we grit our teeth and accept the lack of time and money.

 

Second, it’s terrifying. I wake up anxious most mornings, worried that there will be costs we won’t be able to meet or that we’ll do something wrong and get into trouble. I dread that we’ll make a mistake with licensing or the lease, that someone will have an accident in the space and my risk assessment will be found wanting and my Public Liability Insurance won’t pay out. Getting things wrong in any of those areas could result in fines or damages totalling tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of pounds. And guess what? I don’t have tens of thousands of pounds. Thanks to my dead parents I do have a flat, but I really don’t want to find myself in a position where I have to sell my flat and destroy what security my husband and I have – just because I wanted to do some experimental theatre and facilitate other people doing it too. Life was certainly a lot easier and less risky when I first started out and just did monthly rehearsed readings requiring nothing but a room with some chairs in it.

 

Dragging this post back to Desire Lines, is there anything Edinburgh City Council could do to make this situation easier? Well, yes. Licensing could be a lot less restrictive and less expensive. There could be another category of theatre license, one that applies to groups that aren’t amateur or charities, but which aren’t commercial or subsidised professional work – specifically for grassroots work.

 

Year-round licenses could be cheaper, or a discount could be offered to small companies making work in Edinburgh year-round if the Council still wants to be able to charge incomes through the nose for the Festivals.

 

Empty spaces (of which there are many in the city centre) could be made available at peppercorn rents for use as rehearsal and workshop spaces, in exchange for a certain amount of maintenance. This has worked in other cities, as Rachel McCrum mentioned at Desire Lines.

 

The Council could also settle once and for all the matter of Public Entertainment Licenses, which they have chosen not to enforce for the present but which could be brought into force at any time. Nobody wants to be the first artists to be caught out by these and hit with a £20k (if I recall correctly) fine.

 

Basically, anything that allows Edinburgh’s local theatremakers a little of the freedom usually granted during August would help. But why should the Council do these things?

 

Well, assuming Edinburgh wants to be a culturally successful city, mainstream arts need to be influenced by a steady stream of new and exciting ideas. The more freedom you give the grassroots, the more potential there is for interesting and avant-garde work. You won’t find the avant-garde at the Lyceum, for instance – nor should you. That’s not what it’s for. What you see at the Lyceum is work that is influenced by the avant-garde of previous generations. New ideas, whether new writing, new ways of staging, new relationships with audiences, what have you, filter gradually through to the mainstream and prevent theatre as a whole from stagnating. You don’t support the grassroots for the benefit of mainstream theatre in five years’ time, but in twenty or fifty years’ time. A hundred years’ time, maybe. It’s long-term thinking.

 

Of course, this doesn’t have to be done on a local basis. Edinburgh’s mainstream theatre could just draw on the influence of Glasgow and London instead. They’ve both got strong grassroots scenes, right? But if Edinburgh is simply an importer of new ideas, if Edinburgh does not generate and export them, then can it really justify claiming to be a culturally successful city?

 

The healthier Edinburgh’s grassroots theatre scene is, the healthier its mainstream theatre will be, the healthier the art forms that share borders with theatre will be, and the healthier the city as a whole will be, economically and artistically. Why wouldn’t we want to be known as a city that produces exciting, innovative theatre in more than just a couple of venues? Why wouldn’t we want visitors to be attracted to Edinburgh by its theatre scene all year round – not in the same numbers that we see during August, but a fraction of that, bringing with them a commensurate fraction of the money Edinburgh makes in August? Why wouldn’t we want interesting experimental artists to stay here rather than move away, or even to choose to move to Edinburgh as a city that will welcome and support them? Why wouldn’t we want to nurture a diverse, vibrant grassroots that attracts theatremakers from different cultures, political beliefs and socio-economic backgrounds, allowing for a cross-fertilisation of ideas?

 

It wouldn’t take much for the Council to make Edinburgh a far more welcoming place for grassroots theatre artists. A little loosening of the licensing, a little more focus on the year-round scene rather than just August.

 

Hopefully it will come. It looks like the charge is being led by the live music scene, fighting for the survival of small and mid-size venues. Events like Desire Lines give those of us in grassroots theatre a chance to add our voices to theirs, since our interests align in many ways. Anything that brings the Council and Edinburgh’s artists together in discussion has the potential to be massively beneficial to the city as a whole.

