Trigger warning: mental health, self-harm, suicide.
“The murkiness and ambiguities of a life take on weight and authority by virtue of the published document”, suggests Moyra Davey at the start of Burn The Diaries. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing.
Every morning I am waking up with the anvil on my chest. It’s just there. Immediately. I think it might be what is waking me up in the first place at odder and odder hours. It feels like trying to sleep with a broken bone. I toss and turn and snag my fractured being on my bed frame or my pillow or my duvet and I’m wretched awake.
I’m not remembering my dreams. I’m not sure I am dreaming at all.
Once I’m awake, I sit on my phone for an hour or so. I gravitate towards videos of dogs on Instagram. My Twitter algorithm is delivering nothing but silly jokes. I have no idea what is happening in the world. I recoil from the news like a fire. Once I have dragged myself out of bed, I boil enough water for half a dozen coffees, grab my tobacco and pull a book at random from my shelf. I sit in the garden, read a bit, and then when my brain starts firing I open up the blog and start to write.
It feels freeing to be able to establish this routine. It is Monday and I have a doctor’s note for taking the rest of the week off work. Ten days off for a “stress-related problem”, it reads, which feels like putting it mildly. I tearfully rang my boss before taking an Uber to A&E, so it’s not like the euphemism is necessary. Tomorrow it will be one week since that surreal journey.
I’m not sure why I started making these reflections public, after the onset of this crisis. I have since fallen into this peculiar routine. I spend every morning expunging whatever is on my brain, typing up whatever comes to mind, and then I feel more ready to face the day. I try and plan nice things and make sure I don’t drink more than one pint of beer when I go out. Having exorcised the morning’s demon, I feel a renewed capacity for joy and sociality, but I can’t spend too long in crowds.
It definitely feels like I’ve broken something. When I first arrived in Newcastle, being on my own felt brand new. I was newly comfortable in my own company, without the need for constant distraction from my own thoughts. At the same time, I regained my capacity for being a social butterfly and made so many new friends. Then I lost the capacity for both alone time and company.
I am trying and figure out what it is about the last few weeks that has led to this moment. There are plenty of obvious triggers, little stresses that have left tiny cracks, but I’m also aware that I have been in this position before. I feel almost exactly the same way I did in London in 2017, after Mark died, when a recently acquired group of friends, who first met a gregarious, camp and effusive man were suddenly greeted by a hollow figure without spark or smiles. I wonder if the reality of Newcastle life is nothing more than a screen, onto which I have projected the repetition of past traumas. But I nonetheless feel socially anxious about the present. I feel like I need to meet people all over again, introducing them to a different and far less friendly self. I don’t expect anyone to like this me; I certainly don’t.
So I have started writing publicly again, after six weeks of relative abstinence, putting all my energies into therapy and finishing the first draft of my next book. I feel more comfortable with this blogged arrangement, suddenly. No one need bother reading the things I write down here. It is a way of letting people know what is going on with me without the inescapability of a more personal bout of self-reflection. If anyone is bored, they can simply close the tab. I worry about the pressures of social politeness that foreclose a comparable action in meatspace. I can lean into my own self-concern here. But why still make it public? Why now?
I’ve mostly been keeping a private diary for the last five months. Though Davey speaks of papers and journals, I’m more aware of the ephemerality of a digital writing habit. Or perhaps it is far less ephemeral, despite being immaterial. The Word doc on my desktop, with the straight-forward title “Psychoanalysis Diary”, has 43,009 words in it, all written since my first therapy session in December 2021. (For some reason, I thought I’d been seeing my therapist for longer than that.) Every time I see that number, I insufferably think to myself, “That’s almost a book”. That these expulsions are so precisely measured makes them feel distinct from Davey’s innumerable mounds of paper.
I start reading over the first few weeks of entries, rendered in a perfect chronology. The very first is particularly telling. It ends:
I laughed a lot as we spoke, oddly aware of how excessive the trauma of the last decade alone has been. Maybe I was just trying to make light of it all. I have a tendency to do that. I think it is why no one ever takes me seriously, as if I don’t take my own experiences seriously so I clearly don’t need that much help with them. But it’s either laugh or melt away under the weight of it all.
