Writing Reality: Balancing Act

29/08/2013 at 12:05 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )


As writers, we are obliged to sacrifice parts of our lives in order to fulfill the promise of well-nuanced writing. How often have you begun a day in the lightest spirits, only to find yourself stuck in the deep blues of nightfall, because a character has had some calamity befall them? Sometimes, I’m not entirely sure whether what I’m feeling is my own irritation, cheerful spirits or doldrums.

Try explaining this to someone not of a creative bent, and the inevitability of crossed-wires generally sets in. I’ve been asked more than once, why I bother to put myself through such experiences as field research in dodgy areas, for the sake of a story. My response is always, “Why not? I’m curious. I want to know, the better to write.”

That being said, I’m already aware of my somewhat obsessive personality when it comes to creative detail. I don’t know about you, but the serotonin rush of brandishing a new article to the breaking light of dawn, generally kills the red-eye pain of no sleep … for about half an hour. Then I have to go to work, in the regular day job that keeps my income flowing. Living the dream, huh?

So I’ve recently begun to take note of certain aspects of my welfare, which might need fine-tuning in accordance with energy levels x writing output. Let’s face it, there’s only so long the average human can subsist on Red Bull shots at 3am, and snatched sleep on lunch breaks. I’m as guilty of these health faux pas as the next. The trouble is, after years of sustained low weight due to anorexia – now thankfully more a shadow of the mind – my body is already something of a chipped plate, liable to fracture if I’m not careful. Pushing a grueling writing schedule, alongside the day job, will catch me up all too soon. As a chronic insomniac, I’ve already felt the twinges of production-guilt if I’m not at least utilizing those wakeful hours in some writing format or another.

Having trained as a fitness instructor in 2009, and with a keen interest in general health, I’m always on the search for ways of setting that all-too-necessary balance between body, mind and soul. Kooky it might sound, but I wholly believe in the need for such things, in order to benefit fully from any one aspect of our lives. I thought I’d share a few ideas with you; not so much rules, as guidelines.

1) By day, in part due to my job, I am very active. High energy levels, dating from childhood, can be also accredited. I’m never truly happy to sit down to writing, until they’ve been somewhat blunted with exercise of any kind. Whatever your own physical state, energy levels or views about exercise, do bear in mind that writing is essentially a static state of productivity. We can spend hours at a time in one spot, and though this is great in terms of output, it’s not such good news for the muscles and bones, which over time may become depleted from lack of use.

Take time to move about during your writing day, especially if this is your dominant career. A break every two hours or so, to move about and breathe, think over what has already been written and what is to come, is beneficial both for physical and mental well-being. It segments the long block of being sedentary, keeps blood flowing and your appetite regular.

2) In this context, I wholly recommend resistance training as a means of both staving off excess weight, and for building up lean muscle mass. The latter is nifty, in that it’ll chew up calories even while you’re sitting still, and will keep your metabolism revved for hours after a workout. The weight-resistance requires the body to lay down new bone minerals – a real plus, particularly for women, whose calcium / estrogen levels drop dramatically as we age. Osteoporosis is an ever-present fear for me, after years of depleted nutrition in my youth. I use resistance training now to keep my skeleton as strong as possible, against the chance of porous bones later in life. I find that the controlled movements are also a great way of releasing a build-up of mind pressure. Writing, post-exercise, is far more free-flowing.

3) Walking / running for cardiovascular health, is the simplest and most inexpensive means of keeping your heart and lungs healthy. This can be coincided with field research. If you’ve some location that is hazy on the details, take yourself to it on foot wherever possible. The rhythm of pace is another great way of promoting freeflow-thought.

I don’t know about you, but the completion of a written piece charges me with an endorphin rush similar to that released post-workout. I always feel the need to move. Use this to your advantage where fitness is concerned; if you’re riding the crest of a writer’s wave, turn it into a jog, a weights session, an impromptu dance. Heck, people generally think writers are weird anyway. Give them more ammunition. Best of all, prolong that fantastic feeling for as long as possible.

