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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Gym Etiquette and Sociability: Co-Authored by Christopher Smith

18/08/2014 at 05:45 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Flicking down my Twitter feed, I was caught on the iron-grin humour of a friend’s comment about his experiences in the gym – notably, those inexplicable fluctuations of energy, which carry such pleasure and such pain.
“Some mornings the gym feels good, some mornings it feels like attempted murder. If I don’t make it through the day, tell my wife I said ‘hi.'”

It made me pause, not only to chuckle in sympathy, but to reassess my reaction to his words. I first mistook his meaning for the atmosphere of (any) fitness environment, which – from personal experience spanning a decade, and several locations – is highly mutable in itself. Some days, the gym floor is soft with the faint tinge of music and light, while the chink of weights set back into their cradles is reminiscent of glasses laid out on a pristine table-cloth. Exercise is a peaceful endeavour, and I can retreat inside myself to become a single point of light in sifting darkness.

On other occasions, the music blares across the floor like a rainbow sluice of paint from upended pots; the machines are in full throttle, and the cacophony mingles with the thrum of voices and feet. The air is thick with sweat and bad manners. Some meat axe, having decided to commandeer half the rack of free weights, will leave a heap of dumbbells scattered across the floor like oversized Christmas baubles.
Me: “Can I borrow one?”
M.A: “I’m just about to do another set.”
Me: “How about this one?”
M.A: “I’m using that in a minute, too.”
Me: “….”
dumbbells_on_floor
Image: http://www.pacificoceanfitness.com

The conversation that followed on from Chris’s initial tweet, wove an interesting thread of thoughts around subjects like public-area etiquette (particularly in the context of fitness health and safety), and exercise sociability v.s. solitariness. Chris told me of his active participation with other gym users, as a source of mental and emotional stimulus:

“Five years ago, I was one of the usual folks who has a gym membership that they paid for with good intentions but never used. My wife told me that I needed to start using it or we were going to stop paying for it… At work that day, I mentioned at the lunch table that I was planning to start going to the YMCA after work to just walk 2 miles on their track. One of the guys I worked with, who I didn’t know very well, said ‘I have a membership too that I never use, I’ll go with you.’ That’s how it started.”

What struck me, was the catalysing effect of company – the offer of this, from an acquaintance known only by work-association – on Chris’s decision to make exercise a regular feature. This was not always the case:

“I grew up pretty sedentary – never much of a sports player, besides paintball (which I didn’t get into until I was 16 or so anyway), so exercise has never been a regular part of my routine. Even paintball would be a burst of weekend activity, but nothing for the other 5 – 6 days.”

Incorporating a fitness programme into a daily / weekly schedule, can make exercise as easily accessible (and acceptable) as driving to work, or sitting for a meal. One of the main reasons people cite for skipping the gym / avoiding exercise, is lack of time; digging a little deeper, it seems that a sense of guilt for putting personal health and well-being before the needs of others, is a crucial point when it comes to taking steps for setting aside “me” time. However, factoring in the additional commitment of company (e.g. a gym buddy or track partner) with a regular time-slot, sees the chances of exercise falling by the wayside decrease; while the physical and mental benefits become more apparent, if social stimuli generates an energy boost.

running-partners-at-sun-down
Image: http://www.athletesgps.com

Exercise is not only about progressive physical fitness, after all – it’s the release of endorphins, during and after a workout, which are the body’s way of giving us a positivity kick:
“Improved self-esteem is a key psychological benefit of regular physical activity… These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain. Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as ‘euphoric.’ That feeling, known as a ‘runner’s high,’ can be accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life.”

Chris found this to be true, once he had committed time to exercising with his colleague – though it is arguably through the realization of willpower, the achievement of fitness levels previously thought to be unattainable, which saw him take the most from this initial change in lifestyle:

“We started by just walking two miles a day, but after a while, Andrew decided we should start running. I hesitated at first, but the track at the YMCA is long enough that 12 laps is equal to one mile, and he suggested we start by running two laps. I didn’t think I could do it, but I did…and he kept pressing me. ‘Let’s do four this week,’ he’d say, and as much as I doubted I could do it I would reluctantly agree… The ecstasy I felt the first time I jogged 1/2 of a mile was amazing. I still remember it. That is something I never in my life thought I’d be able to do.”

