Tag Archives: Dead Parents

Squiggles

This monologue was originally intended to feature in Such a Nice Girl, the play I wrote for the Just Festival in 2014. The character was cut and the play went in a different direction, but this piece has been used once or twice as a standalone monologue. I’m sharing it here because the events that inspired it have been on my mind of late. (I’m also sharing it under a Creative Commons license, so if you’re an actor and you want to use it you can do so royalty-free – click here for full details.) 

 

Squiggles. That’s what I used to call her. Partly on account of her hair – growing out of her head in little squiggles, but that wasn’t where it really came from.

 

No, it was from when she was two, and her big brother had just learned to write his name at school. Eilidh was determined she was going to write hers too, so she went and got her crayons and made her daddy write her name so she could copy it, just like Alisdair’s teacher had done for him. Then she took her favourite crayon, her blue crayon, and she had it in her wee fist, with her head down so her nose was just about touching the paper, and she was like that for about fifteen minutes until she came up to me with this solemn look on her face and said “Here you go, Mummy. That’s my name. Put it on the fridge.” And I looked at it and she hadn’t even tried to copy the writing at all! She’d just drawn all these squiggles. So I looked back at her and asked, quite seriously, “Is your name Squiggles?”

 

And she looked at me – she was such a serious wee lass, you could never tell if a thing like that would make her laugh or cry. I raised my eyebrows, making myself look even more serious, and that’s when she decided to laugh. And then she wouldn’t stop laughing, and said yes, that was her name, and it just kind of stuck. I kept calling her Squiggles even when she was too old for that sort of thing and would just sigh and pretend she didn’t know me.

 

Telling her I was dying was… Well, you can imagine. Jim offered to tell the kids, or I could have got the doctor to do it, but… The poor doctor, he was only about Alisdair’s age himself. Must have drawn the short straw. Looked like he’d rather be anywhere else, like he was wondering why he hadn’t just skived school and got a job at McDonalds. He was sitting in the chair next to my bed, and I was patting him on the shoulder and shushing him and thinking about how his shirt needed an iron. I knew what he was saying, but he could hardly get the words out. He kept getting as far as “I’m so sorry, Mrs Curran,” then he’d stammer and start again so I just said “I know. It’s ok. I know.”

 

And I did. I knew. I knew the minute I saw his face. Truth be told, I knew the minute the ultrasound man stopped as he was going over this bit here and went over it again. I knew when they said I’d to get a biopsy. I knew this was what they’d been looking for, even though they hadn’t said the name. All those tests I’d had over the last year. All those times when they’d told me it was stress or IBS or the menopause – because if you’re my age, everything’s the bloody menopause – I knew it was this. Cancer. Too fast and too aggressive to fight it, or even to slow it down. Sometimes you just know, it’s like your whole body saying to you “Come in Number 99, your time’s up!”

 

So I couldn’t let the wee doctor lad tell my family when I’d had more time to get used to the idea than he had. I told Jim first, and I could see how hard it hit him, but I could see him push it down into that part of his brain where he keeps things to be dealt with later. And he said he’d tell the kids, and I said maybe he could tell Alisdair. Ally’s like his dad, he’ll deal with things in his own way. He’s never really liked to show his feelings in front of his mum. He’d be better off with his dad. They could shrug and be silent about it. But Eilidh needed to hear it from me, and I needed to be the one to tell her. So I did.

 

And she looked at me, just the same look on her face that she had that day she tried to write her name. And I remembered that, and I raised my eyebrows like I did back then and wished she’d laugh. I could have done with seeing her laugh. But this time she didn’t. This time she just welled up and stared at me and said “Mum, I can’t manage without you.”

 

And I just said “Oh, Squiggles. You’re going to have to.”


Matters culinary

Not arts politics, not mental health, not the usual remit of this blog, but I’m angry so here goes…

What I hate most about recent Budgets isn’t the crushing inevitability of yet more dehumanising measures being taken against the most vulnerable people in British society. It’s the chattering that follows online. It’s the equally inevitable collective shooting off of mouths, protesting that these measures are necessary and that poor people could solve their problems by just not being poor.

The discussion that happened to annoy me today was about food. I saw someone calling for punitive taxes on junk food, because apparently “poor people” make themselves ill by eating junk food and then can’t work and have to be put on benefits, and then they eat more junk food so they stay ill and never return to being productive members of society. Why don’t they quickly whip up a healthy tuna salad or a vegetable frittata, people ask. It’s cheaper and better for you than a frozen pizza or a pot noodle! These suggestions might be well-intentioned, but they’re also ignorant and got me very annoyed. Diet and attitudes towards food are so much more complex than the people making these suggestions seem to realise, and since I have some experience in this area I thought I’d share.

