Knives and Self Image

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‘Holy shit,’ my friend commented when I posted a link to the last blog entry in our Facebook group, ‘More exploration around the cutting is needed.’

I did rather refer to it in about three sentences.

The thing is I always felt a bit embarrassed about referring to it as cutting.  I mean it was hardly life threatening and it most certainly wasn’t done with anything serious like a razor blade which always seemed like it would be just too darn painful.  It was more like extreme scratching.  But in that it involved a state of distress, my own body and metal implements causing it to bleed (although not always), I suppose it does count.

I used to do it in moments of such extreme tension, frustratedness or utterly wretched distress when I was at my wits end what else to do or how I could ever feel better.  The sort of stomach-churning mixture of anger and hurt that clenches up your entire abdomen and makes you buckle over at the waist as if you’re trying to vomit out the hurt somehow.  Doubled over, my mind would be whirling; internally howling at me like my very own Banshee.  By taking a sharp ended pair of scissors or a paring knife and scoring a line down my arm or across my stomach, the shock of the sudden pain took away the internal screaming.  Like a self administered slap around the face to a someone who is hysterical.  Because I had been hysterical.  Just not out loud.

With the shock and the feeling of pain transferred to a localised spot, I’d feel calm again.  Tired even.  Then, because I am basically quite sensible when not in extremis, I would make sure that any cuts or grazes were washed properly and annointed with antiseptic cream if I had any.

For as long as it took to heal, I’d have to be careful about what I wore.  I didn’t want to raise the issue and have questions asked.  In fact, as I did it more often, I’d take that into consideration when deciding where to cut.  Where won’t it show?  What will work best with my wardrobe?

A popular site to attack was across my stomach.  It’s a part of my body I never loved.  Or the top of my arms.  On the day I discovered the emails which told me the truth about Eadmund’s affair, I cut down the skin of my breasts, stomach and arms,  I had to wear high necked tops for weeks.  But that was the last time I did it.

When I was younger, when she was tense, my mother used to bite into her fist.  I remember her doing it one time when, thanks to my father’s terrible sense of timekeeping, we were setting off desperately late to go to the theatre…in Bradford.  We made it with seconds to spare and she was wound up like a spring as he drove at approaching a hundred miles an hour down the motorway.  I wasn’t aware of the speed we were going, nor was I hugely aware of how long it should take us to get to Bradford and how long we had lef,t now that he’d made us late.  I was still at the age where I confidently assumed the grown ups had it under control.  I did notice the big bruised indentations on my Mum’s fingers and I remember that I asked her to stop, which, when she had calmed down a little more, she did.

You learn by example and great parents though mine were, no one is perfect.  As a frustrated teen, I used to find that biting down hard onto a thumb or finger did help release tension.  When I’d stopped biting my nails so that they grew long enough, digging them into my skin until I broke it had the same effect. When I hit the self loathing, no one is ever going to find me attractive age, it was a natural progression to scratching the sharp point of a pair of nail scissors down parts of my body I knew would be hidden from the family.  I stopped, grew out of it but would come back to it periodically when the pain of emotion needed a physical release.

Of course, in those early and secretive days with Eadmund, my entire evaluation of myself, my place in the world and moral structures as I had assumed them were falling into pieces as I realised I that my moral compass’s due north is not the same as most people’s. I hadn’t forgiven myself for causing hurt.  I didn’t like myself for having done so.  And in being someone’s secret rather than the person they acknowledged proudly to the world, I was perpetuating my own lack of self worth and feeding my self loathing.

Self image and self loathing are a big part of it.  You have to hate yourself in order to inflict pain on yourself.  Ironically, I don’t actually like pain.  I can put up with it when it happens but I don’t go looking for it normally.  It doesn’t thrill me sexually either.  Jack and I, in our early days had gone through a checklist of trying out most sexual possibilities which covered going through every position in both volumes of The Joy of Sex (despite chuckling over the very 70s illustrations) to shaving to bondage to light pain.  It did absolutely nothing for me in that context.