Regular exercise is particularly beneficial for individuals suffering with depression and anxiety caused by obsessive compulsive disorder. In my case, it was the presence of anorexia nervosa, as well as OCD, which prompted my GP to issue a referral for my local fitness centre in June 2004. This provided a means of monitoring my (hyper) exercise habit, which was an acute symptom of the eating disorder for purging calories, and was often conducted in secret.

I was by that point an outpatient, with the still-frayed state of mind that demands stability, and craves routine. While the doctor’s decision might sound odd (my mother certainly thought so), the logic ran that – since I had always led an active lifestyle, and would continue to do so (most likely by excessive and surreptitious means) – I should be given the chance to prove myself responsible in a formal setting, under the eyes of qualified staff. Having completed my “allotted time” each day, I would then (theoretically) feel comfortable enough to relax, and focus on other activities. Pivotal to this decision was the maintenance of a healthy weight, to sustain mental cognition and emotional stability, and my continuation of outpatient therapy. Should I choose to let anorexia do the talking, and take advantage of the freedom given back, then my gym membership would be revoked and that outpatient status reviewed by my psych team. These terms were non-negotiable.

Of course, nothing is ever as easy as it looks on paper. The very nature of anorexia is that it will take an inch to run a mile. The real turning point came in 2008, when I took my first full-time job since leaving hospital. As a full-time member of staff in a health spa and gym, I now stood on the other side of the glass, with an insight to both formal training and fitness management. Team members were privy to the usual perks that subsidise such work: unlimited access to facilities, and eligibility to attend promotional training courses. These included Level 2 Fitness Instructor and Level 3 Personal Training, with the option to branch out into more career-based training such as Spin Class and Aqua Fitness.

Skillactiv
Image: http://www.visionfitnessacademy.com

In July 2009, I took part in a fast-track Fitness Instructor course based in London. The experience proved to be a lifesaver. Returning to work, I found that exercise had become less about perfecting self-destruction with each session, and more about progression of the self as a whole. With weight gain and therapy had come the inevitable rise of memories and emotional fluctuations, which could no more be sidelined in favour of daily hard exercise routines, than I could cut off my own arm. I also had a developing relationship to think about, to make time for. This meant skipping solitary gym sessions, breaking out of OCD routines, and eating and drinking outside of my ‘safe’ environs.

With each relocation (I’ve moved around a fair bit since 2009) and new gym membership, I’ve made a point of giving staff some context, in a rough outline of my past-and-present mental health status. I am exercising on their premises, after all; should I push too hard in any activity, and pass out due to (for example) low blood sugar, the consequences will certainly affect others.

This is not only relevant to my condition: a recent study has further explored the theory that more exerciseis not necessarily beneficial for the heart, and that an “upper limit” might exist for those who are prone to heart conditions, or who exercise at a high-frequency / intensity. Exercise addiction has its own ream of dangers, particularly in conjunction with an eating disorder; but anyone can be vulnerable to injuries incurred through inadequate rest and/or over-training muscle groups, as well as depression, limited appetite, and decreased illness immunity.

burnout
Image: http://www.the-fitness-doc.blogspot.com

All this being said, there is a “comfort blanket” mentality to using the gym, which has kept me in a good place for some time. I still dream of one day owning a house with a basement gym – if only to play my choice of music, and avoid other’s sweat – but there is the lingering thread of wary precaution against returning to exercise that is out of the public eye. The allure of an addiction is that you are never quite aware of its presence until it’s too late to care, and I still hold a fear of crossing back into those bad old days of not staying still until bedtime.

Though I no longer work in a fitness environment, the mentality still carries over; it has the double-edged influence of allowing me to spot a potential accident before it happens … while feeling my hackles rise at the sight of a staff member using a machine as a couch, to text / call on their phone. It makes me feel a bit invasive, not to mention snippy; but I can’t get along with the “sloppiness” of this image, when staff – while not employed to be performing monkeys – are hired on the basis of their accessibility, as well as their knowledge of health and fitness.