4) We may be stuck behind a screen for hours at a time, or poised over a writing medium that requires our eyes to be constantly alert. I use eye-drops every two hours to keep them fresh, and always have a bottle of water nearby (and if you’re of the same mindset as me, in that a little alcohol helps unpin inhibitions and settle the mood, then the water is doubly essential.)
An hour before bed, I’ll turn the computer off, and try to avoid overuse of my phone. According to research, those bright screens have a habit of messing with our sleep patterns and mine’s botched enough.

There’s also the content of your writing to consider. If your last piece was particularly emotive or dark, chances are it might hangnail in your mind. Try reading something light before sleep.

5) If, like me, you have an internal deadline-demon that kicks your butt each time a piece isn’t finished by such-and-such day, you’re probably experiencing some kind of productivity-powerplay. Once the computer is on, my mind switches to Work mode and sleep is a sure impossibility. Likewise, pushing back the boundaries of bedtime in an effort to keep on top of an ever-increasing workload, isn’t exactly conducive to relaxation. Unless you’re actually employed for writing to a set deadline – in which case, a regular routine should be adhered to, more stringently than those of us who set our own lines – it’s You playing the taskmaster, here. That’s fine, in terms of keeping up a regime. But allow yourself breaks, too. Athletes certainly don’t train to peak performance each time, and neither should we expect this perfection of ourselves. It can become very addictive, with each new achievement of output meaning another push against boundaries, and less downtime considered.

Only you know how much sleep is required to keep yourself functioning. Bearing in mind that cognition rapidly depletes with each hour lost, it’s not great news whether you’re in freeflow writing or editing form. Along with these side effects, emotional stability as a writer is thinned. I know I’ve reacted badly to criticism before, taking its objectivity personally, after too little sleep.

Listen to your body; learn from your activity levels. If you’re alert enough to juggle daily life and its pressures, have enough mental input to form creative output, and can engage in physical activity with the required cognition, then chances are you’ve got the balance right. A few missed nights sleep here and there won’t make too much deficit. But prolonged bouts of insomnia can have bad effects on your well-being. Don’t give your writing demons the chance to use more-than-average wakeful hours to press an advantage, which might ultimately undermine your health.

6) Eat to suit your lifestyle. It sounds simple, right? The concept of intuitive eating is nothing new; it’s something we practised as kids, relying on appetite levels rather than social trends and advertising campaigns. By all means, give yourself the food that you’ve a taste for – so long as you’re aware of when it’s time to stop, to realize when you’re putting food inside as more than just a means to an end; when it becomes about finishing the plate out of manners, or a loathing to see food go to waste.

Become familiar with what your body’s telling you. If you’re feeling real hunger pangs, don’t drown them in coffee etc. Don’t be afraid to break the writing flow to grab something to eat, and if – like me – you happen to forget a meal due to writing, compensate by eating more calorie-dense health foods (oats, bananas rather than apples, pasta/rice as opposed to bread, etc) to make up the difference. Likewise, if writing about a particular food stuff triggers a craving, more often than not this is all it is – an evocation of the senses, a memory of an enjoyable experience. Don’t let these become a substitute for feeding your body as and when required.

As a recovering anorexic, I’ve learned over time to tap back into my body’s basic needs. From having to set alarms to remind myself to eat, I can now differentiate between real hunger and thought/emotion-appetite. It’s a newfound sense of freedom, one I nurture; along with the knowledge that my productivity will only ever be constant, when the most important aspects of my life – those I can control – are well set.

In short, it’s about looking after ourselves, as individuals and writers.

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Writing Reality: Sensory Walk through Time

10/08/2013 at 00:36 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )


You remember that stale, squat building, after the strange gaudiness of the gilded gates. They had stood open to all, tucked away up a long, leafy avenue that reminded you of walking home from school. This didn’t instill greater confidence in you, though feelings were hard to come by at that point anyway. You stared out of the car window, listless and dry-eyed. The tears would come later.

Your mother drove carefully. She always did, but more so when you were on board, as though in fear of any jarring that might break your bones. You seemed made of lace and emptiness. The lowest point, the sucking darkness; inertia of the throat, no longer admitting food, barely taking on water. You were pumped full of pills, on the tail-end of a three-week stay in Purgatory; a mental health institution for all and sundry. That myriad-marble collection had almost killed you, as you were lost in the race of daily handovers and little feedback.

