I am seeing a herbalist occasionally at the moment, who is not remotely sympathetic about my 'issues' with food, which I find HUGELY challenging. When she asked, on my latest visit, what I had been eating and serving the kids, I found myself going blank and feeling rebellious, sulky, and cross. Even though I actually plan menus. On paper.
She has a direct and unemotional manner. She doesn't do sympathy, she does diagnosis and treatment. It seems that I wish to be treated with kid gloves, as though I might shatter if she uses the H-word (that's H for healthy).
Part of me doesn't want to go back to see her EVER AGAIN. Mean, horrible lady, who won't pander to my whims, won't be nice to me for being such a hero as to Address My Problems.
Another part of me thinks (knows) she's doing me a favour. She's assuming I am fully functional – an adult, forsooth! – and that I'm ready to hear good advice. In fact, her assumption, oddly, is that, since I'm paying her, and she is a trained expert in herbal medicine and nutrition, I must want to hear what she has to say.
She's totally professional and totally right.
On my latest visit, having become deeply irritated by a piece of unwanted advice about our son's behaviour at the dinner table ("You just need to exclude him when he acts up"), I ended up by asking her how she manages running her herbalist's business with two kids.
She softened considerably, and admitted that she also has to cox and box – she still feeds them healthy stuff, but that might default to a sweet potato if she's really busy. She plans ahead, just like I do. And the killer statement: if she's feeling ropey, she doesn't just dose herself on her own medicine, she sits down and gives herself a diagnosis, going through a full checklist, as she would with one of her patients.
Now that point really helped me. I've been trying to keep a work log for the book I'm writing, a separate spreadsheet, which tells me what I've done and what needs doing, which is totally independent of the thinking and angsting I need to do to actually WRITE.
For years I would not accept that 'writing' might benefit from planning. I totally fell for the myth of the inspired genius, essentially fuelled by pulling all-nighters at university, and getting away with them. As far as I was concerned, 'planning writing' was for administrators and plodders, whereas I, I the genius would be able to gush forth fully-composed epics sans conscious thought.
Even if I planned my wretched doctorate backwards, I did, eventually, very late in the day, plan it. A friendly professor suggested I 'use subheadings' and learn to 'signpost' my argument, a technical term for which I had complete contempt, until I realised that my prose style was as dense as an elephant's turd.
Since making the choice to leave academic life, and 'become a writer', a career in which I have had precisely no success (YET, goddammit), I have allowed out my inner planner, and learnt to use spreadsheets like everyone else. I have accepted that compartmentalisation is actually beneficial, rather than the work of the devil, that it doesn't actually impede the flow of free thought and emotion, or automatically result in repression and neurosis. Which is what I learnt to think about compartmentalisation as an undergraduate.
What I have learnt is that you need BOTH. You need flow, and you need to bracket. You need rules, and you need to play with the rules. If you standardise things too much (like education), you don't let anything happen, you just box ideas up, and half of them seem 'wrong and bad', just because they won't fit the standard. Yet if you let everything hang out, you might be cultivating depression, paranoia, loss of motivation, wallowing, inability to see wood for trees, etc etc.
You need to plan so that you can let go of planning.
Thus with food. For YEARS, I refused to plan what I was going to eat, believing that this would lead directly to obsession, addiction, and a resumption of bulimia. I connected Bohemianism with health, and privileged exciting spontaneity over boring preparation. I left little cul-de-sacs in which biscuits and sweets could be hidden, little dark spaces in cupboards and psyche in which to stuff the fear of bringing my addiction to sugar into the light. For fear I should have to give it up entirely.
For fear that I should discover I can actually manage without my props.
For fear I should find out that I am an adult, that there is no way back to my seventeen-year-old self, that no neural pathways or body memories actually connect me back to that earlier identity.
For fear that I would have to accept that she is dead.
That my adult competence and stoicism have killed her.
That I healed up a while ago, and that I don't have a problem with healthy eating any more (except insofar as it's a pain in the arse to plan menus, go food shopping, and then prepare meals for ungrateful children, and that it's fundamentally anti-feminist to slave over food for the family).
But I also need to accept that, these days, I Quite Like Cooking.
I have had to work so damn hard to overcome my pain and bitterness about the phantom limb of my amputated career. I have had to work really hard to accept that what I chose, choosing to have children, with everything that ensues, has simply been harder than anything else I have tried to do in my life.
My choice has also, however, forced me to turn and face some of my deepest problems, least likeable characteristics, and strongest, most damaging habits. Because these are the ones your children bring out in you. You can hide them from everyone else (or at least make them look interesting). You can't hide from your kids.
If I had never had children, and had simply gone on with my crippling coping mechanisms, succeeding professionally while hating myself, overworking, anxious about food, lonely, eaten up by my own competitiveness, I would be a professor by now, but I would also be a basket case.
Of course it isn't an either/or equation. I might, had the circumstances been on offer, have been enabled to keep working as a lecturer after children, and gone on juggling, found my feet and my balance, and enjoyed life.
Or… I might not have had children, and nevertheless put myself through the Change Programme I invented to get over having my props suddenly stripped away, eventually emerging as the Happy Professor.
Or… I might have got sick of academic life anyway, and left for a new career, regardless of whether or not I had children.
Or… any number of illnesses, accidents or Acts of God might have befallen me. In the end I just left my job because I had a baby, couldn't commute between Cambridge and London without support, and there was no support. Point final.
I will never know whether I would have sorted out all my neuroses had I stayed on my career track – that particular choice was taken away from me, and in the end, it was having no control over that choice that I saw as the greatest loss. With or without my career as my trusty steed, I have had to grow up.
I think perhaps I need to keep going to see the herbalist.
Sunday, 18 October 2015
Thursday, 8 October 2015
His funny, satirical, angry essay, 'A Eulogy for Nigger', has just won the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize.
Here is what we talked about:
And this is a taster of the essay: