When your loved ones think you are going to Hell.

This. Is. Tricky.

I have a close bond with my mum. Despite my breaking away from the way she raised me, tightly bound by fundamentalist doctrines and lifestyle, we have a deep and abiding love for one another.

I care for her as she has cared for me. This is a human love, born from the nurture that she gave me: the bedtime stories, the cuddles, the walks in the woods and the warming heart-to-heart cuppas around the table in my teens.

She was a good mum – the sort who you feel goodness emanating from like sunlight. Her love was tangible and it got me through the abandonment in my first marriage, the stress and anxiety of a child’s mental illness and even my own mental illness in the form of an eating disorder. Knowing that she had my back was enough, at times, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. She didn’t approve of my divorce, but she approved of me, and that was enough.

Mum has supported me through re-marriage, which she disagrees with. She is always on the other end of the phone to chat things through with. We are close.

As for me, I strive to be there for her as she cares for my dad, who has dementia. Her role is a tough one as every day he loses a little more of himself. She needs equipment to get him through each day and carry out his little routines of washing, toileting, eating and getting back into bed for the whole, boring, unremarkable process to start again. Anyone who knows or is a carer will know how it is.

In my turn, I am committed to being there for her as she is now in a weaker position and I love her with all my heart. She is an amazing carer with a determination to keep her man with her until she can no longer manage. He is the luckiest man alive when it comes to a wife, and I have her back as much as I can whilst still having to work to earn a crust.

Yesterday I had a shock as Mum received a card from a friend and couldn’t read the writing. ‘I’ll read it out’, I offered, only to read that the friend is praying for mum’s family members’ salvation. I read out the words as though they were the most natural thing in the world, trying to blank out what I was reading, knowing that it was deeply upsetting but putting my responses to one side. When I finished reading it, there was no comment. Mum looked a little embarrassed. We went about the rest of the day as usual.

It has bugged me ever since. How can we really be close to people who believe, deep down, that we are going to an eternal hell of perpetual flames and suffer forever?

From their perspective, the bible says this is true. ‘Should not perish’ suggests that unbelievers will ‘perish’ (‘perish’ isn’t really the same as burning forever but there we are). Jesus talked about Hell though. It’s clear that the evangelicals have put bits together and concluded that Hell is real and that anyone who is not a Christian is going there. For my Mum, this isn’t something that she relishes. I expect it causes her a great deal of anguish, hence the prayers. But, I wonder, if they REALLY believed that their children were going to bodily be tortured in a furnace forever, would they go about their days in a normal manner? Is there cognitive dissonance going on here?

I am trying to see it from her perspective. I know she wouldn’t want it to be true but is resigned to the ‘fact’ that it is. Perhaps I should have compassion for somebody with such an abhorrent and miserable belief.

But here is a thing. How can they be so happy and joyful about going to Heaven forever to be with the Lord, when most of the world around them are going to Hell forever to suffer torments? This is something that I would love to ask but probably never will.

It isn’t Mum’s fault that I read the card. She never talks to me about her beliefs in this respect. She didn’t know that I was going to read it. These are the sorts of rationalisations and defences that can sometimes calm me and enable me to move past things. But they’re not really working. The issue has got me riled up.

The card was a stark reminder that, despite it all, my own mother believes that I am doomed unless I become a different person. I will never be able to believe that Jesus is the only way. I have too much respect for Muslims, Hindus, Jews, atheists, agnostics and good people everywhere. I will never be able to believe that God, if She is real, has only space for one branch of faith. Is a faith in eternal torment for unbelievers even a faith? People need salvation from what? Their own God?

I have a love in my heart that is pure and good. I don’t need a label for it. It is just who I am and it’s good enough.

The card made me sad. It completely disrupted the feeling of harmony with my mother that I have enjoyed for years. I need time to recover from that. It was upsetting.

A lot of life is about muddling through and trying to be authentic and real despite the challenges of loved ones who differ. I cannot be other than who I am and, I suppose, neither can my mum. Therein lies the problem.

I expect that I, and anybody else in my situation, must find a way to box these matters, shelve them up, never open them, and focus on the commonality that they share with their loved ones. I have three brothers and we all cope with the cruelty of fundamentalism in different ways. My youngest brother knows the bible better than I do as he was raised to be a preacher, and he teaches A Level Religious Studies with academic rigour and theological understanding. He finds immense satisfaction in intellectual rejection of fundamentalism.Some anger, some forgiveness, a lot of goodwill and kindness; one has religious faith, the rest of us do not. For me, I suspect that we need to somehow find a way to focus on what we share: the memories, the laughter, the weird, bendy thumbs that we all have and the mutual support that we offer.

Finally, the family that we choose – our friends. I share this here because I know that there are so many who understand and are in this situation. I know how many people forge a path through their escape from nasty fundamentalist beliefs and how deep the hurt goes when confronted with those beliefs in the present day. We can find fellowship with each other and with friends who share our values. Friends are the family that we choose. For me, after this brush with something so painful that I don’t think I can raise it or discuss it with my mum, I need a break. I need my friends, my space, my husband and my own company to recalibrate and rejuvenate.

Sergeant Shame’s Christmas Letter

12th December, 2021

Dear Sergeant Shame,

I am writing with regard to your role in my life about food, exercise, weight control and body image.  This will take a while to read, so sit down, make a coffee, shed your mind of prejudice and try to focus.  If you are not interested in learning through reading, it doesn’t matter.  Over the next few weeks, you will realise that your role has changed, because I will keep reminding you until you learn.

First, I would like to thank you for all of your incredibly hard work.  You have kept me safe in so many ways.  Because of the little guilt trips you put me on regularly, I am a good daughter, I remember to send cards and messages to people I care about, I am a good mum and a reliable worker.  I have positive relationships in my life and everybody I know would describe me as a person with a good heart, even if they don’t personally like me.  For this I am grateful to you.  You’ve done a good job of keeping me safe, secure and firmly rooted in social connection within this society.  I know how to behave.  I can hold a knife and fork.  I even know which soup spoon to use, because I’ve observed others and you have reminded me to follow the lead of those in the know.  I’m not sure about cheek kissing and general etiquette among the more refined in society, but you have tried to help me to fit in, so thank you.

