In Which I Try Something New

You may recall a while back (October to be precise), I began having trouble with my left arm. The first thing I noticed was how painful it was to put my car into second gear. I thought I had probably pulled a muscle, but when it wasn’t getting better a month or so later, I went to see the osteopath. He said it was a pinched nerve in my neck, manipulated my spine, and the whole thing went from being an irritating nuisance to a big, painful problem that involved me spending way too much time pressing a bag of frozen sweetcorn to my neck. I then went and saw a physiotherapist, who said that the nerves down my arm were too tight, and that there was a posture issue; my shoulder was too far forward and I needed to pull my shoulder blades in at every opportunity. Well, for a while I saw both of them, was rubbed and cracked and generally pulled about and submitted to all manner of awkward exercises. As the months have gone by, I have gradually improved at the exercises, but my arm has not stopped hurting. These days, I can change into second gear okay, but if I hold my arm out straight, I can’t bend it out to the side from the elbow.

I stopped seeing the physio when his treatment didn’t seem to make the least bit of difference, and I have also decided recently not to go back to the osteopath because I really loathe being cracked, and there isn’t much else he likes to do. Plus, between you and me, he’s a bit of an insufferable smartie-pants.

And then last week, I realised my right arm was starting to cause me trouble too. Quite different this time, in that it was mostly my little finger that was feeling sort of numb and tingly, and sometimes there’d be a twinge in my right shoulder. Well, after spending some time with my head on the desk thinking, I cannot go on, I decided to look for a new practitioner. For a while I considered a pilates class, but the problem there is that if I can’t do half the exercises because of my dodgy left arm, I won’t actually be improving anything. And then I saw a link to an Alexander Technique teacher and I recalled the lovely Susan saying that she was a convert; so I thought I’d give it a try.

I nearly backed out before I’d even begun. When I rang the woman to make an appointment and told her about my immobile left arm she said, ‘Gosh, how strange! I’ve never heard of that before.’ Which did not inspire me with confidence, I can tell you. Then when it came to the day itself, I was tired and had one of those skull-tightening headaches that do not make a person pleased to be out in the world. But the prospect of never being able to high five anyone ever again was just enough to propel me into the car and across town.

My teacher was by no means a spring chicken, but she certainly had exceptional posture. The room I entered was quite bare apart from a chair, a treatment bed and a small skeleton that hung at such an odd angle from its hook that I had to wonder if it hadn’t been tap-dancing while alone and was then obliged to freeze mid-shuffle when we came in. It was so quiet that all I could hear was the pounding of my headache in my temples. My teacher ushered me into the seat and had me stand and sit down a few times. Then she began patting and smoothing me down with her hands, often one (blissfully cool) hand on my forehead, while the other traced the pattern of my bones. Every once in a while, she would pat a little more firmly, and another piece of my skeleton would slide into a quite different position. It was extraordinary.

‘Yes,’ she said after a while. ‘You don’t look bad from the outside, but in fact, on the inside it’s all quite asymmetrical.’ She did another pat and slide and shift. ‘There, that’s nice.’

‘Story of your life, isn’t it?’ said Mr Litlove when I was recounting the session to him later. ‘You look all right from the outside, quite a viable human being, even. And then inside is a mess.’

‘Thank you, dear,’ I said.

I gave my teacher a potted history of my life. Academia, then years off with chronic fatigue, and now writing full time. Those years of being ill when I did nothing but lie about on beds and sofas would have ruined any muscle tone I had. And then the gradual return to work saw me hunched over a laptop (which everyone has agreed fervently are the work of the devil, as far as one’s spine is concerned) for what has been now, astoundingly, the past six years. It’s no wonder I’m all out of alignment. She showed me how lightly attached are the collar bones and the shoulder blades, floating almost above the ribcage and easy to displace. The skeleton hung its head sympathetically and I kept a close eye on it – I imagined its lethargy was faked and it might break into a spirited rendition of 42nd Street at any moment.