I wasn’t brought up in poverty, let’s be clear about that. I was born to working class parents who joined the middle class during my teens. But both my parents grew up poor, and the effects of their upbringing can be seen in mine. I grew up on a diet that was partly junk and partly the next step up from junk. I ate a lot of tinned soup, spaghetti hoops, oven chips and the like. It’s all very well to say that my parents should have been feeding me fresh veg, lean meat, brown rice… but how the hell would they have known? Their diets were absolutely atrocious growing up – tinned food stuffed full of artificial colours and preservatives, loads of fried foods, lots of sugary things.

Now you could say that their parents ought to have known better, but I don’t really see how they could. My dad’s family was huge, and I’m pretty sure that when you’re trying to feed a stereotypically Catholic family on a binman’s wages, the priority is to stretch cheap food as far as possible. Feeling full was the important thing. On my mum’s side there was one disinterested parent letting her children eat what they pleased – mostly from tins or boiled in the bag.

You could argue that since both families were poor, my parents shouldn’t have been given sweets as children. But honestly, I think people who grudge the occasional sweet treat to families living in poverty are most likely people who have never been very close to it themselves. You can spend a very small amount of money on sweets and make the treat stretch for days. The picture my parents painted of their upbringing was pretty bleak, and I think you’d have be very hard-hearted to say that they should never have brightened their days with the occasional quarter of soor plooms.

So where, in all of this, were my parents supposed to learn about nutrition? My dad made an excellent vegetable soup, but you can’t live on that alone. My mum might have been taught to cook at school, since girls were still taught Home Economics back then – but since she was mostly kept out of school to look after her siblings, that didn’t happen. She learned enough that she could cook to survival standard, but that was it.

As I was growing up, my parents passed on what skills they had. I learned how to bake using the recipes in the Bero book that you could send off for if you collected enough tokens from packs of self-raising flour. The first proper recipe I learned was spaghetti bolognese, which involved boiling the pasta, browning some meat with onions, then emptying in a jar of Dolmio.

However, what they couldn’t teach me was how cooking actually works. Anyone can empty a ready-made sauce over a pot of pasta, but how do you make the sauce yourself? If you want it to thicken, how do you make that happen? How do you get tomatoes to stop tasting so acidic? When do you add garlic or herbs? What herbs, anyway? Does it make a difference what order you do things in?

I was interested. I wanted to know how to cook, not just how to open jars and tins. When I was 14 I found a copy of an old Good Housekeeping recipe book in a charity shop. I handed over my 50p, took it home and opened it, all set to make all sorts of interesting things… then promptly slammed it shut and shelved it when I saw the lists of ingredients. They were long. They were things I knew we didn’t have in the house and guessed would be expensive to buy. They were often things I hadn’t heard of, and I didn’t know how to do any of the things in the instructions. Julienne? Deglaze? Caramelise? Seriously? These were not in my vocabulary, let alone my repertoire.

This was in the 90s, before I had access to the internet. If I wanted to look up any of these terms, I did it in the library… or I hoped it came up on a TV show. Television was the great advantage I had over my parents, and it’s what taught me to cook. My mum had watched the occasional Delia Smith programme as I grew up, but I found Delia and her pristine kitchen full of little bowls containing precisely-chopped ingredients very intimidating. I couldn’t cook that way, I knew, not without an army of BBC hirelings to do my prep for me. But then Jamie Oliver hit the screens, and that’s where I began to learn. His ingredients came in rough handfuls and approximate measures, with advice about what to do if you put in a little too much of something. His way of cooking looked fun and joyful. I thought I could probably do some of that.

So, with a certain amount of trepidation, I dug out that Good Housekeeping book and looked up the recipe for Hungarian Goulash. I had never tried it but had always been fascinated by the name. Mum had worked with a lady from Hungary for a while when I was a kid, and she had left me with a romanticised notion that anything Hungarian was automatically crammed with mystery and coolness. Carefully, I trawled through the recipe and worked out which ingredients seemed to be essential. I persuaded Mum to include them next time we went grocery shopping. Then I experimented.

The results were good. My first goulash was very tasty. It was the first time I’d ever eaten paprika. We ate it with crusty bread because I had no idea what veg it could be paired with. My only experience of vegetables was having them boiled to death, so as far as I knew I wasn’t keen on them. Anything that wasn’t boiled was probably iceberg lettuce, grated carrot or an anaemic slice of watery tomato. Vegetables, I was convinced, only belonged in soup.

Eventually I would learn how to cook veg. These days I’m actually fairly good at it. In fact, these days I’m a pretty decent cook with a reasonable repertoire of dishes, and when I want to expand that repertoire I know how to do it. I read a selection of recipes for the dish I want, identify the key ingredients, then I experiment from there. The result is that I can cook healthy, nutritious food, and I can do it with cheap ingredients. I’ve got this cooking malarkey cracked.

