Alone together

In the further adventures of writing more often and pushing myself out of where I’m comfortable (which is mostly where I talk about writing and being a writer, but don’t do any in case someone wants to read it and then tells me I’m a terrible writer who should be ashamed of myself for thinking I can do it…) I am rummaging through old writing magazines again for writing prompts.

This prompt comes from a copy of Writing Magazine from last year, September’s issue, in recognition of World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10th) created to draw attention to a campaign led by Network Rail, British Transport Police and the rail industry called ‘Small talk saves lives’ – which recognises that a simple conversation could be enough to interrupt suicidal thoughts. 

This prompt made me think about how much we say without speaking, how loud a silence can be and how much meaning can be read and shared in a small gesture or touch. 

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Alone together.

An island of pent-up, explosive motion sits, deliberately and palpably motionless, in the central seat of a bench at the edge of the platform. Despite the hour, and the people heading in their own busy ways towards work, the tense, dipped head discourages anyone from taking the empty spaces beside her. A space around her almost pulses with the volume of her silence.

Jenny, clenched around herself, letting her dark hair drop, unkept, across her face, is locked around her centre, and something in her mind is screaming such a painful silence that the strangers in the station seem to instinctively give it room, standing at a distance rather than resting their commuting bones beside her hurt where they might catch it. The electric fence of furious tension rings her, herding strangers past as their gaze slips by.

The metal of the bench is warmed by the beating sun, the waves of heat already absorbed by the baked stones reaching back in waves that blur the edges of the platform under a sky the blue of a postcard, but Jenny’s white-knuckle grip of the seat’s edge is hidden in a clenched fist of cotton as she pulls down sleeves to cover her hands, her feet tucked below in a skirt that brushes the ground. The clothes aren’t heavy, but still she stands out, dressed in her autumnal middle age in the burning heat of youthful summer.

Agnes, heading to work, has been travelling from this platform to the theatre where she dreams of being more exciting than she is, but her place has always been behind the scenes. Daily she can be found shaking the creases out of sweat heavy costumes and stitching repairs into burst seams between shows. Used to being unseen, Agnes, sticky in this heat and clinging to the shade to protect her ginger skin from summer’s cruel observation, takes in the scene.

Theatre is never still – at the edges of the stage Agnes waits and mouths the lines of actors so much bigger, bolder and braver than herself – but she holds no envy for their shining light. She takes great pleasure in her sidelined role, enjoying existing beside them, observing. This observational habit has caught a glimpse of Jenny, and something about the silence of her burns even hotter than the vibrating heatwaves on the trainlines passing through.

She wonders what the girl is mouthing, what unsaid words are holding her so still. It isn’t the stillness of a wait, of passing time in daydreams until the train scoops her into the rest of her day, cocooned in a space filled with other people’s lives.

That is the stillness of a person built from pain, from shame somehow. Agnes recognises it from the mirrors she avoids, and the question never fully forms in her mind, but the tips of her fingers tingle with it. Tiny hairs crawl to attention across the nape of her neck, and there’s something wrong that she can’t quite name…but this violently silent girl is the centre of a storm about to break.

A distant whistle doesn’t register but Agnes moves as if it has, stepping towards someone else’s storyline and biting her lip as she pushes through the bristling static that surrounds Jenny. Tentatively, not sure why she’s afraid, she takes the seat on Jenny’s right hand side and feels the curled-up girl beside her tense anew, though she was already stone still and firm.

The sound of her breath seems embarrassing, a slight catch and whistle in one nostril, and Agnes hopes that this quiet girl doesn’t think she’s grotesque, the bubbling human function of her breathing somehow feeling wrong, though there’s little she can do to change it. A sniff, involuntary, doesn’t shift the whistle, but the heaviness of rushing air sounds less obtrusive, and Agnes holds the next breath in, a sigh waiting to go when she thinks what she’s doing, why.

Another whistle on the still air, closer now, and the silent stone of Jenny glances up, a flick of blue that dulls the sky, just as quickly gone and waiting under the waterfall of hair. The stillness of her and the air under this early morning heat prickles dots of sweat across Agnes’ top lip, and the breath she was holding oozes back out in a damp puff.

