Comfort

Yesterday, I took this selfie at my desk as the sun came in through the window as everyone looks great when kissed by the sun.

Two minutes later, my eldest daughter came home, and said that it looks as if I’m at the end of a movie ready to say something profound, before galloping off into the sunset.

After some discussion, we decided I would go off into the sunset Lego Batman style:

Emmet: Hey, guys? I think we’re about to crash into the sun.
Batman: Yeah, but it’s gonna look really cool.
(The batplane smashes through the sun, creating a batsign.)

My daughter – who isn’t impressed about it – looks just like me, Ruth, who looked like her mother, Jean, who looked like her mother, Phoebe, who probably looked like her mother, Rhoda. I don’t know for sure, as I’ve never seen a picture of Rhoda, ‘cos we are talking 1800s here. But, it doesn’t seem possible that she couldn’t not look like us. I looked so like my mum and her mum that old people would come up to me when I was on the bus or walking down the street and say: Phoebe and shake their heads in disbelief at the carbon copy of a young Phoebe before reminiscing about what a wonderful woman she was.

Consequently, I have always liked my face. It is a friendly face, a familiar face, and one which resonates on such an emotional level with people that they will come up to me to say lovely things for no other reason than to have a moment, to connect. And, that has been a great comfort to me all my life.

I have said on here so many times that we are all looking to be seen, heard, and experienced. We want connection.

Attachment trauma therapist, Alan Roberge describes it beautifully as our noble need for emotional resonance.

In my own mind, I’ve always called this comfort, because connection to others is a massive comfort, it gives our life meaning. We are seen and heard, we feel that we matter. It doesn’t get more comforting than that.

Roberge says that an emotional engagement is a connection with another person who makes you feel nourished, validated and affirmed, and vice versa. And, it is so important, that he describes it metaphorically as going to church. To bear witness to another human being’s noble need for emotional attachment is nothing less than a sacred act. And, if someone cannot do this for us, if someone doesn’t participate in this resonance, then it causes enormous grief within us. And, we have to detach from them otherwise it can damage us. 

Wow! This has summed up for me the reason why I’ve had so many awful interactions for more years than I care to think about. I thought if I gave more, said more, did more, then people would respond in kind and things would be better. But, alas no, I know far too many people who cannot and will not participate in reciprocal emotional engagement no matter what I do, and that causes my heart no end of grief.

They just can’t.

My mum died last year and I miss her terribly and grieve her loss profoundly. Most of last year is fuzzy for me because even though I was going about my day-to-day, my heart was aching and it took a lot of energy just to stay upright, and even though I told many people in the hope of getting some comfort, too many of them just couldn’t. I thought at times that I would go under. I would drown in my grief, the grief of losing my mum. Thankfully, I was surprised by a couple of people who really saw me and held that space for my pain.

Sadly, I missed my mum for such a long time before she died, because for many years she was no longer herself, and had no idea who I was. The first time she didn’t recognise my face – her face – my whole world shifted and I was lost. Had I had people around me who connected to me on an emotional level then it would have helped immensely to ease that pain. Instead, I had to learn to comfort myself.

I tried so many times to rekindle a connection to my mum and to help her remember who she was, and who I was, but she didn’t want to know, and sometimes she would get really angry with me. Oh my, I recognised her then in those moments. She was quite fiery, my mother. But, I wanted her to see me, to know me, to love me. I needed that emotional connection and grieved deeply in the space where it used to be.  And then on the day that she finally died, it was gone forever.  Or, so I thought.

If she was here today, looking at that picture she would probably say two things: 1) I love me, who do you love? and 2) Did you not brush your hair? It looks a mess.

She was a tough love sort of woman which didn’t sit well with me at all, as I am super oversensitive and I irritated her no end. She was always finding ways to toughen me up and would shout at me a lot: You’ll never get through life if you cry like that, Ruth. 

That said, she had a fabulous sense of humour and she could light up a whole room, and as my mum, me mam, she did a zillion loving acts for me, all the time, all through my life. I had forgotten how she loved me, and all the ways in which she demonstrated how she loved me, mired as I was down in the pain and anguish of watching someone I love slowly withdraw from life.

It has taken a good year for all the lovely memories of her to return and comfort me. I was afraid they never would. That she lived for another seven years after the first time she wasn’t expected to live, and pulled back from death many times more before she actually finally left forever, is a testament to her strength, her fierce life force and, her sheer bloody will. 

Over a number of years there was one person who used to reach out to me on my worst days, particularly on days when I had to have really difficult discussions about my mum’s care. The thing is, this person had no idea that they were doing it. We met online and then we met in person a couple of times, and they comforted to me. They would talk to me a lot, until the day that they completely withdrew.

They just couldn’t. 

