Various Unmentionables

I was driving north in a car with a man that clearly I knew, though I couldn’t place him. It was some kind of escape, a getaway. We needed a place to stay for the night and so we stopped with some friends of his, just beyond the border. There was a teenage boy doing his homework at the kitchen table, and upstairs, a very young girl child, asleep. We were given a bed for the night, and as darkness fell, I suddenly realised that I knew how this story ended. It ended with a stranger slipping into the house and knifing all the inhabitants, except for me. How did I avoid the massacre? I wasn’t sure; I thought maybe if I rolled out of bed and hid beneath it, I could pass unnoticed, but then I would have to witness what happened next.

A sane voice spoke to me, saying. I think this is a dream? And if this is a dream, maybe you want to wake up now? Because I really don’t like the road we’re on.

I  came to; darkness in the room, but definitely in my own bed. The clock said 3.15 am. I lay back and started playing Julie Andrews on the soundtrack inside my head, singing ‘My Favourite Things’ as a soothing technique. Mr Litlove was stirring. ‘It was just a nightmare,’ I told him. ‘Do you want to tell me what it was about?’ he asked. I thought about lying in the silent darkness with one anxious brain cell functioning, describing knife-wielding maniacs. ‘It was so bad, I don’t even want to,’ I replied. ‘Uh,’ said Mr Litlove.

I should point out here that Mr Litlove has mastered the art of talking to me in his sleep. In the morning, he has no recollections of what he has said. At that point I realised what else was odd: I didn’t have my mouthguard in. This much-detested contraption came about because I bruised a nerve in my gum one night, an experience I have no desire to repeat so I put up with the mouthguard despite the fact that it is too big for my mouth and hateful. I felt about on my bedside table, but it wasn’t there. So I really wondered what I’d done with it. Had I maybe thrown it across the room? I judged my subconscious was wholly capable of such an act.

‘Now what’s the matter?’ Mr Litlove asked. ‘I’ve taken out my mouthguard and I can’t find it,’ I told him. ‘Well I think you’d know if you’d swallowed it,’ he said, a statement that amused him greatly when I repeated it to him in the morning. I put my hand straight down on the duvet and there it was. This was good news; if this was the kind of night my brain was having, I felt that teeth-grinding might well be a part of it.

I am 46 going on 47 and the perimenopause is a reality. There has been a notable increase in nightmares these past few months, and if my chronic fatigue is worse, I think my hormones have a lot to do with it. Fatigue, anxiety, poor sleep, muscle aches and brain fog are all perimenopausal symptoms, and they are chronic fatigue symptoms too. So I feel like I’m getting a double dose. But what I also notice is that this isn’t something that women are allowed to talk about much. It’s not a cultural story, even though every woman alive will go through this rite of passage. And it’s quite a rocky journey for some of us; even at our luckiest we’ll have four years of being hot, clumsy, forgetful and volatile.

Can anyone name me a novel in which one of the main female characters is going through the perimenopause or menopause and this is a significant part of the story? (The spellchecker on this site doesn’t even register the word ‘perimenopause’.) I’ve been thinking but I can’t come up with any. Even women don’t write about it much, maybe because of some dim historical memory of being considered ‘irrational’ one week in four and therefore denied the vote. It’s just another taboo, too much icky information, and very little in the way of glamour or heroism. They don’t print t-shirts saying ‘I survived the menopause’ (and if they did, they’d be sold for male partners to wear). And yet it’s such a powerful, vivid experience.

I tend to think that menopause is the emotional last-chance saloon. Any issue that you haven’t dealt with up until now is going to rise up front and centre. My reasoning is that hormones magnify; their task is to take the small thing that bothers you and whack the volume up until your internal ears are bleeding. Denial may no longer be an option.

I saw my reiki practitioner last week, and she was describing the experience of working with a hormonal woman – ‘like she had a thousand volts flooding through her system’ – who was then given HRT: ‘and she was perfectly calm and back to normal; I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.’ So biology is to blame, as it is with chronic fatigue, essentially, but all we have is our psychology to deal with it, in the absence of drugs that is. I’d been talking to my practitioner about my ongoing issues with my eyes, the worsened chronic fatigue and the perimenopause kicking in, and her advice was to focus on three things: 1) empty my brain and try to avoid overstimulation, 2) practice grounding and 3) try and be grateful where possible, alongside any frustrations. So I have been doing those things, and the result has been good; it helps. But my dreams have been much more vivid.

