Bashing a Square Peg into a Round Hole

shutterstock_46095241I think it’s safe to say that if the human race were mainly made up of autistic people it would be quite a different place from the world we recognise today. If countries were run by highly-functioning autistics/people with Asperger’s, the rules would be a bit different. There would be a greater emphasis on fairness and many world problems would be solved by people who prefer to do rather than talk and give speeches all the time. There would be a gobsmackingly big increase in new inventions and new medicines. And all itchy uniforms would be ditched for soft, comfy cotton or nudity. There would be Escape and Chillout Pods in every shop, school and workplace. And it would be illegal to say ‘Face your Fears’ ever again. But there might be an unusually high resistance to change and there would probably be some pretty polarised views on what is and what isn’t important or interesting and what we want for our children. Despite a strong sense of justice and a fear of conflict and pain, it’s just possible that too many people with strong views one way or the other might cause stand-offs between communities and nations. Maybe the risk of war would be greater. Maybe it would be equal. Or maybe we would do away with war all together because there would be no soldiers, and no one thought to create weapons. Why the heck would you want to waste time and money killing people, after all? Maybe however much we disagreed with our fellow earth dwellers we just wouldn’t see the point in fighting. In an autistic community you can just ignore the people you disagree with.

But where would the sense of community extend to? Would it end where the house wall ends? Where the street ends?

In my thinking my community goes on and on. Its reaches right around the world and back again. I am not restricted by manmade barriers. I think you’ll find a lot of autistic people show concern for those beyond an observable community in the sense of a street, a village, a country or a set of beliefs. We are not constricted by the same structures. We are often so alone in our world and in our thinking that we are not confined by the same social constructs and actually think bigger.

I’m thinking a lot this week about how society behaves. How people expect a lot from each other without having a clue about how demanding they are being. There are sets of unwritten rules about manners and appropriate behaviour that are so set in stone, so conventional, they are not even discussed.

And then someone like me comes along who doesn’t play by the rules all the time and then they are discussed. Like apparently not looking at someone and holding their gaze while they are talking to you is rude! I didn’t know that. How is that even rude anyway? In the autistic world we see staring at someone in a conversation as a threat, as a challenge, as a distraction. It’s much more pleasant, sensible, polite and friendly to move your eyes around a bit and not threaten other people. If someone loves you, they’ll stare at you safely when you’re not looking. Give them space to think. They know you’re interested in what you’re saying. Otherwise you wouldn’t even be in the same room together! Obviously.
In this world, run by autistic people, you 1 in 88 of the population non-autistic people (1 in 88-ish. That number keeps changing – I don’t know what you’re up to…) need to learn the rules and do as we do. LOOK AWAY WHEN I’M TALKING TO YOU! Just turn you body toward me and nod now and then.

And then there’s that thing when if someone’s having a birthday you’re supposed to ask a load of people to do something with you of an evening. Maybe go out, maybe have a dinner party. Yeah, right. Why would you want to do that?! In the autistic world, you get your favourite thing for tea, you have it by yourself or with your 1/2/3/4/5 favourite person/people (okay 5 is stretching it a bit) and watch your favourite programme or film on telly or even just hang out with some other hermits on the Internet. Now THAT is how you have a good evening. DO IT! You can have alcohol too if you need it and even have a little dance when no one’s looking. Groovy is still happening in Autistic World. Don’t waste a load of money and a load of time making idle chit chat and gossiping with people you don’t know EXCEEDINGLY well. You know it’s better if you’re around people who don’t mind you picking your nose or suddenly swearing. Don’t forget we are the normal now – you are in the minority. You must make yourself fit however unnatural it is for you.
Try harder.

You don’t like it?

Shame. I’ll get my hammer and make you fit.

Bash. Bash. Bash. Okay so it hurts. You’ll thank me for it later.



Only I wouldn’t do that, would I? I have an enormous sense of justice.
You just do what feels right, love.




Must dash I need to cut the itchy label out of my jeans.


Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

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Little makes me happier than a coming together of minds: a shared joke, a joint appreciation or an understanding. Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, I am acutely curious and passionate about others and actually thrive on human interaction, so other people’s responses are crucial to me.

This is why not much can upset me more than feeling I’ve been misunderstood.
It leaves me feeling wounded and shaky like a frightened animal.

It’s partly an almighty disappointment with other human beings: that no one – even the best people – will ever completely understand another person, combined with a sense that yet again I’ve failed at human connection. I spend some time wondering whether it’s my fault or someone else’s. I pick myself up again and again and wonder why I’m getting it so wrong and why I care so much.

Sometimes I think it’s because the words tumble out too fast. There were too many on my lips and they’ve come all at once. People see those words and make their own sense of them and suddenly I’ve said something I haven’t said. Or I haven’t managed to say something I wanted too. I’m upset that someone doesn’t know me enough to know that I can’t possibly have meant what they thought I meant, but also upset that I’ve failed to make myself clear.

Double failure.

This kind of human error is a big heartbreaker. It causes a kind of distress and a tension on already frayed threads and loose connections with what should be ordinary, straightforward social behaviour.

Some days I fail repeatedly and probably should just give up, stop digging and stop expecting. But the message that today was not a good day to communicate is delayed, and all too often and all too late I wish I’d stayed hidden.

There’s a misconception that people with Asperger’s don’t care overly about others’ feelings but it’s far from the truth. We care so much, that to think we’ve got it wrong is often almost too much to bear. And so, of course, that means it’s easier and safer to give it all a miss now and again and save the pain of fluffing it all up yet again. I would bet a large sum of money that people with autism are far more aware of and affected by other people’s feelings than anyone gives them credit for.

Constantly trying to figure out who wants what from you and how best to avoid failure is exhausting and distressing, and we often get it wrong. That’s why I think people like me find it easier to be alone. Not because we don’t care but because we care beyond anything we are capable of dealing with.



Giving History New Meaning

I’ve taken last night’s thoughts from my blipfoto daily photo journal and put them in here:

Things have been a bit slow.
I think it’s probably the fallout from Monday’s assessment. Yesterday I had a headache all day and today I’ve had a stomach ache all day.

I was expecting some sort of emotional and physical reaction while I recovered from the stress and anxiety pre-assessment, and my reaction to the psychologist’s feedback post-assessment.
Even though it was what I’d been preparing myself for, it’s an awful lot to take in.
After all it’s only 2 months since I started contemplating the likelihood that I have Asperger’s.

The last 2 days I have been churning with memories of school days and wondering how much better things could have been had I been diagnosed as a child (obviously not possible in the 1970s and 1980s). My grades dropped and dropped and dropped, the enthusiasm of my teachers dropped and dropped and dropped, and my ability to be accepted for who I was by my peers dropped and dropped and dropped.

The psychologist said I did incredibly well in the tests. She said even when I said I wasn’t sure and said I was guessing I was getting things right. She said I was in the top 2% intelligence-wise. She looked through my school reports from the age of 5, and when she got to my exam results she was surprised. She said she was expecting much better. But I’d given up. I think I started not bothering at about 10 years old but was always hoping things would get better. Only they got worse. I gradually convinced myself I wasn’t very clever after all.

I’ve been thinking about the girl who bullied me at secondary school. And the girls who participated in her taunting. What if I’d been protected from that because of my vulnerabilities? What if the teachers had known why I was so quiet, why I had to be so quiet? Why I had to look down to listen. Why I couldn’t bear to stay at school in the lunch hour. Why I struggled to organise myself. Why I often wasn’t sure how to behave or how to fit in or what to wear.

I know that we are the sum of our struggles and not just our achievements and they make us who were are but I would like to take away some of the pain from my past.

School was a big pile of shitty crap for me. The years after school were difficult too as I struggled to find my way in the world and couldn’t understand what was expected of me.

All I can do is write about my experiences and hope that things are improving for today’s young people with the higher functioning, less easy to spot autistic spectrum conditions because some sort of acceptance in ourselves and from everyone around us can make all the difference in the world.

It was tough being a teenager. It was very, very, very, very tough. I never knew just why it was so extraspecially tough until now and I want to go back in time and rescue that fragile, vulnerable young girl and tell her she’s alright. I want to tell her school teachers and her school mates that she’s alright. I want to tell everyone who misunderstood her that she didn’t have a nasty bone in her body, that she’s a really loving, forgiving person and she deserved better, kinder and more thoughtful.

I want to tell everyone who fills in the missing information about someone they don’t understand with nonsense they’ve made up in their own head to be less shallow, and if needs be just accept that they don’t understand.

Screaming in Paradise

We were talking about meltdowns in my assessment on Monday and I said how I’ve managed to avoid many all my life through fear of others and my strong awareness of appropriate behaviour. But that is sure to be the reason I suffered with stomach aches all my life. When I was young I would wait until I could go to bed and cry or I would rip things. After school I would often run home and I think the physical exertion helped. But the feeling of needing to explode doesn’t go away.

As an adult with responsibilities I would say for me it’s got harder. There’s an urge to smash something or scream or run away, and Richard was telling the psychologist how I often sink my teeth into my hand when I’m teetering on the edge. She called this self-harming and I hadn’t thought of it like that before.

When Richard came home on Saturday he found me pacing and winding up. I don’t call it winding myself up because I actually feel at the mercy of something beyond my control. I think I’d waited until there was another adult around. I kept saying I don’t know what to do, I don’t know where to go with these feelings, I need to break something or explode somehow. In this case ranting and pacing and then spending time alone in the rain calmed me down eventually but it’s such a horrible place to be when it’s happening.

Holding on and holding back and being calm all day and just keeping going is so tough. I write lists, I make sure I know what’s important and how to feel I’m achieving but there are still days when, despite actually being quite cheerful and the sun shining, there is a strong desire to stop the world turning because I feel I’m not holding on properly. Shouting and yelling and pacing works to a point but it doesn’t make me feel good: it makes me feel sad that it got to that. Having somewhere I could crawl into and curl up in a ball and have a nap would be nice. But I’m the grown-up, the parent, the adult, the responsible one so I keep on fighting and waiting until the the chance to open a valve and release some steam occurs.

It’s hard being an adult with Asperger’s.
It’s hard being a woman with Asperger’s.
But when you’re a wife and mother too the juxtaposition of domestic bliss and contentment against an overloaded brain and sensory system is often impossible to explain.


Assessment Day

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9am:
It’s the morning of my assessment for Asperger’s, and I’m close to cacking my pants (excuse the graphic honesty!). I’m so glad this day has finally come though because these last few weeks of waiting have become more and more fraught as time’s gone on. I’ve had so many restless nights recently and I am mainly being powered by adrenalin and tea. I can’t imagine having to wait the estimated 2 years currently expected through the NHS in our area! (I’m sure it’s just as bad elsewhere) and I feel sure I would bottle out given that much time to worry about it.

I only vaguely know what to expect of today: my psychologist has given me a rough itinerary over the phone – which I was sensible enough to write down, otherwise I would have completely forgotten. But I still don’t know what it will involve or how things will go. That uncertainty is really scary.

I’ve swung back and forth over the last few weeks from thinking there’s an extremely good chance I have the condition known as Asperger’s Syndrome (although no longer a formal clinical diagnosis), and thinking I’m just a bit different, awkward, socially inept. But each time I’ve swung back to the “Yes, of course I am on the spectrum” camp it’s been with renewed vigour. Asperger’s is all about the social hell I experience and the more I’ve read in the last few weeks, the more set in stone my own self-diagnosis is.

But I still want outside, professional confirmation, and I hope so much that it comes today.

For schizophrenia and bipolar disorder there is medication, for depression and general anxiety disorder there is counselling and/or therapy and/or medication and/or self-help guidance. But what is needed for autistic spectrum syndrome is acceptance and understanding. It’s not about a label for label’s sake, it’s also about ruling out the other things and that includes ruling out a neuro-typical brain. It’s an explanation. An answer.
I’ve not really prepared myself for disappointment today. I hope it doesn’t come.

Midday:
We’re about halfway through and I’ve escaped for a wee. I was thrilled that the psychologist turned up in exactly the kind of car I was picturing she would have – and in the same lovely blue I had imagined. I’ve decided it’s a good omen. The first hour Richard was required to sit in and speak honestly about what a mess his wife is. I don’t think he enjoyed it too much but he seemed to be very helpful.

2pm:
It’s all over and I’ve left the room while she summarizes all the tests and questions. I think I know how this is going to go now. She’s let a couple of things slip out, like nodding at the information about me playing schools as a child. She said it’s a classic thing that girls with Asperger’s do. I haven’t managed to eat yet today and feel very light-headed.

5pm:
It’s all over. I’ve been given the confirmation I was looking for. I am indeed on the autistic spectrum. The psychologist is calling it Asperger’s one minute and high-functioning Autism the next. But the main thing is I have that official, professional corroboration I so wanted. She left at about 3pm and I took a few minutes to text and message a few people who I thought deserved to hear it first (apart from my sister in Australia, who I didn’t want to disturb in the middle of the night), and then Richard and I went for a walk on the beach with the dog.
Then I phoned my mum, and now I’m sitting here thinking about it all.

There’s a really important message in all this. I’ve read books by autistic people, books by autistic experts who themselves are not autistic. There’s a lot of talk about coping. I’ve had a good long think about whether I would want a diagnosis if I was confident and coping.

Well if I was confident and coping I wouldn’t have gone looking for a diagnosis. That’s the bottom line.

The psychologist said something similar. She said I have unusual habits, I have some big differences, but differences in themselves are not enough to call it a problem. It’s a problem when it’s a problem. And that’s the thing: it has been a problem. Well, not knowing has been a problem. Social stuff isn’t just difficult, it is like a living nightmare, things frighten me to the point of illhealth. I’ve spent my life trying so hard to be conventional, sociable, an ideal wife and mother, and it has worn me down so so badly. I am a human being but I am not the human being that other human beings are. I have some bits of my brain put together differently and that means I am not like other people. I’m not just different I’m Different.

We talked about what this knowledge would mean for the children, and agreed that knowing it was something genetic would help them to understand any problems they might encounter themselves. We agreed they may never necessarily need a diagnosis themselves but it might be some help and even some comfort to know that when seemingly normal everyday things get tricky or seem ridiculously difficult there may be an explanation to fall back on. It may just be a help to say ‘I’m doing okay considering what I’m coping with.’ There may never be a reason for any of my children to consider autism for themselves but I hope the fact that I was brave enough to go through today will mean something to them if they need it.

The psychologist looked at us after listening to us talk about our life and said ‘You’ve done jolly well to have coped with everything you have coped with.’ And it’s true. Especially now knowing why it was all so bloody hard for me. But at some point I realised I wasn’t coping and I was exhausted from trying.

The psychologist also asked me if I was relieved. I said I was. She totally understood my reasons for wanting an assessment and saw that some of my traits have been causing me distress because I didn’t understand them and was trying to hide them. I said I spend every day worrying how much my behaviour impacts negatively on other people and it will help me that other people know I am struggling against the odds.
I’d quite like those close to me to be proud of me when they think about just what I’ve put myself through over the years. And if they’re not proud I hope at least they can see how much happier this makes me and be happy for me too. Now, just knowing that I was made this way makes me feel okay about myself, and is going to help me rearrange my thinking. I’m going to be calmer and more accepting of myself. You’ll see.

Now I can think about what I want to try at, what’s worth trying at, and what I can happily ditch.

Thank you so much to the friend who introduced me to the idea that I might be on the autistic spectrum. It did always look like a country I wanted to go and visit.

And if another bloody person mentions boxes I’ll bloody deck them. Nobody puts Rachel in a box. I’ve never felt less boxy than I do today. I feel free. So nerr.

WHOOP!



Weird Or Wired?

shutterstock_169863227It’s the final countdown to my Asperger’s assessment.

4 days to go.

I’m worrying about it a lot. It’s now become a permanent presence at the front of my mind. I’m even thinking about what I will wear – in a ‘Will that give me away as autistic?’ kind of way. I’m worrying about what my husband will say about me, what the notes my mother has written will or won’t say about me and what she’s left out, what my home will say about me, whether I will perform too much like a neurotypical person in some of the tests and not convince the psychologist I have an atypical brain. After all I have spent 44 years training myself to understand other people and blend in.

This assessment is an enormous thing for me, and my brain is thinking about my brain constantly, and it’s all very weird and difficult.

I’m so preoccupied by the event I can’t function. I’m opening cupboards and forgetting what I wanted from there in only a split second, I’m asking my husband the same question twice in five minutes – and still forgetting the answer, I’m walking around and around in circles wondering what I’m doing. And I’m tired and I’m grumpy. I’m jiggling my jaw side-to-side rhythmically so that my teeth chatter more than ever and, in an attempt to stop myself doing that because I’m worried I’m wearing down my teeth, I’m biting down hard on my tongue. I’m worrying about silly things too – really small things – as if it’s unfair to completely blame the forthcoming assessment for everything I feel.
My sensory overload problems are at an all time high right now and I can only cope with one noise at a time. I’m closing my eyes or telling people to shut up and feeling like a bad person. We watched Monkey Planet last night and I couldn’t bear to watch gibbons swinging in the trees because the movement was making my eyeballs ache and my head whoosh.

I’ve been thinking a lot about anxiety and the amygdala in my brain recently. It seems to me there are two main different kinds of anxiety in people: the anxiety triggered by stress or an event or ongoing life problems of one kind or another, and the anxiety that some of us are born with because we have an enlarged amygdala. I think I have the second kind. I think the first kind might be trained out or relieved with a combination of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or counselling and/or life changes. But the second kind is something that we need to learn to live with and accept. When I went for my first and only CBT session I realised that they weren’t going to be able to help me. I am anxious always about everything – everything – and always have been. There was no trigger, there is no better time. It’s not all in my mind and something I can train myself out of. I believe I was born with it. It’s no use telling me I have nothing to worry about or something’s not going to be as bad as I think, because I do and it will. My fear is big and all I can do is know that I have big fear and console myself that that is the reason I worry. It helps, believe it or not.

