Written on the Body: Feet

It’s been a while since I last posted because I have really struggled to find something to write about feet.  There are hundreds of facts and ideas but none of them has really captured my imagination.

We speak of itchy feet, of feet born with the desire to travel.  But the feet in this are functional, getting us from one place to another; though the feet may itch, it is the heart (metaphor) and the brain (metaphor) that take us where we want to go.  In this sense, feet are not a metaphor but a tool.  Even when a person is said to have “two left feet” (i.e. being a bad dancer) the focus on feet is concrete in a way that reference to the other body parts I have looked at is not.  There are more metaphors about shoes, footprints, etc.  On that note, I do happen to have written a poem about shoes (kind of) which I will post here in lieu of an actual post about feet.

In Which I Inhabit Your Shoes

I inhabit your shoes.
They are hot as coals
and feel doomed to follow the same steps
again and again.  You inherited pain
and patterns you feel sure to repeat,
dancing that same dance, your feet
moving fast to that beat.

The cost of life is a loss
of blood, of knees in mud
contemplating the river.  Is eyes on tracks,
bringing back the sensation of
falling
and being caught- but that
was a long time ago.

Now even your shadow peels away from you,
afraid to grow up, even as you age
with the rage pent up
and threatening to swallow.

You relive.  You wallow.  Your need
expands, is an echoing hollow
that nothing can fill
and no one can feel
but you
though you cry for them to.

Your need
becomes a greed.  Your hunger
goes on long after it’s fed.

I inhabit your shoes.
They are heavy as concrete, as lead.

Written on the Body: Skin

Image result for inside out boy

Inside-out Boy.  Anyone remember this cartoon?

Skin

Take everything you know
and write it on your skin
then you can carry on
and forget everything
(Newton Faulkner, Write it on your Skin)

We associate the heart with love, the brain with mind.  The liver was once associated with cowardice, the spleen with bad temper.  We have no such metaphors for the skin.  Though it is the first thing seen, the first thing touched, we don’t associate it with something intangible.  It is not a representative of a thing; it is the thing.

The skin protects us.  The sting of salt wind cannot pass its barrier.  It knits together and helps us to heal.  It takes the brunt of our mistakes, our trips and falls, and it pulls us through.  It forms scars to counter injuries, tissue thicker and stronger than what lies beneath. Skin renews every 28 days.  It sheds at a rate difficult to comprehend, leaving us in a constant state of renewal.

Yet the skin also betrays us.  It is the first thing noticed about us: its colour; its bruises; its scars.  It blushes and blemishes.  Blood vessels rising to the face create an undeniable image of embarrassment, heat or anger.  The skin allows this to happen.  It allows for scars to be a different colour.  It allows for a bruise to burn blue.  These things beg questions and it is for us, not for the skin, to answer these.

The skin is vulnerable.  It is susceptible to cuts.  Sharp trauma to its surface, permitting blood to fill the sudden gap.  It may be an act of protection but the skin does bruise.  Its cells can grow cancerous.  It is always in the process of dying.

Yet the skin is hardy. It is always in the process of battling: battling the sun, our misfortunes, the acid in the rain.  It fights for us against things we could not fight ourselves.  In general, the skin pulls through.  It is a fighter, after all.  It borders on invincible.

 

Poem (under construction)

Skin

My skin bears the marks
not of sin but survival.  She calls me
her tiger, with markings to rival
the fighters of the wild.

I’d been thinking, since I was a child
I was fighting with skin.
Now I realise my battle was never with it
but within.

She traces the part of me
constantly dying, or,
constantly being born anew,
soft between the scars.

Now I know that their burden is not mine
nor hers, but ours.

Written on the Body: Intro

In the marriage of flesh and spirit, divorce is impossible, but that doesn’t mean that the marriage is necessarily happy or successful.  So many of us are not in our bodies…
Gabrielle Roth, Maps to Ecstasy

 

This year, the theme of the Mslexia Diary was The Body.  Each month centred on a different theme, from the skin to the heart. I have decided to write a series of posts based on each section of the diary, focussing in each post on a different aspect of the human body.  Mine, or anyone’s.  The diary has helped me to be in my body.  Roth also writes that “we live outside ourselves… absentee landlords of our own estates” (Maps to Ecstasy).  Since January, I have been trying to really feel my body; what does my skin feel?  My heart?  My liver?  Both in terms of metaphor and of tangible, solid experience.

