The other S-word
I have long thought about killing myself. If there had been a way to do it in an instant, without any pain, I would have done it already.
I feel like my life is over. I have lost the ability to dream or expect anything new to happen. I have lost the optimism for future, the kind of expectancy, almost a demand that we are guided to have about our lives when we are young. And I cannot do any better.
I write this in a relatively calm state of mind. At present I am relieved that I have a long weekend off. It is sunny and warm. I have plans for today but not for tomorrow and the day after which I am very pleased about. Those days will be dedicated to doing my own things. However maybe seventeen hours ago I didn’t want to live anymore. I am not certain if I do now either but the thought of tomorrow is not as unbearable now as it was then. I ache but I try not to think about it.
One morning I walked down to an Underground platform. I was on my way to work. The next train was in 3 minutes, an eternity for a Londoner at that time of the day. I was at the platform’s edge not thinking anything and thinking furiously all at once, wondering if I had enough courage to jump in front of the train.
It wasn’t the first time. Feeble excuses had always crept up in my head. Once I was going to a wedding and I thought it would be selfish of me to kill myself on their wedding day, although I was a minor guest. I was given the invitation in a rush, as an afterthought. I thought that if they found out that I had killed myself on my way to their wedding it might disturb them for the rest of their lives so I didn’t. Mostly it is my cowardice though that has prevented me from doing it. I cannot bring myself to endure the pain. I have thought about slitting my wrists but it would be a slow death. How much and how long would it hurt if I drowned or hung myself? How quickly would I die if I smashed my skull against a pavement? What if I would not die but end up an invalid? My life would not end but change dramatically for worse and I would have to depend on other people’s care. This is almost as frightening as the seconds of pain that I cannot bring myself to endure. An overdose of sleeping pills or shooting myself with a gun would be ways that I could handle. The first is gentle and the latter is fast. They are both however difficult to get hold off.
That morning though as I was hesitating on the platform I remembered my mother and I realised that I would not want to do it to her. She has always been mentally unstable and it would cause her too much grief. It would come out of a blue and she would not understand. She hasn't really been a mother figure to me but she loves me with that relentless and even childish love that mothers have. It hurts me to see her in pain.
I decided that morning that I would not kill myself, ever, but go on living. I felt crushed then, I still often do. I couldn't and still cannot bear the thought of my life stretching in front of me like this, without any relief.
I don’t know how to write about those moments when I cannot see any other way out except to kill myself. That feeling of utter worthlessness, hurt, hopelessness. I feel like someone has hit me in the face, punched my wind out. I feel unloved and forgotten. If I try to cling onto some glimpse of hope I feel like I am deceiving myself. Then I wish someone would come and save me but knowing that no one will I want to end it all. I am in so much pain.
I try to reason with myself sometimes. ‘If you are nothing, how come can you feel something and how come do you feel pain at feeling like you are nothing? Does it not mean that this feeling of being a zero is something that is amiss and therefore not true?’ and ‘your friends wouldn’t say and do the things that they do if they didn’t like you therefore you cannot be unlovable or a wrong kind.’ But it has been nearly impossible to not believe what I feel. That I am a failure and a zero, that nothing that I do can make me lovable. I am a wrong kind, I am always too much or too little, at work and in relationships. It doesn’t help either to be in so battered inside. It has made me unappealing.
It hurts long afterwards. I wonder how I can get through the day, the week, all that is to come. I worry about how well I am able to cope at work where I am expected to give so much. All that chat and charm, I keep it up because I am afraid of people sometimes. They can be cruel when they perceive weakness.
I have decided to live and I despair when I think of the future. I do anything to make my days worth living somehow. The Zen-like phrases of living in the moment and enjoying the small pleasures in life have become my daily bread. I have to see beauty, I have to photograph it. I have to create something beautiful or otherwise meaningful out of this waste that my life is. I pour it all into art. I will photograph, I will write, draw and sing. It is one of the very few things that give me something. It also drives me. And that is how I will get through this life. Art is to be my redemption.
I sound defiant but I am shattered.
I was on my way to work and waited for the underground at Bank station. The train came, I got on a carriage and continued reading my book. For whatever reason I lifted my eyes from the page and saw that a very handsome man had come to stand close to me. He was reading something from this phone. I was instantly attracted to him. Flustered I looked down at my book again but I couldn’t read. My mind was filled with flashbacks of making love, of what I wanted to do to him and how I craved to be touched and taken in return, that wave of primal sexual desire. The train stopped and as everyone woke up from their reveries he looked my way. Our eyes met and I did not look away. I did not hide but acknowledged him.