Ten thousand conversations pass between them, lightning fast communication not voiced, not needed; people are bustling on the fringes of them, more feet stepping side to side, shifting weight from hip to hip, briefcases swapped from left to right, a gathering of people all together, but not at all, and Agnes feels the tension growing; a crescendo has to come, surely? This couldn’t have been better staged. The crackling, nasal tannoy tells them the next train doesn’t stop at this station, and platform two in five minutes will take them on to the next phase of their day.

A tiny nod.

The horn again, now almost upon them, and Agnes understands why she sat, why she crossed into the scorching sun despite the pinking of her rounded cheeks that takes so brief a time. Her fingers still tingle, her pulse speeding up as she lifts one hand; the prickling is as familiar as sewing slips, the needle marking her again, but her blood doesn’t bloom this time; the feeling shoots like lightning bolts to touch the arm beside her. When Jenny doesn’t pull away, Agnes feels emboldened, and slips her fingers further in, uncurling the cotton fist so slowly, and Jenny feels it too. The sleeve unfurls enough for elegant pianists’ hands to glimpse the day, and Agnes wraps her own into them, origami of comfort for a pain she doesn’t know.

The rigid, angular body beside her breathes some granite out and breathes this comfort in, again, again, and one more time; the grip tightens fiercely when the train rushes in, the tannoy shouting lost among the rushing air and flying metal, faces blurred as strangers travel to their destination, unaware and uncaring of the moment that just passed.

In the rush of air their hair blows, lifts, the red and black a dance of joyous life, and, smiling to herself, Agnes knows that it’s ok.

And so does Jenny.

The moment passes shortly after the train, and after a little squeeze, returned, Agnes reclaims her fingers, the tingle gone, and brushes her skirt smooth. She breathes again. The whistle of one nostril lost its impact, and she stands; the next train on platform two will take her where she needs to be. She’s done what’s needed of her here.

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Dream hangovers

Dreams area funny things, aren’t they?

Like films that you can’t quite remember the plot for in the aftermath, but you felt every emotion in real time, despite them flashing by in just seconds. Little brain farts, a twitch in your frontal cortex which processes your day, your feelings, your fears, and holds them all up to you like an identity parade for your own neurosis…

Why is it that the good dreams simply fade away, disappearing back into your sleeping body, and you wake without really feeling them – but the bad dreams linger?

The stupid thing about it is that, despite knowing it’s just a dream, and it isn’t real, a dream – a nightmare – can make you experience all kinds of emotions, and even though you’re responding to something in a dream, the emotions are still real – so when you wake after nightmares, you’re still left with all those tumbling feelings, spinning through your head.

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I’ve always lived with nightmares – I’ve had enough bad experiences in my life that, often, they are more memories and flashbacks than dreams – and even at times where my life is lovely, and things are going well, where my real day to day stresses are pretty insignificant and I’m aware that I’m very lucky – the nightmares can sneak up on me.

I get them a lot when I have my period – another perk of hormonal imbalances I guess – and because I have endometriosis I have my period A LOT OF THE TIME (24th this year I think?) and I’m also full of cold at the moment, so not sleeping well – and not sleeping well = bad dreams. Bad dreams = dreading sleep, = not sleeping well = more bad dreams.

And those bad dreams leave me with a weird kind of hangover, a feeling that I’m not quite sure this world is real, that I’m real, and feelings of hurt, anger, fear, left with me from whatever has happened in the dream.

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There’s one in particular, a recurring nightmare, one I’ve had with very few changes since I was a child – there’s a man in the dream who is someone from my real life, but bigger, more frightening, darker, and the dream hangovers mean I sometimes feel like I catch a glimpse of him just in the corner of my vision, the corner of the room, waiting for me. He’s a malevolent cloud which follows me into waking and never quite washes away again, hanging around for days, making me feel fractious and anxious.

I know dreams aren’t real – but dream hangovers very much are.

Eff my Tourette’s

Tourette’s is a condition that people never used to know anything about and now, thanks to various (often quite low-brow, shock entertainment) documentaries, there’s more awareness – but it usually means misunderstandings.