Good gym etiquette doesn’t cost much. It’s the little things – pausing to pick up a scrap of paper towel dropped on the floor, reporting a water spillage to staff (or mopping it up yourself) – that make the difference. It’s about being aware of how bloody heavy those weights are before attempting a lift (and knowing how to do so safely in the first place), balancing this against awareness of the physical proximity of others. It may well be the alternative to someone spending time in hospital after they’ve tripped over a barbell, or caught an infection from someone who has decided to come to the gym when they’re down and out with the ‘flu. The disinfectant wipes placed at strategic points across the gym floor, particularly in “heavy sweat” areas like aerobic stations (treadmills, cross-trainers etc), are a must-use. If dispensers are empty, don’t be afraid to approach a member of staff for more. Those little sweaty angel-wings might testify to a good workout … but they’re also off-putting for the next gym member to come along.

On the subject of hygiene – Chris told me of finding signs stuck upon the mirrors of his own gym, asking members to not spit upon the glass. Exercise is, by its nature, rather vigorous, and projectile saliva can be an unfortunate side effect when pedalling at Mac 3, or running down the last mile on the clock. That being said, the average gym layout tends to position machines at a fair enough distance from all glass panels, for safety reasons. So it’s either an impressive range, or someone has an acute aversion to their own reflection.

Sanitary items were an occasional occupational hazard of my old job in that health spa. First thing in the morning, on an inspection of the female changing rooms, I’d find used/unused items left on the floor tiles. Since sanitary bins were in evidence by the toilet stalls, I can only assume that convenience was the pretext for such actions. I know I’ve wished my own ovaries a thousand miles away on more than one occasion, but have yet to take such an overt stand against the curse of womanhood. Maybe I’m missing a trick.

One aspect of gym etiquette which I enjoy (covertly) watching, is the sociability between new and old members. In the free weights section, it’s not unusual to see a veteran offer to spot for a newcomer; a bridge of trust is formed between two people who are testing both the fitness and self-awareness of the other. Between the sweat-strain of reps, the schadenfreude-shine of grins, and not-so-soft sounds reminiscent of a farm yard, there runs a cunning weave of words to pull together a unique form of companionship found in exercise. Rivalry seems to have a lot to say in the matter; of particular interest are the couples who, on a joint membership, egg each other on to greater efforts, gleefully setting weights higher and ratcheting up the speed of a treadmill, to watch their partner’s face turn pink. The way some words are crossed with knives, I imagine it’s all for the benefit of the other, as well as personal health.

Spotting
Image: http://www.gettyimages.com

A change in routine is necessary to combat exercise-stagnancy, and the dreaded plateau. While the afore-mentioned regularity of a fitness program keeps exercise at the forefront of the mind, it can also create a complacent attitude:

“What I discovered is that exercising in the morning is awesome. Brad is a pillar of consistency – he had gone for the previous year by himself, though when he started exercising regularly he had an exercise partner as well. I drastically changed my workout routine to match up with what he was doing, and this is where I discovered that I have a love of freeweights and different lifting techniques.”

Exercising at an unfamiliar time of the day, and with a new companion, Chris broke out of his comfort zone by pushing against personal physical and mental “boundaries.” Had he stuck with only the familiar routine of running – an activity he admitted he was not overly keen on – there is the chance that he would not have made progress:

“Andrew loved running, and while I certainly didn’t (and don’t) love running, it felt good to be able to do it. It was also during this time that he and I both started getting complacent. You saw me mention that we were running it three-or-more times per week; that’s because we both started getting lazy. We were comfortable enough with one another that on days when we were both tired, we would decide to skip the run, or just do something “lazy” at the gym.”

Of significant importance when engaging in exercise, is to find an activity and/or routine that does not feel like exercise, but is closer to forming a strong pyramid of physical, emotional and mental stimulation. It must be both sustainable and dynamic – something to be enjoyed, adjusted accordingly when a certain level becomes too easy, that no more benefits are being made.

