Tightrope-walking #lettersfromselvespas(t)sed

Written in around 2000: (see more #lettersfromselvespas(t)sed here)


she walks the tightrope. she’s become quite adept at it. not so much adept at balancing, at maintaining focus but accustomed to the air, the rasping, gulping, concrete-lung quality of her breathing.

nietzsche speaks about man walking the tightrope between the old world and the new, between the man in his white picket-fence existence and the übermensch. he speaks about smashing the old values, embracing the new. he was a visionary, a poet. he saw the human condition in its essence and was unfettered by the restraints of convention.

he was also mad.

walking the tightrope is out of necessity an act of madness. why leave the safety of solid ground to teeter on an inch of rope strung across an abyss? but for the tightrope-walker this balancing act is in and of itself sanity. because to stay on the solid ground, to inhabit the white picket-fenced soil with its whisperings about the increase in petrol prices, soccer and laundry detergent would be death.

when they talk about columbus, drake and other explorers they do not tell you about the fear. they conjure up images of the excitement of mapping the unmapped, sailing the unsailed, conquering the unconquered. they do not tell you about the fear.

each day seems to be going nowhere except into the next day (the hours, always the hours). each day is exceedingly difficult and painful for her. because she doesn’t know how to use her body. she cannot inhabit it comfortably, she cannot make it talk to people and fit in. her mind is so accustomed to conversing with itself, with books and their characters, that she has formed her own language, lives in her own world. she cannot understand their language; they cannot understand hers. she’s surrounded by people, she’s got a job, a relationship, friends, but the effort of trying to converse in their language is slowly killing her.

she’s faced with two nightmares: the overwhelming loneliness of a world where she seems to fit in, but doesn’t, and the world of her mind where the victim is stalked by the rapist. she tries to have a conversation but it becomes a monologue; she tries to live but she wants to die. she tries to die but she wants to live.

this is her tightrope, and she has to walk it. she cannot stay in the world of white picket-fences because she knows it’s a mirage. she has learnt that the conventions, rules, mores, values and language of this picket-fence world are pink-coloured tissue paper held over a gushing wound.

now that she has a taste for blood she cannot see the tissue paper. she cannot see the tissue paper and so cannot stay. she has to walk the tightrope with a taste of iron in her mouth.

as years pass, walking the tightrope becomes easier, she becomes more skilful. she learns to couch her fear of the world and her tears in the language of nietzsche, derrida, woolf and plath. clutching this dictionary she walks the tightrope, smashing the values of the world she has left with nietzsche’s hammer and derrida’s differance, while chanting to herself from mrs dalloway. when confronted by patronising and paternal society she maintains her balance with a vociferous “daddy, daddy, you bastard, i’m through.”

she has, however, come to learn that no matter how well-versed she becomes in the lexicon of her dictionary, it is impotent in comparison to the wordless murmurings of a language beyond language, lessons learnt before she could learn. she cannot shout and scream and froth and bleed and mouth inaudibly the words beyond words because it is a language beyond language which she cannot utter because it is unutterable, a language beyond language which she cannot understand because she learnt it before she could learn, and a language beyond language which she cannot silence because it is always already inaudible, yet always already present in its absence.

she can only continue to walk the tightrope as long as she sticks to the socially accepted madness of philosophy. “ontological doubt” does not compare to what she feels. but there is no space in the world for what she feels, no market, no future. with “ontological doubt” she earns accolades and degrees and admiration. she can speak about ontology and epistemology, but she cannot simply cry out, “who am i? what does any of this mean?” so she clutches her dictionary tightly to her side, because she cannot shout and scream and froth and bleed.

we live in the era of the backlash of nietzsche’s declaration that god is dead, barthes’ cry that the author is dead and postmodernism’s claustrophobic questioning of truth, history, identity and reality. yes, art mirrors nature because the postmodern novel performs the writing subject’s discomfort. how can we have a coherent, cohesive, stable written text when s/he who holds the pen is falling to pieces?

not only can the falcon not hear the falconer, but the tether has broken and both the falcon and the falconer wander the earth searching for that which used to centre them; they cannot remember what it was. they just know that they used to be in control, they once had purpose and meaning.

i can no longer pretend to be an author who creates, defines, delineates, controls. i cannot smooth over the cracks in my self by gluing pages together with meaningless scribblings of ink. so why do i write?

i’ve asked myself this question innumerable times, but the dissatisfying answer is always the same: it is a soundless, bloodless, toothless thrashing and screaming. you see, dear reader, i am just like you. i too like neat beginnings and endings; i too long for the comfort of the prince and the princess and the pea and the apple and the witch. i, who am versed in deconstruction and poststructuralist pulling apart of convention, would simply like something to cling to.

writing is a desperation; a frantic ejaculation of ink in order to capture feelings, thoughts, events in the hopes that a story will emerge. in this sense my writing is very much like my self-mutilation: each incision, slash and wound is an archaeological attempt to excavate a solid self. like the scalpel, the pen digs through the layers of paper in order to find that page with my story on it.

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Why I’m zen in the midst of chaos: Spirituality for me as a recovering-Christian who worships Art & Beauty

“What happens when people open their hearts? – They get better.”
– Haruki Murakami

(As with all of my writing since re-remembering to write for me, this piece is a #notetoself for me to reflect back on, when I need to re-remember to re-remember to look up at the clouds).

There is beauty in both nature and the human-made.
Nothing is either good or evil.
There is light and shadow in everything.