In terms of why I did it and why it worked, it was very much the slap around the face to the hysteric.  I didn’t neccessarily realise at the time that I was hysterical because it was all internalised.  I was often absolutely silent except for breathing – hyperventilating.

Cutting / Scratching my arms was handy because they were easy to access.  What was less easy was hiding it later.  Cutting my stomach would happen because it was the seat of everything I hated about my appearance and coincidentally the clenched diaphragm in my hunched-over state of distress was there too.  Sometimes in the back of my head, when I was that upset, I would imagine that if I could just cut myself open, perhaps I could reach in and straighten out the clenched and tensed up internal organs inside my abdomen that were the physical manifestation of the hurt, frustration and anger I was feeling and then I would feel relief.  Sometimes I visualised a hand reaching into my chest and pulling out my heart, like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the fucked-up thing was, the idea of removing my heart from my body made me feel better.

My issue with my stomach has been there ever since I entered puberty.  Just before I started to grow breasts and have periods, which happened when I was twelve, I put on a lot of weight.  I suddenly weighed about two stone more than any of my friends, even the ones who were taller than me.  Obviously it didn’t happen overnight. My dad had taken a sabbatical from his job at the University and we spent three months in Italy during which time I became permanently ravenously hungry.  I ate a lot of pasta to gain those two stone.  But I did come back from holiday looking like a small barrel.  Then, almost equally quickly, I began to redistribute the fat stores, developed a waist, breasts and hips and needed to be bought a bra.  I loved developing a woman’s shape.  I felt grown up and powerful and glamorous although I most certainly didn’t look it yet – my idea of fashion still involved knee high socks in a completely non ironic way.  But I still felt that my stomach made me look fat.

In vain, my Mum told me I had a lovely figure and that it was much better than hers had been.  I liked my curves…except one.

As I got older, I somehow managed to make friends with taller, thinner girls.  When we changed for sports or swimming lessons, I knew that my stomach stuck out, where theirs lay flat.  When my friends and I started to act out our extremely amateur theatrical ambitions, again in the changing rooms I sneaked a look to my left and right and there again was confirmation.  They had flat stomachs.  I didn’t.

I have an overly flexible lower back that curves in and is naturally a little concave rather than dead straightave.  I also have lazy abdominal muscles.  It might have helped if I’d known that at the time.  Mind you, I’m not so sure that knowing the biology of it would neccessarily have helped me much with the psychology of it.  It looked different and it stuck out.

When I went to university, I managed to put on nine pounds.  I felt enormous.  I didn’t realise it’s pretty common to put on weight when you leave home.  I just thought I must be a pig.  I went on stupid diets of meal replacement milkshakes that I had first tried in my late teens and a particularly ill-advised detox cleanse which left my blood sugar so low I woke up to find the room spinning and spinning before my eyes.  I lurched to the university nurse who told me to not be so stupid and go eat a sandwich.  Ever conscious of what a fat pig I was, I bought one from the diet range all the same.

It was a boost to the ego that Jack found me attractive of course, but he warned me that he didn’t go for fat girls.  If I put on a lot of weight, he wouldn’t still find me attractive regardless.

In the end it was Eadmund who told me he loved every inch of my body whatever size or weight it was.  When I still hated my stomach, he loved it.  It wasn’t flat.  Neither was his and he’d never cared.  He positively loved the curving shape of mine.

‘You aren’t flabby.  You aren’t small but you’re taut and powerful.’

When we were in bed together, he would whisper to me how strong I felt as I moved on him and with him inside me.  He told me how controlled and powerful my hips felt, moving up and down on him.  He marveled over every curve of my body above him.  And then he’d say the same thing after orgasm too.  Gradually, over the course of our seven years together, it began to sink in.  Part of me felt that he was the only man in the world who would ever feel that way about the shape that I am.  But part of me began to believe that I really was attractive.