And it occurred to me that my nightmare could be analysed very usefully. I think my deepest fear is that I will escape what is intolerable, only to end up in an even worse catastrophe. This can grind me to a halt, unable to move forward. On a more everyday level, I think my problem is I treat even small difficulties with the things I feel disempowered over but emotionally invested in (my son, my health) as if they had the potential to become a multiple homicide. I do struggle to maintain a sense of proportion in situations that worry me. Mr Litlove thinks that things will just come right, if he watches television until the crisis passes. Whereas I think things will only come right if I throw masses of my energy at them. We both seem to have lived the truth of these beliefs, and we both recognise that, at present, we need to become a little more like the other. Maybe I can use those pesky hormones to motivate me.

Recovery

A week on from our various disasters and Mr Litlove is pretty much healed. Now the only actions that bother his shoulder occur in front of the computer, when too much mouse-work can make his arm sore. It was a revelation, watching his recovery process, however. He simply stopped, until the aches and pains from his trapped nerve had gone away, and then he gradually started moving again, easy household tasks to begin with – January’s been a washout work-wise but we’ve done a lot of de-cluttering – and then starting to exercise and return to his workshop. I am forced to realise I have never been that patient and accepting of my lot in my life. As for me, the optician was delighted with how much my eye had improved, and I don’t need to go back unless it flares up again. But ever since, I’ve had gritty, uncomfortable eyes, made worse by reading and looking at the computer screen. I’m typing quite fast here, hoping I can get through a post before the discomfort kicks in. I should be more like Mr Litlove, I suppose, content to stop until the problem has gone away, but I am not like him, alas.

the outrunBut the topic of recovery has been in my mind since reading Amy Liptrot’s memoir of alcohol addiction and tentative recovery, The Outrun. This is an exquisitely written first book that marries degradation and disgrace in London with a growing love of nature and its healing powers in Orkney. Liptrot comes from Orkney originally, where her mismatched parents went in search of a good life. Her father is a manic-depressive, her mother, since their divorce, a born-again Christian. Liptrot wanted nothing more than to escape the islands when she grew up, and moved south to London to pursue a university degree and a career in journalism. But the demon drink got a hold of her too. A self-confessed sensation-seeker, she fell so easily into the ready excesses of life in an isolating city, and her unflinching memoir gives a clear account of the humiliations consequent to too much booze. She loses the man she loves – which gives her even more reason to drink – gets chucked out of many a house share, is nearly raped by a stranger one drunken night, can’t hold down a job. London can do that to you, I think; the combination of opportunity and loneliness is a difficult one to negotiate.

If London can be a place of downfall, then the obvious thing to do is find a place of healing. After a course in rehab, Amy heads home, not for any better reason that she has nothing much else to do, and staying sober is hard, treacherous work. The cravings of the alcoholic never really go away, no matter how much damage is done to the self, and so the fight for sobriety is one that has to be fought daily. But the Orkney islands turn out to offer more solace than she at first imagines. She finds a job with the RSPB tracking the remaining corncrakes on Orkney – a tiny brown bird with a distinctive call that has almost become extinct due to modern farming practices. And this proves such an improving thing to do that she takes on a tiny cottage in the small island of Papa Westray for the winter. One thing about the Orkney islands: they are very windy. On one of her walks, Amy describes how: ‘I ascend the hill in a crouched position, probably watched by amused islanders in the houses below.  I lie forward into the wind, like a mattress of air: it takes my breath and exhausts me –  a full-body experience. It’s loud enough to hide in.’ She describes another windy day – one noted in Orkney history no less, when ‘tethered cows had been flying in the air like kites.’ It seems clear that this sort of wildness is congruent with Liptrot’s inner wildness, one that could not be appeased by alcohol, although it looked like it would suit the task, but can be calmed in a weather system that’s powerfully bigger than she is.

I wonder how often it is that we do not want what we think we want. I wonder how often we live in circumstances that do us damage in the long-run because we can’t think beyond our immediate solutions, and lack the courage or the motivation to try something else. I remember reading somewhere that humans tend to shy away from change because it’s so hard to do, and unless we’re really up against it, we’ll bumble on as we are.

The book has two rhythms. The first half is a rapid, forceful descent into the darkness of alcoholism, and it’s immensely gripping. The second part is a much more languid and dilatory affair, with chapters exploring different aspects of life on Orkney and Amy’s slow rehabilitation. It makes for a slightly uneven book, but I actually appreciated the honesty of this. Recovery does not happen in linear fashion. It goes back and forth, picks up new hitches and secondary issues, returns us time and again to things we thought we were done with. ‘I still have nervousness around other people,’ Liptrot writes. ‘When you’ve spent so long messing up, covering up and apologising, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve done something wrong and default to the secretive and even sneaky behaviour that addiction involves. I often have a flickering sense that I must have said or done something terribly misjudged.’ Although Amy Liptrot is, in theory, not my kind of person at all – an extrovert, a sensation-seeker, a louder-than-life person, I found myself relating effortlessly to her situation, her determination to recover and her courageous honesty. Only the truth will save us, they say, and that’s about right. This is a very truthful book, searingly so, and all the better for it. I wanted to tell her at the end: stay sober, Amy, so you can keep writing.

