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‘a study of a courageous young woman’

 

Catherine Oughtibridge

Photograph and paragraphs below copyright Kaisa Vänskä, used with permission.

Catherine

“My dear girl, when are you going to realise that being normal is not necessarily a virtue? It rather denotes a lack of courage.”
-Aunt Frances, Practical Magic

Analytical, curious, determined, patient, courageous, a survivor. These are only a few of the words that can describe Catherine well. I met Catherine for the first time the winter of 2016, when I was travelling in Sicily. After only a few minutes we found ourselves sitting on a flush red sofa, munching on carob fruits and talking about similarities and differences between world religions. Thus started a friendship that has carried over the distance, time difference and different situations in life.

Regardless of being independent and confident, Catherine denotes unbelievable vulnerability. Catherine is a rape victim, and as a result of that, she struggles with things that I take for granted: like a sense of safety, setting boundaries, finding balance between expressing her feelings and not making people around her upset or uncomfortable, and accepting what has happened.

The exhibition started as a lighting exercise but developed into a study of a courageous young woman, who hasn’t ever been and won’t ever be normal. A woman, who despite adversity, has the courage to love, trusts in life and in people. A woman, who, in the whirlwind of her own life, still has time to listen to others and offer some hard-won wisdom. A woman, who chases life and new experiences with zest, ready to meet big and small victories as well as the inevitable stumbles of life.


This is me, as seen through the lens of Kaisa Vänskä. The picture is one of a series of black and white photos of me which were exhibited in Kuusamo, Finland.

Kaisa’s photography has helped me break through a layer of the silence that surrounds me. And it’s started important conversations.

If you want to read more about my story, I have rewritten the page that describes me. I have also written a piece on second-hand trauma, which discusses the difficulties of discussing trauma and the effects it has on those people who support and care for a traumatised person.

 

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The field beyond right-doing and wrong-doing

In the field of forgiveness

A field in Tuscany left for the wild flowers to grow.

I’m reading a book by Anne Lamott. She makes me laugh.

It helps that she’s easy to read, but it also helps that she writes about how terribly she handles an array of challenging situations, how she’s working on it, how she has all of these great strategies and when she puts them into place she comes out with something that’s nowhere near ideal, but not quite so terrible either.

Much of what she says involves some sort of gratitude and rather a lot of humility. She seems to constantly be admitting her mistakes. Saying things like, I got this wrong, I had to pluck up my courage and go and appologise.

Now I’m sure that I get loads of things wrong

The problem is that I’m frequently wrong about what it is I’m getting wrong. But it’s no wonder. My psychotherapist says I need to be more selfish, my dad says I need to be less selfish. They’re both right, because they mean different things by ‘selfish’ but I’m too afraid of both their meanings to really comprehend any of it at all. I continue blundering on. Most of the time I’m winging it. Guided by delusions of certainty I’m in a habit of getting quite lost.

I have this great belief that if I wasn’t hurting I wouldn’t be so defensive and therefore I wouldn’t find understanding what motivated my behaviour quite so difficult. But even if I’m not hurting I’m fearing hurting, and therefore act defensive just in case. Humility is the opposing force, but it’s quiet and patient and alien.

I want to admit when I’ve made a mistake

Yet I don’t want to negate my hurt. It’s that balance between forgiving someone for hurting you but still allowing yourself to feel the loss that I find so difficult to navigate. The mistake has been made. It’s in the past and is therfore kind of irrelevant now. However the hurt lingers. Hurt piles on hurt and sooner or later you’re feeling buried and you’ve no idea how to dig yourself out. The details are frivolous. All you want is recognition but it’s the last thing you know how to ask for. And when you do, you’re not polite. You’re openly angry (or more often in my case, passive aggressive). You pile up more hurt and throw it about.

I admire it when people just stand there, recognising it’s not about them per se, it’s about you, and your stash of pain. I made a cutting and uncalled for remark at my sister. I knew instantly that I was taking my stress at being in Italian city traffic at rush hour out on her (plus all the uncountable, tiny, seemingly-inconsequential things that weigh me down). I felt bad. That healthy feeling called guilt. I apologised as soon as we got home, and I could look her in the face. Apologies I think are best said to the face. But my sister, that brave soul, stressed-out just like the rest of us, stood there with dignity and that, ‘It’s okay, I understand, you were reacting to the stress, it was a stressful moment, I know you weren’t out to hurt me’.