Now, you were being accepted into the ranks of a new and altogether more disciplined unit.

The hospital had stood as a bastion of incarceration for centuries; had only recently become an emblem of research, understanding and empathy. It made a small town, sprawling at the bottom of that avenue full of deceptive green-gold light, waving leaves and sunshine. Within its walls lay shadows of the mind and society. Therapy rooms full of clay and kilns and paint – none of which you’d see for months, until your muscles repaired themselves enough to permit walking. The kitchens always clattered with the silvery laughter of orderlies, barely-scrubbed plates, preordered food that never seemed to gather enough heat at its heart. You would come to know and despise the taste of cauliflower cheese, that mulchy mess, which all new inpatients were subjected to as a way of easing digestion back into practise. You were told that your stomach lining would split, were you to try even an apple; which, given its watery content, you’d have much preferred.

But preference was not the mainstay of this place. It was a system of control and peer pressure, to ensure survival. It was about clawing through the darkness of memories, and flashbacks; dissecting emotions, their resultant reactions, some of which you saw played out in awful tantrum-glory. You’d get to know the shine of aprons, the spitfire sound of syringes being filled; the slipperiness of gloved hands on angry limbs. And the awful nut-smell of calorie drinks, which still make you gag to remember.

You weren’t here on a tour. You were here for 7.5 months, not that you or the staff knew it at the time.
But first, you were to walk that first corridor.

Through a grainy back yard, surrounded by a wind-whipped tall fence that resembled the dog kennels your grandparents housed their boarders in. As the gate slammed shut, you glanced back to the wiry weeds surrounding this particular part of the compound; to your mother’s car. You saw dead trainers and flat footballs, a ratty broom; a hot-eyed girl, part of the adolescent-depression ward beneath your own, sprawled in a deckchair as though she only passed by everyday. You’d come to know that ward well, its sons and daughters of pain, anxiety and depression, through knockings on the ceiling at night, disturbing your sleep. They liked to pummel every surface with fist and chair, and you felt every scream and tear. You were only a handful of years older than they. An adult by legal standards, but a dwindling flame.

You walked up to the solid door. Saw its wire mesh, complicated lock; the buzz-in system. Your throat closed. You knew that it would make a sound like hell freezing over, when it closed behind you. That you would be trapped inside, on a locked ward, with time no longer a commodity and freedom less so. You would have things dictated to you, for your own good, for your wellbeing. But you still had no real idea what to expect. Not yet.

So when that door slammed behind you, after your mother had you both buzzed in, you walked up the flight of steps with its whispering trail of unswept leaves dragged in by visitor feet, and felt nothing.

Feelings of any kind, made your head hurt. Too much to focus on, with the white noise in constant static fuzz. It’s still up there, though greatly diminished by the world’s voice. Back then, it was far easier to stay routed in the rat tunnels of OCD; the turn-turn again before sitting down (jumping back up because you’d done it wrong, yet again, stupid lazy fucker); the pacing-nth-times before trying to get into bed, only to find a misstep had fallen foul of your prescribed exercise total, and you had to start again. Aching feet. Pock-marked back, from frantic sit-ups and breaking skin. Shiny patches, like dropped coins, among the once-thick sweep of your hair.

Compensation was your buzzword. It was one of many things that had landed you inside.

You still couldn’t fathom how someone as fat as you were, so lazy, could’ve been accepted onto this seemingly hallowed ground of stick-limbs and papyrus skin, dry eyes and broken teeth. Moth-eaten clothes that stank of thin sweat, riming every part of the ward like corrosion.

Your mother mistook it for bile. It’s still her residing memory of that place, the first sense to hit home. It stung your nose, at the start of a corridor full of doors, leading to rooms formulaic and yet still bound up with the memories of every patient to pass through; all those other unlikely candidates for life, like you in symptom, strangers in story.

The smell wasn’t puke. Not yet anyway, for it’d be months before that particular girl, with her throwing-up-in-bins habit, would blitz the ward and upset the tenuous peace balance, before quietly snuffing out one day in Spring the next year, on a day like any other, all green and gold light. The way some of us will go, without warning and when it’s too late for recall.

