I once met with a group of facilitators who spent their professional life working with teenagers in schools across Northern Ireland talking about difference, sectarianism, prejudice and attitudes, as we discussed our plans for various workshops one of the group, a man in his mid forties sat quietly listening and occasionally looking across to the window. When it got the part where we discussed the implications of our theme, possible questions, objections and disagreements he made a small and short contribution that in many ways explained everything in and about my whole life and has never left me regardless of what I’m experiencing or thinking about:
“We’re all just trying to keep our shit together -You see, people spend a lot of time figuring out what life is, what it’s for and what it’s all about and they draw conclusions that hold it together as best they can…We don’t want anything to come along and threaten that or to make it fall apart”
He was talking about conflict and difference in that particular context – but his insight was so wise, so succinct and so profound. Because of course that’s all we ever do, that’s all we’re ever doing. Holding it together, the fragility, the pressure, the weight of living and surviving and trying to thrive. But most of us can’t face that or won’t ever face that because we put an awful lot into ourselves and into our lives to numb that sense of fragility and build a barricade between us and ’the edge’ that we live alongside.
I’ve been thinking about the beautiful actor that Philip Seymour Hoffman was, and the sad pictures of his partner and children at his funeral. He was found dead with a lot of drugs in his apartment. I’ve been thinking about the sadness of his fragile life, which people expected to not be so fragile because he was successful.
I’ve been watching Nurse Jackie the story of a NYC nurse who is addicted to painkillers. She took her first pill after her first baby was born – numbing out the crippling fear, anxiety, responsibility and loneliness of femaleness, parenthood and the caring role. Getting sober for her means feeling things and it’s terrifying.
I’ve been listening to music and poetry – music with words that craft pain into beauty, loneliness into company and fear into comfort. This gives me a sense of others out there, just like me, feeling stuff, hiding stuff and then wanting to talk and write about it too. To help us and others know we’re not alone.
I’ve been having conversations about pain. I’ve been taken into confidence and I have taken others into my confidence. We’ve talked about our bodies, how they work or how they failed to work for us. We’ve talked about illness and sadness. Then we wipe our eyes, we hug. We place a smile on our face, consult our to do list and our appointments and we walk around with our scars, the lump in our throat, the aches of sadness and fear and know that we’re fragile and just ‘keeping our shit together’.
I’ve been noticing the people who walk in and out of AA meetings in my world. They walk into a room and say ‘hey I’m fragile and I use stuff to cope’. They are vulnerable and they are in relationship with each other. They walk through twelve steps together repeatedly: ‘I’m fragile, I’ve hurt people, I’ve make mistakes, I need to say sorry, I thought I was broken and I can’t do this by myself. I’m just trying to keep my shit together’
I’ve been thinking about the miles people pound out in the gym, the coffee people down, the spending people do and plan, the working hours that people put in, the mountains people scale, the escapism in TV and movies, the hours of internet surfing and gaming, the sex and relationships that people pursue, the religious zeal people cultivate. The meals we prepare ourselves, the snacks we don’t even notice we’re consuming. The schedules we fill, the projects we set up. The ways that we numb ourselves, to escape our fragility as well as to survive it.
You see, the scandal is that we’re all fragile. We’re all just trying to keep our shit together. And when I imagine the successful and wealthy movie star with a needle in his arm, I think he probably felt just like me sometimes, small, scared, tired and sad. When I think of the woman I sat with who just kept hiding and secreting her prescription pills, she probably felt just like me sometimes. Or the people who spend more than they have in House of Fraser are feeling just the same as the people who are spending more than they have in Primark. The people who drink too much and start crying are feeling just the same whether they drank £10 cocktails or £3 vodka. The people that are so abusive towards themselves and to others that you can hear the punches through the walls are feeling and behaving just the same as the people who you can’t hear because their houses are so big, detached and surrounded by garden. The people that are caring for others, their world revolves around their patients, their children or their infirm relative but that ten minute break on their phone, at the toilet or the drinks after work might just allow a glimpse of the fragility, a chink in the armour of busyness.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately that we’re all, all of us, despite ourselves, living just a few small decisions and choices away from poor mental health and addictions, from compulsivity and excessive consumption. This is the tension of our humanity – not that we are broken but that we are so beautiful and so lovely in our fragility that we are terrified. So we will hide, we will numb, we will mask ourselves and become ugly and broken and despicable to ourselves and to others.
I am much larger and better than I thought. I did not think I held so much goodness. – Walt Whitman
I’ve listened to stories about dementia and to descriptions of the beauty of the brain imaging that demonstrates memory and emotions. I’ve read a book recently that talked about depression and lines and connections in the brain that are broken. I’ve been talking to my friends about how you can lose your voice if you’re sad, how you can feel sick if you’re stressed, how you can sleep walk if you’re anxious. Our bodies hold the stories, the greatest depths of our knowing and knowing others.
There is a hierarchy and a stigma to fragility and emotional health. I’ll be the first to point to it. Domestic violence, gambling, alcoholism, overspending, debt, depression, self harm, anxiety, disordered eating, sleeplessness – we’re used to seeing these words on leaflets and posters, directed at the vulnerable.
But we’re all vulnerable.
And these words if we held them in our hands and ran them over our lives like a magnifying glass would show up all the things we do to cope, numb and survive.
We’re all fragile and we’re all beautiful and it’s scandalous.