MONITOR

It’s been pushing upwards for a year or more. Doesn’t rush, but doesn’t fall either. 

Being a chronic over-thinker, I associate the higher figures with increased dis-ease. Hopefully not disease. But you don’t know. That’s why it’s called The Silent Killer. You don’t know the pressure has been building, building. Then something bursts, and unless you’re lucky, that’s it, game over. Or it bursts free and lodges somewhere important and you’re worse than dead. The Butterfly and the Diving Bell. Even typing that tightens my chest.

But is it a silent assassin if you can feel the creeping vice of tension and almost hear the rustling tendrils of anxiety? If the danger is not knowing the tension is climbing, and you know you are anxious, does that mean you aren’t in danger?

The doctor suggested a monitor. Twenty-four hours with a sleeve and a box the size of three stacked cassettes, connected by a piece of soft tubing; a synthetic umbilical cord. 

It’s set, the nurse said as she fitted the business end to my upper arm, to take a reading every half hour. Right, OK. And every hour overnight, she added in a voice that invited me to say ‘Phew!’. I didn’t say anything as I was busy noticing the slightly clammy snake of plastic slithering across my back and round to the box at my hip.

Felt odd, having something medical attached. Waiting for the big squeeze. And the device itself, a lump under my untucked shirt. If I’d brought headphones I could have pulled off the Walkman thing, easily. Just relax, were the nurse’s parting words. If you move your arm or tense, it’ll beep to say the reading has failed.

I was on the ring-road when the contractions started. I tried to relax my arm, dropping it into my lap like a prosthesis. Compression builds until the thump of blood is quite loud. It’s not painful, just a bit unpleasant. With eight hours on night-shift and sixteen at two per hour, there’ll be another forty or so of these. 

Beep. 

Shit. Must’ve moved my arm. The little box thinks for a moment and tries again. My free hand grips the steering wheel tighter.

Already I’m focussed on the moment where the release begins. The sleeve relaxes in beats. I notice I’ve been holding my breath. Take a couple of deep ones; probably worth staying aerated.

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It’s put me into an odd space, this innocent little recording device. Forced me to adopt its cycle. When is the next one? What will the data show?

I should ignore it, but I can’t. I’m tense. I’m waiting. It’s going to happen, but when?

Probably shouldn’t drink, but what-the-hell. Couple of glasses of evening red. By half-past ten I’m wrung out. Tense and wary. How will it be to sleep with this thing grabbing my arm every hour? Quite a lot to do tomorrow, errands galore. Need some sleep. Half a sleeping pill just to help me get off. I feel sheepish but promise myself I’ll own up to the doctor when I see her next week.

The night isn’t so bad. In fact, I resent coming to consciousness in the morning as the anxiety jags straight back up.

Late morning there is a space for reflection. I realise that the feeling of waiting, of marking time until the next event, is deeply familiar. It’s a frozen place; not necessarily cold but immobile. It’s a waiting place, but not with particular expectations. There’s a level of dread, but it is diffuse and difficult to pin down. Something’s coming; cortisol says ‘tense’. There is only the now; a kind of rigid stillness that is alert and ready to be alarmed. 

I notice how every time the gentle vibration signals another squeeze, I jump. It’s such an old response there are no words. The reptilian brain, the ancient brain, the reactive brain, whose early programming sneers at thinking and defies overwriting.

So I wait, for twenty-four hours. Can’t think about anything, can’t write. Fold washing, load the dishwasher; music plays but I’m not hearing. The periodic lub-dub pulsing in my upper arm is the metronome of this day. Not until much later, does it occur to me that I was incapable of imagining an end to the process. Marking time, standing on the spot; it’s not a choice, but a state. Like a rest on a music stave, it signifies an absence, not relaxation.

The power of the metaphor rocks me a little. It’s a truth that can be felt. I see from a different angle why I’ve always been useless at planning. Can’t look ahead, don’t set goals, reticent to take initiatives, risk averse. But really good at monitoring, at waiting. At enduring. Stillness on the outside, tight inside with a dull throbbing undercurrent of fear. 

Waiting for a safety that never came.