The exercise I’ve been given is to lie flat on the floor, my knees bent, with a book about two inches thick under my head for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, several times a day. Finally, an exercise I can embrace wholeheartedly! When I read, I have to prop the book up on cushions so I’m not taking the weight of it in my arms. The toughest thing at the moment is the fact that both reading and typing definitely make my shoulders and elbows twinge and my little finger go numb. Reading and typing are what I do; they are what I am, and I don’t really want voice recognition software as I think through my fingers. So somehow, some way I simply have to get this fixed. I have no idea whether the Alexander Technique will help me more than the other solutions I’ve tried, but it was certainly a most restful and soothing experience. I left without a headache and feeling strangely light on my feet. And I’m looking forward to going again. Back in the days when I took Chinese medicine I used to love having my pulse taken, and this feels analogous. It’s a special pleasure to have another person being gently attentive to the internal machine.


The Lost Diary

Last week we renovated our study, and this involved moving the desk out for a while. We took the drawers out first and realised they were crammed full of stuff, just stuff, cards, notebooks, packs of paper, letters, folders… Definitely time for a clear out. It was nostalgic enough trawling through all the cards we’d been sent when our son was born (I couldn’t bear to throw them away), and brochures from the lycée where I lived and taught in France. And then we came upon the most extraordinary thing: a diary from 1993, the year we were married, and we had kept it alternately between the months of March and May. We neither of us had any recollection whatsoever of writing it.

Now when Marguerite Duras did something similar, publishing a diary she said she had found in the back of a wardrobe that she had no memory of writing, everyone coughed *publicitystunt* behind their hands. But this turns out to be unfair. I can honestly say it is possible to write a diary and forget all about it.

Naturally, we fell upon our former selves with avid curiosity. We had just become engaged and were hunting for a house to buy. I was working at Waterstones, the booksellers, whilst applying for an M.Phil and Mr Litlove had just begun shift work as a factory manager in Leicester. We were constantly in transit between our rented accommodation, our parents’ homes and the house we wanted. We were unbelievably young and untested, naïve and romantic in a way that we laughed at in our older, knowing incarnations, because it was so terribly poignant. Hope, it seems, gives you the strength to be vulnerable.

We sat over our lunch, reading bits out to each other.

‘Listen to this,’ I said to Mr Litlove. ‘”Sleep late, having strange dreams. Have my first, ‘Litlove my wife being annoying and nothing going right’ sort of dream. Is this preparing me for married life, or is it just to balance the wonderful times we are having together at the moment?”’

Mr Litlove instantly started crying out ‘Wake me up! Wake me up! I’m in the dream again!’

‘Ha, ha,’ I said, coldly. ‘How about this bit: “Didn’t get much done this afternoon. Think Litlove will be good for me in this respect.”’ I looked up at him. ‘What? What was that expression for?’

I moved onto a part of the diary I’d written, marvelling at an era when my handwriting was still legible. I’d been really nervous about the wedding, which in hindsight had been a deep anxiety about marriage and motherhood (which I presumed would be my fate) and all it entailed. I read: “The only solution is to keep busily organising as this can only reduce my worries. Mr L. thinks I’m being super-efficient when really I’m only trying to stay calm.”’

‘Nothing changes,’ commented Mr. Litlove

And in a weird way nothing had changed. Mr Litlove noted that I complained about feeling tired a lot even when I was 24. And he found several entries in which he’d looked forward to making furniture for our house. That really surprised us; it felt like the woodworking of the last few years had been a recent desire, sprung from nowhere. But then at the same time, everything had changed. We were not that couple anymore; we knew now what our future had been. There had been amazing experiences – I’d had my career at the university, we’d watched our son grow up, we were still together and in love after all that had happened. But we’d had to go through some excruciating times, too; the dark years dominated by my chronic fatigue, bitter disappointment with each other, financial worries, the unimaginable strain of early parenthood.

