Two years ago, the idea of recovery would have caused me to riot negativity. Sitting here now, two years later, as the first bruises of night bleed into the day and take its breath away, I can safely say that is no longer the case. My grandmother used to say to me, all be it with a slither of ice in her voice, that I didn’t need therapy because I already knew what was wrong with me. I’ve always been quick witted and very self-deprecating, even when I was younger and slimmer and wholly more interesting. I have, too, always been very aware of the things I could have been doing better and languished in the bitter irony of refusing to do any of those things unless provoked.
Oh yes, if you pissed me off – I’d jump through all your hoops. Not for my benefit, of course not, but rather to make you look like a fool, to paint your face red with embarrassment when the little fuck up that could finally made it across the finish line, turned on her boot heels and flipped you off before walking off into the sunset to celebrate another plateau of mediocrity before she was riled again into action.
I’ve always been a reactionary in many ways. I respond better to criticism than I ever have to compliments and it’s all rooted somewhere deep and rancid where all my bravado and good humour boil down into bile and fester, safe so hidden from the surface to be what they are – insecurities. I’m always the first to fire when eyes are on me and will often refer to myself as fat or bald or incapable or (my personal favourite) unlovable. Ah yes, the “I’m difficult to love” that stings as much to write it as it does to say it but for most of my life has seemed more fathomable a fact than many others on the list that come and go intermittently.
And I don’t need a psychiatrist to tell me why I say those things because it’s very simple. I take the bullets out of other people’s guns if I pull first and say directly hurtful things about myself before they can say them about me, effectively hurting myself before they can hurt me. As someone who has self-harmed at different points in their life (though I haven’t in over a year, of which I am tremendously, all be it, silently, proud of) I can say with confidence that each and every time I say something negative about myself, it is not said in jest and it doesn’t make me laugh, even if it makes others think lightly of things that weigh heavily on my mind. The scars are not as visible and there is no blood, but I wound myself just the same and the scars seem to last just as long as the ones I’ve kept secret from most people until now.
Like most things, it probably comes from my childhood and we don’t need to dwell on how I came to loathe myself with such ferocious intensity from such a young age, but instead focus on what I’m doing to make myself hate myself just a little bit less. So, recovery! In recovery isolating what makes you awesome is the bread and butter of getting better and not wanting to throw yourself into pits of anguish on a regular basis. So, we make lists. Lists of accomplishments, of things we have done, things we’re proud of, positive character traits, what makes us a good friend or partner or parent. It makes sense really doesn’t it? If you’ve spent your entire life beating yourself up, patting yourself ever so gently on the back can feel uncomfortable and comforting all at once and it’s a sensible and productive place to start ones’ journey to self-love.
Sensible and productive don’t come well to me so obviously this meant that finding another path to the same clearing was fundamental to the beginnings of my recovery. So, I isolated the things about myself that other people have said about me during my twenty-seven years on the earth. Negative things. Hurtful things. Downright heart-breaking things. The difference between these things and the things I say to myself? Well, these are things that people have said about me during my life that I haven’t believed, that I’ve never put any weight in and brushed off as another poor assessment of my incredibly complicated character.
Truth is – I’m not all that complicated and that’s a difficult realisation for me to come to. A self-actualisation, if you will. I’ve never been complicated. It’s quite simple, really. I’m angry and I’m tired and I’m petulant in the face of how unfair my life has been and I’m envious of people who have what I want and didn’t have to work half as hard for it and I’m terrified of my own mind and alienated from my peers by my complete lack of ability to see anyone else’s side of an argument. I simultaneously hate myself and think I’m better than everyone else, I’m addicted to the struggle and the idea of being successful and boring and comfortable scares the living shit out of me whilst it’s all I’ve ever fucking wanted, I’m frustrated with my own lack of self-control and I’m stubborn and I’m obstreperous and I’m argumentative and I’m annoying as hell and most of all – I’m defensive.
This one I have got my ENTIRE life from almost everyone I’ve ever asked to isolate my flaws. So, I thought I would deal with the most common of the character traits that I never believed about myself and focus on trying to deal with my defensiveness. This came to a spectacular head the other day when I was talking to my ex-partner about his own road to recovery and he too was isolating the gradual changes in his life that led to a break in his own mental health. One of the things he said, all be it in quite a throw away manner and in now way meant to be a concrete assessment of me as a partner or a housemate, stuck in my throat and I felt that usual feeling of childlike defiance rising in my chest. I was instantly infuriated, though I played it off quite casually, and threw my weight around on the phone trying to convince him that he was wrong even though there was nothing to gain from my changing his opinion other than my own self conceited peace of mind garnered from knowing that I proved him wrong. (I can be a bit of dick, you see. I’m working on it.)
It wasn’t until a few hours later when I was wandering around my one bedroom flat, that was as anyone would naturally deem quite tidy, that I started to regret the way I had reacted. It’s difficult when someone whose opinion you hold in high regard says something negative about you and I hold his opinion in an incredibly high regard. It hurt. It was simple, and I was trying to make it complicated. He said something about me that is true, and I didn’t want to hear it, so I kicked off and stamped my feet and shouted him down and left myself feeling like the insolent immature “millennial” I never wanted to be in his eyes. And I felt like shit for a couple of days after that.