But do you know why I didn’t experiment more in my teens, when I was first learning to cook? Because it was expensive. Our local Safeway was small and didn’t offer much of a range of ingredients. It wasn’t the greatest for freshness, either. So first of all there was the expense of getting to the nearest big supermarkets. Then there was the cost of buying the actual ingredients. The way to keep prices down is to buy in bulk, but if you’re cooking a particular ingredient for the first time and you have no idea what you would do with the leftovers, you try to buy just as much as you need. Once you’ve mastered the basics of cooking and acquired some versatility, then you start getting bold about having leftover ingredients. When you’re a beginner, not so much.

Then there was the hidden cost of actually cooking the food. You’ve got to have the right equipment. I don’t mean anything fancy, but minor things like greaseproof paper, measuring spoons, a decent vegetable knife. Things that most of us take for granted – but if you don’t cook, why would you have them? My family cooked enough to own these things, but when I took more of an interest in cooking we suddenly started getting through things like greaseproof paper much quicker. Also things like salt, cornflour and tinfoil. Minor expenses individually, but they add up.

Finally, there was the cost of failure. Most of my experiments worked, and even if they didn’t quite go to plan they would turn out edible. But every so often things would go badly wrong and the results would have to be thrown away. In those cases, dinner would be tinned soup or, if my parents felt extravagant, a takeaway. Either way, the cost of an extra meal would be incurred. Even though I wasn’t the one paying the financial cost, every failed experiment was a blow to my confidence and I’d play it safe for a while after that. My family’s fortunes may have been on the rise, but we weren’t wealthy enough to be wasteful.

The development of my cooking skills went on hold for a while after my parents died. Living alone makes cooking a hell of a lot less economical, because it’s annoyingly difficult and comparatively expensive to buy sufficient ingredients for just one person. It’s fine if you’re batch-cooking, but slowly working your way through your freezer can be soul-destroyingly monotonous, and it’s a constant reminder of the people you would have shared the meal with had they still been alive. Tinned soup, toasties and takeaways often seem like a much better option. When I lived in London I simply didn’t have time to cook.

My experiments resumed when I returned to Edinburgh. I was living with other people, which meant I had people to feed. I had mastered the basics and felt more confident. And, importantly, I had the internet on my side. By this time YouTube tutorials and allrecipes.com existed. If I wanted to learn what deglazing was, all I needed to do was type the word in and watch someone showing me and telling me why it was necessary. If I was curious about whether a particular step was necessary, I could usually scroll down to the comments and find someone who had skipped it talking about what happened. It was magic. It’s also a lot easier to find specialist ingredients, living in a slightly hipsterish area in the city centre.

However, just because I can now cook easy, cheap meals, that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten the lessons of my youth. I don’t take this for granted, and I know that there’s actually a fair amount of money invested in my “kitchen basics”. Individually each jar of spices, bottle of lemon juice, roll of foil or what have you didn’t cost much – but considered collectively, it’s over £35 worth of stuff. It’s enough that if I had to buy it all again, all in one go, the sum would give me pause. And yes, it’s all stuff that I use regularly – perhaps not daily, but often enough to justify the space it takes up in my kitchen.

I’m also fortunate enough that I don’t have to worry about how I cook my food. If I know I’m going to be busy all day and will be too tired to cook dinner, I can throw something in the slow cooker. If I were on a pre-paid electricity meter, that might well be a luxury I couldn’t afford. I roasted a big tray of vegetables a few days ago. 45 minutes in a very hot gas oven. Cheap, healthy ingredients, and they tasted delicious, but what if I couldn’t afford to use up that much gas? A couple of minutes in the microwave would save a lot of energy and do the job of cooking the veg, but the result would be very bland and boring. Imagine eating that every day. Just the things you can cook in the microwave, day in, day out. Is it really surprising that you might reach for the flavourful, MSG-laden alternative of a ready meal, just for the sake of a bit of variety? Is it so much to ask that people should be able to eat things that taste good as well as keeping them alive?

I know there are various “challenges” out there that ask people to try living on a fixed sum of money for a short while. Gwyneth Paltrow famously tried and failed to manage on the sum given to Americans on food stamps for a week. Some of these schemes, like Live Below The Line, do a lot to raise money for charity. But while they can raise awareness of the issue, they can’t teach their participants what it’s like to live without proper dietary education. It’s not just about the amount of money you have available to purchase ingredients, or even to pay for the energy used in cooking. If you’ve been taught to cook and educated about nutrition, you can’t unlearn that. You can’t forget what paprika tastes like and go back to viewing it with suspicion, not sure whether you should spend £1 on a jar of it because you might hate it, or it might be something you’ve got to use in conjunction with another thing that you don’t have and can’t afford. Once you know about balancing carbohydrates and proteins and starch, you can’t just erase it from your brain and find yourself wondering why, having eaten a salad, you don’t feel full.