You have accepted a lesser role in many areas of my life and I hope you feel more relaxed because of that.  For example, you stopped making me feel ashamed about not believing the Bible and not being a fundamentalist Christian pretty much straight away once I pushed back and informed you that this wasn’t your place.  You did put a fear of Hell into me at a young age and you haven’t quite stopped doing that but you’re almost there.  I will be getting back to you on that at some point, but for now, it’s not important enough to worry about.  It’s not your fault; you were only going on what you heard at church and at home.  I know you were trying to keep me safe. 

What is of crucial importance now is your role in my life about food, exercise, weight control and body image, which you started to take over when I was 13.  I went on holiday to Eastbourne and a lad there fancied me.  The excitement of being desired for the first time made my stomach go funny and I could barely eat all week, so I inadvertently lost weight and got visibly thinner.  On my return from that holiday, everybody and I mean everybody (!) praised me lavishly for my slimness.  ‘Wow!  You look amazing!’ people said.  ‘You are the slim one in the family!’ said my Auntie.  And there you were, Serge, taking it all in.  You witnessed how loved I felt, how accepted I was and how this slimness was a cherished status and a prize to be attained.

I didn’t know any better.  I was thirteen and my Mum gave me ‘The Greatest Guide to Calories’ to help me continue my weight loss journey.  She had struggled with weight cycling all of her life, too, and she was ruled by her own Sergeant Shame, a relentless witch who had her believing all sorts of tripe.  But neither she nor I knew any better.  Before I knew it, I was eating a ridiculously small number of calories every day and became very slim indeed.  I was driven by you.  ‘You must get a flat stomach’.  ‘Imagine how much people will love you if you are tiny’.  ‘Don’t even think about cake’.  ‘Eat even less and you will get even smaller’. 

I became a shadow of my former self.  I struggled to walk upstairs at school.  My legs were weak.  I thought about food all day.  I fantasized about big, sugary, fatty snacks.  And, at weekends, I began to binge them, which kicked you into overdrive.  ‘No!’ you screamed.  ‘You are pathetic!  You are so weak!’  As I slowly but surely began to gain the weight back, you shamed me relentlessly.  I didn’t know that the voice was yours, Serge.  I thought it was my own.  ‘I am disgusting’, I said to myself.  ‘I hate my legs.  I hate my thighs.  I hate my stomach.  I am a shameful thing’.  I thought of nothing else. 

I know you were trying to help me.  Up until that weight loss, I had felt a nothing girl.  Nothing special.  I knew my mum loved me.  I wasn’t entirely sure that my dad did – after all, he spent quite a bit of my childhood smacking me very hard – hard enough to leave bruises on my skin and in my mind.  I thought he probably did love me in some unusual way, but it didn’t feel like love.  I was clever at school but in the assemblies that was not worth a bean.  Women couldn’t speak, or preach, or do anything other than wear a head covering and learn in silence.  I wanted to be a teacher one day and I worked hard at school, but the lure of being slim and staying that way became more important, because it was the only thing that seemed to give me the status and attention that I needed.  I know why you took over in the way you did.  I get it. 

Since then, you’ve stayed in charge with food and body matters.  Through my life, as I escaped the religion and fought off the false guilt, as I got my first class honours degree and became a teacher, as I studied for a masters and took on different work responsibilities, as I made relationship choices that affirmed my developing self, as I learned and grew and thrived, you stayed on guard in this aspect of my life: restless, dominant and hypervigilant.

Because of you, I have swung between food control and food freedom but never escaped your drills and sayings.  I have heard them every waking minute of every day.  When I have obeyed you for years on end through tracking and exercising and limiting and fencing in, you have whispered in my ear: ‘you are OK now but don’t get complacent’.  ‘You are acceptable like this but careful with that cake’.  ‘You’ve eaten too much.  You’d best go for a long run tomorrow’.  ‘Oh, you can’t run?  You can go to the gym then or bloody well eat less’.  Once again, I heard that voice as my own. 

When I had years of freedom with food, which I did in my teens and again in my forties, I generally gained weight and your whispers became a shout, reminding me that I didn’t look as good, that my legs were too big and my stomach stuck out and I had cellulite and chubby arms and my boobs were embarrassing.  So it wasn’t really freedom because there you were, with your loudspeaker turned up, marching along the fence line, hopping over it and in my face, yelling, in my way, blocking me.   Serge, you have ruined my experience of food and my body.  You have taken away the pleasure that food and my body should have given me.  You made me want to hide, and shrink, and turn off the light, and cover my stomach, and apologise for my womanliness. 

When Covid struck, I returned to obedience.  It seemed inevitable.  I lost weight, trained for marathons, once again received lavish praise for my strong, toned, slim appearance, and achieved the shiny status of a smaller body.  How tragic is it that, as women, we are praised for taking up less space?  Amid fear, anxiety, panic, shouting news stories, the Coronavirus Daily Update, doom and gloom, the decimation of the NHS and the shock of racist uprising, I returned to the comfort and safety of your rules.  I gave in to the lure of tracking and counting and working out and shrinking.  But I had read the books, listened to the podcasts, learned the possibility of freedom and lost the complete faith that I once had in you.  The compliance was an inconvenience and a chore.  I wanted out. I reluctantly complied for the duration of the pandemic and then I started my counselling course.  I learned about the mind and applied the psychology that I learned.  I realised what was happening here.  Your cover was blown and I cannot unlearn what I learned. 

Serge, it’s over now.  Your time is up.  I know this beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Imagine that the rest of this letter is being shouted through your very own megaphone.  I am not angry at you.  But you’ve done your job and you need to hear this.

Sergeant Shame, there is no room for you in my decisions about food or the way that I see my body.  There is no morality in food.  It is just food.  There is no superiority when it comes to doughnuts and lettuce.  If I ate doughnuts all day I would be sick.  If I ate lettuce all day I would starve.  I need them both.  A varied and satisfying diet is what I need.  It’s what we all need.  A diet that is boring results in rebellion.  Rebellion leads to shame.  And you are no longer welcome.   

I have obeyed you for long long long enough.  I obeyed you at 13 and I obeyed you at 51.  When I disobeyed you I suffered the whiplash of your disapproval.  But I am no longer living my life according to your strictures.  Remember something.  I am your superior.  I am YOUR boss.  You are not mine. 

And as your boss, Serge, your higher ranking officer, I’m here to give you a few facts about food, body image and weight.  Ready?