Why can’t my brain be more like my body?
I like to do yoga (alone at home) and take walks. I can see how not feeling like exercising but doing it anyway actually works. I feel stronger, I feel glad I did it and it’s easier next time. I get a Can Do response from building up my physical strength.
But with my brain there’s no Can Do response. I push myself to do things I don’t want to do and it never gets any easier. I don’t feel stronger: I feel weaker. I feel less inclined to do things again. As I’ve got older I’ve become more anxious, more loathe to do things with other people, and generally more tired of trying. I don’t have unrealistic fear or paranoid fear: I fear normal everyday life and my own shoddy attempts to deal with each day, each activity, each event. I know how things will go, I’m not kidding myself, but I still fear them. I’m not thinking of lions or earthquakes or conspiracies. I believe I have wired fear not weird fear.

Here’s me in an imaginary CBT session:

‘You’re on your own at home. What’s the worst that can happen?’

‘The doorbell rings.’

‘Really? Why is that bad?’

‘Because I hate the sound of the doorbell.’

‘Why?’

‘Because it means someone’s at the door.’

‘Okay… So the doorbell rings. What’s the worst that can happen now?’

‘I’ll have to answer it.’

‘So. You answer the door. Now what’s the worst that can happen?’

‘I’ll have to see someone and talk to them.’

‘And then…?’

‘And then I’ll be pissed off and spend the rest of the day hoping it doesn’t happen again.’

‘And if the doorbell doesn’t ring?’

‘The phone might ring.’

‘Why is that bad?’

‘Because it means someone’s on the other end.’

‘Okay… So the phone rings. What’s the worst that can happen now?’

‘I’ll have to answer it.’

‘I see where this is going… And if there’s no one phoning or ringing the doorbell?’

‘Maybe I’ll have to leave the house for some reason.’

‘And if you do? What’s the worst that can happen?’

‘I’ll have to see someone and talk to them.’

‘And then you’ll be “pissed off and spend the rest of the day hoping it doesn’t happen again”?’

‘Yes.’

‘So, imagine you’ve answered the door, answered the phone, been for a walk, dealt with people. It’s the end of the day. Don’t you feel better?’

‘No. That sounds like a terrible day. All those people will have stopped me from doing things I wanted to do.’

‘You worry too much.’

‘I know.’

And my biggest fear about Monday?
It’s that I won’t be told I have a brain wired in a way that explains or accounts for most or all of my behaviours. I want to be told ‘Yes, Rachel. Your brain is wired differently. There’s no way you can behave any other way. Or pushing yourself to behave differently is difficult for you. This is the way you are made. Carry on with being you and be happy.’

My husband’s said, ‘Well I can tell you that.’
Which is the best thing anyone can say. Ever.

I’m still nervous as hell though. This is my life we’re dealing with.

Gulp.




Honesty

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It’s hard to be honest about how much a flashing light bothers you, how much the sun gets on your nerves. Every one loves the sun, right?

It’s difficult to be honest about how you’d rather sit a little way away from someone because their body heat is overlapping into your personal space, their food breath is wafting up your nostrils, their laundry should have been rinsed more thoroughly (‘Is that a biological 2-in-1 she uses?’)

It’s not easy to be honest about how the sudden hug you got that threw you momentarily and made you want to pull away was welcome but you should have been asked first. How you need warning even for the very nicest of things.

It’s embarrassing to explain honestly that you struggled to get dressed this morning because your clothes felt like they touched your skin too much after a shower. You’d rather sit naked on the floor alone for an hour and maybe just write something or read something and get dressed a couple of hours later than everyone else.

It’s almost too complicated to explain honestly how you really like someone’s face and eyes and company but if you didn’t have to look at them and could have a conversation from behind the sofa or in the dark or perhaps by email you’d be able to get your words in the right order and be more confident.

It’s impossible to be honest about how you hid all day just because being yourself is something you are a little bit ashamed of, embarrassed about, and yet you need to be yourself so you don’t go mad.

The honest truth is there if anyone wants it. But you don’t share it because you know no one really wants that kind of honesty.



Songbird

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They see a disorder
I see this order

They see dysfunction
I see this function


They see broken and disorganised, faulty, misfit, loner
I see a sculpted shape, fashioned for peaceful solitude

They see problems and hurdles, solutions and fixes
I see happiness in difference and pain in affectation

They see a channel to bring me into the light
I see a tunnel to drive me into darkness

They see a fallen fledgling to bring back to the flock
I see a solo songbird out of pace with the starlings

They see damaged wings to realign
I see a valid feather not a shape shifter


Waiting, Waiting, Waiting…

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My Asperger’s assessment is now only 2 weeks away. Oh, how I wish it were today.

I hate waiting for anything. When I was waiting in line for immunisations at school, I passed out because the waiting was too much for me. The injection itself was nothing.

I’m notoriously good at seeming like I’ve forgotten about things – particularly important things. It’s usually not memory loss but a coping strategy I’ve unintentionally developed over the years to keep me from living in a kind of permanent panic about any forthcoming events.
I block them before they block me, I guess. I don’t want to be crippled by the impending stress they will be sure to cause me. I’ve even stopped entering things on the kitchen calendar if I don’t want to think about them, and my husband has learned not to talk about things that I’m likely to be dreading.

But this blocking of events and stopping myself thinking about them in specific detail only does so much. It takes away actualities and can often stop me running a preview in my mind repeatedly of how things might go; the denial helps me to stay in the here and now but it doesn’t take away the fear, the uneasiness and the apprehension. My guts started rolling the minute plans were made, and despite trying to carry on I am on edge and getting edgier the nearer we get to an event. It seems I can get wound up about something while thinking of entirely different things and concentrating on something I usually enjoy.

It’s 7 weeks since I first started my investigation into my possible Asperger’s assessment and 6 weeks since I began discussing it with my family. It’s only 5 weeks since I emailed all the psychologists I could find in my part of the country, and only 4 weeks since I booked my appointment for my assessment. It’s not been long at all but it seems like longer. A lot longer. It feels like a kind of sentence. I have been trapped in a weird bubble where my head is not the same, my communication with others is not the same and yet I am carrying on as usual. Well, trying to. Unfortunately I’m not really quite here. I am locked in a kind of pre-assessment hell that no one else can share. And I know that whatever happens after it – whether it be the outcome I want or the outcome I don’t – it will be difficult. There will have to be processing and adjustment whatever the psychologist says. I not terrified, I’m not scared, but I am nervous as hell, worried about the whole day, and however much I concentrate on other things and block, block, block, the sense of impeding somethingorother is always there.
I’m drinking too much wine at night. I’m eating too much. I’m biting my nails more than ever, and I’m bumping into things more than ever as if the house has suddenly shrunk around me. I feel each and every day is picking on me and that inanimate objects are playing practical jokes on me. I’ve put on half a stone and I’m waking up frightened of beginning each new day.

I keep asking myself why I’m putting myself through this. Was life easier just being a social misfit with a growing list of concerns about the way I deal with life? Well maybe the not waiting for an assessment bit was easier but I need answers. And the answers I’m finding on every page of every book I read about autism are looking increasingly like the right ones.

Cynthia Kim, in I Think I Might Be Autistic, writes:
“…an ASD diagnosis as an adult … changes everything and at the same time I’m much the same person I will always be. The difference is now I’m struggling less with myself.
The self-knowledge that I’ve gained through the discovery and diagnosis process has helped me accept myself as I am and identify the types of changes I’d like to make in my life.”
And that’s exactly why I’m doing this.
Cynthia Kim can be found online here: http://musingsofanaspie.com/ She’s interesting to me because she was diagnosed at the age of 42, and I am 44.

Unfortunately as the day draws ever nearer, my fear grows that a psychologist will disagree with my self-diagnosis, and that worries me immensely. Then what?

I’m waking up in the middle of the night and thinking about how I’m rearranging my head, my history, my daily life, my future. The Asperger’s label is my golden ticket to make sense of it all. What if I don’t get the golden ticket?

Fourteen days to go, and counting. Although I’m nearly through today so I guess I can call that thirteen days and fourteen nights now.

This afternoon I said to my husband, Richard, ‘I miss you.’ And I do. I miss not being so completely wrapped up in this bubble.
I can’t wait until it’s all over.




Mute

shutterstock_169863227I’m thinking about my response to something you said. I have many responses to choose from and I’m not sure which I should use. First I want to be sure I’ve made sense of what you’ve said. There’s a word you used that might mean something else and I want to be sure I’ve understood you the way you want to be understood. If I don’t know you very well that might take me a few extra seconds. The conversation has made me think of a hundred different things that may or may not be relevant. I need to filter those. What I say needs to be appropriate to the moment.

Which response should I use and how will I convey my answer? If you were someone else I would use a different language – different sets of words.

I finally decide what the best response should be. But it’s too late. I’m too slow. Someone else has spoken. The conversation is over. You’ve gone. It’s the middle of the night, the next day, the next week, months later, years later.

And this is what you saw:
She stares at me strangely for a second. She looks down. She looks at the room around me. She says nothing. Did I offend her? Did she not understand me? Is she stupid? She fidgets rudely as someone else talks.

Or maybe this was one of those times where I had to give an immediate response: ready or not. Maybe I blurted out the first unconsidered words and tried to catch them as they escaped: ridiculous, thoughtless and fancy-free, inappropriate and nonsensical.
Because that wasn’t how I felt at all.

I’ll write down what I mean. How I feel.
I’ll think. I’ll edit. I’ll read through and rewrite the bits that aren’t true.

And you may never know.

But someone will.

Eventually.

At least, I hope so.


The Toast Burners

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I burnt my toast again this morning. I’ve decided that making toast is boring and too simple and that’s why I deviate. In fact it’s so boring that I’ve just deviated from writing about it into a little exploration of the word “burnt”…

Apparently “Burned is the older form. Burnt came about during a period in the 16th through 18th centuries in which there was a trend toward replacing -ed endings with -t in words where -ed was no longer pronounced as a separate syllable. Later, British writers continued to favor [favour! This is clearly American…] the newer -t forms for a handful of verbs, while North Americans went back to the more traditional -ed forms.”
~ courtesy of Grammarist.com: http://grammarist.com/usage/burned-burnt/

So…

Last night I made a fish pie plus a vegetarian option for our eldest daughter. I juggled (or should that be “jugglt”?) boiling eggs, chopping onions, making a white sauce, skinning and chopping salmon and haddock, scrubbing, chopping and parboiling potatoes, etc, etc, etc… I made 2 separate dishes synchronously. I used a recipe I’d found on the Internet and I altered it to suit us. I concentrated on doing this and only this for an hour and that’s why it all came together. And it was yummy.
See: I can cook. I can do concentration. I enjoy things I can throw myself into, that I can do alone, that take the whole of me. I am designed for projects, for research, for periods of intensity.

I can’t stand at a toaster and wait. Not even for 30-60 seconds. I have to wander off.
It’s intensity I need. I can’t be doing with faffy, lightweight, ordinary stuff. I get bored.

Unfortunately for the rest of my family, you are not permitted to talk to me or get in my way while I am in the intensity zone, and after that intensity I am burnt out and need to fizz quietly in the corner like an extinguished flame.

It’s a fact that many autistic people struggle to cope with normal every day things. It’s not the same things in the same way every day and it’s not the same for everyone. Just like neuro-typical people we are all very different from each other and have our own likes and dislikes, problems and skills. But there is a suggestion in a lot of research that some brains have evolved this way over time because the human race needs brains like ours.


We are the chosen ones.
We are the toast burners.
Cherish our special skills.


:D


Walking Away From My Breakfast

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I think the reason I’m not skinny anymore is other people have reminded me to eat. You have to have meals when you have a partner or a family. When I first tried to live on my own I literally didn’t eat some days. Then I put it down to being on a stupidly low wage and not budgeting properly. But in truth it was largely about organisation and prioritising. (A living wage would have been nice though…)

Sure I get hunger pangs when I’m on my own; I put toast in the toaster. But then I walk away and find things to do while I’m waiting for the toaster to pop.
Just now I decided to load the washing machine while waiting for my toast. I didn’t have enough for a full load so I went upstairs to find some more things to wash. The toaster popped. I went into our youngest daughter’s room and looked for underwear, I went into the bathroom, picked up the bathmat and hung it over the radiator. I saw that the toilet needed cleaning. Again. I cleaned the toilet, the shower, the basin. Half an hour later my toast is still in the toaster.
I’ve pushed it back down to reheat it and walked away again.
I’m going to heat the rice milk for my coffee in the microwave in a minute. And then I’ll heat it up again in about five minutes.

Earlier I had set myself the task of trying to get in and out of the shower and get dressed and be downstairs in half an hour. After 24 minutes I remembered to get in the shower. After an hour I was trying to work out what took me so long.

Some days I am faster. Some days I am slower. Some days I have to rely on adrenalin and panic to get me through an unavoidable deadline or a necessary timescale, but that leaves me feeling unwell. Some days it’s all really funny. Some days I want to cry at the missing time.

Neuro-typical people say they struggle too. But they don’t struggle the way AS people struggle. If they did they would be more understanding.

I suppose one way to describe it would be to say it’s like only doing things because you think you should but really there’s something else – something stronger – operating against what you’re trying to do all the time.
And I mean ALL. THE. TIME.

The world is unbelievably distracting, my mind is unbelievably distracting. I’m not always going where the compass points. All points are the magnetic North with me. You can’t control this ship.

Where was I?
Ah yes: Breakfast.
(It’s 11am already)


PS Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m getting an awful lot of sympathy recently which is nice and heartwarming but realising I’ve been struggling for a reason and can now be honest about my exhausting fight to be normal for so many years is actually quite brilliant. So be happy for me if you want to feel anything. :)

PPS You should see my toast…
Toast anyone?


I Fooled You All

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I kept my house clean, I kept my kids clean.
I did my washing, I made the beds.
I remembered birthdays. I dressed up.
I smiled and I laughed.

Oh how I laughed. How I played.
How I drank. How I obeyed.

I learnt to cook. I learnt to iron.
I learnt to drive. I pretended to survive.

With my cloths and my spray, I wiped the ‘Table, surfaces, sink, cooker, floor. Table surfaces, sink, cooker, floor.’

With the vacuum cleaner I went ‘Dining room, kitchen, sitting room, hall, stairs. Dining room, kitchen, sitting room hall, stairs’

I picked up the ‘Shoes, coats, washing, rubbish, recycling. Shoes, coats, washing, rubbish, recycling.’

In the bathroom I dealt with the ‘Dirty clothes, towels, basin, bath, toilet. Dirty clothes, towels, basin, bath, toilet.’

At each turn I reprogrammed.
With each task finished, I changed the list. Always five things, always repeated.
Keep the focus, keep on course.
Don’t stop. Don’t talk.
Don’t answer the phone. To stop is to fail.
A changed route means anger and confusion. You’ll never pick up and start again. You’ll lose the power to carry on.

Keep on, keep on, keep on, keep on, keep on.
Keep up, keep up, keep up, keep up, keep up.

Keep the rhythm. Keep the pace. Keep up appearances

You have to go out they say. People who don’t go out are depressed, are hermits, are weirdos, are creepy loners.

A drink. Another drink, another and another.
‘Let’s go home.’
‘Let’s stay out.’
‘Another drink.’
‘Drinks at ours!’

Maybe next time?

Please say there won’t be a next time.


I can’t


Talk


Anymore.


No. More. Words.


I can’t cope.

I’ll be that depressed, hermit, weirdo, creepy loner.

I’ll make tea. I’ll sit down. I’ll look at my photos. I’ll write some words. I’ll write a gardening list.

I’ll find me. I’ll find peace. I’ll stop counting in fives.

I didn’t change.

I fooled you all.

For a while.

That was all.


Truly, Madly, Autistically

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When I like you, I really like you.

At first I keep you at arm’s length, and make sure you’re sure and I’m sure.

I slowly reveal little snippets of myself: a bit of weird here, a bit of mad there.

I wait to see if you back away – I give you a “cooling off period”. I don’t like to impose myself on people. You must make the moves: you must let me know you like me.

You see I can’t handle the grief of losing a friend.

If you’re still there, I start to care about you. I begin the terrifying journey of starting to trust you. I only have so much trust and it’s hard to give it away. I need to know you can cope with the power of my affection.

It takes a long time for me to make a friend and I lose many along the way, but those who stay are special and I think about you and hope you will always be there.

I don’t always know what I can give except my deepest loyalty, the truth and genuine affection.

Thank you to those who are still there allowing me to like you and love you in my fervent way.

You have my trust.


Please May I Have a Bit More Nothing?

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I’m still. But I’m not still. There’s a rhythm playing on my breath. I stop it and catch it in my teeth. The toes of my right foot play the beat that matches the rhythm.

I circle my forefinger over my thumbnail and absent-mindedly dig the nail into the finger as some sort of response. There’s a continuous ongoing conversation between bodyparts and I don’t know who’s in control.

The wind is cold and unfriendly today. I feel its hostility as it antagonistically flicks my hair into my face, into my eyes. I don’t like it. I feel I am fighting to stay put.

My throat stings a little from a bonfire perhaps faraway, perhaps no longer burning. It hangs in the air. I’m nauseous and irritated.

The seagull on the roof thinks it’s funny. He’s laughing at me. The sparrows bicker in the hedge.

