Full Text: Interview with Jimmi Campkin, “Coping Together: Carers and Eating Disorders.”

01/09/2014 at 20:02 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , )


1) How did you two meet: under what circumstances? Was it in a “neutral zone”, or through friends? Was she open about her illness, its symptoms, or did she try to conceal any parts initially (to try to appear “normal” / to keep two elements of her life apart) ?

We met via the internet and a slightly snarky response to a rather lame attempt to appear to have wisdom. From the beginning, R was open about her illness, although not to the extent of how much it still had a grip. In the early days I was led to believe that she was further along the journey of recovery than she actually was. We did a lot of things when we initially lived apart that we stopped doing when we moved in together. Looking back now I presume that, when we lived apart, she could endure the weekends ‘normality’ and then make up for it during the week out of my sight. Unfortunately this confused me somewhat when we moved in together. I thought she was back-sliding, when actually she wasn’t. It was just that she didn’t conceal the extent of the illness any longer.

2) Was there a distinction between who she was as a personality, and the anorexia? How often did the lines blur, and what caused this to happen?

I initially tried to deal with R’s anorexia by treating it as a demon that occasionally controlled her, like a Jekyll & Hyde arrangement whereupon the actions of one were individual – the ‘normal’ person exonerated from the behaviour and habits of the ‘demon’. R was always insistent that she didn’t want to personalise the illness, which my analogy certainly does. It’s too easy to say that R switched between Anorexic and Non-Anorexic like a train switches rails, or a Victorian mad scientist switches personalities. Better to say that the anorexia was a bassline endlessly chugging away in the background of a song. Sometimes it would be loud and overpowering, sometimes it would be barely audible, but it was always there. It almost always got louder in times of stress – i.e. anything outside of the comfort zone. R’s life was regimented in black and white colours, which is oddly ironic considering her creative flourishes, synaesthesia, et al. Routine was key. Spontaneous acts, even (paradoxically) planned spontaneous acts would cause stress and with stress came the symptoms.

In terms of distinctions between personality, anorexia probably exaggerated some character traits that are woven deep. R makes emotional connections that are not just social but knee deep in the mud (and clay) of predecessors to which she has no blood relation or any family history. She spoke many times of just wanting to go off travelling and not have a fixed abode, but I never believed that. I think, much like me, that she enjoys the thought of travel but always wants a home to come back to. And in that way, anorexia exaggerated that desire to have something concrete. Something very fixed. Even if it is something as (seemingly) trivial as a particular route from the house to the town centre. It’s not enough to say it is about control, because anyone can control their own path. It is about knowing that a path is always there. R seemed to want to keep revisiting it, in case one day it wasn’t there any more – the terminal fear of the harmless nostalgist made into something more destructive. Why, for example, continue to measure a slice of bread when the chances are that every slice of bread is within a few grams of each other? Because there is always a chance that one day it won’t be. In her mind, this was important. R needed the reassurance.

3) What was her behaviour like when with you? Did you live together, and form a “safe zone”? Were there any particular routines or habits she had, which affected your own behaviour (overly or subconsciously.)

We never discussed a ‘safe zone’, but given our tight surroundings it probably would’ve been impractical. I’m sure she had safe zones in her own mind that she never let on about, and that’s fine. In terms of influencing my own behaviour – I knew that we could never just do something off the cuff. In terms of what one might call stereotypical romance, a surprise meal at a restaurant might be one girl’s idea of a dream Valentines date but I knew that this would send R into a spiral of anxiety.

I abided by her routines and worked my life around them. I knew when she would have dinner, when she would shower. I knew that, if we were walking to town, we would go a particular way. If I didn’t feel like walking that way, I’d go on my own and R would lose herself in music. It wasn’t a particularly big deal. Walks in the countryside were loosely regimented as well – there were a thousand routes we could take, but once we’d decided on a route we’d stick to it. Again, not a particularly earth shattering thing to deal with, and probably sensible given my sense of direction when wandering from the beaten path.

I was always conscious of knowing when to give her space, but at the same time wanting to judge when a kick up the arse was needed. I could tell from her body language that she would be irritated by my presence when she weighed her food, even though I’d seen her do it a thousand times. It was an open secret.
I suppose I did become less spontaneous around her, but I can’t pin that solely on her and anorexia. There were other considerations as well – money, long hours at work, general and periodic depressions linked to the previous. Nevertheless, the need to maintain routines was a part of it.

4) Did her behaviour differ in public surroundings, from when you were alone together – particularly if food was involved? (e.g. attentive and affectionate, clingy and needy, standoffish, nervous, panicky etc.)

R was never comfortable in a restaurant. Even in our favourite Thai restaurant, which was usually empty, she would be eager to eat and leave. On the whole though, our public arrangements tended to involve one of three scenarios – a pub (in which rum and coke would dull the spikes in her back), the countryside (in which barely a soul would be met) or London (where the imagination can run riot.) How much R tolerated crowds, especially strange crowds, I could never know. I know how well she hid her anorexia in the early days of our relationship, so I cannot know how genuinely involved she was when going to a gig or seeing friends in a pub.

5) Were there any environments in which you were unable to engage as a couple, or in which it was difficult – family get-togethers, meals out, parties, etc? How did this affect your relationship?

Any kind of night out; outside of the routine of home-made rum and coke and oats for supper, caused problems – at least when sober. A few drinks and R would either not care or be able to put up enough of a shield to pretend to not care. R initially was happy to attend get-togethers with my family but after we started living together they dwindled. This was partly down to anorexia.

6) Did she have particular habits surrounding food and eating; what were the symptoms that were peculiar to her? Was she strict about calories, counting them out; were there “good” / “bad” foods? Did she allow you to cook for her, and if so, how much control were you allowed to have over what was prepared?

R was incredibly strict on calories, counting etc. Again, initially I was able to cook for her and my parents bought her food, but once we lived together I didn’t cook for her and I could never do the shopping on my own. Even when giving her list to my parents, it was incredibly detailed so that they bought the exact packet or tin of a particular product – no substitutes tolerated. R would eat small, non-fat amounts often, rather like someone grazing over the course of a day. But I had absolutely no say whatsoever in R’s food. If I’d decided to make her a sandwich for work, I’m fairly certain it would’ve ended up in the bin and she would’ve bought a sandwich from a shop. She used to talk about how the boyfriend of a friend of her’s would surprise her with Spaghetti Bolognese and a bottle of wine if she’d had a bad day at work. If I’d ever tried that, I would have just made her bad day even worse.

7) Was she actively seeking help from professionals, from family, friends etc? Were you involved in any therapy together? How did this affect your relationship? Did her
mindset / behaviour change over the progression of your relationship – relapsing at times of stress and upset, improving when comfortable, happy, etc?

No, not during our relationship.
(Sorry hun, can’t add any more to this :P)

8) Did she have plans for the future, either with / without you? What did she choose to engage in – hobbies, work, relationships other than yours, to keep a “normal” lifestyle? How much were you involved in these aspects of her life?

Our hobbies very much meshed together. Hiking, writing, drinking… that’s basically our five years in a very pithy nutshell. We differed on a few things. R was/is a gym bunny, but I never classed the gym as a hobby, more something she needed to do (despite her constant protestations to the contrary). To me, the gym was an anathema, something people did to avoid the Great Outdoors. R’s work she kept separate from me, but that was genuinely necessary given the sensitivity of her workplace. Neither of us really made plans for the future – neither of us are/were interested in children and marriage. I remained involved in many aspects of her life, but I acknowledged that she was entitled to have friends outside of my sphere.

9) What were the reasons for your breaking up – did her illness have anything to do with it? Were there any particularly “bad episodes” in your time together, related to the illness? Do you still keep in contact with each other? Has her behaviour / mindset changed at all?

We had plenty of bad episodes together. Tears in supermarkets watching her breakdown when trying to buy a frozen pizza, tears when she felt like everything was overcoming her, and a lot of anger as well mixed in.
Our break up was a slow burn that became hot very quickly. As I said before, I don’t think there was a ‘Normal R’ and an ‘Anorexic R’. The two coincided. R, anorexic or not, could be difficult.

We’d had a scare or two beforehand, and our housing situation collapsing had tested us to the limit. The straw that broke the camel’s back and made me realise the relationship was over came about during a conversation where I speculated on spending the rest of the year at a house-share we had only just obtained by the shells of our fingernails (literally, we were hours from being homeless.) R’s response was ‘It doesn’t matter because I won’t be here.’