You don’t know the vast echoes, until the anorexic stops silent-screaming. Then they stay in your head forever.

It was raw fear. It was the sickly sweetness of slow decay, cellular breakdown; bad breath from old vomit habits, screwed-up gastric systems. You’d come to know that smell well; it still finds you, whenever an old person walks past on the street, and you know Death is near. On the ward, that smell would wind itself around your throat in a syrupy scarf, and you’d soon get used to it, as the days rolled to nights, to weeks, to months. You only noticed the difference when visitors commented on it.

Your little brother, when he first came to visit, piped up about the smell as soon as he walked through the main door. A child’s voice resonating up a corridor full of artwork depicting broken mental health; it still haunts your memory. You can’t bring yourself to talk about that time with him in any great detail, though he’s an adult now. At the time, he was a little boy, all bright blonde hair and beautiful brown eyes; one you used to tug around the back garden, in an old clothes basket. Back when you were both children, adventurers through mile-high weeds and Dad’s trellis, on the hunt for the world. Effortless in innocence.

You really wish he was still there, giggling behind you; not the dark young soul he’s grown into, though it seemed an eventuality anyway, a wire that runs through our family. You want to erase his memories of that time and place; how he saw you fall down to the floor one night, out of weak spite, because you’d lost weight that week and not been permitted on group walk. His wide eyes fill your mind, along with his little trembling lip. You want to take it all back, let him forever see his older sister as the adventurer she was, through fern and thorn.
You’d just settle for the flawed adult you are now.

That corridor spanned the length of the ward. Kitchens, therapy rooms, bedrooms, lounges, all swam away from it like a warren. The trick to keeping peace was in the heavy fire doors that segmented areas from one another. There were designated rest rooms, where – after an intense 90 minutes of passive-aggressive warfare with staff – 18 women and you, would be made to sit and digest. Food, thoughts, memories, feelings … everything would swim around inside, and you couldn’t even disappear for a quiet cry. Staff eyes stayed locked on every patient, to avoid purging.

You got to know that word well, among others. Like “IT’S READDDDDYYY!” jangling down the corridor from the kitchens, where the first inpatient to greet you, would often play emissary for mealtimes. Her lilting voice found you in those gluey moments, as you stood nervously by the main door.

A lithe figure of unspent energy, done up in post-Goth black hair and new-found pink infatuation, a velvety jumpsuit that made your eyes water. She wore little hospital slippers and scars on her arms. Closer inspection – you were still brazen then, hadn’t learned the cardinal rule of No Comparisons – found a girl already several months into her treatment, if the strangely disproportionate body was anything to go by. You still wear it now, a reluctant badge; the thicker midriff (still waiting for fat deposits to disperse evenly), the skeletal arms and legs. Hair running a downy paleness along the back of your neck and a bit down your spine. Lanugo, that old fail-safe; your body desperately trying to keep warm, when huddling under every radiator didn’t work. You have to resist the urge to shave it all off, knowing it’ll only grow back longer. It’ll fall out on its own, like all the old habits and routines seem to with passing years.

You were charmed from the start. The purest wide smile, huge dark eyes shining in a little triangle face. She knew that you were new, by the various bags and hangdog face. Odds and ends, all to be picked over and pulled apart for contraband. You wouldn’t see your Discman, batteries or razor blade for a long time. But you’d get to know all about weight-dipping, the process of lining one’s pockets with objects to add pseudo-mass to your frame, before morning weigh-ins. You’d learn about waterlogging, about holding back on pee stops. You wanted out as fast as possible, like all the rest.
Which is why you stayed inside, so very long.

She helped you sit down. Offered to find a staff nurse, mentioned something about a primary care worker, which was just so much jumbled nonsense to your dimmed ears. You were already zoning out. This tended to happen when you were most afraid; a dissociation tactic, conceived on the day you were abused. It had the potential to block out all feelings, thoughts, reactions. You became a ragdoll, something people could manipulate, and never really know.