The voice in my head is reminding me about the grocery delivery still to come, the fridge to clear out, the washing to hang out, the list of gardening jobs to be done. My heart pumps a little too fast and my stomach reacts to the rush. I breathe out heavily to blow away the stress bearing down on me because of my own demands on myself, and my confusion about what is most important.
When do I walk the dog? Do I have time for/ do I bother with lunch?

I’ve done nothing again and yet I’m never doing nothing. I sit and stare at the empty page where I was supposed to write a list. And yet it’s not empty: it’s patterned and creased and dirtied by gardener’s hands.
I wish everything would stop and stay stopped long enough so I can find peace. Deep down I know I am quietly out of control and I bite my tongue hard.


Maybe I look still.

Still would be nice.



The Assessment Fear

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It’s now 27 days until my assessment and I’m not sleeping well or getting through simple tasks in the day. I’m visualising the assessment day and how I will handle it (badly – but that’s a whole other blogpost!), and I’m cultivating a new set of fears.

Fear Number 1 is that the psychologist will not find enough evidence of Asperger’s Syndrome and will say that I have some typical traits but not enough and tell me I have social anxiety disorder instead.
In the last few years I’ve gone from thinking there’s probably autism in my family’s genes but that I don’t display the traits myself, to thinking more recently that I possibly do have some traits, to now realising I have many traits and I just wasn’t looking in the right places (this was partly due to everything I’d read being about males with AS conditions). In the past month I have become 100% certain that I struggle with an autistic spectrum condition – probably Asperger’s, but I worry that if I had so much trouble recognising it, it may not be fully recognised by someone else.

What if the people I need the support from take the psychologist’s word over mine? What if I have to go back to pushing myself to the point of insanity to be someone I know I’m not? It would be like the light at the end of the tunnel being extinguished and me being trapped in darkness again. I don’t want to go back there.
I keep searching for an analogy so that people outside my head can understand how this feels. The only thing I can think of is imagine being gay and having to stay married to someone of the opposite sex. You’d want someone to say you don’t have to be someone you’re not. It’s clear you were not made that way. But what if you weren’t allowed to be gay? We all need to be allowed to be who we are.

Of course I know that anyone worth their salt will reach the correct conclusion.

Won’t they?

Fear number 2 is that with an official autistic spectrum label I will now be faced with Asperger’s as an excuse. Not for me but for other people. What if my opinions and emotions are no longer seen as legitimate? What if people misunderstand me and instead of getting to the truth and letting me explain they shrug and release a small puff of air and make a mental note that it’s just my Asperger’s: I can’t help it? Will my highly emotive arguments in the future be dismissed as a ranting incompetent brain? Will people’s own failure to understand me conveniently become Rachel’s inability to grasp other people’s feelings? ‘Oh don’t worry about her – she’s autistic, you know? She doesn’t know she’s hurting your feelings.’
It genuinely upsets the crap out of me that autistic people are so often seen as self-centred, empathy-void machines (that’s another whole other blog post!). In my opinion it’s not true and it’s wrongly depicted by those who observe but don’t live in the AS world. My empathy bucket is flipping massive, I’ve have you know. I protect people from things I think will hurt them all the time. I also take on a lot of pain from observing other people, and I physically suffer for it. I may not always say and do the right things but I am thinking of other people all the time.

Fear number 3 is about others. I’m concerned for my loved ones. How will they cope? Will my husband be scared to ask me to do anything remotely challenging again? Will he try to absorb too much stress to protect me? Will people worry that they can’t say certain things to me anymore? Will my family worry that being themselves will impact negatively on me? Will they be embarrassed by the label? Will they say they preferred things as they were? Or will they do nothing and I’ll still have to pretend? I don’t want to use Asperger’s as an excuse for bad behaviour and I don’t want my family confused about what is unreasonable and what is excusable but there are times when even I don’t know how much of a git I’m being. Or how much of a git I’m not being!

It’s daunting and it’s filling up my head and I know I’ve not been great company recently, but it’s not long now.

All in all I know this is the right thing to do – it’s really important to me.

(And we’re all gits sometimes anyway. With or without excuses)


Why the Label?

shutterstock_169863227What’s become clear to me in the last few days is how this is all about coping, and how each individual person wants or needs to cope. If a person with an AS condition has ongoing support and understanding from someone close then the chances of coping are much better. A greater need to rest is a prime example and having a family/partner who accepts that need – and not just accepts it but understands it. It’s important when others rely on you that you should be understood.
My problems have caused a lot of anger. Why on earth should one half of team parent in the Carter house be rushing around while the other is lying on the sofa? I’ve struggled for years with the enormous guilt my fatigue has caused me. So I don’t allow myself to rest and I’m regularly irritable. I cope less and less; I drop things, I bang my head, I forget things. I feel gradually more and more overwhelmed and out-of-control. I begin to rage or cry. When there is hidden exhaustion and confused feelings things will surface eventually. The wrong thing or the wrong person will suffer. These feelings must be coming from somewhere therefore it must be the current situation that is the problem. And the current situation gets the blame.

If the person with an AS condition has fewer or less debilitating traits then the chances of them coping are much greater. The likelihood of coping for some of us hinges on an assessment but for others who can self-diagnose or cope with their own goals or have enough understanding then the official assessment/diagnosis might be just something else to put themselves through. I would guess that doesn’t stay the same for some though. The need for diagnosis and support probably changes. Right now the things I can/do or can’t/don’t do that upset me about myself need ordering somehow. I’m not coping and never have coped with my guilt and my failings. I’ve never understood just why I find so many things so bloody hard. I care about why and I care about not fitting. I want to explain myself to my family and not just in an “I’ve read a book so it must be right” kind of way. I want someone from outside to listen and tell me that I’m okay – because the non AS version of me is simply not okay – and help me believe I don’t have to be something I’m not. I don’t think I can do this on my own. No, I know I can’t. And that’s the difference between me and the people who don’t want a label: I’ve had so many people say recently ‘I struggle with this too’ ‘I struggle with that too’ and they point out that they don’t need a label and they are happy with their individuality and they say they’re coping or that those traits don’t make someone on the autistic spectrum. Well that’s fine and that’s them (unless they’re kidding themselves!). Maybe they have some AS traits, maybe they don’t. Maybe they want to investigate them, maybe they don’t. Maybe being happy with yourself and getting on with being you is the key to coping.

But I’d like a little bit of guidance because I’m not getting on with being me. And I think a calmer version of me who isn’t at war with everything will be better for me to live with. I do actually want to change in some ways. There’s a slightly tweaked version of me in there somewhere that is waiting.

I don’t want the label plastered across my chest in massive letters every day for all to see, I want it tucked into my pocket for me to rub my fingers over every day and find some comfort.

Circular Cage

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In my head are hundreds of things I want to do. I can’t prioritise or order them. I can’t even stick to my own lists.
You can often see me walking in and out, up and down, round and round as if I am trapped in a circular cage. This is because I have visualised everything I need to do and everything is calling to me at once.
When I finally choose a direction it is often the wrong one.

Reluctant Soldier

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You’ve probably lost count of the times I’ve told you I’m struggling/having a bad patch/need a break/not coping/want to hide in a dark corner.
What you won’t know is I’ve lost count of the times I haven’t told you because I can’t bear to hear myself say it, to make it real, to do this to you, to risk losing you.

A pain rises from my chest, through my throat into my tearducts. The longer and harder I try to stop it the stronger it becomes.
I try to find a space to release the pain.

I’m fighting. Always fighting. But nobody knows.
All around are the battles I’ve lost. Battles I didn’t want to fight.

Maybe some day we can talk about the ones I’ve won and you can be proud of me.


Last Night I Dreamt of a Rainbow Umbrella

shutterstock_169863227 So that it – it’s happening: in April I will be having an autistic spectrum assessment. I don’t want to wait the estimated two years for a GP referral (that’s assuming my GP would even give me a referral), so I’ve booked a visit from a psychologist who will come and spend the day with me in a month’s time. It will cost me, but not anywhere near as much as one of the quotes I got from a clinical psychologist for about £4,000.

I don’t need help at work (I can’t hold down a job and that’s that as far as I’m concerned) and I don’t need benefits, I don’t need any special concessions from society but I do need some personal help, so for me an educational psychologist’s assessment is perfect. There is still always the chance she will disagree with me and say I don’t have Asperger’s but I do totally believe she will agree that I don’t have a typical brain and that some of my behaviours and problems fit onto the umbrella of autistic spectrum conditions somewhere.

I’ve already filled in some forms, which have held me trapped in a strange kind of self-analysis bubble for the last couple of weeks. Much of it has been quite useful and made me feel a lot better about myself although some of the searching for an honest version of myself is a bit distressing. I really do do things that autistic people do! I really do have extreme ways of reacting to things. A lot of things I’ve pretended are choices over the years are not choices but things that have been imposed or self-imposed because I have no choice but to escape the onslaught of unbearable stimuli in normal society. And, despite years of trying very very hard, I’m not normal in the way 99% of people define normal. Maybe things would have been different if I’d tackled all this years ago and help had been available… who knows… But there’s also humour too: plenty of funny things about myself that I knew about but didn’t know why. It turns out “nose of a dog” for instance – that Richard calls me because of my overwhelmingly strong sense of smell is an autistic trait. Screaming with frustration because ‘the effing dustpan and brush are not where I effing left them, and I hate it when people move things. I need to know things are where I left them!’ is also an autistic trait. My obsessions with symmetry and balance and straightening things are to do with the way I visually try to order things, and my regular crying at unfairness on the TV – even when ‘it’s just a film, Mum!’ is to do with my over-sensitivity.

A lot of the things I have got supermassivelyangry about over the years are because of being overwhelmed by the world I don’t fit. I don’t know if anyone else around me has noticed but I have noticed that I’ve been less angry recently. I am aware of what is happening and, to a large extent, why. I’m no better at coping with the world and my sensory overload but I am better at coping with myself. Today in the supermarket I knew why the other shoppers were making me feel stressed and I knew why I was walking past things I wanted to buy. I needed space. I needed a bit longer to think than other people. I feel crowded very easily.

In the evenings I still find the combination of family voices and TV sounds too much to bear but I can stand still and calmly say so instead of wondering why everything is deliberately being so awful to me. Knowledge brings an understanding that can give comfort and control and not only self-forgiveness but forgiveness of life and of other people. Other people can’t help being in a different world where colours aren’t so bright and noises aren’t so intense and I must forgive them that! Other people’s lives must be so boring. No wonder they sleep better than I do at night!

Now I’m armed with knowledge about some of my troubles they don’t seem so much like troubles anymore. It’s a bit like worrying that your lawn is blue when all the neighbours’ lawns are green. Well, hey, what do you know: mine was planted with blue seed – there’s no way it could have grown green – I was actually supposed to have a blue lawn! All that worrying for nothing…

But I don’t want other people worrying about my blue lawn or trying to help me make it green, and I don’t want the kids going on about how I should have a green lawn because ‘all the other kids do’ so it’s best they know about my blue seeds too.

Earlier this week, I tried to have a family chat about my forthcoming assessment. Even though I’d mentioned the likelihood that I have Asperger’s to our eldest daughter, and left books lying around and had conversations with my husband Richard when the kids were about, I wasn’t sure what they’d picked up on. And I wasn’t sure overhearing stuff was the best way to find out about things. It’s been difficult to know where or when to start and how much to tell them all.

Dinner was going at its usual crazy pace. The 19-year-old was eating like she was in a race, the 9-year-old was eating like she had a plate of rancid fish in front of her, the TV was on, conversation was disjointed.
‘I’m getting assessed for Asperger’s Syndrome soon. Someone’s coming to the house in a few weeks.’
The 9-year-old wanted to know if she could get assessed too. The 19-year-old finished eating and left the table. The conversation changed.

Oh well. I tried.

I’m in limbo right now. I’ve made my decision that I have Asperger’s but somehow I want that seal of approval from someone who’s been working with the autistic spectrum for years; someone who has a badge that says she knows her stuff and can give a definitive, informed, professional opinion. I think this option should be available to anyone that wants it and not just those of us who can scrape together the eight-hundred-ish pounds needed for an educational psychologist or the thousands of pounds needed for a clinical psychologist. I can only imagine what the two-year wait would do to someone stuck in a more difficult lifestyle than my own.

Richard said a couple of days ago that I should stop over-analysing it all: ‘nothing’s changed,’ he told me, ‘you’re still you.’ But I can’t help wondering what effect all this will have on the family and what it might be easier for me and us to do as a result and what I will have to accept I will always find difficult. There is of course some acceptance of – some reluctant resignation to the fact that I will never totally fulfil the role expected of me in today’s society and I will never be able to stop comparing myself with other women and wondering who I am letting down or holding back or disappointing in my family. It has totally consumed me.

Last night I dreamt of a rainbow umbrella. I was walking in the rain. I don’t like walking in the rain usually. I’ve always thought the elements have it in for me. But in last night’s dream I had a large strong umbrella. It was striped with all the colours of the rainbow and birdcage-shaped so that the spokes went down and over my shoulders instead of out and pointing at people. I felt safe and I felt dry. And best of all I knew I wasn’t bothering anyone.

Here’s a lovely little video by the National Autistic Society, called What is Autism?


And here’s what they say about diagnosis/assessment: Clarification is important because, whatever other condition may also be present, when a child or adult has an autistic spectrum disorder, this has a major effect in determining the needs of the person concerned. Providing the right kind of help and services is essential for the person’s future progress and quality of life. The right diagnosis and the right help also makes life much easier for the person’s family.

You mean everyone doesn’t shrug?

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I was standing in the supermarket queue today with my husband and our 9-year-old daughter.
I’m a big fan of queues. It’s one of the things I like best about being British. Queuing is the right and fair thing to do and we usually do it well. A couple of weeks ago when I was standing at the fish counter being all polite and patient with my trolley, a late-middle-aged woman walked right in front of me and got herself served before me. I was furious. I’m still drafting a letter to my MP in my head demanding that all queue jumpers be deported regardless of age. Seriously though, if we suddenly stopped queuing I wouldn’t cope. It’s one of those social rules I get and follow easily.

But getting back to today: While we were waiting in the checkout queue, I thought about my new awareness of my difference. I had a good look at everyone around me and I’m pretty sure no one but me was standing with their shoulders all sort of squidged up, and a bit shruggy and self-protective with their arms pulled in stiffly by their sides. Everyone else’s shoulders seemed to be down and rounded with loose arms. Is this what it’s going to be like? I thought. Am I going to keep thinking about how I’m different from everyone around me now?
Already this morning I had thought about my overreaction to the empty almond butter jar: “WHAT AM I GOING TO PUT ON MY TOAST NOW?!?!”
That’s because I have Asperger’s?
Is it?
I don’t know.

I had also thought about how Mum always says how I cried to be left alone as a baby, and was the only one who just wanted to sleep, whereas my sisters cried for attention.
That’s because I have Asperger’s?
Is it?
I don’t know.

In the car on the way to the supermarket, I had to close my eyes and shut out one of the stimuli making an assault on my senses. The radio, our daughter’s incessant chatting, the movement of the vehicle, the bump of the gear changes: I felt exhausted.
That’s because I have Asperger’s?
Is it?
I don’t know.

Part of it is because I’m tired and emotional, I expect. I felt overwhelmed again last night. And so, so emotional. I’ve spent days looking up psychologists online, trying to find which ones are close enough to me, which ones are clinical psychologists, which ones do autism assessments in adults and not just children, and waiting to see which ones will answer my emails and questions. It’s time-consuming and confusing. But not as confusing as the chaos in my brain. I’m analysing everything, and thinking about the future and the past. I got into bed last night and cried my eyes out.
Who am I?

I don’t regret this, I don’t regret any of this. I decided earlier that a good metaphor would be the feeling you might get if you were about to get married, and a good friend revealed to you what a completely deceitful, cheating, dishonest tosspot your future spouse is. There would be initial pain and lots of rearranging of your past and your future in your head but eventually you know it would be the right thing to do, and you would be better off with a new plan.

A few people have asked me if I really need to get diagnosed. And the answer for me is Yes. I want someone who works with Asperger’s every day to look at me, listen to me and recognise me. If it stigmatises me, so be it. The best way to describe it right now is I feel like I have windows but I can’t see through them yet. They need cleaning to clarify what I’m dealing with.

After a walk on the beach with Richard and our 9-year-old I came home and did a bit more research. I filled in an austic spectrum questionnaire and got another high score on a website written by someone who works with people on the autistic spectrum. She writes:
My view of Asperger syndrome is that it is simply a different way of thinking and thought processing. Asperger syndrome only affects a small part of the brain and, similar to dyslexia, does not change personality.
More at: http://www.maxineaston.co.uk/what_is_aspergers/

I found it reassuring and self-validating in a way.

I’m still me. I always was.

But please don’t take all the almond butter!


The Week I Completely Rewired My Brain

shutterstock_145104232Just twelve days ago I was normal.

I suffered from anxiety disorder and confidence problems, and being organised was difficult and even painful, I got easily upset when someone disagreed with me, I had issues with noises, the telephone, smells, and surprises….
But otherwise, pretty normal.
In other words I was neurotypical (ish)

Or so I thought.

And then I caught Asperger’s Syndrome.

It all started when I wrote a blog post about anxiety. People on the autistic spectrum, or with children on the autistic spectrum, said they related to the piece and found it helpful. I didn’t know most of these people but seeing them share my blog post amongst themselves was nice – interesting and a little bit curious, but nice. You see I’ve always felt a sympathetic connection with people with Asperger’s Syndrome. I’ve always understood the feelings of being overwhelmed. I’ve never been on the autistic spectrum myself, you understand, I have just been shy and anxious so it’s different for me. But I saw a connection and felt a kind of outsider’s understanding.

