The Pain Closet

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I consider myself out in the world about my broken bits. I write and post and publish. It helps me feel connected to the heartbeat of the world, and if sometimes it touches another human, then that’s an extra blessing.

I’ve written about depression, my mental health, sex, longing, hopeless and helpless, poetry, death, dogs and despair. I’ve even written about my relationship with money, and thought it was my last taboo. It was hard to write about me and money. There was a suffocating cloud of shame keeping the closet door closed, tight. I crowbarred it open, and light got in. The shame fell away, as it always does.

Why? Why? Why, does deeply knowing the truth of that, not translate into closet doors being flung wide open?

Retorical question.

I have never written about my physical pain. I didn’t even talk about it, directly and clearly (shamelessly?) until relatively recently. I’ve lived with back pain for so long that I can’t remember an embodied experience from before that. I actually don’t know when it started or if there was any, before that. Six or seven years ago, I was diagnosed with herniated discs and offered steroids injected into the spine and surgery. I was so horrified by either possibility that I chose pain management, with a combination of prayer, medication and the support of my precious GP.

Before this. Before any diagnostic dialogue, I just thought it was my fault. I bought into a narrative, seemingly about healing, but in a slippery way, about blame and shame. I was holding something in my body that I should translate and release. I should welcome it, name it, rescue it, love it, give voice to it, give kindness to it, and above all, by these methods and more, I should be able to release and heal it. I made so many journeys to so many mountains, rituals, medicines, practices and practitioners, and at some fundamental level, I kept failing.

Failing, is an interesting concept, of course.

I have been held, helped, supported and loved by many of my endeavours. I value all the nourishment, beyond words or measure. I think, now I am less invested in being fixed, I can allow more nourishment.

As for the pain… it has slowly, but surely got worse year by year. I have been slowly but surely, moving towards some kind of treatment plan. Even the inconceivable suggestions from those years back. Then in November last year, the slowly worsening pain started galloping. It was escalating day by day. It took my breath away and not in a good way.

It stabilised in the Spring. When I say stabilised, I mean at the new, much heightened pitch.

Maybe, I haven’t written about it because the words don’t pour forth? Maybe, as well as the shame, it’s a technical difficulty? And, what’s funny in an awful sort of way, is that the language I find to write about depression, is kind of the same. It is unforgiving and relentless, it hammers and smashes and breaks, and crushes breath and hope out of every inch of me… so, I feel like I’ve written about it already. But I haven’t. This is me trying.

I think it is something like this: I was learning to live with my depression. And, I do mean in a good way. Kindness and welcome. Celebration even. Here … I am… and, what if that can really be okay? I was getting it. Not getting it exactly… allowing it to find me, this sweetness restored… I believe in this simple possibility, so deeply that my heart could just burst from it… and… oh my, how I am struggling to find the softness around living like this. My back and hips constantly roaring. My knees going. My stumbling and wincing and grimacing, and trying to look vaguely normal, and not be a total bore. I mean how many times can I tell you how it rolls, when I seem to have taken up residence here?

So, somewhat the same, but also not the same. I’m crawling towards steroids and surgery, and I am attached to getting fixed. In the meantime, I am trying to practice welcoming what I don’t want to welcome, and being where I don’t want to be.

It is a small and vast terrain: PainWorld. I am surviving. And, I honestly don’t know if writing about it, is helpful, or not. What I do know, though, is that I can’t breathe inside a closet.

730 Days With Leonard

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It’s two years ago today that Leonard The Dog came home.

I’m making a tradition that can only end in the vale of tears, where all stories end… but there is something compelling about counting the days. How many days will we have? I have an inner nerd, if only I were better at mathematics. I wonder about things like how many miles I have walked in my life, so far. How far?

Loving Leonard is a fine thing. It’s much more of a breathtaking thing than I ever could have imagined. I mean that literally. This dog love, it cracks in my chest and catches in my throat. He is often my muse. There is a folder on my laptop titled: Love Songs to Leonard (the dog) not to be confused with any fragments of love, inspired by Leonard (the man).

It’s the proximity of human coupledom that has always defeated me. I need so much space, silence and solitude. The extrovert I thought I was, turns out to have been hiding the deeply introverted truth of me.  Living with Leonard is fiercely intimate. He’s always there and he sees everything. It is unutterably healing to be able to give myself up to this life sharing kind of love, that I’d thought was not to be my lot.

And you might say, but he’s a dog, not a person. You might think it’s not a true compare. You might never be able to grasp just how much one person can love a dog. This person. This dog. This love.