Honestly, I know how ridiculous some of this will sound to people who learned about these things before they were old enough to realise they were learning. It might feel like this is innate knowledge. But cooking and nutrition are learned skills, just like reading and writing. They ought to be taught in schools, because being able to feed yourself well is essential preparation for adult life and it’s not a safe assumption that every child learns these things in the home. There’s no sense in damning people for lacking the skills that no-one taught them, especially when their means of self-teaching are restricted by cost and access to resources. Instead, try to imagine the challenges that could have faced you… and think yourself lucky if they didn’t.


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.)


After the detour…

Hello, blog. Long time no write.

I’m still here, I’m still alive, and I’ve been meaning to update for just over a year. So why haven’t I?

2014 took its toll. Well, from October 2013 onwards, really. It’s nothing I haven’t mentioned before, just the usual Dead Parents stuff. Hence not writing about it. Hence the constant desire to write about it curtailed by angst about writing about it. Am I making sense yet? Probably not. This is why I’ve been so quiet.

I was expecting the anniversaries to be something of a problem. Perhaps that was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but perhaps it had to be. As I’ve said previously, I’ve always struggled to balance the desire to move on from the grief with the necessity of making that grief mean something. If the grief means something, if their deaths were truly significant in my life, then the anniversaries had to hurt me, and the more it meant the worse the pain had to be. Self-inflicted? Partly self-inflicted? A natural consequence, but one I need to feel that I could, in theory control so I convince myself it’s self-inflicted? I have no idea. Honestly, I have absolutely no clue how much of the pain I generate myself and how much is an inevitable result of the pain of bereavement. I can analyse, I can guess, but I can’t step far enough away from myself to get a clear view.

However, while I may not be able to get enough distance from myself, I finally have enough distance from the events. At last I can start to look at that period as a whole – which I need to do in order to lay claim to what happened and turn it into something I can use and take ownership of, rather than something that controls me. But it’s something I can’t do without feeling it all over again. Essentially, over the course of 2014 I had a very quiet, gradual and protracted version of the breakdown I probably ought to have had in 2005.

This manifested as paralysis and lockdown, which is typical for me. Back in the aftermath of the bereavements/injuries I would move between periods of being apparently functional and periods of shutting the world out. During the former, it looked like I was coping. In fact it was the lockdowns that were keeping me going and allowing me to process things. Making myself look functional has always been how I’ve outrun emotions and pain.

The trouble with pain is that it’s so bloody overwhelming. I can feel my way through it, learn to understand it and eventually control it, but doing so is all-consuming. I can’t do it and have a social life. I can do it and work, because I can plough all the emotional stuff into my writing. Fictional characters make excellent receptacles for anguish, and they’re great company. Other aspects of my work, specifically the ones involving human interaction, are less easy to integrate. Putting words in the mouths of non-existent people is fine, but conversing with real ones, whether in writing or in person, is harder. They’re a lot less easy to control, and when I’m trying to manage the pain I don’t have much room left over for uncontrollable things.

Which brings me back to why I’ve been so silent here. Firstly, I’ve written plenty about the Dead Parents and the grief here. There’s nothing more to be said. Except that there’s everything still to be said, so much that if I wrote a thousand posts I could barely scratch the surface. It’s futile and/or necessary, and either way it’s overwhelming. It’s self-indulgent and therefore unjustifiable, and/or it’s helpful to other people and therefore more responsibility and consequence than I can handle just now.

I’ve meant to write, and I’ve wanted to write, and again and again I’ve thought “I must write about this”. Then I’ve opened WordPress and found that I couldn’t. This is what I do with emails, too. I know who I need to contact. I plan the content meticulously in my head, then I open Gmail and can’t touch the keys. There’s no point, it’s all been said, or it hasn’t but either way the interaction will take up more energy than I have and it will make the pain worse. I really don’t want the pain to be worse.

So that’s what’s been happening. But now there are things I need to use this blog for, and I’ve started a project elsewhere that will (I think, or at least I hope) let me balance the pain and the output in a useful way. Cryptic? Hell yes, because I haven’t decided whether I’m telling people the specifics of the new project yet. It might just be for me, for the present at least.

Time to start writing here again. I can just about deal with interaction again. I think. We’ll find out. Welcome back to the Scenic Route.