Until the last few days, that is…

The same day that all this appreciation of my anxiety blog post was happening, a friend sent me a message. She was a little hesitant and chose her words carefully but she wanted to know if I’d thought about whether I could have Asperger’s Syndrome.

This is what happened in my head:

Firstly: Me? Asperger’s? No. I know about Asperger’s. I’ve studied it with the Open University. I don’t have all the problems associated with Asperger’s.

Then: Answer the question, though, Rachel. Have you thought about it? Well, yes, I have thought about it. It was brave of her to ask, so I won’t come across as insulted that someone thinks I’m autistic, I’ll just say, yes I have thought about it, and no I’m not autistic.

And then: Yes. I have thought about it, but how do I know? How do I really know? This person who sent me the message has known me for ten years. She’s read a lot of what I’ve written and sees how I interact with others; she says she’s been thinking of saying something to me for a long time. This isn’t a one off. She is also “a bit of an expert” on the subject. Let’s just get the book she recommended. Let’s see if we see any or enough similarities.

So I got the book and I read the book. And I spent some time alone in my own head for a day or two before I admitted to my husband what was going on.

When I spoke to Richard he looked doubtful and possibly a little irritated. But then he’s always accusing me of misreading his face. His reaction was definitely a little cagey and of someone unconvinced. It struck me perhaps he didn’t want a wife with autism. So I kept the rest of my thinking to myself. And I read another book.

And that’s when I started to get some symptoms of Asperger’s. And then some more. And then some more. Until I had full-blown Asperger’s Syndrome.

I withdrew for a few days – not completely, but I became a little trapped in my own thoughts, a little slower than usual and I allowed myself the very unusual treat of sitting on the sofa reading and ignoring everyone. I don’t usually allow myself such a luxury, but this was important.

The more convinced I became that I did indeed have Asperger’s afterall – that I am an “Aspie” – the more I wanted to talk about it with someone. But I didn’t know what to say or to whom. Eventually I emailed my mother and my sisters and introduced them to the idea. I’d say they were initially unconvinced and I was left wondering whether I should have kept my thoughts to myself. But to me this all felt massive and so, so important too: a life-changing discovery; a new way of looking at my life and myself and my past, a new set of challenges perhaps and maybe a new set of achievements now I was armed with all my new knowledge and insight.
I wanted to tell my family how I needed them to agree with me and support me but they hadn’t read what I had read, they had no idea what a success I had made of hiding my symptoms for years, and all the acting and performing I’d achieved in order to appear normal.

The mixed up feelings and emotional highs and lows brought on a lot of my symptoms: I had restless nights and struggled to get up and get moving every morning for a few days (even more than usual), I stopped doing yoga, took hours in the shower, a little habit I have of counting to ten, even though I don’t want to, played up big time, my stomach ached and I’d get to the end of the day feeling I’d achieved absolutely nothing. I felt physically shut off from everyone else, I felt totally alone in both a good and a bad way. It’s easing a bit now to a more usual level but I’ve been jiggling my jaw side to side a lot more than usual and playing rhythms with my teeth (Gawd, that would annoy me if someone else was doing it!). I’ve been super-emotional and sensitive and even more forgetful and overwhelmed by basic tasks than usual. I’ve felt small and young and upset revisiting painful memories of times when people misunderstood me. And while realising that it was probably due to Asperger’s is some comfort, the memories are still painful.

It’s all been a bit of a shock. I’ve been doing an awful lot of self-indulgent navel-gazing for over a week now. It’s been an enormous thing to take in. I’m not ashamed to say I have been completely obsessed and have made it a bit of a project. (I do love a project, though anyway!). I can’t stress enough how life-changing and significant this all feels to me.

I’ve spent my whole life coming up with excuses, reasons, past traumas, life experiences for every difficulty I have or have had fitting in to this world. I’ve put things down to shyness, to my creative personality. More recently I’ve simplified everything by just trying to accept that I’m a bit of a hermit – it’s no big deal. Only it is a big deal. It’s a very big deal indeed. It’s my whole life and I’m not who I thought I was. Well I am, but not in the way I thought I was.
I’m not just rubbish or lazy: I’m confused by what is expected of me.
I’m not just quick-tempered for no good reason: I’m overwhelmed by smells, lights and noises that don’t overwhelm other people.
I’m not just a rude, unsociable git: I actually can’t talk sometimes because my brain is wired differently from more sociable people’s brains.

So I’ve been reading. And reading and reading and reading: Online stuff, e-books, paperbacks; blogs and biographies by Aspie women, books by experts. Within all this information, I’m re-reading information that I read a few years ago and reading it from a different angle. I’m not reading: “People with Asperger’s might have this, that and the other trait or difficulty”, no, I’m reading: “You (I) might have this, that and the other trait or difficulty”.
With the advice of the friend who first got me think about this – all of those twelve long days ago when life was so different, I am learning to look for information specifically about women on the autistic spectrum. One of the reasons I decided I wasn’t an aspie all those years ago was because so much of the information was based on initial research done on boys. It’s different for girls though. Some of the men’s and boys’ traits don’t present in women and girls.

Now I know why it is that when things go wrong – however small – I can be inconsolable; why when I’ve chosen to wear a particular pair of socks and I can’t find them I feel like a supernatural force is trying to ruin my life; why when someone interrupts me mid-thought or mid-action I have a meltdown and can’t get back into what I was doing; why I am terrified of the telephone and think it sounds like someone screaming so loudly that I want to hold my hands over my ears and cry. I know now why I am always running lists in groups of 5 in head and repeating them rhythmically, why I’m always counting to ten to get a job done quickly, jiggling tunes with my teeth, and biting my lips and the inside of my face. I know why sometimes when I am out in public I’ll shove my hands into my pockets and freeze and forget to move or talk, why I’m always looking and listening for danger, why I find I want people to hurry up and finish when they’re talking to me, why I’m distracted by light and movement.
Why I can never ever, ever relax at all. Ever.

I don’t have all the typical traits of Asperger’s. For instance, I think I am very aware of other people’s feelings and I think about other people all the time. And I don’t have an obsession with a particular subject such trains or numbers or lists of facts (but I can obsess about something so much so that I burn the dinner and forget to get dressed for a while and then I’ll switch to obsessing about something else). And I believe I do understand social norms. I perhaps just don’t have the skills and I don’t enjoy them. Basically I choose to not get involved in social events. I also have a sense of humour and appreciate others with a good sense of humour and I thrive on sarcasm. I think it’s likely that a lot of “Aspies” will say they don’t match particular traits.

I’ve thought a lot about my childhood this week and how I used to play. I never enjoyed things that involved a large group. I didn’t feel that it was because I didn’t understand or that I was excluded, I simply didn’t enjoy group activities. I preferred small groups or one-to-one games. I didn’t see any point or any fun in charging up and down screaming. I’ve thought about how I could never bear to leave the house and go to school, and how I had stomach aches day after day for no apparent reason. I’ve thought about how for years everyone told me I was too quiet, should join in more. I want to go back and hug that little girl and tell her she can be quiet if she bloody well wants to; she doesn’t have to fit someone else’s idea of how to behave.

I’ve thought about traits I clearly do have and traits I believe I don’t have but in the middle I’ve noticed things I’ve been in denial about. For example: I am unreasonable when people disagree with me. I always have been too quick to feel that a different point of view is somehow offensive and insulting to me. I feel a physical anxiety as if that person has let me down somehow – especially if I know them and they know me. The intelligent, reasoning side of me understands wholeheartedly that everyone is different and sees things from a different perspective but it is perhaps the autistic side of me that will not and cannot cope with people not seeing how I must be right! I’ve read things, I’ve thought about things, I have good instincts, I have a great sense of justice. Therefore I must be right! Right? I’m now working on the premise that I may indeed be right and people may indeed be letting me down by having another point of view but they are not doing it deliberately (although it really feels like they are trying to upset me!) and it is not my problem. It’s a start. I’ll work on the rest…
Another thing I’ve been in denial about are my quirky little repetitive habits and ritualistic daily routines. Now I’m watching myself more closely I see how I line things up, how I do things in a particular order or a certain number of times. I looked at my jewellery box recently. I’m not big on jewellery – things rattling around or moving against my skin irritate me, but I do like stud earrings. I have compartmentalised my earrings into flowers, birds, insects, natural shapes and modern shapes. That’s probably not something everyone does. But it’s not something I’d analysed before.

Dissecting my regular day and observing myself as if from the outside isn’t easy, but I’m having a good go and while some of it is a little unsettling a lot of it is also amusing. I can see how a lot of what has become habitual is unnecessary and is slowing me down. I realise I am less comfortable with change than I like to think and I’ve been using routines for comfort. Like Liane Holliday Willey, the author of Pretending to be Normal: Living with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have had no trouble self-diagnosing myself and can see how I sit comfortably within the spectrum with my little collection of quirks and struggles.

The next thing to think about is whether I can put myself through the formality of an official diagnosis and all the anxiety that will cause me, or whether my self-diagnosis and conviction – and the conviction of those who know what they’re talking about, is enough. I suppose at 44 years old, one might question why I would need a diagnosis or why I have not been diagnosed before – All this time and no one picked up on it?! Maybe it’s all in my head? Well, perhaps it’s precisely because I am 44 that it hasn’t been picked up on. I’ve had a good long time to normalise my behaviours. None of my behaviours seem odd to me and I’ve not thought about them too deeply before. It’s only when I try to fit them to the status quo that some of them seem a bit problematic and many more I have learned to disguise.

As this looks like this is a family trait it may be helpful and useful to those I love for me to be formally diagnosed. And there will always be some for whom a self-diagnosis will not be enough – they will believe it’s all in my head or I’ve decided to give myself Asperger’s because it’s my latest obsession.
For now though: more reading and more coming to terms with everything.

It’s still very early days and I have a lot to discover, but I guess I’ll never know for sure what about me is unaffected by autism; what’s learned, what’s genetic, what’s neurotypical in my behaviour, and what is controlled or interrupted by untypical brain-wiring. And that doesn’t matter because I still want to be me, regular me living my life and having legitimate thoughts, feeling and opinions. But just thinking I can file some of my problems, my unproblematic quirks and some of the things that cause other people concern under “Asperger’s” is already making me unbelievably excited, and for that reason I’m glad I have the wiring a bit different in my brain and I’m going to stop pretending I don’t.

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Time to Talk: about the physical effects of mental health problems

IMG_6195Thursday 6th February 2014 marks the first ever Time to Talk Day: “24 hours in which to start conversations about mental health, raise awareness and share the message that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, neither is talking about it.”

So here I am, sitting in my sitting room, trying to talk to you about something I hid for years.
I’m not very good at this though because I have anxiety.
I find it difficult to make eye contact for long. I fidget, I look beyond you and above you and around the room in order to find my words. Often I find the wrong words just simply to avoid an uncomfortable silence. I offer you tea, I make it badly, and I shake a little as I bring it through. I’m not shaking with nerves but with the after effects of being anxious before you arrived. I will have worried about how everything looks, about how I look, about which cups I should use. I will have worried about what I will say and imagined all the things that might go wrong. I probably had palpitations, outbursts of anger, and I probably paced a lot. At some point I will probably have had a bad headache – or I may get one tomorrow when you’ve gone. I will be so anxious about being anxious that I will be ill.

You asked if I wanted to meet you in a café but I declined. My anxiety means I don’t drive. I don’t often go out alone and when I am out I need to know how I’m going to get back again and I need to know that it won’t take long. My anxiety has made me agoraphobic. Not because I am afraid of people or open spaces or crowds, but because I am afraid of being out of control and of not being able to escape. I literally feel so ill I don’t have to lie about why I can’t make it. I really am not feeling well.

But things are improving. About a year and a half ago, I had to admit I was too anxious about everything. I had to admit that being anxious was stopping me from doing things I wanted to do. It was difficult for me to make this admission. It was easier to pretend I didn’t want to do anything. You see that’s the way to avoid the physical symptoms. Don’t go anywhere, don’t see anyone, don’t have chats over a cup of tea, pretend you don’t need friends, and – lo and behold – you have no commitments to those things that give you the awful physical anxiety symptoms. It’s actually quite clever what we can do with our brains: how we can convince ourselves that we prefer things the way they are. ‘I’m happy being at home alone and not talking to anyone at all for days,’ I told myself. And it’s true I felt better. I feel healthier when I don’t have to honour any commitments to anyone. I find a certain peace from time alone in the garden, listening to nature. And I am shy; I do like a quiet life. But it’s not true that I don’t need people, and that I want to be always alone. In fact too much time on my own eventually makes me feel depressed and causes me to focus on unreal negatives. In essence: I become rather paranoid.

A lifetime of subconsciously inventing ways to avoid the physical symptoms of anxiety has made the unreal real and fitting my patterns to my health needs has limited my life choices. Not just a bit but massively. My world is very small, my ambitions are very lowly; my hobbies and activities are incredibly modest. How much of this is due to anxiety and how much of this is due to personality and shyness and naturally modest ambitions I’ll never completely know for sure. But I do know now what I’ve been doing all these years and I do know now that there are things I can do to help me enjoy things I would otherwise have avoided simply because I felt unwell or was scared of feeling unwell.

Changes didn’t happen overnight and there is no real cure, but there are coping strategies: The doctor has prescribed Beta-blockers for me so I can stop the palpitations in an emergency (just knowing I have them has helped and I hardy ever use them) – and there is also a surprising comfort to be found in admitting I have a problem: firstly because it means I can stop being so cruel to myself, but secondly because I can tell people honestly what I think I am capable or incapable of.

There are still some fairly bad episodes of anxiousness and the physical symptoms whoosh in like a horse bolting out of a stable before I’ve had time to shut the door on them. But I am getting so much better at reining them in. It’s easier when you know what’s happening.

If I could reach out to just one other person who suffers with anxious thoughts and doesn’t know how to enjoy life, I would say this:
Know that it’s just your imagination overworking itself. Know that you are not alone. Know that it’s difficult to make that first step to speak out and make a change but it’s even harder not to and to carry on struggling in silence. Know that hiding it is not the answer.
And most of all: know that it is not a sign of weakness. The energy it takes to cope with mental health problems exhausts us. We are fighting every day and we deserve some recognition for working so hard.
If just one person could read this and sit up and think, “Yup. I think I’d like to talk to someone,” then it would make my day.

You may be surprised at the peace you might find.

Namaste

Snap!

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I wish I had a box of sticks – the size of pencils but not so precious, that I could pick up and snap to break my frustration.


I wish I had a pile of plates – that smashed like crockery but not so sharp, that I could hurl against a wall to shatter my anger.


I wish I had another foot – that swung like my own but felt no pain, that I could boot against a wall to kick away the boundaries.


I wish I had another face – that looked like mine but never anxious, that I could wear when life keeps on demanding.


I wish I had another heart – that had this love but not the ache, that I could carry inside me to keep my pulse steady.




I wish I didn’t have to write shit like this



Anxiety Disorder: trying to stop blaming myself

shutterstock_130900154 I haven’t written a blog post for a while. I regularly long to write and blog and blurt out my thoughts but I can’t settle long enough or often enough to organise my words. Being an anxious person does weird things to my brain: it clouds my judgement and reorders my thoughts, it plays lists of Other Things I Should Be Doing so loudly in my head I can’t concentrate or relax; it makes the outside world a challenging cacophony against my interior thoughts and leaves me running in circles and chewing my nails, often achieving little or nothing.

As a writer, it is assumed I should and do read a lot, right?
Wrong.
I can’t even settle for half an hour with a good book. I lust after books, I buy books, I line them up on shelves, I take them to bed with me at night, but I rarely get past the first few pages. I can’t seem to stop the feelings of guilt for relaxing, as if relaxing is not only impossible but somehow not allowed. It seems I should be constantly dodging bullets or chasing chickens or watching for wolves. I said to a friend recently that in the past I would have been the one to stay awake all night and listen out for danger. It’s like there’s an alert button that will not switch off.

Anxiety also messes with my routines and cuts my connections to the things that make me feel whole. I can commit to great swathes of different activities but then suddenly I find I am not managing anything. It’s a rather rocky path to travel along, my life. I look back and see I have been stumbling on things for a while and dropping things along the way. It’s hard to go back and pick things up when you haven’t done them for a while. Leaving things or ignoring things and hoping I can feel like dealing with them in the future is a terrible habit of mine – it’s a coping mechanism I guess, but one of the false coping mechanisms that we anxious people use when we believe can’t actually deal with things at all. It’s strange how we know that in reality we will feel better when we have dealt with things that are causing us to worry, but instead we try to block them. My memory also suffers a lot because of my difficulty remaining calm. I think so much of my brain deals with being anxious that I don’t always process or store information efficiently.

There’s a popular mantra theme I see all the time on the Internet: Face your fears; Do one thing every day that scares you; Feel the fear and do it anyway -as if we will somehow feel better if we have done something truly terrifying. One thing I find important to stress as an anxious person is that we are doing things all the time that absolutely terrify us and it is exhausting! We are not skydiving or white-water rafting or making speeches to huge gatherings, but we may as well be. Just being moderately normal kicks out so much adrenalin I get a dry mouth, palpitations, migraines, insomnia, digestive problems, alcohol cravings, bad reactions to sugar and caffeine, tearfulness, shaking arms, chest pains, shallow breathing and exhaustion: exhaustion like you wouldn’t believe. I can’t possibly entertain the thought of deliberately looking for something scary that will make me feel fulfilled somehow! Crazy.