Adam Phillips wrote that ‘falling in love is the (sometimes necessary) prelude to a better but diminished – better because diminished – thing; a more realistic appreciation of oneself and the other person’. Never had those words struck me as more true: what reading the diary told me was how little we had known back then, about each other and about life. Now armed with hard-won knowledge, I was disillusioned in a good way. The happiness of back then had been so intense and so fragile; neither of us could believe in it. And rightly so – ordinary contentment is a smaller, harder thing, boiled down to its toughest consistency. It has no glister, but its dullness is reliably real. I wouldn’t swap it for the ecstasies of youth if you paid me.

We return to the diary every now and then, still fascinated by its alien oddness, the only proper sign of the past. It holds such poignancy for us. The last entry in it from Mr Litlove ends: ‘I feel very lucky to be me and here and now.’ And we shiver for him, almost forgetting the surprising truth, that he survived the hubris of good luck.



A Chance Encounter

Just the other day I was stopped at traffic lights when I noticed a man with a bike at the side of the road, adjusting the chin strap of a very silly hat – the woolen kind with ear flaps that Sherlock Holmes might have worn, had he ridden a bike on a cold day. As I looked at him, so he turned to look at me, and the ‘Well, whaddya know’ expression on his face was terribly familiar. He started to raise his hand in greeting, the lights changed, I attempted to both shift gear and wave back, and his tentative wave gained purpose. Then I was halfway down the road and the moment had passed. I realised it was my old therapist, who I hadn’t seen in three years. I could see him now, framed in my rear view mirror, watching my car as I drove away.

I found I was relieved and also surprised that he’d waved at me. The manner of my leaving therapy hadn’t been easy or comfortable, and I remembered very clearly his response to me when I’d asked in the course of a session whether one day we could be friends. He’d said it wasn’t possible, because the relationship was such a delicate and particular one, it might alter too many things inside my head to shift its foundation in such a drastic way. I did understand; the relationship with a therapist is so unlike anything else, simultaneously intense and indifferent. And this therapist had been so keen on being a screen for me, not allowing himself to intrude on the space between us, which was bizarre at times because he practised from his home.

There’d been the long months when he was having an extension built and the noise of drilling and hammering had been a real irritant, and then other times when his young sons did their piano practice in the next room, or occasionally exclaimed to one another ‘That is so cool!’ which always made me laugh. I thought he was a good therapist, but the psychodynamic approach was the one part I never appreciated. I wanted there to be a real person opposite me, letting me know what he thought, giving me some emotion to work with. I often wondered whether he actually liked me, which I knew was not a question ever to pose to an analyst; it provokes such a tiresome fuss about why you need to know you are liked, when it’s a perfectly ordinary human desire that can be let alone. Still, it made it all the more surprising when I wanted to leave therapy and he was dead set against it.

He was not my first therapist. The first was a woman in her 50s, a gentle, fluffy sort of person who always dressed nicely in soft, expensive-looking fabrics. She had a hesitant manner of speaking that I was put off by, until I realised it was a typical therapy voice, one that writes into every word a great deal of de-energised flexibility so as never to get in the way of the client’s feelings. I came to therapy because I had not recovered from an awful illness I’d suffered two years ago, and now, with a new job as a lecturer and a five-year-old child, I really didn’t know which way to turn. I felt I’d been run over by a truck. And then crawled to my feet to be run over by a truck coming from a different direction. And then… well, you get the idea. I was also very interested in therapy. All my research had been into questions of identity and I had read a great deal of psychoanalytic theory. This made me a difficult client, I knew, over-informed and too self-aware. But I didn’t think of therapy as an admission of failure – I thought it was something everyone should do, given the chance.

I was under the illusion, however, that its purpose was some sort of acceptable chastisement: I had lost all grasp of myself, after that series of overwhelming life changes, and I was afraid I was to blame; someone else would have relished the challenges of my life while I was mostly exhausted and alarmed by them. I felt that my inability to recover from the illness was in some way my own fault; and as such I was making the mistake (much encouraged by society) of confusing illness with moral weakness. I didn’t realise I had begun a long journey towards accepting myself as I was, rather than changing myself into what I ought to be.

