Seven times you are perfect

When you’re cracking your knuckles, not by bending your fingers back or crunching them forward, but by pulling and twisting at the joints. It makes my skin crawl and I shoot you that look, a sideways glare with a raised eyebrow. You say sorry, then crack one more knuckle before you stop.

When I’m preparing food and you stand close behind me, sliding your arms around my waist and kissing my neck. I stop what I’m doing because it makes me nervous to be so distracted when I have a knife in my hand. You know how I get about knives.

When you’re carrying our ancient cat around and showing her things on shelves she can no longer climb up to. Even with all their size and strength, your arms can protectively cradle this tiny, fragile creature and I remember my mother describing you as a gentle giant.

When I’m feeling anxious so I curl up next to you to hide from the world and you read the internet to me. It doesn’t matter if the stories are about animals who find their way home after being lost for months or unexplained mysteries of the wilderness. What matters is your voice. It’s like valium and the kindest electricity.

When you’re wearing headphones and you don’t realise you’re singing along to whatever you’re listening to, but you are and it’s beautiful. You don’t sing in front of anyone and I don’t play the piano in front of anyone, but we talk about doing these things together, away from everyone else, just for us.

When I’m lying behind you in bed and I rest my face against the warm expanse of your back, comforted by the absolute solidity of you. If truth could wrap itself around muscle and bone, it would settle in the structure of your shoulders and all that they have carried.

When we’re driving away from home and I ask for the fourth time if you’re sure I locked the door because I don’t remember doing it, and for the fourth time you say yes, without a trace of impatience. Even though I do this every time we go anywhere. Even though I never forget to lock the door.

 


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Now I go for walks and find castles

When athletes talk about breaking through the wall, they’re usually referring to the wall you hit twenty miles into a marathon or the wall you hit when you’re straining to lift more than you’ve ever lifted before, not the wall you hit when you’ve been walking for less than a minute. But that’s where my wall is. My wall often hovers in front of me and sometimes it collapses around me. My own personal tonne of bricks. My ominous, lightning-struck tarot tower. But what is a pile of rubble if not a challenge to climb?

I live in a suburb barely on the outskirts of the centre of town but because this is Edinburgh, where dormant volcanoes and chunks of mountain rise from the city, there is a forest park five minutes from my front door. Recently I have been exploring this forest park, slowly and in small sections, savouring every moment because you only get to go somewhere for the first time once. I take different paths each time with no idea where each one leads, relying on a sense of direction that is not calibrated for roads but never fails in nature. Today, I climbed not only my metaphorical fallen wall but also a literal hill.

It was a gradual incline at first, then a steeper one, but I’m tenacious and I love a good view so I climbed. The people I passed on my way likely thought I was at the end of a long and strenuous run, not the beginning of a comparatively short but still strenuous walk. I get embarrassed being out of breath in front of people. It feels like failure. Then I remember that they see me for only a few seconds and I probably don’t even register on their radar. My heart that always beats a little faster than it should, leaping sharply at the slightest provocation but barely speeding up further even when I’m gasping for breath and dripping with sweat, was dancing in my chest as I reached the top, rounded a corner and encountered a castle.

I’m not speaking in metaphors here. There was an actual castle at the top of the hill. I knew it existed but I didn’t realise that was where it was or that I was going to see it today. I stopped to catch my breath and take a picture. I always take pictures when I’m walking because on the days, weeks, months and years when I can’t walk I look at the pictures to be reminded that there are times when I can. Chronic illness can drop you into a bizarre wonderland without warning but so can anything else and sometimes castles appear out of nowhere just when you need a little bit of extra magic in your life.

My activity tracker buzzed on my wrist and the voice of its accompanying mobile app interrupted the music playing through my earphones to give me an update on my distance and speed. Those numbers are good to hear but it could say nothing more than “You are putting one foot in front of the other” and that would be enough for me. I caught myself wondering if I was feeling better, which is a strange state of questioning for me because I have no reliable frame of reference for ‘better’. When other people ask me that, the only way I know how to respond is to say that today I am able to do this, whatever that means. Before, when I had a good day or a good week, there was a little voice in my head that whispered, “This is it, this is the beginning, you’re going to be fine now” and when the next crash came, I hated that voice. Now I let it speak and I reply, “Maybe. Maybe not. But maybe”. I have come to recognise that voice as hope and hope should never be silenced. This is not a fight nor a struggle. There is no against. There is only with.