Images: copyright Germaine de Larch, 2013/14


People often ask me how I escaped the jail of The Depression That Almost Killed Me in my 20s*, and how I continue to live life writ large. [link to blog post Loony Bins: #lettersfromselvespas(t)sed]
As a Recovering Christian, I remember the day clearly, in the midst of the Blackest Black Dog Depression where I said to myself: I am a Thinking, Rational human being who believes in the power of fairy tales but not in God or the Soul or any omnipotent, omniscient Presence.
BUT: People have Faith for a reason; it gets them through life. This has been the way of the world since humans first inhabited it. I’ve wished for a lobotomy so that I can have that blind Faith. But my depression has lobotomised me anyway… If it works for them, I need to acknowledge that it might work for me, even if I’m not sure I can do blind faith, because I am not blind. I need to put my cynicism aside; I need to suspend disbelief*. If I do not choose, very rationally and scientifically, something to believe in, I will die by my own hand. [link to blog post Suspension of Disbelief: #lettersfromselvespas(t)sed]
So I chose my own delusion, the one that as a Recovering Christian made me feel least nauseous: Things Happen for a Reason.
“To be willing at any moment, to give up who you are for who you could be.” 
In the Dark, I held onto Light: Beauty in Everything. I forced myself to find Beauty every day.* I’m still alive. [Link to photographs I began taking to find Beauty]. I’m still alive. And not just existing, but living. And writing life large.
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” – Oscar Wilde
I still experience darkness. But it only becomes Darkness when I stop seeing Beauty, stop looking up at the clouds. I “took the path less travelled”, because ALL paths are less travelled.
Not believing in God is not a belief in Nothing, but a belief in Everything. Including all beliefs and the power of those beliefs. For me it matters not what we believe, but that we believe it. Faith is Powerful, because it’s blind.
  • The red rose, The Dark Tower. Even Stephen King, The Lord of Darkness has a spiritual side.
  • Throwing roses into the abyss: even the Nietzsche of “God is Dead” had his spiritual side.
  • Ursula Le Guin, The Mother of the Fantasy genre, always includes dystopia and utopia.
  • And the list goes on – Shakespeare, Blake, Yeats and co.
There is always Shadow and Light, in all of us, in everything. We all have our Chosen Delusions when being human in an inhumane world; where being Mad is the only sane response.
And even the inhumane, mad world is both
“oh, the horror, the horror”,
“things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”,
AND
“do not go gentle into that good night”,
“in the forests of the night; what immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry?” 

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My desk, while moving things around to put in my room for pre-surgery recovery, post-surgery recovery and general recovery.

 

A re-gift from two beautiful soul friends: I am a seeker (Sikher) – Sat Nam is a Sikh expression. Sat means truth, and Nam means word, as in the sound of the universe otherwise known as Om, which, roughly translated, means this sound is the closest to truth that we can get. (The cave in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, for example). Namasté is a greeting which means: the divinity in me sees the divinity in you. The Sikh greeting is Sat Sri Akal, meaning: there is only one truth, signifying the unity of all religions. Shukria, Sherene ji and Justine ji.

 

 

The text tattoos I have, in order of getting them. They tell their own story… (These are just the text tattoos I have). All of these are before or after a psych hospitalisation, unless otherwise stated.

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Anomaly. Artist: Damian Martins.

Early 2000s. If I remember correctly, this was my first text tattoo. Just after my first hospitalisation. At the time it symbolised my alienation. Now I reclaim the words “anomaly”, “freak”, “outsider”, and celebrate my difference, while recognising that I am not alone in it. We’re all freaks.

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“The freedom of the wholly mad, to smear and play with her madness, write with her fingers dipped in it” – Adrienne Rich, from: The Phenomenology of Anger. Artist: Some guy in Brixton, Johannesburg.

2003-ish. Adrienne Rich came to mean so much more to me years later in my search for Beauty: See “Diving into the Wreck”.

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“And I have known the eyes already, known them all— The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, Then how should I begin To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? And how should I presume?” – T.S. Eliot, from: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Artist: Some guy in Brixton, Johannesburg.

2003-ish. Says SO much about the alienation I felt. I’m more of a Four Quartets fan now.

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Create… Artist: Some guy in Brixton, Johannesburg.

Early 2003-ish (part of a two-part tattoo. See next image).

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Or Die… Artist: Some guy in Brixton, Johannesburg.

2003-ish This two-part tattoo symbolised my realisation that as an artist, and a human being, if I am not creating, living, I am only existing, dying. My one hand (self) could choose Life, the other could choose Death. It was up to me.

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“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen. Artist: Some guy in Port Elizabeth.

Early 2004ish. Trying hard to focus on the positive in the midst of the negative. This would later come to mean so much more and became so much more real.

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Fragile. Artist: Damian Martins

(2006/7) From the album of the same name by Seether; before one of my last psych hospitalisations (Last hospitalisation: 2007). An acknowledgment of my fragility despite my appearance as strong (both physically and mentally). Complexity. Trying to embrace my contradiction instead of being ashamed of not being “normal”.

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Beauty. Artist: Damian Martins.

2010/11. Designed for me by my second internet friend whom I formed a real connection with – Nicole Nox. An acknowledgement that there is Beauty everywhere, flowing towards me, and flowing from me through my writing into the universe (hence the feathers), if only we recognise and see it (embracing internet friends as real as any “real life” friend.

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Finding Beauty in Negative Spaces. Artist: Damian Martins.

2011/2. From the album with the same name by Seether. Again, looking for Beauty as part of my spirituality. This was around the same time I started taking the photos of Beauty every day around me (album mentioned above in text)

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“O heart, if you recognise the difference between joy and sorrow, these lies will kill you.” – Rumi. Artist: Damian Martins.

2011/12ish. Tattoo adapted from a Crimethinc poster by Anastasya Eliseeva, the first internet friend who became a real friend, when I started moving from behind the screen into the real world. (Crimethinc image original wording: Confusion is a small price to pay for beauty. A re-remembering of my spiritual side. Rumi makes it so easy to do that… Thank you, Justine ji.

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Close-up of the image above. Artist: Damian Martins

Confusion is a small price to pay for Beauty: instead of killing yourself, “blow your brains out” by spreading the Beauty that is within you. Part of my love for birds and paper aeroplanes – freedom, flight, soaring.

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Hope is a feathered thing. Artist: Sean Perrins.

2011/12ish. Adapted from a poem by Emily Dickinson (“Hope is the thing with feathers”). When I realised and celebrated that Hope is eternal. I just needed to hold onto it in the midst of Darkness.