I analysed that sentence for a few days. Obvious points first – there is no mention of me in this scenario, no acknowledgement of how lucky we were to still have a roof over our heads together, and a general apathetic sentiment. At this point, R’s Anorexic Bassline was overpowering everything. She had been thrown out of her comfort zone – losing her home, possibly her job as well at the time. This would test someone without anorexia, but for someone who desired so much to be in control of her own destiny, and to always have a stable platform, this was all too much turmoil.

The strange part is that we were actually (relatively) secure, but it wasn’t enough. It was different and all R wanted was to be back in the old flat, not this new place with such maverick factors as a housemate who clearly wasn’t accustomed to the routinely habits of an anorexic in the same way that I had been conditioned over the previous five years.

We broke up because R wanted to be away at that moment, and I was emotionally exhausted. R had a selfish streak that reared up in times of difficulty, unrelated to anorexia. A desire to put on blinkers and run away from unfamiliar situations or problems rather than face them. Anorexia, and the desire for control, no doubt took that streak and turned it into an overflowing river.

I am no angel in all this. But I was ill-prepared. When we started living together and I began to discover the true extent of her anorexia, I realised how little information there was on dealing with someone with the illness. I found plenty of literature on how to identify someone with anorexia, even how to get them to admit they have it. But R had already done all that. She’d told me. So how do you help someone recover? The way the books and leaflets were worded, it seemed that acceptance was most of the way to recovery. Which, as I learned, is horse shit.

I also learned quickly that anorexia is 9/10th in the mind and only 1/10th the stomach. I had been fed (if you’ll excuse the tasteless – oh there I go again – pun) that anorexia was a disease primarily about not eating, thanks to endless reports in tabloid newspapers about various celebrities who looked thin and who were apparently chasing a particular size to further their career. It wasn’t enough to eat a pizza and then joke the following morning that the world hadn’t ended and I wasn’t suddenly 17st. I thought too logically about anorexia and nothing about anorexia is logical. I wasn’t so out of touch to not realise how often eating disorders are linked to trauma, but I didn’t anticipate a). how few anorexics just want to be thin to fit in dresses and b). how difficult it was to convince an anorexic that eating a Mars bar wouldn’t cause them to balloon like a character from Roald Dahl. That wasn’t the point, and I didn’t understand that initially. I didn’t understand that the very act of ‘forcing’ a Mars bar down an anorexic’s throat through logic was ultimately being harmful.

In the end, I settled for trying to be a calming influence, an arm around the shoulder trying to gently guide R towards some sort of salvation, trying to remain as neutral as possible and shielding her from any stress as best I could. I often thought that she needed a cattle prod more than a hug, but I didn’t and still don’t have the expertise to be able to apply the electric current without doing significantly more damage.

If I were to date someone right now with anorexia, it would be the same situation. I would slip straight back into the calming influence without actually knowing what to do or say to be more proactive. I would be better prepared for the bad times ahead, and in many ways that could be a negative thing. At the beginning, myself and R would go out to places because I thought that it was fine. We had a family Chinese meal and takeaway pizza because I thought she was cool with it. But she wasn’t. Now, if I’m dating someone with anorexia, I’m probably shying away from these experiences, knowing how miserable it is making her. And yet, I’m sure that these sledgehammer moments for R – even if they weren’t often repeated – played a small part in her ongoing recovery. A brief glimpse of life outside of food that is judged entirely by numbers. Would I treat someone new in my life, who also had anorexia, with too many kid gloves? Would I pamper and protect them to death?

We still maintain contact. R is still one of my best friends. I want for her to recover one day so that I can visit her and she’ll order Chinese and not have kittens about it. The anorexic bassline that chugs in the background isn’t catchy or engrossing – it’s lame and out of tune. I’d rather hear more of that lead guitar, which on the good days would rise above everything and sound more vital than a heartbeat.

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Full text: Interview with Brent Allard, “Coping Together: Carers and Eating Disorders.”

01/09/2014 at 19:45 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )


I approached Brent with the premise of this interview, on the back of a Twitter conversation. As is so often the case, a random fact dropped in had set off ripples; I had mentioned my (past and present) experiences with anorexia nervosa, whereupon he began to tell me of a former girlfriend who also suffered from its effects. Setting out a rough guideline of questions based around personal memories of behavioural patterns, and research into the study of eating disorders, I sought to frame Brent’s unique insight in such a way that would give a broader perspective of anorexia, and its effect upon relationships.

While my mother loves me by default (if I can go on assumptions here), her caring for me in those dark days might be considered a prerequisite of our familial bond.
Where my former partner, Jimmi, and Brent Allard are concerned, the responsibility originated from a different point of care.

1) How did you two meet: under what circumstances? Was it in a “neutral zone”, or through friends? Was she open about her illness, its symptoms, or did she try to conceal any parts initially (to try to appear “normal” / to keep two elements of her life apart) ?

We had a business writing class together (you know, memos, correspondence like that). One day we were told that our next assignment was going to be with partners. I didn’t know anyone in the class, it was always at the end of a long day walking around campus in Arizona, so I just wanted to get out and go home. When we were asked to pick partners I looked around the room and caught this girl waiting for my eyes to meet hers in the back corner of the room.

I never thought about dating a sorority girl at all, but eventually B and I would start walking out of class together and one day we finally decided to sit in the dining commons and talk. That’s when I found out she was from Hawaii and she found out I was from Massachusetts, and we found common ground being so far away from home and lonely.

Through her I learned a lot about snacking, that was healthy, she had good ideas, but getting herself to do the things was another. I learned a lot about health from her, and at times I thought it was too much thinking, like, we just needed to eat.

2) Was there a distinction between who she was as a personality, and the anorexia? How often did the lines blur, and what caused this to happen?

She was under a lot of stress. She became the sorority president (something her family pressured her into). When I met her she was a little overweight, but it didn’t seem to be anything unusual for being in college. I put on weight too, it happens. I didn’t know that she was recovering until she showed me the pictures of what she used to look like. She was always busy and took on so much to keep it that way. Most of the time I would see her after a long day and night and she’d be exhausted or high-strung, always on the move, stressing about a speech she has to make, all of her work, the sorority, and I’d kind of be there to take her away from it all. It was when our worlds outside crossed that it was no fun.

3) What was her behaviour like when with you? Did you live together, and form a “safe zone”? Were there any particular routines or habits she had, which affected your own behaviour (overly or subconsciously.)

She was a very picky eater, so when I realized that she wasn’t eating that much we started to talk about it. Being home more than her I would cook meals for her, always keeping in mind what she told me she liked. She went long periods without food, which was not normal for me. I began to eat healthier, but when we ate together it was like she was eating a fistful of food and I’d eat maybe three times as much as her. She told me that she was on a cottage cheese and fruit diet when she was really skinny, and she’d even count calories then. With me she felt comfortable and started eating better, but I wasn’t eating as much and felt weak.

4) Did her behaviour differ in public surroundings, from when you were alone together – particularly if food was involved? (e.g. attentive and affectionate, clingy and needy, standoffish, nervous, panicky etc.)

Yes. She was very insecure about herself in public with me. If my ex-girlfriend was around she would panic and get down on herself. I wasn’t drinking at the time, so going out with friends wasn’t something we were doing a lot. We were both healing, and in the middle of it we were helping each other in different ways.

I had no interest in my ex, but she was always convinced that there was something going on, even though there was nothing. She began going through my emails, and it wasn’t for over a year that my ex emailed me. I never saw the email, and I wouldn’t have responded to it, but she told me one night that she had deleted it… and another one from before. This became a recurring theme and ultimately was the reason we broke up. She never trusted me to be left alone even though I was trying to get into my writing and focus on being sober.

5) Were there any environments in which you were unable to engage as a couple, or in which it was difficult – family get-togethers, meals out, parties, etc? How did this affect your relationship?

Family get-togethers were the toughest. Her parents wanted me to have a drink, and that’s when I noticed her eating habits the most. Her father was very judgemental, and those were the times when I realized the pressure she had on herself. Steaks, hollandaise sauce, cheese, potatoes, alcohol, eating out at country clubs and canoe clubs a lot of nights, her father saying that every girl “could use a boost in the world” when referring to her breasts. Those were the toughest times.

I relapsed around her father and wanted to break up with her immediately, but a part of me understood her pain and that she needed me. I also needed her because it was a safe place. We were both recovering. When other people became intertwined in our lives, that’s when it got messy. I lost best friends over my decisions, I pushed a lot of people away, and at times it was really not healthy, the amount of time we spent alone, but I think we both needed it. I know I did.