Cutting myself was about more than just my body.  It was a response to hysteria and feelings of self negation brought on by a challenging set of circumstances which I wasn’t entirely equal to.  Already existing feelings that I wasn’t good enough, insecurities about my body and about my abilities were magnified by being his secret girlfriend – not good enough to admit to the children.  But if I hadn’t hated my body at times, I would not have felt a release by hurting it.  Confirming in that moment that it really was hateful and deserved pain even as the shock of the pain brought on a sense of calm.  Being in a relationship with Eadmund was hurting my sense of self very badly on both emotional and physical levels.  And yet at the same time, he told me I was amazing.  He told me I was beautiful.

After telling the children what was really going on and when we could finally be open about what we were to each other, I could finally begin to listen properly to all the positive things he kept telling me.  And in the end I started to believe him.

Secrets, Self Medication and Happy Families

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It wasn’t only Rupert that found it difficult to cope with time limitations.  In the early days of our relationship when Eadmund and I were still keeping it secret, it had been one of the many things that had brought me to rock bottom.

Looking back at the situation with the benefit of hindsight, I am not sure I would chose to structure the relationship differently.  I still like the idea of being limitless and of freedom.  I like that it removes guilt and insecurity from your interactions with other people and promotes openness.  Or it does if you handle it right.

What I know now is how much communication and work this sort of relationship needs.  I also know that it was a big ask of myself, inexperienced and naïve as I was then, to take this on at the same time as processing enormous amounts of guilt and then to keep the relationship a secret from kids, friends and co-workers into the bargain.

While we were extremely well matched to each other in many ways, Eadmund and I did process emotion differently.  He would react immediately, talk it through and be back on track quickly.  I would need more time.  My initial reaction would be shock, then once that was over, I would need to take my time as new thoughts and opinions became liberated and could be brought up for discussion.  If we argued, I always needed twenty four hours longer than him before I was back on an even keel emotionally.  It meant that I wasn’t able to bounce back from the cancelled wedding, the disapproval, hurting Isla.  It took time.

Time was one of the things we only had in short supply.  Not only did we need to take time to be together, but he also had to allocate time for Cloe, his children, his friends and for the business.  It needed him too.  The difference of maturity and experience showed.  Going into the relationship, he realised how much he would have to partition his time.  He had practical experience of juggling different people who all needed to spend time with him. He understood that as owner of the business, he was responsible for it, cared about it and that it absorbed his time and emotional energy.  I was hardly a clocking in-clocking out employee but, at the end of the day, I could leave the job at home.  My perspective and attachment to work, extreme though it was by most people’s standards was barely a tenth of the intensity of his.   I thought I understood all of this before going into the relationship but I only understood in theory.  When it came to the practical implications of it, I didn’t have a clue.

I needed time to do a lot of talking.  He did his best to make enough time for me but it could never have been enough.  I was using him as an unofficial counsellor.  It was too much pressure to put on a partner.  If I were to go through it again, I’d be right off to see a shrink, quick smart.  I now know that the benefit of seeing a counsellor is that they can listen without being affected emotionally by what you have to say.  They can advise, empathise and help you negotiate the minefield that is your own emotions and you never need feel a burden, not least because you are usually paying handsomely for the service.

It would also have meant that Eadmund wasn’t expected to be responsible for my mental health and emotional happiness.  I wasn’t in a place where I could take that responsibility for myself.  I had never considered emotion in that sort of way before either; that I was in control of my own happiness.  I didn’t know how to do it.  Eadmund tried his best to talk to me and teach me.  That he managed to help me learn as much as he did is impressive.  With each new day, I learned more about my own capabilities and strengths.  Sometimes these discoveries were hard won at the end of gut-wrenching weeping or catatonic depression.  At other times they came more easily.

Our early days after I left Jack, moved out of Nia and Helena’s and into a flat closer to Eadmund were a period of heightened emotion.  The highs were ecstatic.  The sun shone brighter.  The world seemed more new, exciting and beautiful than ever before.  Love had never felt more intense and all consuming.  Sex had never been so much an expression of love with every atom of my body and consequently was instinctively tantric and absolutely mind blowing.  I felt electric, alive and amazing.