I looked at the screen of my phone to see how many steps I’d taken and noticed the summary of last night’s sleep. I had been in bed for six hours. I had slept for less than three because my back and legs ached, relentlessly, violently, and the feeling of my nerves and muscles imploding kept me awake. Pain cannot be measured by an activity tracker or displayed by an app and it is an ever-present, impatient, short-tempered teacher. For years, I thought I had to beat it into submission. Now I know that I need to listen to it, to learn from it and to finally understand that it is not a punishment nor a gift. It is simply circumstance.

I wandered beneath the gentle shade of yew trees, planted years ago to allow the lady of the grand house nearby to walk a sheltered path to the castle and I felt history wrap around me, heard the echoes of the steps of everyone who has ever walked under those trees. Walking today, being able to walk today, was not a victory over misfortune nor a triumph over suffering. It was a victory of love, a triumph of acceptance. That’s true of every step, ever, and walking facilitates a unique kind of spontaneous meditation that I always welcome when I’m lucky enough to experience it. It feels like something that has been blocked and caged is finally free to flow. It feels like my mind is open wide.

I remembered a boxer I met at a physiotherapy gym over a decade ago. I’ve written about him before. The one time we met, he strapped gloves to my hands and put on pads so I could hit something, anything, as much as I needed to. And I did, because I needed to so much. Just before everything went black and I had to sit down on the floor of the gym because I was in no way well enough to exert myself like that, he said “You’re an angry little thing, aren’t you?”.

As I made my way onto the final path towards the exit from the forest park, I quietly answered the boxer’s question eleven years late. I was angry, so angry for so long, but I’m not angry any more. Now I’m grateful. Now I go for walks and find castles.

 


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How much does it hurt?

I have never developed the ability to quantify pain. I get lost in a maze of perspective where subjectivity battles with analysis and words fail me.

I have never been able to choose a number from one to ten to describe what this is because a lower number is only wishful thinking and a higher one is a truth I feel like I have no right to lay claim to because it could be worse.

I have never been able to accurately state how much it hurts, but sometimes I find words for how it hurts and the violence in those sentences creeps like a shadow around thrumming circuits of crackling nerves.

Like someone ripped my spine out and used it to break my legs.

Like my bones are trying to climb through my skin.

Like my muscles are pulling my skeleton apart.

Like every cell in my body is screaming.

I have long since travelled through the stages of grief for what might have been. Acceptance is a room where I have painted the walls with scrolling cursive, so it goes and it is what it is.

This does not define me but it wraps around me and sometimes it covers my eyes but it won’t let me sleep.

 


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Medical records and memories as a winter landscape

Seeing your own medical records feels surprisingly impersonal. Maybe it’s because some details fell off the edge when you moved from one part of town to another and had to register with a different doctor because you were no longer in the right catchment area for your previous one. Maybe it’s because there was a clear severing of your past from your current life when you moved from one country to another and notes from doctors and hospitals didn’t travel with you. Maybe it’s the small inaccuracies, the moment when one eating disorder became labelled as another because of a typing error or a missed word somewhere along the way and ED-NOS with features of both bulimia and anorexia became bulimia-on-its-own, which you never actually had. Even now the concept of binging makes your heart thud against your ribs because your purging in a past life took the form of an attempt to rid yourself of what you actually were, not what you had consumed.

Or maybe it’s the sensation of seeing, in black and white, the progression from an observation of symptoms to a diagnosis to a chronic primary something-or-other as the confusion of your body overtook the confusion of your mind before your mind eventually followed suit and you were given an opportunity to learn new acronyms for your self-destructive coping mechanisms. Maybe it’s because when you were handed sheets of paper that contained this information, it was easier to believe that you were reading about someone else instead of feeling guilty for the body that survived everything you put it through but when you finally decided to give it freedom, it chose instead to exist in a perpetual state of dysfunction. It’s so easy to give in to the misconception that your body did this as an act of revenge, to spite you, rather than to accept the mundane truth that there is only so much damage that can be caused by injuries and viruses before the situation goes from “When you get better” to “If you get better” to the alternative that doesn’t bear thinking about.

