Stacey Sewell | writing/art

Finding hope in the dark

My progress in getting over the eating disorder has slowed.

Changes at work, family illness, and moving house have left me feeling uncertain and unsettled. I’m increasingly afraid that I will not be able to get better. I’ve pushed through challenge after challenge only to find, as the nights draw in and things quieten down, that my courage is failing. I’m vulnerable and in need of feeling held.

How can I feel supported and nurtured when those I care about can’t be there for me?

It seems small and insignificant, silly, almost selfish, but this evening I really wanted to eat homemade (vegetarian) cottage pie. I stood alone in the empty kitchen, wishing there was someone there to cook for, or someone there to cook for me. This soon dissolved into wishing that there was someone there to give me a hug. I dissolved into tears, feeling unable to eat. I felt overwhelmed and bewildered. I fled.

How can I feel supported and nurtured when those I care about can’t be there for me? Where do I find hope?

I found myself upstairs, lighting a row of candles on the bedroom mantelpiece. It was a ritual meant to dispel the air of wet plaster, but as the flames burned into life some other magic must have happened, as the light brought an answer to my question.

The dark.

Just for now, I could feel safe and held by the dark.

As a child I loved the dark because I loved the stars. Then, on the verge of adulthood, stumbling home drunk from a party, I was left with reason to fear it. But slowly, over the past few years, I’ve befriended the dark once more, letting it wrap me in a blanket of invisibility and the joy of heightened senses.

In this acceptance of darkness, for me then, there is hope. Fears conquered and tamed, signs that change is possible. Hope nestles in the dark, in the bottom of my stomach. How can I feed that? How do I identify it, nurture it, and give it what it needs?

I came across a beautiful untangling of hope this week. Rebecca Solnit writes,

“It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

The complexities and uncertainties in my recovery are many. They’re dead ends followed and ways lost. But for hope to remain I must learn to attend to the openings, too. As autumn becomes winter and the sun drops further in the sky, I can look for where the light is coming in and not spend too much time lost in the shadows. I can tour my territory, walk the bounds of the body that I am slowly growing into:

Here is a small fissure in my bones – a place where strength is seeping in, a new way of seeing and feeling my body.

Here is a small hole in my heart – a rush of blood and love, nourishing my cells with deeply felt connections with other people.

Here is a scratch in my skin – a clash of knuckles and teeth, an itch reminding me that skin can regrow, healing can come.

Here is a crack in the lens I have used to view the world.

Here is an open door.

Here is a space at the table, a place to sit amongst friends.

 

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5 Lines for a River

I’m slowly regaining an interest in things outside of the eating disorder. My creativity is trickling back.

I’ve been getting back to some of my academic writing, bit by bit; reading a chapter at a time, writing short pieces paragraph by paragraph. It’s been important to me recently, too, to get in touch with my creativity in ways outside of music, to do something simply to explore, with the possibility of enjoyment rather than the goal of achievement. I’ve been learning to draw. I’m pretty bad at it, but I love it.

I’ve been fascinated by mark-making, gesture, line and form since before I decided to study music at an art college, and this fascination hasn’t lessened. A few months ago I picked up a copy of Wendy Ann Greenhalgh’s Mindfulness & the Art of Drawing. I’ve been working my way through it. I particularly like her large-scale drawing exercises. I like the way they bring body and feelings together, and I like how drawing in response to feeling and breath has broadened out into drawing in response to what I hear (this probably deserves a post all of its own, but I find mindful awareness of my feeling to be a lot like the process of listening).

Me being me, of course, it wasn’t long before I got interested in trying to understand all of this from a more theoretical perspective alongside enjoying simply creating. At the end of last week I came across Patricia Cain’s book on drawing and enactive cognition. In this work she explores

  • ‘Drawing as a thinking process’
  • ‘Conscious and unconscious aspects of the process’
  • ‘The notion that thinking might not just involve knowing with the head, but thinking through the body’ (2010: 27).

Sound, line, thinking through the body . . . I’ve been here before. I guess as often happens with these things, they come full circle – or at least close enough to touch as they pass. I’ve picked up a small project I was working on before the eating disorder pushed everything else out. I’d been thinking about transcription and writing sound and how this all connects up to listening.

In this project I investigate how a combination of writing and mapping may provide a visual exploration of rhythm and flow within Annea Lockwood’s Sound Map of the Hudson River (1982). In particular, I draw on the idea of ‘polyrhythmic calligraphy’, as developed by calligrapher Denis Brown. When using this method the calligrapher attempts to follow the rhythms of an external sound source, moving away from even spacing of the lines that make up traditional letter forms towards a ‘polyrhythmic feeling for space within writing, that can variously open and contract.’ The flow of the hand and the flow of the ink trace an embodied response to the listening experience.