But you still have fragmented memories of that first day. The smell of the kitchens, wafting up the corridors; the golden light playing along walls full of jagged words and gorgeous self-portraits of pain. It was an Indian summer; the firedoors stood wedged open to allow what fresh air there was on the ward, to flow. Leaves whispered outside, lost in windows that wouldn’t open fully. You tensed up at the smell of cooking, the brash shouts and clattering pans, all of which pointed towards horrors yet to come. Your nails dug into the scratchy material of the chair you were hunched in. Even with your birdbone weight, it sagged badly. The whole ward had an unfurnished feel to it. It was never supposed to become home, it was only a get-well stop gap…

But you’d soon come to know that strange Stockholm syndrome of inpatient wards, a chill-sounding word that reminds you of a blind man’s white stick: Institutionalised. You’d come to know a love for those walls, at once concealing and constricting. You’d know how safe a locked door can feel, even while your fingers itch to claw it open. You’d see enough girls try this, fingers bleeding, mouths screaming as they were carried away to be lightly sedated. Only the lawfully detained, the Sectioned, were subjected to this treatment; but it was because of the runaways, that the door remained locked.

You soon came to feel yourself as one of them, though you were put inside voluntarily. But in those first few minutes, as you stared around at the chipped walls, at the beautiful girl before you with her happy smile and sad eyes, you felt very alone.
“I don’t belong here.” The first words you spoke, into recycled air. You knew there was a waiting list behind you. Their desperate, sullen eyes followed your every move, waiting for you to stop pretending, so they could have a chance at treatment.

She laughed. Told you they all said that. And somehow, though you weren’t aware of it at the time, you were initiated into the strange clan of the inpatient unit. Their petty arguments and lethal rivalries became your days, full of buttery fingernails through hair, conspiring whispers of calorie counting; their movie marathons and impromptu jigsaw races, would be your nights. The food hoarding, secret trips to the bathroom; the corridor pacing (you still hear it now, thrumming heels on rainy days that meant no group walk.) The glaring eyes of staff, their sharp mouths and barbwire punishments; their softened eyes, whenever a patient dared break their comfort zone and talk beyond symptoms. The endless ream of group meetings, full of charged, pin-drop air; try asking a roomful of anorexics for an opinion, you’ll know the passing of cloud shadows on the carpet.

You’d come to know the smokers who stood out on the fire escapes, occasionally setting light to the bins with their stubs, bringing an entourage of blaring fire engines into the yard. You’d lean out the windows with them, to wolf-whistle and whoop at the firemen who invoked some sudden mad surge of Outside World appeal. You accidentally set off an alarm yourself, using a hairdryer to blast the rain out of your boots, after a forced march through the kind of monochrome evening that seemed sketched of graphite; when the sky upended itself in sticks of rain. The walkways swam with petrol rainbows, toxic beauty heavy in your throat, as the last ghastly weigh-in number squatted in your head to bleed poison through all the new hopeful thoughts you’d been having lately, about such novel things as recovery. Fear of gaining too much, too soon, won out. Regardless of having no umbrella, you were out under the Tempting Death sky. Your tears were lost in the rain, at least.

You remember the swirl of little umbrellas, as the school kids came pouring out; how they pulled the dark afternoon back, with their colourful anoraks and squealing laughter. They reminded you of what could never be, with irreparable damage to reproductive organs, if you weren’t careful. Some doctors didn’t bother pulling punches, if shock tactics would exert a stronger will on patients, than what caged their minds.

You hear the sound of heavy rain, and Gary Jules “Mad World”, and you’re back on the pavement watching those children giggle and stamp past, through shining puddles reflecting their boots and the sodium haven… You still feel your throat close up.

As it does with Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia”, because it marked the night when you knew Death for more than a passing acquaintance. Even the two suicide attempts hadn’t brought him so close. Pale fingers on your shoulder, giving it a squeeze as he walked through the ward, to find all and let them know You are Not Immune. One had fallen, spent the golden afternoon fighting for survival in an intensive care unit. It was a suddenness that can reach us all, but especially those who’ll sit beneath the Wall, in its chill shade, counting off their days in restricted calories and urgent exercise.

You remember the way the ambulance lights skirled blue along the corridor walls. How everyone stood in their bedroom doorways, fists up to mouths and white faces tight as the skin on their bones. You remember how the corridor was bracketed in black and green, the deepest lake-water light. A late hour, news broken … and a piece of you died that night.

