Three buildings had been burnt to the ground, and the putrid smoke of burnt plastic and paint hung into the air late into the afternoon, even though the fire had been put out the night before. The fire service was not fast enough to save the wooden houses with corrugated iron roofs, which had now smouldered into nothing. The bakery next door was also gone. People’s incomes turned to ash.
A young woman stood in front of the corpse of her house whilst around her men dragged the debris from her square of land into a truck. They carted away her walls and the carcass of her kitchen, wearing thick gloves and paper masks. The woman’s eyes were stained red. Smoke most likely, it clung to our clothes. I don’t imagine she’d found the freedom to cry. Her limbs hung limp beside her body. I’d accompanied a friend to bring food, plates, bowels, blankets and clothes, things she would need, but all she could do was stare at the space where her home had been. A weak ‘gracias’ was the most she could articulate. In shock, she could not think. She could not plan ahead and consider where she would sleep or what she would do. She was alone.
The friend I’d accompanied couldn’t understand why someone, faced with the destruction of their home, would stand and stare, so inert, watching the breeze playing with the charred remains.
I could understand.
Because the destruction of a home must be like the destruction of the self, it must be a crumbling of your identity. All those belongings which surround you daily, suddenly gone, must feel like you yourself are being erased from your own plot of land. Power is stolen: the power to tuck yourself into your bed, the power to make yourself a cup of tea, the power to turn the tap and see water flow into a glass. Gone. And I do not know how it is to lose your home, but I do know how important it is to feel grounded as a person, to trust that when you shut the door at night that you are safe, and I know the fear that takes grip when you do not know who you are. When it feels like who you were has crumbled into dust. If you don’t know who you are, how do you know what to do?
I am unsettled. Uncomfortable with myself just sitting here. I’ve placed myself in front of the computer as if expecting that some miracle of composition will spring though my fingers, across the keyboard and with a twist of logic express something meaningful onto the screen.
It doesn’t happen like that. Any time I think about the product of writing I run into a wall. I know that I can only write by burying myself in the process. Settling down into the process isn’t always easy. Right now, I’m tired, despite sleeping what all the textbooks describe as enough hours. It’s not a physical tiredness but a sense of being worn away. The threads are a little too thin. And I’m overwhelmed.
Overwhelmed although it feels like nothing much is going on. I didn’t know that overwhelmed was the word until I hit out the letters. It’s these surprises which force me to keep writing. I trust my fingers to speak more truthfully than my mouth. I rely on my fingers to speak, as if their decisions are the voice within.
I’ve been tracking my thoughts, listening to my fears and another truth I’m hesitant about admitting is that it’s February. At this time of the year, I feel like I’m staring at my feet and hoping the ground beneath them stays put. I find it a difficult month. My mind traverses downward, as if weighed down by some great anchor embedded in the past, and I have to persuade myself to come back to reality.
I’m reminded of the elderly colonel in Nobody writes to the colonel by Gabriel García Márquez who in the beginning of the book is uncomfortable with it being October since he knows October is a month which his frail body despises. He approaches the month with knowing and familiar anxiety, his mind struggling to look beyond the rains of October to a dream of December sunshine. His explanation for feeling under the weather is that it’s October.
It’s February. It’s fair to say that February heightens my anxiety. This time last year I picked up my bags, and headed into a realm of quiet. Somehow I had known from the outset that February was going to hold a challenge, that it would creep under my sky and disrupt my sleep, and wanting to stay afloat, I chose to give myself what I needed: quiet and space, a long hot shower and apple cake.
This year, as usual, I watch my thoughts with caution. I’m trying to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it’s probably too late. I believe February, especially these later weeks in February, to be difficult. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy which works in two directions. Once we get past past International Women’s Day on March 8th, I’ll feel a sense of relief. call it irrational if you want, it will make no difference to me. I believe I’m much more likely to have a flashback or have a haunted dream in February than any other month. Of course, it’s not guaranteed, anything might happen, yet it happens to be what I believe. Belief is a powerful thing.
This year, I am in a different situation. I can’t simply take the time off and hide away. I have ambitions for the coming year and so I need to work and (both practically and legally) I need to stay put. I can’t wrap myself in sunshine, my go to anti-depressant, because… England.
It’s all tough work. Instead of hiding from myself I need to continue with myself and somehow, hand-in-hand with my discomfort, keep going. It’s invisible work. Hidden work. I wonder how many people live with such a rhythm as mine with the past and present wrestling with each other whenever any anniversary comes to pass.
