Out of Despair 6 – Dreams and Tragedy

We have dreamed large and been shattered when the dreams died. I have learned things I cannot unlearn, like searing coals that have left deep scars. Love is not enough. Life is cruel. People do not get as they deserve. Sometimes the violent prosper and the kind suffer. Sometimes you take big risks and lose it all. Death crushes dreams, sickness brings a grief that isolates utterly. We are vulnerable little bags of blood and bones and our dreams are soap bubbles and glass. Life turns on a dime.

But without dreams, there is no life, no hope, no abundance, no meaning, no joy. Without risk, we have nothing.

Nothing’s safe, except what we put at risk – Le Guin

I understand this well, it’s how I’ve stayed alive when I’ve lost so much faith in the world. But this year, it was not enough. Suddenly we’re dreaming big dreams, like having a child. The kind where I can’t imagine surviving tragedy. Death, illness, loss, all paralyzing me with terror. In the face of these nightmares, a dead child, a dead partner, court taking child from ‘mentally ill’ mother, homophobia, violence, homelessness, loss… I am like a rat in a cage, running frantically but there’s no way out. There’s no way to survive these things.

And that’s the key, there’s no way for your world to continue. It ends. What I’m doing now – this retreat, this bizarre breakdown – the letting go, it’s the letting go of a world that has ended. And you wait, you listen, you follow the small voices, the needs of the soul. And you find another path entirely, one that works for you, with what you have. So if Rose and I lose a child and it tears us apart… we sit and we cry and we say – love, love, this pain is too great, our grief is too different. Let us be free to grieve apart. If she dies and all the world we’d created together is suddenly hollow without her, I retreat, I listen, and I find a new path. Perhaps I leave the home we’d made, I buy a caravan, the child and I go traveling with the market folk, at night we watch the moon.

We are not on the railway tracks. We are free to grieve the death of dreams and make room to have new dreams. So tragedy can be faced, the inevitability of loss can be borne.

The world of structure is important. It is not wrong. It is necessary. It supports my life. Too much of it kills me. Too much of it would have me living a ‘successful’ life, the ‘recovered’ patient, doing things that have long lost meaning for me, empty and lost in my heart. This other wild way is capricious and impulsive and need driven and full of hidden mystery and meaning. People make a lot of sacrifices in their lives hoping that success will make them feel the way I feel when I’m up a tree in the moonlight full of the wonder of my world. These two things should not be divided as they are in my life and my head. They are a whole. The one supports the other. Structure follows dreaming, sustains it, makes sure there is food in the cupboard and a safe place to sleep.

Letting go frees me to dream of different things to what I have known. I have fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that flares and settles and flares again. I can expect that there will be days that I do not get out of bed – as there are now. If I wait until I’m well to be a mother, I will not get the chance. But the despair in my heart when I’ve realised that there will be days Mum doesn’t get out of bed had overwhelmed me. My mother got out of bed even if she was just out of hospital. She’s my whole world of what it is to be a mother. I will fall short. I will be one of those mothers.

So I grieve that vision of motherhood, and let it go. I will reach out to mothers who have disabilities and illnesses. I will find a new vision, where who and how I am, is enough. Where what I am able to offer is worthwhile. I will have a different family, a different life, a different experience of being a mother. This is sad, and it is also freeing. Let go of what does not work, and find something that speaks to me. Enough suffering. Enough diligence. Enough failure.

Instead, the most barely understood glimpse of a life where we live in harmony, where passion and diligence meet, space for dark and light, the strongest and the most vulnerable. Room for madness, permission not to fit in or hide, connection to soul.

It’s a rich life I’ve led. So many experiences, so much I’ve learned. I’ve walked many different worlds, seen so much (attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion). It’s an amazing thing to be alive.