Almost all of those 730 days, I’ve walked out with Leonard. It’s unequivocal. It’s just what happens. This is the best dog medicine for my baseline depression. It doesn’t fix it, but rather takes it out perambulating. I would never walk myself through the days, through the changing colours and smells of the seasons. Sometimes it’s a labour to walk the length of my own corridor. But for the love and commitment to Leonard, I walk or stumble four to five miles a day. I know this because someone bought my nerdy self a little machine to measure the ground we cover.

Did I say that my dog is a comedian? He makes me laugh, even and especially when I’m very gloomy. He’s such an optimist and an extrovert: he shows me the good stuff every day, just being himself.

Last summer I had my bedroom redecorated. I bought my first ever bed. And because it is almost certainly going to be my one and only bed, I got a truly beautiful one. Then I got Leonard a new bed: a luxuriously simple, soft blue corduroy, beanbag bed. Up to this point, Leonard had a very nice, though not quite as nice as that, dog bed, in the corner of our bedroom. He spent a lot of time on the bed with me, but usually retired to his bed to sleep through the night.

I wanted him to sleep with me, which he did on rare occasions. It always felt like a bit of Grace when that happened. I always said, thank you.

And then, dear reader, the beanbag bed well and truly threw him. He wasn’t at all sure about the beans and all the moving and grooving that getting onto it entailed. Before giving up on the beanbag bed, which I was rather attached to, I initiated a small training programme to befriend the bed. Everyday I encouraged Leonard to approach and master the weird beans, and sustained by treats and compliments, he started to get the hang of it.

While this process was winding its way, Leonard took to sleeping up on the bed with me. It is oddly tricky to put this into words, but something beyond the shores of tenderness ensued. Sleeping very close together, each night, which I’m sure for Leonard was a tempory thing, has woven us more deeply together. It is quite something to sleep in such close company. It’s that proximity thing again… but, oh how I am able to delight in and cherish this. I wake frequently. I need to pee. My back and hips hurt. I wake up frequently in my beautiful, white ash bed, and he is right there: his body against my shoulder or a paw on my head. He snuffles and snorts and forgives me all the getting up and getting down, the rearrangement of body parts, both dog and human.

You might say I’m being anthropomorphic… nevertheless; we are more tightly linked together now we sleep pushed up against the other. Sleeping with another is an intimate thing: an intimate thing that I’ve never really known and tasted. For all the good company I have had in my bed(s) over a lifetime, no, not ever like this.

I’m going to post this anniversary, dog card from my window ledge, and walk out with Leonard into a sunny afternoon. Blessings and dog prayers for the next 365… and gratitude to Leonard The Dog, for sharing my days and nights.

 

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Forgiveness: Ongoing

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Walking through early Sunday morning in my part of London. Not many people. Not much sign of the recent Spring light that has been breaking through. A low, grey sky. Feet and paws going forwards.

Does the fact I have to keep forgiving myself mean I’m doing something wrong? Or that I think I am? I wrestle with this, and it’s not so cut and dry. Not so simple.

There must be a part of me that yearns for a different life, another version of me. There must be, because I keep needing to forgive myself for being here like this. Maybe because depression is in itself, such an unforgiving beast, I have to keep forgiving it?

An hour or so ago, with Leonard The Dog: lurching, stumbling, slouching, not toward Bethlehem, but just through the simple mechanics of another day. Park. Home. Leonard snoozing. Me: tapping on a postcard. Chewing on the word, the flavor, of forgiveness. Dreaming of death, the way that I do.

I can do it.

First walk. Done.
An impulse followed through… a postcard or a prayer.
A batch of chocolate & peanut butter muffins (new recipe)
Second walk.
Bath (not negotiable as getting smelly)
PJs.
Food.
Netflix.

Made it through the day.

Sometimes I can’t help judging my little life, for, well, being so little. I imagine myself much more productive and functional. I imagine myself with some of the stuff I never will have. Maybe, that’s why forgiveness has to be an ongoing project? Maybe, we just have to keep forgiving ourselves, and each other, for being who we are?

Would I really trade myself in for one that didn’t wake up every morning full of dread, or one that wrote productively and socialized with ease? Oddly, I’m not at all sure I would. This is the one I am. And, I’d miss her.

And the sort of forgiveness I’m tugging at is different from the radical forgiveness required in the face of violent acts, though radical enough in its own way. Forgiveness as a homecoming, as acceptance and love. Forgiveness as a celebration of being just like this. Forgiveness as a doorway to our own precious hearts.

I seem to have riffed my way into a kinder place. And the kindness, as one of my teachers once said, can hold everything.

As Leonard sings: the sweetness restored… not forgetting to include: I’m tired and I’m angry all the time…

It’s all true. It all resides in the Fields of Mercy, Kindness, and Forgiveness too.