My first blog post will be on the skin.  I have decided to see where each theme takes me, whether to stream-of-consciousness, poetry, or article.  So what’s it about?  I don’t know yet.  But I’ll find it by tracing the outer layer of my self…

Words Matter

​I work in a home for the mentally ill

Vs
I work in supported accommodation for people with mental health problems.

Do you see the difference between those two statements?  For me, one conjures the image that I “care for” “sick” people unable to look after themselves.  It gives the impression that I work in a care home or similar, which is starkly different from what I aim to do.  Sadly, it suggests a lack of agency on the part of those I support.  “A home”, rightly or wrongly, triggers notions of “personal care” and sad abandonment, of people sequestered from society “for their own good.”  “A home” is not “a home” at all in the sense of being somewhere anyone would want to live.  I am not saying, by the way, that this is what “a home” means to me or should mean to you; rather, I am talking about the mainstream perception of that term.  Meanwhile “the mentally ill” is suggestive of an amalgomous lump, a group of people whose problems are identical, unsolvable, and unlike anything the “average person” can imagine.

What I actually do is very different, and better described by the second statement: I work to support people who have difficulties in supporting themselves with certain things, with calling benefits offices, taking medication or getting to the shops alone.  I don’t “look after” people so much as I promote them looking after themselves.  Maybe it doesn’t sound like much of a difference but for me the distinction lies in “supporting” rather than “caring for”, the difference between looking after someone who cannot do so, and supporting someone who can but may have difficulties in certain areas.  The people conjured up by these statements have very different support needs.  Moreover, for me, the people described by the first statement are considered indistinguishable from one another by being lumped together under one umbrella term- “the mentally ill.”

I can’t stress enough how much of a difference language makes to me.  To us.  I wrote once about how I “have” (not “am”) bipolar, how the distinction between these lies, for me, in the suggestion that one is essential to who I am, whereas one discloses something that affects my life but is not the be all and end all.  As I stressed at the time, I am not suggesting by any means that others should self-describe the same way that I do.  I know that for some people their mental health problem feels innate and intrinsic to who they are.  Sometimes it feels that way to me, too.

I’m just saying that we need to be mindful of the language we use and the feelings can trigger.  That we should check with people, as much as possible, how they like to refer to themselves- much as, if unsure, it is ok to ask someone their preferred pronouns.  This applies to so much, if not all, of the language we use when discussing health.  For example, some people find “service user” is a more empowering, less passive word than “patient.”  To be “a patient” is (for some people) to be under the care of Those Who Know Best.  To be a service user is a different thing- it suggests an element of active choice and the entitlement to receive a good service.

It’s not about “political correctness gone mad” or people taking easy offence but about allowing people the possibility to self-define and, moreover, the opportunity to be empowered by the words that they choose.

People

A few years ago, I got chatting to somebody on a mental health forum online.  We exchanged poems and kind words and, in an online-only kind of way, we became almost close.  I didn’t hear from her for a long time.

Yesterday I chanced upon the site where we met whilst looking for old poems.  I posted a message on her last thread to ask how she was.  I received a message from a moderator to let me know that she had passed away at the start of this year.  From the messages posted, I can more or less conclude that she died from suicide.

I feel so sad.  Although I never got in touch for such a long time, I did think infrequently about her and wonder where she went.  It seems I only just missed speaking to her again, though this year is already halfway in.  All I can do is hope the best for her loved ones.

*

Recently, I made over 700 followers on this blog.  It feels amazing to have reached so many people.  Twitter, too, is proving fruitful in terms of furthering the small online mental health community I have around me.  Because that’s what it is, what we are: a community.  We look out for each other.  Drop messages.  Tweet across the Atlantic.  Pop cyber-hugs on the end of blog posts when we don’t know what else to say.  It is something I feel privileged to be a part of in my small way, something I am proud of.