You remember your last session with the one good therapist when you were twenty or twenty-one and he read out loud his notes from your first session and asked how you felt about that person. You said, “That’s not me. That’s someone else”, and he thought you meant it because you had become so much stronger but you actually meant it because you had never been able to relate other people’s explanations of what you were and how you might have become those things. You meant it because for all your self-awareness you had never wanted to believe how far you had fallen. You still don’t.

Now the fractures and blunt force traumas of your past life and the details of the times you lost yourself have been erased and you are left with only a few short years of history to comprehend. It still shakes you to your core, a place you once believed was populated with strength above all else. You tell yourself stories of things that are more beautiful for having been broken but you don’t believe a word you say. You have learned to accept the scars on the outside, even as new ones have appeared, even as you have put them there yourself, but you cannot forgive the scars on the inside and what they have turned you into. You do not hate yourself. Instead, you are disgusted. You start to list the ways in which you are still strong, still determined, but it turns into a list of ways that this is somehow all your fault and you can never build high enough walls to contain yourself.

You remember the physiotherapist who told you that you had to learn to stop because your body couldn’t handle what you were doing to it in the name of making miracles happen and you remember being so scared of stopping in case you were never able to start again. You also remember the ex-professional boxer you met at the physio centre who strapped your hands into gloves then put on boxing pads and told you to hit him until you felt better. Even though you could hardly stand up, you punched and punched until he was taking steps backwards to lessen the force of your rage. When you were doubled over, gasping for breath and the world became dark around the edges, you finally felt better. He said, “You’re very angry”. You said, “I know”. It didn’t cross your mind that this wasn’t a positive thing but it surprised you that, for once, someone else noticed. It also didn’t cross your mind that angry was something you had every reason to be, because anger is hot and loud and you are ice and silence.

You slide another copy of your medical records into another envelope to send to another government office and welcome the familiar freeze that creeps in around your edges, the brittle frost that allows you not to feel. Now the memories of how your body and mind were twisted and warped have become a cold garden of bare trees that you stumble through, arms wrapped around yourself in apology as you try not to take up space. You stare at the ground and still your breath as a dead branch cracks underfoot and the sound splits the air like a gunshot.

 


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To someone you eat pizza with

Like when someone you haven’t seen in months doesn’t notice how much weight you’ve lost and emptiness tastes so much better than food for a few days after.

When shoulders that can hold up the world seem somehow less than delicate wrists with a child’s watch, hanging loose on bones that still bear the never-quite-healed cracks of too many fractures and the memory of jeans that slid over narrow hips and the gap between waistband and concave stomach.

When you laugh about how sweet you take your coffee because you used to count it as food, the only calories you will allow yourself today, sixteen in each spoonful of sugar, and the habit never totally left, even after you started eating solid things again.

Standing in front of the mirror, breathing in, trying not to long for xylophone ribs and telling yourself over and over that you shouldn’t miss the spikes and troughs of skin stretched over skeleton.

Repeating the mantra it is better to be healthy and trying to resist the urge to stealthily spit the concept of health into a napkin and hold it under the table, rolled in cold spidery hands until you can safely dispose of it without anyone noticing.

And you know you could go back, so easily, any time you wanted but you also know you won’t. You grieve for the loss of the person you were for so many years and the person you might have been, if only. This is not a good if only.

When you refer to how you used to have an eating disorder and drape what you hope is a casual smile across your face because you don’t think anyone could look at you and believe there was ever a time in your life when you didn’t really eat. Because you do eat now. Of course you do. Obviously. Except for the times when you don’t.

When you get scared of the space you take up so you cut the food on your tiny plate into miniature pieces, eat half of them and spend the next twenty minutes arranging the rest into the corner of a circle, a place that doesn’t even exist.

When you fix your eyes on the bathroom wall and refuse to look down in the shower because today you don’t want to see, but you still allow your mind to wander over the parts of your body that didn’t used to be there, telling yourself again that yes, this is worth it. No matter how much, on some days, it feels like it isn’t.

When he wraps his arms around you and says you’re so tiny and you know that he means it in comparison to his own broad shoulders and hands that easily encase the width of your back and not like the ache of tentatively expressed concern as he counts the bones of your spine with his fingertips again.

