To me, to you

I was privileged to have a visit a couple of weeks ago from Hannah from ‘Hello me, it’s you‘, a charity that aims to help give teenagers a voice, normalise mental health issues, and offer hope. It was a moving visit. They have collated letters from a wide variety of contributors, all of whom have experienced mental health struggles in some way or another, which give advice to their younger selves. It got me thinking about what I would say to my younger self. I am 17; this is a letter to my 13 year old self. Thank you Hannah, for giving me the impetus to write this. 

Hello me, it’s you.

You’re sitting in the toilet cubicle, in the bathroom. You’re getting changed for sport there, because you don’t want to change in the locker room, with all the other girls. They are so much thinner than you. They are so much prettier than you. They are so much better than you.  You’re sitting on the toilet, with the scissors in your hands. You are staring at them, like they are going to bring you some kind of relief. But they won’t. The tears of blood won’t weep away your pain. Put the scissors down. After a while, you will.

You might have saved yourself the physical scar. But every time you stopped yourself, you carved a deeper scar in your mind. Putting down the blade doesn’t make you feel ok just like that. You still don’t feel good enough. You are still wracked with guilt that you weren’t good enough, you aren’t good enough. You thought you had ticked every box you defined yourself by, unmatchable grades, honesty, modesty, the rest. But you told them your secret, and they punished you. You were being honest. But this was how they repaid you; not even your grades could save you. There was no seat for you anymore. They filled it with another, thinner, sportier, perfect girl. And you are the leftovers. You’re not enough.

You go back into the changing room. It’s claustrophobic, it smells, there are clothes everywhere, girls shouting, taunting, screaming, throwing paper planes, beating their lacrosse sticks against the wall. Someone has rubbed your books with rotten banana, the black skin is sitting in your locker. Your perfect books, which never had a cross in them. You feel dizzy, you feel your heart beating faster, faster, you are shaking, there are those pains in your stomach and you think you are going to fall and you know you have to leave but you can’t because that would be showing you are weak. So you are sitting,  waiting for them all to leave so you, and Mr A can be alone, and sort some things out. You want to pick up the scissors, but you don’t want to go back there again.

You see, Mr A has been in your life for a long time now. Those symptoms are Mr A’s way of telling you that he’s coming round to stay. Right now, you think you are alone with Mr A. You don’t even know he has that name. He’s just this thing that’s inside your head, and you know he’s there but you can’t really describe him to anyone. He’s like an indescribable criminal that is blackmailing you, robbing you of your smile, your sparkle, your life. But you can’t tell anyone. Because that would just make him stay. You think if you forget about him, he might go away. After three years of trying, you’ll realise that Mr A is like any guest. He’ll come and go as he pleases, and you can’t really control it. But when he comes, there are rules. And by the time you are ready to leave home (and not running away, properly leaving home), you and Mr A will, mostly, respect each other, and each other’s rules.

But for now, you and he are in a war, raging in your mind. And you think he’s about to explode, and you can’t tell anyone. It’s easy for me now to say that you were wrong. That you could tell. But I remember how you were feeling, shaking in front of that rotten banana.  You couldn’t tell someone. You were the odd one out, not them. They’d never believe you anyway. But the people who mattered already knew you weren’t right. They didn’t know what, where, when, why or how. They didn’t know about Mr A or about the bullying or about the murderous perfectionism or about the scissors. But they knew something wasn’t right. Because you used to smile with your eyes. And right now, your eyes are black voids of pain. While you are sitting there, with your eyes closed, waiting for the shouting to go away, and fighting with Mr A to shut up, they are already planning to come and save you.

One week later, you won’t have to go to school anymore. Not for another five months. And even then you wouldn’t be going back there. But you will have to go back for your final speech day. Prizegiving. Where that perfect girl will take your seat, and your parents’ seat. And you will be crammed into the back of the regimental Chapel, Mr A’s hands on your neck, suffocating you, whilst she took your seat. You will think that you will never be good enough again, no matter where you were going.