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Form. Artist: Conrad

2014/5.Part of a two-part tattoo that will say “TransForm” once done – Designed by one of South Africa’s greatest graf graffiti artists – Bias. I decided on graffiti as I love graffiti – a reclaiming of an old, conventional object through decorating it in an individualistic style – a reclamation of the city, walls, the body.

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Another view of tattoo above.

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Another view of tattoo above, with Beyond Binaries text.

“Beyond Binaries” – a celebration of my nonbinary identity as part of my trans-formation.

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Design of the tattoo above by Bias.

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“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes” – Walt Whitman. Artist: Tristan Knight.

2016. Once I’d decided on top surgery. A celebration of my complexity, contradiction, the fact that the parts of me are greater than the whole of me. A celebration of the love of ME, not what others thought of me. Also an acknowledgement that we are all, and everything is, complex and beyond understanding.



Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
– Marianne Williamson



 As with everything, these are my own thoughts, for my selves, about my selves, to my selves.
Second blog post in this series: #notestoself to/while heal/ing #2

the history of Life Writ Large, of why I live life large #lettersfromselvespas(t)sed

“There is no passion to be found in playing small –
in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
– Marianne Williamson


 

A brief (in the way history can be brief, and in the way a writer writing it is brief) history of me as blogger, and how How I Stay Sane became Life Writ Large.

I have been writing and recording self since childhood (I was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa in 1977). In the days before computers, the internet, selfies. In the days where you had to write by hand (and in cursive), or on your mom’s typewriter, or with your first camera, which you only got when you were old enough because they were expensive and photographs were costly to print.

I didn’t have journals, but I wrote novellas, poems, stories and novels. The ones I regret not keeping are the poems. The novellas and novels of my pre-teen self are darling, in a Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie wannabe way. I regret losing the poems. I also regret not keeping a journal.

That sense of losing touch with who I was as a child, not recording that for myself, and feeling very lost, lonely and depressed as a teen and young adult, without a sense of self and no sense of self to return to in the Dear Diary pages, I began to compulsively record myself and my selves. Journals in my 20s turned into blog posts, which were just journal posts, because I had no audience. I used these blog posts to survive the Great Depression of my 20s. Before I re-remembered greatness, and decided to live life large and create Life Writ Large, there was only surviving mental illness, and my first journals and blog came into being.

All these journals and blog posts would, I knew with a fierce certainty, be notes and longer notes and chapters that would become the framework for My Book. I knew I was a writer before the age of 8. I knew I was an artist around the same time. I also knew I wanted to change the world. I knew that I could change it. This is my first real, authentic memory of little Germaine.

I knew I was different before the age of 8. I knew I was a weirdo around the same time. I also knew I was not as happy as other children. I knew that I was completely alone as an unhappy freak. This is my second real, authentic memory of little Germaine.

I held onto the second memory of me and forgot that the first held the power to heal the second. I also re-remembered that no one is ever truly alone in their weirdness, difference, unhappiness; that no one is ever really truly alone, just as surely as we are always truly alone. Thankfully, I’ve re-remembered that, with gratitude.

That gratitude became Life Writ Large. Which became, but was never re-titled “Germaine tries to save the world and everyone in it, at the expense of Germaine”, but might as well have been renamed this. Because it was no longer just me as Dear Reader, but 1000s of Dear Readers,  and my Saviour Complex kicked in big time, and I forgot to remember the reason for writing: writing for me as self-healing, self-care, self-love, self-worth, and because I could not not write (discussed more here). Thankfully, from the jaws of another nervous breakdown (early 2017), I’m returning to living large, writing for me, and writing for little Germaine (discussed more here).

My selves – childhood self, teenagehood self, The Great Depression self – were too traumatic to remember and easier to forget, rebel against, hate, discard. And that was healing. It allowed me to mourn the life I didn’t have and wanted. And allowed me to rebuild myself after the soul shatterings of trauma.

But re-remembering and re-meeting old selves is an important part of healing too. Because it allows me to remember that amidst the trauma, in greater spaces than I have allowed myself to remember, there was greatness to re-remember. The greatness of happiness in the lives of all of those selves, and the greatness of those selves that knew things that I can learn great lessons from.

In that process of re-remembering, I stumbled upon a re-connection with an old self – Germaine Moolman (more on renaming myself here), and that self’s blog today (3 March 2017): How I Stay Sane. I look forward to re-meeting and re-remembering that Germaine, learning lessons from them and celebrating how far I’ve come, as well as re-remembering the greatness of that Germaine, and all the Germaines before.

And I look forward to Life Writ Large becoming larger than just surviving being transgender, just as I look forward to becoming more than my transness once I come out of top surgery on the 14th March 2017, and can focus on my life and healing and becoming, rather than dysphoria and depression.

Here’s to living life large, Life Writ Large, me and all the Germaines to come!

Loony Bins #lettersfromselvespas(t)sed

When I was admitted to Tara[1] (for the 3rd time, in 2007), I did not tell them that I had been taking the Xanor[2], simply because I did not think it was an issue. I did not realise that I was physically addicted to the drug and that I would have very, very serious withdrawals[3].

My blood pressure became dangerously high and I was exceedingly anxious. All of the time. The most disturbing symptom was that my skin, all over my body, was numb. You know when you play ‘dead man’s finger’? Or when you touch somebody else’s skin, and you can’t feel how it feels for them to feel you touching them? Well, that’s what it felt like. My whole body, when I touched it, did not respond to that touch. My face could not feel the hand touching it.

That freaked me out! And because I did not know the reason for these symptoms, I did not know how to handle them. And because the staff there did not know about the Xanor, they could not help me either. So I just became very disconnected, disassociated and thoughts of doing serious damage to myself entered my mind more and more. The staff had no option but to commit me.

Sterkfontein[4] was a nightmare. I was heavily drugged (Largactil)[5] for the transition from Tara to Sterkfontein, and upon arrival, after being cross-questioned, weighed and photographed, like a common criminal, I was yet again (heavily) drugged. As if being committed was not enough to strip me of my human right to choose, my very humanness; I had to be given very serious anti-psychotics – when I was not psychotic – and rendered even more powerless, less human, more animal, more manageable.