 

I’m excited to see where future Desire Lines events will take us…


Pre-Creepie Stool thoughts on strength and complexity

Creepie Stool opens tonight. My plans to attend a rehearsal were scuppered by hospital time (no Fringe flu for me, this year I went for full-on gastroenteritis and getting pumped full of IV fluids instead). Consequently, tonight’s performance will be almost entirely new to me. (I say almost because I’m still expecting to recognise the odd line here and there, but you never know, I suppose…)

Anyway, just in time for the opening of my play, this article starts doing the rounds on social media: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters. Can’t be bothered clicking? It’s Sophia McDougall writing about the trope, primarily found in film but also prevalent in theatre, of the Strong Female Character. She dislikes Strong Female Characters because they are so seldom proper, rounded characters. Instead they are the same old weak, male-dependent figures except they also kick people (usually men) in the face. They still don’t get to have, y’know, personalities.

There are plenty of comments from people who think it’s not a problem because they can name a few female characters who are rounded, human and well-written. Many of them cite characters who are actually none of these things, but even if they were, the fact remains that we need more. There’s still a huge imbalance between male and female protagonists. We’re still defining particular films and shows and plays as being “for women”. It’s still tough for a female actor over 30 to find meaty roles.

I’ll admit that I had all of these things in mind when I wrote Creepie Stool. I had agreed that it would be a three-hander for a female cast before I had even chosen the subject matter, and both of those decisions were purely pragmatic. There was enough money in the budget to pay three actors. Women are more plentiful than men in the industry. On a personal level, I like to write roles with specific actors in mind and I know several excellent actors who happen to be both female and over 30. Writing for a particular actor can be an incredibly useful starting point, because then I can take that person’s qualities and think about what conflicts and secrets and challenges they could have… Basically, I sit down and think “how can I give this person a hard time?”

None of the characters in Creepie Stool are intended to be representative of all women, or of a particular section of society, or to be role models or good examples of any kind. I wanted them to be messy, fearful, just trying to get through life without everything collapsing around them. None of them is in a particularly great place – Jenny sees herself as a matriarch but she’s beholden to her son and to a daughter-in-law whom she protects and resents in equal measure, Marjory has married somewhat above her station and lives in fear of disappointing her exacting husband and/or her family, Christian has reached an age where she needs to get married or wind up a spinster with no security, and her choice of husband is severely limited by the secrets she carries around (one of which is never explicitly mentioned, and I wonder how many people will even notice it). They’re all aware that they have to keep other people happy if they want to have a roof over their heads. They’ve all got things they have to hide and public faces they have to show if they want to survive. They have things they love and want to protect, things they fear losing, things they’re proud of, things that upset them, things that interest them. Jenny has monologues because there are things she will only tell the audience, not the other characters in her world. Marjory doesn’t, because it would be bad manners to monopolise the conversation that way. Christian doesn’t, because there are things that are too private even for a soliloquy. Some things you don’t even tell the audience.

I hope, I desperately hope, that some of this will come across in the writing. More than anything else, I want people who see this play to find the characters believable. If I can go to bed tonight feeling that I wrote three layered, complex characters, I’ll be happy. They’re not “Strong”. None of them knows kung fu (that I’m aware of). The world they live in removes much of their agency. They all have to take a certain amount of shit from other people because, well, who doesn’t? They’re quite capable of being paralysed with fear and indecision, but no-one is coming to save them.

And they’re all on the poster.

 

Debbie Cannon as Marjory, Angela Milton as Jenny, Belle Jones as Christian


My hobby happens to be gardening, for which I don’t expect to be paid.

Today I saw a show that sickened me so much that I walked out. I’ve never done that before – or at least, not for that reason. I’ve walked out of plenty of shows because they were bad and I could think of better things to be doing with my time. Anyway, the point is that I am a wee bit scunnered and feel like writing something that isn’t Fringe related.

While wandering about on Twitter I found this article: http://hwala.horror.org/wp/?page_id=158. It was written by Lisa Morton, who is something to do with the Horror Writers’ Association. Apparently she loves “all kinds of writers”, except the ones who claim to be professionals when they are, in fact, hobbyists.