That is trust.

However, trust can be broken

We say things that spew from things that are completely different from the words we’re too scared to really say. My psychotherapist sits quietly and points out that a little text message saying something so simple as congratulations may in fact be passive aggressive. I’m shocked – really? I want connection not disconnection. Yet, rather than asking for connection, humbly, I’m motivated by my fear of disconnection. I’m defensive. I’m dancing around issues because I’m too scared to face them head on. I fear I’ll act – to use a cliched phrase – like a bull in a china shop. Certainly many of the people I know are delicately beautiful but also somewhat fragile.

I like Anne Lamott

She throws all her mistakes into writing and seems to keep trying, keep writing and keep moving forward.

She quotes Rumi:

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

And she has written rather a lot, including accounts of both her father and her best-friend dying. She’s written about grief. I have such a sense of loss sometimes. It can be helpful reading that there is only one way to get grief to budge – grieving. It seems so simple and yet reading it written down in black print does feel somewhat reassuring. And surprising.

I rarely know what to say. And perhaps when I do speak, my words are not the most elegantly expressed. But as much as my father jokes about my desire to be a hermit, I know I’m not someone who will ever be their best truly alone. I just have to keep on trying.

The book I’ve just finished reading is Small Victories by Anne Lamott. I’d also recommend her book on writing, Bird by Bird.

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The mystery of cars

car

Just a little car spotted whilst walking the via francigena through Tuscany the other week…

I’ve learnt more about cars since I scrapped my car than I did in the eight years I drove it. My mechanical skills consisted of replacing the headlight bulbs (the mechanic who spotted that I was driving around with one upside down has to be credited for his non-patronising tone when he told me he’d just popped it in the other way up) and switching from my dead tyre to my spare tyre – yeah my car was old enough for a big spare tyre. Okay, I admit, the whole thing with the tyre I had step by step instructions from a kindly chap who also tightened everything up at the end.

I replaced the window wipers once, I think. I guess that’s something.

Everyone has some sort of limit defining their relationship with their car. I’ve known people who didn’t do motorways or who thought it was a huge undertaking for me to drive the five hours home to my parents. And yes, I guess the M1 can be a bit of an undertaking on a Friday afternoon. I know I’d rather pick any other day of the week.

But then there’s that chap I was coaching Business English with in Poland. He had a meeting in London, so he drove. And there was a man I met in a hostel in Brussels, he was driving home to Italy, from visiting his family in Finland. Normally he flies, but he fancied a little variety this time and he was about to scrap the car anyway.

My car was always a mystery to me

It would be serviced and occasionally someone would tell me that the timing belt or some other oddly named component needed changing and I’d nod and tap my pin into the card reader when the time came. I developed a loyalty to the garage I found with a matriarchal power structure and the politely non-patronising mechanic. The receptionist made me feel that she would look after me and my car and so I trusted her.

And I drove my little car across the alps, praying that the brakes wouldn’t overheat as I dropped through hairpin turn after hairpin turn. I drove it through the solid sheets of rain in Denmark, where the window wipers flicked back and forth, helplessly.

I drove it around the policeman, stood in the middle of what might once had been a road but was now more a space between buildings lined with debris and odd moments of lonely tarmac, between Naples and its port. Do not drive in Naples everyone said. A large group of teenagers pointed and laughed when I had to do a three-point turn. The policeman was holding a baby.

And yet my car scared me

I’m finding that my beliefs regarding my incompetence with cars is not actually founded on anything useful. Rather than I haven’t done this yet, been taught this yet, googled it or read a book on it, I was more of the mind frame that it was just too complex.

And, yes, it is complex. But so is life. Incompetence is a great defence, allowing you to sidle out of responsibility. However, I don’t want to be defined by my incompetence. I want to be defined by what I do, what I learn and how I engage with life.

This isn’t just with respect to cars

I’m discovering I’ve got all sorts of funny beliefs that I have never truly questioned. But with cars it’s obvious. I have spent years telling myself that I don’t know about cars because cars are not my thing.

