A bit of context to start. I’ve been dealing with a very rough first pregnancy. To begin with I just felt extraordinarily tired, then six weeks in the sickness started. The days quickly descended into a cycle of vomiting, sleeping and perpetual nausea that resulted in my being admitted to hospital with severe dehydration three times over two weeks, and dropping almost a stone in weight.
The only comfort people could offer was to a) compare me to Kate Middleton (where the similarity ends I’m afraid) and b) to tell me that it all usually ‘calmed down’ at 12-14 weeks. Imagine you’re in the middle of the worse hangover or stomach bug you’ve ever experienced and being told that it’s ‘only’ likely to last 42-56 days. Exactly- not really a cause for celebration. That is until you get to week 14, and you’re only marginally better, and they say it will ‘probably’ settle around 20 weeks. So you grit your teeth and get to week 20. Then week 23. Life as you knew it has all but disappeared, and there’s no sign of the illness abating.
The reality of being on medication and teethering on the edge of illness for 17-19 more weeks was starting to wear me down and I was seriously struggling to articulate my emotions without sounding a) ungrateful, b) disinterested, c) hateful or d) resentful. I had been writing poems about the milestone moments, focusing on the positives, but the more I wrote, sincere as it was, the more I felt I was perpetuating the myth of the perfect pregnancy, awash with maternal longings and perpetual glowing (it’s amazing the horror stories you hear AFTER you tell people you’re pregnant).
Then two things happened in quick succession. I read an interview with Liz Lochhead who said write what you know, even if you think it is boring or unworthy. Then I stumbled across an extract from a Stephen Fry interview that is being used as part of an upcoming online course that considers the relationship between Literature and Mental Health. It was only at that point I realised that I needed to stop trying to blindly fight against an abstract tide of guilt, shame, and misery, and start using my creative talents to turn my feelings into something concrete, something I could weigh and measure and take stock of. This is what I came up with:
Pregnancy is breaking in that new pair of shoes you’ve always wanted…
They’re just gorgeous, you’ve wanted them for ages, and you know you’ll go places in those shoes.
So you wait and save and justify, and then you go into the shop beaming one pay day and you buy them. Just like that. After all that waiting and thinking about them.
You are practically giddy the whole way home, with them stuck under your elbow like a fantastic secret wrapped in cardboard and tissue.
At home you take them out of the box, look at them in wonder, put them away. Then look at them again, maybe even trying them on, not quite believing they’re finally yours. You content yourself with daydreaming about when you’re going to wear them for the first time, when everyone is going to see these new shoes- whether it’s to work, on a night out, or up a mountain.
When the day, or night, comes, you put them on carefully, making sure not to scuff the sides as you make your way to the car, the bus-stop, or the train. You arrive at your destination and everyone gasps at your new shoes; they love and admire them, and congratulate you. You know they’re only shoes really, that plenty of people have had and will have shoes too, but you smile broadly, delighted, proud, a success. You’ve done it.
Then the niggle starts. You ignore it; it’s just part of settling into new shoes. But then the niggle rubs and hurts and soon you start to feel blisters, raw skin. And now you don’t know how to feel because you chose these shoes and worked for them and love them… but the pain is becoming unbearable. You know that if you take them off, you might never put them back on; that if you take them off you’ve no other shoes to change get into. You can’t walk around barefoot: people will look at you funny, ask questions, think that you just need to get on with it.
So now you want to hate the thing you love because it’s meant to love you back: meant to make you feel good, better about the world, better about yourself. But it’s causing you suffering and pain, making you vulnerable and helpless, and the tears run down your face because now you understand how people suffer through situations you would never ‘willingly’ put up with: because there’s no other option. Not really. Not without consequences. So you grin and try not to cry too loudly, and try not to resent the people who tell you they love your new shoes, because that’s what you wanted them to say wasn’t it? To be excited about the shoes you’ve been excited about for so long? They don’t know they’re cutting your feet to ribbons. Most people get on just fine.
So why do you put yourself through it? How do you keep working, dancing, hiking? Because you know that once you get home, you can take them off, wipe away the blood, apply the salve, affix the plasters, and put your feet up. Because you know that no other pair of shoes will fit you better; you know you’ll travel the world in those shoes because you know together you can go anywhere; you’ve been through the worst of it. That’s what keeps you going through the pulsing, burning pain. It has to.
Being able to distance myself like this instantly resolved an internal conflict that was starting to eat away at me, and threatening to turn into something more serious. This analogy lets me express complex feelings in a way that makes sense, first of all to me, and then to other people. I don’t feel guilty the new shoes hurt my feet; that they’re not a perfect fit; that part of me can’t wait for my shift/night out/hike to be over so I can take them off. I’m not a bad person, an ungrateful sod, a miserable martyr, or any of the other unhelpful aspersions I was casting on myself. I’m just breaking in a new pair of shoes. It hurts; it will get better. And that’s all there is to it.