Presentation. Poster: A copy of the map from the recording’s liner notes forms the centre of the poster image. This is surrounded by the calligraphic examples, which focus on the changes in the rhythms of the river as it moves along its course towards the ocean. A third, final, level provides a critical commentary on the success (or otherwise) of this calligraphic method, and provides links to wider theoretical perspectives.

It’s hard to believe this is two years ago now. No doubt my thinking was superficial then, and is out of touch with recent research now, but this feels like something I’d like to explore further. This is just the start, the wellspring, if you like. I’ll post more as things develop.

This is the beginning: a stave, a space for writing.

 

 

References

Cain, Patricia (2010). Drawing: The Enactive Evolution of the Practitioner. Bristol: Intellect.

Greenhalgh, Wendy Ann (2015). Mindfulness & the Art of Drawing: A Creative Path of Awareness. Lewes: Leaping Hare Press.

Graffiti #9: Edinburgh 


On Mirrors

Allow me to play Narcissus for a moment, to look at my own reflection. What do I see?

 

SSS

This is a pretty old picture of me, standing outside Lincoln Cathedral. Contrary to what many people seem to think, it is neither a Victorian selfie (the camera is, I think, from the 60s) nor my reflection. It was taken by my friend John, to whom: thank you.

In truth, for a while now I have been avoiding mirrors. The pain of seeing my size (too big) and appearance (too ugly) was too much. I haven’t always been this way. As a child I was always peering at myself in the oven door, trying to figure out who I was . . . until I got sharp rebuke (or maybe a sharp slap) for ‘mee mo-ing’. As an adult suffering from an eating disorder, at my lowest weight, I was unable to walk past shop windows without pausing to look at the size of my legs . . . before pausing again a moment later to hate myself for my vanity.

I guess getting better is about learning to look inwards and like what I see rather than depending on external signs of my self-worth (be they how I look in the mirror, the size label on my clothes, or the grades on my certificates). It is learning to know myself as myself, rather than always looking to others for value and validation.

But I’m learning to like what I see in the mirror, too. Sometimes the mirror reflects rather than distorts. It provides a different perspective. I was struck by the thought yesterday evening, as I looked in my bathroom mirror, that looking in it can be a way of seeing oneself from a different angle and of seeing the bits of ourselves that we cannot otherwise see without distorting our frames.* Unless we see our own reflection, we must always see our body by looking down on it, except perhaps in those rare moments of holding our hands up to shield ourselves from the light. Unlike Narcissus crouching over his pool, I meet my mirror at eye level.

Mirror, mirror on the wall . . .

I can see my eyes looking back, grey-blue with an almost golden circle around the pupil. I let go of thoughts of how small and pig-like they look; a reflection that has deflected me from myself for too long. I look again, hoping to see kindness there. I smile, surprised to meet mischievousness looking back.

 

 

 

* Those readers who know my academic writing might wonder what’s happened to all the theory: the mirror neurons, the phenomenology, the Gaze, the Lacan, and the feminist writing on body image. My feeling is that to dive into all that here would be to follow Alice through the looking glass instead of examining my own reflection. I’ll come back to it soon, I hope, but it was never the whole of me and it never made me whole either.

 

 

Graffiti #8: Plymouth

  

On Eating

I always wondered: what do people with eating disorders actually eat?

Yesterday I ate: a cup of yoghurt with honey, some homemade soup, a kiwi fruit, two tofu sausages, a wholemeal pitta bread, broccoli, three sundried tomatoes, and a chocolate cookie. It’s ever so slightly less than my current average, but considerably more than I was eating this time last year. I could no longer tell you how many calories were involved, with the exception of the cookie, which had 25 (I thought I’d found some kind of miraculous wonder food until I realised they were about the size of five pence coins and tasted not dissimilar). Numbers don’t matter so much to me now.

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This marks part of a bigger change in how I’m approaching this business of eating. It’s not just about eating more, as such, or making myself sick less. I’ve really had to alter how I think about allowing myself food. Rather than prompting panic and self-punishment, eating is slowly becoming a way of looking after myself. It’s nourishing.

I’ve moved beyond the small group of six or so things I could eat 12 months ago towards eating a wider variety of foods in an attempt to ensure I get all the nutrients I need. It seems odd to me now that I wouldn’t allow myself to eat vegetables, despite my cravings for them, my bleeding gums, and their general . . . low calorie-ness. It seems even more odd to me that some days I still struggle with this.