  1.  Eating food that is tasty is better for digestion, enjoyment and satiety.  For example, putting butter (in my case vegan) on my vegetables, makes them easier to digest.
  2. Eating a wide range of food that I enjoy is healthy. 
  3. Shame about my body makes my brain hurt and it’s bad for my health.
  4. Societal fatphobia is a curse that should be kicked to the furthest depths of all darkness.
  5. Weight gain is not a moral failing.
  6. I have the right to be fat and stay fat.  And so does everybody else.
  7. I don’t owe society a slim body.  I’m not here to be admired.
  8. If I have to count every calorie and log every bit of exercise that I do in order to maintain a slim figure, then I am not meant to be this slim.
  9. Even if weight gain is bad for the health – even if that is true – even if (which is dubious) – so is a life of obsession, shame and guilt around food and body.
  10. I don’t owe anybody my health, anyway.  Health isn’t a moral obligation, so go deal with that.

Finally, Serge, I am here to tell you that I’m going to finish my counsellor training, and become an eating disorder therapist, inspired by the likes of Jennifer Rollin, Christy Harrison, Laura Thomas, Megan Jayne Crabbe, Lindo Bacon and Virgie Tovar.  I am going to educate myself about how societal fatphobia is rooted in racism, sexism and immense privilege.  I will learn about how eating disorders affect those affected by food scarcity, how race can play a part in body shame and how my own privileges impact my work with others. 

In order to do this work, I will take back my territory, the territory that I never occupied but is mine by the rights conferred upon me by my humanity, and I will take personal responsibility to tread each step of my ongoing relationship with food and my body.  There will be no rules.  Rules have no place in this territory.  There will be only love.  Each choice will be made with respect for myself and love for my inner child – who needs to be taken care of and has been taken care of in every way except for this one.  Each choice will be made according to the context that I am in.  Sometimes I will eat too little and sometimes I will eat too much.  Sometimes I will eat emotionally and sometimes I will eat out of boredom.  But you are not welcome in any of it, because I am going to be learning.  Like a little child at 51, I will be learning and will stagger and fall and pick myself up and remind you to back off and keep going, every day, without you and your stun gun and your whip.

I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that your reign is over.  This happened on 7th December 2021, a day where I found myself metaphorically standing in bright sunlight in an open field with an exciting journey ahead and realised that this is my land to claim and it always has been.  I just didn’t know it.  You are demoted.  You may take a rest from all the whip brandishing, which must be exhausting anyway, and return to your vital function of presenting me with guilt about sending cards, cleaning the bathrooms and calling my mum. 

Thanks again, Sergeant Shame.  Without you, I wouldn’t be here.  But without you in my food choices, where you have no place, I am finally, fully, gratefully and gloriously here. 

Lockdown 2020

Written after several months at home

For decades I’ve run from

this raging mind, whose

intensity had the propensity

to erupt and destroy.

I fell in love and weathered

birthing, mothering, teaching,

trying, training, attaining, whilst

battling my long-suffering body.

Confined with my mind,

now there’s nowhere to hide.

Uncertainty cannot be boxed

or resolved, so I sit with the

thunder, wait for the calm, and

finally breathe in time.

My self, your self, our selves.

The fragmented beauty of the inner world.

The part of the mind that Freud described as ‘the ego’ can be described as ‘I’ – the part of the personality that we think of as ‘ourselves’ and that needs to arbitrate between our drives, passions and desires and the internalised constraints of the society within which we live and work. We all know the struggle of wanting to do something, like punching some work colleague smack in the mouth, and suppressing it, only to stick a middle finger up at an impatient driver. The id and the superego are easy enough to define: one wants sugar all day and the other wants us to be disciplined and well-behaved. For those in committed partnerships, one imagines random strangers getting naked and the other reminds us to behave like a civilised adult.

Photo by Merlin Lightpainting on Pexels.com

However, it’s the ‘I’ that I’m concerned with. What is the ‘self’? Some say it’s a construct, always changing, thought up by the imagination – a construct that exists within the particular cultural and social context of each individual. The ‘self’ might be ‘kind’ or ‘generous’, ‘passionate’ or ‘brave’. The ‘self’ might simply be described as a character that we have assigned to ourselves and thus ‘self-esteem’ relates to how that perception is created. Therefore it can change with focused work in this area of linguistic description.

I don’t think the ‘self’ is exactly this simple a construct. I think it’s the part of our brain that experiences the world, and interprets each and every experience that confronts it, in a way that works for the individual. When, for example, I stand in front of a crowd and am asked to speak, my ‘self’ is the fragile hologram shaped by a combination of abject fear and the requirement to present myself as confident, articulate and knowledgeable. My ‘self’, therefore, is the receptor of a bombardment of emotional, sensory and intellectual stimulation, required in each given moment to interpret these and respond in a way that doesn’t shatter me in a hundred different ways. As people, we are exposed to dangers, both real and perceived, on a minute by minute basis, and our ‘selves’ have to negotiate these in a delicate balance of inner and outer worlds.

Our ‘selves’ therefore are amazing, intricate marvels of evolutionary development. But how do most of us face each moment and its infinity of stimuli? There are a gazillion answers to this but I suspect that lots of us use a variety of defensive techniques. Humour is one of them. Intellectualisation is another. How many of us show our ‘selves’? How many of us even know our ‘selves’?

I believe that we are drawn to those who feel intensely. It’s surely why we love animals. They do not hide behind humour or intellect but demand love and attention. Anyone who sees the bliss in a dog greeting its owner, the complete abandonment of joy and adoration, smiles in recognition of its purity. When we see a scared cat, revealing its fear in a cowering posture, seeking to make itself as small as possible, we feel a sense of love for the helpless creature. Children and babies captivate us with their emotional transparency. When they’re sad, their lips shoot out and when they’re happy they jump and hug themselves. I’m not sure what to say about people who don’t feel these reactions, other than that I pity them because anyone who doesn’t like animals or children has really just lost at life already!

At times of emotional need in my life I have attracted people who want to defend me. Open and obvious vulnerability brings attention as does passion, excitement, happiness and enthusiasm. It’s fine to be a closed book – if we want to live a lonely life. If we want to be loved, then we need to let at least one person in. Which leads me to connection.