I grieve this loss but have, hopefully, learnt the lesson of love this grief has to offer me:

This person and I emotionally resonated. We had a mutual love and respect for each other until they decided to shut down all emotional participation. Now they ‘phone it in’ if they respond at all to me reaching out to them. More often than not though, they just totally blank me. I don’t exist. It’s like I have died, which breaks my heart. But, bless their heart, their poor tender heart, because that’s gotta hurt, or at least, it has to hurt to choose to be that numb because their fear of being vulnerable hurts more. 

They just can’t.

However, what they did for me with their ‘before and after’ behaviour – their emotionally resonant and then emotionally dismissive behaviour –  is that they shone a torch on all the other relationships I have in my life with people who are emotionally connected and those who are not. And, this as painful as it is, has been an enormous gift. Now, I am choosing only to cultivate the reciprocal relationships in which there is room for mutual love and respect to flourish, and enrich both parties lives. I no longer look to emotionally unavailable people for comfort. I try not to get attached because the grief is exhausting and the poor excuse for a relationship, ultimately futile.

I owe nothing less to my mother who loved me all her life and wanted what was best for me. Why would I settle for anything that was not sacred? Why would I spend time and energy on people who don’t treasure me?

And, as it’s the end of the blog, the end of the movie, I am ready to crash into the sun,  because why it still shines when my mother is dead I just do not know and some days it is just too much to bear. But then, I remember to take a breath and think about comfort. And, as I look in the mirror at the comforting sight of my mother’s face, her beautiful loving face, I realise that I was wrong, she hasn’t left me at all.

She never can and never will. I can connect to her whenever I want. I just have to look in the mirror and see her.  And, the comfort that gives me is so immense, it makes me cry.  And yes: I will get through life just fine like that, but, to answer her questions: 1) I love me and I love you, and 2) No, I didn’t. I’m growing it out and leaving it curly.

I imagine her tutting and rolling her eyes in her own way – our own way – to which I would say:

Yeah but, it’s gonna look really cool.

My grey hair two years on

When you know better, you do better – Maya Angelou

Three years ago, I went into a fancy hair salon to get my hair done. I said I would like to go grey and the hairdresser MAN doing my hair, who had grey hair tied up in a ponytail, said: Oh no you can’t go grey it will age you and it takes a lot of work to maintain it much more than dying your hair. I did not question what he said. Instead I sat there and wondered why he got to have grey hair as he put an auburn colour on my hair, ‘cos he decided I was auburn. I couldn’t possibly have been originally a brunette not with that pale ginger freckly skin. Two weeks later when my roots came through I put a brunette rinse on. Here’s a picture of me in first year at university, before I ever started dying my hair. I was brunette.

I really believed that going grey would be similar to the chemotherapy journey I had gone on and that I would love the different styles throughout the regrowth. But, it wasn’t at all like that. Looking in the mirror challenged me everyday, and I hated my hair. I just couldn’t believe that after everything I have lived through that I was still worried about the way I look. However, by not valuing my own feelings and trying to talk myself out of them, I disrespected myself as much as the male hairdresser who wasn’t listening to me but absolutely knew, without knowing me at all, what was right for me. He was the walking embodiment of the patriarchal lie that society knows what is best for me and for all women, that I have no idea myself, and I don’t need to have an input. I was so used to this sort of nonsense I didn’t even question him nor myself. It has taken a lot of soul searching.

Mass media shapes the way we think and even though I have spent a lot of time writing about women in society, social media in society and so on, I am a member of society and not immune to the beauty sick message society peddles about how women should look (sexy fertile objects for male delectation and childbearing) and how women berate thenselves for not rising above it. It is exhausting. But how can I have a solid sense of self when I am bombarded everyday about how I should show up in the world? Googling about grey hair alone gives us so many articles like this one: Going grey ages women twice as fast as men. The BBC regularly sideline older women whilst their male counterparts are allowed to age in public (I believe let themselves go is the phrase which would be used if they were female) and continue their careers.

So there it is in a nutshell, my fear when I looked in the mirror, echoed by the male hairdresser, and much of society, is this: If I don’t cover my grey hair then I may be viewed as past my sell-by-date. The world will view me as irrelevant and I will be no longer seen nor heard. I will be put out to pasture like an old crone, devalued by our patriarchal society.

Yesterday, I took the above picture of myself and added it to the gallery in the blog post Fifty Shades of My Grey Hair. It will be the last one I put there as it marks the end of the two year journey I’ve just been on. The fancy hair salon went on its own journey too. It is now a gluten-free bakery. Each time I walk by it reminds me that I am the one who decides how I show up in the world. Society cannot tell me who I am or what my worth is. I am the one to do so and let me tell you this, the way I look has nothing to do with it. That said I am beginning to feel that I no longer want to explain myself to anyone but should I want to say something, well, heaven help anyone who wants to try and stop me.

I do look older with grey hair, two years older to be precise, because I am two years older than I was when I began this journey. I am two years wiser too with the experience of two more trips around the sun. So with my extra wisdom and experience, I can tell you this: Grey is just a hair colour and I look miles better than I did when I let a double-standards bloke dye it because I was too afraid to show up as myself.