(First published by Advantages of Age on 15th March 2022)
So, my dear friend Rose nudges me to get writing something for AoA.
I say nudge, but it feels more like a poke. A benign poke, but a poke is more staccato than a nudge, and is always a gift. I always say yes, and then I’m writing to some kind of deadline, which serves the writing of the piece.
Maybe boundaries she says, something about boundaries.
Humm, says my mind, mind… yes, says my deeper and quieter voice. Just yes.
I mean, I don’t really write self-help, and that’s where my mind went. I come from a field of trauma so unspeakable that I didn’t know what a boundary was, and I certainly didn’t know I had any right to say no to anything. Especially, as it happened, anything sexual. I am a long way down the road from there, and I am in many ways, the more obvious ways, pretty good at saying no when required. I have had to say it a lot (too much) over the last 3 or 4 years before my back surgery in 2020, because so many simple pleasures became impossible to manage.
I teach, in a manner of speaking, some of my psychotherapy clients a few bits and bobs about boundaries.
So, the whisper of yes, that this is the thread to pull in the writing, well that’s me going down below what I think I know. What I do know, because I don’t want to disrespect the effort it has taken to learn about edges and space between, and the beauty and freedom to be found in the simplicity of saying yes, and no, and I’m not sure yet, let me think about that.
Underneath, and underneath more, there is a place where I am only a beginner at the slippery business of saying the no, that is saying a just born yes to what has been waiting a lifetime to see if I make it.
Yes, I do finally see you there, so utterly alone, so defeated. I finally see the disembodied homeless and hopeless. Me. Caroline the Compassion Queen with all my talk of welcoming and fields of kindness, only just got to the place where you became visible. I can see you through a vale of tears. I only just made it, and I know there is comedy in this. Tender comedy, tragicomedy… we are all, in the soap-operas of our little lives, trying to get home before we have to go.
My perspective. It might not be yours.
Remember, I am not in the self-help section.
I didn’t know how to listen to my body, though I probably would have told you I did… I got parts of me home. Dear God, my life has been a pilgrimage, and the many homecomings have been anchoring, rooting me into this earth, the ground, leading me to a sense of place that wasn’t defined by violence and self-murder. I found kin along the road. I wasn’t alone. I started to see myself in the mirrors of my ragged fellow travellers. The original mirror was argued with, bits of it fell off, shattered, got swept away.
If we lived in delusional Disneyworld, where all was linear and orderly, where we get a psychological fact and that’s that, well, we wouldn’t be human.
Nothing at all about my post-surgery experience has been as I might have written it. I didn’t write it, because I didn’t believe I would have a life rolling on for very long post-surgery. As many of you know, I had planned to leave – had surgery failed to significantly improve the constant agony that had become my reality. The chaos of my NHS surgery being pulled on the day, the despair, the undefended asking for help, the outpouring of generosity from so many through crowdfunding – like an enormous wave of unconditional love that had me 5 days later in my surgeon’s Harley Street Clinic, receiving the very best version of the spinal fusion that is currently available. All of this brought me here.
Here, to where I didn’t expect to be, so I hadn’t written myself in, I’d written myself out. It has been more than strange to turn back towards a life I wasn’t expecting, and find it full of fragments of old stories.
I have stopped tapping on my keyboard. Ground to a halt.
I’m looking for a word that captures that first year of afterwards. The one that won’t go away, even though I’m pushing hard, is torture. I don’t want to say it. Hyperbolic, my critical mind says loudly, but truth be told, it is the right word. So much of what and how I understood things started falling away. I probably spent that first year trying to hang on to them. That felt like torture.
With the love of some straight-talking mirrors, you know, my people. My kin. My heart buddies, I started to allow what was already happening. I stopped fighting. Not just like that, but I did turn a corner. I turned towards my most homeless, abandoned and separate self… the one that was turned away from at the very first breath, by a mother that could only feel hate, revulsion and horror. I come from that lineage.
Along to highways and byways of slogging onwards, of course I came to learn and understand that I had turned away from myself in that very same way. And, yet I had missed the embodied abandonment, until instead of deciding to take my own life because the NHS couldn’t give me what the same surgeon could if I paid him. At that point, I couldn’t not meet myself in the unoccupied house of my own ravaged body. The surgeon said my lower discs were dust, that he could sweep away and build structure and architecture. That this would hold me straight for the rest of my life.
I didn’t know this then, but only if I got it. Only if I saw the one I turned away from because I didn’t know how not to, because I couldn’t stay with the overwhelming experience of arriving in the world in a tiny body, constantly flooded with sensation, if there was no-one there to stay with her. I internalised revulsion and absence. It was all I had to breathe in. I took that into every cell, fibre, blood and baby-bone of me. Understanding the absence and revulsion and the marks it left on me, I learned how to stay with much of what wasn’t stayed with. I found fields of kindness that caught me when I fell out of the fighting not to be depressed.
I just never, ever noticed that the pain in my body that has been as true and baseline as depression has – is the embodied expression of the same simple, unbearable, tragicomedy of my little life. I pushed on through everything, every moment of everyday, not listening to a single cry or whimper, not hearing my body pleading for mercy. Even on the dance-floors of redemption and in the kitchens of love, everything always hurt, and hurting got louder and I got deafer, and in the end the discs at the bottom of my spine were dust and I could barely move, and I literally could not continue to stay alive if this was my lot.
Back to the boundaries.
I am surgically repaired enough to revert to pushing through, so I had to turn towards that baby that wasn’t stayed with, and ask her to forgive me for the very long wait, and ask her to show me how to listen. I had to stop fighting with ideas about becoming someone better (physically) and appreciate I am here already and that words like limits and capacity are love words, not dirty words. I live with pain. I never thought in my wildest occasional dream that I wouldn’t, but I live with pain and that is not all there is of me. That is a very big difference. I manage with medication, prayer, physical and energetic support, disciplined and simple core strength maintenance, but mostly by listening to this 63-year-old body that has been waiting a literal lifetime to be heard.
A word that brings tears to my eyes.
A word that shatters my heart into pieces of tenderness that are unfathomable because they belong in the tiny, helpless, wordless and lonely body of a baby, that I can actually feel from the inside of her.
I don’t fancy living many more years. I’m not going to get old, old.
And, I am here living now, and I am attuned to the SOS from the toil of getting here. I’m listening. The message is singing its purest note. I will work less. I am saying no, and I’m sorry I’m not taking any new clients for the foreseeable future. I am making the work – that I’ve come to love and trust myself in more and more as I land by my own fireside – fewer in numbers. If I don’t, I will spend the rest of my life giving too much holding, and spend the space in-between recovering rather than being Here.
Here to breathe.
Here to finish my one little book.
Here to see more of the ones I love.
Here to not know what’s going to happen next.
Here to yield to This, over and over until This is the end of being in my forgiving body.
My body will always hurt.
Sometimes that feels overwhelming.
In this moment, really allowing the truth and the grief to be here, I am flooded with something I don’t have one single word for. I find myself here more often though, and am so very grateful. In the absence of one word, or anything elegant, it’s the “Everything in This”.
I don’t often spell this out, but a lifetime of clenching against embodiment has left pain everywhere. It was my back that collapsed, and that has been the doorway to Home, but everything hurts: head, neck, hands, fingers, shoulders, arms, eyeballs, joints… That’s how it rolls, and all of the hurting has been so lonely, and isn’t anymore.
I listen, imperfectly, and love, imperfectly, every hurt, every clench, every soften and re-clench and soften. I have given up fighting to be a different me, though sometimes I forget I have, and then I remember again…
It’s all I’ve got.