‘What are you most afraid of writing about? Whatever it is – write it.’ Writer Kate Morr
Today’s #SETBACKCOMEBACK is from Kate Morrison, the author of historical fiction.
Before landing her publishing deal with Jacaranda Books, Kate had to overcome a huge emotional upheaval – and this is what she’s sharing with us today. Kate – it’s over to you!
Twelve years ago, I stood in the pre-dawn chill of a Sussex field and stared at a short strip of woodland ahead of me. The sky was paling, showing the low mist at my feet and the deer grazing at the wood’s edge, but beneath the trees it was still night.
I needed to go through the dark woods to get to the other side. In the meadow beyond was a treehouse, a simple wooden platform reached by a long ladder. I wanted to climb the ladder and read my book as the sun came up. But first I had to go through the trees, and I was afraid.
I was afraid of that bowlful of shadows. I was afraid that somewhere in there was a man with a knife, waiting for me. I needed to go through the woods despite the fear, because it would prove I could conquer my other terrors.
Fear had formed a web around me, a barbed-wire net. Over the past two years it had blossomed and spread, growing tendrils around my body. It began as an ache in my right wrist, an episode of tendonitis resolved with some physio sessions. I was working as a features journalist on a regional newspaper, so I typed for a living. Like many people, my hands were my livelihood.
I was working as a journalist when what I really wanted to do was write novels. This had been my plan since I was about seven years old. Writing was magic to me; words were treasure. I used to sit in bed writing after lights out, completely lost in the worlds I was making.
Trying to weave the magic into something more formal proved more of a challenge. Aged 21, when I decided to sit down and write a proper book, I found I didn’t actually know how to do it. I didn’t know how to structure, plot or build characters – nor did I know how to ask anyone for help.
It became clear this would take me longer than the six months I had planned to spend working part time and writing. I needed an alternative career; some way of earning money while I wrote, so I did a journalism course & graduated from it with a job offer at the newspaper. Now I was writing all the time, several articles a day – but not my novel.
When I moved from features over to news and an even more high-pressure schedule of deadlines, the ache returned. It niggled at me. I was constantly circling my wrist, bending and flexing it, trying to release the pain. I went to the physio again but this time the treatment and exercises did not help. I can’t remember who said the word ‘RSI’ but soon it settled in. I had RSI.
As the niggle began to spread, running up my wrist into my shoulders, I also realised something I should have known before; that beautiful writing is not the point of news journalism. Getting the story is the point.
To be a good news journalist you need to be tenacious, thick-skinned, sociable and interested enough in people not to mind asking difficult questions. I was a thin-skinned, over-sensitive artistic type, an introvert masking as an extrovert and way too much of a people pleaser to be good at asking difficult questions.
Deep down I understood that I was not cut out for this, but I was not used to failing. I had always been an A student for anything involving writing. I could not admit to myself that news was not for me. Besides, what would I do if I quit? So I carried on, bashing out five articles a day, acting as if I was a natural in the macho pressure-cooker of a newsroom, living on adrenaline & addicted to stress.
The RSI continued to send out its vines of pain. Gnarled knots formed in my shoulders, particularly one, insistent niggling spot under my left shoulderblade that I could not reach to rub. I took up Pilates again and found a masseur recommended by a colleague who had also suffered from RSI. She was a miracle-worker; an hours session with her released the now-constant tension in my shoulders, undid the knots. The pain would ease for a week or two, then return.
I tried other things. Acupuncture, alexander technique, deep-tissue myofascial massage. I took to wearing a shoulder-brace at work, convinced my posture was to blame. I did exercises in the toilets, in front of the mirror, circling my shoulders, breathing, stretching. “It looks psychological,” a colleague told me. I stared at them with hatred. The pain was not in my head. It was real, it existed, it was strangling my body.
I got a referral to a rheumatologist at the hospital. “Yes, it seems like RSI,” he said after listening to my symptoms and examining me. His voice was unemotional. “I’ve started to get pain in my legs and hips, too, when I’m walking,” I told him. “Well then that could be fibromyalgia,” he said, flatly. “What can I do?” I asked. “Rest,” he said. “Complete rest of your wrist. No stirring, no lifting, no typing. No writing with a pencil.”
I sat in the car and cried. Complete rest meant no writing at all, and I had always been a writer. Writing stories was what I did, I had been doing it since I was five. It was all I wanted to do. Complete rest was impossible, without quitting my job.
Soon after that my body made the decision for me and I broke completely. The newspaper had become a toxic place to work, with cuts, redundancies and total mistrust between the management and staff, the consequence of a local newspaper being ultimately run by a big multinational corporation more concerned with profits for its shareholders than the welfare of its staff. Many people were suffering from stress presenting in various forms.