My cellphone, jewellery (the reason for this latter degradation was that it was ‘for my own safety from the other patients’) and all personal effects, including clothing, were stripped from me. Upon being woken from my drugged bewilderment the next morning, I was roughly bundled into a prison-type uniform (the irony of which was not lost on me) comprising of hideous navy blue sweatpants and sweatshirt with the words ‘Sterkfontein’ emblazoned on them in screaming yellow letters of search spotlight proportions. I could not even sms or phone my loved ones to tell them which ward I was in and when they could come and visit.

I felt like I had been abducted from my mother’s skirts and dropped somewhere very, very strange and very, very scary and my mother would never find me, ever again.

Auschwitz-like bath scenes where everyone was stripped, in a queue, awaiting a supervised shower; communal toothbrushes handed out after the shower; herded into a room after ridiculously early (6am) ablutions to await breakfast (7am), only to be herded into the same room after breakfast to await lunch (12pm), supper (the in itself maddening time of 5pm) and bedtime tea (8pm).

This purgatorial room was exactly what one would expect of a waiting room in hell. There was nothing in it. Nothing. Not even those sweetly-sick mental health propaganda posters so typical of government clinics and hospitals. Just chairs, four walls, you and about 50 schizophrenics. And cigarettes. This eating, herding, sitting, smoking regime fills – what an inappropriate word for what seems like a vacuum of eternity – the day. If Beckett had been institutionalised, he would have set Waiting for Godot in a mental institution.

I clung onto my toothbrush, roll-on, cigarettes and a pair of underwear that I washed each evening as the life-jackets that they really, really were. The other women had none of these luxuries, and it is no wonder that they could not regain or maintain sanity when all individuality and dignity was stripped from them.

There was no stimulation outside of the schizophrenics who, like goldfish, could not maintain enough concentration, or more to the point, sense of reality to talk to me. (This does not mean that they did not converse. They conversed alright, just with people that I could not see or hear). On approaching the nurses to request my notebook and pen, my only link with any sense of reality, I was ignored. (I later received Stephen King’s Insomnia from a visiting friend, and despite its abhorrent storyline and King’s even more abhorrent writing ability, it was my Bible, a tangible remnant, relic, symbol of reality, despite its theme being the subjectivity of reality).

The nurses – those beacons of normalcy and humanness in this foreign, surreal land – locked themselves up in their office to protect themselves from the patients and would not speak to me or even acknowledge a question or request. (Any psychologist will tell you: feeling invisible and unseen is a one-way ticket to a psychotic break, and here, in this very place where I was supposed to be avoiding psychosis and others were, supposedly, being coaxed out of theirs, we were treated with less respect and acknowledgement than a cockroach, a fly, a mosquito. At least a mosquito is acknowledged, recognised and affirmed in the act of shooing it, spraying it, killing it. We were offered no such privilege).

And all of this in the face of the knowledge that you cannot sign yourself out or get a family member to sign you out. You are there until a psychiatrist thinks you are sane. And when you’re fresh from a university education and thoughts of Foucault and Derrida float in your head and you know that ‘sanity’ and ‘normality’ outside of these walls are very tenuous – if not non-existent – concepts, let alone realities, the thought (no, deathly certainty) that you’re in there until someone within those walls declares you ‘sane’ or ‘normal’ is not very comforting. Sheer panic was a feeling I lived with each second of each minute of each hour of each day of each week of the five very, very long weeks I was there.

***

I still have post-traumatic –like flashbacks to that time. I cannot bear the smell of a burning cigarette butt because the patients were so desperate for cigarettes they smoked even the filter. But mostly, my stay there is a highly original and show-stopping anecdote over a couple of drinks.

But to myself, when the shared smiles and guffaws about my mental history lie on the table with the dregs of beer, wine and cigarette butts, I know that I survived. I overcame. And I am a better person for that stay.

***

I found a story I wrote while I was in Helen Joseph’s psychiatric ward (very similar to Joburg Gen’s[6] psych ward and Sterkfontein) and the immediacy of what I wrote that night in that ward might be more indicative of the experience of a government psych ward, as the piece about Sterkfontein was written from memory years later (yes, post-traumatic memory, and thus as-if-yesterday memory, but memory nonetheless):

‘In Phenigan’s Wake[7] (03.03.2007) *

Journal Entry from the Bed of a Psych Ward       

The difference between crazy people and normal people is not what you might think. It’s some of those things: yes, they see reality in ‘distorted’ ways; yes, they take blades, scalpels, knives, broken CDs to their wrists, throats, faces, arms, legs, breasts, genitals and stomachs; yes, they burn themselves down to the bone with cigarettes, scalding irons, boiling water, open flames; yes, they hear the voice of Jesus and answer only to the name ‘Mary’; yes, they experience life mostly as a constant and unremitting shit-storm. Yes, they experience all of these things, and that’s what makes them insane and you normal.

But the real difference between the sane and the mad is the language they speak: the sane speak English, French, Mandarin or Zulu; the crazy speak in the language of cigarettes. The societal structures, roles and conventions of the ward are much like society outside of these barred windows and doors. The power-play is just as present. Just as insidious.

The hierarchy in this place is based on two criteria. The first, from the outsider’s perspective, seems to be the most distinctive. There are those of the frothing-at-the-mouth variety who are in a constant state of legal, governmentally induced intoxication. They come off the street, their schizophrenia, paranoia and psychosis induced or triggered by Heroin, Tic, Crack, Alcohol or Marijuana. Here, their schizophrenia, paranoia and psychosis is aggravated, perpetuated and – in some cases – rendered untreatable by the ‘treatments’ of Seroquel[8], Risperdal and Lithium. (And in yet other cases – as I have personally experienced – these drugs induce or trigger some patients’ very first, and last psychotic break).

