Good Things…and Bad
Content warnings: descriptions of abuse, PTSD, anxiety, assault, suicidal ideation and being followed. Sorry, folks.
I’m on a zoom call, and its about A Thing. A Thing I can’t talk about, beyond calling it A Thing, which, as a writer, is always an amazing and mildly terrifying but edifying sentence to be able to say. I have been on various zoom calls and telephone calls about Various Things for the last few weeks, and it dawns on me, as I watch myself relaxing into this particular call, getting into my conversational stride, enjoying the discourse and letting my mind run along with the possibilities that lie ahead for me should This Thing progress further, that I am not used to good news. I don’t quite know what to do with it. The last twelve months have been such an unending parade of cheerless struggles that I’ve become almost permanently braced for doom, which no doubt accounts for my terrible posture and the worry lines etched into my once flawless brow (apart from that irksome mole between my eyebrows that once earned me the delightful moniker ‘rice krispie face’ because kids are awful). And yet here I am, engaging in something most decidedly non doom-y and what, what is this- am I- is this happiness? Excitement? How would I even know, after 2020?
Turns out it is both of those things, and because I am a twat who cannot regulate her emotions to any other state than flying through the clouds or buried in the dirt- as I’ve said before, there is no In-Between in Gemma Land- I am suddenly exhausted with this realisation. What herculean effort I applied to simply identifying what the hell I am actually feeling has drained all remaining juice from my tank. I fall back on my old friend adrenaline to help keep me present, and all the while a little incredulous voice whispers bloody hell Gemma, you’re actually doing this over and over and over in the back of my rather swollen, tender mind.
The Thing call ends after an hour and a half and I take myself down to the kitchen to brew another pot of too-strong coffee that I absolutely and definitely don’t need. As the mocha-pot gurgles and regurgitates its brown juice I realise I am crying, freely crying, standing in the small linoleum-carpeted space that feels like a prison cell when two people are in it, and my husband, relegated to the kitchen table for his work space, appears in the doorway, his face concerned.
‘What’s the matter?’ He asks, obviously expecting some horrendous disaster to have befallen me, because, like I said, we’re primed for disasters now. We’re experts in them. Not fully inured, but definitely getting there.
‘Nothing!’ I sob, watching in horror as massive ropes of snot escape from me and hurtle down towards the floor. Oh well, I needed to clean it anyway.
‘What do you mean nothing? Why are you crying?’
‘I don’t know!’
‘Are you crying because you’ve had a good week?’
‘Y-ye-yesss!’ I heave, fully aware that I now resemble something from a particularly moist Cronenburg movie. My husband shakes his head, half-frustrated, half-amused.
‘It’s just…I…work…so…damn…hard!’ I wail, and that’s it, I’m gone for the next thirty minutes. Husband patiently rides out the waves and pours the coffee, discreetly taking down my packet of beta-blockers from the cupboard and popping one from its foil blister. He’s right, of course, with everything going on, I failed to medicate and that’s never a particularly good idea. It accounts for the sweats, the churning stomach, the racing thoughts, the thundering heart, the tight chest. All of these things are eminently manageable if and when I actually remember to take the bloody pills, but for some reason I struggle with this, the most obvious act of self-care. Perhaps I have spent too long in that old Norfolk mindset (I grew up in the Fens): medicine is bad, medicine is for the weak, who needs medicine? Just buck up, put up, get on with it. All things shall pass if you’re strong enough.
Except anxiety, PTSD and other things don’t really work like that, and these two prevailing wisdoms often war against each other. In this instance, common sense eventually wins out: I need my pill.
Once the storm passes, I therefore do what I always do: wipe my face, glurp my coffee, swallow my pill and pretend that everything is normal. Husband pats me on the shoulder- I have problems being physically handled sometimes, for reasons that will become evident- and goes back to work. Poor bastard, I think, unnecessarily, and not for the first time. I think that a lot about the people in my life, the rare few I let get close enough to see the blubbery mess I can become. Poor bastards, but that’s just the old depression-narrative, the hardest of habits to break, easy enough to overcome if you do what I do: focus on the work. Nose to the grindstone, for the grindstone grinds away the nonsense, and I like to think of it as akin to cleaning rust off of an old blade: after a time, a new, clean, razor-sharp edge emerges, gleaming, and it is with that blade that I can cut a swathe through my doubt and fear and forge ahead. And, although I may jinx myself immediately by saying this, I feel like that is definitely what I am doing. Moving ahead. I don’t always know which directions exactly I’m pushing in, but I am moving forward, chest out, arms back, legs pumping, and that is all that matters.
