Nightmares, a common denominator and being a good person.

One of the realities of living with post-traumatic stress disorder is sleep disturbance, namely nightmares. It’s spectacularly inconvenient and unpleasant – things can be rolling along quite smoothly, only to be interrupted by sleep-disrupting dreams which leave me unrested and uneasy the next morning, and which often tint the following day with their own insidious brand of anxiety. The really difficult thing about this particular manifestation of PTSD is that there’s no managing it: there are no nice neat strategies which help to reduce their severity.

Sometimes the nightmares are quite overtly horrible: being raped, or fighting for my life in a crowded place while people calmly walk past, or the common-garden-variety horror-movie murderers and monsters. Those ones I can often stop from lingering; I can tell myself that it’s only the random images of a battered mind continuing to seek healing, and I can often return to sleep.

The one I hate the most, though – the one from which there can be no returning to slumber, the one which lingers like a miasma the next day – is the nightmare in which the people who love me respond to me in the same way my ex-husband used to. The same agonising illogic to arguments; the same shocking, soul-penetrating insults; the same threats; and finally, the same searing flare into actual blows. The dreams are vivid: I can feel the seat beneath me, hear the world around me, and the first touch of violence feels the same as it ever did in my waking life. The thing that always brings most horror though – not the insults or the abuse, not even the words of someone who hated me coming from the mouth of someone I know, in my waking life, loves me: the worst horror is the sudden realisation I have in the dream, that since someone else is treating me the way my ex used to, then I must be the common denominator. It must be me. Actually, I must really deserve such treatment.

It’s a shitty realisation to come to, and it seems just as brutal when it comes from my own dreaming mind as if it were a waking reality. It’s a devastating fear to sit with: do I really deserve such a thing? Am I really the horrible person my ex thought I was?

The more time that passes, the firmer I am in the belief that I didn’t deserve it, that I do deserve to be happy, to have friends, to be treated with respect and love as I treat those around me with respect and love. I’m strengthening my resolve in that, and learning to see myself – maybe – as I hope that others see me, and to hope that I’m the good person I want to be. And, of course, it’s a work in progress: but part of being a person is working towards being a good one.


The practice and practise of happiness.

One of the comforts of being half a person is that things are easy. When you live in your head, you don’t have to feel. You dwell in rationality, and the mental life is enough. You can retreat into your head when things are difficult; retreating into my head – what psychologists call dissociation – has got me through beatings and worse, barely feeling them.

The flip side of this is that, while you’re in endurance mode, you feel nothing: no pain, no fear – but no joy. You become entirely detached to the emotional world, the world of being a full, feeling human being.

Now I’m no longer half a human, and I understand that the consequence of this is that I must learn to feel. I must learn to be comfortable with my grief, my shame, my anger. I must learn to manage my fears – and that’s the easy part.

Part of learning to become a whole person is actually learning to be happy: that it’s allowed. That nothing terrible’s going to happen to me as a result of being happy: laughter will not result in a sudden sharp slap; a night out with a friend won’t earn me recriminations and censure.

It’s taking me a while to learn that. It’s taking me a while to realise that happiness can be simple; that there’s no retribution for a moment of light-heartedness; that the jealously of the unhappy will not forbid by high spirits.

And most of the people around me don’t question their happiness. They simply enjoy it, thoughtlessly, without a second’s hesitation, without even a thought that perhaps they don’t deserve it. No second-guessing, no over-thinking; happiness is easy, wonderful, something to delight in, to take pleasure in.

I’d like that to be the case for me. I’m looking forward to learning to be as comfortable in my happiness as in the distress in which I’ve spent so many years. Like everything, it’s a work in progress – but I’m happy, with this learning, to spend the time practising.

Half or whole.

A long time ago, someone fairly brutal but also brutally honest called me half a person. It was done with the best of intentions, and it was pretty accurate, I thought, but it stung a little. She followed it up with the words “You’re all head and no heart. That’s not how you were created”.


Here is what I’ve realised: I’m not half a person. I’m a whole person. It’s just that, for the longest time, I’ve not particularly been in touch with half of myself. The feeling part. The intuition. The spirit, and the spirituality, of my self.

I’m probably not fully in touch with it yet. I still struggle with emotions, and I’d still prefer the dry, safe rationality which comes with being a thinking, not feeling, being. For me, the primary means of engaging the world is still the mind: I live in my head, and I always will. I value my intellect; I value my capacity to think clearly and to analyse and interpret the world around me, and my own responses to it. I value the fact that I can retreat into my head when things get tough: it’s a skill that got me through some hellish situations – beatings and assaults – and it’s a skill I know I can rely on again if I need to.