To leave the gym barely standing was once the daily target (I still wonder now how I made it through A Levels), and if even a scrap of energy remained, I had not done my work well. What eluded me – and still does, from time to time – was the sheer pleasure of feeling my body work as I wish it to. I danced ballet as a child, and those were times when I felt quicksilver with life, fluid and keen – proud of my appearance, as something alive and alert, symbolic of both strength and grace. If any concern for imperfection was felt, it was based more upon choreography than calories burnt.
ballet
Image: http://www.favim.com

Movement, for its own sake. For all my strict expectations, each gym session is not a foregone conclusion, but an achievement in itself. The fact that I – and others – have turned up at all, should not be overlooked.

I wonder now whether the reason for my doing so, is rooted in a continuation of this perceived idea of exercise-solitude. For all that I workout alone in the gym, I can guarantee being greeted by name at the front desk, while other members will take the time to initiate conversation with me as well as each other. Out in town, we exchange the gym equivalent of the “biker’s nod,” where a name might prove elusive but the face is indelibly familiar.
Along with the obvious physical benefits, it’s the positive social aspects of exercise which need taking into consideration, for a balanced lifestyle.

“The morning employees greet us by name, and at times when I’ve missed a few days, I always have people asking where I’ve been… With better physical health comes better mental health. It’s nice to feel a sense of belonging at the YMCA, with the morning crowd; that same feeling you get when you see friends you haven’t seen in a while? That’s the little shot-in-the-arm I get, every time I step through the doors and am greeted by some employees or other regulars. I start my day with physical activity, which gets the blood flowing and the brain working hard. I really find it worthwhile for the better sense of well-being, overall.”

Barbells
Image: http://www.imacwallpapers.com

Special thanks to Chris for his insight, help, and limitless patience. Chris can be followed on Twitter at @Reckoner67

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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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Writing Reality: Author Voice vs. Narrative Voice

07/04/2014 at 06:00 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


You will probably have encountered the conundrum of defining your own Writer’s Voice at some point. This is the distinct signature of an author, stamped upon every written page, and can be viewed as being parallel to the auteur theory of the cinematic world, wherein a director (and quite often an actor or actress, too) will leave their indelible mark upon each film, regardless of genre. The Writer’s Voice is not to be confused with the Narrative Voice. The latter is the perspective through which the audience views a story / text.

If the plot is a road, then the narrative can be viewed as the person(s) walking down it, and it is through their sensory perceptions that the audience will “feel out” the way. Based upon the author’s cast and/or choices of narrative mode (first person/personal, third person/omnipresent, etc) the perspective may shift between chapters or even between paragraphs. This should be noticeable in the opinions given, the elements of life which are prioritized vs. what is overlooked; what is revealed to the audience vs. what is concealed, or is apparently unknown.

For example: I have been (at least) two people in this lifetime – the Anorexic Me, and the Healthy Me. The former, being in a constant state of starvation due to malnutrition and low bodyweight, was wound up in a constant state of nerves and adrenalin, with a distinct fear of losing control of any situation I happened to be in. What this translated to, was an avoidance of any scenario where food / restriction of movement might be involved – say, a crowded room at a party. Paradoxically, every sense would be on high alert, with sustenance the main focus, since the human body is fine-tuned for survival.

I would walk into that room and immediately zero in on any scrap of food / drink, with senses sight and smell in particular having a heightened stimulus effect on concentration. While distracted by this sensory overload, I would be unable to focus on anything else occurring in the room. I would pay little attention to, say, art on the walls, or my host’s choice of furnishings. The language of those around me, vocal and physical, would seem at once cloying and intimidating, even if they paid no attention to me whatsoever – their very presence in the room would be overwhelming, when all my body would be focused on was how to get at the food made available, while my mind (the anorexic part) sought to take me as far away from the situation as possible. Thus runs the paradox of sensory overload / self-denial and control. In this state, I would be unable to appreciate what could be important information passed around, and entertaining company. Since setting, dialogue, subtext etc, make up vital elements of the reading / writing experience, a narrative perspective seen through that Anorexic self would be something like tunnel vision.

Nowadays, in a more healthy state, I am able to notice and appreciate the wider scope of the world, and am constantly in awe of it; finding symbolism and figurative language in nature, listening between the lines of what is said around me in society. Essentially, walking out of the tunnel.

