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Disturbing the Body

A new anthology of women’s writing is currently open for submissions with Boudicca Press (details here).

In the course of a Twitter conversation last year, Verity Holloway and I met over shared interest in writing about experiences of our bodies falling from under us. Following Verity’s recent open heart surgery, and experience of rehabilitation and recovery, she had begun to write in an attempt to record and make sense of the surreal experience of surgery and post operative experiences she was having. I responded to Verity’s query, having been writing about my own experience of chronic fatigue and pain. From that by chance conversation we are now delighted that Nici West of Boudicca Press is helping us to take things forward in what will be a crowdfunded project with a collection of new writing – Disturbing the Body.

I wrote a short piece of what brought me to the project here, and in parallel to this piece wanted to write about why language and words are so important when it comes to writing about illness, disability, trauma and surgery, and in all aspects of considering ways in which we find our bodies do not behave as we would like or expect them to. The words we use are important, the narratives of these experiences are important. Whether experiencing illness, trauma or disability, we can be left feeling out of control, it can leave us feeling helpless and frustrated as we are not able to do the things we might previously have enjoyed. We can be left feeling ashamed, as if we are somehow responsible for these uncontrollable things, and are thus less than or weaker than others who do not have such experiences. In writing our own words and reclaiming our narratives, we can establish a new kind of relationship with our bodies, we can establish a new kind of mastery – of how we think about things, of how we make sense and project that sense into the world. The words we use are crucial.

We live in a world where story telling and narratives about illness and the body are constructed by medics, by society, by those who do not necessarily have first hand experience of these things. Others’ voices are emerging to change this, and I hope that this changes, not only their narratives of their individual experience, but the general narratives held for us all, and the potential to write our own. As has been highlighted again more recently, with the horrific pandemic currently tearing around the world, it is invariably narratives of war and battle that get retold – of winning and losing. This is no war or battle, illness is a part of life – it comes to us all eventually – and until we find ways of navigating it without blame or judgement, we will continue to suffer much more than necessary. Societal attitudes offer additional burden for people living with chronic illness and disability, and if writing helps change attitudes and reduce stigma, then this becomes an even more powerful thing to do.

Call for submissions is open until 7th May 2020.

If you are interested in reading more about these themes, there are many great writers to go to – see Sinéad Gleeson, Sarah Manguso, Sonya Huber and Susan Sontag.

Turning tides

More than a hundred days after collecting a hundred oceans and I want to reclaim the tide. I’ve been buffeted and hurled about in the surge of the storm. The swell carves new outlines. Clarity of light shows new colour. Shape is moulded and chiselled and everything sharpens.

To breathe new air.

A trip to Cuckmere Haven. It felt bold and exhilarating. I needed to breathe new air. I needed to be elsewhere.

I had connected with the slow moving, meandering nature of the river that winds through the valley on a previous visit. Eighteen months ago I had walked its length to the sea, but felt exhausted by it. I had pushed myself to reach the destination, pushing further to get back again. Looking back it is a memorable moment, a clue to my incubating illness and my own denial of it, or just a lack of recognition.

A short while after recognising my need to again rest, to recuperate at a rate that my body will allow, my thoughts – when they returned – remembered Cuckmere Haven. It is taking the path of least resistance, I thought. It is going as quickly as it is able. This is the most direct route. it resonated with my own limited levels of energy, of the importance of holding on to a belief that, no matter how slowly I am moving, it is the best and most effective way to travel, to recover.

I didn’t get as far as the sea this time. I didn’t expect to. I wanted to be there, that’s all. To breathe new air and to check it still existed – like a toddler, I feared it may disappear if I could not see it. Or perhaps I feared that it was me that could disappear.

Photograph by Alex Woodcock.

I collected a jar of water. Evidence. A memento – a sign to help me remember.


I measure my breath against the tide – it rises and falls with my chest. Inhaling salty air my lungs fall into step, it slows my stride along the shingle beach. Rising and falling, waves stretch and retreat – the breath of the ocean. My shoulders fall.