Usually people laugh at my tics. They laugh more, or politely pretend not to, when I say that I have Tourette’s, or immediately respond by swearing at me (and then laughing) because to most people, Tourette’s means uncontrolled swearing.

For the record, if I swear at you, it’s because I meant it – and I do it a lot, but it’s nothing to do with my Tourette’s, it’s just because I think you’re a dick.

Tourette’s means tics; it means not having any control over verbal or physical tics which can manifest in a wide range of ways. My own particular tics have changed many times over the years, which is generally the standard pattern, and the first I ever had that I associated with Tourette’s was a strange popping sound I made in my throat in my late teens; I was a fidgety child, never sat still, often hummed or popped my lips, and the neurologist I saw in my late twenties who finally diagnosed my Tourette’s (after I’d repeatedly twitched my head away from him trying to examine my eyes, stroked his hair because I couldn’t not do it, said “Meep Meep!” and done jazz hands so often I looked like a sad, drunken Fame dropout) said that those young signs were early indicators of the condition and not, as I’d always thought, just me being a giant pain in the arse.

Tourette’s is also much more than just tics – there are a great many associated conditions which often get diagnosed separately (I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and OCD before I got my Tourette’s diagnosis, when in fact those are part of it)

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Currently, my tics are exhausting. My Tourette’s, as with many people, has got worse over time, and if I’m anxious or stressed it’s worse – and a fun additional condition that most people who have Tourette’s have is clinical anxiety, so, yeah…it means that I’m not great at sleeping at night, and the more tired I am the worse it is, and again the condition feeds into itself to make the symptoms worse. I’m still doing jazz hands, or a painful click and point or clap that spasms my arms and hands, or slapping/punching myself in the head, or a fun combination of all of those, while announcing “beep boop!” in a very cheerful way.

Two of the worse – but funniest – examples of my tics getting in the way are often repeated as anecdotes to friends because I find with most things in my life that making light of issues makes them easier to live with. One is from a job interview shortly after I graduated from university (which had been exhausting enough in itself) the two people interviewing me knew about my Tourette’s, as I’d been working for the company for a while and was interviewing for a promotion; they had never witnessed it themselves, but had discussed it with my manager before the interview. In the middle of the meeting, sitting with cups of tea and chatting quite informally, I began to relax and that gave my tics freedom to take over and I shouted “Foot!” and whipped my tea-cup over my shoulder, dumping the contents behind me, and then slapped it back into my lap (leaving a bruise, for further discomfort!) and there was a long pause while everyone processed what had just happened – then the interview carried on as if nothing had happened, with nobody making reference to the puddle of tea on the floor or me rubbing at my bruised thigh!

Another is from another job, a number of years later, when I used to collect a colleague on my way to the office and drive him to work. Again I had told the boss that I had Tourette’s but, like many of us, I have learned to ‘hold in’ my tics when I’m around a lot of people, and it all comes out in the car when I’m alone. Despite not being alone in the car I was very ticky this particular day, and kept clapping, meeping, clicking and whistling, and was about to explain to my confused colleague what was happening when a particularly enthusiastic combination of jazz hands and a slap to the face saw me hooking a finger under the frame of my glasses and flinging them across the car into the passenger foot-well. Not great, considering I was in the outside lane of a duel carriageway doing possibly a little over the limit at the time, and I’m as blind as a bat without them.

“So, I have Tourette’s, which is why I’m twitchy, and I’m going to need you to pass those back so we don’t die in a hideous car crash” I said. Then whistled, and slapped his leg. “Sorry.”

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Back to the swearing thing; we don’t all do it. There are times I wish I did, so I could get away with calling people names to their face more often, but I don’t have that condition; it’s an additional condition that fewer than 10% of people with Tourette’s have, called coprolalia, and despite people with Tourette’s appearing on a number of documentaries now, which I always watch, I’ve yet to see any mention in them of coprolalia, or anyone who has Tourette’s being included in a documentary who doesn’t have the coprolalia – which just continues the belief everyone has that Tourette’s means saying “Fuck” a lot. I do say fuck a lot, but that’s because I’m a bit common, and nothing to do with my neurological condition.