What connects people? Is it inane conversation about the weather, how many kids they’ve got or what their job is? Although these chats can be sociable, enjoyable and engaging, they are precursors to true connection, which only occurs with the sharing of emotion. Not just the re-telling of emotion, but the experience of it. Tears in the eyes, whether of laughter or grief, bring an opportunity for that spark of magic. The re-hashing of emotion isn’t the same; it doesn’t work in words alone. It’s the experience. Being present in the face of genuine emotion is a privilege and a gift. If somebody lets us into their world, they show us who they are on the inside. They show us their ‘selves’. And only in that revelation, can we truly connect.

It is these connections that make us healthy. Knowing that at least one person knows us and has experienced the revealing of our emotions and has our backs makes us live longer. I don’t mind having friends on the fringe, but I want to know people deeply, too. At least a handful is enough for me. Some people need less.

Even outside of my closest friendships, I love to discover what people experience. I remember and treasure heartfelt observations from others. At Newark Toad Rescue, a high-end operation which involves buckets, nets, torches and high-vis jackets, I chat with a woman who obviously loves the warty little creatures as much as I do, for ‘their intrinsic value’ as she put it. This revelation of her inner world and perception, combined with the tenderness with which she places toads into her red bucket, makes me feel connected to her. A child told me recently that his mum makes him happy and I felt warm and fuzzy. Another child started to cry when it was time for us to leave, and his untamed emotion made us all adore him.

Who we all are on the inside is an amazing kaleidoscope of perceptions, memories, images, connections and experiential truth. We all have this treasure trove of worth within. It’s not connected with what we do in my opinion. People do terrible things because the ‘self’ has experienced and interpreted something badly, in a way that doesn’t reflect the society within which they operate. It doesn’t make them fundamentally less worthy. Like the toad, each individual has intrinsic worth.

Psychoanalytic theory believes that anxiety, depression and a host of other mental conditions occur because of an imbalance in the parts of the personality. Superego has a lot to answer for with its internalised shame. The healing of the ego, or ‘I’, is the only way to heal the whole person. It is possible through the formation of a ‘bond of trust’ with another person, who may be a therapist, and the development of health promoting behaviours in daily life. The type of therapy doesn’t matter. It’s the ‘bond of trust’ that creates the healing.

Therapy provides an opportunity for two ‘selves’ to connect in a way that probably doesn’t often occur in daily life, because of time constraints, embarrassment, self-absorption and distraction. As a therapist, I hope I can bring my deepest self, my ‘I’ into the therapy room and meet other ‘I’s, and connect with their experiences, perceptions and emotional lives. The privilege of doing this work is something that fills me with anticipation because it’s real in a way that most of us rarely encounter.

And outside of the therapy room, I want to focus on the fact that it’s this ‘bond of trust’ that promotes healing, no matter what the approach or the technique. I want to focus on that because, in the final analysis, what heals us every time is love. Not the self-seeking, pleasure-grabbing, exoticised type of love that is portrayed in our shallow media, but the sharing, compassionate, powerful acceptance of one another’s deepest selves.

Meditation Mashup

I think it’s safe to say that most of us know that meditating is great. It’s good to temporarily dial down the pace of our thoughts, whether for 10 minutes, half an hour or a few moments. A few deep breaths and a quiet moment of mindful observation is restorative.

A visualisation for regular practice

I am sure we have all read about other evidence based benefits. Lower blood pressure, recovery from stress, lower cortisol, reduced risk of chronic illness, better sleep, changes in the brain and more helpful thought patterns.

There are apps like ‘Calm’ and ‘Headspace’, both of which are fantastic tools for grounding and finding some inner peace over time, when used regularly.

Most proponents of meditation say it’s a daily practice. 10 minutes or 20 minutes a day is ideal. Personally I find even one every few days is good. I get a bit obsessed about streaks and it works for me to be a bit less rigid. Even one a week is good for the head. The most important thing is practising enough, initially, to learn it and train the mind to go into a meditative state, which is so beneficial.

About a year ago i started to look into transcendental meditation but quickly found out that it requires training with a registered TM teacher, for a cost of several hundred pounds. I joined a zoom chat with one in Leicester to find out whether or not I wanted to invest. I decided not. I would be paying for somebody to bestow upon me a sacred mantra which i must never disclose, and then to teach me how to use the mantra to reach my inner calm. I figured that i couod repeat ‘o mani omin a’ or ‘mummbo jummbo’ to myself and find my inner calm whilst keeping my £500.

I don’t subscribe to anything now as I can do my own thing to very good effect. It is a mishmash of mindfulness, a mantra and a visualisation. I’ve attached it as an example. Just write one out, record it and be your own guide. Or feel free to use mine. It works. I can get to my calm place within seconds now, whenever I want to. Very handy pre interviews, public speaking or facing a terrifying person, not that I know any.

And if it doesn’t work for you, or you think I’m batshit crazy, I hope you have a good day anyway and thanks for reading!

Why you should boost your ego.

As I’m training as a counsellor and am currently only a baby at this, with an exam in January, I have spent a fair bit of time pondering what the theory all means.  I don’t mean what it actually says, or even what it means on the surface, I mean – how does it actually help anybody?

Last week we scratched the surface of Freudian theory.  Despite all the problematic elements of the ideas and the person himself, he remains the founder of psychotherapy and his ideas still form the bedrock of more modern interpretations of the ideas.  We went through the idea that the personality is made up of three parts:  the ego, the superego and the id.

I think most people know more or less what these are.  To recap, the id is an inner child with no conscience or awareness of morality, societal norms or acceptable behaviour.  It is the part of the personality that wants everything and gives nothing.  Its only concern is survival and it does not constitute rational thought:  it exists in the subconscious and presents itself as emotions, desires and perceived needs.  The superego is the foil to the id.  It is the part of the personality that cares deeply about morality, society and acceptable behaviour.  It is the part of us that is concerned about fitting in, being liked, looking the way that society expects us to and behaving in ways that will result in positive outcomes.  The ego is the wavering, confused, often weak and sometimes exhausted person in the middle, trying to tread a path that keeps the others happy.  It isn’t moral and it isn’t especially thoughtful.  It just has to make a decision that will make the person feel OK and won’t end in disaster.  I think that about sums it up.