When a belief is not a belief

There will be a lot of things in this post that I’ve touched on in the past, but I’ve never explained the full extent of what’s been going on in my head over the past year.

I’ve mentioned before that it was the 10th anniversary of my mum’s death in October and will be the 10th anniversary of my dad’s in July next year. I’ve written at length about my experiences with depression and a wee bit about ADD and PTSD. I know I have a tag for Schizotypal Personality Disorder so I must have spoken about it somewhere, but I’ve never really gone into it in depth because it’s less well-known and harder to explain. But it’s a factor in what’s going on at the moment (or at least it seems to be), so… here goes. I don’t claim to be an expert on this. I’m just someone who lives with it, and I’ll try to explain what it is, what it feels like and how it’s affecting me as clearly as I can.

Schizotypal Personality Disorder is a schizophrenia spectrum disorder. It involves obsessive rumination, anhedonia, eccentric behaviour, inappropriate emotional responses, magical thinking, social withdrawal and anxiety, strange means of expression and occasional hallucinations. I remember the psychiatrist who diagnosed me, back when I was 18, explaining that as someone with StPD I would never see the simple solution to a problem if there was a complicated one available. Apparently the big difference between StPD and schizophrenia is that with StPD, you can still tell when what you’re experiencing is not reality.

Over the years I have learned how to live with and control my symptoms. Getting the obsessive rumination under control was a huge personal triumph, achieved through CBT and visualisation and relentless discipline. My means of expression changed gradually, influenced by years of blogging. By writing for an audience and reading other people’s writing, I got the hang of how other people sound. I gradually let go of my unusual patterns and word choices (though a few little things remain – read enough of my writing or listen to me talk and you might spot my obsession with patterns of three). I learned how to tell delusions and hallucinations from reality – most of the time, at least.

The difficulty – and this is the really tricky thing to explain – is that sometimes I find myself in situations where I don’t believe my beliefs. Ten years ago, when my parents died, they were the only people I truly cared about. (Failing to form close relationships outwith your immediate family is a fairly typical StPD thing.) Those events planted the seed of a rather unhelpful idea – specifically, that the people I love that much will die. That my love can bring about the death of whoever receives it. The basis for this belief seems to be that if my life were a fictional narrative, that’s what I would expect to happen next.

Now, on the one hand, I am well aware that this cannot be the case. The world just doesn’t work that way. I do not live in a novel. What happened to my parents was statistically improbable, but that makes me the victim of a misfortune, not deus ex machina or a particular stage of my journey as protagonist. My love is not some kind of deadly force.

On the other, I know it is true. I’m talking about the kind of absolute certainty with which I know my name, or that the face I see in the mirror belongs to me. It is this knowledge that makes me feel so bloody guilty about loving my husband, because if I know that my love will cause his death. So I feel guilty and selfish for putting him in danger, and I live every day with the fear that my belief will prove accurate. Every time I come home I experience intense anxiety from the moment I arrive at  our building to the moment when I am actually in the flat and have seen for myself that he’s still here, still alive, not imaginary. This is not rational or reasonable. I should be able to leave the house without becoming convinced that something bad will happen to my husband. I should be able to unlock my front door without my heart pounding in my ears. I talk myself through the rational argument every time. Usually, delusions respond to repeated dissuasion and a certain amount of CBT. This one, however, is very strong and extremely resistant to everything I throw at it. It has not diminished over time. If anything, it has grown stronger.

That’s  a big part of the reason why I’ve been so antisocial this year. I’ve skipped so many get-togethers because I just can’t manage the usual social anxiety on top of this. I’ve always been a little bit freaked out by large groups, but usually I’ve enjoyed hanging out with people on a one to one basis. Not so much this year. This year I’ve been a lot more withdrawn because my head is too noisy, and also because as this belief gathers strength, it seems safest for everyone if I don’t let myself feel too close to people.

That’s a tough one to explain to people. “Sorry, I can’t meet because I’m really busy just now” is a much easier excuse to understand than “sorry, I’m worried that being friends with me will cause you harm so I’m just not doing the interaction thing right now”. I try to explain verbally when I have the energy, but honestly, talking this through takes a lot out of me and it’s easier just to write about it and hope that the message gets through.

The reason it takes so much out of me is that I fear people’s judgement. I know there will be people who look at this and think “well, you know that belief is nonsense, why don’t you just stop giving in to it?”, missing the fact that I don’t give in to it. I fight it every single day, I win minor victories every time I succeed in doing what I want and need to do without letting this stop me – but I haven’t won the decisive battle that gets it out of my life forever yet, and that’s not for want of trying. I also know that there will be people who write me off as completely crazy because I have a schizophrenia spectrum disorder and they don’t know enough about what that means to realise that they’re not unsafe around me. And I know there will be a few who think this is just attention seeking. It’s not. Even I am not masochistic enough to want the kind of attention that anything involving the “schizo” prefix gets you.