My introverted behaviour and longing to be at or close to home must give a false impression of how I am. I must seem quiet, unadventurous and perhaps a little dull. How contrary that is to the way I feel: I am easily bored, I love new stuff and am always planning new projects. But the problem with anxiety is that it can blow up at any time and the excitement of imagining, dreaming, organising and planning can switch to the panic of loss of control and fear of disaster, or feelings of being overwhelmed or unable to cope. Failure is always at my shoulder. Often the anxiety tells me to stop everything because I am getting it all wrong and I’ll never be a success at anything I’m trying to do.

Some days I allow myself to do nice or pleasant things (or just not awful, mundane things ) but most days I don’t. Many days I am simply tough on myself all day and will only allow myself to do what I think will serve others; some days I am punished by the extreme exhaustion and other physical symptoms of having pushed myself through a stressful situation. I can refocus for a while – particularly while out walking and paying attention to things around me, or while watching a gripping film, but it never leaves me. I am never completely calm.

Anxiety is not a new thing for me. It’s newly diagnosed and newly accepted, but it’s a chronic part of who I am. It’s something I have always had inside me. I think through genes I was born anxious but it was intensified by stressful situations as a very young child, and has been triggered by other things that have happened as I’ve got older. I also had anxious parents and it’s bound to have affected me. I am anxious through and through: mentally, physically and emotionally. I don’t feel it’s something I can step out of or get over through a course of CBT or drugs. I feel in my case it’s about recognising, accepting and managing.

The most important thing that has happened to me in the last year is being forced to recognise there is a problem and talk to a doctor about my symptoms. Not everyone likes a label, and perhaps not everything can or should be labelled, but I needed to blame something else rather than myself for the days that have been so dark and frightening I simply couldn’t cope with getting out of bed or leaving the house or being around other people. Blaming myself for everything over the years has certainly increased my anxiety and the fear that I look merely useless or lazy or thoughtless or unreliable has brought me incredible distress. In fact the impact I perceive I am having on others brings me the greatest distress.

Everything starts in my head with “You’re not going to cope with this situation”, and then that either escalates to a point where I duck out of the situation in which I have decided I will not cope or I force myself into it and I find I am in a “You’re not coping with this situation” kind of hell. This is always followed by “You didn’t cope with that situation. You are a failure”. The failure plays again and again in my head, making me feel hot and sick and restless.

Now that I can call that situation “Anxiety” and not just me being useless, I can begin to take back a little control. The anxiety still kicks in before the reason, but I can often recognise it now and decide if I’m strong enough to fight it, and I have spotted little tricks to fend off some of the physical symptoms, sometimes. Sometimes I’m just done in and nothing works but I am armed with knowledge and understanding of myself and my disorder now. I still can’t always make a division between what I just don’t want to do and what I would like do to if I were less anxious, but I can stop blaming myself.

It’s hard to tell people you suffer with anxiety. Play it down and it just sounds like you’re being lame and will usually lead to people telling you to “stop being silly”, “you have nothing to worry about”, “you’ll feel better once you’ve done it”. I can’t count the number of times I’ve felt better after doing something I was afraid of – because it hasn’t happened. I have never felt better after doing something that scared me – because the fear ruined everything. I don’t blame people – no one can know what it’s like to constantly live with too much adrenalin unless it’s happening to them.
But stress the importance of the anxiety and the serious impact it’s having on your life and you feel the stigma of a mental health problem begin to emerge; people avoid you or suggest things you should do, or helpfully imply that you would be better off on drugs.

Here’s what I want to say to people:
I suffer with a chronic anxiety disorder. I don’t want you to do anything or say anything, I don’t want you to pity me or avoid me. It’s not who I am but it affects how I can act, and I’m dealing with it in the best way I know how. For me everyday life is like a lot of tangled threads, and simple things are not easy to order or contain. I need you to know and to accept it because I see how keeping it hidden has made me more anxious about the way I might be judged and that really really hasn’t helped.

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Why I knew I would love The Night Rainbow

The Night Rainbow by Claire King

The Night Rainbow by Claire King

In 2010, I bought a copy of the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, and found a story by Claire King, called Wine at Breakfast, which was written in a way that seemed to fit me. It had a rhythm that felt familiar and matched the way my own word rhythms work. This made it natural for me to read it as if it belonged in my head. And it contained all the things that I find powerful and captivating: family, love, imperfection, struggle – the wow!ness, if you like, of real life.

So I decided to stalk this writer and was delighted to find her on Twitter. I was also delighted to discover she was every bit as human and warm as her writing suggested.

At this time I was going through a type of writing immersion: I was taking a writing course with the Open University, writing daily, following hundreds of writers on Twitter, joining groups and subscribing to writing magazines. I found another winning short story by Claire, in Writers’ Forum Magazine, about the exhaustion of being a new mother. Again it had all the things that suited me and was delivered in Claire’s natural musical phrasing so that the words flow through and over you instead of bumping and making you take breath in the wrong places. When someone writes that well, there’s no need for bells and whistles – the way the pull of human struggle is written and draws out your emotions is enough of a ride.

What I like best about Claire, though, is not that she is good writer. It’s that she doesn’t talk about her writing all the time – she talks about life, she makes jokes, she puts her family in the number one position before everything else in her life. She doesn’t judge others. She likes silliness, food, drink, the open air, and life – real life – in general, and she sends herself up. You get the feeling talking to her that she knows how short and sweet life is and that in order to cope with the briefness we need to appreciate the sweetness. There is also an overwhelming sense of empathy and understanding that emanates from things Claire says. She comes across as someone who knows what pain looks like and has possibly seen things that give her a special perspective on life and a deep understanding of people. She shares. And shares this well in her writing.

So when (in 2011?) I heard Claire’s first novel was to be published, I was very excited. I was in the middle of writing an important assignment but stopped and had a drink for her (“in the middle” in a “checking out what was happening on Twitter” kind of way!).

I finally got a copy of The Night Rainbow in my hands when it was published in February this year, and found myself in the most wonderful position of knowing without a doubt that I would love it. Things at home had been tough for one reason or another and I was shattered and low, so I put the book on the shelf next to the bed and waited. I knew there would come a time when I would be ready.

And finally, four months later – eight days ago, I was ready. Not liking spoilers of any kind, I had carefully avoided reviews about the book, and I let the whole experience be a complete surprise.

While you could apply terms such as “unputdownable”, and “page turner” to this book, I was strong and managed to stop turning pages and put it down each night and make it last a week. I’m glad I didn’t take a one-day trip to be in France with a little girl called Pea and her world. I’m pleased I got to visit for a week, and get a feel for the place.

Just as Claire doesn’t tell the reader how to think, I don’t want to tell you what to think of the book. And there are a couple of surprises that unravel along the way – one of which I feel must unravel at the reader’s pace so they have their own unique experience whilst reading. What I can say though, is that the beautifully rhythmic writing is there, the human condition is there – everywhere! My senses came alive, my heart was broken and patched up, and I really felt I’d stepped outside myself and been Pea in France for a while.
There is one strong thread throughout the book and that is the sense that the boundaries between what is real and what is not real are often blurred. The absence of speech marks makes this especially clear. While we are watching 5-year-old Pea struggle so enormously to make sense of the world – and perhaps we are happy sometimes that she doesn’t – we can also be allowed to think that we as adults – and indeed the adults in the book – are just as guilty of seeing things through only one pair of eyes, through one perspective as Pea does, and how that can never and will never give the whole truth.

Of course I will take my own individual reading of this book and make it fit my own concerns, but what I gained from the novel was a sense that it is all too easy to judge and/or be afraid of others but we are all the sum of life’s struggles and need to be loved. There was not one character that was truly awful or wholly bad, but there were often behaviours that concerned or had an adverse effect on others. This is how human beings are. Revolving the story around Pea’s perspective gives an insight into how complicated we can look from the outside and how actions or words can be misinterpreted, but overall, most of us are pretty decent people. As time goes by in the story we can see how the adults struggle just as much Pea to make sense of the signs and misread each other.

On a personal level, I recognised the exhaustion of pregnancy, and the difficulty I found in being what everyone needed me to be in difficult times. I recognised also the tremendous power grief has over a person. I’ve seen what it looks like and how difficult it can be to claw your way back to normality. As a very young child I watched my mother cope with debilitating grief and Claire has expressed this really effectively in the novel.

Despite the horribleness that everyone seems to have endured at some point, there is a life-line of sweetness brought to the reader through the delights of the natural world and the seasons running through everything. The descriptions of food are totally delicious! Life stops and starts and bumps; it hurts, it shocks, it confuses. But life goes on and it’s not all bad, especially when there are biscuits.

I’m not really a fan of star-rating for books but, just in case Pea is reading, I would like to give this novel eleventy hundred.
And do I recommend it? You betcha!

The Night Rainbow.


NIghtRainbowPaperback


(Also available in paperback in August)

Substitute

When you died, grief hung around the house in your image.
It sat in the bedroom in a chair that wasn’t there, and waited in every darkness. It wanted to introduce itself to me, but it was so heavy with trauma, fear and the unknown that we were awkward together. I flicked on lights and told it it wasn’t there.

Over time, the images were less cruel and less frequent, but grief still begged to be noticed. It stopped me in the kitchen, and held me poised with one hand on the handle of a rumbling kettle as it boiled. It took advantage of the noises of running water, flushing toilets, spinning machines; keeping me suspended in another realm whenever sounds of the outside world were held off by white noise.

It followed me to the bathroom, to my moments of solitude, and crept into bed with me at night to wait for the insomnia that always came. It seeped into my computer and chose the saddest songs, wound its way into my throat and pushed at my chest.
Like a lover, it became jealous of my family, and played with my face – dragging down my jawline to make me ugly, capturing my gaze and distracting my eyes away from my children. It punched me in the chest, poked me in the eye, bruised me, made me cry. It took control of my voicebox and made me talk about you, held my hands and made me write about you. It was a bully and yet it wanted to be my friend.

I didn’t send grief away. “I notice you,” I said. “I don’t hate you.”
I treated it with respect. I gave it time, I gave it words; I gave it music and let it enter me. We became companions, grief and I.

Now grief is quieter. It is never happy but it is settled here. It has a place and it behaves better because it is satisfied we know each other now. It believes me when I say I will take it everywhere with me and keep it safe. Sometimes it sits above me and tickles my head or closes my eyes. It points things out or sends me a memory. It doesn’t want me to be always afraid or always in pain – I know now – it came to replace you. And that is why it is so insecure: it is such a poor substitute, but substitute it is.



Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been 72. It is also Fathers’ Day.
Grief and I had some time alone in the garage today and now we are sharing a glass of wine while grief writes this.

A Farewell to Plates

(not to be confused with pilates – I never did that)
platespinning
When we’re walking the dog along the beach, I often pick up a stone or a pebble and turn it over, hidden, in my left hand. I prefer an imperfect, partially-worn pebble, still with edges, crevices and knobbles. I absent-mindedly assess its contours with my fingertips and become accustomed with how it feels and what to expect with each turn. There’s comfort in the familiarity of the rhythm, and it’s a nice simple thing to do while my conscious brain thinks it’s really engaged in walking, taking in the view, and perhaps discussing the family or the shop or something trivial with my husband. My other hand is usually in charge of carrying my camera, and that’s where all the responsibility lies.
But today I saw two pebbles of a similar size that both looked like they would be nice to hold. I picked them up and held them together, tumbling them over each other. It didn’t seem as simple or as pleasant as turning only one. The pebbles bumped together and destroyed each other’s rhythm, and they grated as grains of sand scratched as they turned. It wasn’t long before I could tell them apart though and had noticed one was sharper than the other. I became more aware of what I was doing and started to think about it. What if there were three pebbles in my hand?
I picked up another one and held the three together. As I moved them around, the tumbling became jumbled and random. I had less control. But I could soon make out three different stones by feel: one was the smoothest, one was the sharpest and one was neither the smoothest nor the sharpest – it was just there. I now had to think about why it was individual and how to identify it. It was a little smaller, I eventually decided.
But what about four or five stones in the hand – all of a similar size, all supposedly taking up as much room in my hand and all hopefully getting a fair number of tumbles?

Well I tried it. And it certainly wasn’t comforting or simple. It wasn’t rhythmical or easy to keep tabs on each stone and the enjoyment of predicting the feel or a surface on each turn and being rewarded by being right had completely gone.

There was just too much going on

Each pebble, on its own, one at a time: fine. But in the time it takes to walk across the beach I don’t have time to play some 5-pebble swapping trick. Besides, I have too much else to think of, and worrying about whether each pebble has had a juggle in my hand is quite frankly bordering on the obsessive. So… just how many pebbles is healthy?

Okay. I’ll be honest now: the pebbles are just a catalyst. I’ve also been thinking about pies and plates his week.
“How many pies is it healthy for me to have my fingers in?” I’ve been asking myself.
And:

“Is it sensible to have several plates spinning if I can’t keep up with them all, am not enjoying the chaos, and which plates would be missed if I just concentrated on one or two?”

Feeling a bit chaotic and plate-spinny coincided with a recent period of low-confidence and bad health – mentally and physically. I’m sure they’re all connected in some way but not necessarily completely related to one another. It’s like Velcro balls: all separate but cause havoc when they’re all stuck together

On Tuesday I was on the brink of writing a farewell blog post. My paid-for domain name expires on 1st July and I’m not planning to pay to renew it. I thought I could write a swift goodbye and leave it there for 3 weeks until it disappears. Blogging takes up time. It’s occasionally caused me arguments which have led to bad feelings and those bad feelings have never left me. Because my blog was initially set up as a creative and communicative writing outlet, I felt as if I was failing on the communication side of things. It’s one thing to have your comments challenged in casual conversation, it’s another to have them challenged when you’ve thought about them long and hard and spent time writing them. It begins to feel like unpaid political journalism. I’m not in that area because I’m not mentally up to it. I would focus on the negative and the conflict and allow it to ruin everything. It’s an unavoidable part of low self-esteem. Besides, I may write mildly subversive thoughts occasionally but I’m never offensive or prejudiced. I would say I simply bounce thoughts around in a benign way. In my fiction and creative writing, I particularly don’t like receiving creative feedback when I haven’t asked for it. If my writing doesn’t work for someone, I’d rather they quietly ducked out rather than telling me I’ve done something wrong (when their “wrong” can equal a different taste rather than any kind of accuracy or breaking of rules). I found myself telling my sister on the phone recently I wanted to pour stuff out but not deal with the consequences. If I’m going to have to read scathing literary reviews about my work on a weekly basis, I’d like to be a. published, b. paid for it and c. for the person to have jolly good reason for their comments and they way they are delivered. Creativity (for me) can’t be constantly interrupted by criticism. No one sits outside my window when I play the flute, yelling, “I don’t think Vivaldi meant for it to be played that slow!” And I rarely get people telling me on blipfoto that my photos could be better – which is amazing because they could always be better! I’m doing it again: focussing on the negative!

And then there’s the peace, the guilt and the time involved in writing.

Writing does great things for me but it doesn’t make me feel like a good person. I feel inconvenient. I want solitude while my thoughts and words arrange themselves, and any interruption destroys everything. EVERY THING, I TELL YOU!! The trouble is the interruptions are usually unavoidable and my responsibility. I can escape the rage and frustration of interruption and the guilt of being inconvenient if I don’t write, right?

I quietly made up my mind to stop writing and slowly began to let it slip out.
Then three things happened in amazingly quick succession just as I was planning my final blog post that stopped me:
1. Someone whose opinion I value very highly said something complimentary about my blog posts
2. Someone else who follows me on Twitter didn’t know I blogged asked to see my blog and said that after reading my tweets – they would be interested in reading longer versions of my tweets
3. My mother came over for a visit and I didn’t get a chance to go near the computer that afternoon.

The farewell blog post never happened.

I realised the crisis in confidence had been a bigger part of the decision to stop writing than I had been admitting to myself. I don’t actually want to stop writing. And I don’t want to say I’m not a writer. I just want life to be easier. Easier on my terms. I want to sleep better, I want to have more energy, I want to stop having days of nothing but brain fog, I want to be able to do everything I want to do and everything other people want me to do. I want to be brilliant, amazing and the world’s best multi-tasker. But most of all I want to stop being disappointed with myself and I thought I would be better company and more efficient if I stopped writing.
But I haven’t been.
And I haven’t really stopped. I’ve been writing in my head. I do it regularly. I can’t stop. And I can’t make myself be more efficient or organise my time better. I just can’t. I’ll write a list and then feel ill all day, or I’ll plan to make bread and then end up planting potatoes. I cannot put aside a time to write, a time to play the flute, a time for walk, a time to take photos. I simply can’t.

I’ve tried again and again and again and I fail over and over and I hate myself for failing.

So I’ve looked at my plates, my pies and my pebbles. I’ve stopped spinning the plates, I’ve taken out my fingers and licked off the gravy (yum, pies…), and I’ve put the pebbles on the desk (<- that one's literal). There are too many needless plates and I’m getting rid of them. There are nice plates but I don’t need them so they will have to go. There are other plates I have no idea why I’m still trying to keep up. Social conditioning I guess.

Well. No more spinning. I don’t need to be something. I don’t need to prove anything. I need to survive. When I’m anxious, when there’s a lot going on, when ill health or exhaustion strikes I won’t write and I know I can’t write. I won’t be committing to anything at all any time soon, and I won’t be thinking of it as something I need to fit in somewhere like a task that grates against everything else going on. I’m just going to take each day as it comes, and try to stop taking any notice of people who like to provide endless lists of how bloody marvellous they’ve been, or people who are totally conventional and have no idea how it feels to be me. This is how I have to live because this is who I am.

What else can I do?

Besides: stuff it all. Who said there are any rules about anything, anyway?

So. Erm. Yeah. What’s the conclusion?

I’ve simplified my blog and it stays. For now. But I’m not paying to keep a paid-for domain, so it’ll just be any old WordPress blog soon. And I’ve removed the “About” page because I can’t keep up with who I am/was/might think I am sometimes. It keeps changing anyway.