And if you ever need to be reminded why you left yourself behind and became something less like a ghost and more like a real person with all the solidity that involves, you look in his eyes and convince yourself to accept the beauty reflected in his smile that no mirror ever allowed you to feel.

 


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Tears are not wrapped in flags and slogans

When the windows shake in their frames and you try to figure out how close the explosion was, how likely it is that your friends or your family might have been near there or actually there.

When you hear shots being fired and the echoes are deafening and you can’t help but think of the last time you were in that exact place and of the people who are in that exact place right now. Or the people who are running away from it. Or the people who can’t run anywhere at all.

When a world full of armchair philosophers sit at a comfortable distance and debate these people killing those people and the merits of their reasoning and governments hide behind money and spew soundbites to the press while counting their weapons again.

When you tell yourself over and over that it’s going to be alright because so far, for you, it has been. Whatever alright even means. And you are still alive because you’re lucky. And you are still alive but other people aren’t and you don’t know how to feel so you learn to feel nothing and even after you finally get away, there are walls you’ve built that will never come down.

When it happens somewhere else, somewhere you aren’t, and finally you cry and your tears are not wrapped in flags and slogans because they are raw and aching and they burn your face and you are still alive because this time you are here, not there.

When your accent no longer marks you as a threat because the world has someone else to fear now but those people are no more a threat than you ever were. It was not you, it was never you and it’s not them either but you don’t know what to say because at least the colour of your skin has never painted a target on your back.

When your heart breaks for the people in shock, picking up the pieces and trying desperately to hold them together because life is supposed to go on, except for the lives that can’t because they aren’t lives any more.

We are supposed to be Not Afraid. I am fucking terrified.

 


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Winter will always be my home

Last night my Facebook feed erupted in exclamations of “Snow!”. I live in Scotland, where it is entirely possible to experience four seasons’ weather in one day, so snow in March isn’t particularly unusual or shocking. But it is exciting. It is interesting. It is worth sharing. The terrifying reality of climate change notwithstanding, these little jolts of not-quite-chaos kind of pull me out of whatever I’ve been thinking about or feeling all day. They nudge me gently and say “Hey, something a little bit different is happening now”.

Some people come to life in the summer. I am not solar-powered. I am not a heat-seeking missile. My most beautiful memories are of the cold and the dark. Winter has blessed me with the most meaningful of experiences, so it will always be beautiful to me. Winter will always be my home.

The night my new boyfriend and I decided that it wasn’t too cold to walk home, so we did, but it was actually below zero and when we got back to my house we remarked over how the chocolate bars we bought from the 24 hour garage up the road had frozen in our pockets and we couldn’t feel our faces. We wrapped our hands around warm cups of tea and our arms around each other and a blanket around ourselves and fourteen years later I still recall that night with a smile. It was the first of many walks together, many pavements and many words.

The heavy snow fall a few years ago when my car got stuck in the street outside my studio at 11pm and I was trying to decide whether or not it was wise to just give up and walk home in my not-nearly-sensible-enough shoes when two complete strangers in a much sturdier car than mine pulled over. For a brief moment I thought “Maybe they’re going to help me or maybe they’re going to bundle me into the boot of their car and no-one will ever see me again”. I shrugged my shoulders and took my chances. They towed my car out of the parking space and onto the road and I realised that as a woman, alone in a dark and deserted street at night, I probably should have been afraid, but I wasn’t, because. Because. And I still don’t know how to finish that sentence.

Last Christmas, staying with my parents for a week and spending most of that time curled up on a couch much bigger and softer than the battered leather monstrosity in my own living room. On one crisp, bright afternoon my dad brought out his air pistol, set up a small target in the garden and I was reminded of the natural flair I have for shooting. Afterwards, we went inside and ate home-made soup and listened to Ennio Morricone’s Gabriel’s Oboe. I still have the little paper target, to remind me in times of self-doubt, that I am capable of accuracy and control.

A long time ago, opening the front door as quietly as I could so I didn’t wake anyone else, and walking out into the stillness and silence of a street of sleeping houses covered in a thick blanket of white and magic. I did cartwheels down the middle of the road, leaving hand print hand print foot print foot print behind me. Then I closed my eyes and tilted my face up to meet the falling snow and knew that I would remember this. And I did. And I do. And I will.

 


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