How does this help?  I know that there’s a ton more to psychodynamic theory, but I’m just thinking about this tiny bit.  I like to apply knowledge and ask whether it’s useful, which is why I love Professor Steve Peters’ ‘The Chimp Paradox’.  It’s not only a useful analogy of the brain, but he provides lots of really useful and practical advice about how to manage the chimp and how to become more human. 

As somebody who struggled most of my life with an eating disorder, starting at thirteen with anorexia and then developing binge-eating, then exercise bulimia and a whole host of EDNOS stuff in between, I often try to figure out what was going on in my brain.  I think that in Freudian terms, my obsession with food and eating must have developed in some sort of rebellion to the control and dominance of the church community.  There was no escape from it; we were controlled in every way.  But there were always cakes.  Yummy, sugary, pink French fancies, homemade chocolate tiffin, moist Victoria sponges and of course Mr Kipling varieties every Sunday at home, church, bible class and Tuesday special.  There were sweets, sandwiches, roast dinners, packets of crisps, club biscuits, penguin biscuits, jelly and icecream, crumbles and tarts.  Churches in the 70s were a smorgasbord of culinary delights, and ours was no exception. 

I enjoyed eating so much that, aged 18 months, I snuck into the larder and ate the centre out of every piece of bread in the bread bin.  There’s a photo of this auspicious event.  As a child, I was a big eater and remember the doctor patting my tummy and complimenting me on ‘enjoying my food’.  I guess this eating enjoyment was driven by the id, but then the superego kicked in at the age of 13 when I inadvertently lost some weight on holiday and was told how amazing I looked and how I was slim like my Auntie and pretty now.  All this societal praise and admiration made me determined to lose another half a stone like a good girl and be slim, worthy and more acceptable to everybody.  The great thing about this strategy was that the approval came from everybody and not just the Christians!  School friends, boys, my pervy piano teacher, more boys and everybody in the family and at church.  Nobody ever expressed any concern as I got thinner, developed a thigh gap and became too exhausted to walk up the stairs, never mind bike to my piano lesson. 

I started eating so little that I was starving by the weekend and started bingeing cake.  The id would win at that point – survival instinct – but then by Monday the superego would kick in again and the diet would re-start.

Where was the ego in all this?  I don’t actually think I ever made a decision that was based on anything good for myself.  I was so busy trying to please everybody around me that I didn’t know who I was.  I’d say it wasn’t really until I was 33 at university and achieving 1st class grades at a good university that I began to consider myself as even having a brain and possibly using it from time to time.  I started to reason, to be logical, to apply critical thinking and quickly the whole pack of cards of my internalised belief system came crashing down. 

I have built myself up from scratch and spent considerable time getting to know who I am.  The upshot is that I’m an OK person who likes to learn, read, talk about meaningful issues, have a few good friends, keep to myself a lot, exercise every day in fresh air and is kind, loyal and sensitive.  I’m OK with myself now.  I can spend whole weekends in my own company and look forward to it.  I am friends with myself.  I didn’t know how to do that before and I think it’s that and only that which can drive significant change in life.

When there’s one of the three Freudian components running the show, whether it be the id or the superego, the person is described as ‘neurotic’, which to me just means unhappy and unbalanced in some way.  It might be anxiety, depression, eating disorder, OCD, self-harm, suicidal thoughts or just low-level dissatisfaction.  The ego needs to be in good shape to take charge of our lives.  Here some some of my thoughts about achieving this. 

Get superego into perspective

Getting the personality in good shape might mean burning down traditions, scrapping the status quo and doing whatever it takes to be in the centre of our own lives.  So many of us go through life in servitude to what others think.  Pretty much every woman I know has had ‘mum guilt’.  What?  Has anyone even heard about ‘dad guilt’?  Why do we drive ourselves insane feeling guilty because a) we go to work or b) we don’t?  This is the superego and, really, it can piss right off.    We are here for a reason and it isn’t living a ghost life trying to keep everybody happy.  Instead of saying, ‘I can’t keep everybody happy’, just accept that we can’t do that and get on with doing the best we can to live a meaningful life as best as we can and in a way that works for ourselves and our families.

Be kind to the id

If you’re craving sugar, or finding yourself binge-eating, shopping too much or doing anything that you don’t really want to do and wish you could stop, and your id in running the show, there’s probably a very good reason for that!  Are you living your own life or is superego in charge, shouting expectations at you about how to behave, what to wear, how to change your body, judging your parenting, saying you look tired and should be wearing makeup?  This aspect of the personality is annoying and mostly wrong and inappropriate.  It’s helpful to have superego because she will stop you murdering your child or throwing dinner over your partner when they bring mud in the house.  But mostly I really think she is shouting abuse in an attempt to control what she thinks is dangerous.  It’s wrong!  And if superego is shouting unrealistic things, then id is going to kick off.  Id doesn’t like to be controlled and there will be an outlet somewhere along the line.  The answer to this is to look after yourself.  Properly!  Say ‘no’ to people, practice being honest and setting boundaries and take time to actually have fun and do what you enjoy for once.

Boost your ego

I’ve had therapy and it’s really helpful. Nobody ever told me about the id, ego and superego, but along the way I learned to make good choices and build a solid relationship with me. It’s so worth it for whatever it is that’s making life difficult. Buy less shit and get a course of therapy. Best money ever spent.

Homecoming

I wrote this in my thirties, having woken up with this beautiful dream. I had been searching for myself, not yet having found her, and this was the beginning.

A child came to live with us.

I was married with three children

when she arrived,

a small, dark girl,

with knotted hair and

vague features.

All I knew was that

she had not received

the right sort of care.

With a gentle invitation,

I bathed her in gentle soapy bubbles,

luxurious warmth for her pale smooth skin,

shampooed with even, circular movements,

the knots and stickiness from her hair

and conditioned the neglected lengths;

when we had done,

it free-fell, snaking

liquid glossy down her back.

When it dried

it was tumbling and healthy,

alive with movement and

vibrant chestnut tones

catching the light every way.

Her paleness gave way

to a rosy glow.

I took the boxes of dressing-up clothes

from under my bed.

Rumpled, twisted armfuls

of fairy dresses, wire wings

with sparkles, sequins, colours

of pink and purple and

eggshell blue,

long drapes and scarves

from Japan, caresses of

satin gliding over the skin.

She stood, watchfully

silent while I dressed her,

picking out the items

with care.