I’m writing this partly as explanation for why my 2013 has been quieter and less sociable than previous years, and partly because I’ve shied away from talking about anything explicitly StPD-related here in the past. I write about my mental health because I feel that if someone like me can’t be “out” about it, what chance is there for people working in less accepting worlds than the arts? Avoiding the issue of StPD was beginning to feel like a betrayal of that purpose, and an act of cowardice.

So there you go. A bit of insight into my head and hopefully into StPD as an everyday thing. I don’t feel like I’ve given you an accurate picture of how powerful and terrifying these beliefs can be, but I don’t know whether I can. I’ve been searching for the words for a very long time, and finally it felt like I should just get this much down and see whether the more minute, intense stuff follows later.

Hopefully some of this makes sense to people who are not me.


Adventures in Mental Healthcare: Hope

Today marks the start of Scottish Mental Health Week. As usual, whenever we reach an awareness day that applies to me, I feel annoyed that it’s still necessary. It’s 2013, aren’t we supposed to be sufficiently advanced and well-educated that we don’t make stupid judgements based on sex, age, orientation, race, whether you’ve ever had a physical or mental illness, or any other damn thing that people don’t have a choice in? Wasn’t this all supposed to be sorted out by now?

Maybe it was supposed to be. But it’s not, so for the present I will continue trying to reconcile my understanding of why we need these awareness exercises with my anger at the fact that they remain necessary.

I got involved with this year’s Scottish Mental Health Week unintentionally. I write ten minute plays for Jo Caulfield’s Speakeasy, and it just so happens that tomorrow’s Speakeasy is embracing the Mental Health theme. My play, Hawthorn & Candlelight, is not about mental health issues. It’s a comedy about a book of spells, so I suppose that if you were determined enough you could read it as an exploration of magical thinking and trace its roots in my own adventures in Schizotypal Personality Disorder, but that wasn’t my intention in writing it. I wrote it as a bit of pre-Hallowe’en fun and that’s about it. If my contribution fits the theme it’s not because of the play itself but because of what I am – mentally ill and “out”.

The fact that it’s Mental Health Week also makes me think it’s a good time for an update about my own situation and how things are going. Last time I wrote about this I was struggling to get access to the help I needed – most importantly, someone who could advise me on medication. I finally gave in and played another round of Russian Roulette with the meds, allowing myself to be put on fluoxetine to keep my serotonin levels in check. So far I’ve been fine – there’s none of the nausea I got from paroxetine or the memory loss and anxiety spikes that characterised my experience of sertraline. However, I’m still on a low dose just now. The real test happens in winter. At some point I usually tip from chronic dysthymia into a Major Depressive episode, and that’s when I have to increase my dosage and find out if my body can handle it.

I was also trying to find a suitable form of therapy to complement the drugs. I’ve been doing CBT on my own for over a decade and it’s a particularly useful weapon to have in my arsenal, but it’s not a magic bullet, and I have hit a point where either I need a different kind of therapy or help with expanding my CBT skills. As it stands, CBT helps me to combat depression and it was fantastic for dealing with OCD and StPD. Having got these things to a point where I can manage the symptoms, I now find myself dealing with issues that are more PTSD-related. I really want to get to a point where I don’t have nightmares, hypersomnia and a wide range of triggers that stimulate fearful, avoidant reactions. I want to be rid of the paralysing terror that accompanies the belief that everything I love dies.

Getting this kind of help is, as I have chronicled here, not easy. CBT with community psych nurses didn’t help me, because the CBT they were teaching was all stuff I’ve been doing on my own for over a decade. Eventually I lucked into an appointment with a GP who seemed to understand, and I made a particular effort to let the mask slip. I’ve been dismissed too many times for not appearing to be crazy enough because I can still do things like bathe, brush my hair, dress in a manner that makes me look pulled-together. I can still do these things until I am pretty far gone, because I have lots of practise.

During my first major depressive episode I learned that allowing myself to look depressed attracted attention. I didn’t want attention. I wanted people to stop noticing me, not ask me stupid questions about whether I was all right, to look the other way while I quietly got on with the task of destroying myself. So I wore make-up long after I stopped caring about my appearance. I wore my hair up to disguise the fact that it hadn’t  been washed in days. The way I dressed didn’t change, because at 18 I wore a uniform of black velour trousers, black t-shirts and sweaters. There was no tell-tale day when I started wearing jogging bottoms all the time, because there was nothing in my wardrobe that would allow me to live the cliche. For several months, as I gradually stopped eating and talking and dropped out of one class after another, I still looked like my normal self. Eventually I lost the ability to keep it together and began to look gaunt and dishevelled in spite of my repertoire of tricks, but I held out for a long time. By the time I started to look depressed, I was too far gone to seek help of my own accord.