You will move school, and you will think that everything is better. For a year, you will be perfect again, the same star in a new sky. Shining brighter than everyone else, and filling every space with your light. And it is partly true, you will regain some of your light. But not all of it. And it won’t stay that way. Because you will think running away to a new school means running away from your self consciousness, and from your imperfections, and from Mr A. You will forget about him. You think he will forget about you too. But he won’t. He will come back, with the others, and his friend, Mr D, so much stronger than before. And, aged 15, you will be struck by a wave that winds you, and you will be a whale beached on the shore, unable to swim. You won’t even want to get up in the mornings. You will experience bullying for an innumerable time. You will be irritable. Then silent. Then burst into stupid tears at the smallest things. You will lose all your friends, and no will understand. The closest person to you will tell you simply that clever people are always lonely, and you’d just have to get used to it. You’ll try to keep it to yourself, the emotions clashing, and bubbling, and exploding.

But there’ll be one difference that time. You will sit at the table and you will cry and cry. You will realise you are not, and would not be perfect. You will realise that you are incredibly lonely, and you just want someone to give you a hug and tell you that it will all turn alright in the end. And you will realise that Mr A had become inseparable from Mr D, and together they are binding you. And you won’t be able breathe and you will feel dizzy, and you will almost collapse in pain. And you will touch the scissors. But she will come in, and see you, and you will say: I’m not ok. And that will be you at your most vulnerable, and at your strongest. You will say, I’m not ok. And, in effect, you will say that you need help.

And she will give you a space to talk, where you won’t feel judged. She will give you a counsellor, a support team, daily meetings. She will give Mr A his name, because you didn’t want to be shut in a box labelled ‘Anxiety’ for the rest of your life. She will help you to control Mr D, Mr A’s Black Dog. Because having a relationship with Mr A will be so much easier. Everyday you will just have to rank yourself and Mr A, 1 through to 10. Gradually, you will move from 1 to 8. Gradually you will build rules for Mr A. Even by age 17 you’ll never push yourself above an 8. But you’ll still working on it. Gradually you began to see a true light, and find a true sparkle.

And while all this bullying, anxiety, loneliness and pain is breaking you, you will be saved. Saved by your school, for sure. But saved by something all together more wonderful, indescribable and heart-wrenchingly beautiful. You have just been confirmed. You believe, sure you do. But I think you’ll really only need to test your belief, and learn to BELIEVE in the next few years. Because you won’t be on this journey alone. You’ll soon come to realise that the place you feel most at home, the Church, will become more to you than just a place. It will become that place where Mr A has been, and Mr A is, and Mr A will be, but it will also be the place where God is, and will be forever. There will be times where Mr A takes over; you’ll wobble emotionally, and religiously. But you will always find God again, and you will be able to do anything with Him.

Your relationship with Him will grow and grow and grow, to the point that there won’t be a day that goes past without you seeing a glimpse of his presence in the world. In the sunlight, bursting through the trees. In a chick as it finds itself in the wrong egg. In the soft breeze as it whispers through the trees. In snatches of music. In the comforting embrace of a warm bed. In the frost as it smokes. In a laugh. In a smile. In a tear. You will learn what it is to experience transformative prayer.

And you will be called into His service. You will live out God’s love in your own life, wherever he calls you. You will hold a hand. You will lend a smile. You will laugh and cry with people. You will serve. You will testify. You will speak. You will share. But you will be there. Because you will come to understand that the loneliness you are feeling right now is nothing unusual. And though you might still struggle, you will understand that the love you experience can make others’ lives better. You can give them the love you are searching for right now. With God by your side, you will inspire, you will love, and you will be.

I don’t know why, but you’ve never been good at talking to your parents about how you’re feeling. Yes, I’m talking to you, who still hasn’t told her parents that she’s spending her lunchtimes in the library to avoid people. You who haven’t told them that you need them. Because you don’t know how. You still find it hard at 17. I mean for goodness’ sake, you will take to writing them letters, because it’s easier than talking.