But when the lows came, I had many demons to face.  When he couldn’t make time for me, the wretchedness was bottomless.  I was experiencing debilitating guilt and reassessing myself.  I thought I had been a simple, uncomplicated good girl and was now… what… a bad person?  I had hurt people.  For the first time in my life, I had really hurt people.   Sometimes I felt that life was stretching me, teaching me and that every day I was growing stronger, better, more of the sort of person I wanted to be.  Other times I wasn’t sure I liked myself anymore.  Certainly I was having trouble forgiving myself for the hurt I’d caused.

On top of that, I felt too immature to prove a good partner.  Maybe Eadmund should have chosen Isla after all.  I didn’t always notice when he needed to be alone with his kids.  I didn’t spot the signs.  With tension over this already heightened because of the way Rupert behaved, I felt under intense scrutiny and intense pressure to be the perfect and understanding supportive role to Eadmund and to the children.  Some of this pressure came from Eadmund driven sometimes to distraction by frustration at the way Cloe couldn’t reign Rupert in and the way it was hurting his daughter.  Most of it came from myself.  I loved this man.  I thought he was amazing.  I wanted to be perfect.  I wanted to lighten his load not add to it.  I wanted to make his children happy that I had come to stay for the weekend, not want me out of the way so they could spend time with Dad.  But I didn’t know his children as well as he did.  Sometimes, because they were polite and well brought up and kindly, it seemed to me that they were happy I was there.  I desperately wanted them to like me.  They didn’t know I was their dad’s girlfriend yet but I had already fallen in love with them too.

‘But don’t you think,’ he asked, ‘That maybe even though they like you, they would prefer to be on their own with me sometimes?  Of course they aren’t going to come out with it.  They’re only eight and twelve.  You need to be one step ahead of them.  You’re the adult.’

I was confused.  I thought things had been going well.  I hadn’t thought one step ahead.  He was already thinking about the week ahead, preparing them for school and the need for them to have a quiet Sunday afternoon relaxing before the week started.  I was just thinking that I had enjoyed spending Saturday night and Sunday morning with them so far and wondering what we might all do next.  His youngest son had just asked me to make lunch with him.  We liked cooking together.  Last time, we’d come up with a particularly tasty take on potato salad involving yoghurt and Indian green coriander relish.  The time before we’d re-invented spaghetti carbonara by adding ricotta in place of cream and letting the sauce sit in the pan picking up all the tasty caramelised bits on the bottom of the pan after frying the bacon slowly to perfect cripsness.  The sauce ended up being a funny brown colour but it tasted great.

‘It’s not that they don’t enjoy you being here,’ he carried on, ‘but the dynamic is different when you are around.  It isn’t their normal family dynamic and they need that.  I wish you would see that more.  I wish I didn’t always have to bring it up.  It makes me into the aggressor and it makes me always having to force a confrontation, they you are upset.  I hate feeling like this.’

I packed my overnight bag wordlessly and got ready to leave.  I couldn’t manage a cheery goodbye to the kids so I was hoping to slope off quietly and he could explain to them I’d had to get home.  But my fellow lunch-maker, Kester, caught me in the hall just as I was leaving,

‘But we’re going to make lunch!  You can’t go!  We always make great lunches!’

My heart practically broke on the spot.  I was going, although I didn’t want to, because his father thought it was better for the kids that I did, yet here was the youngest, asking me to stay and disappointed in me because I was leaving.  I just about managed to raise a jolly tone and promise we’d cook again next weekend.  I think I made some excuse about having to get home and do some shopping to get ready for a busy week at work, when what I wanted was to howl,

‘It’s not my fault!  Your dad wants me to go! I want me to stay and make lunch too!’