6) Did she have particular habits surrounding food and eating; what were the symptoms that were peculiar to her? Was she strict about calories, counting them out; were there “good” / “bad” foods? Did she allow you to cook for her, and if so, how much control were you allowed to have over what was prepared?

She told me a lot about counting calories, and we began shopping together and focusing on healthy meals we could eat together. At first it was vegan, then sushi was introduced on occasion, then we moved onto eating chicken and veggies, and even would go out for a hamburger once a month. She wasn’t putting on weight, but she was healthy. She trusted me to cook for her, which she said was rare, but I also understood what she would eat and what she wouldn’t. She expressed having “tactile” issues as a kid, like if something didn’t have the right texture, she wouldn’t eat it.

7) Was she actively seeking help from professionals, from family, friends etc.? Were you involved in any therapy together? How did this affect your relationship? Did her mindset / behaviour change over the progression of your relationship – relapsing at times of stress and upset, improving when comfortable, happy?

I never noticed her relapses, but would see when she was stressed that she was high-strung and not eating as much. We did not seek any help. She had wanted to be a nutritionist when she first came to college, but went into marketing. She was very controlling about getting help, and I think it was her friends who helped her through it, but being in a sorority I could tell was not the best thing for self-image.

Ultimately we broke up and that was when she went back into a relapse. She had been going through my emails and there was one I had sent with a few friends who were wondering how to go about asking a girl out. I said, it’s not a big deal, watch this, and I was on MySpace, and sent a girl a message. In my mind there was nothing that was going to happen, the girl was leaving soon, I was sending a message that had no feeling to it, didn’t sound like me, I was merely showing my friends that it wasn’t a big deal.

Well, she went through my email, called my mom, freaked out, but she was 6,000 miles away, had left me when I said I just needed two more months to save up and we’d move back to Hawaii. She became very controlling over those two months and I was alone for the first time in years. We tried to talk about it, she said she was starving herself, I said that I’d quit my job and come be with her, I didn’t mean it, it was something stupid I was doing with my friends. One contention she had with the girl I messaged was that she was “fat” anyway. She took it very personally.

What I felt was unhealthy was that her support network were co-workers and old friends from home. There was never a neutral voice in the help she sought. Every little thing I did would be scrutinized without my side. Things became divided and whenever I met someone from work, it was like I was being judged. I never got a chance around them. Mainly they were older women.

I finally sought professional help in my late twenties, I don’t know if she ever did or if she did. She was good at keeping secrets, whereas I was an open book.

8) Did she have plans for the future, either with / without you? What did she choose to engage in – hobbies, work, relationships other than yours, to keep a “normal” lifestyle? How much were you involved in these aspects of her life?

A lot of her social life was through work and the sorority. Things with the sorority didn’t work with me, so her sisters began telling her to break up with me, but I knew she wanted to get out of it so she wasn’t going to break up with me. She attended work parties, none of which I would go to, but she became more dependent upon me for everything. She ended up hanging out with my friends, was in my home space (before we started living together) a lot, when I told her I needed space to do my work and writing, she would take it very personally, so I’d sleep at her place to put her at ease even though I loved my place much more than the sorority.

Eventually she had me move with her out of a place I had lived for over two years and kept it a secret from her parents. I didn’t know this, she did this again when we moved to Maui.

9) What were the reasons for your breaking up (if any) – did her illness have anything to do with it? Were there any particularly “bad episodes” in your time together, related to the illness? Do you still keep in contact with each other? Has her behaviour / mindset changed at all?

There were several instances when I realized that she was starving herself. Sometimes she would pass out standing up, but I’d see it coming, therefore becoming her “hero,” but I’d make sure we’d talk about it, although at that point I couldn’t say much because I had relapsed several times in our time together. I wanted out, told her many times that there’s someone out there for her, but she kept by my side even though her father didn’t want us together because I wasn’t going to make enough money, and I’d argue with him about everything, from politics to the way he treated women.

That’s when my drinking became more severe, and that is when I realized her habits. We were both serious athletes when we were younger. There is a lot of pressure on you to perform in both the classroom and in your sport, and some people become health nuts, obsessed with calories and such. I was just hungry all of the time, so I’d eat when I could get it, never had a problem with weight until I quit sports. We were both very proficient, captains, stars, leaders, it was serious for us.

We began eating more Mediterranean meals, we went grocery shopping together, shared recipes, made meals together. Those were the nice things. When it came to other people it would fall apart. She lost her sorority friends when she chose to be with me, basically, it was drama. She was president, figure that’s what happens in that kind of environment. They all thought she was going down a wrong road, but I was under her control, it was up to her. It was always up to her. Her family didn’t want us together, I knew it was not going anywhere, but she kept hanging on.

When we lived in New England together she put on weight, but it was truly the first time I saw her as healthy. She felt awful, and before fall and winter came around she left to be with her grandmother, or at least that’s what she said.

I remember her talking in Europe about all the food she was eating, how unhealthy she felt. This time it was the opposite. She was not eating, and when she found that stupid MySpace correspondence, it had already been two months of being apart, and I screwed up, but nothing came of it, except my girlfriend said she was now starving herself and that if I didn’t come out, it was over. She went to my mom first, which showed she didn’t trust me anyway.

The last time we talked together, we met in a mall food court. She told me that she was starving herself because she was getting breast enhancements. I said that I thought there was no need, she’s lucky to not have back problems, but she had money, so I wasn’t surprised, and all of the pressure from the sorority, her father, Hawaiian beaches, media, it all made sense, given what I know about her. She said she couldn’t change it, she already put a down payment on them.

I shook my head, said the obvious things like, “Starving is not the way to go about this. You look good.” She said I was the only one who thought like I do.
In the food court she began to nod off, and I caught her, for what was the third time. I don’t know how many times I told her to lie down, but I remember the falls. So I held her by my side, told her I was getting beans and rice, and then we ate. She felt better.

On the way to the airport we stopped at the health food store. She looked at the food in the raw bar and said, “We should’ve eaten here.” I told her, “You wouldn’t have made it. Sometimes you just have to eat what’s there.”

We don’t talk anymore. I saw her on Facebook being friends with all of my friends, my brother, his fiancé, and I knew she had told everyone what I did. I got mad at her because she wouldn’t friend me and told her she couldn’t be friends with my family and friends if she wasn’t going to be mine and I called her out on some things like inner-beauty, how her father rules her life, she needs to let go of things… you know, I laid it down. She reported me to Facebook authorities for harassment, even though it was just a long message or two. Shortly after I got a call from her dad telling me to leave her alone, that I’m a nice guy, I just wasn’t for her. That pretty much summed it up for me and was closure.

Even if she was contacting me, it was my decision to break up with her after a month. There was nothing to be jealous of, other than the fact that she was skinny (from drug use and cigarettes, drinking, and not much food). She couldn’t see that I didn’t want that and be confident being my girlfriend. I remember a time when she was away and came back to find out that I watched a pornographic video when she was gone. It was always something. Then she told people at work, friends, about my porn habit, and although it was obsessive, I was a young twenty-two year old spending all of time at home while my girlfriend is on the road. Holy crap, call me crazy, I have flaws. Every flaw was scrutinized, and made to be the worst thing ever.

It was truly maddening.

The good thing I took from it was the time alone. We loved going out to eat healthy food, doing yoga, taking walks after meals, going on weekend hikes, drinking lots of water, making teas, recycling, keeping things simple, but it would brink on obsessiveness. We’d go to movies, concerts, explore towns and take day trips. I wouldn’t drink, that was more of a social thing with us, but she didn’t see my relapses as relapses, so I guess I didn’t see her relapses either.

We were caught up in our own worlds of healing. I don’t look at it as a bad thing at all, but I feel like she doesn’t want to face that point in her life because it is rife with failure for her. Flaws. I embrace them, she doesn’t.

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Coping Together: Carers and Eating Disorders

01/09/2014 at 19:45 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I remember the look on my mothers’ face, as the doctor uttered the words that would change our lives forever. Frozen, all colours and none, it was a diamond-expression, with every conceivable emotion flitting from one facet to another. It was autumn 2001, with a darkening sky and bitter winds, and I shivered in a thin top. There was a method behind this – a little tip I had picked up from reading a celebrity magazine. My mother, of course, had no idea, and I wasn’t about to tell her of all the neat little tricks I had developed over the summer of chaos, when my life spun down as the golden leaves outside, crackling now with a riming of ice.