It’s not enough, though, and that’s what I’m realising. Writing the book, learning to rely on my creativity and intuition, has taught me that. The realisation that I relied on my intuition to escape my marriage has taught me that. The experiences I’ve had on my haltering forays into the realm of spiritual practice have taught me that.

I don’t like feeling. I struggle with it. I struggle with the fact that I am starting to have to sit with what was done to me, and the fear and shame and grief and anger around that. I struggle with the fact that, in the quiet of my spiritual practice, I have to sit with being what I am: a soul, nothing more or less, not hidden behind research and rationality and competence, and I have to let that be enough.

Thinking is easy, and comforting. Feeling is not. Feeling is painful, and scary, and even exuberance can bring trepidation and the shame that comes with abandoning myself to a sense of happiness that I still struggle to see that I might deserve.

But whether I like it or not, I’m a whole person, not half a person; and to be honest, life as a half-being doesn’t actually have all that much to recommend it.

It’s slightly more convenient though.

Intuition as a new extra.

Part of the process of re-discovering my creativity, and writing a whole book, is that I’ve had to learn a lot about how all this happens. Not just the practicalities of book publishing, I mean – although that’s been fascinating. But I have had to learn how a book forms itself into an entity, and I’ve watched my own creativity at work.

I went from the quiet terror of oh-shit-I-have-six-months-to-get-fifty-odd-poems-to-publication-standard-what-on-earth-have-I-got-myself-into? to the utter incredulity of how-on-earth-did-this-happen?, standing in front of a bunch of people at my own book launch. And while I’d like to say I know exactly how it happened, how this written entity was formed, I don’t. I watched its theme and structure form itself in my head. Each poem created itself on the page, right there in front of me. I was in charge of the words, of the language and the choice of metaphor and simile, and it wasn’t as though I didn’t work hard, but even as my mind was occupied by technical details, the poems themselves took on their own form and structure as I watched, almost passively. The poems knew what they wanted to be: all they needed was for me to provide them with the paper and the ink.

And it struck me that this is intuition at work. If there’s one thing I learned from writing the book, it’s the strength of my creative intuition. That capacity beyond rational thinking, that I can’t quite put my finger on, which allowed me to hear what the poem wanted to become. Which helped me to know when to wrestle with the poem to pin tit down, and when to let it mull itself over and form itself in its own time. Which enabled me to trust the poem in front of me, to let it find its own being.

It’s my intuition, too, that saved me: my actions on Emancipation Day, that day of flight and freedom from the danger of my marriage, were unplanned and based entirely on gut instinct. Without reasoning, without rationality, I knew I had to leave, and that I had to leave that very day. I knew without thinking about it what I needed to do; just as the poems formed themselves on the page, just as the book’s structure grew into its own reality without conscious effort from me, my escape plan formed itself in front of me, and it was that – my sudden unthinking realisation of the path out of darkness – to which I owe the book, and to which I owe my life.

I have intuition. I’m more than just rationality. I feel like I’ve gained a whole extra half of a person.

Maybe that particular half will make me taller.

Blood flow and why you can’t be creative in a war zone.

This is why you can’t be creative in a war zone: in a war zone, you simply don’t have enough blood flow. It sounds odd, but it’s true. When there are bombs raining down around your head, you spend most of your existence in fight-or-flight mode. Blood flows from non-essential parts of your body to where its needed most; and while creativity is not a physicality within the human body, its inherent enough a part of who I am and how I’m made up for me to use the metaphor almost literally. Not that there were ever bombs raining down around me – by sheer accident of birth I don’t live in Baghdad, or Gaza, or Damascus. But for ten years, I lived in the war zone created between two people. I lived with the constant volatility of unpredictable and at times dangerous violence; I lived with the constant drip-drip of undermining, of words and insults used against me as weapons, of the capricious handing out of affection or abuse. I lived in an environment where safety was not a given, not an automatic right, not something to blithely take for granted. In fact, it was the opposite: violence and hatefulness was what I learned to take for granted – and it was drummed into me (to such an extent that I still half-believe it) that this was exactly what I deserved. So I went into survival mode. Endurance mode. I stopped paying attention to what was going on, what was being said. There was enough self-preservation, enough self-worth, for me to finally tear myself out of that precarious situation – but for the most part, I put my head down and simply kept putting one foot in front of the other. And that’s the problem with endurance mode: you switch off all those things that make you who you are. You shut down all those gentle, fragile parts of yourself which can make you vulnerable, and you bury them deep for their own protection. Not that you realise you’re doing that – with no sense of future, no sense of hope, what’s the point of trying to protect an insubstantial treasure for a time ahead you don’t have? It’s more a loss than a deliberate act of preservation: you simply forget about those parts of yourself that make you who you are, and you cease to feel them, in the same way a body part devoid of blood flow becomes numb and essentially dead. And like a body part devoid of blood flow, the rebirth is excruciating. A big part of coming out of survival mode – literally years after my Emancipation Day, that ill-thought-out, precipitous pre-dawn escape from an increasingly perilous marriage – has been watching and feeling the blood beginning to flow to that stagnant, dead-seeming phenomenon that was, and now is, my creativity. And the Universe – or Spirit – unfolded in such a way that I ended up writing a book, one of the more interesting experiences of this time of healing. And now the world contains one more book, and the fragile creature that once was my battered creativity is a little bit like me – scarred, sadder and wiser for the experience, but very much a survivor. Kind of cool, really.