And I’m proud of that. I’m proud, because I have overcome a few hurdles to get here. One of those hurdles, which I have been consistently open and honest about and will continue to be so until I breathe my last, was a persistent and rather pesky desire to fling myself off of something tall and vertiginous every five moments, give myself to the void, embrace oblivion, and as far as hurdles go, it was a rather sticky and resilient one. But I jumped over it, eventually (poor choice of analogy, all things considered, but perhaps I need to actively reclaim the act of leaping anyway), and thank god too, because dying is a horribly messy and inconvenient thing for the people around you to have to cope with, and I am glad I have managed to convince my brain it is an awful idea. It was a slow process, but I have convinced it. Realising this was a pivotal moment in my life that I’ll always remember: the exact and precise second I understood, with a huge and exuberant sense of relief, that I no longer felt that way. A glorious, choirs-of-angels moment, quietly shared with only three other living souls until now. Hallelujah.
As I later walk to my weekly therapy session, I reflect upon this, and pride. How the simple act of being pleased with something you have done is so damn empowering. It’s a nice feeling, and it carries me along on swift feet, letting me keep my head above the cloudline until…
…Until that old, familiar fear fights its way through the clouds and takes a firm hold of my head, squeezing my skull in its iron grip.
You see, there are other hurdles I am yet to leap over. Which is okay, because I know that life is a process, but I wish this process ran a little smoother. Fear is my biggest barrier to success at the moment, but let me elaborate: it is not fear of success, or at least, not entirely. I mean I am a little afraid of what good things may come, because those good things come with an understood rule that you also stand to lose whatever good things come your way, but this in itself is not a reason for me to stop pressing the blade to the stone. What stops me is anxiety, a deep-rooted primal anxiety that is so firmly married to past trauma and unresolved PTSD that it is like someone slapping a glass tumbler down upon an insect that is just minding its own business, pootling across the carpet. One minute, I’ll be fine, the next, I’ll be in a glass chamber of fear (anyone who reads Girl on Fire btw- yes, that whole scene was an analogy). And by fear, I mean complete, head to toe, my-life-is-in-danger levels of brain-crushing fear. None of it actually relates to anything happening around me at the time, but is a simple part and parcel of having too much adrenaline in my system (hence the beta blockers). The hypervigilance I feel feeds into this endlessly and around I go in circles, getting more and more primed for potential disaster until I almost immobilised.
The reason for this is evident for anyone who has read my foreword to the charity anthology We Are Wolves: I was violently mugged and assaulted by two men late at night in March, nine years ago. I was attacked from behind at speed, thrown to the ground, and punched in the face several times over by men wearing balaclavas and gloves (I only remember the gloves because the fist that battered the side of my nose was wearing a ring, and I remember feeling grateful for the scant protection the glove afforded my skin). All of this took place within a time frame of seconds, but still affects me nine years later. And the last few weeks have been particularly difficult, with events in the news triggering a series of recurring flashbacks and a general spike in hypervigilance that has made it hard to leave the house, be near another person, sleep, and so-on. And the worst thing about this? A growing feeling that I was lucky. I was lucky to be duffed up and left on the ground, bruised and shocked and blackening, because guess what? ‘It could have been worse,’ someone gently says to me, not long after it happens. And so it could. I am grateful I wasn’t raped and murdered, immensely grateful- and gosh, how fucked up is that, hey? Such a burden to bear, sometimes. A heavy one too.
Now, I think I mentioned in my foreword that I am not living like this day to day. I am not a slobbering slug of nerves on an hourly, daily, even weekly basis. I don’t dwell if I can help it. But at the moment, things are difficult. Women everywhere are (rightly) sharing their experiences of feeling unsafe, and it is important that they do so, but hugely difficult to engage with for me- every time I turn on my phone, or the tv, or go into a shop, its there. That’s how news cycles work, and in a week or so maybe it will have died down. But maybe I don’t want it to die down, maybe we need to keep talking about it until it becomes something that is acted upon, rather than discussed. Either way, these conversations are things I am going to need to learn how to live with without being so heavily, cripplingly affected, and so I persist, ‘nevertheless she persisted’ as the quote says, and she drags her sorry carcass to therapy, and here’s where it all starts to go a little pear-shaped: because therapy is awful. Its nobody’s fault, but it is what it is- extremely bad timing. And I know it happens but its unexpected and decidedly damaging and will take a few good weeks to unpick. That is the risk with exploring the deeper recesses of the psyche with another person- sometimes things happen. It’s okay, though, it’s certainly understandable, and extremely recoverable. But because of this, I leave the session with a heightened level of fear I haven’t experienced since the birth of my son (that’s another story for another day, innit).
And it’s because of this, because I cannot stop checking over my left shoulder- the shoulder I checked over nine years ago when I realised someone was running at me with speed and intent, and that I had, in a split second, become prey- that I notice I am being followed.
My immediate thought is that this is my fault.
I had seen the individual in question, a young man of about seventeen, peering into the bins near the bus stop in the city centre. I had seen him and made the mistake of making accidental eye contact with him as I passed, largely because I was wondering what he was looking for. I made eye-contact, and could tell within seconds of doing so, with a sinking feeling, that I shouldn’t have. Because something registered there, I don’t know how to describe it beyond ‘interest’. And I immediately cursed myself for wearing a bright red jacket, because I knew that made it easier to follow me. I knew this, and I hated myself for thinking like that, but it is true. I often wear grey and black these days, and that is why: I don’t want to be a target.