After leaving compulsory education and starting at a new college (with the fear of loss nesting in my chest, watching others pull ahead in classes where I had once set the pace), getting involved in my first “serious” relationship and discovering that the abuse from the year before had dulled my appetite for sex – not that I was about to admit any of this – I had flung out my hands for some kind of equilibrium. An anchor. Anorexia had quietly slipped in and wrapped chill little fingers around mine; told me things, about how dieting for my school prom and upping my fitness regime, would make me a better person. Not just feel better, but be better. I could finally get some order into my life; concentrate, hard, on such things, while the rest of the world went on smoking and drinking and eating and losing itself in flab.

Such an innocent arrogance, a thin-ice superiority. I am above and beyond you – look how I disappear.

Listening to my mother’s voice crack, as she asked the doctor how long my treatment would be, I hunched over my chair with white knuckles. I was cold under the skin, in a way that no fire or radiator could warm; there were red welts to prove it. A slimy fish-oil guilt went sliding through my mind. I remember that vividly, fourteen years on. My Ma had not worked while caring for her family, me with two siblings; now we were growing up, and she had taken what opportunities came her way – especially after the divorce, when she learned her own mind. She had become the co-partner of a private firm, and was progressing at a rate which – looking back, with the heavy heart of retrospect – I wish I had been well enough, old enough, aware enough, to fully appreciate. There are a lot of things I have allowed to slip by without notice, being strung out on anorexia and its symptoms. The very last thing I wanted to do was deprive Ma of any business prospects, any chances of promotion. Most of all, that keen look on her face, whenever she talked about work. She looked great, too. A handful of boys in school often remarked upon it. They were only friends, only teasing – and still. And still.

But in that surgery, she was my Ma, full of the cold-fire defiance and steely tone (masking her fear) which I remember so well. I often wonder if I got the dagger-chin from her, lifted to face whatever challenge presents itself. My ex will know what I mean.
I was curled over like the leaf husks, aching with hunger right into my bones, with a low-grade sneer that told everyone quite plainly that I had no idea of the very real threat to my life. It didn’t matter when the doctor told me that this particular mental disorder, anorexia nervosa, held the dubious claim of the highest mortality rate among depressive illnesses. All I could focus upon was the white static in my head, telling me that they were going to make me fat. Even more unloveable, unnoticeable; while paradoxically, the shivering fear inside wanted just this, and more. It was, and always has been, the push-pull of wanting to be recognized and appreciated, while craving the fate of the blue ice outside, ready to vanish when you breathe upon it. Fade out of sight, out of mind, the control of others.

The part of me that was still Me, fretted over becoming a burden to my mother. The build-up plan that the GP was trotting out – the medication for depression, which he was ready to prescribe – was not going to be cheap. Ma supported us both financially, since I was no longer well enough to work my part-time job, and college was already dwindling into the lamplight haven. The Thing crouching in my head, didn’t allow for intrusions.

It also didn’t want me to have a carer. This would mean constant surveillance, the thwarting of starvation and purging symptoms (frenetic exercise, and shivering in thin clothes, being only the start of the coil.) The bigger picture – which I could not see, dialled down on these absorbing details – would be weight gain, of course, but with the parallel therapy treatment which would examine whatever thoughts and emotions resurfaced. For any of this to happen, I would need to be placed under my mother’s care, since she was the only person available at the time (though I would go on to wreak havoc in my Nanna’s comfortable routines, to give Ma a break for a bit – even the most beloved relatives are not spared, and anorexia has fingers that like to pinch and needle. I still grieve over that time, though our bond is now stronger for it.) All the carefully-learned, unwillingly-met responsibilities of early independence – choosing food, and its preparation, running under the lamplight each evening – would be taken away, allowing Ma to protect me from the panic attacks and obsessive-compulsive rituals which had begun to appear in earnest. We didn’t twig at the time how much this would be weight-relative. Had I known what the following two years would bring –

No, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference.

It’s only now, over a decade later, that I can look back on the reality of that situation. We were muddling through. The fear and tension were palpable in the house, with only the two of us living there, and so often going around in circles of constant-questions-asked (“how many calories in this? can I rest now? No, I’ve not done enough, I’ve eaten too much.”) Ma kept on working to support us, often pulling such wearying shifts; while struggling to understand how the child she had raised and nurtured from a baby, was now slowly killing herself. She told me some years on – when we were able to look back on those blue-black days with rueful smiles – that at my worst, she would wake each morning and expect me to be dead, either by my own hand, or the physical side-effects of anorexia.

Imagine living with that, day in and day out.

By 2003, the  illness had become too contentious. Our mother-daughter relationship was frayed to its edge, despite the help of other family members. I trusted only Ma, and my Nanna, to look after me “properly”, and then only in the (decreasing) lucid moments. Her own life had become a coil of watching for my self-destructive behavioural patterns. She had lost weight, and I noticed, with a venom that makes me cringe to remember. All of the normal hunger cues were long dead, replaced by a continuous gnawing starvation, which sparked into panic around meal-times (yet more questions, frantic pacing, surreptitious trips to the bathroom to throw away food. She knew it. She was just too tired to stop me.) My skin was full of holes, with patches in my hair. We tip-toed around each other in the house; I hated having visitors, because they disrupted my routines of exercise (I rarely went outside by then.) The world seemed a lost cause.

An inverted kaleidoscope.

The worry and strain of living in that state of constant alert, left Ma exhausted. She had little time, or patience, for others. Anorexia had driven us into a spiral of negativity. Her love for me – at her own admittance – was sometimes overshadowed by hatred for the Thing in my head. As Granddad once put it, “Hate the act, not the person.”
It was becoming increasingly difficult to do this; to discern the real Me from the illness. That was when we knew it couldn’t go on, that outside intervention had to step in. The guilt tore Ma apart at the time, but I know she did the bravest thing imaginable. She walked away, letting the professionals take over.

Of course I wanted to make her happy – I hated seeing her upset, but the guilt associated with this – the denial of hope that I could recover – drove me further down into symptoms. “I can’t please anyone.” Deadening all emotions, I became convinced that my mother would be better off without me.
In light of this, my local psychiatric team broke the cycle at the prevalent moment, before the thread was cut. I would receive care in a neutral environment, away from outside influences, where staff were trained to cope with anorexia and is barbed comments, to look out for its sneaky ways. This would give my mother a break, while effecting some actual change to my physical and mental well-being.

Recovery from an eating disorder does not begin or end overnight. It is a day-by-day, year-on-year battle for many, with each case a process of rediscovering the true self, in conjunction with therapy to root out the cause = effect of underlying factors. These will be reflective of the circumstances and personal history unique to each individual; though in terms of how symptoms are presented, the song remains the same.

It’s always worth considering the involvement of carer(s) in the recovery process. To my knowledge and belief, no one with an eating disorder can effectively contain and manage its symptoms alone, healing without help – the love of a partner, the spur of a close friend, the attention of a teacher or guidance counsellor. There are in/out patient units available across the country, with staff who are able to deal with mental illness in a professional capacity. For a carer, it is a matter of choice, of emotions, of instinctive protection. It is learning the basics from scratch.

I would certainly not be where I am today – able to function independently, work full-time, socialize, write articles like this one – without the support of family and friends, who continued to pop in to see me whenever possible (even if I didn’t want to see them), lending my mother a helping hand, reminding me of who I was in school. It’s been a long process, and at times, I think some were scared off by what they saw – afraid that they would do more damage, perhaps. Others continued to see the person locked beneath the ice; there was the boy from school, the one I loved and never found as my own, who would text silly stuff to make me laugh while in hospital. He also invited me out to house parties, and knew when to keep quiet if I just felt – for once – like talking.

It is of the utmost importance to remember the child, the partner, the individual, with character traits and preferences wholly separate from the eating disorder.

Significant improvements have been made to the level of support available for carers – giving strength to the ones who must be strong – since my time in hospital, with the internet playing an important and interactive role in disseminating advice, both personal and professional. Nothing gets down to the heart of a matter like a shared experience; family members, those closely associated with someone suffering from an eating disorder, can feel less alone when speaking out on carefully moderated forums that are (rightly) kept separate from those available for sufferers. Here, discussions on topical issues can take place, with the guidance of mods, in a safe environment built upon mutual trust. As a matter of principle, I have never asked my mother for her personal thoughts / emotional reactions concerning those days when she looked after me; all the information I do know, was volunteered some years later, when our relationship was on more steady ground, and I was in a secure enough state of mind to deal with the sometimes painful truth.