I immediately reproached myself for such a vain thought that anyone, anyone like him, could find me attractive, let alone worth the risk of all the hassle of romantic manoeuvrings. It was only a subjective sensation, a wish that I had projected on him after a rush of desire. This however was one the bravest things I had done – to look at a man and let him know, in that subtle, quiet way that I am attracted to him. I held back my tears as I walked up the escalator because I knew that this, this look, this acknowledgement, was as far in this game that I could get.
During these years I have unconsciously adopted several roles to protect myself. Are they roles, are they masks, shields, coping mechanisms, mere reactions? Are there several, just one or a facet of the many-headed beast of a mental illness? I aim to appear uninterested in men I find attractive, especially if I sense that they are attracted to me. I turn them down, subtly or directly, depending on their approach. I am friendly and polite, even light in my mannerisms but I close myself. I am blank, I am cold and unconcerned. I quite knowingly give out a-sexual vibes even when I am with my female friends. Only to a very few friends I feel safe to admit to having romantic feelings for someone and even then I struggle to find the vocabulary to do so.
I was once told over heavy cigarette smoke what ‘a shrimp’ was: someone whose body was fuckable but whose head you would rather cut off. Next thing I heard was naughty giggling. I wondered but dared not ask if there was a term for the opposite- for someone who has a pretty face but whose body is not fuckable. I have remembered the brashness of it all when I have been taking these nudes of myself. They are sexual, sensual, nude- or rather I am sexual, sensual and nude in those photographs. Some of the props and poses are symbolic while some of them are influenced by my aesthetic taste which brings in its own undercurrent. Some mimic photographs that I have seen and which have stayed in my mind for whatever reason. All in all I am candid, smooth and vulnerable. I reveal and I hide. I am there and I am not. I mostly hide because even though it is a picture of my skin, of me naked it is either so close that my shape cannot be distinguished or it is framed so that the different body parts merge together. And mostly I am not there although I have made myself appear sexually available. Or have I? I am naked and my cropped and twisted body can be surveyed but I don’t show my face.
My art education would demand me to comment on these nudes in a constructive manner. As if I was in control, as if I had a point; there is no space to not conclude. I am bored of such art, already solved and categorized. There is no redemption in these theories and critical point of views because they often have very little relevance in the struggles of real life. Seeing that patriarchal and capitalist beauty myths are being dismantled has been eye-opening but the damage has already been done in me.
I am not sure however if I will present these nudes of myself (as art) at all. I am just venting my fear, sexual frustration, hurt and desire with these photographs. I don’t know what to think when I look at them, I don’t know what to think of myself.
It is difficult to write about something that is so raw within me, to form it all into coherent sentences even though I think about these things all the time. Nothing is linear in my mind but more like a maze; the cloud of my existence which only I see. I sometimes wonder if I am the only one keeping such an entity to myself. Then I see the stupidity and irrelevance of such a question. Of course I am not. But I nevertheless think that this cloud, this entity that I keep to myself as much out of necessity as out of my incapability to communicate separates me from other people.
I refuse to be photographed. Only a few selected family members and friends have been allowed to take a picture of me which I rarely want to see myself. When asked why, and I often do, I give them no other reply than simply ‘I just don’t like it’. From a very early age when I looked at photographs of myself I remember thinking that I looked like a little pig. I was always embarrassed when the school photographs came back. My father sometimes made fun of me. It cannot only be my perception and the odd humour of my father’s because people often ask me when they have enquired why I don’t want to be photographed and I have given them my answer that ‘is it because of the way it looks?’
But a while ago I started taking nude photographs of myself on black and white film. Should I still be in Art School I would get into the firing line for doing something so personal and also ambiguous. I still fear it, the firing line, although I graduated years ago. They abhorred self-expression and were not shy to call it a petit bourgeois past time, ‘bourgeois’ being the highest form of insult in those circles. I hear those comments and questions, all that was said in between the lines and it makes me choke. The knot tightens in my stomach. But when I open my eyes there is no one there ready to shoot down the premise of my work, only the sound of bullets echoing in my head.
I went on a diet when I was 12 years old, after a purchase of a shirt that did not look the same on me as it did in an ad that had compelled me to buy it. Looking at the mirror with the shirt on I thought I looked shapeless and not like a woman. My initial target was to lose 3 kilos which I did without any extreme measures but I spiralled to into anorexia because of a fear that I would gain those kilos back. What followed was a standard story of a girl with an eating disorder.