You can tell the mouth-frothers apart from the others by the look in their eyes: the glazed, dead-pan marble. They have that constant look of being perplexed. As if someone has just asked them the meaning of the universe: their mouths open, their heads down and slightly askew. They shuffle endlessly around the ward in shoes they’ve stolen from someone outside, or some unwitting and even more doped-up inmate inside. Or they walk around barefoot, their heels cracked and crusted from robotically pacing the sleekly polished ward floors.

Then there are the garden-variety of the personality disordered depressives, bipolars, failed suicides: people who are just “Taking a bit of a break, a rest, to get their medication stabilised.” You can tell them from the street-clothes they wear. They only don their pyjamas at the civilised and agreed upon hour – which in these hospitals is neither civil, nor agreed upon (supper is at 4pm, for example).

Unless they smoke, or one of them is in your section of the ward, you only see them at communal gathering times: meal times or pill times. They seem strangely incongruous here, in this place, as if they’re undercover nurses, gathering info on the other patients for the matron. They are (alarmingly) friendly, but quiet (even more alarming) and keep to themselves (most alarming of all. These were the types that scared me the most. As if they were friendly-ly, quietly and while keeping to themselves plotting to murder us all in our sleep).

There are, of course, the liminal – those that are difficult to distinguish and place in one of these two categories. You warily strike up a conversation, trying to determine whether you’re dealing with a pseudo-nurse or a psychopath. And trust me, its fucken difficult! If someone in a nuthouse tells you their name is Andrew and they’re a librarian or a fashion designer, how do you know he’s telling the truth? You don’t. There is no truth in here. The only truth, the only meaning and stability is the Brooklax-induced certainty of meds and mealtimes.

It is the second criteria for the hierarchy of this place which is the more powerful, the more insidious in the hierarchisation of the ward. It is this criterion that determines your place in the caste system. It is the same criterion as in the larger society – the haves and the havenots: those that have cigarettes, and those that don’t.

It is this 5cm cylindrical carcinogen that wields the power, regulates the ward, determines the rules. It’s the same as in prison. Cigarettes become the power tool, the bartering chip, the only intelligible language.

(It’s strange, isn’t it, this common element of cigarettes in government institutions of jails and nuthouses? I have my own little anthropological theory about that. My meds make it difficult to concentrate, think and remember, but I know my little theory had something to do with the prison and the loony-bin as microcosms of societal structure and human interaction. I remember some ingenious thought I had about cigarettes being the lowest common denominator of the unhappy, the rejected, the scapegoated. I remember thinking that Claude Levi-Strauss and Foucault would have been proud).

Upon entering the ward, it is not your name, or even your reason for being there that is important, or of any concern. It is your cigarette status:

1.      do you smoke?

2.      if so, do you have any?

3.      if so, will you give/sell – overwhelmingly option a) – them to me?

Your status is determined within seconds. And word spreads. If you’re known as a carrier, you are approached constantly, even in the middle of the night when you’re asleep (and being woken up in the dark from a drug-induced coma in an unfamiliar, threatening place by an unfamiliar, threatening nutter is not recommended to the feint of heart). Whether you say yes or no is inconsequential. They will keep asking, more so if you make the mistake of saying yes the first time you’re asked. It’s like feeding a dog off your plate one time. Just that one time. From then on, that dog will sit at your feet, staring pleadingly, then barking, sometimes ferociously, until you feed them again.

More than any sedative or mood stabiliser, it is the cigarette that determines the catatonia or paroxysms of madness in the inmates. The first rule is, do not, under any circumstances carry more than two cigarettes with you. You learn this rule within the first half an hour from one of the arse-licking pseudo-nurses. So you walk into the cramped, un-airconditioned smoking cell and you light up.

The vultures appear from their wards, as if the meal-time bell has been rung, scurry, then settle, begging you for just one cigarette. ‘Just one gwaai[9] one skyf[10] net ‘n eintjie[11] my sister just one my people are coming tomorrow and its been so hard without a smoke so hard so hard theyre coming tomorrow and Ill give you a cig sister and theyre bringing coke too and Ill give you some coke too thank you sister thank you so much they just left me here with no clothes no cigarettes but they promised theyre coming tomorrow tomorrow or the next day maybe saturday but they definitely coming sister and then Ill give you something sister godblessyou.’

Depending on your mood – or more to the point – just to shut them the fuck up, you either give them the cigarette you’re not smoking, or you break it in half so that you can get rid of two crazies at one time; or, you simply shake your head, let them watch as you smoke both, leaving them behind to fight over the smouldering butt.

Which group do I belong to? The mouth-frothers or the garden-variety pseudo-nurses?

Well, I have cigarettes. I don’t hear voices (William Burroughs’ doesn’t count. If it were Jesus’ or Alistair Crowley’s, that would be a different matter). I realise that the fact that I’m in a loony bin might be a bit incriminating in terms of my sanity status. And I know what you’re thinking. Unfortunately you’re just going to have to take my word for it.’


[1] The Tara H. Moross Centre, in Johannesburg, South Africa, is a voluntary (although you can be involuntarily admitted) private/government psychiatric hospital with separate wards specialising in Borderline Personality Disorder/Addiction/Depression/Bipolar Disorder, Child Psychiatry, Eating Disorders and Psychotic Disorders (Schizophrenia and the manic/psychotic phases of Bipolar). Up until 2008 it was the foremost psychiatric/rehabilitation clinic.

[2] Xanor (a benzodiazepine – a group of compounds having a common molecular structure and similar pharmacological activities, including antianxiety, muscle relaxing, and sedative and hypnotic effects) is prescribed in the treatment of anxiety disorders or the short-term relief of the symptoms of anxiety. Also known as Xanax, Apo-Alpraz, Novo-Alprazol, Nu-Alpraz. Xanor is highly addictive, butgrossly over-prescribed by GPs and psychiatrists. (cf. Benzo withdrawal in next footnote).