Until I was sitting in my living room watching a movie last Tuesday evening. I was staring at the sideboard that my television sat on wondering why the hell I hadn’t thrown it out yet. The drawer fronts were falling off and the drawers themselves had bowed beneath the immense weight of random shit that I’d crammed in them during the year I have lived in my beloved little flat. Then I felt his words come back and sting that place near my heart and I got off the sofa and started smashing shit up – because he was right. I was messy. And that’s okay.
The reason why that’s okay?
Because I can fix that.
And by fixing that I will feel better and be better because it’s a character trait that I can work on little by little, each day until no one ever makes that statement about me again. He didn’t say it to make me feel small or incapable and my reaction to his statement and the venom that seeped into my outburst was a reaction was all misdirected feelings of inadequacy that had absolutely nothing to do with him because I know why I hold onto stuff in a way that he doesn’t.
It’s because I’ve lost everything more times than I’d care to remember. I don’t have any baby photos of me to show my daughter, I have nothing from my childhood save a battered little Womble that I’ve carried from place to place in the years in between, determined that I’d never let harm come to him because he’s all I have from when I was my daughters age. I’ve lost books, records, clothes, furniture, keepsakes, guitars – things that at various points in my life meant as much to me as his things mean to him. I’ve siphoned through my belongings rotting in sheds and greenhouses and garages and tried to track down things that I’ve stashed in people’s attics and basements in between homelessness and redemption and I’ve still not found my daughters first onesie (though I have the one I brought her home in and that’s enough). I’ve disconnected and reconnected my attachment to things so many times that living out of a holdall for a year didn’t phase me.
And he’ll never appreciate how much that hurts because he’s never had to do it. And he’ll never carry around those ghosts with him, those things that you recall in sudden fleeting moments in such a way that your chest physically aches with a longing to hold them or to see them or to just find out what the fuck happened to them. The blanket that my grandmother knitted my daughter when she was born, my first guitar, the photo of my dad laying on the beach with a cigarette in his mouth when his hair was still black, my first copy of the Wind in the Willows that I read ragged as a kid, the baby pair of Doc Martens that I wore as a toddler that would have been my daughters that hung over the hook on the back of my bedroom door until one night when I was twelve when the police came shuttling in and took me from the only home I’d ever known and never let me go back.
Those things haunt me. So, I hold onto things in a desperate attempt to make them matter when in reality – they don’t. I don’t have my daughters first onesie, but I have my daughter. I don’t have my first guitar, but I’ve still got all the chords. I don’t have my copy of the Wind in the Willows, but I remember the story. I don’t have the blanket my grandmother knitted my daughter, but I can still feel it against my face as I stroked the bridge of my babies nose the first night I ever slept next to her and cried silently in the face of such a wonderful creature. And I don’t have that photo of my dad that I recall more often than I’d care to remember and has even as I’m writing this brought hot, fat tears to my eyes but I remember how his mouth was hitched in the same half smile I do when I’m too tired to smile properly. And all those things, I’ve learned, after a week of purging and painting and panic – are enough.
I don’t need to hold onto those things because my greatest curse is also my greatest gift. I remember everything. I remember it so well that I sometimes wonder if any time has passed at all. I can still smell my dad lager and sawdust and cigarette smoke, and I can still hear his rasping laugh, a laugh that some would say I inherited along with his crooked smile. I can still remember washing that little yellow onesie and hanging it out to dry days before my daughter was born and deciding in that moment as she wriggled inside me that that was the one she was going to wear first. I remember my dad finding that guitar at Harlow market when I was eight and buying it for me instead of the skateboard we had originally gone in search of and I still remember learning to play King Creole by Elvis in my bedroom with my hat on backwards drinking blue Panda Pops and not doing my homework. I remember my grandmother giving me that blanket, white and thick stitched and the way she repeated my daughters name back to me when I told her what it was going to be and how it crushed me in the most wonderful of ways to hear her say it with such softness and awe.
I’ve spent my entire adult life hating my memory and the way it plays tricks on me. How it recalls to the forefront of my mind the most brutal words ever said to me and the most horrific moments I’ve ever had to live through and I forget that in amongst it all there are these little nuggets of gold that have been hidden for so long by so much clutter. And that’s what my house was like until last week. All the things that I’d accumulated and held onto for no other reason than to have something, anything, to hold onto again were smothering the things that brought me joy and made me feel like I was drowning. So, like those ghosts of memories that haunt me to this day – I made an active effort to throw them away.
And I feel lighter, now.
My house has never looked so tidy and I know that there is nothing lurking under the sofa or behind the bookshelf and that tomorrow when I wake up I don’t have to work as hard as I did today to feel like I can breathe. I’ve, because of my determination to not be defensive, allowed myself to soften in the past few days and not beat myself up so much. My life hasn’t been easy, and my heart was broken long before I ever kissed a boy and those are bigger things that I must work on every day for the rest of my life, but it doesn’t make me a bad person beyond repair.
It simply makes me a person who has, and always will be, haunted by humans and the clutter that they leave behind when they go – on my coffee table, and in my heart.