Out of Despair Part 1 – Language is Powerful

Part 2 – Frameworks Free and Bind

Part 3 – The Tribe

Part 4 – The Railway Tracks

Part 5 – The Cave Dwellers and the Golden Light

Out of Despair 3 – The Tribe

This change of approach is everywhere in my life at the moment. I have an analogy. Picture a tribe of people, living together. Now bomb the region. Nuclear! Wasteland, devastation, loss. The tribe are alive but wounded. Some are sick, some are weak, some are young. They band together to get out of the wasteland. The journey is very, very long. They don’t know how long it will take. Somewhere it must end, somewhere there must be clean water and trees. It’s an act of faith to go on, to keep believing that all the world is not like this. As they journey, some members cannot go on. They become exhausted, or too wounded, or they die. The tribe buries them, or leaves them in caves or burrows. They promise that when they find a good place, they will return. They keep on. Sometimes one member leads, sometimes another. Sometimes they fight. They learn a lot about living together and looking after each other. They leave a trail behind them, footsteps in blood, bodies under hummocks of sand and ash.

The tribe is smaller now, leaner, wiser, older. They find the edge of the wastes, there is grass again, water, food. They can make a home. They can make a life. They can sleep indoors.

The whole world of mental health now says to me – set up home. Focus on the present moment. Be happy. Be well.

My wastes are full of wailing, angry ghosts. I’m haunted by who I used to be. I owe debts. I’ve made promises.

So I look sick instead of successful, as I go back to the burrows and rouse them, the lonely, wounded, angry ones, and promise them the world now has trees in it. As I go and wake my dead, gather the bones and bring life back into them. It looks like depression. It looks like crashing, like getting sick. I don’t look like a successful, recovered patient.

But there’s life again! There’s many voices. There’s feeling in my skin. Where my routines and plans had become empty, there’s passion. Where I’ve closed my ears to the cries and done what needed to be done, now is a time to open my ears, to sit and listen, to make a fire, to share bread, to tell the stories, to bring back together what has been divided. Dark and light, old and young, bold and timid, hope and despair, conventional and misfit, to be a tribe again, to each have a voice. We all need to have a voice to dream of a new future for us all.

And here comes the next part – the dreaming. It cannot be something that suits one, or a few. Parenthood must not be something only one or two desire. A home is not a home unless we all belong there, strange as we are. If the dark wild ones need trees to climb there must be trees. We need all of us to dream, to yearn, to share in a future together.

Without all the voices we have no balance. We are divided, unstable, without constraint. The human spirit is made to be pulled in different directions, this is our pain and our beauty, we find balance between conflicting needs. I am divided, we must work together for there to be balance, wholeness, real hope. There has been rising hope and despair, in conflict, this year. To undo the conflict and find harmony, we must undo the framework.

Out of Despair Part 1 – Language is Powerful

Part 2 – Frameworks Free and Bind

Part 4 – The Railway Tracks

Out of Despair 4 – The Railway Tracks

Let me tell you about something I call the railway tracks. It is something I have struggled with for many, many years. I get stuck. I plan my life, and those plans are like tracks laid out before me. In good times, they are a guide. I stick to them, but I can also get off them, make detours, follow impulses, go where the moon calls me. In bad times, I am trapped by them, no deviation, no way out. Rewind 5 years. I’ve driven into the city to go to a church service that evening. I’m trying to make new friends. I know I’m multiple but I’ve told almost no one. I’m exploring an idea that if we don’t switch, if we take the same part to church each time, we might have a better chance at making friends. It’s sort of working but also not. Driving home late at night, there’s a sudden yearning inside to go home via the beach instead. The night is cold and clear and the moon is bright silver and I’m terribly lonely and lost. I want to do this so badly, but I can’t. The plan was to go to church and come home. The beach isn’t in the diary, isn’t on the schedule. I fight very hard but I cannot make myself drive there. I go home instead. This is the railway tracks.

At the time I dig into it enough to realise that I suffered from it because it supported my functioning in another way. I didn’t exemplify the chaos that is common in someone who has parts, because we all stuck to an agreed schedule. The downside was this lack of freedom to be spontaneous. That was upsetting but an acceptable trade off. Over time, the schedule – and this whole approach, the group being bound to decisions made previously, a rigid adherence to agreements, inflexibility, feeling trapped and locked in, has degenerated into severe depression. Hence, the letting go of it all, the following of small voices, listening to immediate needs and wants. The tracks are suddenly gone. The sense of living my life by constantly bullying myself into doing things I desperately did not want to do, being so far outside of my comfort zone I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen it, of holding myself down, holding my hand in the fire, holding the feelings at bay, that has gone. The boulders on my heart have lifted. The despair is still there, the screaming pain, the loneliness, the scars, the terror, the years of torment and loss. But the crushing destruction of motivation, initiative, emotion, that has gone, for now at least. The tracks are gone. I can do what I wish, make impulse decisions. Turn right instead of left. Stand at the edge of the world and watch the ships.