*

 

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OBSTRUCTION

Here, idyll.

Surf in the distance, its soothing pianissimo thunder punctuated by the occasional foreground car.  Ultramarine sky.

But not one idea has done more than hover like a seagull over the shoreline. No stories, insights, flashes of inspiration. A brain made drowsy by a surfeit of summer. Or other things.

I’m a nighttime person, generally. Not that I sleep in. Middle-aged aches and a querulous bladder argue against bedly indulgence. So often the time after the boy and his mum head bedwards is when I imagine writing. Thinking fuzzied by the mealtime libation, ideas fogged by alcohol and the muddy lethargy that comes from watching summer sport on TV. An evening person, perhaps, but self-sabotage arises locally—a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Australian Open tennis evening sessions.

Lack of discipline is the most common get-out clause for writers trapped in a low orbit. As I trek through Irvin Yalom’s recently released memoir—a hero, I hate him—and read about his ‘mornings writing and afternoons exploring’ (Bali, Seychelles, Paris, Lake Como, Holy Homer, what a life) I recognise that under my sneering envy of his privilege lies an uncomfortable truth. I’ve never been willing to claim the keyboard. Really make a commitment and shoulder whatever sacrifice is required. The recent Rearview Mirror series at Vinyl Connection is my first attempt at greater-than-weekly writing in almost five years. Pathetic.

The surge of envy is entirely equal to the slough of self-hatred.

Self-confidence is vital in any endeavour. Somehow the ‘I can’ voice must overcome the stabs of doubt and the whispers of ineffectuality else the child is stillborn. Dead before arrival. Often thoughts and ideas appear on my inner screen like distant fireworks—brief explosions of light and muted cracks, low on the horizon and soon extinguished. Reading how Yalom spends time before sleep pondering and playing with plot and story ideas for the next day’s writing gets me thinking (again) about the ephemeral nature of my own sparks. A proper writer can bottle that lightning and tap it the next day like plugging into a wall socket. It’s not just practice, though that would help (as would a simple way to capture fleeting images). I remember lying outside at midnight in rural Jamieson, many years ago, sharing the rug with a friend as we gazed up at the Milky Way. She always seemed to be looking in the right place to see the meteorite. My sightings were peripheral; by the time my eyes flicked to the silver pencil-trail it was gone.

Yearning to decorate the sky, yet so muddily earthbound.

Brainbound, more accurately.
How to interrogate this process, despite its crushing familiarity.

An idea comes.

A writing idea, ‘cos that’s my thing.

Then something shuts down. Like a clamp, like a blanket. Like the night of an impenetrably empty space. As Piglet put it so eloquently, ‘A great big… Nothing’.

Invoking Pooh’s timorous wee friend is no accident. For all my ability to channel Owl-like pomposity and nihilistic Eeyore pessimism, it is the ever-fearful Piglet who is my enduring talisman.

An aside. I’m recalling the story where Piglet gets a bath—much against his wishes—and is highly uncomfortable until he has escaped and rolled himself in sufficient dirt to recover his familiar grubby persona. That feels a bit like me and therapy, to be honest.

Back to the brain. The shutting down syndrome. It’s a cerebral trauma response, where overload leads to stasis. Nothing revelatory there; the process is one I’ve been working through myself and with clients for decades. (Three ironic cheers for The Wounded Healer!). But we are not veering off into a psychological paper for two reasons. Firstly, I’m not remotely well-read enough on emerging research in neuropsychology to offer anything helpful, and secondly, I don’t want to. Correction: I am not able to. Even this level of disclosure has a part of me quivering with terror.

What’s to be done? Is this brain plaque capable of being dissolved by therapy and (or?) other healing processes?

Or writing? Around twenty years ago I purchased a book called Journalling For Joy. Ten years ago I took it out of the paper carry-bag. Still haven’t opened it though.

It feels like a race against time. Enough healing to write—really write, according to the desire of my crumpled heart—before the natural and unavoidable ageing process dusts away vocabulary from the mind’s blackboard, leaving only vague smears of regret… that’s the goal, I guess. Avoid regret.

Unless, of course, there’s a future in writing about not writing?

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