Part of me wants to have the time alone with my emotions so that I can unravel them and do a spring clean. This isn’t an activity to be undertaken with an audience, although it may lead to more writing which may, or may not, have an audience. I’m not scared of being alone with my emotions, whether those of sadness or of anxiety and fear, but I despise drama and do not want to create it in the presence of others.
I promise myself that at some point I’m going to take myself somewhere sunny and quiet and give myself that much needed time-less space.
In these weeks of uncertainty there is much I am unsure about, the anxiety of all the unknowns eats away at me, yet I know one thing: I’m supposed to be writing. I’m supposed to be writing, and I’m not. I’m not even writing in my diary.
Weeks pass and although my fingers tap away at the keyboard each day, bashing out lesson plans and assignments, I’m not really writing. Practical writing isn’t the sort of writing I ought to be doing. There’s nothing wrong with it, except it’s not enough. I’m meant to be writing something more, something to connect the war being fought in my heart to the outside world through some fanciful linguistic dance.
I’m meant to be writing
I don’t write because I’m numb. I’m sad and heart-bruised. I should respond to my emails and tell my stories. I should build on the scrappy collection of fiction that is stored in this mystical interconnected cloud, and I should translate all this impossible into something more tangible, something I can face, something I can deal with.
I’m homesick for a life I only imagined.
I tell my mother I want a butter knife
She tuts at me and pulls faces and gets one from the drawer. I’m a spoilt white girl with everything at her fingertips. My father obstinately refuses to have anything to do with the tiny precious silver knife. He thinks I’m being overtly and unnecessarily posh.
I live in a palace, although many people I know mistake it for a three-bedroom ordinary little house with a generous garden.
Do you know how lucky we are to have a butter knife?
To have all this food? I use jam spoons and cake forks because I want to treat the food as precious. In front of my eyes it has become precious, something that mustn’t be taken for granted. I’m putting on weight eating all these meals all the time, deserts, ice-cream, fancy cheese. It pains me to see anything thrown away.
I’m supposed to be writing, but I’m still kind of in shock
I’ve forgotten how to be the person I was before I left. On Friday I decided to cook a pasta dish from my Italian recipe book. I read the recipe and it required a certain type of pasta. I could have replaced it with any packet pasta. Tubes would have worked fine, as would spirals or those fancy little butterflies.
I take flour and water and make the pasta, covering every surface in the kitchen with sheets of tiny orecchiette, ‘ear-shaped’ pasta. With my kitchen knife, I flick off shape after shape, exactly as the Italian nonna does in the video. They really do look like little ears. Hundreds of pasta ears scattered across the surfaces of my parents’ beautiful kitchen.
I know I’m supposed to be writing and yet I’m not. I make myself extraordinarily tired with studying and teaching but it’s the inner battle that’s wearing me down. I’m supposed to be writing, and I’m not. I create pasta shapes as if doing so could save the world. It won’t.
I’m homesick for a community I don’t belong to.
I’m the sort of girl who gets to wield a butter knife.
In psychology there’s a phrase cognitive dissonance
It’s a term used to describe what happens when a person’s brain holds two or more contradictory ideas, beliefs or values. The result is a discomfort which people try to escape. It’s through deeply uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that we can change our beliefs about the world. This is always hard work. It’s ONLY through deeply uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that we can change our beliefs about the world.
That’s why people don’t want to change their beliefs.
Traditionally I write when I can’t order the disorder in my brain
It’s taken thousands and thousands of words to get me to here. It’s going to take me thousands of words more to settle with this current discomfort. My heart aches with what I have witnessed this last year. This time though it’s going to take more than a pen. This time I’m fighting not only with ink but with a tiny, precocious silver butter knife.
The boy can barely keep his bum still on the chair. He has so much he wants to tell me, so much he needs to do, right this moment. His limbs move with such excitement and yet he’s only at school, sat in the corridor practising his English.
He is not an easy boy to teach. He’s bright and enthusiastic but seen as disruptive and undisciplined. He doesn’t fit in the system and so he’s hard work. It’s hard work for him, for the teachers and for his fellow students.
Students misbehave and play up for all sorts of different reasons
If you’d asked me when I was at school myself about classmates who couldn’t keep their mouths shut, I would have been quite disparaging. Emotional regulation seemed like a reasonably basic concept and I couldn’t understand why some people seemed not to have it.