But then someone comes along, and they don’t want you to do much, but could you press the brake pedal a few times whilst they bleed the brakes. And pressing the brake pedal isn’t so tricky, so you do it. Or they need to swap out their exhaust, and before you know it you’re lying on the damp ground beneath a car with black fingers and the knowledge of which piece of car connects to which.

Slowly your vocabulary grows, and the car just becomes an assembly of bits of oddly-shaped, particularly-named metal. The basic mechanics seem obvious and the fear that you once had about something randomly going bang dissipates.

Now at least I know I would check before putting in a headlight bulb.

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On woollen socks and in-the-box thinking

washing line covered in snow

A washing line in the snow – picture taken for the Mother. I hope she appreciates it!

At some point I realised that I had everything the wrong way round.

I was talking, in that absent-minded way, about socks. Saying, with a slight air of complaint, that we just don’t have proper woollen socks in England. At the time, in my hands, I grasped a large pair of thick woollen socks my friend had given me to wear over my normal socks to fight off the sub-freezing temperatures outside. What I wanted to say was just thank you. What I ended up saying was that in England, we don’t have socks. You go into a shop and all you find are socks made of synthetic materials. Even Marks and Spencer’s posh socks are only part cotton.

And my friend just stared at me as if she didn’t speak English. Except she speaks almost perfect English. Her typical use of the language is, without doubt, closer to ‘standard British English’ than my own. Apart from the occasional v/w sound that give her away as being Scandinavian, she sounds like she grew up playing lacrosse. It’s probably safe to say that the grammar pedants would have fewer qualms with her spoken English than my own.

I repeated myself, because most of the time I can get by such failures of comprehension with simpler phrasing, a slower pace and by pronouncing my ‘t’s and ‘h’s. It didn’t work. She looked at me like the French look at me when I’m trying to ask for more than one thing at once. Completely blank.

And then, she decided to use the reliable tactic of demonstration to prove the point that I was being a naïve idiot. She leant over to a box, removed the lid and pulled out a ball of wool.

“This I bought in England.”

I’m worried about becoming like one of those city kids who don’t know milk comes from a cow. I stared at the knitting needles and realised that I had a few things to learn about life. Most of which is about attitude.

If I want such wonderful socks, I need to learn to knit socks, not complain at the lack of woollen socks in the modern British culture. Or, to extrapolate from socks to life: I need to wake up myself, not expend energy complaining about the culture being asleep. Wasn’t it Gandhi who said one ought to be the change one wants to see?

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The words I do not say (and pink birthday roses)

pink roses

Pink birthday roses – playing with fairy lights.

There’s a picture on the wall as you enter my family’s home which shows my family at my sister’s graduation. On my birthday, a new friend who dropped by to take me out for lunch saw this picture for the first time, and remarked on how incredibly young I look in it. The Photographer, for since I’m writing about him I best give him a name, had difficulty accepting that the picture was taken only eighteen months previous.

The Photographer stared at the picture in disbelief. I suggested it was the amazing effect of my tan, as before the picture was taken I’d been living in sunny Spain, but really that’s just my insecurities speaking. Nobody wants to suddenly look older. You want to age gracefully, not in sudden spurts caused by life’s brutal stresses.  I know that in the last year and a half I have aged disproportionately, and by the time the Photographer brought the picture up again in conversation again a few days later, I was feeling more accepting of this fact.

However, I’m pretty certain that I do look a lot better now than I did this time last year when I looked (according to the Mother) horrendous. She has such a beautiful way with words.

Last winter my overwhelmed subconscious conducted a revolution in my mind

Shit happens, as one dear friend would shrug his shoulders and say. It does happen, moments that feel cataclysmic, that shake your beliefs and leave you quivering in your skin, feeling like your heart will explode.

I could say so much, but a lump arises in my throat, blocking the feelings from developing into words.

Perhaps I haven’t been writing here so often because I feel like I’ve lost my voice. It’s wrapped up in a cocoon, growing slowly, developing as I look out from within and learn to pay attention to what I’m doing and where I’m going.

Stop, breathe, what’s going on here?