A term that seems to crop up a lot on social media, is “reader’s hangover”: a story creates such an impression on the audience, that to finish it and be forced to find other books to read, is some kind of mental torture. Nothing else will suffice. It’s the itch between the ears when a song becomes so addictive that it must be listened to on repeat, until the damn thing has finally lost its appeal. In childhood, I would simply go back to the beginning of a book, getting a little less pleasure the second or even third time around – because of course, the words (for all their appeal) were still too fresh in the mind. Peeling myself away, I’d let time pass so that the words might collect dust for a bit and blur in the memory, before the book could be pulled down off the shelf again.

Nowadays, I don’t order books according to alphabetical arrangement, but in terms of what their Author’s Voice means to me. The genre of each text might be very different from the ones either side of it, but the written style of the authors are remarkably similar. Whenever a case of “reader’s hangover” crops up, I tend to sift between the culprit’s “compatriots”, to stave off the itch. It’s also a refreshing way to deal with writer’s block.

Who are your Influences?

Alice Hoffman. Truman Capote. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Joanne Harris. Jeffrey Eugenides. Peter S Beagle. These are authors I will return to again and again. They are usually often found lumped together in book-stores and online, in the genre known as General Fiction.

Me, I prefer to know them as the “synaesthetic” authors. Their diction and syntax, have the knack of creating quite vibrant and refreshing colours/patterns in my mind. They are the writers with distinctive Voices, often using symbolism / a cross-over of sense-imagery in their diction, to illustrate a point.

– “Bony birds struggled across the sky, screeling ‘Helpme helpme helpme!’, and small black shapes bobbled at the lightless windows of King Haggard’s castle. A wet, slow smell found the unicorn. ‘Where is the Bull?’ she asked. ‘Where does Haggard keep the Bull?’ – pg 69, “The Last Unicorn.”

Syntax tends towards a simplistic construct – and I do not mean this in a pejorative sense, but in the free-flow of reading, found in an uncluttered sentence / clause. There are few stumbling blocks; you get the sense that each word has been carefully measured out and chosen for its unique ability to convey as much meaning when stood alone, as when strung alongside others.

– “I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighbourhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train.” – pg 1, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote

– “Royal’s house was like a house of flowers; wistaria sheltered the roof, a curtain of vines shaded the windows, lilies bloomed at the door. From the windows one could see far, faint winkings of the sea, as the house was high up a hill; here the sun burned hot but the shadows were cold. Inside, the house was always dark and cool, and the walls rustled with pasted pink and green newspapers. There was only one room; it contained a stove, a teetering mirror on top of a marble table, and a brass bed big enough for three fat men.” – pg 9, House of Flowers, Truman Capote

These authors write about the nuances of life, picking out the seemingly mundane and turning it into a work of art: brown silt and river water, transmuted to gold by the evening sun. In cinematic terms, this would translate to a keen eye for subtext around dialogue, symbolism in misc-en-scene, body language of actors/actresses, the cinematographic choices of camera angles and filters, etc.

– “She held my hand impersonally, as a promise that she’d take care of me in a minute, and gave ear to two girls in twin yellow dresses who stopped at the foot of the steps.
‘Hello!’ they cried together. ‘Sorry you didn’t win.’
That was for the golf tournament. She had lost in the finals the week before.
‘You don’t know who we are,’ said one of the girls in yellow, ‘but we met you here about a month ago.’
‘You’ve dyed your hair since then,’ remarked Jordan, and I started but the girls had moved casually on and her remark was addressed to the premature moon, produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer’s basket.” – pg 51, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Complex and technical language are kept to a minimum, with the thesaurus apparently thrown aside – something I am training myself to do when searching for that one perfect word, which was actually stuck between my ears the whole time but had been dismissed, due to my belief that it was far too simple a choice. But why hamper the audience with a stumbling block? Why not string together a perfectly reasonable set of words, to create an image that is still original, still glowing with beautiful colours and pathos?

– “Elv had begun to whisper Arnelle stories to her sisters during the bad summer when she was eleven. It was hot that August; the grass had turned brown… all she’d wanted was to lock herself away with her sisters. They hid in their mother’s garden, beneath the trailing pea vines. The tomato plants were veiled by a glinting canopy of bottle-green leaves. The younger girls were eight and ten. They didn’t know there were demons on earth, and Elv didn’t have the heart to tell them. She brushed the leaves out of her sister’s hair. She would never let anyone hurt them. The worst had already happened, and she was still alive.” – pg 7, The Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman

These synaesthetic writers are at once easy to read, and rather mysterious; equivalent to the portrait of a woman with beautiful, regular features … and the smallest hint of a dark smile.