But at the Cathedral, you’ll find a family you can talk to. An angelic host. Clergy, Virgers, Stewards, Choir Parents, Choristers, Lay Clerks, Organ Scholars, Congregants. Friends. People who love you, and care about you and your family. Sure, you’ll have your run-ins there. But you will also find your voice again. You will share in their joys and sorrows. And they will want to share in yours. You will be ok with going to have coffee and talking about scary things, without feeling scared. You will be supported and uplifted. They will bump into you in random and unexpected places – on the street, at the station, at a concert, at school. They will talk with you, pray with you, light candles for you. And they will enable you to shine like the star that you are hiding away behind the facade of books.

It will all start with you saying: I’m not ok. And sometimes I wish that you would have said it earlier, because you knew it all along. But you said it at the right time for you. And so I guess that’s ok too. And every day that you continue to say: I’m not ok, I am proud of you. And every day that you say: today I feel good, I am proud of you. And you and I both know that there will be days when together, we will sit in front of that locker and fight with Mr A. But there’ll be other days when he will be visiting other people, and you can breathe.

You will still have Mr A days. Though you sometimes still get breathless and dizzy, you will sometimes just be angry, or extremely tired, or unproportionately emotional. You will feel sick, and you will get that sharp knot in your stomach. Those days will be tough. There will be weeks that test you to the maximum. You will feel incredibly lonely. But you will know that you’re not alone. You will never be alone. You have faith, friends, and family. And each day that passes, you will show your strength. One day, you and Mr A may even have a day where you will stand, hand in hand, and smile. You’ll say: we’ve got this. You and I, we’re OK today.

I know that you probably didn’t read that all. It all seems a long way off, and you don’t believe me that things will get better. So if you didn’t read anything else, remember my these pieces of advice for you, to get you through the next few years. And remember, I’m still learning too. You and I, we’ll be learning for a lifetime. And I bet we’ll never find one right answer.

  1. Don’t be afraid to talk. Talk to your friends, talk to your family, a teacher, a co-worker. Say: I’m not ok. And go from there.
  2. Stick to your own values: honesty, compassion, kindness, selflessness, modesty, fortitude, reverence, patience and trust. Learn to be ok with you Catherine-ness, and celebrate it.
  3. Take it one step at a time. Don’t try to run before you can walk. Don’t run away from the problems. Acknowledge they are there, and take each day as it comes. Try and make one small change a day and in a week, a month, a year, two, you’ll see how far you’ve come.
  4. Cherish the memories you make with family in the moments they happen. We all know families aren’t perfect, but you have a good one. When you feel able, tell them how you feel, write if you need to. Look out for them too.
  5. Don’t be afraid to try new experiences. You know that there will be occasions/weeks that trigger Mr A but don’t let that make you say no. You can try, who knows, you might even have some fun! By doing this, you will have some life changing experiences.
  6. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion, and speak up for what you think is right. Sometimes people need to hear a new voice.
  7. Embrace your inner nerd, it will make things easier in the long run. And there are lots of normal people who like Classics too.
  8. Pray. A lot. For your friends, for your family, for the world, for you. They all need your ongoing prayers.
  9. Say thank you. Give praise for everything you have got, and how far you’ve come. You’re awesome, and the world around you is too.
  10. Serve others. It’s where you find your greatest joy. Listen to others. Be there. Give more than you receive. Love.

I love you. You are enough. You matter. And I think, though you might not recognise me right now, you’re going to learn to love me too. And if you can’t quite manage that right now, put your fingers around the cross you bear. And know that He loves you.

See you on the other side of 17.

Cx

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In the shadow of the Cathedra

As I’ve mentioned before, writing poetry is one way in which I cope with emotion and pain. I’ve found it especially helpful in the last year, during which time one important place in my life has undergone a significant amount of change.