It’s about allowing myself, I suppose: allowing myself to eat and allowing myself to enjoy it; allowing myself to have what I need; allowing myself time to prepare food when I feel I should be working; allowing myself to feel hunger, and allowing myself to satisfy it.

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Yesterday evening I carefully took two cinnamon biscuits from the packet and put them (alongside a salad of broccoli, olives and tomatoes) into the box I use to take my lunch to work. I felt like I was being gentle and encouraging with myself. I had something ‘healthy’ and a small-ish guilty snack ready for the inevitable mid-afternoon sugar craving. I’d got it all ready in advance so that I wasn’t rushing around in the morning trying to decide between drying my hair and preparing my food in the mad dash to catch my train. I was reassured that it was all ready, with no options for last minute inabilities to choose and leaving without it. So far so good. But when it came to actually eating the biscuits I felt compelled to break them into small pieces and only allow myself one piece every twenty minutes. Not so good.

It’s difficult, sometimes, to stop myself falling back into these little rituals. They feel caring and nurturing, too. I’m trying to resist them, though, because it’s only a small step from there to eating whole meals in particular (strange) orders, and from there to maybe not eating anything after 3.00 pm, and from there to having so many rules that it becomes difficult to eat much of anything. Recently, I’ve been wondering if these little rituals have been around longer than I realise. I recognise them in the jar of sweets that sat uneaten on my bookshelf in the house we lived in when I was between the ages of five and seven, restraint warm in my belly instead, and in the uneaten Easter chocolates on display in the dresser in my Mum’s living room over 20 years later, little symbols of Stacey’s self-control.

Perhaps the way forward lies in learning to let go.

 

Dublin

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Positive graffiti #7: Trinity College Dublin

 

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On Valentine’s Day

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I used to hate Valentine’s Day, but this year I think I might grow to love it. I used to tell myself that it was tacky and sentimental, a celebration of things – love, I guess – that I didn’t have time for. I didn’t need cards (I had books to read), I didn’t need soppy messages (I had journal articles to write), and I certainly didn’t need a candlelit dinner for two (I had an eating disorder).

For me, having an eating disorder was an intensely lonely experience. At the same time, it was the best relationship I’d ever had. It kept me company, soothed me, and helped me to feel safe. It gave me hope, structure, and purpose. It was there for me twenty-four hours a day.

Sounds like the perfect partner, right? I used to think so, but now I’m not so sure. It left me cold, tired, and feeling increasingly worthless. Nothing was ever quite enough: it demanded more and more (more weight loss, more exercise, more time spent making myself sick, more journal articles) in order to offer the same illusion of safety and belonging. It left me increasingly cut off from the very people that might provide me with these things for real.

Happily, things are changing. I’m learning to love myself. I love my slightly crazy (unnaturally) red hair. I love my ability to get interested in things. I love how I keep picking myself up and trying again. I love how my smile makes other people smile.

I love how I’m learning to feel loved, too; to feel safely held by the garland of little hearts that surround me. So, although my relationship with the eating disorder is coming to an end, this year I have the best bunch of flowers a girl could wish for: the buds of a dozen new friendships and the seeds of lots more.

Beginning in the Middle

Today it is 1 year, 1 month, and 22 days since I decided I didn’t want an eating disorder. Four hundred and eighteen days later, it feels like I have come a long way; but somehow it also feels like I am just beginning.

I wanted to share my story.

This story has many beginnings. It begins this time with fear and exhaustion. It begins with rapidly losing weight as a way of making myself feel in control, and of shoring up self-esteem that had been battered by the scuffles of the academic job market.

It begins with a stranger getting off a bus and offering me a hug that I felt unworthy of accepting.

It begins again. It begins with eating. It begins with not making myself sick afterwards. It begins with forcing down my fear and resisting the urge to go running at 2.00 am on a cold, wet March night.

 

Stacey's feet

 

And yet, I must begin again. At the age of 33, I am free to decide how I would like to live life without an eating disorder. But how do I begin, in the middle? I begin with the support of a dedicated group of friends, some amazingly supportive colleagues, and an incredibly compassionate therapist. I begin with the skills and talents that I bring with me to this point, with my creativity and intelligence, with my strange ability to see the connections between things, with my caring for others and with my sense of humour. I begin with a big pile of books. I begin with words and photographs, with the radio turned up loud, with getting outside and finding wild places, with walking on the beach and diving in at the deep end.

I begin with connecting with others.