One day I found I simply could not hold a pen without pain. I went off sick for a week, came back, tried again, failed, handed in my notice. Six other journalists quit that fortnight.
Now I had to rest. No stirring, no lifting, no typing, no writing with a pencil. What could I do? At the time, it seemed temporary. I would rest my wrist and I would get better. I would volunteer while I waited to get better.
I volunteered in an Oxfam shop, with Greenpeace and Amnesty, at a local women’s centre. It was still hard to avoid any manual tasks. I was still doing Alexander technique, acupuncture, massage, homeopathy, working through my dwindling savings, blessedly fortunate to be able to live with my parents.
That Christmas I took a job working as an Elf in the grotto run by the newspaper I had just quit. From reporter to Santa’s helper. I felt like I was in a Will Ferrell film, at the character’s low point. Every day I put on my elf costume and green eyeshadow, plastered a smile on my face for the children, braced my aching shoulders, endured the stink of air-freshener and / or BO in Santa’s grotto and wondered what the actual hell had happened to me.
After Christmas I went on jobseekers allowance and explained to the job centre all the things I couldn’t do with my hands, while they bemusedly looked through their listings. Nothing suitable came up. The knots in my shoulder-blades were still there. I had bought shoe inserts to try and resolve the pains in my legs.
Increasingly, I found myself awake at 4am, my mind in a constant churn of anxiety. What would I do if I never got better? What if I was stuck like this for life? I was afraid to do the smallest actions in case I made it worse. I bought voice recognition software so I could try writing my novel again, but it reproduced my words as garbled nonsense.
I cried a lot, wore wrist-straps, avoided social situations, discovered that some friends could not understand what was going on with me; discovered how easy it is to fall through the cracks of society into nothing. I was put on incapacity benefit and referred to disability counselling – both things which probably no longer exist.
I remember the counsellor saying to me, after I’d lamented again the fact that I could not write: “And what would life be like if you stopped writing? What if you did something else instead?”
I stared at her blankly. My mind simply could not process such a suggestion. Writing was who I was; it was my life’s purpose. It framed everything I did and how I saw the world. What’s the story behind that couple fighting in the street, how would I describe that cloud, who left that child’s teddy on the wall? Without it, what would I be?
I also remember her asking me how I felt about something, and the strong reluctance and embarrassment I felt at even forming the words: “I feel.” I was not used to talking about my feelings. I wasn’t really used to having feelings any more, except the constant singing tension of anxiety. Mostly, I thought about pain, my mind constantly pulled back to the ache in my wrists and the fear that accompanied it.
After about a year of this, while googling RSI (which I did a lot, tapping with one finger to avoid straining my wrist) I came across a recommendation for a book which theorises that many painful conditions, including RSI, are rooted in repressed emotions.
Something in the description rang a bell. I ordered the book. I read the whole thing in one sitting and recognised myself as a type of person likely to succumb to such disorders: a perfectionist, high-achieving, people-pleaser prone to putting myself under intense pressure. I remembered the few people who had questioned whether there was something psychological about my condition, how difficult I found it to talk about my emotions.
When I finished reading it, a weight literally fell of my shoulders. The insistent, persistent, barbed-wire knot beneath my shoulder-blade, that felt like a knife stuck in, the aching core of the pain’s refusal to ever end, went away. I stood up, I swung my arms, I went down to the kitchen and made scones. I stirred and stirred and stirred. I felt giddy and reckless. I had not stirred anything for about a year.
Of course I wasn’t cured straight away: nothing comes as easy as that. The knots and the doubts and fears came back. What if I was wrong? What if it was truly physical? What if I did something to damage myself permanently and forever? The physical therapists who had been treating me expressed doubts when I rang to say I was stopping.
When I tried to voice my new understanding of what had happened to me: that I had a nervous breakdown and it was manifesting itself physically, many people stared at me blankly. People find physical illness easier to comprehend than mental illness. People can accommodate ‘severe RSI caused by too much typing’ in their list of things that might befall a person.
If you say: “I think I have spent many years repressing certain emotions such as anger and sadness and denying my own creativity, and now I have broken myself and my nervous system is translating my anger and sadness and stress and anxiety into physical pain,” they look at you as if you are mental. Which you are.
While I now understood what was wrong with me, it took time to learn the tools I needed to cope with it. I had to learn how to pull my mind of the endless treadmill of fear and thoughts about RSI that were running constantly in the upper levels of my brain, so that it could address the abyss of even messier emotions churning beneath. I went for long walks, breathing and counting, trying to bring my mind back to the present moment and only the present moment.