Of course, as time passed my own ability to regulate my own emotions became rather tested, and my emotions, so strong and so true, dominated, blinding me, delaying me from having any perspective of how I was impacting other people.
To an extent, this is normal and happens to all of us as part of regular life
People burst into tears, they lose their tempers, they stamp and the stomp and then hold grudges or feel guilty and the emotions work their way out and life continues.
A child bursts into tears on one Wednesday in March, you don’t worry too much about it. A child bursts into tears every Wednesday in March, you start to worry.
Recently I completed a tiny little course on the impact of trauma in the classroom run by the British Council. Trauma, I know from first-hand experience screws up your ability to regulate your own emotions. It can turn a sensible, disciplined adult to a wailing screaming shouting violent mess in an instant without any warning whatsoever. It can also make a determined, hard working student lose belief and become apathetic to their studies.
Trauma effects that part of the brain that gives us the self-control to study
It effects the way we process information. That internal voice that we tend to need to remind us that we’ve put the washing in the machine and we’ll soon need to hang it on the line, falters. A student might be given a task, but it doesn’t mean they recall what they were told to do five minutes before or understand why they are here in this classroom learning these verb forms. Trauma plays games with the memory. Verb forms are irrelevant if your brain is still hooked on an event from the past, an event which haunts the present. Past and present merge and mingle and you’re sitting safe in the classroom, with part of your mind wandering through hell, and someone’s asking you when to use the present perfect continuous.
I have been thinking about trauma and classrooms and students who might want to learn but don’t know how to learn and teachers who want to teach, but who can’t reach their students.
I have been thinking of all this, and studying that course, because how I think is now defined by my past. I no longer wander though hell on a regular basis when I ought to be doing something else, something more productive, but the path of trauma is embedded, neuron to neuron, throughout my brain. I don’t wander that way anymore, at least not so often anymore, because I’ve learnt to look after myself.
Trauma results in an inability to self-regulate
Students who have been, or who are being traumatised may seem uninterested, unfocused, volatile, reserved, defensive, threatening, insecure or unaware. This, understandably, makes teachers insecure and defensive.
The same drama has played out in my own brain time and time again, the critic and the victim, the pain driven need to rescue and defend, the anger and the irritation, the wailing screaming shouting violent mess.
But I am not a wailing screaming shouting violent mess today. And I haven’t been a wailing screaming shouting violent mess for some time now. I’m uncomfortable and emotionally fraught. It’s been a few tough months and at times quite distressing, but fundamentally, emotionally, I’m looking after myself.
And it’s creating safety that makes the difference
It’s a steady, genuine care that is willing to be patient. It’s providing a stable environment, structure with routine and predictability. It’s acknowledging emotions rather than trying to box them up. It’s sharing relaxion techniques, learning how to be mindful, being quiet, listening and showing respect.
We all must learn to do this for ourselves and for others. We rarely know who has been traumatised and we cannot know which of us will be traumatised next. We can all though improve how we respond to people who cannot control their pain and who struggle to fit within our rigid system of acceptable societal behaviour. Which is why I did the course.
As for the disruptive child whom I had the pleasure of teaching
For me he’s a role model.
One day, in one of our conversations I asked him about daily routines. He explained, every morning before school he runs 5km attempting to manage his energy levels and do what he can to keep his bum sat on his chair.
Often, students are working a whole lot harder than we give them credit for.
This morning I have spent way too much time searching the
internet for a statistic in a book. The statistic is that “Depression affects
as much as 80% of the population [of Inuit peoples of Greenland]” the book is
Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon.
As you might have thought, I started this investigation in
the notes section of the book, but for this statistic, nothing. There were references
to papers on suicide – and just googling Greenland suicide rates brings up a
multitude of scary reports declaring Greenland’s suicide rate to be
particularly worryingly high. Depression is referenced in such papers as a
factor in suicide. However, I have nothing on the actual rates of clinical (also
known as major) depression in the Inuit peoples of Greenland or any context on
the original statistic.
Then again, I am sceptical about rates for such things anyway
After all, there is no official record of me ever being depressed and the only official record of me being sexually abused is the little red flag that I asked to be placed on my health record.