Debris coughed up scatters along the tide line, paths of seaweed and mermaid purses – the insides of the beast sprawl at my feet, signs of another world with new life. Undulate and thornback rays populate this stretch of water – small black leathery pockets show their inhabitants have hatched and fled their nest. Two smaller pale brown egg cases with winding tendrils tell me there are cat sharks out there too. What else cannot be seen but leave traces for me to find? Balls of dog whelk egg cases bounce around in the wind, their empty shells evidencing the life then lived, both ends of a life cycle captured on the same patch of beach.

I can only imagine what lies beneath my breath, what activity there may be below the surface of symptoms and absence – restorative and regenerating or simply treading water? When the tide will turn remains unknown, For now I shall continue to breathe.

Body of Water

The tide wipes it’s surface clean every 13 hours, an etch a sketch sweeping aside the marks made ready for new ones. It erases mistakes, lines drawn in error, in the wrong place: a clean slate, a fresh start, a new and perfect surface. And it arrives in a different colour, with a different sound, and a different texture every day. It shows me that I do not have to be the same, I do not have to be strong, or persevere or persistent, I just have to be – to come and go as the sea. What it brings with it, may be debris cast overboard, it could be treasure. Energy fluctuates, ebbs and flows. It is rarely noticed. The tide is in, the tide is out, you have to watch carefully to see it shift, to watch it turn. You have to be very, very still to notice the precise point of change. Time marks the spot, the precision of the clock calls the sea back to shore. Time: a curious beast. Fast and slow it marches, rhythmic and solid, unwavering, it just keeps going. My sense of it is very different. Time comes ashore, tries to ground me in routine, but light and dark, the moon and the sun, shift and swerve and another day is passed. I lose count, one day, two days, seven days. Time creeps up, like the wolf, it is stealthy, silent, hunting. Then it hits me, it’s been more than two years, more than two years of feeling like this, so long I have forgotten what it is like not to feel like this.

The ocean, immense and terrifying, I collect small amounts each day. I think it will make it less immense, less terrifying. This feeling of overwhelming and unremitting fatigue, I think perhaps the sea will help. If I can control the ocean surely I can control my own body. This frail, feeble, pathetic house of a person I am. Not even a shell, a shell is sturdy and protective, a shell is beautifully formed. This house gives way easily, buckles and folds without warning.

The sea: an unpredictable constant.

The body: predictably inconsistent.

The angry sea

Sculptures in the sand. Low tide, and evidence of what was before lies at my feet. I stand on the sea floor, as it was just a few hours ago. The beach is revealed. Regular and irregular bumps and dips, rivulets and drawings are left, messages from the sea I try to decode. Without words or emotion of its own, the sea is imbued with ours. Our thoughts and feelings, evoked by its presence, are attributed to the ocean.

I watch where I walk more closely, alert for patches of sinking sand, preoccupied with my own feelings of rage. Rage that has no where to go, rage that seems to serve only to erode my energy – a precious commodity I cannot afford to waste. The shapes in the sand are a physical trace of earlier activity. Seen in isolation, without presence of the sea or knowledge of the tides, I might marvel at its presence as a magical intervention, an elaborate artists creation. It seems all the more special and intriguing that it is made by the water. Shapes that look like trees, carvings and landscapes twist and form. It distracts me from my internal thoughts, temporarily at least. I return to imagine what shapes and sculptural form may be left on my own body by my feelings of anger, by my depleted energy. Muscles shift in tension and tone, blood pulses faster or slower, an inability to sleep causes crumples in skin, greyness and dryness on my face. Bruising appears from clumsy co-ordination, posture alters with pain and exhaustion. I want to scream at the sea and howl at the moon, but these are more things that will deplete me further. This ongoing navigation of what is possible and what is desired, what I can do that leaves me with enough to still have a voice. I need to hold a voice that will be heard, to unleash all that there is will push others away – a balance of what must be said and what can be tolerated.