She lifted her arms

while I slid a fairy dress

over her shoulders and

enveloped her in sparkles.

I led her to the mirror,

her warm hand

snug and safe in mine.

She stood, shyly in contemplation,

then smiled with trusting satisfaction.

In the warmth of our bed,

she lay facing away,

snuggled in close and curled

until, overwhelmed,

I began to silently cry.

Then gradually

we merged in tears,

becoming one,

and I awoke,

lying on my damp pillow,

my husband sleeping next to me in

the early morning hush.

Outside were the first crimson streaks

of a dawning winter day.

Woman in Adultery

Trigger warning: A poem written during a time of despair, this explores themes of religious judgment, condemnation, gender inequity and divine forgiveness. Not a morning cuppa kind of read as it’s visceral and violent.

The inevitable judgment descends.

Voices in the corridor outside.

Her lover melts into the background.

He will never feel the full weight of condemnation,

 an unfettered, liberally raised male.

The door busts open, battered by blood-lust,

hateful hands grasp the soft skin of her upper arms.

Sobbing, she stumbles down the muted hotel corridors.

‘Take her to that Jesus of Nazareth’. 

‘Yeah, he’ll have to condemn her. 

Him with all his forgiveness;

he’ll have to acknowledge The Law.

She’s guilty and she even knows it. 

Look at her, snotting and snivelling’. 

Tart.  Liar.  Bitch. 

She doesn’t know Christ, she’s never known him.

He died the death that we deserve, they said.

Stretched flesh hung in toe-curling agony,

blotched, weeping face like an over-ripe plum,

a scorching suffocation,

solemnly described every Sunday.

‘This is his body, broken for us.’

‘This is his blood, spilled in our stead.’

And now they’re dragging her along the street…..

Dad once said he’d break her neck.

Now they’re going to break her bones.

She’s seen others, floppy limbed,

brains spilling out on the sand.

Smashing tearing chunks of skin and hair,

and after that, the God

who’d turn his face away:

‘Depart from me, I never knew you’.

Waking up cold with sweat,

Stumbling through darkness to the bathroom,

giddy with the magnitude of nothingness.

A doctrine of violence,

of slaughtered firstborn sons, youths killed by bears,

milk-mouthed,  peachy-headed babies

 ripped from their mothers’ breasts

and skewered by marauding warriors at the Lord’s command.

A gaping eternity of flame that tortures but does not consume.

As a child, padding through darkness

 every night to make sure

Mummy and Daddy

hadn’t been Raptured away

in the twinkling of an eye.

What about Christ?

Sitting calmly there in the sand,

he turns  from conversation.

Thrown to the floor she waits,

naked, miniscule.

They tower above her.

She never was the same as them.

Now they’ve got her and they’re

going to do what they should have done

years ago –

bury her to the neck in the sand.

Her head will be tiny and trapped and

unable to twist or turn any more

they will snuff her out,

til all that’s left is a broken skull

and a mess for the vultures to clean up. 

Quite right, too.

Now just a matter of time.

A lifetime.

She hears their voices staccato sharp.

Jesus, drawing in the sand.

The crowd are silenced.

 ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’.

……………………………………………

Too many fuckers forgot.

Fundamentalism and me

My misguided quest for freedom

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I was raised within a Christian sect commonly known as the ‘Plymouth Brethren’. Born in 1970. my indoctrination took place throughout the 70s and 80s and still has an impact to this day. The key belief of the assemblies, as they self-identify, is that the Bible is the one inspired Word of God, handed down directly from God to the men who wrote each one of its pages, as they are with us today, and that it contains everything that humanity needs to know about him. My Dad was an elder in our assembly and over time he became stricter than many about the central tenets of faith. He became convinced that the Authorised Version of the Bible was the only correct version, and put a sign on the pulpit asking all visiting speakers to use only this. There were many others within the assemblies who used the New International Version or the Good News edition, but these, said my father and other, stricter ‘brothers’, were taken from an inaccurate source and were not the Word of God.

What I’ve realised, as an adult, is that in every walk of life there are those who dabble or sit at the fringes of a movement, and there are others for whom every detail and every doctrine is of the utmost importance. It happens with exercise, health, veganism and other types of lifestyle choices. These people will create new rules and expectations over time, repeatedly more narrow and strict, and are never satisfied with ‘good enough’. Initially I was taught that girls should have long hair and not wear men’s clothing ie trousers. Over time, this became long hair with no fringe or layers (although I got away with both), and no shorts, culottes or anything which revealed the womanly shape beneath. ‘Modest apparel’ became longer-than-knee-length skirts, up to the neck tops, nothing too tight and definitely no bare arms or shoulders.

Our family had no television (devilish), and I wasn’t allowed to go to discos or anything too worldly. My one and only dance party was at the age of five where I swirled around in a long, pink nylon dress to Abba, had an amazing time with the glamorous Galbraith family and, on being picked up, told that nobody realised it was a disco and it wouldn’t happen again. Men wore ties and suits to church, Sunday was the Lord’s Day, we did not play outside or do anything that could be construed as ‘work’, there was no musical instrument at the morning meeting (distracting), the ‘breaking of bread’ service was a plain and bleak affair, where men stood and prayed, preached or gave our hymns according to the leading of the Spirit, and women sat in silence as ordained by God, and learned in subjection to the men, their heads covered by a headscarf, hat or beret.

As children we sat through two meetings on a Sunday, after already doing Sunday School earlier, a midweek meeting on a Wednesday by the time we were a little older, a Bible class on a Friday and Tuesday Special (games for children followed by an epiloque) which was actually fun, except for the epilogue. We were not allowed colouring books or other distractions and were taken out and smacked if we wriggled or whispered too much. We were taught unquestionable facts about God. That Jesus is the only way to God, that anybody who does not believe and accept Jesus will go to Hell, an eternal torment in flames, and that once we understood and still rejected this message, we would go to Hell upon death, no matter how young we were. Messages about Hell were the main content of the ‘gospel’ meeting in the evening, accompanied by graphic descriptions, and even in Sunday School we were presented with flannel graph boards depicting its fiery flames and taught the inadequacies of our own good works. Only by trusting in Jesus and accepting the gift of salvation would we be saved.