I call myself a professional writer. Want to know why? Because I write stuff and people pay me for it. I don’t get paid for everything I write – this blog, for example, is written for the sheer giddy hell of it. Most of my plays are written because I need to get them out of my system, in the vague hope that at some point someone would like to produce them and maybe give me some money (which sometimes happens). No-one pays me to shoot my mouth off on Facebook and Twitter, that’s just what I do for fun. But there’s all that other writing (most of which you’ll never find because it’s not under my name) that serves to keep the HellCat in Felix.

However, my criterion is a little too unsophisticated for Ms Morton, it seems. She has provided a handy quiz with which one can establish whether one is or is not a professional writer. The aim is to answer “yes” to all of these, but you can just about squeak by with a score of 80%. Score less than that and you are nothing but a “hobbyist”.

Let’s do this thing!
1. Is your home/work place messy because that time you’d put into cleaning it is better spent writing?

I’m a chaotic, messy person and I hate cleaning. The time I would put into cleaning is better spent doing anything else. So I suppose my answer is technically “yes”, but I don’t think it’s what Ms Morton meant.

2. Do you routinely turn down evenings out with friends because you need to be home writing instead?

No, I routinely turn down evenings out with friends because I’m feeling antisocial and don’t feel like leaving the house. Deadlines are a great cover story, though.

3. Do you turn off the television in order to write?

Hahaha no. The TV (or music) keeps me company while I write. Please don’t leave me alone with the characters in my head.

4. Would you rather receive useful criticism than praise?

This is a silly question. On the one hand, I know that constructive criticism is better for me and will aid my development as an artist. But I’d rather hear that my work is awesome and needs no improvement (it would be even better if it were ever true). This is like asking whether I would rather have broccoli or Jaffa Cakes. So, er… no?

5. Do you plan vacations around writing opportunites [sic] (either research or networking potential)?

Do I plan what? I went on honeymoon once, does that count? I sure as hell didn’t plan that round research or networking, so that’s a no.

6. Would you rather be chatting about the business of writing with another writer than exchanging small talk with a good friend?

When I talk to other writers we spend a lot more time talking nonsense than discussing “the business” of writing. I’ve got a ton of ghostwriting anecdotes that I dine out on (a handful of them are even true), but they work better on a non-writing audience. So… no.

7. Have you ever taken a day job that paid less money because it would give you more time/energy/material to write?

Ghostwriting is my day job. I’m also a tour guide, but that’s my second job and I do it because it forces me to unchain myself from the keyboard from time to time, brings in a wee bit of extra cash and ghost stories are fun. So no.

8. Are you willing to give up the nice home you know you could have if you devoted that time you spend writing to a more lucrative career?

We’ve got a lovely home, thanks. So no.

9. Have you done all these things for at least five years?

Some of them yes, some of them no. I haven’t been paying my bills with writing for that long.

10. Are you willing to live knowing that you will likely never meet your ambitions, but you hold to those ambitions nonetheless?

I specialise in clinging to ambitions that are completely impossible to realise. It’s part of being emotionally masochistic. I don’t know whether it’s anything to do with being a writer. I think it’s just about being a little bit melodramatic. So yes, but again, not really in the sense that Ms Morton seems to mean.

 

So here’s my score:

YES: 2 and a half. 

NO: 7 and a half. 

RESULT: Hobbyist! 

 

Ah well. That’s me told. But you know what? I think I’m just going to go right on letting people pay me to write for them and see how long I can keep it up for. I’ll start by writing my latest reviews (unpaid) and the outline for the next novel (paid) while I watch Quantum Leap and wonder how many manuscripts written by “professionals” who could get 10/10 on this quiz have been given to me and my fellow “hobbyist” ghosts to rewrite…

 

P.S. My hobby is not actually gardening, but well done if you placed the line. 


Decade

As the sporadic nature of my blog posts probably indicates, I’m not finding it easy to write about what’s going on in my head this summer. Writing fiction? Not a problem. The things that are going on in fictional people’s heads are just fine. But my own is another matter.

The trouble is the anniversaries. On October 23rd it’ll  be ten years since my Mum died, with the 10th anniversary of my Dad’s death the following July (we’re just coming up on the 9th just now). I don’t know why the tenth anniversary should seem more significant than the 9th, but it does. Probably because it’s a decade and having a word for the amount of time that has passed makes it feel larger and more of a milestone.