During the winter months, the Inuit people stay inside, in
their usually small houses keeping close to keep warm. The book explains that “In
these circumstances of enforced intimacy, there is no place for complaining or
talking about problems or for anger and accusations. The Inuit simply have a
taboo against complaining. They are silent and brooding or they are
storytellers given to laughter, or they talk about conditions outside and the
hunt, but they almost never speak of themselves. Depression, with concomitant
hysteria and paranoia, is the price paid for the intense communality of Inuit
The other day, I stood in the living room and jumped up and down
A grand simultaneous two-footed stomp – and made an angry noise. My housemate glanced up from his phone and gave me a questioning look asking, ‘What in heaven’s name are you doing?’. I apologised and said, in Spanish, that I had to release some of my frustration at our current situation so that it wouldn’t pop up in my dreams. He nodded and went back to his phone.
The next morning our conversation went something like this
Him: How many people did you kill last night?
Me: Zero. I told you. With the ‘ragghh’ no bad dreams.
‘How many people did you kill last night’ is a reference to
a morning some months back when I looked worse for wear and couldn’t speak
Spanish very well and eventually explained that I was shaking off an unpleasant
dream in which I’d become rather murderous. ‘How many people did you kill last
night’ means ‘how did you sleep?’. It’s an invitation to express how I am.
If we don’t have safe, civilised ways to acknowledge our emotions, they will either show themselves in unsafe, less-civilised manners or submerge themselves silently within and we will become numb. Acting in an unsafe, less-civilised manner is a shortcut to relationship destruction and becoming numb is the highway to depression.
Last week I stood on the beach and threw rocks at the sea.
All of us have just lost an incredible amount of our freedom
Many of us have lost much of what gives us meaning in any given week. There is a tremendous amount to feel angry about, frustrated with and much to grieve. Then there’s the anxiety that’s churning through our bloodstream. I have ulcers in my mouth, my skin looks horrific and those muscles around my neck and shoulders are stupidly tense. Routines have shattered and relationships (both with those people whom we can’t see and those whom we are now seeing much too much of) are going to be tested. Rationally I understand the need for social distancing. Yet it’s against my instincts. My body believes that acceptance is conveyed with touch and that if no one is picking the fleas out of my fur then something is terribly wrong.
The fact that everyone is currently facing the same horrible challenge doesn’t negate any individual’s emotions. It is not self-pitying to grieve the loss that we are going through. It’s entirely reasonable to be ridiculously anxious when faced with tremendous uncertainty.
There was a dead sea lion on the beach. The vultures had gored
out its eyes.
Someone else being worse off than you is not an excuse not to grieve your own pain
My sister and I had a long conversation a few weeks back about the difference between complaining and expressing negative emotions. Smashing a plate on the patio is expressing emotion. Verbally, when you’re expressing an emotion you probably are referring to the name of an emotion. I feel sad. I feel frustrated. I feel hurt. If you can say the sentence using the word feel, you’re probably closer to expressing emotion. Except ‘I feel that’, is possibly ‘feel’ masquerading as ‘in my opinion’.
The wonderful lady who led the yoga retreat I went on with my mother recently wrote:
‘We’re doing fine’ or ‘surviving’ might possibly actually mean ‘I have uncomfortable feelings but I haven’t got a clue how to speak them’ or perhaps ‘I feel ashamed of admitting what it is I am feeling’. Or it might mean ‘my feelings are none of your business’.
Complaining tends to focus more on a series of events
And has much more to do with ‘you, he, she, it, they, the virus, the government, the economic reality’. Sometimes, when it can spark positive change, it is vital. Sometimes it does nothing but wears down the people around you. Think it’s fair to say that we are all a little thin-skinned right now.
I feel frustrated that I cannot work. I am worried about
what is going to happen. I hate having my freedom restricted. I feel sad that I
may not see my friends here for a long time. I am angry at my own helplessness
and how this crisis is going to have such a harsh economic effect on those who
were already struggling.
Finding a balance between speaking and staying silent is going to be challenging
Inevitably, we’re all going to sway too far into unhealthy complaining, excessive inward absorption of our emotions and spew few too many unkind comments or stay too silent. This is the reality of being forced into this new, uncomfortable, unnatural way of living. However, regardless of the accuracy of the statistics, it’s clear to see that if we don’t manage our situation, there will be a noticeable mental health cost further down the line.
Yet, although we are undoubtedly scared, maybe this is a moment
where we can learn the names of some of those tricky words: sadness, grief,
loss, anger, hatred, fear. Maybe this moment where we are forced to readjust
can be a moment where we learn to see our emotional states a little clearer.
Maybe we can look after one another and learn to ask and answer those tricky
questions like ´how many people did you kill last night?’.