And in the hope of furthering my own recovery, I’ve signed up for an online course with the Optimum Health Clinic, the specialist chronic fatigue centre. ‘Conscious Transformation’ it’s called, and is about finding the right mindset to get through the illness and out the other side. I know what a long, slow process recovery can be, and I do hope that this will make a difference. It starts in February and I don’t doubt I’ll tell you about it as I go through the tasks.

 

A P.S. – I love your comments and appreciate them so much, but staying away from computer screens has put me behind in replying. I will catch up as soon as possible.

The American – Better Than Donna Leon?

the americanAs I mentioned, I’ve got a couple of reviews outstanding, and this is the first one for which I’m part of a blog tour. The American by Nadia Dalbuono comes with a sticker on the front promising you your money back if you don’t love it as much as a Donna Leon novel – perhaps the most famous crime writer currently working from Italy. Given that the novel is based in Italy, I guess Donna Leon becomes the most obvious point of reference, but stylistically, Dalbuono is so very different that other comparisons came to my mind. If you like John le Carre, or Charles Cumming or Sara Paretsky, then I think you’d like this. It’s a very sophisticated, intelligent piece of fiction writing, and one that functions on the intersection of crime and politics.

Detective Leone Scamarcio is a good guy in a bad world. He’s a cop with the flying squad in Rome, but his background is with the Mob – his late father used to be a prominent member (if that’s the right term). Scamarcio is trying to do everything by the book, but that isn’t easy in an Italy that’s fundamentally corrupt, and where the police are under pressure from both politicians and the church to keep secrets and turn a blind eye. In this, the second novel in the series, Scamarcio also has the added complication of a girlfriend he isn’t sure he wants, Aurelia, who works in the pathology department. You kind of fear for her from the start, and goodness knows she’s in for more trouble in the course of this novel than just a commitment-phobe for a boyfriend.

The catalyst for Scamarcio’s inquiry is an apparent suicide, hanging off the Ponte Sant’Angelo, close to the Vatican City. This John Doe seems to be a banker suffering from the economic hardships blighting much of southern Italy, but there’s something about the way the body has been presented that makes Scamarcio think of an older case, the 1982 murder of a man called Robert Calvi who was called ‘God’s Banker’ because of his dodgy links with the Vatican Bank. And then, when a senior priest is found stabbed in the Vatican City, it seems obvious that some sort of link must be forged between the bodies. But how that can happen, when the local police have no jurisdiction over the Vatican (which is steadfastly not seeking their help), and the original body is nicked from the mortuary by two American secret service agents who don’t seem quite the full ticket, is anybody’s guess. Scamarcio is asked, none too politely, by the Americans to let it go – it’s a simple suicide, nothing for the police in Rome to be bothered about. But his instincts tell him the case is far more complex and far more dangerous, and he keeps digging.

He will eventually embroil himself in a long-standing and deep-rooted conspiracy that stretches between America and Italy and involves the shocking manipulation of political power by both church and government. I don’t want to give too much away as the gradual uncovering of the extent of the situation is one of the best features of the novel. Suffice to say, my regular complaints that too much contemporary fiction boils down to a storm in a teacup are not about to be aired here. This is a novel that really goes for the jugular, and had me looking up bits and pieces of international history on the internet (Mr Litlove didn’t believe some of the events described in the novel had actually happened, and was forced to eat his words). I learned a lot, whilst admiring the way that Nadia Dalbuono handles the intricacies of her plot, and the way that she muddies the water before the conclusion. Trust me, she is one smart writer.

If I had a niggle, it would be with the paragraphs in italics which open some of the chapters and describe scenes that occurred way back in the past. They are meant to be enigmatic, but initially I was quite confused. I could have done with a better grounding in world politics too, in all honesty, but that didn’t matter so much; the novel will tell you all you need to know to understand it. On the plus side this is extremely well-written and very cleverly conceived. Scamarcio is a strong character, torn between his desires to act ethically, and his old contacts who could actually achieve some beyond-the-pale justice for him, the sort of justice it’s almost impossible to mete out legally in current day Italy. There’s violence in the novel, viewed unflinchingly, but nothing gratuitous. All in all, this is a properly first-rate, literary, fiercely contemporary and proudly intelligent thriller. I must say I’m really intrigued now to see how Dalbuono manages to save Scamarcio from the situation he’s in by the finale – I’m not sure he could survive a long series. We may have to savour his few cases while he holds out.