Ten years ago I was 20 years old and living with my Mum and Dad. I’d moved back in after my first major depressive episode and was just gearing up to move out again. I had learned a hell of a lot from going through depression. I had been self-employed for the first time. I had arranged my first solo trip abroad. I had booked my first professional singing gig. My relationship with my parents had survived a pretty hellish time and we’d found our way back to solid ground. For the first time, I felt like we were three adults rather than two adults and a child. I felt like I was finally getting the hang of this life malarkey.

That lasted for one summer. Just one. I got back from Austria on the 18th of September. By the 3rd of October my Mum was in hospital. She had been having pains all year which had been dismissed as the menopause. The diagnosis suddenly shifted and became cancer. On the 14th we found out it was pancreatic. On the 23rd she died. I couldn’t believe how much things could change in the space of a month. Honestly, I still can’t.

Of course, the changes didn’t end there. My Dad’s death, the car crash, a good friend’s death, the two and a half years of being unable to move out of my dead parents’ house, all of that followed. It all took its toll and helped to shape my expectations for the future. Without realising it, I internalised the idea that if I love people they die, and if I value things they get taken from me in a painful way.

Being stuck in my parents’ house for so long was incredibly painful and I struggle to explain why, because I don’t know what frame of reference to appeal to when I’m talking to other people. It felt like being checkmated. The situation was completely out of my hands and there were no moves I could make. I couldn’t afford to buy, I had no rental history or guarantors, no-one I could move in with, and no idea how long the situation was going to drag on for. I couldn’t even redecorate and make the place mine, because that would have meant destroying something that was very special to my parents (that house and the way it was decorated were part of the long-term aspiration that got them out of their council estates and into the life they wanted). But more importantly, it would have meant conceding that I was going to be there for a while, and that was not an option. I might have had to tolerate the situation, but I did not have to give in to it.

However, there was another problem with being stuck there. It was completely the opposite of what I had wanted from life. I moved out at 17 because I couldn’t wait to get out and start my own life. Moving back when I was ill was galling, but I was determined that I would get myself back on my feet and start again. What I envisaged was a life of moving around a lot, working in different places, being ready to take off to somewhere new at short notice, underpinned by the security of knowing that I always had a home to go back to if I needed it. It’s the kind of life that I see most of my friends in their early to mid 20s living now. Instead, I found myself with a property to look after and legal issues to deal with. I was faced with the realisation that if I decided to freewheel my way around the world now, I would be doing it without anywhere or anyone to come back to. Perhaps there are people who can handle that kind of isolation, but I’m not one of them. I need a little bit of stability underpinning my chaos, so I had to rethink the kind of life I was going to build.

I began a complicated game of hide and seek with myself. I would let myself care about things, about ideas, about career options, about people – but never too much. I always had to be able to look at the thing in question and say “I would be sad if I lost this, perhaps it would stop me in my tracks for a while – but I would survive it, it wouldn’t break me”. That way I could reassure myself that I was still functioning, that I hadn’t cut myself off or shut my emotions down as a result of the loss I had suffered, but at the same time I wasn’t risking too much. Every new connection with another person took me out of my comfort zone a little bit, but I never set foot beyond my safety zone.

That continued until 2011, when I realised I couldn’t go on like that any longer and completely revamped my attitudes towards pretty much everything. The way I work underwent massive change and I finally found my feet as an artist. I moved back from London. I fell in love. We got together, moved in together, got a cat, got engaged and got married in a very short space of time. I had forgotten that I had it in me to be that impulsive and uncalculating. At this point, I am starting to feel like I’ve got the hang of life again – and that is fucking terrifying, because I remember what happened last time.

So I am spending this summer trying to silence the thoughts that tell me that I’m not allowed to feel happy or secure, and that it’s only a matter of time before the other shoe drops. It’s completely irrational to believe that I can bring harm to people just by loving them. I know that. But the little voice in my head that says “Yes, but look what happened last time” isn’t big on listening to reason, and it’s a pretty large dose of fear to live with. This is why I’m going back to therapy. I cannot let my life be governed by an irrational belief. I will not remain paralysed by fear of 2003 – 2005 happening again. I do not appreciate the last vestiges of schizotypal behaviour trying to re-establish their foothold and getting in my way.

It’s not 2003 any more. That’s the important thing. And that’s what I need to get into my head somehow.