[3] Benzodiazepine withdrawal: often abbreviated to benzo withdrawal, is the cluster of symptoms which appear when a person who has taken benzodiazepines long term and has developed benzodiazepine dependence stops taking benzodiazepine drug(s) or during dosage reductions. Benzodiazepine withdrawal is similar to alcohol withdrawal syndrome and barbiturate withdrawal syndrome and can in severe cases provoke life threatening withdrawal symptoms such as seizures. The most serious side effect of benzodiazepine withdrawal is suicide. Severe and life threatening symptoms are mostly limited to abrupt or over-rapid dosage reduction from high doses. A protracted withdrawal syndrome may develop in a proportion of individuals with symptoms such as anxietyirritabilityinsomnia and sensory disturbances. In a small number of people it can be severe and resemble serious psychiatric and medical conditions such as schizophrenia and seizure disorders.

[4] Sterkfontein is a South African state psychiatric hospital in the Johannesburg area for involuntary patients and the criminally insane; patients are committed there by the state (a psychiatrist and/or judge) or by their parents/guardians. (This is where the mentally ill homeless of the Johannesburg streets are committed).

[5] Largactil, also known as Thorazine: a phenothiazine used in the form of the base or the hydrochloride salt as an antipsychoticantiemetic, and presurgical sedative, and in the treatment of intractable hiccupsacute intermittent porphyriatetanus, the manic phase of bipolar disorder, and severe behavioral problems in children.

[6] Helen Joseph and Joburg Gen (Johannesburg General, now Charlotte Maxeke General) are government hospitals in Johannesburg, South Africa with dedicated psychiatric wards.

[7] Phenigan (promethazine): an antihistamine and anti-nausea drug which, in large doses, is used as a tranquiliser in psychiatric wards, rather than Xanor and its benzodiazapene cousins, as it is non-addictive (as opposed to Xanor). It is also cheaper, hence its ubiquity in South African governmental institutions. When taken for a short period of time and in small doses (as recommended by GPs) the side-effects are mild (in non-psychotic/clinically anxious patients the most common side-effect is severe drowsiness – 1 tablet will lead to most people being knocked out for 8-10 hours of sleep. I was on 4 tablets three times a day).

[8] Seroquel (quetiapine fumarate): a dibenzothiazepine derivative, an atypical antipsychotic. Risperdal (risperidone): a benzisoxazole derivative, an antipsychotic.Lithium (lithium carbonate): a soft, highly reactive metallic element whose carbonate form is used in psychopharmacology. A go-to drug used to treat and prevent manic states in bipolar disorder. Highly transmittable through breast milk.

[9] gwaai: South African slang for a cigarette.

[10] skyf: South African slang for half of a cigarette.

[11] net ‘n eintjie: Afrikaans, meaning ‘just the end of the cigarette’.

* ‘In Phenigan’s Wake’ was published under the title ‘In Phenergan’s Wake’ in Brainstorms: Expression of Depression; Volume II.

refiguring Germaine – my physical transition #lettersfromselvespas(t)sed

Photographs of me in physical transition, by Tracy Edser.
Tracy has captured the rite of passage of my physical transition over the span of 6 years, capturing my journey to fully inhabit my body, allowing me to play, without restrictions and more authentically, with the physicality of an identity in flux.

(The Letters from Selves Pas(t)sed series is drawn from writing created over 10 years ago. I’ve decided to include them as they create context for my journey. Keeping in mind where I come from helps me measure where I am and where I’m going.)

Pre-op – October 2010 #lettersfromselvespas(t)sed

I have been lucky in terms of the logistics of a breast reduction. When many medical aids do not cover the R50 000 operation because they view it as cosmetic, rather than medical surgery, I have been in the lucky position of not being able to afford medical aid. In a country where having medical aid is often the difference between life and death, how can I possibly consider myself lucky?

I’m lucky because I’ve never had to explain to some doctor, some pencil-pushing medical aid representative, that a breast reduction would be far from cosmetic for me. I have never had to explain that for me, a breast reduction would free me from a burden under which I haven’t been able to be my true self.

My journey with the logistical side of breast reduction began in 2007. I was referred to the Johannesburg General Hospital (now the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital) by the head psychiatric nurse at Tara. This referral meant that the breast reduction was immediately seen as a medical and psychiatric necessity, rather than a superficial or cosmetic surgery.

The doctors at the Jhb Gen were sensitive to my case, and sympathetic. In fact, their medical opinion that I had completely disproportionate, and chronically large and pendulous breasts, was an unexpected affirmation of something I’d known since puberty. The fact that they had medical terms for the scarring on my shoulders, for the severity of the largeness of the breasts themselves, was a wonderfully affirming experience. Despite my belief that there ‘was something wrong with me’, it took this doctor’s visit to confirm that indeed there was, but that I didn’t have to suffer from it anymore.

It wasn’t that easy, of course. The fact that although a breast reduction is considered a medical procedure, it is still carried out by plastic surgeons, and is thus also a cosmetic procedure. This meant that I would have to lose weight and reach my appropriate body mass index weight. This was due to medical and cosmetic reasons. Medically, the operation is a difficult, long and complicated procedure, and any pre-existing health conditions would complicate it even further. Cosmetically, I had to prove my commitment to the reduction, as many patients pick weight up after the reduction, thus undoing the reduction as most women’s breasts are one of the first areas to be affected by weight loss or gain.

While I was heartened by the fact that the procedure would take place once I had lost the weight, the very notion of having to lose weight was disheartening.

I had gained all of that weight precisely because of my large breasts. I had tried to camouflage their largeness by making my body large. The irony, of course, was that the more weight I gained, the larger my breasts became.

So the fact that my weight-gain was an emotional defence against the trauma and stigma of being large-breasted, made it almost impossible for me to face the idea of losing weight. The weight had become my way of protecting myself against the world and its stares and judgements. How could I suddenly let this protection go? Yes, losing weight would mean that I would lose the breasts through the reduction, but being a fat person with large breasts was who I knew myself to be. I didn’t have an idea of a self without the weight, without the breasts. And although this self was one which I completely and utterly loathed and hated, it was the only self I knew.

I thus left the doctor’s office with a vague sense of optimism which was immediately outweighed and crushed by the enormity of losing a self which I had known for most of my life. And the weight remained, and in fact increased.