Despite my habitual masking, he said he could still hear the emotion.
“It sits in your throat. I can tell you’re holding it back, off your face, but I hear it in your voice. You trap it there.”
I told my partner this afterwards.
“Yes, that’s what you do”, she said.
I had no idea. I thought I hid these things well.
A new awareness of this fact allowed me to stop swallowing my pride, or whatever else it’s called. I let everything come out. I cried all the time. But I didn’t feel like I do now. I felt free. That was the intent, apparently. No intellectualising (or at least no “academicising”). Just sitting in my feelings like an uneasy dwelling.
“Look”, I said, “I know a bit of the background of the Philadelphia Association and R.D. Laing, and it is interesting to me, but I almost don’t want to talk to you about it.”
He had already described how the approach to therapy was “phenomenological” and I had to fess up. I’ve read plenty of philosophy to hear that word and think all sorts of things, but I didn’t want to enquire because I don’t want to intellectualised my experiences, both past and unfolding in the present, as we were speaking. I didn’t want to come into this as a philosopher with a nerdy interest in the nomenclature. And that is surely how it should be. A phenomenological approach to therapy is a dialectic process, based in dialogue, exploring lived experiences and feelings. It isn’t diagnostic or theoretical in the way other therapies are. The paradox, of course, is that phenomenology demarcates a conceptual framework. How am I supposed to leave my brain at home?
I ended up saving all my thoughts that week and put them on the blog instead.
We talked about the grief a lot. I expanded on my thoughts from last week, about the false dichotomy between mind and body, but I think the issue for me is that I feel that disconnect. I don’t believe in it or think it is a good way of approaching the world, but I feel it like a wound. I feel severed from myself, from others, from everything. I’ve smothered a lot of my feelings as a result, preferring instead to rationalise and analyse than feel the gaping maw.
We later spoke a lot about the fact I find intimacy really difficult. It is a major factor in the end of this present relationship, as it has been at the end of every relationship I’ve ever had. My Year 7 girlfriend Hannah dumped me because I wouldn’t hold her hand. I got over that following the humiliation. But then my Year 8 girlfriend Maddie dumped me because I wouldn’t kiss her. A pattern started to emerge. In my current relationship, though there were no immediate obstacles, it was clear to her – and had been clear for years – that I had to push myself to engage in a lot of intimacy. […] I could force myself to push through it all the same. But at a certain point, that understandably becomes patronising, and there is no way that someone cannot take that personally without being inside your head as you wrestle with the conflicting emotions.
The shame of this alone is enough to make me want to end it all, quite frankly. In a world that insists so much on the body and sexuality and their tandem display, my separation from myself felt like the most abject alienation, and one that ends up hurting everyone I’ve ever loved. It’s like a curse from a fairy tale. A Midas touch. But instead of gold, everything I touch turns melts into air.
An intellectualised version of that session ended up on the blog as well.
These days, I just do not have the drive to get close to anyone, at least in a way that is not uncomfortable for me, which is of course normal for everyone else. The ways I show affection are different and do not necessarily gel with the expectations of a normal sexually active relationship. I like being around people, somewhat ambiently, passively. Like a cat, the biggest compliment I can pay someone is just hanging out. But that makes me feel quite pathetic. I’d like to be able to respond to people’s emotional and physical needs in the ways that they want, but I second-guess and find that they are not readily apparent.
This is also an issue in platonic relationships, if a less pressing one. It is rare that I feel comfortable being touched or shown any affection, and I tend to recoil from otherwise innocuous advances. Autism? Asexuality? Both have been considered. [My therapist] asked what it was I experienced when a friend put a hand on my shoulder or similar. “Is it a coldness?” he asked. I found this interesting. In a way, yes. I feel myself recoil as if someone has put a cold hand on me. But the strange thing is that I nonetheless recognise the fact it is a warm gesture. I feel warmed knowing that is what it is. But knowing it and experiencing it are two different things. I experience warmth as cold.
