Tag Archives: Thinking Aloud

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.


Over and Out

 I’ve seen this article doing the rounds on social media over the weekend. For the non-clickers in our midst, it’s a piece by Sarah Hepola about binge drinking and the experience of blackouts. She describes the experience of waking up in odd places, not certain how she got there or what she had done the night before. She talks about the panic, fear and confusion the blackouts could cause, and also about the freedom that went with being drunk. It’s an interesting piece to read from my own perspective – someone who doesn’t drink and never has, but who is no stranger to blackouts. So I thought I’d write a post of my own, what with having a blog and all.

People often seem surprised when they realise that I don’t drink. I don’t make a big deal of it, this one blog post excepted. There are two situations in which it tends to come up. The first is when someone is trying to offer me a drink and seems puzzled (or in some rare cases offended) by my request for a soft drink. I’ve met people who thought I was trying to spare them the cost of buying booze, or that they were trying to get me drunk, or who thought I was somehow being shy. In that case I will reassure them that there’s no issue, I just don’t drink. The other situation is when it’s medical. How many units a week? Zero. Yes, zero. No, I don’t drink at all. Yes, I’m sure. It’s surprisingly difficult to convince a GP that you don’t drink – I saw a GP in my teens who actually accused me of being in denial about an incipient alcohol addiction and it must still be in my notes, because I get asked about it to this day.

I’ve also never taken recreational drugs, which seems to surprise people even more. Not even a single experimental puff of a joint. If I can tell you what it’s like to be on opiates or benzos, it’s because they were administered in hospital.

Now, I realise that all of this is probably making me sound like a total fucking goody two shoes. I’m not. While clubs and parties aren’t really my scene, when I do go out I am quite capable of matching my behaviour to the people around me. I’ve had friends try to take my car keys away from me, thinking I was too drunk to drive because I was so giggly and nonsensical. I can disinhibit with the best of them when I want to.

So why, if I’m not completely uptight and joyless, do I not drink? There are two reasons. First, I absolutely fucking loathe the taste of alcohol. I’ve always been willing to try new things in case I someday find something I like, but every time I take a sip I get an overwhelming hit of ethanol and it’s really, really unpleasant. People assure me that this is what it’s like for everyone and the trick is to push through it and get used to it. But I never did, probably because of my second reason, which is this: I am a control freak.

Yes, I know, plenty of control freaks drink. Not this one, though. And this is where the blackouts become key to my story. Imagine the phenomenon described in that article  – finding yourself in a place you don’t remember going, having to piece together your actions based on what people tell you and any physical evidence you may have left, like receipts and the like. Now imagine knowing that this definitely wasn’t the result of drugs or alcohol. There’s nothing you can attribute this to except possible stress.

There you have my experience. These blackouts, or dissociative episodes, or whatever you want to call them, are bloody terrifying. I had a handful during my teens. Mostly they just consisted of lost time when I was at home, or classes that seemed to skip past in minutes. The first time I became aware that something odd was going on was while I was at uni, and in the early stages of my breakdown.

I found out about it one day when I phoned my parents and they were both furious with me. I didn’t know why, but I soon learned that I had called them the night before, quite late. It was an angry, rambling phone call, during which I said things that I would never normally have said to them. They were upset, understandably, and assumed that I had taken something. I hadn’t. I was certain I hadn’t. The last thing I remembered was heading out with some friends, so I checked with them. Sure enough, I had started acting strangely and had run away from them at some point. Someone had seen me in the Students’ Union using the payphones, which must have been when I called home. Apparently I had yelled at some kids for vandalising a bush and chased them down the street. I have no idea what else I did. I have no memory of any of these things. I just woke up the next morning as if nothing had happened.

After my parents died, during that strange, hermit-like era when I was living in their house, I think I had quite a few blackouts. It’s difficult to tell for certain, because I was living alone for much of that time. I’ve always been somewhat reclusive, and apparently I’m quite good at continuing to appear functional during most blackouts. But there was certainly something going on. Things would move and rearrange themselves around the house, odd things like my car keys being deliberately positioned in the middle of the hall floor, or things arranged in specific patterns. I tried not to think too much about it and laughed it off, calling it “my poltergeist”, but it seems considerably more likely that the actions were mine, just unremembered.

There have been other incidents, some of which frightened me badly. The time when I was on sertraline for depression was particularly bad. There are gaps in my memory that I find quite distressing. There would be times when I wouldn’t just find out what I had done second-hand, I would clearly remember having done something, only to find that I hadn’t – I’d lost some time and just filled in the blanks incorrectly. I had to come off the medication and just hope for the best.

Knowing that blackouts happen to me, prompted by nothing more than stress, makes drinking or taking drugs a really frightening prospect for me. I’ve been out of control too often, and I don’t like it. I have to try to get control and maintain it, to identify why they happen and do what I can to prevent them. The idea of doing something that I know could actually bring about a blackout… nope. Absolutely not.

Do I envy the people who can have a drink or a joint and not worry about this stuff? Yes. Bizarre as it may sound, I envy people whose blackouts have a clear-cut, understandable cause, and systems in place to support them as they tackle any problems they have with that cause. I’m still floundering around trying to figure out where this overlaps with PTSD and where it doesn’t and whether there’s some root cause that I’ve blocked out. It’s confusing and frustrating, and exactly the kind of thing that sometimes makes me wish I could reach for something that would help me relax.

I’ve written versions of this post before and never put them up. Talking about this openly makes me nervous. I fear being judged for it, that people will think I’m making it up or exaggerating or that I’m just insane. As ever, I write this in the hope that if there are other people out there experiencing the same things, perhaps at an earlier stage in their journey and wondering if its just them, they might find it and know they’re not alone. And for anyone who wants to judge me, there’s plenty of material here already, so I might as well just do it. When the bridge is already on fire, no sense in worrying about an extra splash of kerosene, right?


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.


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.


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.