Other churches were not to be trusted and were wrong, although it was conceded that there were individuals among them who were true Christians. I was ‘saved’ at the age of six in response to a conversation about Heaven or Hell. Of course I chose Heaven and I prayed the prayer, felt incredibly happy and excited, and was presented with a little picture bible, inscribed with the words, ‘To our dearest Ruth, on the occasion of joining the Christian family’. I treasured this and still have it.

Growing up, I faced a few traumatic and repetitive anxieties. The first was about Hell, because I believed that if I had any doubts, this meant that I wasn’t truly saved. So I prayed to be saved repeatedly, often in tears, through sleepless nights. The other was about the Rapture, when Jesus would return to the earth in a twinkling of an eye and snatch away all of the Christians both dead and alive and take them to Heaven. All who remained on earth would face the Anti-Christ, a man who initially would appear to be a man of peace, who would re-unite the warring factions on earth, and would be universally popular. But after three and a half years of his seven year reign, he would become an unstoppable tyrant, a force for evil, who would behead all those who rejected the ‘mark of the beast’ on their hands or foreheads, and those people would be unable to buy or sell or survive, would be tortured, tormented and executed, this being their only last chance of getting into Heaven through the back door, so to speak. I worried in the dead of the night that the Rapture had happened and I was left behind, padding across the landing and checking that my parents were in bed, listening for the reassuring snores emanating from my father.

Later, as a teenager, I rebelled, in dramatic style. Never questioning the truth of what I was taught, I did, however, want the freedom that my friends had. Inevitably I made friends at school, as we were not home-schooled, and I became aware that other people had other beliefs. I’d known since primary school that my family were out of line with the mainstream, but as a small child I didn’t really mind that. I thought that we were right and they were wrong. But as a teenager, I began to enjoy pop music, Radio One, ‘Jackie’ magazine, makeup, jeans and, most of all, flirting with the boys. I was a Class A flirt and would put my makeup on on the bus on the way to school and get changed into the jeans I’d bought with my pocket money in an alleyway whenever I wanted to meet up with friends. I kissed several boys at school and ‘went out’ with them, which meant hanging around at lunchtime and kissing on the way to the bus – not actually ‘going out’. And then at fifteen I fell head over heels in love with Shaun, who I lied about to my parents, went to the cinema with, kissed every afternoon on the school field, and dumped when he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Shaun broke my teenage heart when I discovered that he really did just want to get laid, and I returned to the brethren fold as a good Christian girl, truly subdued and sorry for my mistake.

See, the thing was, I couldn’t lie for long. Every time I met a boy (the next one was called Matthew and the next one Keith), I left the meetings, told the parents I wasn’t able to attend because I was seeing somebody, which was forbidden, unless he was a Christian and we wanted to get married some time, and there were massive rows over it. Every time. And thus began my two sides: the good Christian girl side and the worldly boy-chasing flirty girl side. I couldn’t have them both until I finally met and fell in love with the tall, red-haired, deep-voiced Scot who became my first husband, who everybody approved of, and who was also an assembly boy.

Eventually, after having three kids, I went to university, studied literature, came to believe that the Bible is a fascinating collection of texts with amazing contexts of production and reception and not the Word of God in a complete sense at all. For years I tried to escape all of the influences of the assemblies and find freedom of the heart and mind. I hated what they’d taught, the fears that I’d been subjected to as a child, the emotional manipulation, the physical punishments and the rigid doctrines which excluded anybody who disagreed or had the audacity to make human mistakes. I hated what I thought of as stupid beliefs: the seven day creation, the Rapture, the six thousand year old Earth and the binary beliefs about gender, sexuality and marriage. I mocked them, developed a raging dislike of all evangelical Christian beliefs and fought to release myself from the influence.

But here’s the thing. Hating something so passionately means that we haven’t escaped at all. I was still scared of going to Hell. Still am, a bit. Especially as a divorced would-be atheist who can’t quite believe in anything except the beauty of a sunset, a baby, a loving hug or a robin. Especially as a wishy-washy non-believer who can’t decide whether God exists or doesn’t, or whether we are all a serendipitous accident of the universe.

I have come to realise that the brethren isn’t just a group of people who raised me, shaped me, brainwashed me and then rejected me. Some of that is true, and some of it is not. There are those who only ever showed love and kindness and mercy. Some of the most amazing people I ever met were in those meetings. Preachers who spoke with such eloquence that the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up. Sunday school teachers who really loved the children they taught and invited them round for dainty cakes and sandwiches on a Sunday afternoon. Married couples who adored each other and lived with love and affection for decades.

The brethren isn’t outside of me. It’s a part of me, entwined into every synapse of my brain. Indoctrination is permanent and, even if it’s unconscious most of the time, it’s there. I still think in black and white, I still find subtlety and nuance difficult to decipher. I feel uncomfortable dancing at a disco and I’m still moved to tears by parts of the bible. I remember the words of hymns and choruses, I still love everything that Jesus stands for and the story of the resurrection makes me want to stand up and punch the air. If I’m at a carol service, I sing and believe with all my heart, even though I don’t, really. It’s a fairly common paradox to believe and not believe, simultaneously.

Those of us who were raised in a fundamentalist religion are misguided to think of escape. There isn’t a full escape from something engrained in the psyche. The Jesuits apparently said, ‘Give us a child til the age of seven and he’s ours for life’. We can, however, keep the beauty, the wisdom and the kindness of it and cherish that as part of the rich experience of life. The harshness and fear can be dealt with by facing it square on and subjecting it to logic. If, for example, I start to think I’m going to go to Hell, I ask myself ‘who would I be down there with’? I don’t believe my kids are going, or my husband, any of my friends, colleagues or neighbours. I’d be hard pushed to think of anybody who I think deserves to burn forever in tormenting flames. So why would I? It’s ludicrous. Using logic I can face out most of the fears. Likewise, the Rapture. I get scared of the apocalyptic tone of some of the news: the global warming, the melting icecaps, the looming extinction of thousands of species and the bleak outlook for humanity. But does this mean the opaque prophecies of Revelations are coming for us? No, I think we are doing this to ourselves and only we can save the situation.

So I look to the good in humanity and in myself. We can’t escape our childhoods. Awareness that our early indoctrination is part of our DNA makes it easier to stop fighting, learn to love who we are and to respect the process of how we got here.

Spirituality

What does it mean to be ‘spiritual’?