Whatever.

Box of plates anyone?

(There really are pebbles from the beach in front of me)



On The Button

I’m celebrating 2 years since my first attempt at flash fiction by sharing that first story from July 2010 (which is in fact more like a short story than a flash)
(Isn’t it funny – and rather worrying – how only 2 years ago I thought of sponsored academies as fictitious)

‘Zophar, listen.’ Luna crouched before him on the pavement. ‘You can get out whenever you want, okay?’
Zophar nodded, looking past his mother to the others. His body was poised in politeness towards his mother but in anticipation of other children, his eyes looked ahead to his new schoolmates and he willed her to say goodbye.
‘Did you Anti-Germ your hands?’
Another nod.
‘Where are your disposable toilet seat covers?’
Zophar patted his backpack.
‘And mask? Remember which pocket?’
More nodding.

His father opened the driver door of the car and the airlock was released with a Clop. Shhhhhhhh. He stepped out carefully, holding a green canister, spraying into the air as he approached.
‘Another squirt of Pollute Repel for luck.’ He misted the air around Zophar’s head and tiptoed back to the car, as if trying to avoid making contact with the ground. ‘One last button test, perhaps Luna?’ he called, slipping back into the car and sealing himself in.
‘Yes. Quick button run-though,’ said Luna. Tell me again.’
‘Emergency Back-Off spray, emergency water purifying tablet.’ Zophar’s fingers ran downwards over the buttons on his blazer at speed as he rushed through the list. ‘Emergency anti-viral pill, emergency contact button, emergency detox spray button.’ He touched his cuffs next. ‘Panic buttons. Now can I go?’ The five-year-old jiggled impatiently.
‘Anytime at all, if you are worried,’ continued Luna, ‘if someone touches you, if someone coughs near you, if the toilets are dirty. Any reason. You hear me? We’ll get you out straight away. Just press those cuff buttons. And when the car brings you back remember: shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off, then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer and don’t touch the cruise control in the car on the way home. You hear me?’
‘I know, I know, you said. Now can I go?’
‘Okay.’ Luna kissed the air, not touching Zophar. ‘Go baby. Take care. Remember: buttons!’ She mimed pushing buttons as he ran off. ‘And don’t run or you’ll fall and touch the ground and I’ll have to take you home!’

Luna clasped her hands in front of her chin. ‘Good luck. Come home safely,’ she whispered.

Zophar scampered up the steps as fast as he thought he would get away with. He was more happy and excited than he could ever remember being.

This was better than birthdays. There were other children here.

The entrance was massive. It took up one whole side of the building.
‘Prevention Pharmaceutical’s Academy of Learning and Science welcomes you all and asks that when you enter the building, you do not share a door pod with anyone else,’ came a voice from within the walls.
Robotic eyes shifted around and each pod spoke instructions through hidden speakers as one hundred children at a time were allowed to enter the first segment where they were instantly separated by screens that held the children in stalls as they were scanned for identification and viruses.
Immediately three boys were locked in and a voice told them to wait until cars arrived to remove them.
Some newcomers were familiar with screening and airlocks. They stood patiently while the eyes and scanners moved around them. But the others, from older housing out of the city had not experienced Entrance Pollution Prevention.
Zophar could hear cries of ‘I want to go home,’ ‘I don’t like this,’ while others sobbed and tried to back out.
Luna had told him about the entrance and how other boys weren’t used to it. ‘They’ll soon get domesticated,’ she had said. ‘Everyone learns eventually.’

Next they were filtered into a huge glass cube. It was one of six on three levels. A voice told them to wait for the professors to collect them.
In this mix of trained and untrained five-year-olds, the difference was obvious to Zophar: the untrained boys had less shiny clothes and they didn’t have emergency blazer buttons. Zophar worried for them. But they didn’t look bothered. A few of them started talking to each other and they even tried to talk to the trained boys. Luna had said to keep away from untrained boys because they weren’t treated. He wondered if it would be safer to hold his nose then he wouldn’t be sharing their air. He held his breath for twenty seconds and gave up.
An untrained boy had been watching him. ‘I can hold my breath loads longer than that.’
‘Ludo’s the best at holding his breath. He swims underwater,’ said another boy.
‘He goes swimming?! Wow…’ Zophar stared.
‘Ye-ah, loads of us go. It’s really good for you.’ The boy threw off his blazer and mimicked breaststroke. ‘Gives you strong muscles. My dad said so.’
Zophar, Ludo and some others took off their blazers too, giggling as they ran in circles pretending to swim.

‘Why are your buttons so big?’
Zophar turned to see Ludo wearing his blazer and fiddling with the cuff buttons.
‘No! Don’t!’
The airlock opened and a robotic sensor promptly identified Zophar’s blazer. Ludo was shunted gently towards the door pods.
‘Please wait until your car arrives,’ said a voice.

From the door pods Ludo was directed into Zophar’s family car and within minutes he was lowered out at Zophar’s house.
A woman’s voice from a wall speaker said he could try school again tomorrow and she was glad he was home. ‘And remember:’ she said, ‘shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer on.’

Luna waited outside the bathroom with clean towels. She stared; horrified at the sight of the strange, untreated boy and then she hyperventilated.

Zophar’s father left Ludo in the entrance while he arranged his collection. Then the house and car were treated before the car was sent to collect the right boy this time. It had all been too risky and too stressful – Luna would home-school Zophar from now on.


This story is now published as an e-story from Ether Books:

(N.B. Thanks to Norman Geras – @normblog , who very kindly supplied me with the inspired prompt word: “prompt” when I asked on Twitter!)

The Deer Stalker

A short story / flash-fiction
It’s still there, like a trophy, on the kitchen windowsill – the bottle you drank from on Wednesday night.
I don’t drink beer. Anyone who knows me knows that.
I wonder how many people have walked past the house and seen it there and thought, ‘She’s had a man in her house. At last.’

I looked at it on Thursday morning, sitting in the sunshine, the last swill at the bottom evaporating into the morning air. I breathed the deliciously dirty, left over smell into my head and drank in the memories as I thought about your deoxyribonucleic acid still on its un-rinsed neck. Still on my neck. The words you knew I wanted to hear repeating in my mind, caught on a loop. Later when Mum saw it but said nothing I felt I was holding that night like a clandestine cloak around me. Memories still so physical I couldn’t share them. Not yet. Maybe in a couple of weeks I’d tell her about the man known by his friends as The Deer Stalker.

On Friday the stale beer-warmed-in-the-sun smell accosted me at breakfast, as if to taunt me: ‘He didn’t phone. You’re used and dirty,’ it said. I held it in my hands for the first time since Wednesday night and examined the neck, hoping I hadn’t made a mistake and fallen for a man who was easy with his DNA after all. I played the evening back like a film and smiled at the blank table top as if it were your face. I dipped the back of my neck into my shoulder as if it were your hand. And then I closed my eyes and pressed the warm rim of the beer bottle to my mouth as if it were your kiss.

Yesterday was cloudy. I washed and tumble-dried my sheets, and the house smelled of me not you or your beer. I looked at your bottle on the windowsill and told it to call me. I told it I was going to be out all day but I would have my phone with me. Over lunch I protected myself with hands in front of my face as I told Anna about my encounter with The Deer Stalker. She tore up her seeded roll doubtfully and gave me half. I found I couldn’t eat as she suggested reasons for your nickname.
After a silence, she asked, ‘What was it like? Are you glad he was your first?’ But I could tell she was cross.
I said, ‘Sorry.’ I was sorry I hadn’t told her sooner.
But she said ‘No.’ It wasn’t that. She was sorry I’d had to find out this way.
I didn’t understand.

I had this daydream this morning that I could take your DNA from the bottle and make a baby. I could give birth to you. Hold on to you. If I couldn’t have you then I would have a beautiful copy of you. Maybe you would find out and you would see me with this baby and realise you loved me. And then it dawned on me that maybe I’m already pregnant. As I showered I wondered if perhaps you’ve lost my number and you’ve been trying to contact me.
But now that Anna’s told me what she found out about you last night I don’t want your DNA. I’m holding the bottle under the hot tap and allowing myself, and the ghost of my virginity, one last memory of my defeat. I admire your stalking talent; your ability to watch patiently from afar until you’ve learnt a woman’s moves. That’s a clever technique to appear as if from nowhere and catch us offguard. And then the softly-softly charming, not touching, always getting closer and closer – winning trust, moving gently. Bit by bit. You won’t hurt. How could someone like you hurt? You creep. You creep.

Whoosh


The first thing you notice as a child is how it feels like you’re not having to wait so long for Christmas to come around again each year. The next thing you notice is that you’re old enough to leave school, then old enough to drink, old enough to vote – officially an adult! Oh – boy – how you can’t wait to leave your parents’ house and use all your new adult rights. 18th, 19th and 20th birthdays seem to come almost back-to-back. Whoosh! Where did those teenage years go?!
But when your parents celebrate big birthday milestones: their fortieth, their fiftieth, they seem old, and really properly growing-up still seems like a long way off for you yet.

But those Christmases still keep coming thicker and faster, and before you know it you’ve celebrated twenty Christmases, twenty-five Christmases and you can’t believe how quickly summer comes and goes each year. Is it really time for Wimbledon again? you ask yourself.

And then suddenly you find out you’re going to be a parent and you have 8 or 9 months to get used to the idea and then before you’re ready you’re holding a screaming baby in the supermarket with sick on your shoulder and your clothes on inside out and an irritating old woman tells you to ‘Make the most of it. They’ll be grown-up before you know it.’ But you don’t know it and you don’t want to know it because you haven’t slept and you want to tell her to piss off.

And then it’s a baby’s first Christmas and then it is Grandad’s last Christmas. And you yawn, scream and plod through the terrible twos and troublesome threes and Wimbledon again. And then the kids are at school and you’re giving away toddler toys and you notice for the first time how old your parents are looking and you scratch your head and think Gosh am I really a parent? What happened there? And the kids make mess and they make noise and they need less and they want more: they want food and things and money and they write Christmas lists and they write Christmas lists and they write Christmas lists and then one of them looks up thoughtfully and says, ‘Cor. Christmas again already. That year went fast.’

And then taking down the Christmas decorations seems to lead directly into Wimbledon and it hardly seems worth putting the boxes away because you’ll be getting them out again in a minute. And then you catch your reflection in the hall mirror wearing a waterproof jacket and holding a garden centre list as you head downstairs with a thoroughly grown-up serious face just like those you saw on your parents’ faces. And someone in the garden centre tells you your eldest daughter looks just like you used to at that age.

It wasn’t such a long way off after all.

And then you notice that the apples have started growing on the tress again already and it dawns on you that it is precisely 18 years since you first found out you were going to be a parent.

Patriotism is Green and Thoughtful and Free

I stared at a retweet on Twitter just now: “Streets of #Braunton look busy and patriotic in Red, White and Blue #Olympictorchrelay #NDevon”

I thought about this for a while. I’m not a flag-waver, I never have been and all this fuss in my local area for something which costs ridiculous, RIDICULOUS amounts of money is making me cross on many many levels.
There are people who simply cannot afford to survive day-to-day living costs and the government is telling them to keep tightening their belts – that there is no money – and yet we can afford this???

*&%$+?”*±§\ !

Our youngest daughter’s school are walking to watch the Olympic torch (well, one of 8,000 torches!) pass through the area today. I love the idea of taking kids on a walk out of school with a picnic to take part in something with kids from other schools. Bring on integration and fun and getting outdoors more often – Hooray!
But for this?
I’m also not impressed by the attention the Queen’s jubilee is getting. More expense, more pomp, more hype, more flag-waving. More ‘little people looking up to big people’ mentality. Can’t people see what’s happening here?! The have and the have nots divide has just exploded. I thought we were trying to undo that inequality in this country. We’re very quick to criticise other countries for it.

So I don’t like the Olympic torch relay.
I don’t like the Queen’s jubilee.
I don’t like flag-waving.
Does this make me unpatriotic, I thought?

I looked at the word ‘patriotic’. I looked at the dictionary definition. I thought about my country, my life, my loves and I decided I am most certainly not unpatriotic. Far from it.

I love the coastline and birdsong and badgers and butterflies and foxcubs and bees and gardens and countryside of our country. I love our scraggly little misshapen, tea-drinking island plonked in the ocean. I support our farmers, our fishermen, our schools, our NHS, our wildlife, our eclectic culture. I am so patriotic it hurts when I see any of those things suffering.

I think all the forced pomp and ceremony is distracting – at the moment it feels deliberately so, but I can completely understand people’s need to get excited about something, to be positive about something, to feel part of something – especially right now. One of the most wonderful experiences of my life was when I took part in a combined schools concert in the Queen’s Theatre in Barnstaple as a teenager. The feeling of being part of something big and public was so wonderful that when the first notes were playing I felt as if my heart was bursting out of my mouth. That feeling is unbeatable and unforgetable and we should have opportunites to feel like that more often instead of stapling children to their desks. I just think the costs of all the ceremony in 2012 outweigh the benefits way and above anything patriotic. I think it is all false. And I am sad. Because I love people and worry for them and because I want to protect what’s real. Because I am patriotic not because I am not.

Later:
I’ve just read this: The Olympics represents the triumph of that class of people who used to obey orders without question, and have ascended to giving orders in turn. In consequence, there is order, hierarchy, “stand behind that there barrier”, and a belief that what really matters about your nation is that some bloke can suspend his education for years and at the end of it jump three inches further than a fellow from Papua New Guinea on here: Olympic Torch Route, day 3 – Philip Hensher explains why he is not feeling the wow factor as the flame makes a ‘historic’ visit to Exeter. He’s an associate professor of Creative Writing at Exeter University, don’t cha know, and he’s just got himself a new fan. :)

Flutter


It was the flit of the butterfly’s wings that changed everything.

When she saw it, perched perfectly still on a nettle, it was dark – like her.
She liked that.
Quiet and dark.
And alone.
Folded up against the world.
She drew her elbows into her sides and watched its antennae twitch. ‘We’re the same – you and me.’

But then it lowered its wings and she saw that she was wrong. It showed off its rich red-orange and its bright purple flashes and powder-blue-eyed stare.
In a multi-coloured flash it took off.
She watched the creature’s papery flight lift and bounce and then disappear it; losing itself in a medley of yellow dots, orange silk hearts, green spikes, purple tongues and bright pink spears. Light petals fluttered, heavy pompom heads swung like upturned pendulums, and grasses waved. The colours altered as the wildflowers danced and bobbed in the sunlight. How inspiring nature was to have evolved a creature that adapted so cleverly to its habitat.

Sitting cross-legged and gazing out across the grasses and flowerheads, she tried to match long-unused names with remembered images: the red admiral, the tortoiseshell, the painted lady… but she didn’t know what this one was. Butterfly spotting had remained in her childhood with so many other ephemeral memories.

She wanted to take a photo. One day she would take the perfect wildflower meadow photo: sky, flowers and one other element: a bee, a bird, a distant hill, a butterfly perhaps…

One day…

She looked down at the unopened corner-shop-vodka, with the wonky label, hammocked in the lap of her long summer skirt and squeezed the pills in her fist until her palm begged to be relieved of the pain. Then she stood up – letting the bottle drop to the ground and walked back to the hospital, shaking out the pills like seeds along the path.

They’d said his eyelids had fluttered.
There was still hope.

A Timely Quote

I’m sharing a quote I’ve just scraped from one of my OU books. It’s an amusing paradox because although it’s in my course book, I can’t follow its advice. In a way I have to do the opposite and write about a lot of literary criticism (some of which I’m not making sense of and I’m not sure I want to).

It’s from a letter written by Philip K. Dick in 1981 where he responds to a
critical article (about one of his own novels) he has been sent and confesses that he finds it unreadable.

He writes:

‘Criticism, to be valuable, must make sense and must relate in some way to that which it analyses … [E]verything bad about academic literary criticism is found in this article; it is dull, it is pointless, and its only purpose – if indeed it has a purpose – is to exhibit the education of its author, who, I feel, really should read fewer books and, instead, play frisbie in a park somewhere with some little kids (and I might take that advice myself, in view of my recent writings).

Perhaps we are all spending too much time thinking and reading and writing when we should be out in the sun.’

Dick, 1981

(From The Popular and the Canonical, an A300 coursebook)

Unfortunately,  I now have to spend too much time reading and thinking and writing.

If You Build it, They Will Come…

About good people doing good things

Kissing Frankenstein & Other Stories

Kissing Frankenstein & Other Stories


Back in October, a strange man approached me on Twitter and asked me to follow him.

Even though I had my own puppy and don’t particularly like sweeties, I did.

He beckoned me over and said he’d heard I was good at writing flash-fiction and he wanted me to join in with some brand-spanking new flashing idea he’d had.

Me? Good? Spanking? Flashing?
(okay, maybe he didn’t say “spanking”…).

Must be some other Rachel, I thought, but I decided to see what he had to say.

His name is Calum Kerr and I, for one, had never heard of him before (sorry Calum). He said he was organising the first ever National Flash Fiction Day in May 2012 and wanted to get a few fellow flash-fiction writers on board from all over the country. Did I want to be part of it?

Well, I love being asked to be part of something. I always say, ‘yes,’ and think later.

So I said, ‘Yes.’

And thought later…

When I got an email, a few weeks later, asking all writers to provide a short biography about themselves saying where in the country they were and a brief bit about themselves, I got a knotty, twisty feeling of doom and failure in my stomach. I left the email for a while, wondering what on earth anyone could be interested in about me! You see, I have no Credentials. I just like to write.