After years of battling with my Voice – trying on various guises, as is necessary to discover whose shoes you are most comfortable walking in – I know that it is alongside these “synaesthetic” authors I would prefer to be shelved, should I have the luck of being published. It is through their respective Voices – each one unique, and somehow familiar as candlelight – that I have stitched together the components of my own.

They are the mainstay influences, but this is not to say I would ever restrict my reading / writing habits to only their work. Going with the analogy of shoes, I would say that while the synaesthetic authors are the hiking boots and Converse, authors such as Dr. Hunter S Thompson, Chuck Palahniuk and John Wyndham are the kitten heels. I love their work, but couldn’t begin to emulate their styles. My feet just won’t fit, and the walking is precarious.

When writing became more than a hobby, it was an essential exercise in discovering Voice to write through as many authors as possible – the more distinctive, the better. It’s just as vital to write across a range of forms, to develop audience awareness and an eye for self-editing.

Writing across this “vocal range”, is not plagiarism. It’s not copy ‘n paste. It is simply defining who you wish to sit alongside, who you would deem your contemporaries and influences to be – taking snippets from their respective styles, and stitching them together to form your own. This doesn’t just aid your prospective target audience, when they seek out authors of a similar “flavour” and whose work they can’t help but return to again and again. It can also help a potential agent to find where you might fit into the literary market.

If a Voice does not sit comfortably, and you find your nerves are frayed from trying too hard to be someone you’re not, then the writing experience will be a tedious one indeed. The forced Voice may waver between works-in-progress, as of a mask slipping. I’ve walked away from stories, believing them to be impenetrable, and blaming my own ineffectiveness to get down the vital message; only to return some months later, when a particularly influential / distinctive author I had been reading at the time, was finally out of my head. Their style was pressing in on mine, and though enjoyable to read, it was not something I could hope to replicate as a writer.

In blog entries, there is more chance of achieving an authentic Voice. You’re not trying to keep in character, and are not fretting about plot / narrative. Emotions and ideas are allowed to free-fall. Think back to the blog entries you may have rattled off – the sticky details of childhood life, the golden-hue moments of nostalgia, covered in dust motes, or tears. How easily did these outpourings come, when you were perhaps half-cut at 3am and coming off the rush of a night out or the viewing of a film which had touched your mind; the attached feelings you then just couldn’t keep to yourself, and were forced to offload in a blog entry before you forgot what it all meant?

Think about how that writing experience was, how every image seemed to slot into place – how when, reading it back to yourself in the early afternoon (waking to a faceful of old makeup, wine-stained lips and a head like Vesuvius) you’d felt the strange tang of seeing yourself outside yourself, and wondered where on earth had all this came from? How could it be that this was so easy, when (if you’re anything like me) trying to drag out fictional work can be akin to being prepared for the canopic jars in Ancient Egypt?

Those blog entries hold the Voice that is yours alone, when you weren’t trying to be someone you’re not; you were too excited and pissed to think about anything but getting the message across to your audience. YOUR perspective, YOUR experiences, YOUR views – all of which can be tweaked and filtered according to characterization and narrative perspective, and indeed, the same holds true for anyone in your reality who might have struck an influential spark, and deserves a place in your narrative.

Look at your voice on social media. This is you, taking part in written discourse in what may be a near-immediate environment. How do you instinctively respond to people when they speak to you? What language do you use to pitch ideas and thoughts? Are you pretty stark in delivery, or prone to using imaginative subtext? When I’m writing a blog entry, that Voice is pretty much what you’d get in real life. That’s my choice of delivery. The trick is to keep the trend going, when it comes to writing fiction – admittedly, something of a task, particularly when a multiple-member cast gets involved.

Finding your Voice is putting that stamp on your work. It is defining who you are, where you stand among other writers, how you might relate to them or indeed, be set apart. Crucially, it allows any audience member who might read your work, to come to know what to expect from you in the future.

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