I first wrote this poem around Easter, when I was struggling with faith and the future, and have since redrafted it several times, reflecting on how I’ve changed since that point. It focusses on the point after I stepped down from the lectern holding back tears. There are moments where I still feel like I am at the destructive part of the poem, seeing everything I knew tumble and burn, feeling lonely, far from God and incredibly vulnerable.

But more often than not, now I feel more able to take a step back and turn to God in my vulnerability and not simply close myself off, but work through that same pain and destruction in prayer. The feeling that everything is tumbling down doesn’t just go away, but I’ve learnt that it’s about how we react to it that is most important.

In faith, I think we must choose not what is often the easiest option, turning away, but instead choose to turn aside, to pray and seek with God how we can be beacons of light in surrounding darkness, and how we can rebuild in love.

On reading the poem, I feel like you can sense the original anger that flowed out onto the paper when I first wrote it. It feels disjointed and doesn’t quite fit. It is quite different to some of my more lyrical poetry. It is raw and brutal and full of hurt. At the same time, it is a poem in two halves: there is a point during the poem where I saw a different way of looking at change and pain, and I began to see a more hopeful way forward with God. Whenever I read it, I find myself thinking, how am I looking at things today? With anger or with faith? With pain, or with hope?

I struggled to name this poem, but settled on the place in the Cathedral where I felt most comforted as a little girl. I used to sit up between the Quire and Sanctuary at evensong, beside the Cathedra. There, with the sun casting rainbow reflections on the marble floor, I would feel most loved and as if I could do anything with God. It is still one of my favourite and most comforting places, though I little get the opportunity to sit there.

In the shadow of the Cathedra

The walls are weeping

With the sound of our tears.

The walls are shaking

With our bitterness.

 

Foundations tremble

With our stifled cries of anger.

Bricks like tears tumble,

Becoming rubble.

 

It is like watching a car

Crash in slow motion,

Each of us failing to

Push the brakes,

As we travel blind towards

Our time of death.

 

Is the moment of

Impact is passed?

Only our carcass remains.

We wait for the

Final bones to go up in

Flames.

 

It is hard to see when

The asphyxiating

Asbestos of our minds

Will ever be chipped away.

It has already

Killed my trusting heart.

 

Love can rebuild. But

Where can love be found?

A world devoid of love

Leaves my childhood home

Flat on sandy ground.

 

My house has many

Rooms, says the Lord, my

God. But standing here,

I see no room for

Me.

 

Yet I cannot close

My Heart to you. You

Weave yourself back in.

You hold me.

 

I know there’ll be

A day, when my heart

once more will weep with

salted tears.

 

I’ll look to you again:

The Lord on high, my

God. And, alone, I

know I’ll find you then.

 

May I be penitent,

Seek forgiveness,

Be slow to judge,

Be open to forgive.

 

May I find strength in You.

May I speak the truth.

May I heal the wounds

We made for ourselves.

 

On your rock may I

Rebuild my house,

My heart, my hope.

 

Cleanse our hearts, wipe from

Our eyes the tears. Show

Us the place where pain

Is no more.

And make us once more

One in you, O Lord.

Devonshire Whispers

Sometimes going to a boarding school is portrayed as the worst thing in the world. Certainly, as a 6 year old girl who read incessantly with a torch under the blanket, Enid Blyton didn’t always portray Malory Towers as the ideal place to spend your teenage years. But it’s not as bad as the fictional trope. And the massive perk (the perk that gets you through the 10 hour days) is the looong summer holiday. The summer holiday of every teenager’s dreams – 9 weeks, 63 days, 1512 hours of freedom.

We broke up from school last Saturday (01/07/2017). Jerusalem and I vow to thee my country reverberated in the quadrangle as unrestrained (and really quite flat) boyish bellows burst the walls of the Chapel. Smiles, music, joyous tears and piles of cream cakes dissipated into an idyllic summer’s day. The last of the days.