Another few weeks later, another email came, saying could those writers who hadn’t provided a bio about themselves yet, please do so.

So I looked online at the National Flash-Fiction Day site, read a few of the bios already there and got that knotty, twisty feeling of failure and doom again.
I didn’t belong there. Other people had Credentials. So I emailed Calum and told him I thought maybe I wasn’t what he was looking for to promote his venture. I said something daft and pathetic about how I’m not anyone – I’m just a mum in Devon who likes to write, I’ve only being writing for 3 years and writing flash-fiction for 2.

I get the ‘I’m worthless rubbish, you don’t want me’ thing from my mother. We don’t believe in bigging ourselves up. We’re much better at listing what we’re not good at. (Which is why Mum never got past the interview to be an Open University tutor…)

So, anyway, Calum would email me back and say, ‘Oh, okay then. What a shame. Maybe next time?’ Yes?

No.

And this is where my faith in decent human beings was restored (and continued to be for several weeks)…
He told me to stop being so silly and write a truthful bio, and he would put up on the site whatever I came up with. He told me that numerous people had told him I was good at writing flash-fiction and that’s why he asked me to take part.
Thank you, “Numerous people”, whoever you are!

So. I did as I was told and this is what I came up with: National Flash Fiction Day – Rachel Carter

And then…
And then, what?

Well I looked at me on the site just sitting there and saw that other people were doing things in their own area, and I wondered what things a shy person like me (with no Credentials) could do in my own area?

By mid-February nothing much seemed to be organised for the South West and, noting that it was only 12 weeks until National Flash Fiction Day, I felt a bit guilty. So I decided that the least I could do was provide an online place where people from the South West could send their flash-fiction. It would be a way for writers to showcase their writing whilst also publicising National Flash Fiction Day and awareness about the genre.

I emailed Calum again and said, ‘How about I do this thing I’ve thought of?’
And he said, ‘Yes! Do it! Let me know if you need any help.’

So I did it.

I wrote a blog post and asked for readers and writers and 15 people offered to be readers immediately and people started sending stories immediately and emails were coming in every day and Calum promoted it on the site and people started trusting me to do this, to get this sorted, and – whoosh – I did it.

I did it.

I said if there was enough interest I’d make a published anthology (Interviewer: ‘I see. Have you ever done anything like before, Rachel?’ Rachel: ‘NO!’) and there was enough interest and the readers kept reading and the writers kept writing and I kept sorting and flapping and emailing and squeaking, ‘Help!’ and. And we made an anthology.

I did it.

We did it.

I’ve made mistakes (at least 3 people are nodding their heads now…) and I’ve learnt a lot. But, above all, I’ve learned that people are prepared to be helpful, supportive, reliable, and to be all those things for free, for nothing, simply because people like to do good things, to be part of things.

Thank you to those 15 readers who stuck with it – you’re amazing, thank you to all the writers who threw stuff madly down the Internet into my email inbox – including brand new writers and experienced, published writers! – thank you to all the people who have been available to reply to my strange, flappy emails: to my mum, to Martha, to Pete, to Gail, to Calum, to Elizabeth, and to Natalie ( – the world’s best retweeter!).

We did it. We have a flash-fiction anthology, written by writers from all over the west country to celebrate National Flash Fiction Day 2012.

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.


(Ta-dah)

Detergent

This is my “reject” flash-fiction that I wrote for the Flash-Fiction South West anthology* and submitted anonymously. The readers put it through but, as editor, I rejected it on the grounds that it was not quite good enough!
Oh, the thrill of wielding my own power over myself! ;)

DETERGENT

This one was more like his mother, he noted, tasting ironing starch on the air and inhaling the heady commercial washing powder aromas rising from his crisp shirt as he tightened his tie. He didn’t have to do anything for this one.

He thought back to the times he used to take breakfast up to his first wife in the mornings and the way she planned her gardening jobs in bed, her soil-ingrained fingers curled around the tea-stained mug; long, dark whorls of naturally moulted hair decorating the pillows and un-vacuumed carpet, washing left uncollected until the weekend.

These days his dirty underwear, toilet splashes and still-warm, half-drunk coffee were disappeared before he had a chance to feel mortal. Artificial scents masked the “real” and the repeated pish, pish of ‘A hint of spring breeze’ into the air replaced opening a window. Vases of plastic flowers sat watching Gardener’s World with them each week, while this one tutted at the women with filthy fingernails.

‘Just like “she who must be obeyed” hey, Tony?’ She would dig him in the ribs with her elbow. ‘Just like your ex with her filthy boots in the house and inability to do her own laundry or cook a decent meal.’ Echoes of his mother’s ‘Above and beyond the call of duty – what you do for that woman.’

Now the slap on the back of the hand, dressed up as playfulness, when he was caught making a sandwich in his own zero-point-zero-zero-one-percent-chance-of-germs-kitchen.
Now the silence of invisible glass doors, once noisily, nosily marked by playful dogs.
Now polishing the cooker hob with a tissue for fear of being discovered if he fried an egg when she was out, and hiding the frying pan before it could be used in retribution.

Oh no, he didn’t have to do anything for this one.
He didn’t dare.

As he walked to the bus stop the crack of his backside itched, raw with dermatitis.


(*The chosen flash-fiction, written as our contribution to National Flash Fiction Day can be read here: flashfictionsw.co.uk)

Dear Children…

Dear Children,

Despite some things you might be told or you might hear or you might read about always trying your hardest, trying to be the best at what you do, and making choices in early life about how you might live your adult life, I – as your loving mother – see things slightly differently.

You see, I’ve thought a lot recently about this being the best thing and what I’ve noticed is that while people are trying to beat everyone else they are not necessarily being the best and nicest person they can be.
I’ve noticed too that constant testing makes children, parents and teachers anxious about performance. Performance? Isn’t that a word for the stage? For car engines? I don’t think you should expect yourselves either to act a certain way or drive yourself a certain way as if you are a machine.

No. I want you to be yourselves.

Over the last 2 years, the system which has taken over your childhoods, has made me worry that my youngest child hadn’t learnt to write and spell by the age of six (six?!), that my middle child was “lazy” because his handwriting isn’t neat, that my eldest child might suffer under the strain of having to choose a university and future career before she’s finished growing.
The system made me think for a time that always doing one’s best, always working hard was important.

Why?

So I stopped. I thought about this and I thought about you three and I thought about myself and I thought about those “at the top” status-wise, power-wise, money-wise, fame-wise, in all sorts of different areas of life and I thought, ‘Is that what my children want? Is that what I want?’
What do I want from you and for you? I wondered.

Well. I want nothing from you. That is my gift. It came when I gave you life.

But what I want for you is happiness, I want you to live, I want you to know about what is real, I want you to look around you and see other people and wildlife and the world you share with them. I do not want you thinking you are better than other people or lowlier than other people. I do not want you always striving for status, money, power or recognition. I do not want you worrying about performance but about reasons and enjoyment when you choose to do something.
I want you to remember that life is short and can sometimes be shorter than we expect.

I want you to remember to watch sunrises and sunsets, to listen to birdsong, to follow the waxing and waning of the moon, to fall in and out of and back in love. I want you to cry at the suffering of others not at a C instead of a B. I want you to be out of the range of judgement but because that is impossible I want you to know how false all judgement is. I want you to appreciate what you can do because it gives you pleasure not be constantly comparing yourself with others – or worse still a fake set of standards about what is better.

Striving for positions, for power, for a big bank balance, for notoriety, for the “top” always comes at a price. Being a good, genuine, caring, life-embracing human-being comes with rewards.

There are different types of respect that come with the different paths one can take in life. I can’t tell you which ones to take but I’m certainly not going to push you down one that gives you pain.

You were born with five senses and big brains on a beautiful planet surrounded by other creatures that could do with a bit more respect. I hope you come to realise that the rest is less important.

Don’t be fooled by what others – who are too caught up in made-up stuff – tell you is good and bad. Be happy, be good, be kind, be open-minded, and think of life not as giving, taking, and succeeding but as being for a while. Being you.

Enjoy.

All my love, always,
Mum

PS Please stop leaving the lid off the peanut butter

Ironic

A flash fiction

‘Oh, isn’t he lovely?!’ they said, with only his wide smile, smart suit and ability to buy a round of drinks to go on.
Didn’t they so want to be one of his friends when they saw how he dominated the room?
Didn’t everyone laugh at his jokes?
Didn’t the women smoulder under his charm?
Wasn’t he the perfect host?
Wouldn’t it be marvellous to do all this again? Oh you must come to ours next time.
Cue the hand slipping around the shoulder and the pithy upper arm squeeze. Yup. There it was again.

One pace away for every year of marriage, the exclusion had become tangible. She was out of his circle. Had she moved or was she pushed?
Her performance hadn’t been up to much after all. Not quite the double act he’d been hoping for. The gregarious social couple moving in all the “right” circles hadn’t touched the feminist issues she’d expected it to. She’d begun to feel like 1950s arm candy. A secretary, an assistant. A PA. A Smiling Thing.
Where had her political life gone? What happened to her opinions? She felt around in her coat pocket for a tissue. She missed the feeling that she was standing for something, doing anything good. But she’d found that her inner strength had made her quieter, strangely. Tears of fury pricked at her eyes as she watched the stage and the repeat performance. Fools. They were all fools.
‘Not stopping?’ laughed Daisy from the office, as she walked by heading for centre stage, poking at the coat and not waiting for an answer.
Daisy. Daisy. Oh he’d be glad to see Daisy. He was half crazy for Daisy.
She wanted to tell Daisy she was welcome to him. Him and his fake teeth, his personal grooming products that took up more room than hers, his slow, degrading, emotional bullying.
But she wasn’t going to be tipped out of his net like an accidental catch. She was going to make a bloody great hole in it. She’d seen a TV programme about huge fishing trawlers that grab everything in sight and chuck back the dead and damaged things they don’t need. Ruining life that needn’t have been touched and then moving on without a care in the world. Maybe he needed unhooking from the bottom.
Eventually.
She slipped off her coat. Threw back her gin. Breathed in deeply. Stood tall. She practised her smile on the faces around her, the beam growing and spreading like a contagion. Oh, the power of a clique grin. The false togetherness of a room full of people all in it for themselves. She touched the arms of the inner circle with well-practised political matey-ness, and hissed in Daisy’s ear to piss off out of the way. Please. With wide, endearing smile. Oh, and mine’s a gin. So kind. You are wonderful. Isn’t she wonderful? Two can play at this game. I’ve learnt from the best after all.
The beaming bastard had a powerful edge to his voice that cut people short and as she approached him her personal space was invaded by his vibrations.
Those fishing trawlers were damned noisy and ugly when you got up close, she recalled. The little boats hadn’t stood a chance.
How rude he was. How charmingly rude.

Instant Chums

A flash fiction

‘In the war…’ said Grandma…
Here we go, thought Sally.
‘… even though we wasn’t the ones fighting, we was like an army, we was. All working together. All gettin’ on with it for a common good. None of this – whatcha callit – image thing. All this wow factor that you gets on telly now. We was teams and chums and you fell in love because you had a nice chap that cared.’ Grandma said “cared” like Sally had never heard of the word before.
‘You all wanna be something special naradays, you lot. “Think not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”!’ Grandma waggled her candy cane forefinger at Sally who pretended to scratch her ear so she could look at her watch.
‘Look, Grandma. I have to…’
‘Appearances!’ Grandma interrupted firmly. ‘Stop judging people on how they look, stand, talk, smell, and what-‘av-you. It’s what’s inside that counts.’ Grandma thumped her chest a little too hard and Sally knew there would be bruises. She bruised so easily these days.
‘Yes. I’ll try to remember that… but I must… I’ll see you next time I get cover, okay?’ She kissed Grandma patting the bed ineffectually.
Back along Brick Lane she passed the familiar hunched shoulders and pinched nose of the man whose body language screamed, ‘Don’t touch me. I don’t even want to breathe the same air as you!’ Grandma was right – she had judged him by his withdrawn, unwashed appearance, his faded, leaning stacks of pre-computer-age unwanted kids’ games, and his apparent disregard for fashion. She wondered what he “cared” about. From now on she would be civil to him. She offered what she hoped was a friendly smile in his direction. If he smiled back or said hello or anything like that maybe she would offer to fetch him a coffee and perhaps sometimes they could help each other set-up.
His top lip curled on one side.
‘What are you smirkin’ at, you smug bitch?’ he growled, folding his arms.

Wot OU Studying Learns You

Why is everyone telling us to keep calm and carry on so much recently? Have we decided that the war years were better than life today? From what I’ve heard it was vile for everyone and we’d do well to avoid history repeating itself.
As for keeping calm and carrying on, well I’ve recently discovered that stressing out a bit, questioning why you’re doing something, stopping for a while and deciding what your reasons for carrying on are is a much better option.
Carrying on is not always necessary.

I flapped, lost the point, and gave up my literature module (see previous post: Flooded Engine ) I stopped for 2 weeks, had a think and started again. It was a mad rush getting back into it but far better than trying to keep calm when what I actually needed was a break.

I had to read masses of course materials and write an assignment in 10 days, then read loads more course materials in order to have another assignment written by this Friday (which I haven’t started yet… ahem…)

The latest assignment question reminds us to develop own our argument, and avoid recycling course materials and quotations.

This the point at which you know you have “done proper learning” and are ready to think for yourself. For course after course after course it has been, regurgitate, regurgitate, regurgitate the things that other people tell you until finally you get to a stage in your learning process where the stabilisers are taken off and you can ‘GO’ – pedal, balance and whoosh all by yourself with the techniques you have been learning for years.

I’d love to continue my learning and carry on expressing my own arguments based on what I’ve read. The next natural progression academically would be an MA but I can’t afford the time, the money or the stress.
What I can do, though, is apply that motto above to the rest of my life.

Criteria

A flash fiction (written from some prompts given to me by facebook pals *)
She was the only woman in the bar and he the only man.

She was looking for a well-presented man. He hadn’t shaved and had long, dark, greying hair.

No good. She’d always imagined her future husband to have short, blonde hair.

She liked quiet Sundays indoors with softly-scented pampering products, a movie and the clean, ever-cleaning cats. Everything about him said ‘muddy walks with dogs’ (particularly the presence of his two filthy dogs and the mud-caked walking boots he wore).

The List was not going well. She wanted to walk back out of the pub. He did not fit the criteria of her perfect partner in any shape or form. But he saw her and walked over.

‘Hi. I’m Steve,’ he said in a Belfast accent, holding out a rough hand to shake hers firmly.
‘Oh Jesus,’ she thought, in a Home Counties accent, slipping her manicured digits back through his calloused, soil-stained grasp.

But perhaps the ‘Suitable for parents’ criteria wasn’t really worth keeping on the list now that both her parents had died of old age.

She mentally referred to her list. The list she had written at eighteen, now etched on her memory and referred to every time she met a man:
Where were the blue eyes suitable for her future babies? His were brown.
Where was the evidence of security and financial stability for the family they might have? He had holes in his t-shirt.

Perhaps, as her friends had pointed out, she was too old for children now. Perhaps, as her sister had pointed out, a good companion was more important than money.

She had to do this. She’d promised. She would make polite conversation, smile, have a couple of drinks, swap phone numbers, thank her friends for setting up a blind date and then never call him. In a couple of weeks she could say it just didn’t work out. There was no way she was committing herself to this guy while Mr. Right was out there waiting for her.

3 hours later, he led her into his house and showed her the hall, the bathroom, the kitchen, the sitting room and the lizards. They wouldn’t be languishing so lazily under their heat lamps if her cats were in the room, she noted aloud with a snigger.
He laughed too and cleared some papers from the sofa so that she could sit down.
Real ale seemed good for the inhibitions and the OCD she noted with a belch, plonking herself onto a stinking dog blanket and grinning.

He grinned back fondly and sat himself opposite her. ‘You’ve a good sense of humour. I’ve not laughed so much in a while.’

‘I don’t usually make men laugh,’ she tilted her head, thoughtfully. ‘It must be the beer.’

‘No. It’s not you. It’s the men you’ve been dating. You should always make sure someone’s got the same sense of humour as you. It’s number one on the list.’

‘You have a list?’ She leant forward in interest and nearly fell off the sofa. ‘This could be the start of something really ugly,’ she laughed, righting herself and pointing to a rotting half-eaten apple on a corner table behind his elbow.

‘I wondered what the smell was, ‘ he said, jumping to his feet, grabbing the apple and running to the kitchen bin with it.

She watched as he washed and dried his hands carefully and then returned looking about him as if in shame.

He was making an effort for her. She realised she liked that in a man.
Why wasn’t that on The List?

( *The prompts: ‘Presentation isn’t everything.’ … ‘There’s a half-eaten apple on the table in the corner of the room. Why?’ and ‘Lizards languishing lazily’ (yeah, thanks, Mandy…) )

Written in a hurry and not edited. Life on the edge, huh?
;)

The Foot

A short story/flash fiction
High fencing, topped with barbed wire, surrounds the house. I sit in the car thinking about what I’m going to ask Tom. But this is such a peculiar story I think I’ll have to assess the situation as I go along.

The facts:
The missing man’s name was Darren and he was a diver. He started behaving oddly after losing a foot in a diving accident five years ago. Recently his family reported him missing and that was when the rumours started… Tom was the only one he had allowed to see him in the last five years. The family will talk to no one. The police will talk to no one. The marine biologists have gone very quiet…

The stuff we can’t be sure of:
There’s a rumour that the policeman who went to search Darren’s house after his disappearance was so disturbed by what he found that he took to drinking and was last seen huddled in the entrance to Plymouth Marine Aquarium, dressed in old fishermen’s clothes, telling tales of a horrific half man/half sea creature with only one foot that expelled waste from his head and killed himself with his own poisonous tentacles.