Now, I haven’t lost all sense and reason, and I recognised at first when he suddenly thundered down the path behind me and overtook me at less than an arm’s length away before slowing down ten yards ahead of me, that this was likely a coincidence beyond all coincidences. Here I am, struggling with feelings of threat and vulnerability, trying to process the tricky repercussions of once being followed and attacked, when I am, again, being followed. It’s such a terrible coincidence, you see, that I immediately write it off. You’re being a twat again, Gemma, I told myself, but I doubled my step. I moved into an underpass that goes through a recessed pit in the middle of a roundabout called the Bear Pit. The boy kept ahead of me, and then stopped to talk to some skateboarders. I removed my headphones, doubled my steps again and made it back to street level. Checking over my shoulder, I saw that I’d left him behind. I relaxed, a smidge. Put my headphones back on. After all, it was the middle of the day, and there were people about. No harm done. Just get home and make a chamomile tea, I thought.
Until he overtook me again, at a run, a mile later.
There are no words to describe the horror of looking over your shoulder to once again see someone moving at speed right into your personal sphere, with intent. I jerked away from him so violently I nearly fell into the road. He continued past and then ahead, stopping to chat to a shopkeeper, and I took the opportunity to cross the road.
Ten minutes later, he jogs past me again. He has also crossed the road. He slows once more, when he is ahead of me. This is a pattern. I want so much to believe it is a coincidence, so I cross the road again, and then twice more. Each time, just at the point I think I am safe, he materialises like a bad dream, racing past what I now think of as my Danger Shoulder, and if I’m being honest, the boy is skinny, and young, and I could probably take him if I had to, I lift weights now- this is why- and I’ve eaten a lot of doughnuts in the past year. But by now, I am almost at the point of vomiting with stress. All I can think about is what happened before. Thanks for not murdering me, I trill internally as I cross the road one last time.
I eventually admit that I am being followed when I begin to realise how much closer to my house I am. When I think about this I understand that I don’t want this boy to know where I live.
At this point, I probably could have asked someone for help. But guess what: I didn’t. A) because my brain now assumed that everyone was The Enemy and I didn’t feel safe enough to do so and B) my Norfolk brain kept telling me that everyone else would think I was being an idiot and overreacting and C) I actually didn’t want to get the young man into trouble, in case it WAS actually a coincidence.
And so instead, I waited for him to pass me once again, my whole body tight as I registered the fast footfalls. He passed, and I slowed to a stop, waiting for a double-decker bus I could hear coming up behind me to obscure me from his view should he look back over his shoulder- does he have a Danger Shoulder? I doubt it, few men do, I suspect- and then I peeled off the main road, ducking into a side street. I then walked a complicated, winding, nonsensical route home, a detour of about three miles, and I am ashamed to say I haven’t really left the house since.
Why am I writing about this? Well, for reasons.
One, because this is how I process. Anyone who has read any of my books will understand this about me, and by the way, that isn’t likely to end any time soon- one particular forthcoming work of mine is, well, hmmm. I won’t spoil it for you, but I may need to start writing Slyvanian Family fanfiction for a while afterwards just to help me recover. But it’s okay- I do this. It helps me. It starts conversations and allows me to process. Writing is therapy, that’s all it ever was. The blade, the sharp, keen blade. Cut away the necrotic meat, slice through the tangled undergrowth, and beneath are my bones, bright and new and clean. I can grow new flesh, you see, even if old scars remain and regrow- those scars are rather beautiful anyway, I think.
Two, because I think this is the time, currently, for sharing these experiences. I have a feeling that many of you out there are only just beginning to understand what a burden some of us carry, day in, day out. Some of you hate this information, others are shocked, others saddened by it. Maybe now is the time, ripe with shared experience. Or maybe I missed my window- is there an accepted window to talk about the safety of another human?
Three: because I need to remind myself that nothing bad actually happened. The fear of fear was worse than anything that actually transpired. Do I think the boy meant harm? Hard to say. Do I think his intentions were completely innocent? Absolutely not. Am I grateful it wasn’t worse? Of course.
Do I think I’ll be comfortable going for a walk any time soon?
I recount my experiences to my husband, who is on a call at first and cannot fully turn himself to it. Eventually he finds me, and I am cocooned in a blanket, drinking tea and staring at the telly without fully seeing it.
‘Alright?’ He asks, after I tell him everything.
‘Not really, I say,’ sighing. ‘But I will be.’
‘Of course you will,’ he says, and goes back to work.
Meanwhile, my phone pings. An email: Dear Gemma, I hope this email finds you well….
And just like that, another Good Thing begins. And that is how we shall overcome: hopping from Good Thing to Good Thing like hopping across stepping stones set above a fast-flowing river. I might fall in every now and then, but I’ll survive. There are always more stones. More zoom calls, emails, messages. Good Things.
What a week, though.