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Catherine Oughtibridge. Not the easiest name to spell.

Warning:

The beginning of this page should be pretty easy reading. It was relatively easy to live and easy to write. I’ve written similar many times before. But that’s just the beginning. However, the end I promise holds optimism, hope and love.

Second, the whole thing is quite long. Approximately 3000 words. If you’re going to read it, you might first want to make yourself a cup of tea and get comfy. There is no short version.

My grandparents bought me a dictionary when I started secondary school

‘Happenence’ is not in there.

I was stood in the kitchen of our six-bedroom university house yapping on about my delight in something trivial when a friend corrected the whimsical statement I’d made and told me that what I actually meant was ‘happenstance’. I reached for a dictionary, and was upset to find that ‘happenence’ had been forgotten. Surprised and a little perturbed (it’s always a tad embarrassing having your speech corrected), I was reminded of the line in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’, where Humpty Dumpty tells Alice, “It means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

I didn’t like the sound of ‘happenstance’, and it didn’t mean what I wanted it to mean. I preferred ‘happenence’, because although it wasn’t in the dictionary, I felt it captured the joyful nature of what I was trying to say.

That evening I wrote my first blog post and named the site Happenence.

As things turned out, it was a pretty good choice of name

I didn’t have a life plan. I had a journal and a sketch book and a sense of being unsettled. At the time it didn’t feel like much, but time has persuaded me that there are worse tools to have. I had a roof over my head and money in the bank and the road ahead was paved with the formula for success.

From that six-bedroom university house I was studying for a degree in physics.

First there was nothing, and then it went bang

Or so I was led to believe in the arduous lectures that I endured. I doodled and flicked through my astronomy book looking for the pretty pictures of stars being born out of turquoise nebulas. Coronal mass ejections (the material bit of a solar flare) leapt out of the sun in bold orange. I filled lab books with equations I only half understood and blew up bits of electronics that made the technicians roll their eyes with disbelief.

I walked away with a good degree from a good university and a free t-shirt from one of the many banks incentivising me to consider a life in their city. I continued walking away, disgusted at the idea of being bought with chocolate bars, and disenchanted with academia.

I wanted to write so I got a job in marketing

The desired qualification of a degree in English (or at least something with more essays than equations) was not enough to deter me. However, I was lucky. The piece of writing I had to proof-read in the interview was on data in healthcare, and I’d just made a doodle animation about my Nanna’s health care records for the European Committee for Standardization.

I was meant to want to sell the product; I just wanted to learn to write well

My first writing mentor was the woman who started the same day, who unlike me was fluent in a proof-reader’s marginalia. She answered my grammar questions like a proper pedant and forced me to keep to a specific style. She was Canadian, had money coming into her bank account from a young adult novel she’d written and was willing to share the writing assignments.

Somewhere along the line, probably to stop me criticising the team’s use of statistics, I ended up with more and more writing work. Unexpectedly, as the team morphed with people coming and going, I became an advertising copywriter and a ghost-writer with published work in magazines under the pleasantly smiling faces of white, middle-aged men.

It was writing, but it wasn’t authentic

Again, I became disenchanted. I wasn’t enthralled by the words I was writing and I didn’t feel I was learning anything new. Like many office workers, I stared out of the window as summer passed by, listening to the hum of the air-conditioning, eyes aching.

My attention dwindled. I had learnt how to write, but not what to write, and so even writing seemed tedious. I was bored and frustrated.  My personal life had stagnated. I felt trapped.

I quit my job and then made a plan

Some people would have it that it’s best to act the other way around. I wasn’t exactly thinking straight. I was fed up of feeling powerless in my own life and so I ran. I moved out of the house I could no longer afford, away from my friends and booked a flight to Cairo. This wasn’t an easy decision, because it meant leaving behind people I love, but I wasn’t sure how else to make my life change. It was a sadness generating disruptive move.

Egypt opened my eyes

Part of this was pure naivety. There are many challenges when travelling in Egypt, especially as I sometimes was, a woman alone. For example, not all restaurants allow women through the front door. Sometimes you find yourself going down a back street to the women friendly back rooms.

However, what people seemed to expect me to experience and my actual experience of Egyptian people were completely different. I was shocked by the rude behaviour of tourists, and the kindness of the Egyptians. There was a beautiful, absolutely genuine thank you I received from one young Egyptian temple guard who was grateful not because I’d given him money – I hadn’t and he knew I wouldn’t – but because I actually stopped and listened to him.

More than anything, what I heard was a need to be heard. Which was exactly what I was feeling too.

I left Egypt and picked up my pen

I became an au pair, then a farmer, then a carpenter and a teacher.

Meeting people who are different to me, who live differently to me, who challenge my preconceived ideas and beliefs. I love family barbeques, community paella cooking competitions, volunteering with the five-year-olds in a village school and eating octopus for Sunday dinner.