It’s disturbing and I don’t want to do this but I’m the only one Tom will talk to so I guess I’m flattered really. Besides if I get nowhere no one need know and if it’s a good story then I can afford Bella’s university fees. As a freelancer I have nothing to lose. Except perhaps my sanity…

He’s waiting for me inside the fence, restraining a large, angry dog on a chain.
‘Sally.’
‘Tom.’
He’s changed. I hardly recognise the man with guarded expression and stiff posture as the effeminate boy who swapped Pokemon cards with my eldest son fifteen years ago.

He takes me to a sparse, windowless utility room at the back of the house. As he shuts the door the insistent dog barking and the hum of traffic cease. There is a soft electrical buzz but otherwise the room is quiet and intense. Tom points to a plastic chair and I sit down and reach for my laptop. As I turn it on he spots my Internet dongle and swiftly confiscates it while he begins to talk…

‘Darren was my diving instructor. I worshipped him. We spent time together on dives and trips around the world – just the two of us. He had this special interest in anemones, you see, and didn’t care for the more extensive dives organised by other people. I fell in love with him. I assumed that he was gay too because he didn’t seem to like women. But as the months went by I began to realise he didn’t feel that way about me. I stuck up for him when people said he was going mad although deep down I wondered if I was wasting my time. He collected anemone eggs and sperm samples to take home and became fixated on asexual reproduction. Bits of anemones can break off and form into new anemones, you know? He said he wanted me to help him with some research and although it sounded far-fetched I would have done anything for him. There’s something a bit obsessive about loving someone you know can never be yours… I hung on his every word, agreed with everything he said, became as passionate as I could about everything he was passionate about.’

I nod. I know all about misguided loyalty. ‘I’ve seen photos. He was quite something,’ I say.

‘ “Was”? He’s not dead.’

I fumble, not wanting to stop him talking. Then I remember the rumours. ‘He changed though? Put on weight? Grew pale?’

‘In the early days, when we first started going off on our own, the other divers said he must have suffered decompression sickness because his face swelled up and he forgot people’s names. But he told me he didn’t dive deep enough.’

‘Weren’t you with him?’

‘I was on the boat.’

‘So he might have. Didn’t he suffer from weak joints too?’

‘It wasn’t that though. He knew what he was doing.’

Now, I’ve researched the bends and it sounds to me that – as it went untreated – that was exactly what brought about his madness and demise but I feel I am on the brink of something so I wait.

Tom seems to read my mind. ‘Just because someone displays the symptoms of something doesn’t mean that is what they have. He’s a genius who knew exactly what he was doing. The foot wasn’t an accident. That was part of his research.’

I feel sick.

He unlocks another door and beckons me through. I hear bubbling and splashing and taste salty air. In the dim light I make out three head-height glass tanks taking up the walls of the room. Dark shadows and bright flashes move everywhere. Tom takes a fishing net from behind the door, scoops something out of the nearest tank, and carries it to the tank at the far end of the room. I follow.

As my eyes become accustomed I see what looks like a human foot on the bottom of the tank. It is enlarged and viscousy but as I slowly make out toenails and an ankle I see that it is definitely human. I clench my teeth together and try to swallow the disgust pushing at my throat as I see, growing up from the enlarged ankle, several giant tentacles waving as they stun and trap in a split second the fish that Tom releases into the tank. The tentacles lower the fish into an opening in their centre.

‘He started injecting himself with the anemone samples ten years ago. That’s when he swelled up. Then he cut off bits of skin and ear, thinking if he could keep growing himself on from bits of his own body that he would never die but when they didn’t grow he intensified his treatment by injecting his brain, his heart, his groin. But he couldn’t do it on his own. The injections were making him ill. So he cut off his foot and instructed me how to look after it – to make it survive on its own just like an anemone. And it worked – to a point… The rest of his body became a giant anemone and he began to drown in the air and his tentacles poisoned everything except his other foot. That foot found in his house won’t survive in the hands of the scientists… But this one will.’

Love at Twenty

A flash fiction

‘Okay. What’s eatin’ you?’
Lily didn’t look up as Jack sat himself down opposite her and leant his arms on the table. She wanted to get her words in the right order. She felt his gaze and kept her eyes down as she spoke.
‘I just wanted you to know that you really annoyed me – that way you whistled and shouted out some leery sexist comment when you first saw me.’ She stared at his suit buttons.
‘Oh. Right. Yeah well. Gosh…’
Silence.
‘It’s not funny, Jack.’
‘Who’s laughing?’
Lily looked up. ‘You. Your eyes are laughing. I just had to tell you.’
‘Well, I promise I won’t do it again.’ Now he was laughing. ‘But I do fancy you. I’ve always fancied you. Nothing wrong with that is there?’ He smoothed his smart new mauve silk tie like a pet guinea pig.
‘Will we do your cake in a minute?’ a voice interrupted.
‘Oh yes, thanks, Fiona, thanks… You made me feel like an object, Jack. Cheap. That’s what you made me feel. And in front of all the lads from work. I felt like you were just doing it for their benefit.’
Jack reached across the table and took her hands. He fiddled with her engagement ring with his thumb. ‘You’re not cheap. You never were. I’m truly, honestly, sincerely sorry if I offended you. It was never my intention. I’m just a bit shy with the girls and it was the only way I knew how to make the first move. And I’ve been good to you ever since haven’t I?’
‘Mostly.’ Lily smiled her wicked smile and Jack knew he’d been forgiven.
‘I thought it was love at first sight, you know?’ He looked thoughtful.
‘Oh?’ Lily had thought so too. Secretly. She twiddled with the white lace cuffs of her dress, looking down again to hide her disappointment.
‘But how can you really know what love is at twenty?’ Jack lifted Lily’s chin with his fingers.
The noise in the room began to build and they realised that their names were being chanted.
‘We’d better go over.’ Lily nodded behind him at the expectant faces.
Jack helped her to her feet and they walked, arms linked, over to the semi-circle of guests around a large white cake, as people began to clap and cheer.
‘Speech. Speech. Speech!’
Lily held back as always but Jack raised his hand and cleared his throat.
‘Sixty years ago. I married the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. I didn’t think you could be in love anymore than I was then. I really thought it was love at first sight and I’d scored a real corker.’ He stopped and placed a shaky arm over Lily’s shoulders.
‘But I was wrong. I fell a little more in love with her every year. This is what love really is. It’s knowing someone inside and loving them more as the outside falls apart.’
‘Charming.’ Lily dug him in the ribs. But her eyes were shining.

‘Will we give the other residents some cake, if there’s enough?’ asked Fiona.

Tea and Cakes

They didn’t know why they were such good friends. They just were.
They’d met on Twitter, electronically laughed and teased one another about the North-South divide, shared early morning tweets over their respective cups of tea, and chatted about Classic FM and noisy neighbours. They hated the same television programmes and shared a passion for lemon drizzle cake, they discovered.

It had been many months before they knew the extent of their age difference, background differences and physical differences. But by the time Carla found out that Joanna was in fact a tall, bony, soon-to-be great-grandmother of sixty-nine, and Joanna had found out that Carla was in fact a short, plump, childless, 27-year-old with a history of drug abuse it was irrelevant to the strong bond they had already built.
They’d got to the core of each other, you see – the bits you often never even find in those you see every day.

They agreed to meet, on neutral ground, on the Norfolk broads and for half an hour they simply took in each other’s appearances and recovered from each other’s accents, making self-conscious small-talk. It was all so polite, none of the usual teasing, and – if they were honest – it felt a bit wrong. As if they’d met up with strangers.

After awkward tea and sickly cakes, surrounded by quiet old couples in a small café, they set off for a walk. Side-by-side they battled, heads down, against the Easterly wind and slowly began to wonder at the sheer horribleness of the whole experience. Tears of wind-beaten pain glistened in their eyes as they turned to each other and roared with laughter. They preferred honesty. They were the same.

‘Fuck this, Jo,’ Carla screeched. ‘I could have shown you a better time in Bexhill, love!’
No one else ever called Joanna ‘Jo’ and she’d always liked reading it in Carla’s tweets. People weren’t pally with Joanna but Carla was pally.
‘All right. How long will it take to get there?’ Joanna offered.
Carla grinned up at Joanna and took her arm as they turned back inland towards the carpark. ‘Bloody hours but we’ve even got pies. You’ll feel right at home there, Chuck.’
‘And mash?’
‘We’ll mash up your chips for ya. You’ll probably need everything mashing up, won’t you, old girl?’
‘Fuck off.’ Joanna laughed but she wanted to cry with happiness. She’d never got to say that to anyone before. It was great. ‘Did you like those cakes?’
‘No. Too sweet.’
‘Far too sweet.’

Boxes and Labels

Avoiding the assumptions

What are you? Who are you? What do you do?
What type of person are you?
Can you define yourself in a few words and guarantee that those few words will remain an accurate description of who you are for many years? Or, like me, will you need several words and the option to change your mind at any moment?
I’m sure there are plenty of life-changing moments within all of our existences where we redefine ourselves because of a change of direction or some sort of realisation. Or we discard a label because we find it too limiting and it groups us with other people that we feel we have nothing else in common with.

I recently read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and came to the conclusion that we should go no further than ‘human’ or ‘person’ in terms of categorisation. Anything after that – and in the case of her story ‘male’ or ‘female’ – can be subject to argument.

This morning I listened to Hermione Lee talk about the writer, Edith Wharton. Edith wrote about feminist issues but strongly refuted any suggestion that she was in fact A Feminist. Hermione Lee said, ‘Many women write about feminism but don’t call themselves feminists.’
That’s because we don’t like labels and all the connections and assumptions that go with them, I thought. Once you admit to being an environmentalist, for instance you get placed into a box with a label ‘profit of doom’ or ‘hippie’ and the lid firmly closed on you. Isn’t it more sensible to avoid labels and leave everything open to conversation or we may end up inadvertently fitting someone else’s view of what our particular label means?

Are you clever or stupid? Do you see other people as clever or stupid? Do you judge people by whether they have a degree or not? Is it that simple?
I have strong socialist opinions but I am not a Labour Party supporter.
I am a writer but I don’t have a cat sitting on my lap. (I don’t particularly like cats. But that doesn’t make me an animal-hater either!)
I am a mother but that doesn’t mean I want to sit around with other mothers talking about my children.
I keep getting sent forms from the OU, asking me to fill in details about my current situation since finishing this, that and the other course. I can’t do it. I don’t fit the boxes.

Then within the same radio programme as the Hermione Lee interview, an American writer was interviewed talking about her book about optimism. (Look her up if you can be bothered. I’m not sure I can!) She stated that we all have optimism ‘hard-wired’ into us – that it is a human trait. Now any sort of blanket statement like that is like a red rag to a bull to me. How dare she make sweeping assertions like that?!
She then muddled her argument by saying that only 80% of people are in fact optimistic the other 20% are clinically depressed. Gosh. Which box do I fit in? Hmmm…
Oh no… but then she said that British people are pessimistic, because we are really optimistic but we are culturally pessimistic. We put on our pessimism.

Scratches head

Well I had a good long think about this. I am not naturally optimistic. I am not depressed either. I am British. But I am not putting it on. I am plagued by pessimistic thoughts and I fight them regularly. But I love life and never want it to end. So I think I must have fallen out of my box and got lots of different labels stuck to me on the way down. So maybe my parents lied and I am not British then. Or maybe I’m not human.

I did a light-hearted survey on Twitter this morning, by the way, and many – UK-based – people came forward to say they were in fact optimistic.

It must be time to make up a few more box labels because not everyone is fitting neatly into the ones we have so far.

Or shall we just say we are who we are and that’s that. (And even that is subject to the day of the week, hormones, the moon, what job we are doing, who we are hanging out with, what we are eating, and life experiences. Let’s face it – sometimes we just don’t feel ourselves)

Some descriptions are useful for helping us cope or stay away from those who might make us unhappy. I believe being diagnosed with Asperger’s is very useful, for instance, but it’s only one part of who a person is.
I’d probably stay away from someone who defined themselves as a child-hating, capitalist, diamond-obsessive because I’m a family-loving, socialist, sandal-wearer.
But that’s just me.

Or is it?

These ‘not necessarily what it says on the box’ thoughts that prompted me to take the above photo made me think about my Dad.
I have a box in the shed that he wrote on:

What’s in there is definitely not what’s on the label, as he wrote that for a joke. Mum won’t throw anything away (well, not much) because almost everything should be re-used or recycled. Her intentions are good but she never actually deals with all the boxes and piles. She would call herself green and an environmentalist, a recycler… but is she if she doesn’t actually get around to recycling…
I guess that makes her a hoarder.

Or does it?

I’m not wearing sandals today, by the way.
Today I am A Fluffy Boot Wearer.

Grabs labels and indelible pen

Fast Slopes

A short story/flash fiction


‘It’s what I know. It’s all I know. It’s my whole life,’ she had said.

It had seemed like a fine answer. She’d known she was going to say it. It was true and convincing. All at once it would epitomise commitment, experience, loyalty. She would put in the hours. She would dedicate herself to the role. She knew that was what they would be looking for.

But when she heard herself say it she sounded pitiful:
‘It’s all I know…’

It’s all I have ever done…

Charlie had thought her presumptuous to write an email of resignation so soon after the interview. But of course she wouldn’t click Send just yet, would she? She was getting ready, that was all – preparing for the future. Optimistic. He liked that in a person.
You keep at it, you go up and up, you get more money, you have more choices in life, you have fewer and fewer people telling you what to do, you finally get to the top and you gain control. That’s how the system worked. Why on earth would anyone want to be one of the minions, thought Charlie, doing everything for less money and less respect? Other people clearly didn’t have the drive, ambition or talent that he and Ellen had. Their loss.

Charlie poured them a glass of Pinot Noir while Ellen stared at the screen and chewed the skin around her thumbnail.
‘D’you think you’ve got it then?’ he asked. ‘You seem pretty certain you’re leaving.’
‘Hmmm?’ Ellen was lost in thought. Her eyes scanned left to right to left, quickly, as she read.
‘How long before you hear? Did they say?’
‘Oh yes. I’m sure I’m leaving.’
‘But when?’
‘Now.’ She pressed Enter with a pronounced gesture and closed her laptop.
She was shaking. Her eyes were still flitting and she looked half-crazed as if she would explode into hysterical laughter at any second.
‘Jeez, El’, what if you don’t…?’ Charlie paused and necked his wine.

He’d always admired her gutsiness. ‘My missus has got balls,’ he often joked proudly. But he suddenly felt the exhilarating terror he’d experienced when he’d tried the fast slopes at Aspen for the first time. It was great when it all turned out all right in the end but the loss of control had scared the crap out of him. He began to shake too and poured himself another drink.

‘What are we doing with our lives, Charlie?’ she asked, standing up and pouring her wine down the sink.

‘Hopefully we’re getting to the top – that’s if you haven’t just become unemployed.’ He rubbed his forehead as panic made it sweat.

‘But why? What do we want?’ She was holding her car key and turning it over in her hands – as if it made them dirty.

‘A nice house. A bigger house. No mortgage. Nice cars. No one telling us what to do. To be in control of our lives. You know… and stuff. Holidays. Things. Comfort.’

Ellen released a huge breath and pressed the key onto the kitchen surface. She lined it up neatly next to her phone and her laptop and stepped back pushing her hands into her jeans pockets.

‘I’m going on a self-sufficiency course in Powys. I’ll get the train. I’ll phone you from the landline when I get there.’

‘You what?!’ Charlie spat wine and jumped towards her, reaching out for her shoulders. ‘You’re tired and stressed after the worry of the interview. Just sit down and we’ll talk. I think you’re having a nervous breakdown, love.’

‘Well, if I am, I thoroughly recommend it,’ Ellen laughed lightly and released herself.

Charlie squinted at her. ‘Are you leaving me? Are you having an affair?’

‘No. No. You can come too. I just didn’t think you’d want to.’

‘How long have you been planning this?’

Ellen looked at her watch. ‘About 47 minutes.’ She walked to the front door and opened it, picking up a rucksack from the floor.

‘And what about the job?’

‘What job?’ She raised her eyebrows and kissed Charlie’s cheek.

‘You can’t not work.’

‘Oh, I’ll be working.’ Her phone rang from the kitchen as she stepped outside and slung the rucksack on her back.

‘No. Earning a living. Just imagine for a minute not having the security of knowing you can afford a mortgage, go out for dinner, drive a car, be part of the financial world…’

‘I know. It’s exhilarating.’ Ellen grinned, wide-eyed. ‘I can feel the wind in my hair already.’

Her phone rang again and she strode away down the drive, swinging her arms. Charlie had started to follow her but he ran back up into the house and looked at her phone. A text appeared on the screen.

Charlie stared at the screen and downed another glass of wine.

I Can’t Get No…

A 100-word flash fiction

He didn’t understand it.
There they were – sat under the electric light, leaning across the table to hold each other’s hands.
So that was that, he thought, as he lowered his binoculars…
She really was with who she said she would be with, and doing what she said she would.
Why?
Why wasn’t she lying, cheating, finding comfort elsewhere?
Women stole from him, went off with his sister’s husband, changed their phone number, laughed in his face.
He got satisfaction from being right when it all went wrong.

If she really was “working late” tomorrow, she’d have to go.




There’s a competition run by National Flash Fiction Day (UK) to write a micro-fiction of 100 words or less, here: National Flash Fiction Day Micro-Fiction Competition
UK writers only. Entry closes 31st January 2012.


Oh – and there’s this music-inspired, 100-word one too, for the One in Four charity which looks interesting: Caroline Smailes: A Challenge and the chance to see your story in print