I have a cousin with Tourette’s – he does have coprolalia too, and oddly enough the same birthday as me. That’s got nothing to do with it either. Having coprolalia also doesn’t mean you have Tourette’s, as the condition can be caused by other neurological issues.

My Tourette’s exhausts me, in part from the constant vigilance when I’m out and about so I’m not shouting “Beep boop!” at people in the street or accidentally slapping strangers with my clicking jazz hands, but also from the strain the tics take on my body when I get behind closed doors and let it all go. The ‘tell’ I have that there are tics coming is a strange shiver at the base of my skull, the kind of feeling that you get when you need to stretch then do a really good one, and there are times when I do one big tic and the feeling is satisfied, and goes away – but often the tic wasn’t ‘right’ and has to be repeated, which gets more and more painful (particularly when the tic is punching myself in the throat) – and when I say it has to be repeated I don’t mean that I’m willingly slapping myself to get rid of a feeling, but that I have absolutely no control over my body when these things are happening, over and over again, causing bruising and muscle strains and cramps.

It’s been a game to people over the years to do things that set my tics off, because they find it funny, and there are times when I don’t mind that, when it’s affectionate, when close friends or loved ones tease me about me wrinkling my nose like a rabbit, mention of which immediately makes me do it (as does anyone touching their nose or referencing their nose near me, it makes mine feel tickly) but in one previous job the manager told the whole team about this quirk, and it just never stopped, all day, every day, the people I was supposed to be senior to making me “do the nose thing” to distract me from my work all day, making my nose bleed because I was rubbing at it so much – but I couldn’t not rub at it when it was being referenced all the time.

The tics also make me lose my train of thought and, when it’s a bad day, make me woolly headed and distracted, and that’s a pain in the arse when you’re in a disciplinary meeting with a member of your staff who keeps “making you do the nose thing” when you’re trying to talk to them about their lack of respect, but you keep doing the nose thing and can’t remember where you were, and just come over unprofessional and hurt yourself.

I’ve written about my Tourette’s before – probably with the same comedy anecdotes – on other blogs and for publications, and everyone close to me knows that I have it, and those who love me can get away with laughing with me about it on the days I’m ok with it, or copying my ridiculous jazz hands and the phrases I shout out, but someone who didn’t know me well laughing would still hurt, and being mimicked by a group of teenagers at a bus stop never feels good.

But I’m writing about it again today because today it’s making me cross. Today I punched myself in the nose, which made it bleed. Today I am exhausted from looking after a poorly child and haven’t had enough sleep, and am furious that my own body is betraying me in a way that is so painful and so draining when I’m already so tired, I have bruises on my leg from slapping it, I have put my shoulder out doing click-clap-jazz hands, and my five year old son keeps slapping himself in the head to “Be like Mummy” even though he knows I don’t do it on purpose, but he doesn’t really know how else to sympathise.

Sometimes it’s fun. I wish the verbal tic that made me shout “gerbil!” had stuck around longer, and jazz hands can, at times, just make me seem fabulous – but today it’s shit. It’s totally, totally shit, and it hurts, and I’m too tired to reign it in, and I just want to lie down, but if I do that I won’t feel rested because I tic all night in my sleep too, and am currently just waking up aching all over and feeling more weary than before I went to bed.

So far I’ve not been medicated specifically for Tourette’s – I have anti-anxiety medication which helps to stop the crazy that runs away with my thoughts, and enables me to rest more, and I have had sleeping tablets when it’s been really bad before, but that’s as far as we’ve ever gone, but in recent months the Tourette’s has become more and more pronounced, and I’m beginning to think I’ll need to explore other options with my doctor, which means having to go and ‘let it all out’ in front of someone else to ‘prove’ there’s an issue when, in all the time I’ve known my GP, I’ve managed to restrain my tics in front of him, because that’s what we do.

Now that I’ve written all of this about my Tourette’s I am ticking like mad, because thinking about it or talking about it makes it so much worse, so I’m going to go and sit in the dark somewhere. If you want to know more about Tourette’s, visit Tourette’s Action who have some great resources, and if you’re making any documentaries just casually slip in there the ACTUAL NAME OF THE CONDITION YOU’RE SHOWING. Just a thought.

 

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Also, don’t buy me this; I won’t laugh. I will call you a cunt.