I gave him the best smile I could muster and promised we’d see each other again soon.  Then, with him happy again, I left the house and wept openly and without stopping the entire way home.  It was London, a sunny Sunday and a moneyed residential area.  There were people and families all around who could see me and I didn’t care one iota.  It being London, of course, they all looked the other way and pretended they hadn’t noticed.

It was wretchedly painful for me, when this happened, but it also made Eadmund feel like a murderer each time he had to point out that perhaps I should leave them alone.  He was in a quandary.  The naturalness and ease with which I connected to him emotionally was one of the fundamental reasons he loved me and yet I hadn’t learned to control it.  It overspilled into family time, work time, time that he needed to spend with Cloe.  Not even remotely to the extent that Rupert did, but we were all supersensitive to the dynamic because he was so extreme.  Eadmund was overly paranoid about upsetting the kids (who after all still had not been told we were a couple).  I was overly paranoid about being compared to Rupert the effect of whose behaviour, I had witnessed first hand.

I became self-conscious, unsure of how to behave or who I was anymore.  It felt as though, if I wanted to be with him, I had to become something else.  We connected to each other so instinctively, so effortlessly and so joyously when we were alone together with no pressures on our behaviour, no one else to worry about and no secrets to keep.  If felt fundamentally wrong and unbelievably unnatural to try and behave in any other way.  And I didn’t monopolise his attention.  I didn’t take over the conversatons so no one else could get a word in.  I wasn’t nervously intense.  I was quiet.  I listened.  I let him and his children talk and offered my opinions at what I felt were appropriate intervals.  I was calm and happy because I was with him and by being so, I helped him create a relaxing and homely environment for everyone.  Or at least my instincts told me I did.

Alone together, on our mid week ‘date nights’ when he stayed at my flat, we related as happily and uncomplicatedly as ever.  Left on my own, when he went back to the family and I wasn’t invited, I was at the mercy of the tornado that was my own whirling thoughts, guilt, grief and self doubts.  The skies darkened.

In the final months of our relationship, Jack and I had both started drinking more.  Drinking to forget, to find it easier to talk to each other, for courage to face up to the things we were avoiding.  Now, when I was alone, I carried on.  Having had insomniac episodes before, I was afraid that the fear, guilt and insecurity would mean endless, tortured, sleepless nights.  Drinking to pass out was one way to make sure this didn’t happen.

Alcohol, of course, is a depressant.  Self-medicating with it would only ever be effective in the short term.  In the long run, it made the dark emotions worse.  At moments of heightened distress, I began to cut myself; somewhere that people wouldn’t see of course and never all that deep but with long red scratched wheals down my upper arms or stomach inflicted with the end of a pair of scissors or a kitchen knife.  The shock of sudden physical pain cleared the emotional pain and restored a moment of calm.  I knew it was fucked up, but it helped.

Commuting in and out of work, I began to experience panic attacks on a crowded tube.  Claustrophobia, the walls caving in, needing to shrink away from people, I could feel myself receding down a dark tunnel into the back of my head, the sounds of the outside world dimming as all I could hear were the blood rushing in my ears and my own shuddering breaths, as my field of vision narrowed to two small circles in front of me and spots swam before my eyes.

I had wanted a challenge and an adventure, but so much had changed in so short a space of time, I was falling, falling like Alice down the rabbit hole and I didn’t know when I would land.

As it turned out, my landing was Eadmund’s affair.  For all that was wrong about the way he went about it, it was the catalyst that made us finally admit to the children that we were together.  All of a sudden, the whole situation was less pressured.

In the family home, of course Anne would be round at weekends.  The children didn’t need to wonder why Dad’s new friend got to sleep over (in a different room) and what this might mean – they knew.  With the clarity of knowing we were in a relationship, they didn’t need to wonder if Dad was ok now that Mum had a boyfriend.  Ironically, considering the fears on their behalf that had lead to us keeping it secret, it also took away some of the fear that the parents might divorce.  Mum had a boyfriend and Dad had a girlfriend and yet neither of them had left home.  Perhaps it would all be ok after all.