Organizations such as the UK-based charity Beat, host message board forums and online tutorial workshops, with the aim of raising awareness of signs and symptoms to watch out for, while providing crucial advice on how to maintain as relatively normal a life as possible around the eating disorder. I say “crucial”, because – above all else – life must go on. With convoluted routines linked to the practise of disordered eating (starvation, binging) and any subsequent purging (exercise, vomiting, etc.), a sufferer may isolate themselves in such a way that is detrimental to their relationships. It is important to recognize this for what it is, and to reassure the sufferer that they are a firm part of a unit, and not alone in recovery.

The person with an eating disorder is likely to experience periods of depression, anger, hopelessness and despair. Home may feel like a battleground with parents or partners feeling that they have become the enemy. It is important to remember it is the disorder that is taking over, and not the person who is changing.”

To this day, I am still somewhat at odds with the solitude I keep. In analysing preferences and tendencies, a fear-lockdown often occurs, should I question too much of what I do. I am left wondering how much of this is now a lifestyle, something so deeply ingrained as to be accepted for a faux-part of my nature. Would I have been a more sociable person, without the ED? Is it even worth asking this question? For the most part, the routines are linked to exercise – I am easier with eating now, having let go of a great many habits and compulsive routines while in my last relationship, though more out of necessity than any real desire to do so. Yet it was the impetus needed. They are not missed, and have not crept back in now that I live alone.

I was four years out of hospital when I met my former partner, Jimmi. Having edged back onto the dating scene through websites and social networking (these held a “distancing” effect, both reassuring and useful, in terms of maintaining “safe parallel realities” until I was able to cope with actual contact), I perceived myself to be close enough to an evolved form of myself, to try giving affection to another. The truth was felt in a low gradient of ego, a mind still woven about with thorns; I struggled to remember who I had been prior to the illness. What had I liked to do? Who did I respect, look up to, aspire to be? When I should have been trawling art galleries, going to the cinema, messing about with friends, I had instead been shuttled to and fro between psychiatric wards. Some quite formative years, as well as certain historical and cultural world events, will always be as black holes in my memory.

In 2008, using the internet for tentative steps out into the world beyond my room, it became habit to latch onto people so as to gain access to their thoughts and opinions, their preferences and dislikes. I had nothing of my own character to bring to the table, or so it felt at the time – I blagged it a good deal. This is probably true of us all, to some extent. Again, I must pull myself up – am I being too negative on myself? But I do feel like a social amoeba, sometimes.

Jimmi became something of an educative and influential force in my life. I absorbed his recommendations for literature, music, films and art, while giving back what I could – though it never felt like enough, and I lived in fear that he would look for someone more interesting, with a greater awareness of the world and its people. The latter, I still didn’t trust to any great extent, but he was a keen people-watcher, drawing inspiration from the idyllic pub gardens we sat in, the random encounters we often had while out and about. He would pull some contextual snippet out of the air, relevant to the situation, stirring up an old flicker inside me – that competitive streak, long buried inside a pillar of anorexia’s ice. I wanted my mind to work as swiftly, to be able to link one thought or concept to another in such a way that would make him laugh.

I went looking for literature that he had not read, watched films he had not seen – all of them parallel to his preferences. With each weekend visit, our discussions were fleshed out into debates, as I began setting out my own analyses, voicing opinions. I’m not sure how much he was aware of my hesitancy, the constant gnawing fear of upsetting him, or making a prat of myself. Again, this is probably true of any fledgling relationship, but it gave me more than a few sleepless nights at first … until I became comfortable enough to believe that he wanted me for Me. This would take a while, with stormy scenes between – misinterpretations, passive-aggressive warfare. His patience was balanced on a knife edge, with my inability to voice worries. Instead, he interpreted negativity through watching my body language (and is probably grinning in remembrance, if he’s reading this now) and my eating/exercise habits. No sooner had any upset filtered its way down, then meals would become a battleground and walks a forced march. My weight was a fairly safe barometer for moods.

Over time – and out of necessity, for the survival of our relationship – I learned to speak out with my voice, as opposed to symptoms. His company outweighed the need to keep silent.

I gained access to J’s mind, itself a rather private place. His interests became my interests, and it wasn’t long before I found myself thinking less and less about food. Hunger cues returned, with weight increases that saw the static-white in my head reduced to a background burr. This is not to say that the low-level moods and symptoms disappeared overnight – at times, they would rear up like wild beasts, particularly in response to a sudden change of plan or a moment of spontaneity, where my instinctive reaction was (and sometimes still is) to feel under pressure, as though control has been taken away. The illness saw J as a rival for my attention, and that nasty-bitch side of myself gave him some hard times. Our weekends together were always caught up in long-distance hikes, as compensation for what I saw as the laziness-crime of having slept in that morning, or stretching out to read in his back garden.

To put this into context – I was still underweight, with a disordered mindset, and no actual therapy in place. Having chosen to cut all ties with my mental health team, to go it alone in recovery, I was pinballing from one distraction to another, while maintaining a weight that felt “safe.” Our long walks required stamina – I needed to eat more, to reduce the gym exercise, so I could keep up with his strides. In winter, when poor circulation caused my blue fingertips to turn purple, then white, he would hold my hands and breathe on them to make the pain go away, while encouraging me to put on a bit more weight, so we wouldn’t have to keep making the stops.

Though we are no longer together, Jimmi is still one of my best friends, and continues to be an inspiration – which means he kicks my arse when he knows I’m dithering. Though I certainly had no intention of allowing him to become my “carer” from the outset, at times it was inevitable. There was only so much I could conceal. It is a mark of his patience – and the lasting effect of his company, on my mindset – that our relationship survived beyond the first few difficult months.
When I asked him to give his own perspective of those five years together, he responded with the style that has always been reminiscent of a leather jacket, whisky and cigars.

In similar fashion, I asked a Twitter friend, Brent Allard, to tell me of his experiences with anorexia. As is so often the case, a random fact dropped into conversation had set off ripples. I had mentioned my (past and present) experiences with anorexia nervosa, whereupon he began to tell me of a former girlfriend who also suffered from its effects. Setting out a rough guideline of questions based around personal memories of behavioural patterns, and research into the study of eating disorders, I sought to frame Brent’s unique insight in such a way that would give a broader perspective of anorexia, and its effect upon relationships.

While my mother loves me by default (if I can go on assumptions here), her caring for me in those dark days might be considered a prerequisite of our familial bond.
Where my former partner, and Brent Allard are concerned, the responsibility originated from a different point of care. I’d like to give them a voice, on this blog.

To assume that love alone has the power to cure anorexia et al, would be a gross underestimation of the influence a mental disorder can have on a person’s life. First and foremost, they must want to be well themselves – this requires finding an internal equilibrium that I cannot even begin to describe here, as much as this sounds like a cop-out. I still do not know how I survived, where others didn’t. Hitting rock-bottom in 2003, it seemed that there would be no escape, until the duty of care was taken from my mother’s hands – she had done all that she could. The physical dangers of an eating disorder are very real, while the underlying dark waters of depression can bring on a relapse, into symptoms perhaps abandoned years before, thought forgotten. It is then that the network of support found in friends, family, colleagues, lovers, teachers – the relationships that make up a life – are as necessary for recovery as psychiatric treatment. No one should feel that they are fighting alone.

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Writing Reality: Synaesthetic Scenes

02/06/2014 at 06:00 (Method Writing, Reviews, Synaesthesia, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I wholly admit to being a concept reader and writer. Rather than framing my work in concrete terms, pinned to actual events and circumstances, I work best with abstract ideas. Maybe this is due to inhibitions about the quality of my work; certainly, much of my life has been governed by vagueness, with facts and figures substituted for smoke and mirrors, symbolism.

While ill with anorexia nervosa, struggling to recover, I would ask for permission to eat and to rest, and fought bitterly with my therapist when she suggested that I begin to serve myself food, and take steps towards reducing my exercise. As she put it, “No one can monitor you forever. The details are yours.”

The thought of feeling well again, of having energy, was the image I worked towards; but whenever it came to the crunch (as it were), I would buckle under the pressure of taking responsibility for my own actions. My opinions didn’t matter, much less my emotions, because I couldn’t trust them. They had landed me in hot water before, after all.

The same self-doubt appears to have filtered across my life, like ink spilled over a map. It is something I push against every day, when writing, when socializing on / offline. As much as I would like to talk about our contemporary world, and certain economical / political aspects of it, I don’t feel I could do them justice. Not yet, at least – lack of experience, and self-esteem, cause me to stumble on words that should come easily, and I throw away as many blog entries as I begin.
Maybe one day, I will find a way to meld my concerns, and this flowery prose.