I love the feel of sunshine on my skin, and sitting on the beach with a glass of wine as the sun sets.

I love the smell of linseed oil, when you’re renovating furniture, and the ache in your arms when you’ve finished restocking the wood pile. I love wandering through markets, and buying a handful of strawberries each day to eat with my lunch from a man who speaks no English.

I scribbled descriptions of cafes in my journal and read compulsively. I travelled and I doodled. I swam in the salty Mediterranean and was startled by a wild boar whilst running in the mountains. I learnt how to drive a digger and built huge white stars that shone in city streets at Christmas. I lived beautifully.

However, in amongst all the wonders of humanity that I found, I also experienced the cruelty.

A tightness forms in my chest as I glance down at the keyboard

Clean, short nails hover above the keys.

For a moment, silence.

The big bang happened in silence

And like everything came into being, sometimes it feels like everything can come into nothing.

The big bang is an unsatisfactory explanation for existence. Sometimes things happen and there is no explanation that can rationalise how we feel. This concept of space and time coming into existence at a point that was in that moment everything. It doesn’t feel solid enough. It’s like we feel that we have to name it as ‘big’ because it’s impact is so profound, and for a similar reason we want it to be loud, an ear-splitting bang, because we naturally give things that are loud our attention.

Yet, if you actually start thinking about it, the big bang becomes simplified because it’s too difficult to comprehend.

We find that something so far from our own experience is unrelatable

It’s out there in the incomprehensible whereas we’re here, staring at a screen with a dull ache in our eyes, a hot drink nearby, or by now an empty cup, and a to-do list that beckons. The big bang, silent and impossible to picture, seems to exist to us as a concept, but not a reality.

My struggle here is that I have to write about events that happened to me, and traumatised me, but that, like the big bang, are, for most people, incredibly difficult to relate to. Actually, they’re really difficult for me who experienced them first hand to grasp. You can’t superimpose any other idea and get an understanding that’s true. My memories are a mixture of sharp moments and blank gaps. There’s a vacuum in my awareness. I know I was at A. I know I got to B. I don’t really want to know how.

I have struggled frequently trying to explain to people in person

First, I bring their awareness to the idea that not everything in my life is idyllic. As my psychotherapist would say, as a person, I’m okay. Sometimes though I don’t feel okay, and sometimes my behaviour is not okay either.

Then I introduce the idea of trauma

Trauma is a vague notion, but it get’s people’s attention and often disrupts the flow of the conversation, causing something unusual to happen. Most people seem to go one of two ways: they pull away sharply and the conversation never goes further, or they’re curious. In both cases, fear and sadness play a role. Sometimes anger does too.

I’ve written a separate piece on dealing with hearing about other peoples trauma that’s designed to help the listener.

I went through this same process when coming to terms with my self

The idea that things aren’t right, the identification of it being trauma, the acknowledgement that the trauma was sexual abuse. The whispering of one of the most horrible words in the English language, rape. The shock. The curiosity. The what do I do now.

Despite my attempts to deny the horrific truth to myself, a man forced me to have sex with him, against my declaration that I did not want sex and against my pleas for him to stop. Rape.

The whisper has come to be a bolder statement

Now I place that word purposefully into conversation, refusing to minimise what happened to me, or allow the people around me to delude themselves that rape happens elsewhere to other people.

The typical member of society finds it hard to empathise with a rape victim – sympathise yes but empathy means acknowledging that you too, whoever you are, could be a victim. You too could have your humanity stripped from you. You too could experience that animal response. You too might find yourself standing barefoot shaking with your brain flooded and a Lady Macbeth urge to remove the stain from your skin – someone else’s crime that because it’s rape will likely feel like your own sin.

Failure to cope elegantly is normal

My brain dived deep into denial, but as time passed bits of memory started appearing. Feelings of being vulnerable beyond all comprehension took over at inopportune moments. I developed a fear of those people who were close to me, who I felt had the most to deny me and thrashed out, burst into tears and caused harm. My greatest fear was being treated as inhuman by someone I loved, so I pushed and pulled and eventually wailed. I feared those I loved. I wanted desperately to be seen, but I was terrified that if anyone saw the depths of my emotional black hole, the shame I carried, or knew how badly I was falling apart, I would be abandoned.

I write all this with a voice that makes it sound like I had a clue what was going on. I didn’t.

In a dramatic, incomprehensible manner, I collapsed inwards

It’s hard recognising you’ve reached the bottom of a deep dark pit. Everything is dark, wet and squelchy. The sky above flickers: day, night, day, night, day, night.

Anne Lamot, who wrote a beautiful book on writing called ‘Bird by Bird’ wrote:

The great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within, the water under a frozen lake or the secluded, camouflaged hole. The light they shine on this hole, this pit, helps us cut away or step around the brambles; then we can dance around the ring of the abyss, holler into it, measure it, throw rocks in it, and still not fall in. It can no longer swallow us up. And we can get on with things.