Someone went to the lounge, you never did learn who; they opened up the cabinet housing the Hi-Fi, and put that song on. Cranked the volume up and opened the lounge door, and the staff allowed each partition to stand thus, until the sound of Springsteen’s melancholy flowed up and through every door, for anyone to listen and hear their own fate in the lyrics. You remember how the green light flooded across faces; some resting on shoulders, some turned to the ceiling and shining wet, in the ones who could still cry.

“Saw my reflection in a window / I didn’t know my own face / Oh brother are you gonna leave me / Wasting away on the streets of Philadelphia…”

That song would be played a handful of times thereafter, in memory of the one whose body gave out. There was always one line that cracked everyone up, in a knotted-throat kind of way:
“And my clothes don’t fit me no more
I walked a thousand miles just to slip this skin…”
……
You’ve kept contact with a few. The ones who mattered, called you friend and laughed with you, bitched and yelled silently at the indifferent walls. There were illicit wheelchair races and football games in the corridors. There were thin shoulders to cry on, full of surprising strength, and a strange kind of love found in all who carry pain as a happy passenger.

You still talk to them about the catchphrases (faithfully copied into a memory book) of the staff; how you’d tease and taunt at group meetings; about the raging inferno of a forced calorie drink, on top of the seemingly insurmountable pile of calories in a meal, if even one patient fucked the system. You reminisce about daft playlists (“Hungry Eyes” was always a favourite), and cheese ‘n onion pie burps. You feel quiet inside when remembering those who used the ward as a top-up zone, before heading out to emaciate their frames again. You reminisce about rest periods spent plaiting each others’ hair, watching films that made no sense to your fried brain, until the weight slowly crept back on and allowed for clearer thought.

That was like drinking from a glass of cool water; the day you picked up an old friend-book, and the words no longer jumbled together in formless mulch of meaning.

You remember how one staff nurse always got on your case about walking heel-toe; how you angrily responded that your mother had said you sounded like an elephant, and that you’d rather walk on the balls of your feet like a cat, than be called heavy-footed again.

You recall every single face, though their names slide down the gutter of memory. You remember how each person had their own smell, lavender perfume or white musk, crayons or calorie drink, where they’d forced the issue of denial too long. You can still remember how each flow of handwriting scrawled a personalized morning message across the main white board, before breakfast; quotes and capital-yells, cute doodles.

You remember the male nurse you fell in love with, his kind eyes and mischievous nature; how your emotions were bent around him, cost you dearly in journal entries, as you desperately tried to make sense of reawakened hormones. There was the time shortly after Christmas, when he left that note on the board, the Spider and the Fly quote that took you nine years to make sense of.

Some things will never make sense. How I can look into a mirror now, see a fairly healthy face with glowing cheeks, eyes that are wide and bright (if a bit red-rimmed; insomnia is still an old friend.) How I can find a body lithe with muscles, from years of weight training and countryside walks. How the words that once lay as ashes in my mouth, now flow from my fingers as spun silk, to form who I am. A writer again, at last.

Twelve years in the making, I am so close to being the whole weave. I no longer pine for the shadow of that sturdy child, so desperately in love with the world and ideas of travel and writing; for love unending, unfettered by stupid societal inhibitions like body image, manners, distance. Today, I live these ideals. After having Death on my shoulder, I know his touch and recognize it in the faces of others who’ve felt him pass close by. I reach out to them, one slightly cold hand to another. I am done with waiting. Now I live, and live for Now.

I reach out to you, reader, with the message and warning: Never underestimate the power of an unlocked door, a mind filled with ambition and thoughts. It doesn’t matter how dark, how light you feel. For me, to know emotions at all is to know reactions ungoverned by illness… and such freedom, a recently discovered quantity. It’s a flame I cup in both hands and warm my heart with, this new sense of humanity, when for long years I wanted only to be above and beyond this race, its unpredictability and cruelty and capacity for the greatest acts of love; I wanted to be buried beneath it, too. The fact I couldn’t make up my mind, is probably one of the reasons I’m still alive.
Still sensing. Still feeling. Now speaking out.

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