For years, I resisted this word, connecting it to religion, man-made (as opposed to woman-made) structures, strictures, boxes, rules and shame. ‘The spiritual man’ is a concept discussed in the bible and many born-again Christians talk about ‘being in the spirit’, or being ‘spirit-led’ and they may be talking about being moved to pray, or heal, or speak in tongues. I was not raised to believe in these modern Pentecostal practices and indeed the brethren church in which I was raised preached that they were actually devilish. So any mention of ‘spirituality’ has previously made me deeply suspicious, deeply sceptical or deeply bored.

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In the brethren, ‘spirituality’ meant MEN praying in deep, monotonous voices: ‘Our Heavenly Father we thank thee today for thy great mercy in giving thine only begotten son for our heinous sins and crimes against thee’, by which time my inner child is screaming to run away and dive into the sea and swim for the nearest ship to take me as far away as possible. And the Pentecostal tongues, happy clapping, dancing, Toronto blessing style of spirituality I find simply baffling. If anything, I put it down to the charismatic nature of a large crowd egging one another on to greater displays of abandonment.

Despite these negative views of spirituality, I have known forever that there is something in me and in others that constitutes a beautiful knowing and wisdom that is beyond logic or explanation. It’s what I felt when I sat in church listening to a compelling preacher and tears came into my eyes when they preached about God’s love and mercy. It was in the power of the words and the power of the love in their hearts, that thrummed in their voices and thrilled even the air. It’s what I felt when I first heard the second movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and lay on the floor, unable to move, physically trapped by the mighty power of each unspeakably sad outpouring of Beethoven’s grief-stricken heart. It’s what my brother felt when he was at an abbey on holiday, standing in front of a set of stone steps that were worn by the bare feet of monks, many thousands of monks through the ages who trod those steps in prayer and contemplation and Jon felt that inner knowing and awe that I have come to call spirituality.

I don’t believe in mediums and fraudsters who claim to be in touch with the dead. Having born witness to the great Derren Brown’s ability to ‘read minds’ using trickery, memory and neuro-linguistic programming, I think these people are using the same skill set and conning people ruthlessly and callously. But I was once hosting a German student who had become depressed and increasingly lonely, sitting in her room reading every day and even avoiding her friends. For her 18th birthday, I decided to make her favourite cake and invite some of her college friends over. As I was whisking up the ingredients for a black forest gateau, in my kitchen, alone, thinking of her and her inexplicable sadness, I found myself rooted to the spot, unable to move. A tingling feeling took hold of every atom of my body, tears came into my eyes and I was filled from top to toe with the deepest, most profound love that I have ever experienced. In that moment I knew that her father loved her and was thinking of her and that I should tell her so. I didn’t hear a voice but I experienced a knowing and, when the tingling stopped and I returned to normality, albeit very shaken and confused, I considered how to share this information with her.

The next morning, she emerged from her room for a coffee and some breakfast, and I said I’d like to talk to her about something that she might find confusing and odd, and that my intention was not to upset her. I shared my experience and the feeling that her father wanted her to know how much he loved her and was thinking of her, at which point she broke down in tears and explained that her father had died in a car accident when she was seven. She had been thinking of him for the past few weeks and wishing that he could see her at 18, becoming an adult. I held her as she cried, and witnessed her return to her bubbly self later that night when her friends came for her little party, and I knew that this was a spiritual experience that had nothing to do with church, or religion, or anything man-made of any type. It had never happened before nor since and I do not think of myself as psychic. I believe that something greater than me occurred, that could well be explained by psychology, buried memory or intuition, but the explanation does not matter when the outcome was nothing but pure love and healing.

I used to want to have a set of beliefs that would be unchanging, wise and ever-helpful. I looked to books, programmes, philosophies and theories to try to find them. When I left the brethren there was a gaping empty hole in my way of being because up until then there had been certainty, security, community and structure. Anyone who has left a fundamentalist church will know the aching emptiness that happens when it is gone. It goes far beyond the loss of friends and the community. We were shaped by that religion. It is in our DNA. Without it, we are lost, like de-programmed computers that don’t function properly. But we aren’t computers. We can think outside of the conditioning and brainwashing. We left the fundamentalism because, despite the loving community that it provided, it hurt us and harmed us. I was offended by the shunning of a friend, the demands that my six year old child cover her head and the rigid and often contradictory, cherry-picking interpretation of the Bible. As I completed a literature degree as a mature student, I began to see the Bible as a collection of texts, with fascinating historical contexts, and I began to see the brethren’s insistence on seeing it as one cohesive message from God as an addiction.

Because we aren’t computers, we can re-programme ourselves by learning who we are outside of our conditioning. It’s hard, because it seems like everything. But since I left, over fifteen years ago, I have realised that my deepest self is wise and good. Somebody told me to ‘head for the light’ when I was lost in a bad situation and wildly grabbing for external guidance. When I thought about it, I knew what he meant. The light of intuition, the lodestar of MY truth. These are my truths: life is not fair, we cannot control people and love is the only thing that matters. Love for others and love for ourselves.

My truth actually resonates with what Jesus said, and every other religious leader that ever existed. It’s not the religious leaders that are at fault in this world: it’s the humans that grab it and twist it and make it a tool to control or manipulate. Inside and outside of churches, there are beautiful, wise, loving souls who live in light and love.

When I am digging the allotment and Mr Robin comes and waits for a worm, I feel an inner peace wrought in silence, physical exercise and the energy of nature. When I write, I am lost in the quest to speak truth and bring value to myself and others. When I walk in the mountains or look at the stars, I experience that inner knowing that I have come to call spirituality. I’m not sure what it is that I know. God? Possibly. But I have so many issues with the name ‘God’, infused as it is with patriarchal bollocks.

I know that there is more, so much more, than what we can understand or explain. I know that there is an energy, a lifeforce, a mighty power in every leaf, beetle, cloud and rainbow that we can’t explain or understand. I know that we’re connected to the stars and the cosmos and that a newborn baby carries in its tiny, helpless body and searching, grasping fingers the very essence of the divine love from whence it came. And I know that, when I die, I will return to that divine energy. While we live, we can be spiritual, when we are still for long enough to notice. The fact that it escapes definition and can’t be captured in words matters not; if it could, it would become something else, trapped and limited within the confines of human communication. And it’s so much more than that.

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