*

If there’s one thing I hate when writing in free-fall, it is hitting that dead-wall of thoughts – particularly when it comes to description, for it’s here that I’m in my element. With no ready connotations or sensory imagery to hand, the words seem as stick-lines only. While there is a need for a more direct style in certain types of prose, it is not something I can easily maintain. Trying to cut out imagery would feel like cutting off a limb, and I’ve given up trying to walk in the shoes of any author I happen to admire, but could never replicate.
A voice is a voice; mine happens to channel synaesthesia, and it’s to this kind of imagery that I turn when I want to bring a character, a setting or a scene alive.

As someone with Chromesthesia, I perceive colours and shapes/patterns (the concurrent) in relation to sounds and spoken words (the inducer.) Music is a major trigger. A whole song or a single note, the words of a vocalist or the scales played on an instrument – all can spark a response in my mind that is equivalent to seeing the keys of a piano lit up in a rainbow under my fingers, the flick of a whip made of shining copper strands, or a cloud of paint sluicing across the floor.

Vision
Vision by Carol Steen; Oil on Paper

I don’t so much “see” these additional perceptions, in conjunction with sound, as acknowledge the presence of them in shapes and colours behind my eyes.

When a new voice is introduced, the sound of a song can lose its original-composition colour. For example, when listening to the lyrics of Nick Drake’s Riverman, the predominant shades are pine green and bark brown; these are the colours of an oboe, which is also the “texture” of his voice, rounded and smooth, lilting.
But channelled through the voice of a cover singer, the words may become copper, or dusky blue, particularly if the instrumentation used is also different.

An artist can have an inherent “colour” of their own, regardless of what they are singing or playing about. In this, semantics have little impact, for it is the sound of the voice / the instruments which creates the synaesthetic impression, with variations of shade depending on pitch and tone; Cat Power is smoky purple in her alto lines, but on the soprano notes of “Colours and the Kids,” her voice comes closer to lilac.

I’m as yet unsure whether these synaesthetic experiences (the concurrent)are due to the emotional reactions evoked by reading a text or listening to a sound, or if is the actual construct of the inducer which is the trigger (the individual graph/phonemes.) One theory points toward crossed-wires activity in the cerebral cortex, which is divided into lobes that govern our thought patterns/processes, and sensory reactions. This would go some way towards explaining how a mood can have a colour – which is my strongest perception of synaesthesia, leading me to wonder whether it is these causing the colour effect, and not the stimuli. But why then should I have an emotional reaction towards the number 3? It is my favourite, and also happens to “appear” to me in my favourite colour, turquoise. Again, this is not something “seen” so much as perceived. The two are intrinsically linked. Likewise, I will avoid the number 5, because it is yellow – a colour I’m not all that fond of.

When it comes to writing, there’s no greater pleasure to be had than painting with words. I mean this in the way that Nabokov saw the Russian word, “Tosca”:

Toska – noun /ˈtō-skə/ – Russian word roughly translated as sadness, melancholia, lugubriousness.
No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
― Vladimir Nabokov

Such a palette of connotative imagery, attached to one small set of graphemes. I personally “see” the colours deep purple and red, as of an autumn leaf on a bonfire. There is a strong tang of bittersweet regret, like iron rust, in speaking the word aloud.

Ashridge in Autumn

Nabokov observed that synaesthetes tend not to share the same sensory perceptions, but instead have variations which are unique to them. This discovery was made through the observations of his wife and little boy, both synaesthetes themselves:

“My wife has this gift of seeing letters in color, too, but her colors are completely different. There are, perhaps, two or three letters where we coincide, but otherwise the colors are quite different.”

Still more fascinating is the apparent blending of grapheme-colours in the parental genes, to form a natural progression in the mind of the child – rather like mixing a set of oil paints:

“Then we asked him to list his colors and we discovered that in one case, one letter which he sees as purple, or perhaps mauve, is pink to me and blue to my wife. This is the letter M. So the combination of pink and blue makes lilac in his case. Which is as if genes were painting in aquarelle.”

Another author, Patricia Lynne Duffy, tells of a similar experience in her excellent book, Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synaesthetes colour their World:

‘My father and I…were reminiscing about the time I was a little girl, learning to write the letters of the alphabet. We remembered that, under his guidance, I’d learned to write all of the letters very quickly except for the letter ‘R’.
“Until one day,” I said to my father, “I realized that to make an ‘R’ all I had to do was first write a ‘P’ and then draw a line down from its loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line.”
“Yellow letter? Orange Letter?” my father said. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you know,” I said. “‘P’ is a yellow letter, but ‘R’ is an orange letter. You know – the colors of the letters.”
“The colors of the letters?” my father said.’

My own grapheme/phoneme combinations possess some spatial relativity to one another. 9, for example, is large and purple, quietly majestic with a faint sheen; 6 is little and silly, light green; 3 is turquoise, medium-sized and slender, with just the faintest sheen of silver. The name of my dear friend Nillu Steltzer, appears to me in white and red. My own name is blue and green, as most words/names with the close proximity of letter A and E, tend to be (interestingly, the co-editor of Synaesthesia Magazine, Carlotta, has a dark blue name; but her Twitter handle, @1chae, is canary-yellow and teal.)

These sensory crossovers have crept into our everyday lexicon. There is the “black funk”, the “itchy mood”, the “cold white light of the moon.” Using these concrete nouns to describe an emotional response to a situation, we can cross the borders into the abstract world, where a mood can have a colour or a texture; and back again, into a sensory-overlap, where a name we see becomes something we can taste, of it is described thus. The text gains what can *almost* be experienced as something tangible.
This is just one way of shaking up the descriptive writing process, giving an audience more variety.

A setting that resembles an empty room can be brought to life by the juxtaposition of what a character knows on a conscious-sensory level v.s. what they perceive on a subconscious-synaesthetic level. If the narrative perspective is channelled through one or more characters, whether in first person voice or over the shoulder, an author can choose to employ variations of sense-imagery based upon life experiences / circumstances. For example, a man who has been down on his luck may perceive the world in shades of rot, decay and rust; he may draw the audience’s attention to the rust on his car – its tangy smell, the rough texture to touch, the strange whorl-patterns to look at – in comparison to the sun sparkling on the polish of his neighbour’s vehicle.

Provided there is enough sensory stimulus and crossover, the relevant connotations and memory-triggers can evoke a “mood” in the audience, which is close to experiencing synaesthesia. In the same way, a film director will employ mise-en-scène – props, costumes, alterations in the colour / shade of lighting – and diegetic / non-diegetic sound, to influence the perceptions of mood from one scene to another.

synaesthesia therapy
Image courtesy of www.kingsroadrocks.com/

Time can be made apparent in terms of light and dark, with the sun shifting over the far wall in an office throughout a long shift, as well as the systematic ticking of a clock, the precision of numbers (senses Sight and Sound.) A shift in the air – the clatter of pigeons and the whirl of their feathers – can summarize a mood of fidgety discontent (senses Sound and Sight.)

Animal Genius: Pegions

A building may take on a mood, or experience an oscillation of these, depending on the perceptions of the workers within – or perhaps the mood may be unique to the structure itself, as of a sentient being. Your everyday environment can become a living organism, should you choose to open all your senses to it.

At work, I cross all floors of the building at some point during the day. The past 3.5 years have imprinted enough sensory triggers to make a library’s worth of stimuli, ready for recall if I need to describe a setting. The building has the creaking personality and elegance of an aged dancer; she is made up of frayed carpets, panes that crackle and flake plaster like skin, and windows that weep rain. Her coffee rings and energy drink towers, are testament to the state of the shifting moods of colleagues. Standing in an empty stairwell, I have only to listen to gauge the mood of a day (which may remain unchanged for a shift, or change sharply at the turn of events.) There are always little clues to look out for, and it is these shifts in atmosphere – from the normal to the charged, to the downright crucial, that you should make yourself aware of, in your own environments.

Dana Vachon’s “Mergers and Acquisitions” is essentially a book about investment banking; but it is the vibrant descriptions of the characters and settings, and the treacle-darkness of comedy and pathos, which drive the narrative. An average office space is framed thus:

“I settled into the eight-by-eight cubicle whose carpet had once been gray, but over the years had been Jackson Pollocked with tumbling chunks of sesame chicken and spilled splashes of Starbucks lattes.”

Vachon worked as an investment banker, and had apparently stored a vast sum of memories to use as stimuli for later recall, when writing of his experiences on Wall Street. The semi-autobiographical protagonist, Tommy, is not one for emoting with direct words; his narrative is rich with sensory perceptions, which do the job for him.