This conversation, which feels so reckless to share publicly, is where I have returned to in my own thoughts this week. After an initial bout of sociality, drinking in the ambient affection this makes possible, I suddenly feel incapable of receiving any of it. I feel like my anxiety has encased me in concrete coffin. I feel at a distance from everyone.
[My therapist] suggested that maybe it was a distrust. To be removed from my biological mother’s arms, placed with a foster family and then my adoptive family, I lost out on the experience of motherly skin contact. Now, when someone approaches, my response is always: “who’s that?” Touch is so alien; thirty years in, I’m still not used to it. It feels unnatural every time.
But the contradiction here is that I have the biggest of hearts. I feel so open to people and long for connection constantly. Then it feels too much. I let people in, then feel battered and bruised by their warmth.
The creeping return of self-harm as a part of my coping strategies becomes its own kind of intellectual curiosity. It is far easier to deal with this feeling when I am actually battered and bruised. Perhaps there’s something about writing this all out publicly that feels similar. There is a inherent risk to writing like this and hitting “publish”. I wonder if I am actively trying to damage my own reputation, or simply crack open the cloistered self that is presented publicly. I skirt close to the public airing of interpersonal conflicts and private conversations, which may also hurt other people. But there is no malice felt in doing this. Still, it is a concern.
In Burn the Diaries, like so many books I’ve read recently — the semi-fictionalised diaries of Jean Genet, Kate Zambreno, Hervé Guibert — there is always this same jousting between the public and the private. In Davey’s work, the contradiction is so plain to see. “Burn the diaries”, she says, whilst making them public. Is publication its own kind of incendiary process? Though she begins with the observation that publication brings weight and authority, the words themselves undermine this from within. She notes how, for so many of the writers above, illness (often terminal) is a constant companion. Writing is a fire through which self-destructive energies are burned. Jean Genet quotes litter her fragmentary reflections: “I had to work [time] almost in a blaze, and almost day and night”, he writes in The Declared Enemy.
I was up all night last night, feeling stressed and angry. The last week I’ve been feeling very manic and running around at 100mph, writing and transcribing and copying out whole books in French for translation and doing a dozen different things. And it has felt like this energy has come from nowhere. “Anger is an energy” is that John Lydon / PiL mantra that always goes around and around my head, and he’s right in some strange ways. It’s an energy I’ve been drawing on without acknowledging it as such. Just burning through that fuel before tonight, when I stopped and thought about where it was coming from, and it spilled out in a desperate and deeply sad rage.
I often wonder if my compulsive writing habits were to blame for the end of my most recent relationship. In discussing it openly, I feel like any number of pathetic influencers who make a name for themselves online before announcing, with an almost humorous surprise, that their wife has left them. No shit. How to build a life with someone who is busy building a life online? I hope that is not how things appear for those who know me through the internet. I don’t think things are that simple.
Week eight — the week I knew I was moving up to Newcastle:
[…] moving was a kind of coming out. What I feel attached to might be the social ideal [of home] – something I feel somewhat beholden to, under the weight of expectation from society at large – but it’s not my reality and never really has been. In that sense, this sort of queer loss – and I think it is queer, in a lot of ways – is multifaceted. Though the reality of a stable biological family is not something I’ve ever known, I’ve long been aware that I’m the plug or the hinge or the join for another couple’s dream of that. And so I feel like I’ve felt that in this relationship. The impact of adoption trauma on other relationships, at least when they come to an end, isn’t so much a projection of that mother-child separation but rather it resonates with the other side: the trauma of a relationship you hope will be forever just not working out, which is something I feel when I think about both my biological and my adoptive parents.
The truth is I feel most at home in limbo. I think I’ve actually been at my most relaxed in this odd relationship, which we’ve kept up for the last eighteen months, where we have been more like friends than lovers. And though I think the indeterminacy is what broke it, it was where I felt safest, because that’s what I know and have always known.