Today’s sad news makes me all the more aware of how real the people are behind their words.  How concerned we should be, how we should look out for each other.  That’s why the mean comments about attention seeking upset me so much before- you never know how much sadness is really lurking behind another person’s seemingly throwaway words.

So this is a sad post, and a happy one.  I am happy to have known that person.  I am happy to be in touch with all the people I have come into contact with through WordPress, through Twitter, through whatever other sites.  And I am grateful.  But I am also very sad.

 

On Writing

Yesterday, under the steam of desire to do something for myself, I made a re-start on my long-abandoned novel.  I printed the final 52 pages (out of 108) and started to read back on myself.  Reacquainted myself with the characters and delved back into the plot.  Made some edits with pen and had a long hard think about where it’s all going- a question to which I confess I still have no answer.

Today?  I have written over 1000 words, driven by the will to see what happens to my characters.  I’m one of those fanciful writers who believes that the characters take on lives of their own and drive the plot only with support from me.

Writing is my me-time, something I have struggled to regain over the last few months.  Writing is something that holds me captive, takes me somewhere else.  There are similarities between myself and my characters, and some of their history takes me backwards.  For the most part, though, I am tumbling forward, rolling with their punches to make something I can enjoy.  The only thing is that, as with reading, as with so many things, there are not enough hours in the day.

 

The Politics of Scars

 

At work, I keep myself covered up.  Still, there are the occasions when my sleeves slip up and I wonder whether anyone- staff or resident- has noticed.  Nobody has ever said anything but I have my defensive responses at the ready:

What do you think happened?
Well you know [insert resident name]?  I used to do the same.
It’s nothing to do with you.
I did battle with a tiger.
[burst into tears]
It’s a long, boring story.

I have no idea, if it came to it, which of these things I would say or do.  I also have no idea what the response would be.  There would probably a lot of “whys” and so on.  Probably a lot of judgement, too.  You would think that there was less judgement when working with people with mental health problems.  There isn’t.  My workplace is as judgemental as any other place. Sometimes more so.

*

Summer.  Both at work and outside of work, summer has always, always, always (we’re talking sixteen years of always) been a problem for me.  I want to wear short sleeves, do what other people do, look how other people look.  But the truth is I don’t- will never- look how other people look.  In certain situations (work, certain family gatherings, meeting family of partner) it is basically the smarter thing to stay sleeved (and wearing long trousers).  The thing is, that starts to seem unusual as the year grows hotter and hotter.  People start to ask, and the excuses tend to get more and more bizarre (“I’m cold,” I tell people as sweat starts to bead at my hairline).  Truth be told, I am dreading the hotter months at work because I don’t know how long I’ll be able to lie.  People have a terrible habit of intruding on personal space.

*

I am planning a wedding (yes readers, you heard it here first- Becky Bee is engaged!)  Yet I have fears around buying a dress.  Why?  Because I want a long-sleeved dress to cover my arms.  Because I want a short-sleeved dress because I have seen some I liked.  Because I don’t want people looking.  Because I don’t care if people look.  I don’t want my partner’s family to thing that she is marrying some kind of a crazy (although, of course, she is).  And I don’t want my own family to feel embarrassed/ surprised/ hurt/ whatever.  But I do want to be able to choose a dress that I love because I love it, and not because it adequately covers parts of me of which I am ashamed.

*

What is it that fascinates/ horrifies/ alarms/ disgusts people about the scars of self-harm?  I know for many people it is simply inconceivable that a person would want to hurt him/herself.  It doesn’t make sense.  Sometimes even I, when I think about what I’ve done, feel a kind of detached disbelief.

But as M (partner… fiance) always says: every scar represents a story.  A story where you might not have made it, but you did.  When someone asks, you can say “I fought a long battle with myself, where I could have lost, where I could have failed to make it through, and these are my battle scars… because they remind me that I made it.”  And, she says, “you’re my tiger.”