Suddenly I’m walking Zoe because I want to, because I love her, because I love going out in the night and the cold where I have the world to myself, not because I have to, not out of guilt or obligation.

Suddenly I’m realising that this freedom is the key to attachment, to connection, to love. That this isn’t just how I want to look after my dog, it’s the kind of parent I want to be. Connected. Let off the hook for not being perfect. Working with what I have. It’s the kind of partner, friend, person, I want to be.

Stronger members of my system have allowed themselves to be bound by the needs and fears of more vulnerable members. It’s been critical for cohesion. We’ve been very good at presenting only one face to the world. We’re united by a set of values, and the primary need to survive. This leashing also strips us of much of our strength, passion, fire, and zest for life. You cannot dream when your dreamers are locked in stone. There’s a cold war between those who hope and those who despair. We are changing this. We are loosening leashes. I don’t know what will happen. That’s precisely the frightening and wonderful thing. I don’t know what my future holds.

Out of Despair Part 1 – Language is Powerful

Part 2 – Frameworks Free and Bind

Part 3 – The Tribe

Part 5 – The Cave Dwellers and the Golden Light

Out of Despair 1 – Language is Powerful

I’ve undergone a massive change in my mental landscape in the past month. Against a background of a bad flare in my chronic pain condition, and severe bouts of my first experiences of depression, I’ve finally found a way through. It’s difficult to communicate but I wanted to share. I’ve tried to put my thoughts in order and broken them up into 6 separate posts to make it easier to read and pick out only the bits you might useful. I hope it might be helpful to someone.

So many of my experiences in life have been so different, so alien and without words, I’ve struggled to even think about them in a coherent way, let alone communicate about them to other people. I’ve found lose frameworks and sketchy lexicons to at least be able to have a dialogue with my selves about my life. They’ve been useful but also limiting – as frameworks tend to be. So for example, as a young person, functioning in a way entirely differently from all my peers, I needed ways to describe and explain this to myself. One of the concepts I came up with is that I was a poet and they were not. This was, generally speaking, true. It also encompassed other ideas – that I was a highly creative person in a non-creative environment where sports was the focus. It spoke to a sensitive, observant nature. It had connotations far beyond that of a wordsmith – poet, and became instead Poet – a term that encompassed someone profoundly out of step with contemporaries, who spent much time up trees, on roofs, and in rivers. Who dressed primarily in velvet when given a choice, wore a knife on a belt when at home, cried most days, was desperately lonely, and carried around a journal like it was her own soul.

It was startling to meet other poets and discover that while most are misfits in some way, they are not necessarily misfits in the same way as I was. I was using the term to encompass ideas that did, and did not fit within it.

When I was first presented with the idea of dissociation it seemed primitive to me. I made no connection at all between the clinical terminology and my own experiences. I had become so accustomed to living a double life – the things we speak of and the things we do not, that starting to dig into my own fractured state in therapy deeply troubled me. I have come to accept that dissociation is the term for what I experience – a division of personality into separate parts, and at times a tenuous connection with ‘reality’. But there’s more to the story than this. Multiplicity is a big part of what makes me different. Being queer is another part. Odd developmental patterns is another – I was far ahead of my peers in some areas as a child/teen, and very behind in others. Being highly creative instantly put me at odds with systems, structures, routines, and traditions. Being highly traumatised changed how I felt, thought, and reacted. What made me feel different, and be identified by my peers as different, is far more complex than a mental illness. And to collapse some of my differences and challenges under the framework of mental illness does them a disservice.

Language is important. It shapes how we think. It provides frameworks, and frameworks are both useful and limiting. They can also be incomplete, unsophisticated, erroneous. The first times as a teenager that I went along to poetry gatherings I was deeply disappointed. I had been hoping to find people like me. People full of yearning and loneliness, who were deeply moved by life and had made the great effort to find words for experiences that defied language. People who craved connection and intensity. I felt instead, lost, lonely, confused. My frameworks were insufficient. ‘Poet’ was part of the picture but not the whole picture.