Lost and found.

I wrote the other day about the joy of playing with words, the re-capturing of the knowledge that, in fact, I am a writer. That I can choose to take delight in words, in the way they come together, in the images and feelings I can create with them, the taste of them and the colour of them in my mouth.

This morning, I found the notebook entry I’d made on that day, some of the sentences and fragments of poetry that had come together on that beautiful country drive. And, as usual, it’s been so busy that I couldn’t actually remember what I’d written – I came to it fresh, objective, with new eyes, and I actually found myself thinking: “That’s not bad!”.

It’s a good feeling.

I never used to question my identity as a writer. I was confident in it. I was confident in my capacity to work with words, in my respect for them, in their capacity and their beauty. Then I spent the better part of ten years being convinced I had no value. How could someone so stupid be a writer? How could someone so boring ever have anything worthwhile to say, let alone write for people to read? What value could anything that came from my mind possibly have? Or, how could I be so selfish to spend time writing rubbishy stories and poems? I wasn’t in high school anymore, I was married and had responsibilities for a husband and a house, and writing didn’t meet anyone’s needs but my own. And things happened: notebooks went missing. My computer was damaged beyond repair, with all my writing irretrievable. A framed certificate for a prize in a writing competition was smashed. A box containing hard copies of my poetry was drenched in beer.

It happened so insidiously that I didn’t notice it – and at the same time, writing at home became impossible: the demands of living with a person who tried to undermine my creativity in whatever way possible simply took precedence. And then things got more fraught, more volatile, more dangerous – and it’s a rare and very special person who can keep their creativity alive when they’re trying to survive a war zone. I don’t have that strength, that determination, that single-mindedness. Creativity needs to be respected, and nourished, to thrive.

I’m re-learning about myself as a writer. I’m re-learning how my own creativity works. I’m re-learning how to take joy in my writing, in my creativity and sense of whimsy and adventure. I’m re-learning how to play with my art.

One day I might find myself voicing the words “I’m a writer” without even thinking about it, in the same way I’d say “I’m a social worker” or “I’m right-handed”. I might even find myself saying the words with pride in my voice.

But for the moment, I’ve spent the last two years regaining something precious that I thought I’d lost for good. And, incredulously, I can start to whisper those words: Actually, despite it all, I am a writer.

A boring blog post, and inter-species love.

I’m tired and on the edge of grumpy, because one of the really shitty things about living with PTSD is its unpredictability, and last night was a tossing-and-turning, sleeplessness-followed-by-quiet-horrible-nightmares sort of night. Which is funny (funny-strange, that is; not funny-amusing) because I had a perfectly ok day and a pleasant, peaceful evening and when I went to bed I felt reasonably at peace with the world.

And then the insomnia came, and then the nightmares.

It seems a contradiction to have both insomnia and nightmares in the same night. And it hardly seems fair.

But that’s the way the cheese crumbles.

Right now, though, I’m sitting at my desk in a quiet house (one of the joys of living in the country is the utter silence. It forms its own sort of music), wearing spotted pyjamas and woollen sleep-socks, and I’m typing this and watching my cat quietly munch her way through a bowl of cat biscuits (she carefully avoids the green ones. I haven’t quite got to the bottom of why). I know that odds are, when she’s finished her snack, she’ll come and sit on my lap, and she’ll purr and put her warm, soft head under my chin, and I’ll kiss her head between her ears (I’m sure that spot on a cat was designed specifically for humans to kiss), and she’ll hum with contentment and feel cherished, and I’ll know that she loves me, and I love her, and in that interaction the very Creator of love will be present, and alive.

And I’ll (hopefully) sleep knowing that because of this warm, solid scrap of being, there is a little more love in the world, and that despite our differences, we can communicate and share that love, and that where love is, there also is God.

And that’s it, really.