“She was lying on one of the old, overstuffed sofas, her hair wrapped up in a lumpy, unwashed bun. She wore the same red kimono that she had surprised me with weeks before, but it too seemed different, and as I looked closer I saw that among its bright silken peacocks and dragons were burns from fallen cigarettes and stains from splashed sips of wine….I looked at the frogs and noted that the air in the apartment was nursing-home stale and that the windows had all been closed.”

If your immediate environment is lacking the sparks necessary for a scene, take yourself to an unfamiliar setting. My personal jolt-from-comfort-zone is to wander through the noise and bustle of our local farmers’ market. It’s unnerving – there are a great many people around, with voices thrown like knives – but it’s a feast for the senses, with everything from basic reactions (touch = soft suede, sound = chattering coins, smell = fresh fruit), to more extensive imagery (plums that resemble bullets; a rainbow swathe of macs.)

Make a point of listening to what is expressed through surroundings as well as speech – those pigeons circling overhead, what has disturbed them? Is it relative to the time of day, or to a red kite angling nearby? Can this be used as an image of approaching danger? The slate-coloured nimbus that has gathered on the horizon of an otherwise blue-sky day: how might this shift in the weather be used to convey a change of mood of a scene, from peaceful and scenic to unpredictable and troublesome? Will the characters notice and draw attention to it themselves – as with first person POV – or will the audience be aware of the tonal shift before them, as a form of dramatic irony in third person POV?

In her novel, The Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman’s teen protagonists have a unique form of image-notation – by jotting down a single, significant word that is relative to a time and place, they are able to recall the sensory aspects of it, and the subsequent mood that was felt:

“Meg and Claire looked at each other. They could hear the clock over the stove, ticking. They could hear doves in the courtyard. They wanted this moment to last forever. The sunlight was orange. They had to remember that. Meg would make certain they did. She fetched a piece of paper and wrote down the word orange, then folded the paper in half. They could cut up pears and write down all of the colours of the light and listen to people laugh and smell the blooms on the chestnut tree and forget about the rest of the world…they would have this memory of sitting in the kitchen, being happy.” – pg 133, The Story Sisters

Try this in your everyday experiences – particularly when time isn’t on your side – using a word/phrase/idiom to sum up the moment. I use “lamplight haven” and “orange-black” to help recall the sensory aspects of a night-walk; the stirring wind, leaves rattling along the pavement like fallen bones; steps taken a little more quickly than usual, and that odd halo of claws which tree branches make around a lamp. When writing such an experience into a scene, and stuck indoors on a blistering hot day, such sensory recall is priceless.

The trick is knowing when to jot something down on the spot, to record it before the moment is lost. This does involve a fair bit of diving into stairwells and ducking into alleyways. An audio recording / dictaphone app on your phone, is a good way of catching those emotional inflections which snagged you up – how it all made you feel at the time – to be channelled later when writing. Similarly, a photograph taken in-the-moment can help to trace back to the particular image of stillness in an afternoon, when the sky seemed made of lemon juice and fleece, the rain was silver, and the air was purple with the smell of buddleia.

Lewes

With regards to how light shifts across the walls of a room, perhaps mark its passage in terms of what a character pays attention to, in relation to emotions – do they notice the ruddy tinge of the sun while waiting for an agonizing shift to end? If they are waiting in expectation of a loved one’s arrival, is the light more notable than the creeping shadows; or if the visitor are late, do the corners of the room waver in uncertainty? Does the smell of wildflowers through the open window, unnerve them in the sense that the loved one may have chosen “freedom”, and changed their mind?

The progression of time can also be marked as a seasonal narrative – how does this affect your characters? Do they notice when the sun sets further along the western skyline, disappearing behind a different building each night? When the light shifts from spring’s green-gold haze, to the stark gold bars of summer, and thus into the pastels and burnt palette of autumn and the silver-black starkness of winter, does the continuum leave them melancholic, or edgy with the anticipation of change? In this way, the combination of sensory-stimuli and connotative imagery can evoke an emotional response in the audience. Their memories may be triggered; their thinking may turn to aspects of their own lives, emphasizing relativity, by a description framed in synaesthetic imagery, as with Baudelaire’s “Correspondences“:

“There are perfumes fresh like the skin of infants
Sweet like oboes, green like prairies,
—And others corrupted, rich and triumphant.”

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Writing Reality: What’s in a name?

21/04/2014 at 06:00 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


As a writer, you have at some point probably spent an agonizing amount of time thumbing through every baby book and name-etymology website you could find, in search of that set of letters which would sum up the person you are creating – whether a child or an adult. The forename is our personal identity – if we choose to keep it – and the ways in which it can be used, added to, altered and spoken aloud, bring to light a lot of the subtle interactions which go on every day, as part of human life. It is our stamp of identity, distinguishable from the inherited family surname, and though it may be commonly used throughout particular cultures / age groups, it still has a unique relevancy to our personalities. It is, after all, one of the first identifiable set of phonemes we are likely to hear and respond to, when we are small. And unless circumstances dictate otherwise, such as a name-change by deed poll, your forename will be what is left of you after death, written in cards and letters, on gravestones, in the minds of others – along with all the relevant memories which are attached. It is these which make us human.

Connotation, Denotation

There is much to be said for the word “misnomer” in this context. Some people really do not “look like” their names. You have probably come across at least one person who didn’t seem to “fit” their name, whether through connotative imagery – the associations we make with words, through cultural / historical / social references – or through detonative meaning. My grandmother once told me of a friend called Grace, who was in the habit of breaking more china plates, and bones in her body than anybody else she knew.

This was, of course, not that poor woman’s fault. But it is interesting to note how a name can seem to influence our perspective – and expectations – of others, as well as ourselves. Living up to a surname or title is one thing, but to live up to a forename too? If it has been consciously passed on from one family member to another, or was given in honour of somebody admired, how might this affect our perception of the world, and ourselves?

This is worth paying attention to, when naming your characters and creating people. How might they choose to react to – or disregard – the associations which surround their fore/last names? What is expected of them by others, and how does this shape their relationships? Is there a running tradition of naming a child after a parent (father-son, mother-daughter etc), and if this is not observed, how might the narrative be suffused with conflict as a result? (I had a friend in school whose uncle took such offence at the boy’s father’s disinclination to observe family tradition, that he referred to my classmate only by his middle name – which happened to be his own, carried over by several generations.)

If you’re looking for balance between the projected image of a name, and the context/tone of your work, it might be best to avoid “loaded” names that carry heavy connotations – perhaps from a well-known fictional text (e.g. “Titania”/ “Romeo”, from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet”, respectively) or a period of history (“Hitler”, whether for a protagonist or an antagonist, is not advised.)

Then again, as a way of subtly influencing the audience’s perception of a character – or perhaps to give them a gentle nudge in the ribs – there is always the option of allusion. This is subjective to what the audience already knows, and how they might link this to your work (e.g. if you were writing a tragedy, the name Cassandra would be picked up on by those familiar with the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, of Greek mythology.) As ever, context is a key element.

Sound Effects

I am always a bit startled to hear my name in full, because it came to be associated with trouble, in childhood. My parents and teachers were in the habit of calling me “Rai” under normal circumstances, but at times of tension, the simple utterance of my full title would be reprimand enough to pull me up short, since it was used so rarely. Tone and volume of course played their part, but even now, I get an uneasy “uh oh” quirk of the mind to hear it; even when the cause is a simple call for attention in a more formal setting.

Be aware (and wary) when using alliteration in naming characters. On the one hand, this can create a useful mnemonic effect, especially when applied to a role that you want to make more identifiable from others (protagonist / antagonist) – but overuse of alliteration can dilute its effect, with names jumbling into one another if they have too-similar phonemes (e.g. protagonist called Katherine/Catherine, antagonist called Karrie/Carrie.)

Alliteration, and other sound-effects such as assonance and sibilance, can be used to emphasize the sound-symbolism of names. “Salazar Slytherin” will forever be a favourite of mine, with its sibilant hiss referencing the snake motif that is a recurrent theme of the Harry Potter series, which the founder of Slytherin house was associated with – as well as the spitfire language of snakes, Parseltongue. When combined with dialogue and/or narrative that “echoes” the sound-imagery of a name, the effect can be startling.

“‘It matters,’ said Hermione, speaking at last in a hushed voice, ‘because being able to talk to snakes was what Salazar Slytherin was famous for. That’s why the symbol of Slytherin house is a serpent.'”

“‘They called Slytherin himself Serpent-tongue.'” – pgs 146-9, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling.