This isn’t an easy idea to implement, but the last year has taught me that identifying that what’s in my best interest is something only I can effectively do, and that I’m bad at it. Anyone else, who might believe they know better, can tell me what they believe is in my best interest, but following someone else’s instructions on how to live life is cumbersome and leads to resentment and confusion and blame. If my mind is going one way and my emotions another, I’m going to be intensely uncomfortable.

There’s a reason why my psychotherapist prods me with questions and waits for me to join the dots. Knowing what I want is my job. She sits back, nestled in her many cushions, and enables me to do the necessary work.

What are we doing? What are we wanting? What do we fear?

They look like such simple questions, but stopping and remembering to ask them, not just chase habits off the edge of the cliff, is not easy.

Each week, the psychotherapist unsettles the ground on which I stand with her little questions. And those weeks I don’t see her, I’m in foreign lands, taking on a role that’s often new to me, fitting into a group or family of strangers, learning how to belong. Learning how to be me against a blank canvas. At the same time, there’s the me of old that’s learning to breathe again: stories skip through the pages of my diaries; I’m painting with watercolours, acrylic and my favourite oils; there’s a click as my camera shutter blinks.  It’s an experiment; I’m playing.

It may sound simple, slow, boring even, but it’s surprisingly hard being gentle to yourself. It’s a gracious act of re-sculpting my mind that I’m undertaking. I’ve never known anything so difficult, nor so full of wonder. This revolution was a reaction to horror, but it is also a beautiful thing.

The year ahead dances in front of me. Tantalising with its potential.

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The seasons change, and so do I

process of change

As the seasons change: Berries, on a walk in the snow.

“And what she said,” the Father continued, “Is that before someone gets any better, they always get worse first. They have to unlearn before they can learn.”

Driving back from the grandparents’ house after dinner, we were talking about the wisdom of an archery instructor. It was comparatively warm compared to other nights, a balmy 8 degrees celsius, and cosy in the car with the heated seats on and our tummies full. Encouraged by the Grandfather, I’d had a glass of wine and a couple of rich chocolates. The stars were out.

Sometimes you really need a quiet moment like that. With the Father talking, telling me stories, his voice calm and reassuring I felt relaxed, and although still exhausted, less like my tiredness was a problem. I’d been out all day. In a new place with new people making art in a new way. It had been fun and exciting, but the fear that rides in my blood was a little closer to the surface than I’m comfortable with. The more tired I get, the less vigilant I become at silencing the thumping anxiety.

The phrase about unlearning in order to learn stuck in my mind

Over the next few days I turned the idea over, upside down and back to front. It occurred to me that unlearning is uncomfortable, and that we resist the command to have faith.

In archery, as someone tries to make a correction to their technique, they find themselves initially piercing the target further away from the bullseye (or missing it altogether). They’re thinking about what they’re doing. It’s the muscles pulling back the string that unlearn how to shoot the arrow, and then relearn. The teacher can demonstrate, prod your muscles to make you conscious of them and keep up some encouraging rhetoric, but it’s the archer, both mentally and physically, who makes the shot. It takes time for the knowledge stored in the muscles to change.

I imagined the ensuing frustration. Like learning to drive on the right of the road when you’re used to the left – suddenly you’re forced to think harder, and inevitably you’re slower, you make more mistakes and you find the simple things more difficult. In moments of panic, when driving a foreign car, I reach for the gear stick and bash my hand on the door.

Is this change really a good change?

Was the technique not better before? The fears and uncertainties go round and round in your brain. It’s uncomfortable not being able to do the things that you used to be able to do with ease. If the archer keeps with the new technique though, they begin to improve again. And this time, when they plateau, the arrow is hitting its target with more consistency.

Theoretically, as a concept I get it. When you’re trying to improve though, and things keep going astray, it’s tempting to quit rather than see the frustration as part of the learning process. Only after working through the frustration, do you get closer to owning that smug smile.

Of course, the instructor smiles a knowing smile having seen the process happen over and over, but there’s nothing much they can do but calmly wait for the internal battle to take place, and hope that it’s won.

My psychotherapist has that smile too, the one that she smiles when I finally connect the dots that she’d been purposely not mentioning. Her eyes brighten, and she leans forward slightly, a positive affirmation of my conclusion.

Sometimes it’s not two steps forward, one step back, but one step back, two steps forward.

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