I grew very fond of my first therapist, who was warmly and tenderly supportive. And it was a relief to have an hour a week that was about me, when the rest of my life was jam-packed with dedicated service to others. This was something else I felt I should manage without a qualm and any resentment on my part was a selfish inconvenience. So I did my best to take it well when my therapist told me she was moving to Australia to be with her sick sister. Surely I’d had enough therapy to set me on the right path now?

Well, eighteen months later I started therapy again. I now had a demanding contract with the university as well as with college. My health was still bad and I was in the thick of pretending that it wasn’t. But unable to keep up that pretence at home, my marriage was in difficulties after the sheer strain of the past few years. I didn’t think we’d make it. My career success was balanced on a knife edge with looming personal disaster, and I seemed to have nowhere to put my burdens down. It was at this point that I began work with the therapist who would mean the most to me. He was a funny-looking man, tall and thin, all teeth and glasses with a wild corona of brown hair that danced around a bald spot like a monk’s tonsure. The first time I met him and poured out my tale of woe, he managed to make me laugh about it within the first five minutes. I have always been a sucker for anyone who makes me laugh and my sense of humour was the one thing that felt strong enough to hold me together. I loved the way he would talk so clearly and forcefully to me, his words a firm bridge on which to walk across the chasm between what I wanted and what I thought I ought to want. I felt safe with him, I suppose. And when I least expected it, I fell into transference, which I’d read all about, only the reality was very different to the theory.

Transference is a fancy name for what inevitably happens when you tell your troubles to someone who really gets you. But it’s undercut by the artificiality of the relationship, the cheque at the end of each session. He got me through a very difficult time and I was beholden to him, but I knew we were not united in any meaningful way. My mind loved him, but I suppose my heart didn’t. Or perhaps it was the other way round, these things are hard to judge. In any case, when he told me he was giving up counselling (he’d had a bad break up with his wife and felt it was affecting his ability to help others) I found I had tears falling silently down my face. I was astounded; I’d given up crying at that point in my life because it took more energy than I possessed. Then, astonishing myself again, I walked out of the session and never went back. It did feel like a love affair of sorts had ended.

So by the time I began work with my third and final therapist, several of the plates I’d been spinning so diligently on the end of their long sticks had fallen. I was off work sick, and had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue. But my marriage had not split up and we were working on it. I also had a chance now to be with my son much more, and that felt right. At best I could say I had chosen my family over my career, but I was very angry and frustrated with myself for not being able to have it all. Therapy felt like picking over the aftermath of a tremendous battle, and this therapist was a somber, serious man and our sessions had a melancholy tone. In a sense this was appropriate as I was mourning the loss of my ideal self. Though when I looked at that ideal, and the standards I’d held for her, and the sheer number of boxes I’d had to tick even to meet my minimum requirements, I could see why she hadn’t been feasible. For the first time, my life was quiet enough for me to actually focus on myself, and I made by far the most progress now. Though I knew I was holding myself back, having been the kiss of death to two therapists already. He often said to me, ‘I’m not going anywhere, you know.’ But one day he also said, ‘I do worry that I’m just not a warm enough person for you,’ and I knew there was truth in that.

Therapy is a strange thing; you bring your deepest feelings up to the surface and magnify them, so you can see what’s really going on, but once there they tend to look disproportionately large and take up too much oxygen. When I knew I wanted to leave, I had the mantra running round and round in my head: ‘there is nothing wrong with me.’ In a sense it had taken all those years for me to reach this point – where I recognised that failing to be perfect in every way was not a desperate flaw in my character, but the result of normal, human limitations. And therapy was only adding to my sense of being someone who needed to be fixed and brought in line with ‘normal’ people. I’d felt so ashamed of myself for being ill, and now it was time to draw a line under that kind of thinking. It was time to live the way I wanted to, which was admittedly an unusual way. But now I had my longed-for wide margins to the day, the peacefulness I’d craved, and I could not let that go. As my third therapist so often used to say: ‘if you let others down you feel guilty, but if you betray yourself you feel desperate.’ He wouldn’t be so keen on that thought when it was his own wishes I was contravening. But I did leave therapy; I was all talked out.