I’m here with my dog, pushing and pulling breath in and out of my lungs. It’s my Sunday. It’s my here and now. It is quite, quite simple, if I can let it be so.

I read this poem out loud. I kiss the sweet belly of dog. I sign off the window ledge and walk towards the muffins.

RELIGIOUS STATUES by Leonard Cohen

After a while
I started playing with dolls
I loved their peaceful expressions
They all had their places
in a corner of room 315

I would say to myself:
It doesn’t matter
that Leonard can’t breathe
that he is hopelessly involved
in the panic of the situation

I’d light a cigarette
and a stick of Nag Champa
Both would burn too fast
in the draft of the ceiling fan

Then I might say
something like:
Thank You
for the terms of my life
which make it so painlessly clear
that I am powerless
to do anything

and I’d watch CNN
the rest of the night
but now
from a completely different
point of view

Being Helped

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Walking and cogitating: retreading the circles of dog world. I’ve been trying to compose this postcard and finding discomfort, not ease. There is a whole vista of vulnerability and exposure. Weirdly, some things are easier to expose than others.

A memory: I’m about four years old. I stand in the toilet doorway in the middle of the night. I’m covered in vomit and shit and see myself reflected in my mother’s gaze. She is repulsed.

I’m nearly sixty now, and have been blessed by many healing moments along the way. Nevertheless, I do believe that a piece of that tiny girl has been stuck in that doorway for most of my life: the doorway of shame.

I’ve just had a small (not small for me) economic crisis. The infrastructure of my little life started to unravel and I realized how tiny the space is, between a professional woman and a homeless one. I’ve been pulling and pushing an unforgiving bank loan around for years. The roots of it go all the way back to my psychotherapy training. It nearly did for me, dear reader, but for an extraordinary wave of kindness from friends.

My debt has been settled, my arrears paid and the small (not so small) matter of a bed I probably should have resisted last summer, but somehow can’t quite regret, all done and dusted. I don’t owe anybody anything. Well, except the debt of overwhelming gratitude. A debt, I think I can live with because it lifts me up rather than weighs me down.

And something else: this process of being seen in the forensic detail of my financial mess, some of it my own undoing, has built a bridge between humiliation and humility. The child in that doorway of shame has had a redemptive experience. Instead of being seen in her mess as disgusting, I was just loved and lovingly helped.

Notwithstanding the monetary gifts in the external world, giving me a new lung capacity that I didn’t even realise I’d lost, I have been gifted back a piece of my lost to myself, self.

That, even though money runs through this story, is priceless.

And, now I am actually writing this, it’s not so hard. Money has so much correlation to value, in this funny old world. And if I buy into that equation I become smaller. Diminished. I tell myself I don’t have any assets and can forget to see my brokenness, in the light comes in through the cracks, sort of way. I get caught up in a model that measures success and value, in relation to a particular kind of asset. The kind I don’t have many of.

Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t mind a few more. I aspire to shoring up the banks of my little life with a bit more work: some extra cakes and a couple more humans in my psychotherapy room. As I said, it is a very small fall between okay and not. But, most crucially, through this very personal fall into economic chaos, followed by unimagianed debt relief, I have remembered where my assets really are.

I am loved, seen and forgiven. I have discovered, that while depression is indeed my home address, home is located in The Field’s Of Kindness. I’m allowed to make a holy mess of things, and find ways to recover. Perfection takes a hostage of heart and humanity. We are human. We are messy. It is like this. Hallelujah.

I didn’t know what to call this postcard. And then I did.

 

Being Touched

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This morning I was touched by my own predicament. On my knees on the sheepskins, not exactly praying, but not exactly not praying, either. Somewhere between exiting bed and entering clothes… crawling into another day.

And, today, I was touched by my own predicament. Touched in the understood sense of touched. My heart ached with tenderness. Salt water pressed behind my eyes, and I felt my little self, through the cracks where the light slips in. I often feel nothing, and that’s a predicament of it’s own. To paraphrase Mr. Cohen: it might be empty but that doesn’t mean it’s light.

Recently, I was discussing ‘being touched’ with my friends. I have this sense of myself being touched, even when I can’t feel it. That idea, if it is an idea, sustains me. Underneath the crushing weight of depression on a daily basis, I am touched by Grace.

When I say Grace, I mean both the mystery and the exquisitely, ordinary things. I don’t quite know how it has come to pass, that I can feel touched when I can’t feel. It’s a peculiar thing and if I think about it too much, I make my head hurt. I just know it makes it possible to keep practicing welcoming rather than fixing, this thing called depression.