For me, while I had to deal with hurt,betrayal and with rebuilding trust and this was no small matter at the same time I was also acknowledged and validated.  I wasn’t a dirty secret any more,  I was officially part of the extended family and accepted.  Keeping it secret had added stress, judgement, erosion of self esteem and self image, feelings of abandonment and inadequacy to what was already a complicated situation: integrating myself into a family group without alienating or trying to compete with the children’s mother.

There were still seven of us whose feelings and emotions needed to be managed and catered for as we steered our way through the somewhat choppy waters of life in our extended family and seemingly without a map to guide us but, at least, now, we all knew we were an extended family.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  Secrecy corrodes.

‘…I guess it’s got something to do with luck.’

For some reason, with this as my hobby, I didn't have many boyfriends growing up.

For some reason, with this as my hobby, I didn’t have many boyfriends growing up.

I had a very sheltered life as far as boyfriends went.  Going to an all girls school was great for my studies, but it didn’t provide an opportunity to mix with boys.  My social sphere outside school centred around dancing, shopping, going to the cinema and sleepovers with my friends; all very girlie.  I found pop idols or film stars more impressive and fascinating than a boy my age could ever be, so although my mum did gently try to persuade me to join a local orchestra to meet people other than my school friends, I was happier dreaming of the day when I would be Mrs Pal Waaktaar or later Mrs CC DeVille or once I’d watched the Rocky Horror Show, Mrs Barry Bostwick.

To the childish affections, the famous celebrity has already achieved things in their life, they know things, there’s a glamour about them.  The gawky kid with acne who might possibly want to give you an inexpert snog at a disco party doesn’t really have the same allure.

But after a while it became apparent to me that my friends were managing to attract male attention.  We held disco parties, dressed up in our new Top Shop attire and kitten heeled court shoes, drank cider from plastic disposable cups and at the end of the evening, one by one, they had all been asked to slow dance and had their first kiss.

‘What’s wrong with me?’ I asked my mother with the intensity and distress that only an angst ridden teen can have.

She told me I was beautiful of course but the cynical negative voice in my head said in reply ‘Well she’s bound to think that, she’s your mum.

Thus with warped logic, I decided that I was destined to die a virgin, alone and be eaten by Alsatians.  Whatever ‘sex appeal’ was (and to be honest I was a bit too young to have worked it out) I evidently didn’t have it.

Fast forward to my university years and the autumn of 1992.  I am not going to die a virgin any more.  I managed to dispatch that unwelcome state of being in a coal shed at a friend’s party with a German boy wearing a tan leather jacket.  It was not exactly love’s young dream but it was the start of a new chapter of life.

I am, however, a bit disappointed by university life in London.  I’d taken a year out and went to work in Paris at Le Quick Burger (oh the glamour) for a couple of months but otherwise rather bottled out of travelling.  I had been looking forward to the bright lights and big city. I found myself living in South Woodford, a suburb along the eastern edge as London meets Epping Forest.  If I were to revisit it today, I might find it quite pleasant in parts.  My halls of residence, however, sat bang next to the South Circular and according to student rumour were due to be knocked down ten years earlier.  There was mould in the shower and dirty cork tiles on the floor.

I also hadn’t found anyone to be friends with.  The girls on my floor hung out together in a group for a day or so because we didn’t know anyone else.  I was surprised, though, to find I found them rather young.  It wasn’t like I’d had stretching and challenging experiences on my year out but the fact that I wasn’t straight out of school did mean I felt older than them.  This was going to be a problem.

I looked around the halls at mealtimes for someone who I felt I could strike up a conversation with.  I only saw one person.  He had shoulder length dark hair that was shaved close at the sides.  He was tall, wore skinny jeans and had a nose ring.  He wore a Nirvana T shirt under a lumberjack shirt (it was the 90s) and army surplus combat boots.

‘Right,’ I told myself, ‘He’s the person to make friends with.’