It was so funny to have seen him unexpectedly like that, and to think of all that had passed between us. It was odd to think of all the recent changes to my life, and to know he was in ignorance of them. But I didn’t feel any regret for my decision to leave. I was enormously grateful to all my therapists. They had all given me something vital – their life force, when mine was weakened. But there comes a time when only living can teach you the things you need to learn.

In Which Litlove Tries To Party

I did have a book review scheduled for today, but as I was eating a packet of crisps this morning and realising that the sound of crunching was actually painful on the tender inside of my head, I understood that it wasn’t going to happen.

‘I’d say you had a hangover if I didn’t know you never touched a drop,’ Mr Litlove told me.

‘I do have a hangover, ‘ I replied. ‘An over-stimulation hangover.’

For today is the morning after Mr Litlove’s office Christmas party. Yes, I was foolish enough to say I would attend. The urge to please Mr Litlove combined fatally with the knowledge that I really must try and get out more and overcome my social inhibitions, and it only took one half-hearted maybe for Mr Litlove to be sending me menus over the email. He knows he has to take swift advantage of any weakening on my part.

So yesterday I went so far as to put on a party frock and face the problem that a friend of mine so neatly outlined when she said, ‘Science can put a man on the moon, so how come it can’t create a pair of hold-up stockings that don’t fall down?’ This is an excellent question. I was acutely aware that I was in the middle of a rather good book, and as I was putting my coat on in the kitchen a gust of wintry wind flung a rain shower against the windows. Oh lovely. So enticing, that black, wet night outside. The car was dank and chilly, but as I stopped at red lights, mumbling deprecations under my breath, a group of men passed by on the pavement, jogging, and the reminder that there’s always someone worse off consoled me. I parked in the underground car park, where some of my best nightmares have been set, and actually managed to find the steps up to street level (this clearly was a lucky night) and the hotel where Mr Litlove awaited me.

‘Are you all right?’ Mr Litlove asked as he guided me towards the reception room. I realised I must have that look of blind panic on my face. It’s those first moments when you sit down and commit yourself, you know? And you have to begin, not knowing when it will all end. This is, of course, completely the wrong moment to be given a bunch of strangers’ names. I had no sooner been introduced to the other people at our table than the data slid off my Teflon mind into oblivion. What we really ought to do, if only we could change social convention, is to be introduced to another person via a really good conversational gambit. Something like: ‘Now this man thinks that the magenta dress the boss’s wife is wearing is hideous.’ Or ‘this woman has left two children at home with a babysitter who she’s worried isn’t entirely competent, but given it’s her husband’s niece she can’t really say so.’ Then after a few minutes of chatting, you could be told their name with some semblance of hope you might retain it.

The room we were in was small, compared to the number of people packed in, and the volume of talk was already set at excruciating. Hotels are so odd. They have these huge sumptuous entrance areas, all marble and brass and curving lines, and then a range of ill-proportioned conference rooms without windows. They make me feel like a lamb being led up a gilt walkway into a mirrored holding pen in a crate on the back of a lorry, crammed full already of agitated, bleating sheep. The hotel staff were bringing in the starters, squeezing through the insufficient gaps between the backs of the chairs on tiptoe, plates held aloft. Mercifully, the food reduced the volume in the room to bearable, and the disco out in the atrium packed up for a while and I could hear myself think again. Not that this was necessarily an advantage as I then had to listen to my own stumbling attempts at small talk.

Our table was split between party-friendly youngsters and middle-aged senior staff. It was funny, the first time in ages I’d had the chance to compare myself to a large group of people. The youngsters were full of fun and vim, enough confidence in their beauty to pull funny faces for the camera and to launch themselves into just about any topic of conversation. They were ready, they’d decided, for the first company wedding, and were trying to decide who’d be a likely candidate to marry. The young woman they picked laughingly put them off, though admitted she’d reached the grand old age of 27. It surprised me slightly to remember that when I was 27 I had a two-year-old child and was lecturing for the university (though I was only a graduate student, no proper post at that stage). No wonder my own careless youth felt like a past life; I’d taken on so much responsibility, so young.