The names which J.K Rowling chose for her four school houses seem to fit quite neatly with the general characteristics ascribed to each, through the respective ideals of each founder, and the symbolism of sound (e.g. Hufflepuff = predominance of “soft-friendly” phonemes vs. Slytherin = sibilance, “shifting/sinister”, as of snake movement.)

Do vocalise your own choice of names before applying them to characters. Take into consideration how they sound in your mind, how they feel when spoken, how they look when written out. Do they appear wonderfully exotic, but cause an ache in the mouth just trying to pronounce them? How easily will the audience recall their sound-associations; how can this work in your favour, when trying to promote a certain “image” of a character (more / less appealing) and how might this correspond with their personality / agenda over the course of the narrative? Will reading/speaking aloud the name of one character, be a more enjoyable experience than another – how can this be manipulated for maximum engagement?

Honorific

As the word “honour” denotes, the use of an honorific is often a mark of respect. The Japanese suffixes -san -kun and -chan, for example, can instantly change the manner of expression between two people, and give an insight into their relationship: formal/informal, person/impersonal. Woe betide the employee who addresses his superior with -kun, which tends to be used between peers of an equal social standing.

In England, our most commonly recognized honorifics include Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr, etc; these can be used in salutations, and dropped thereafter if appropriate (such as when an equal footing is found in conversation between strangers.) Where the honorific is maintained, the mark of respect/authority is made clear – in the House of Commons, John Bercow will be referred to as “Mr Speaker.” In my workplace, the leader of each team is known as the “sergeant” – an honorific which, depending on the level of familiarity between staff, can often be contracted to “Sarge”, which can itself become a type of honorific-nickname.

Depending on your characters and their interactions with one another, consider the following:

* Who is dependant on who? Is an honorific used as part of a plot device and/or characterization, to emphasise the need of one character for the aid of another (sucking up, fawning for favour, flattery – bestowing an honorific which might not be factually applicable.)

* Conversely, is the relationship an antagonistic one, in which a character bestows an honorific to be insulting – either by exaggeration (“his Nibs / her Ladyship” for an overbearing and demanding person) or by diminishing their status in life (the Japanese suffix -chan, applied to a peer with whom one is not overly familiar, would be troublesome; applied to a figure of higher authority, it could spell disaster.)

* Who possesses the higher authority? Do they require an honorific, and if so, how does this bear upon the relationship with others of your cast; can it be dropped in favour of the first name (personal, a warmer approach) or is it required at all times, to instil a continuum of respect? (e.g. the Japanese sensei is often used in favour of a first name altogether, as students would refer to the highest authority figure in a school as “headmaster”.)

* How important are hierarchies in your plot; who adheres to what in the narrative? How sensitive are your characters to social mores, to class status, to the often-unvoiced but very much prevalent plays of power in the workplace? All of these can be conveyed to the audience through the simple act of bestowing an honorific to a certain character … and the choice of another character to ignore this rule (e.g. a student addressing a headmaster by his first name/surname, without due consideration for the latter’s higher authority – unless permission was first given to do so), may provide a nuanced insight to the relationships that form part of the plot.

Nicknames / terms of endearment

Opinions differ when it comes to the giving / receiving of nicknames, and terms of endearment. My aunt is forever reminding people that her youngest daughter was baptised “Jennifer”, thereby cancelling out all diminutive forms such as Jen/Jenny. I have no argument with that, since it is a lovely name. But nicknames and contracted forms of a forename, can serve their purpose in the right setting – such as a fast-moving game of football or basketball. I speak from the experience of having a team mate back in school, who insisted on being referred to only as “Sebastian”, and refused to acknowledge all variations. Words can tumble about when you’re trying to run and yell at the same time. We opted for hand signals in his direction, not all of them polite, depending on how he was playing.

Friends and family often use diminutive forms of a given name, to strengthen the bond between them (Jim = James, Gabby = Gabrielle.) This can vary between social circles – online, I’m more commonly known by my Twitter handle, Raishimi; this wouldn’t be applicable offline, at the Nick for example, where I’m known as Rach. But to family, who have of course known me the longest, I will always be Rai (pronounced Ray), which was apparently how I referred to myself as a baby.

Keep in mind how a name can be used as the smallest citation of an emotion – the equivalent of a hand’s compression on the shoulder, or a long look. The less people there are who hold the meaning behind a nickname, the longer its secret emotional attachment may be preserved.

Shared life experiences and circumstances can form an attachment that is best summed up by the link of a nickname. A gang member may refer to his/her companions only by their street names when in that setting, to preserve the mentality – should they wish to avoid drawing attention to activities, they may automatically slip back into the names which their families are familiar with, when at home. This forms a contract of code, with the names becoming symbolic of another lifestyle.

Having grown up in an environment where it was quite common to be known as anything from “sweetpea” to “darling” – that’s before we get onto the nicknames, which we won’t – this now translates over into how I interpret / convey levels of familiarity in social interactions.

“Liebling” (German, “darling”) is one frequently used when talking with friends on Twitter – though it is generally reserved for those who understand what it means, in terms of language-translation and the symbolism behind it. German tends to sneak into my speech when the setting is casual (on Twitter, or when speaking with family), but in a professional capacity or when speaking with those of higher authority, it makes less of an appearance. For me, the second language – in particular, the use of its endearments – has become symbolic of familiarity and affection. I still refer to my ex as “Liebs” – a contraction of “Liebling” – which became something of a nickname while we were together, and has now stuck. It is equivalent to calling someone “hon/hun”, a contraction of “honey.”

“Liebe” – Love – is the strongest sign of affection I can give, and is used rarely. It holds the same symbolic power as the use of a first name, which generally happens when I wish to make a point, either in written text or in dialogue. This can be a useful angle when there is the presence of subtext, either in an implied emotion or message.
Repetition of a name can enforce the presence of personality; it can ascribe all the nuances of life to something that might otherwise be viewed as an inanimate object / subhuman being:

“Catherine is my daughter’s name. Please, show us your strength,” Senator Martin said in closing, “release Catherine
unharmed.”
“Boy, is that smart,” Starling said. She was trembling like a terrier. “Jesus, that’s smart.” …
“Why did she keep saying ‘Catherine,’ why the name all the time?”
“She’s trying to make Buffalo Bill see Catherine as a person. They’re thinking he’ll have to depersonalize her, he’ll have to see her as an object before he can tear her up. Serial murderers talk about that in prison interviews, some of them. They say it’s like working on a doll.”
– Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs

With regards to how your characters address one another, keep the following in mind:

* Levels of authority, hierarchies of power – when is it permissible to relax these boundaries, to allow for such terms of endearment in social / personal / professional interactions?

* How might contracted versions of an endearment / honorific become nicknames (e.g. a uniformed sergeant being referred to as “Sarge”, or sometimes “Skipper/Skip” (as in the nautical “captain.”)

* How can the use of endearments/nicknames convey intimacy in a relationship – or conversely, how might their omission display an emotional reserve, as with professional/impersonal boundaries? If two characters who were once friends then fall out, how might this be reflected in their manner of addressing one another? (honorific-surname brought back to replace a term of endearment / first name / nickname = cold civility. “Mr — was just leaving”, in lieu of former warmth found in the use of a forename.)

* When does it become permissible, in the development of your narrative/plot, for the use of first names in social interactions between characters, if such an observance of etiquette must be made?

Acknowledgement, Possession

A name can be altered with personal choice, by deed poll; it can be adapted to suit the mutual agreement of intimacy between friends and lovers. But the act of taking away a name – of denying its use to the original bearer – can create a striking message of possession and adversity.

In the Studio Ghibli film “Spirited Away“, the heroine Chihiro Ogino comes up against the witch Yubaba, who controls a bathhouse for the spirit world, in which the latter may come to refresh themselves. When Chihiro approaches Yubaba to ask for a job – as part of the rescue mission of her parents, who have eaten food meant for the spirits and have subsequently been turned into pigs – the latter agrees, with a highly symbolic condition: she claims for her own, with magic, some of the characters (kanji) which make up Chihiro’s name.

Sen

Thus does Chihiro become Sen; her true identity belongs to Yubaba, for as long as the witch holds onto what makes up her name. The kanji becomes a written representation of the girl’s identity, which in turn is bound up in the existence of her name – both of which she must strive to remember, if she is to escape and succeed in rescuing her parents.

The simple act of acknowledging a name in conversation can be a gift of subtle intimacy – particularly with its repetition – or it may serve as a marked point of reference when drawing someone’s attention to a thought / idea. In creating characters, you leave their thoughts, memories and ideals behind the identifying stamp of a name, for the audience to find and latch onto. You are taking someone who was a work of fiction, and turning them into a reality.

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