A year later, out of complete desperation and an inability to let go of the protective weight, I investigated another route. A route which might allow me to get away with getting the procedure done while being overweight. Overweight women were getting these procedures done every single day, because they could pay the R50 000 that it cost to have it done. So I began searching for ways to pay this fee. I approached a medical loans company who would loan me the money for the operation. I also approached friends, family, and even strangers about loaning me the money. This came to nothing, as my friends and family were not in a position to loan me that amount of money, and the response from strangers (on the website that I created to bring the money in) was one of helpless sympathy on the one side of the scale, and uncomprehending derision on the other.

In retrospect, I am appalled and thankful for this desperate move of asking for help. Appalled, because I had played a helpless victim who was not in control of my own ability to get the reduction done; thankful, because I now realise that that desperation was borne from a place that was not healthy. I’ve since realised that I could not, and can not, get the reduction done until I have lost the weight.

Losing the weight, I have come to realise, is an integral psychological and emotional part of the reduction. I would not be able to deal with a smaller set of breasts emotionally or psychologically until I had said farewell to my fat, large body image. If I had managed to scrape the money together to pay for the operation, I would have had smaller breasts, but I would still think of myself as a large-breasted, large girl.

While I struggled with the idea of the weight loss, and thus the loss of my large self, I went through a very dark period of contemplating a double mastectomy. I figured that having a mastectomy would not require weight loss, and also, a mastectomy would just remove the entire issue of having to come to terms with my breasts at all. This dark period became even darker when I seriously fantasised about performing this mastectomy on my self.

Thankfully I came out of this darkness. A mastectomy would not have been the answer I was looking for. Removing my breasts would have been a denial of my self, my truth, my identity as a woman. And more than that: performing the mastectomy on myself would have killed me.

The crux of the matter was that my identity as a woman, my identity as a large girl and my body image issues and emotional difficulties around weight loss and my large breasts were inextricably linked. I had to deal with each of these issues, separately, and as a whole.

Overcoming my depression was the key to this. Once I emerged from my debilitating and 15-20 year history with depression, I was able to look at these issues soberly and clearly, for the first time in my life.

And once I overcame the depression, the weight loss issue was no longer an issue. After a lifetime of struggling with weight loss, body issues, dieting, starvation, eating disorders, I spontaneously lost the weight. As I overcame the depression and let go of my depressed identity, my more authentic identity just wasn’t that of a large girl, and thus the weight literally fell off, without any effort on my part.

The truth was that it was my relationship with food that lay at the bottom of all of these issues. I previously ate to fill a hole. And filling this hole created a self that protected itself from the world, and its self, through a layer of fat. Coming out of the depression, I no longer ate to fill this hole. I ate when I was hungry and I stopped eating when I was full. This approach to food, which was completely common-sensical and rational to other people, had eluded me my entire life. But coming out of the depression made this simple and rational approach to food my own approach.

And now that I have lost a large proportion of the weight, I am inhabiting my body more comfortably. It is becoming the body I was always meant to have. The real me is not a fat person. And the real me does not have large breasts.

The fact that this attitude towards my body and my breasts comes from a place of what it means to be authentically me, means that it comes from a much healthier place. I no longer loathe my body; I no longer loathe my breasts. I am more comfortable with them. And this comfort stems from the knowledge that they are not mine, they never were. My breasts are smaller, they always should have been. And now that I know that, now that I can own that and take responsibility for it, now I am ready to have a breast reduction. Now that I know who I am and who I was meant to be, I can make peace with the fact that I am now becoming the thinner and healthier version of myself. And having the reduction, having smaller breasts is just the last piece in the puzzle to becoming my smaller, healthier self, my authentic self.

So the next step is to go to be weighed at the Jhb Gen dietician, to prove my commitment to the procedure through my weight loss, and then to set up a follow-up appointment with the plastic surgeon. Now that I have lost a lot of the weight, now that I have taken responsibility for my own health and body image, I feel a lot more confident and in control of my self and the decisions I make for my self. Continuing on the path of the breast reduction is the path I need to be on. And now that I am in control of that path, I feel a lot more at peace with taking the next step on it.

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Post-op – March 2011 #lettersfromselvespas(t)sed

Having lived in a body with my ‘new’ breasts for almost 5 months now, I am filled with many emotions looking at these pictures.

Firstly, there is disbelief. I cannot believe that my breasts were that big. As I had no objective or real sense of what I looked like, avoiding mirrors and photographs, I am actually shocked that I walked around for 20 years with that completely disproportionate and impossible weight. I am saddened and horrified that I allowed myself that burden. In fact, not only allowed myself that burden but that I believed I deserved that burden.

Secondly, there is gratitude and joy. While it is difficult to look at these pictures in the sense of grieving for the time that I lost while my self and my spirit were crushed by that weight, I can look at them with a sense of objectivity, because that girl and the woman I am now are not the same person. I use the words ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ purposefully, as I was then a girl – a teenager in an adult body who was so at odds with herself, her femininity and her body. She could not come to terms with the body she inhabited and was so overcome with self-loathing that there was no self that was inhabitable for her. She loathed her breasts, her body. And because she was imprisoned within that body she loathed her self. She lived within the safe confines of a small, small space in her mind which was self-negating, self-destructive and self-diminishing. She could not accept that this physicality was who she was. She could not accept that this was what other people saw of her; that this is what other people took advantage of and abused. And so she denied her femininity and took every measure possible to cover, hide and mutilate that which made her female.

I remember the first day Tracy started taking photographs. Besides the psychiatric doctors and nurses in psychiatric institutions who have seen me naked when checking for signs of self-mutilation, and my partners, I have not allowed anyone else to see me naked. Sitting in front of Tracy, in my jeans and my bra, with her aiming a camera at me, left me feeling overwhelmingly fragile and vulnerable. I sat there and cried as I saw myself through the eye of the camera, the eye of the other, and as I realised that to the other I was a freak, a sexual object; a thing which was there to be pointed at, laughed about and abused. And in the face of that I was powerless. There was nothing I could do about it. I was trapped in that body with a 1000 eyes staring at me, objectifying me, and the only way I could survive was to remove myself to that corner of my brain where I was safe from them. I had to stay in that corner of my brain where I was safe from them.