I started back home in Yorkshire, out in the wonderful moors where the Brontë sisters wrote their novels. Twenty-six years old, university graduate, previously with sensible job and guts enough to take a domestic flight in Egypt, alone. I was now being gently woken by my mother each morning with a cup of tea. An antidote to the dreams that left me sweaty and clenching my fists.

Although she is not a writer, she handed me a torch to shine.

The cold dark place within had to be reconciled with

The first companions on my journey were my family, and a few friends who, despite the unease with the situation they found us in, stuck with me. I’m grateful for all. Every gesture, however clumsy, the words said right or wrong, but with good intention. The questions that helped me and the questions that tested me. I’ve had to learn a lot about gratitude. When I say I’m grateful, I mean so incredibly grateful that thinking about it brings tears to my eyes and I’m left with a tightness in my chest.

I began to see a psychotherapist. I write psychotherapist because the word therapist looks like ‘the rapist’ to me. My psychotherapist works on the basis that I’m okay and she’s okay. We’re partners on a quest to find functional ways for me to cope and grow.

When I started therapy I was working on the basis that I was in deep trouble. I felt broken and I wanted an action plan that would sort everything out. Nowadays I’m more aware of how to look after myself, I’m no longer staring up at that blinkering day-night-day-night-day-night.

The psychotherapist was gently enquiring as to where I was and what I was doing and slowly but surely led me to the realisation that there is only one way out of such a pit, and that was through self-nurture.

Self-compassion comes from deep within

It fails to be if you try and fake it. It’s elusive and temporary. You can meditate every day, but if you’re just trying to tick a box of good activity, it doesn’t feel like compassion at all. You can’t force self-compassion. Books talk in fancy words about it, but words aren’t self-compassion.

Self-compassion is a self-generated feeling of I’m okay. It’s feeling nice about yourself.

Finding the willingness to soothe ourselves is hard for most of us. After all the self-criticism we’re taught through life, taking on the role of carer isn’t easy. Striving for an unobtainable perfection is a quicker way to dull the pain than softly thanking ourselves for our own hard work and letting such an understanding take root. It’s incredibly difficult to quiet that demanding voice that just wants more.

And that’s just the words that float in our heads. Real self-compassion is deeper. It’s emotional. It’s unconditional. My psychotherapist reminds me of it every time I see her. She says it knowing I don’t understand her. A bit like when you read a story book to a tiny child knowing that they don’t understand what a tank engine is, but, also knowing that it’s important to keep reading. One day, when the child is ready, comprehension will occur.

I work really hard at it

It’s not easy. I’ve been in therapy a while, I’ve studied meditation and I’ve read a large number of self-help, psychology and philosophy books. I keep a journal and write down my feelings, my goals and my dreams.

I can’t simply push my emotions aside and get on with life. For one I end up in a panic attack or my body shuts down – like an animal instinctively playing dead. Without my constant trying to be nice to myself I end up with a brain that is so stupid I cannot do simple tasks like make a cup of tea. I drink my tea black without sugar.

Irvin Yalom in ‘The Gift Of Therapy’ states:

Philosophers often speak of ‘boundary experiences’ – urgent experiences that jolt us out of ‘everydayness’ and rivet our attention upon ‘being’ itself. The most powerful boundary experience is a confrontation with one’s own death.

Having had a ‘boundary experience’ I can agree with the feeling of being jolted, the huge uncertainty with life and existence itself, and how powerful such an experience can be. If I want to achieve anything in my life I am going to have to pay due attention to my emotional needs, today. Right now.

Furthermore, I want power over my own story

And that, for me means telling it and using it. To write authentically, I feel the need to acknowledge what happened to me, make it part of me and then use it as manure to grow stronger from.

In the text that accompanied her exhibition of photographs of me, Kaisa Vänskä wrote:

Catherine Oughtibridge

Photograph Copyright Kaisa Vänskä, used with permission.

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.

Sometimes it’s surprising when you see yourself through someone else’s eyes

I get frustrated with how much work it all takes, trying to listen to myself and be true to myself, but I must admit, it looks like I’m ever so slowly winning. It seems there is something I should be proud of. All the writing and painting and photography, the travelling and listening to people’s stories. The helping out with small things.

The fight continues.

On Happenence, what you’ll find isn’t an analysis of binary stars

There’s little mention of pulsars or quarks (although they do appear from time to time). You’ll not have to tackle any equations. What you’ll find instead is the consequence of a highly curious analytical mind hypothesising and contemplating how, with a journal, a sketchbook and a sense of unease, it’s possible to regain happiness and love wholeheartedly.

Sometimes bittersweet, this is my happenence.

Catherine Oughtibridge

 

 

Catherine Oughtibridge

Nomadic artist and writer