And taking the opportunity head on, we wolfed down the cakes, bundled up our books, and waved a polite yet brief goodbye to the Masters of our houses. We bolted down to Devon, as fast as the A303 would deem possible, nodding at Stonehenge as we ambled past. Last year revealed to us the merits of a pre-season extended weekend in St Ives – this year we were headed to Torquay.

It was the first time that I had visited Devon, and it didn’t disappoint. Ice cream, scones, beaches, sunshine in abandon, complemented with a fully functional frequent bus service (take notes TFL!), popcorn fuelled films on the sofa, and a squishy double bed on my own floor (oh the luxury!) where a hairpin could solve the greatest of world crises: an unfixed showerhead. Trains whistling by the window offered just a distant memory of commotive* reality, cut out by closed curtains.

And the annual summer mini-golf championship loomed. Mini-golf: the fiercely competitive sport where only those who make friends with Moai will conquer. The courses framing our house, in Babbacombe, Torquay and Paignton, offered perfect spots to wage war. A three-day event. A summer sun beating down on us, albeit with a touch of breeze-whipped cloud, signalled that the battle to end all battles had begun. Traversing pirate-infested waters and jungle terrains, the championship reached its ultimate conclusion: I won one, my brother the other two; a recipe for retributive revenge.

But even the threat of mini-golf fuelled vengeance and the sharp sting of a lingering jellyfish scarcely broke through the golden days of page turners on pebbled shores. Schools of silvered fish jumped out of an azure sea into beds of salted chips. The horizon melted in blue surrender as a city busy with labours left untouched the beaches, inviting in the foreign four. A glassy sheen broke under a dusty foot, and at last the water reached out, sucking us deeper into the depths. Seagulls dived, creating arcs of triumph, cleansing the shore of all evidence of human presence. Twisting footpaths gave way to hidden marvels, whilst a battered wheel revolved in a steadfast silent splendour.

Enduring the sickening bumpy coastal path, I passed through village upon village, with thatched homes spiralling round a crumbling churchyard, the local inn sign squeaking on its aged hinges. But there was no sign of a crumbling community. Each man for the other, the foundations still firm below an aging surface. The flowers bloomed in boxed adornments, injecting a myriad rainbow of life. And as the coastal path veered away from a glistening sea, it remained never forgotten, the taste of sea air tickling every sense, the laughter and companionship pushing us onwards.

Onwards to Exeter, where a majestic carved cathedra sat enthroned by ornamented stonework, harbouring elephants, porcupines and owls alike. Where the whisper of a rotting man was drowned by gleeful exclamations of crowds of children following a thrilling and bloody murder trail. The briefest of prayers; a silent pause. The energy of visitors pulsing. Wonder. Awe. Excitement. An echo of plainsong. The aged. The poor. The helpless. The cold. The hungry. The oppressed. The sick. The mourners. The lonely. The unloved. The aged. The little children. Us. Together under one roof, sharing in one faith. Making our mark, buying our little brick. A miniature Cathedral in the shade of the larger, put together by the people. Insurance, ensurance, assurance for the future. People poured out onto a humming green, lost amongst stalls, but forever bound together in God.

Then back to the A303, leading now to an old sagging unmade bed, the stench of unwashed clothes swamped by piles of unread books, and a little lamp flickering over a well worn sofa. Home. The Devonshire coast faded into a London reality. But the hope, the sun, the warmth, the faith remain engrained in my heart.

Now the true summer holidays are here. The homework, the vocab, the UCAS application, the pre-University reading. But 5 nights in Devon paints a masterpiece the art of perspectivisation** and whispers from Devon linger in my mind and my heart, clearing the next few feet of a rocky path: the summer, a time for laughter, love, hope, sunshine, faith and community. A time for trying to heal that which divides us. A time for finding a warmth to purge the cold. A time where work comes second place.

 

moai

Mini golf conquerors must first win over the Moai

 


*Commotive = a mixture of commotion and commuting in an adjectival form; the typical adjective to describe work life in London

**Perspectivisation = the noun of the verb ‘to perspectivise,’ see here