What can you smell? Grass. What can you see? The trees. People running in the park. What can you feel? A light wind on my face ohbutmywristhurtsagainisitforeverithurtsithurts, twist and bend it, circle it, what if I’m wrong what if this is forever BRING IT BACK TO NOW STOP BENDING YOUR WRIST. What can you see NOW? What can you feel NOW? Now, now, now, only now. I am, I am, I am.
Working constantly to wrench your mind into the present is exhausting, I was fighting a battle with my own brain and often I felt like I was losing. One day, walking my familiar round of the park, counting my steps again to stop the barrage of RSI thoughts, I looked at the rows of elms flanking the path and thought how peaceful it would be if I could just go to sleep under a tree and never wake up again.
Oh, I thought, this is why people kill themselves. Because they want it all to stop and they don’t believe that it ever will. They can’t imagine it will ever get better.
Having reached the point of wishing for oblivion, I decided that I needed to take myself and my exhausted mind away somewhere and be completely alone. I could not cope with the suggestions and concerns of my well-meaning friends and family. I had to reach a reckoning with myself.
I found a Catholic monastery nearby that offered retreats for men and women, and booked myself in for a weekend. On the first evening I took myself to sit in the remarkable round chapel, lit with candles and empty except for myself. In the quiet, I felt the same release I had when I read Sarno’s book. I am not religious but I do find sanctuary in holy places. The idea that you alone are not responsible for your problems – that something outside you may take them in their hands and give you rest – is somewhere in my consciousness. I sat and cried a bit and felt my mind empty out.
The next day I went for walks and wrestled with my thoughts. I explored the grounds and found the tree-house. I walked seven miles and my feet hurt. Was it RSI? I sat and wept in my room, bit my arms, hit my wrists on the desk, tore paper to shreds, scored swear-words into my diary with my pen. How could I find the faith to act as if I were well and believe that I would be?
I decided that next morning I would get up for sunrise and go to the treehouse. It was a pact with myself. I rose with the alarm clock and went out of the boarding house with my diary, book and pen in my bag. I walked through the fields to the edge of the woods, and found the deer there, grazing. Deer have always seemed like messengers from another world to me, the place where poems are born. I watched them for a while until they bounded off into the trees.
Now there was nothing to look at except the dark in the trees. I had walked the path the day before. I knew it was only a short walk, but I was all alone and nobody knew I was there. If the man was waiting there for me with his knife, I would be dead and gone before I could recover, write another word, find a partner, have children. My fear sat on my shoulders with my backpack.
I gripped my hands together and carried my fear through the woods, breathing fast in the dark, going over the bumpy tree-roots in a sweat of fright and spooking at every shadow. I forced myself to walk and not run until I was out into blessed open ground on the other side, with the ladder and platform ahead of me and the sun coming up over the fields.
That walk through the woods in 2008 was not the end of my journey, but It marked a crisis point and a breakthrough. It took another few years to really recover. In 2011 I finished my first short story and sent it off to the Asham Award for women writers. It won second prize.
I don’t know quite what lesson I would pass on from this episode of my life. My experience of battling with myself and my creativity is not new or unusual, and far less traumatic than many other people’s. I am white and middle-class, with a supportive family. When I fell, there was a safety net for me. The lessons I learned from it are not new either, but they always bear repeating.
I learned that you can fail, and recover. I learned that you may find yourself so trapped in a web of your mind’s own weaving that you cannot imagine ever escaping from it. I also learned that escape is always possible. There is always another moment, another hour, another day, in which the possibility for change exists.
Equally, moments of transcendence and self-discovery don’t last forever. It is very hard to keep the promises you make to yourself in moments of revelation. It is very hard to completely set aside habits you have learned since birth.
My breakdown brought me to a deeper understanding of myself and made me a better writer, but I am still afraid. I am equally afraid of failure and success, or maybe just myself. I still hide from my creativity when I feel I should be running towards it with open arms. But fear must not and cannot stop me writing.
What are you most afraid of writing about? What makes your soul shrink when you think about committing it to paper? Whatever it is – write it. Write it down and then burn it. No-one ever has to read it, but I promise that the process of using your hand and your pen to write it down will liberate you.
One of the greatest qualities for a writer is endurance. You need to keep doing it, putting one foot in front of the other, one word after the next, even when you have no faith in yourself or your writing. Even if you are terrified. If you do that, you will eventually finish that poem, that story, that novel. If it’s terrible – go back over it and make it better.
Believe that there is something of value in you. You don’t have to be perfect and neither does your writing. Keep going. Look into the dark wood and walk through it, one step at a time, until you reach the light.
** Author’s note: I don’t presume to comment on the cause of any kind of chronic illness or chronic pain other than my own. I refer only to my own condition and what helped me get through it.
THANK YOU, KATE, FOR SHARING YOUR INCREDIBLE STORY WITH US OF HOW YOU RECOVERED FROM A TERRIBLE SETBACK.