Dissociation and multiplicity are part of the picture but not the whole picture. The language of social workers and psychologists reminds me of butterfly collectors, who kill what they revere. Who have board of lifeless wings with which they cannot possibly understand the glory of flight. When lost for words, I always return to poetry. There are things you cannot understand without experiencing them as they are. Science turns on the lights and drags up the strange creatures from the deeps. It’s valuable. But it’s also limited.

Some days the single most lethal idea we’ve ever come up with, is that we are normal people, leading ordinary lives. The world is not what we think it is. Our ideas about it are a structure, a framework we’ve laid over it, to make sense of it and understand it. They are not ‘truth’, and they are not ‘reality’. Rejecting the ideas of your own culture does not mean you are rejecting reality. Being able to step outside of the roles you fill in your life can be a terrifying experience. It can also be a way of touching your soul.

Language is precious. I’m frustrated by people who say that language destroys what it seeks to describe, who believe that life cannot be communicated about. It is imperfect, which is why it should not be static. It is fluid, we change it, we add new words, we change the meanings of words, we shift it around. We lose words, we reclaim words – like queer, like mad, like freak.

I’m still partly a child. Literally and metaphorically. I’m hypersensitive, at times profoundly insecure, confused by the world. I lack filters. When I read a book or watch a movie, I live in it. I cry, I love, I feel deeply for the characters. They have been my friends when I didn’t have any. I learn quickly, the way a child does, soaking up information, mimicking instructions. The other day, I switched to a part who’s about 13. I was co conscious and could see and feel what she did. It was like peeling back so many years of my life and tossing them away for a night. Memories of those early years were as strong as a yesterday. The world shifted, shadows deepened, all the words meant something different to me. I was light as air, laughing, I was free in the night, full of mischief and uncertainty. When I’m near the beach, a poet often comes out, full of lonely yearning. She is much younger, she stands by the water at the edge of the world and watches the ships out at sea. I used to spend a lot of time in Salisbury. One of the shopping complexes has been build around an old graveyard. Between council buildings, the library, cinema, grocery store, there is a tiny plot of gravestones. Everyone walks around them as if they are not there. I used to stand among them, memorizing the names. Noticing the babies who lived only hours or days, the women who died after long, long lives. We walk around these things as if they are not there. We get stuck in our frameworks and cannot see beyond them or think beyond them. I love my little yearning girl who lives by the sea. To call her a part of my mental illness is to miss entirely who she is and what she means to me. It is to obscure and deny.

Language can kill you. After being homeless years ago, I moved into a borrowed caravan and a caravan park. It was a time of absolutely disarray in my life, every plan I’d ever made or hope I’d ever had was utterly disrupted. I was chronically physically unwell and in constant pain. My marriage had collapsed, my friendship networks were gone, my life had burned to the ground. I was living among some of the poorest members of our community.

I found myself  in the ‘white trash’ bracket of our culture. People were confused, uncomfortable, curious, weirdly sympathetic. I tried to get involved in life again but found that my address held me back. I offered to help raise a puppy for a local guide dog organisation. I asked at the information session if living in a caravan park – a pet friendly one that allowed small fenced areas around each van – would be an issue. They said of course not! I went through the training and the home inspection and failed. Someone higher up the hierarchy I’d never met had decided that a caravan was ‘not an appropriate environment for our expensive puppies’. I wasn’t really a person anymore.

That could have crushed me. I felt the impact of it, the weight of it, on my spirit. I finally turned it around by tapping into the gypsy culture in my mind. Finding a different way to see my situation, different words to use about it. Now that I’m living in a unit, I miss my van some nights. I like to sleep outdoors, to feel the rain and hear the wind and watch the moon rise. I found new words, ones that didn’t cut into me.

If dissociation is the word we’re using to describe what I feel when I’m walking through the frameworks of our culture and finding my own language instead, then it can’t be only negative, can’t be ‘illness’. It’s also freedom. There is a tremendous power in being able to define ourselves and our own lives in ways that are meaningful to us.

Out of Despair Part 2 – Frameworks Free and Bind