So now, when I know I will be talking to a GP about my mental health, I make a conscious effort not to conceal the effects of my mind on my body. No make-up. No dry shampoo. I try not to think about the appointment until I get there so that I haven’t prepared what I’m going to say and how I’m going to keep my voice level while I’m doing it. When the familiar feelings of pain and fear arise, I try to let them show. After more than a decade of training myself not to show those feelings, that’s no small task. It’s not easy to bring that stuff to the surface because I never trust that I’ll be able to get on top of it again. But if you look like you’re coping, they assume you’re coping, so it has to be done. After many years of trying to tell doctors how badly I was doing without having to come right out and say it, I finally did. I explained about my convoluted suicide attempts and self-destructive behaviour, told them that even now, when I’m happy and loved and things are going well, I’m also depressed and fearful and every winter I dread that this might be the one where I just can’t take it any more.

The message got through. At last, I got an appointment with a psychiatrist. By this point I had started on fluoxetine, and the psychiatrist advised me that it was probably my best bet just now, which was comforting (if a little on the late side). He referred me on to the psychotherapy department at the Royal Edinburgh, so I finally had to bite the bullet and get over my fear of going there. Previous experience led me to expect a 45 minute triage appointment, during which I would have to try to give a potted account of myself and what I was looking for. Fortunately, this was nothing like my previous experience…

I had three triage appointments in total, all with the same doctor. There was time to give a full explanation of all the previous diagnoses and experiences and life events. The doctor talked me through my options and made some suggestions, and between the two of us we figured out the next step. I’m now on a waiting list for individual therapy to help me work through the PTSD. The down side is that the waiting list is long, so it may well be next February before I start – but simply knowing that the wheels are in motion helps immensely. In the meantime, I know what my options are if things get too difficult around the anniversary of Mum’s death or over the winter. I feel much better informed. And because this is being done on the NHS, I’m not freaking out about how to afford it.

After so many false starts, getting this far is a massive relief. When people talk to me about their own battles with the system, it’s really nice to be able to say “don’t give up, it is actually possible to get help” rather than simply sharing their despair at getting nowhere.

Keep trying. And keep talking. I might not always have the energy to respond to the comments and private messages I get after these posts, but I always, always read them and I always care.


The Tyranny of the Telephone

The internet can be a daunting, even terrifying place, but there are times when I’m incredibly glad to have access to it. In particular, I find it very comforting to be brought into contact with other people who share the same apparently unusual behaviours as me. For a long time I wondered whether I was the only person who was genuinely terrified of the phone. By being open about my hatred of phones online, I discovered that it was a surprisingly common fear – amongst my friends, at least.

Have I always been this way? Yes, for as long as I can remember. It was easier back in the days when I was very small and being taught to answer the phone when it rang. The deal was that I could answer provided I said “Hello, how may I help you?”, answered any direct questions and then handed the phone over to Mum or Dad. At that stage I didn’ t have to worry about actually making the calls. As I got older and was expected to have actual conversations with the people who called, or – worse – to call people myself, the anxiety began to set in.

What am I scared of? Being judged and getting things wrong, mostly. Like the writer of this article – http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2013/08/why-are-you-calling-my-texting-device/ – I don’t always find it easy to hear exactly what people are saying on the phone. I’m very sensitive to background noise, and anything with more bass than a human voice will drown out whoever I’m talking to. I also find that hearing someone’s voice when I can’t see their body language and facial expression is like reading a letter with every third word blanked out. It’s a confusing experience and I find it difficult to trust disembodied voices on the ends of phones. Unless I’m talking to someone I know, really, really well (and sometimes even then), my stupid depressive conviction that everyone hates me tries to get out of control.

However, when I was younger it was easier just to shut my anxieties up and get on with things. I could talk myself through the fear, doing a kind of rudimentary CBT. I still hated it when I called my friends and their family members answered because that interfered with the script in my head, but I could do it without having a meltdown. I was never exactly comfortable with phones, but I could deal with them and even have long conversations with people I knew well. Then, as with so many other fears of mine, the trouble really began when my parents died.

To be absolutely precise, the trouble began when Dad was dying. My mum went quickly from diagnosis to death, and for the couple of weeks that she was in hospital we barely left her. Dad and I would dash home to wash, change clothes, top up our supply of cornflakes and peppermint tea for her and then go back. When Dad got diagnosed he was at a much earlier stage, so the plan was for life to go on as normal until the need for palliative care grew more pressing. A few days after he came home from hospital, he had a stroke and ended up right back there.