But, of course, I wasn’t safe from them. My complete withdrawal from my body left me without a sense of who I was in my body. I had no ownership over it, no sense of or need to protect it. No voice. And so I allowed it to be stared at, made fun of and abused. Over and over again. Especially by myself. The person who did the most damage to me was the Self Loather, that part of me that hated my body and its betrayal of me so much that it not only allowed, but revelled in its ability to cut, burn, pierce, tattoo, starve, overfeed and rape its self.

I see such sadness, such trapped-ness in that girl in those photos. And she was sad. She was trapped.

But I am no longer her. Thinking back to what it felt like to be live in that body, and having had 4 or so months without that burden, I cannot believe how much difference it has made to my every day life and to my sense of self.

The journey back into my body began with the weight-loss leading up to the therapy. And it continues. Since the surgery the journey has picked up incredible speed and I, not to mention those around me, have been amazed at the incredible strides I’ve made.

12 January 2015: MY CURRENT RELATIONSHIP WITH MY BODY AND MY BREASTS: https://germainedelarch.wordpress.com/2015/01/11/breasts-body-issues-gender-identity/

Litany #lettersfromselvespas(t)sed

I’ve begun the process of mourning you; the Daddy I thought I had.  The protracted inquest takes place weekly in a therapist’s office.

Yesterday she asked me about the times I used to go and fetch you from the pubs, and it felt as if was giving part of us away, betraying you by admitting my pain.

And she gave me nothing to replace you with. She couldn’t fucking hold me and tell me that it would be ok. She couldn’t give me a placebo Daddy to tide me over while I dismantle you, and mourn the dismantled you.

And once I’ve taken a scalpel to you, laid your entrails alongside your broken, hollowed-out corpse, and once I’ve knelt beside you and chanted a litany for the death of you, and once I’ve lit the candle for my unfulfilled infant needs, what do I do then?

And what would be the point? I only ever did anything for you, so that you could look at me. Just so that you could fucking look at me.

Because the truth, Daddy, is that I won’t be able to do anything, because I’ll be asbroken, as hollowed-out as you. And I’ll be left with this claustrophobic, all-encompassing, numbing emptiness, nothingness.  Because, who am I without you?  Who am I if I am not Daddy’s little girl?

And then how do I go through the day, dragging two empty corpses around with me?

Or do I do what I’m doing now? Try to provide the corpses with some substance, some meaning by coolly and scientifically recording each scalpel-stroke. I might have to murder you, and consequently myself, slowly and excruciatingly, but at least I’ll be able to fucking write.

(The Letters from Selves Pas(t)sed series is drawn from writing created over 10 years ago. I’ve decided to include them as they create context for my journey. Keeping in mind where I come from helps me measure where I am and where I’m going.)

Suspension of Disbelief #lettersfromselvespas(t)sed

You could, I suppose, attribute the murders to the fact that I stopped believing in fairy-tales. The slack-jawed, gaping-eyed sense of wonderment and awe at the prince and the princess and the pea and the apple and the witch were replaced by a more sophisticated lexicon of adulthood consisting out of the vocabulary of disillusionment, the words of negation, the morphemes of cynicism and the phonemes of pain.

Suspension of disbelief. It is a prerequisite of awe and wonderment. And belief, and identity, and sanity. When you are willing to believe anything, the book that you clutch is solid, its book-smell pungent; the quarter-page bible-like illustrations outlining the prince and the princess and the pea and the witch have been grounded and solidified by the way in which you have lovingly crayoned in the colours of their hair and their clothes and their swords and their frogs; the territory and terrain of each story is concretely contained by its beginning and its end and the prince always gets the princess who feels the pea and survives the apple and escapes the witch.

Awe and wonderment, and belief, and identity, and sanity: the fairy-tale is the microcosmic blue-print for life. You clutch at the solid, pungent, outlined princes and princesses and peas and apples and witches with their hair and their clothes and their swords and their frogs and you mark your territory and your terrain and you cling to beginnings and endings and you get and you feel and you survive and you escape. You believe, you identify, you are sane. The suspension of disbelief.

“Suspension” – a holding back of something that already exists, is already there on the fringes of your consciousness, your belief. Belief does not exist without disbelief. The child-like bliss of awe and wonderment is based on a suspending of a knowing that what you believe is true, is not true. You believe, you identify, you are sane.

At first, when the disparity between the world of the prince and the princess and the pea and the apple and the witch and the world in which you live becomes more and more obvious, you murmur the wordless words that you were taught before you were able to learn. And you no longer feel the solidity of the book that you clutch, the book-smell fades and instead of rendering in colour the quarter-page bible-like illustrations, you become the prince and the princess and the pea and the witch and you are rendered colourful, solid, outlined. You become part of the terrain of the story, sturdily contained by the beginning and the end.

The fairy-tale is true because you live it, you believe it, and you believe it because you do not want to disbelieve the world outside of these pages with their book-smell, the story you are with a beginning and an end. You do not want to disbelieve the tale that you are told, the tale you live in the outside world. You cannot disbelieve it.

So you murmur the wordless words more and more and you are rendered colourful, solid, outlined in this world where there are beginnings and endings and you clutch at the solid, pungent, outlined princes and princesses and peas and apples and witches with their hair and their clothes and their swords and their frogs and you mark your territory and your terrain and you cling to beginnings and endings and you get and you feel and you survive and you escape.

It’s not the same as the time before the wordless words had to be murmured. You don’t believe as much as before, but you live it, you don’t identify as much as before because the outside self, the self that clutches the solid book with its book-smell has become a medium, an empty vessel for her fairy-tale selves, and you are not sane, but you are safe.

Suspension of disbelief.

 (The Letters from Selves Pas(t)sed series is drawn from writing created over 10 years ago. I’ve decided to include them as they create context for my journey. Keeping in mind where I come from helps me measure where I am and where I’m going.)