This time due to coronavirus although our region still has no confirmed cases. As of Wednesday, the country’s borders will close. I cannot begin to imagine the social, economic and psychological impact that this is going to have upon people here. We’ve already had a tough time. I haven’t taught a full week of classes since the beginning of October, a result of the continuing social unrest of which there is likely to be more in the lead up to the referendum on the constitution – coronavirus depending.
The attitude at the university last week was to work fast as to
get as much done as possible before any more chaos hit us. Unfortunately, the
term lasted only a week before the emergency closure. I taught in two classes.
Now everything is being adapted to online teaching. With my unenthusiastic
students learning conversational English, I’m
not convinced how well online teaching is going to work. Especially if they are
all panicking about pneumonia.
It isn’t easy to organise one’s life when the structure that it was built upon crumbles
I spoke to my father last night – I was bitterly angry about my life plans being shunted around all over again – and what my father kept going on about was making sure that I have a routine.
Personally, I feel that I have had a lot of practice at
structuring endless time – all those months when I was in therapy, all that
time where work was closed because we were terrified anarchists would burn down
the building with us inside, all that time travelling with no particular
itinerary. What I’ve learnt
though is that it’s not easy at all. It might take a lot of effort to make
yourself get up in the morning to go to work, but when there’s nobody expecting
you to be anywhere, getting up at a sensible hour becomes much trickier.
It has taken me years to build an independent routine
One that is adaptable to whatever circumstance gets thrown at it. Sometimes, I grouch about and have no interest in following my routine. Sometimes my emotions get the better of me. However, in other moments I look at the clock and my overwhelm dissipates because I know exactly what I have planned to do. All those scraps of to-do list written month after month whilst fighting the post-traumatic gloom, they’ve all built up into a series of strings of habits.
This means that this morning I woke up, had breakfast, made my
bed, got dressed and sat down to edit this article. At about 11 am I will have
coffee and something to eat before continuing to either write or study. After
lunch, I will read or paint. I will go for a walk. If I siesta it will be
post-lunch, but before 3 pm and only for 25 minutes. Undoubtedly, I will call
someone back home for a chat. In the evening I will light my candles, meditate
and fill my hot water bottle. All of this is automatic. Between it, I will
stomp and rage.
There is a surprising amount of comfort in habit and routine
Not knowing what to do next can be freeing, or it can be overwhelming. When you can’t plan what to do next week, there’s a danger that you’ll end up doing nothing. We forget how much we depend on our lives being safely regular. Our bodies work tremendously hard to maintain inner stability, and they get exhausted if our external worlds change too rapidly. Adaption takes time.
With such a sudden shock to our systems of living, we are all at
risk of becoming too gloomy. Depression often occurs when emotions overwhelm us
and we fail at processing all that we feel. As much as the virus is a risk, so
is depression. We are all social animals. We depend on human touch and comfort
to psychologically thrive. Typically, we need a variety of interaction. Perhaps
I take the threat of depression so seriously because I have had to put so much
energy into fighting against it.
The other day I was reading a book on this morbid topic
In the book, the writer says how many people ask him why he’s on anti-depressants when he is no longer depressed. He explains that he isn’t depressed because he maintains his mind’s chemical balance by using anti-depressants. This got me thinking about the many changes I made to renormalize my life after trauma. A thousand tiny choices, like choosing to make my bed. Tiny choices which maintain my sanity, my balance.
As hard as I try, my life doesn’t seem to want to be normal
Frankly, I am pissed off that I have spent so long working to get to the point where I can steadily work and rely on myself to turn up to work and do a decent job every time, only to keep having my opportunity to work cancelled.
This though is just one more frustration that I will have to
overcome. I must remember that in comparison to the monsters I’ve already slaughtered, it’s not such a
big deal. Sometimes I feel silly writing out on a scrap of paper that today I
am going to brush my teeth and have a shower. It seems ridiculous to write
drink coffee, eat lunch, write a blog post. And then possibly crazier to
systematically work through my lists and cross out the things I have done. Make
my bed, tick. If I had great responsibilities then maybe a list would seem less
silly, but since I don’t silly is going to have to be the way forward. Tiny
choices, every day. It works.
The worldwide psychological impact of coronavirus is going to be huge
And in many cases, it’s going to be devastating. I believe it’s going to be the tiny, innocuous choices which make the big difference as to how we cope.
As for me, I’m sticking
to my silly lists and repetitive self-care and self-soothing routines. I intend
to take this ordeal as a challenge from which I intend to thrive.