When Dad and I arrived at A&E I was warned that he probably wouldn’t make it through the night. He did. Then I was warned he probably wouldn’t make it through the next 48 hours. He did. I snatched a few hours’ of sleep in some unoccupied doctors’ quarters but didn’t dare go further away than that. After day three, the doctors encouraged me to go home, get some sleep, spend a bit of time outside the hospital. After I’d been home for some sleep and a shower, I went shopping. Specifically, I went looking for the kind of yoghurts my dad liked. As I pulled into the driveway, my aunt came and told me that the hospital had phoned and it was that “come at once” call. I went tearing across the city, terrified that I might be too late.

I wasn’t. Dad would survive for another four months, but throughout that time he would not only be dying of cancer, he would be at risk of a secondary stroke which would probably kill him. Since he was partly paralysed and I couldn’t handle caring for him on my own at home, he was transferred to the hospice. I practically lived at the hospice until he died, but I still had to go home for showers, changes of clothes and occasional time off and nights in a bed rather than a chair. My home phone and mobile numbers were written in large letters on a pinboard in my dad’s room and I have never been more diligent about keeping my phone charged. Every time I left the hospice I was just waiting for my phone to ring, dreading that it would be the call telling me to come back because we were at the end – or worse, the call telling me that I could take my time because it was too late.

As it happened, my dad never had another stroke. In fact, he made an incredibly impressive recovery from the first stroke. It was truly galling to watch him battling to regain his vocabulary, his diction, use of his right hand, while at the same time watching him wasting away as the cancer took hold. (He even got as far as being able to recall most people’s names accurately, though he always confused mine and Mum’s. That was painful.) He died slowly, his body shutting down bit by bit, and I was with him throughout it. But even though I never got that call telling me he’d had a second stroke, the fear of it never left me. I learned to associate ringing phones with bad news, and that’s why my mobile lives on silent.

After Dad died I was subjected to harassing phone calls on the house phone for some considerable time. That didn’t really help with the phone fears. Upwards of five times a day, any time from morning until the small hours, a particular member of my family would call and leave long, rambling, often threatening messages on my answering machine. (In retrospect I should have reported it to the police, but it’s amazing what you don’t do when you’re newly orphaned and made promises to your parents. Or I should have changed my number, but I was hoping against hope that I wouldn’t be in that house for much longer and I would change my number when I moved. To change my number would have been an admission that I wasn’t getting out my dead parents’ house any time soon.)

So, none of these things really helped me to deal with the existing fear of phones. I have mad CBT skills, but it’s an inadequate weapon against this particular demon. When my phone rings I am convinced of the following things:

1) Someone I love is dead/dying.

2) Failing that, someone I love now hates me.

3) Failing that, I am in some kind of massive trouble with someone over something.

4) Failing all of those, the person who used to leave those message has found me again. (This one is why I NEVER answer calls from numbers I don’t know or withheld numbers. EVER. My job makes it necessary for me to have my contact details available, which means that occasional calls from unknown numbers are inevitable, but that’s why I have voicemail. If a client leaves me a voicemail I expect that they’ll leave their name and ask me to call them back. If a friend leaves me a voicemail I expect it to be an emergency, because they all know everything I’ve written in this post and that I don’t appreciate being put through the phone fear unless something is wrong. Friends who want to chat to me know to text me first so I’m expecting their call. People who call from an unknown number and don’t leave a voicemail… I HATE THEM ALL. When that happens, I get those joyful feelings of “they’ve found me, it’s all going to start again, how much do they know, have they found where I live, am I going to have to change my number/move/call the police”. And this goes on for ages, just because some people won’t leave a fucking message. Thanks! Thank you so much! I love reliving traumatic experiences just because it’s too much work to say “This is X, I’m calling about Y, please call me back.” If it’s important enough to warrant a phone call, it’s important enough to leave a message. If it’s not important enough to leave a message, why are you calling me in the first place?)

This is why I love email. And Facebook. And Twitter. And video calling on Skype. And blogging. And texting. And pretty much anything else that means I can communicate with people without phone calls. Nothing beats a face to face conversation, of course, but if that’s not an option I’d rather use pretty much any means of communication rather than the phone.

There’s more to explore here, so I will revisit this subject at some point – as always, I’ve written until I couldn’t write any more and need to step away from this topic for a bit. The external influences on my fear are pretty clear, but it would be easy to get stuck on them and not look at the root causes. There are issues here concerning control, feeling unable to communicate with people, feeling that people are incredibly difficult to understand but that I have to keep trying and trying to do so. All the things that pushed me towards theatre, essentially. Though, sadly, I don’t think that “don’t phone me, just write me a play and I’ll write you one back” will ever catch on.