It’s the ideal. I’m struggling to let go of the ideal. An ideal that looks like a nice house in the country and all these other markers of social and emotional stability. In truth, though we’ve both yearned for them, in our own ways, we’ve never had them, at least not together. But the dream was there, is there: this sense of settling down and putting down roots, entering my 30s with a plan to finally make a home, a base, a place to always come back to. I’ve not had that place for a long time, and whilst some people get on fine without it, I struggle without a nest. I struggle without the ideal, repeatedly tarnished and degraded, further and further out of reach, but always aimed for and always desired.
Much to my own surprise, I felt like dating again as soon as I got up here. The few months of processing what was ending made me feel like I understood what I needed in future. Something a bit queerer, less heteronormative, more fluid, more knowingly traumatised, so that all of life’s obstacles could be properly navigated together. I felt a rush to find it, and then I realised just how much work I have left to do, falling back again into a sense of disconnect, where the possibility of connection feels so utterly remote.
Adoption trauma looms large here, as ever, and the idea of leaving behind a sense of home provokes a sort of primal bodily trauma that I just can’t explain. It disturbs and upsets in a way that few other things do. It’s a feeling I know, a grief I feel deep in my bones, and it is inflamed by the slightest resonance.
I can’t believe I thought, even for a moment, that I was passed that. Here I am again, traumatically inflamed. I watch as other people wander through life with a nervous joy, exploring themselves and others. It pains me to watch, if only because I feel so incapable of it. Prudishness? No, just trauma. All I feel capable of doing is writing it down.
Moyra Davey writes:
The dross of the diary, the compulsion to scribble, the delusion that we can hold onto time. The inversion of the anxiety of being read, the fear of wounding, and, just as strong, the dread of being unmasked.
Unmask me, I feel. Read me at length. Hate the person underneath. It is warranted.
I think of burning, but I prefer the image of burial and water, as either of these seems slightly less absolute in the sense that the book might survive, albeit in an altered form…
Publication feels like drowning or burying these words in the social, in an audience. Flinging something into the void of publicity in order to be done with it, secretly longing for the trauma of a response but expecting the return of a message in a bottle on this lonely island, regurgitated by the waves, sodden and ready to be written on again.
Last night I typed out a tweet. Maybe something of a suicide note. “Look after yourselves, everyone. I’m sorry.” I thought about what would happen if I pressed send. My plan was to send the tweet and then disappear into the night, looking for a final resting place. It felt like a rehearsal. I sat and looked at the message. I wondered who would see it, how it would be interpreted. I imagined police smashing down my door, finding me gone, beginning a game of cat and mouse across the city. I imagined the admin that would result, the embarrassment of having no door, the cost of replacing it. My flatmate is away for two weeks and I couldn’t bear the thought of her returning to such a nightmare.
Genet, in his essay “What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn Into Four Equal Pieces, and Flushed Down the Toilet”, writes:
A work of art should exalt only those truths which are not demonstrable, and which are even “false,” those which we cannot carry to their ultimate conclusion without absurdity, without negating both them and ourself. They will never have the good or bad fortune to be applied. Let them live by virtue of the song that they have become and that they inspire.
When is writing not an art work? Is it possible for these confessions to not be “writerly” in their expression? Does that betray them somehow? Corrupt them?
I’m not sure why I wrote “Look after yourselves, everyone.” I’m not sure why I am writing it down again now. This message, sent out anyway, under different circumstances, makes me feel like the gesture cannot be repeated. It has been published. To repeat it would be a kind of self-plagiarism.
Last night, I felt differently. The more I looked at this strange phrase, given the circumstances, the more I tried to internalise it and take my own advice. I read it over and over again for an hour. I hurt myself. I got dressed in a new set of clothes. New underwear, trousers, t-shirt, hoodie. I put my key in my pocket. I discarded the tweet. Yes, delete it. Do not save it as a draft. Then I got back into bed and went to sleep.