My parents did not notice but my school friends and the youth leaders of my father’s church did as well as a few visitors. They tried to talk to me but I denied everything. I was impossible. I got defensive and was simply awful to them sometimes. I knew I was anorexic, I knew that what I was doing was harmful but the increasing symptoms of my eating disorder only gave me satisfaction.
Then at one night at youth group meeting I clearly felt that if I continued like this I would end up in a bad way. I was angry. I didn’t want to give up, I didn’t want to gain weight but I somehow still made the choice to give in. I walked up to the youth leaders and told them (what they already knew) that I have anorexia and that I needed help. They came with me to tell my father. My father’s response to me was ‘Who told you that you have anorexia?’ ‘No, this is serious.’ said one of the youth leaders to him.
My father didn’t do anything after this confession. It was my school friend who took me to see the school nurse who referred me to an eating disorder clinic. My father was present in the first meeting with the overseeing doctor after which I began to see the clinic nurse once a week. Getting to the appointment was quite a hassle. It was at 3pm on Tuesdays. I had to leave school earlier, take the bus home from where my father would have come to pick me up to take me to the clinic. He would then pick me up from there after an hour or so and drive me home. After a couple of months my parents were invited to a family therapy session with me. There my father said that he is going to discontinue my therapy. When questioned by the doctor he said that it disrupts his work day too much to have to drive me there and back in the middle of the day and that they, my mother and my father, are capable of treating my illness at home. I remember my mother saying a few words of alarm to my father about this decision (it seemed to have been a surprise to her) and the doctor said that she is very disappointed in him but he just snorted.
A few of years after this a couple guys of the youth group made a video about the church as their school project and filmed me among other people. They showed the video in the church service. The film did not show me in a favourable light and the guys had chosen to highlight this. I was zoomed on and there was a lot of footage of me. I cannot remember any other time when I would have been so ashamed of myself. The guys knew that they were making fun of me and possibly also that I did not share their joke because they came to me afterwards and said ‘Oh come on Carita, don’t get upset.’
I don’t like looking back at my teenage years. I suffered from suffocating self-disgust and yo-yo dieting. My whole life revolved around trying to lose weight. I did not live but quite consciously saved living for that day when I would ‘be beautiful’ as I wrote in my diary then. I lived in a daydream world which was fuelled women’s magazines. I compared myself to those models and actresses, greedily wished that I was like them but obviously never attained those perfect body measurements, that feeling of blissful well-being that I so craved. My first year in London was still marked by this struggle until nothing short of a miracle cured me from the constant and compulsive calculation of calories in my mind. From that point on I started to recover which was, again, nothing short of a miracle too.
However after looking at some photographs of myself with pangs of embarrassment one time I made a decision that I would stay out of the frame. I would not be photographed. In those images I had looked shapeless: bony, meaty and fleshy. I smiled in some of them which revealed my wonky teeth and ungraceful grin. I saw that my cheeks were abnormally wide and my eyes were small; my head and face overall looked very strange and awkward. The reason why it shook me so much was that I had felt quite confident that morning when the photo was taken. I had liked my outfit. I thought that I had looked nice and I had had a good day. Then the truth was told in those photographs. I have tried talking sense to myself – that I don’t look so hideous that I should have to hide- and made a couple of conscious efforts since to change the way I behave when someone pulls out a camera. But I just couldn’t and eventually I gave up.
Then one day at the coffee shop they played a song by John Mayer in which he sings ‘Your body is a wonderland where I lose my hands’. Hearing that song has always made me feel wistful and sore. Luckily no one tends to notice all the punches I endure in my inner world. This time when I heard it I thought that my body is not a wonderland but a battleground. That was the start. I began to mull things over in my head. I made three quick triptychs of the topic and posted them on Instagram but later removed them. I didn’t like the tone of my voice in what I had written and I didn’t like the photographs. But the phrase ‘my body is a battleground’ stayed with me and I continued taking photographs a couple of month later.
Why those poses and props, why in black and white? I don’t know and I don’t wish to analyse too much. Maybe I am taking these photographs to prove something. I wish I could say that I am doing this to confront and overcome this issue but it would not be true. I am far too sore.
Somewhere deep inside I remember. When I refuse to be photographed I refuse to be laughed at and humiliated again, even though there might be no one there laughing. Time is an overrated remedy. It is not only my body that is a battleground, it is also my mind.