As Leonard writes:

You got me singing
Even tho’ the news is bad
You got me singing
The only song I ever had

Somehow, I have found the only song I ever had… and it makes it okay to be in the world like I am. More than okay, in fact. More like at home.

Oh, precious Life… merciful, unforgiving, holy, terrible, ravaged  and beautiful, Life… whatever am I going to do with You?

 

 

Today (so far)

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My strategies are slipping through my tired hands and it isn’t even 11am. I didn’t make it to morning Dog World, because I am buried so deeply inside the weight and darkness that my responses are in slow mo. A simple hello leaves me flailing like a fish on a hook, just trying to make a simple hello back. Where does my voice go? It’s the weirdest feeling, having to drag the syllables up from so far underground, that by the time they make it, the moment has long gone.

So, we went to the cemetery instead, where I don’t have conversations, or even fragments. More nods and mumbles in passing. It’s a different kind of Dog World with the dead and the trees.

If by chance I passed by Mr. Cohen on my heavy, footed circles round the graves, he would doff his hat and I would make the smallest inclination of my tired head. It’s one of those days. It often is.

I can’t go on but I do. And sometimes there is a lot of space around this paradox of my life… now is not such a time. Now. Right now, my lungs are too tired to try, and there is no space around the paradox of keeping going.

And I go on.

Elephant Day

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Walking to a London park with Leonard The Dog. Through gritted teeth and spikes of nameless fury, I am attempting to practice my Practice. Welcome… WECLOME… welcome… to this and this and this… I crack my jaw, doing a fair imitation of Munch’s Scream. I’m not sure if I’m getting some queer looks from passers by.

I am full to bursting with compressed and compacted anguish. I could burst. I really could. Burst.

Quite suddenly, I see, quite vividly, an elephant. Now, I’m not much prone to visuals. I am more a fragment of words sort of girl. But here, on the way to a London park , I am visited by an elephant. She’s lumbering and lurching in half circles, listing badly to the left. Do I have some trace memory of wildlife films? Have I seen an elephant do this? This elephant is clearly not okay. Her trunk is hopeless weight, her knees are buckling and she’s going down: a big, falling elephant in my minds eye on a London street.

I don’t even know about elephants. I don’t know if this is actually, factually, how one would fall. And the sound: Oh Lord, the sound of this elephant as she lists and lurches and falls… I don’t know if this is the true sound an elephant makes? Or just this one? This elephant inside me has been shot in the hip, or knee capped, or something quite inconceivable. Elephant depression. And, the sound of an elephant’s sorrow is too much for the ears or heart of a human, to tolerate.

Leonard The Dog is having a pee. Here I am on the way to a London park, having some kind of elephant breakdown and Leonard is cocking his leg up against a London wall.

I keep going. Dogs are good like that: good at moving forward. We walk and slowly my elephant bleeds back into the mystery. Now, at home in Bed World, tapping out an elephant report, I feel the tears behind my eyes. I see my own small endeavor to make postcards from my small sufferings, as the prayers for Mercy, that they are.

 

 

 

 

 

The Beat Goes On

 

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The thing about being a base line depressive, rather than an episodic one, is the weather conditions are relentlessly predictable. I’m thinking about this as I wrestle with another new day and the beginning of a new week, and I feel, as I often do, that I can’t go on.

So, I try and keep it simple and kind and practice what I preach. It’s just a precious little day, I say… a little day in my little life and I can make it through. And because it is so the same, and yet not the same, I find myself thinking about repetition and how over and over again I make the same moves. Every morning is a shock. Every morning I struggle mightily on the hook of waking up. Every morning I say no and life says yes.

In May 2015 I wrote this on Facebook:

Mornings take it out of me
The poems don’t work anymore

I’d like to wake up different
Like women in shampoo commercials
Especially the ones they shoot in Greece
I’d like to throw the shutters open
On that salty, blue, white world
And raise my face up to the sun

Here, in the Kindness of a London bedroom
I wake up wrestling with each new day
Watched over by Leonard The Dog

It describes a repetitive experience, in that it looks like this every morning. It is simply, just like this. And still, every time is new. This is the point I am groping and fumbling with in this postcard. Every time is new… those of you who are kind enough to read me will know I do return to the Morning Theme. Maybe I’ll always be writing riffs about mornings. Maybe the break of day is my muse.

I titled this postcard, The Beat Goes On, partly as a bow to my home/dance group that goes by the same name. And because the beat does go on, until it doesn’t for each of us… we go on doing the things we do, rolling on through life as life moves through us.I am grateful beyond measure to have washed up on the shores of tenderness and found a lot of human wreckage there. I am in good company. I am broken and whole. And the beat goes on, as my heart pumps life through my system and I fall through these days that are faster than they seem.