Living Differently - Holding the Gaze

Wall of meBack in 2013 I did an online photography course with Vivienne McMaster. Vivienne's work encourages her participants to "discover tools that will help you to cultivate a relationship of self-compassion both through the camera and in your every day life" (her words from the website), the premise being that self portraiture can help us look at ourselves with love and lessen the hold of self-criticism. It can be a radical act to show up in front of the lens and direct that gaze, that multi-facted honest gaze towards our most bullying critic - us. We can feel the earth shift when we direct a look of love towards ourselves instead.

A year before this I began using photography as a way to deal with living with chronic illness. After feeling trapped in my body I felt an enormous sense of relief capturing what was happening to me on camera. I was both the photographer and the subject and that allowed me to explore my feelings in depth without having them overwhelm me. The camera was a tool for both investigation and validating my experience. I began my self-portrait journey wanting to record the truth and the last thing I wanted was to 'play nice' for the camera. As I continued my work with Vivienne I learnt how to enjoy being in front of the lens. I found out that I was a worthy a subject as anyone I had turned my camera towards.

A few years have gone by and I'm still adapting to a life I did not choose, still looking for  my own story in the midst of change. The past 6 months have been very tough and I've got puffy and swollen in my face. This shouldn't matter, but it does. In an attempt to self-validate I forgot one thing - the constant passing of time. When I look at the photos above, all taken and processed on my phone, posing, pouting and beaming - I can also see someone trying hard to pretty herself for the lens. Looking at these pictures something is missing. Where is my body ? It's no coincidence that I live with an invisible illness.  I've managed to hide myself from myself.

Looking  again I can see that even the most processed of them are a part of my story. Some days I let my vulnerability show, others I shine with joy and then there are the times when I feel the only choice I have is to 'say cheese', hold my gaze and face the world.

Living Differently - Learning Kindness

8569599640_2ecc2c56ac_b Nearly everyone has a default, a go-to place where they think they can hold off the tide of inevitability. Sometimes it is an addiction to being intensely busy, for others it's running as fast and as far away from any uncomfortable feelings it's possible to go. Mine is wanting to know, hoping that if I ask the right questions I'll get the right answers and then find a way to dig myself out of whatever mess I'm in. Even if that means I'm using a teaspoon not a shovel. Many have called me over-analytical and there is some truth in that. I know that my constant state of enquiry has allowed me the illusion of control. But what an illusion. It's also meant that when things have been really tough, like now, I can tell myself I am learning something - I may be suffering but I am not stupid !

Long term illness has got me a questioning many things. Why am I ill ? How can I can better ? Will I ever get well and, perhaps the most enduring, How can I live this way ? My experience of illness so far is one of dealing with one loss after another. Loss of health (obviously), loss of independence, loss of a working life, loss of friends and a social life, loss of travel. The list is long. And as much as the grief hurts it is something I find easier to live with than the grating anger and resentment for feeling so left out in the cold. Needing to know why, or what to do with the 'why' doesn't help me one bit.

A friend suggested I listen to Kristin Neff who calls herself a 'self-compassion evangelist'. What I find most interesting about her work is that she encourages self-compassion even with one's self-critic and the most self-destructive things we tell ourselves. Hearing this for the first time was like living with air-conditioning your whole life and suddenly have someone open the window and breathing in real air at last.

Before this any self-compassion exercises had been limited to a wholesome meal, a bath with essential oils, candles and the Bach Cello Suites. I may have managed to squeeze in a cursory acknowledgement that I was not the only one in pain on the entire planet, but with no real sense of connectedness. I lit more candles, cried more tears hoping the gentle music would save me from my most uncomfortable feelings. But I still felt bitter, still felt eaten up with such a roaring anger it is a wonder its fires hadn't burnt London for the second time.

It is only in the last few days, when I've been feeling angry, hurt and ashamed that I decided to share my feelings with a few friends online who also live with chronic illness. My friend Toni Bernard reminded me that 'there is no end to how much self-compassion we can give ourselves' and that even what I considered the most distasteful parts of myself deserved my love and attention. It seems all so clear written down but I am only just learning kindness.

The essential oils, the cut flowers, the warm bed are much needed accoutrements however this is only start. For years, far pre-dating my current state of health, I've fought against what I considered the most ugly parts of who I am. I wanted to eradicate those feelings. Years later I am still the hyper-sensitive, volatile person I always was. And perhaps, just perhaps, this illness has led me to a place where I can begin to accept and love who I am, every part of me, even the part who carries a big stick and dreams of torching everything.