Then chronic fatigue had happened. Listening to the talk on the other, older side of the table where it was all about the food and holidays and children’s schooling, I felt it had been like the experience of sleeping beauty – I’d inadvertently slept for a hundred years and woken to a changed world. It has been such a strange and disorienting experience, chronic fatigue, I haven’t got anywhere near making sense of it yet, understanding what it has been in my life and how it has changed things for me. It definitely shadows everything I do; here I was, gratefully astonished to be well enough simply to attend a party, yet oversensitive still to all the ordinary things that used to spell disaster for my health – the over-adrenalised speed of social talk, the noise, the vivid sensations, food with sugar or alcohol in it, the late hour. It was remarkable to me that we were waiting for our main course at nine o’clock and I was just hungry for it, not spiralling down into a blood sugar low, starting to feel faint and shaky and anxious about having to pretend I was okay because the alternative, trying to explain, met with such complete incomprehension. Even now, I don’t know how to explain to normal, ordinarily healthy people that I struggle with confidence in my ability just to exist after more than a decade of horrible, undermining experiences that even when they were happening to me, I could scarcely understand myself.

Naturally, I didn’t attempt any such thing. I made unremarkable party small talk, just as if I were a normal person. Once the meal was over the room began to clear as people wandered out in search of the bar, or the small table that had been set up as a casino. Mr Litlove wanted a bit of a mingle, and I had just embarked on a genuinely interesting conversation (about books, of course) when the guy with the disco decided it was time to crank the volume up, and we were back to shouting at someone a hand’s span away and still not hearing their answers properly.

I thought we might give in to the party spirit. ‘Do you want to dance?’ I asked Mr Litlove. ‘Oo-err,’ he said. ‘It’s been so long I think I’ve forgotten how.’ We were just about remembering when his boss, the owner of the company, shimmied over to say hello. Now Mr Litlove’s boss is a party animal, thinking nothing of staying up all night, good grief he’d be dancing until the DJ keeled over. ‘What are you doing now?’ he asked me, agilely executing steps on the spot. ‘I’m writing a book,’ I yelled back, or at least I think I did; I couldn’t hear myself at all. ‘Who’s your publisher? Have you got an advance?’ he asked. I filled my lungs with air. ‘No,’ I shouted with all my might. ‘I’ve just got an idea.’ He nodded, keeping time to the beat. ‘So what’s the idea?’

Now this is a torturous twist that publishers haven’t thought of yet. Trying to pitch a book on a dance floor in competition with Ceelo Green’s Forget You song. I wondered how it was I always ended up in these situations rich with absurdity. ‘It’s creative non-fiction,’ I screamed, in response to a question about market orientation. ‘New! Exciting!’ Then I took the chance of looking around to send a pitiful ‘rescue me’ face to Mr Litlove, only to see him back in the room we ate in, deep in conversation. His boss beckoned to me to follow him into the thick of the dancers, but I took refuge in an energetic pantomime that involved a lot of pointing at Mr Litlove and which I hoped showed wifely loyalty but probably said louder than anything I’d managed vocally that I was Desperate! To! Escape!

I fell upon Mr Litlove’s neck and we did in fact leave at that point, before I could embarrass myself any further. My stockings were saying it was time to go home. We had that final test of initiative beloved of party-goers: locate the paystation in the vast multi-storey car park. And then we returned to the blissful quiet of our home and a sulking cat, who had been left lapless all evening and wanted to register a complaint about it. Oh I will never be a party person, but at least I didn’t have to endure the all-too-familiar experience of being made ill by things I don’t even enjoy. I’m a bit wrecked today – my throat is sore, my head still pounding – but it’s better than it used to be. I got through the whole evening intact, and that, my friends, counts as a success.