The Great Below

living the feeling life

On expressing feelings

Notes for an apocalypse D.Tanning

“Notes for an apocaypse” Dorothea Tanning

Like many people, I find it very hard to feel my feelings – this despite many years of psychotherapy, and working with mind-body connections as an Alexander Technique teacher.

What I tend to do is ‘put’ them somewhere in my body where they will eventually cause trouble, but at the time cannot be consciously accessed: it’s called somatising.  I learned this about myself  at the age of eighteen when I had to leave my job as an au pair in Paris at very short notice, with nowhere else to live. I felt perfectly calm and breezy about it in my mind, but woke up on the morning of the move vomiting non-stop.

I’m sure it’s part of a very deep-seated, and quite possibly inherited, pattern of survival from growing up in a family and a culture where expressing feelings was (and still is) discouraged, if not forbidden. If you can’t express feelings safely, without other people getting upset or angry rather than just acknowledging how you feel – witnessing, if you like – then they must be shut off and dealt with another way. This is very often through disrupting the functions of the body: breath-holding, muscle-tightening, gut-churning etc. These patterns become so much a part of us we cease to notice the effects, let alone understand the underlying emotional stimulus.

A couple of weeks ago was the tenth anniversary of my husband’s death – a momentous day which I negotiated in a mood of gentle wistfulness. I visited his grave with a friend, then we had lunch and a walk in the sunshine. I didn’t feel particularly sad. But that night I began to feel quite sick, and by the next morning had bad diarrhea, stomach cramps and a feeling of exhaustion. Now, I know from other people that there was a bug ‘going around’, but I also know that my body tends to react to anything it perceives as stress (including, sometimes, excitement) with an illness response. I spent most of the next day lying in bed and in the afternoon I deliberately watched a sad film to try and bring myself to tears, feeling that letting them out might help. But it didn’t work: I remained strangely unmoved.

What finally brought me to tears was, to my astonishment, the announcement of the outcome of the Scottish Referendum a couple of days later. I held no particularly allegiance in the debate – indeed I secretly rooted for both sides, on different grounds. But something about it being “all over”, the sudden release of tension, moving from uncertainty to certainty, the bitter disappointment of those on the losing side, the anticlimax that there would be no momentous change  – all of this combined to keep me in a high state of emotion throughout the day. I could not tell you what part of the mix relates to my grief, or how, but I’m perfectly sure that it does.



The first ten years

Michael-Donaghy-005I love this photo of Michael, taken by Claire Macnamee outside Lumb Bank, the Arvon Foundation’s Yorkshire writing centre. Apart from his beauty, I think it also shows his kindness, intelligence, warmth and sparkle (no mean feat as he most likely had a hangover from the previous night!)

Tuesday 16th September 2014, was ten years since his death, and there have been some lovely tributes to him, notably one from Katy Evans-Bush, a former student and friend who blogs about literature at Baroque in Hackney

So I won’t add to the memorialising here, but consider instead what it is like when someone you love has been dead for a whole decade. That’s almost a fifth of my life, and over half of our son’s. Despite that, and the knowledge that we have not just survived, but changed and grown over that time, there is still a big part of me that refuses to believe or accept that he is gone from our lives. Just looking at the photo of his smiling face, I still wonder – ‘But where is he?’ No matter what else is happening in life, he is never really out of my mind for long, and I can’t see that changing.

The mistake we make with grieving is to think that our memories of people will fade with time, recede into the past to be replaced by the more vivid experience of the present. In fact, I think the opposite happens – it seems like the longer it is since someone died, the more they are missed, the more their loss resonates with those of us who knew them. Maybe it’s that we now have the responsibility for keeping them alive in our heads – and also, as it were, keeping them up to date, since a person is almost frozen in time at the age of their death. I think about what Michael would have made of Facebook, for example, which didn’t exist at the time he died  – he’d surely have had a million ‘friends’. More poignantly, how would he have felt about seeing his little son grown up into a young man? And how would his continuing existence have made a difference in Ruairi’s life? All these questions are of course unanswerable, and by that very fact continue to be asked.

People we have loved or were related to are bound up with our selves like the fibres of a thick rope which can’t be unwoven. They are part of who we are, and our relationship with them continues developing – whether or not you believe that the dead live on in some other realm, or simply inside the heads and hearts of those who knew them in life, I don’t think matters.

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The pursuit of happiness?

White Rose  I was recently asked to write an article about happiness. Initially, I turned down the offer as I couldn’t think what I might have to say on the subject – happiness has always been an elusive concept for me. But then I began to think – who better to write about happiness than someone who struggles with it? After all if you are, by nature or good fortune, a constitutionally cheerful person, you probably don’t have much perspective on it – it’s just the air you breathe.

But what is ‘happiness’ anyway’? Is it enjoyment of life? Sometimes I have fun with friends or feel really nourished by an art exhibition or performance. Or I bask in a sunny afternoon at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond. Is it satisfaction? I do feel proud of  finishing and publishing my book, and pleased that my writing has touched and helped people. Is it relationships? Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with love for my son and feel blessed to have him in my life; at other times he drives me spare.

Is it the same as contentment? Occasionally, perhaps only once a year, I feel a wave of complete peace wash over me – a sense of everything being completely all right just as it is. As soon as I try to grasp it, it starts to slip away. This is perhaps the closest thing to true ‘happiness’ that I have experienced – total acceptance, or what a Buddhist might describe as the absence of desire, and thereby of fear. It always feels like a moment of grace.

Happiness certainly isn’t the perpetually grinning advertisements that surround us, or the competitive self-publicising of modern culture. The pressure is on to make happiness our goal, and that makes us perpetually dissatisfied with what we have, who we are, how we feel. But comparing your ‘insides’ to other peoples’ ‘outsides’ is nothing new: my mother always believed that other families were happier than ours, and that she had somehow failed in life because things were not perfect.

Are we really just seeking just the absence of unhappiness – what The Guardian‘s Oliver Burkeman has called ‘a long-term state of unbroken uplift?’ A friend who was brought up Catholic says that she learned from an early age that life is a struggle, a vale of tears (though I presume there was the promise of heaven at the end of it, at least for some. ) To be honest, it is learning the truth of this through what you might call bitter experience that has brought me in some ways the most satisfaction and understanding in my life. It has made me a richer, more complete person.

In the article I wrote, perhaps controversially, that I thought the worst day of my life and the best were one and the same – the day in 2004 that my husband Michael died. By ‘best’, of course I don’t mean happiest. I mean that in the midst of the most traumatic and dreadful event, I felt more truly and intensely alive that I have ever felt before or since.  It was a state of awe – as if I understood, however transiently, the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

I would like to have held onto at least some of that feeling. But perhaps that’s just another way of saying I wish I were somewhere else than where I am right now.