From the #1 bestselling author of The Language of Kindness comes this frank, funny and inspiring new memoir. Quilt on Fire: The Messy Magic of Midlife is the story of Christie's journey through midlife, from experiencing the perimenopause, to dating, raising teenagers as a single parent and to the unstoppable power of female friendship. Read on for an extract.
I am invisible. I finally got what I wanted. My brother and I spent much of our childhood arguing about superpowers: would it be better to be invisible or to be able to fly? As a child I often dreamt I was flying and would claim that nothing could beat that feeling of speed and freedom, the giddy whoosh of being in the night sky. ‘Invisibility,’ my brother would tell me, leaning in and whispering as if it were a secret, ‘means you can spy on people. You can know everything.’ Eventually we would both agree that to see without being seen would be the greatest of all powers.
Yet here I am, invisible, and I feel totally and utterly helpless.
I am sitting in the car outside Sainsbury’s and people are walking past me without so much as a glance in my direction. I look straight at them with a swollen, crying face, and nobody looks back at me. I’ve never really been a crier. I can watch the saddest of films without shedding a tear. My nurse heart, I’ve often thought, is a bit hard and brittle around the edges. I can laugh a lot, be incredibly sarcastic, sometimes sardonic, and have developed the dark protective humour of my profession. Yet here I am, a blubbering, snot-crying wreck. I feel like running, too. Away from something I can’t quite name. My leg muscles are tense, on high alert, as if they want to bolt. I remember my friend Joy, after her son was born, phoning me up in a panic. She told me she’d been putting the bins out when she looked down the lane and had suddenly wanted to run. Run away and never come back. She described the longing for freedom, to be herself once more, without carrying the weight of another life. ‘I wanted to leg it. To run fast as my legs could carry me. I looked into the distance and every single bone in my body screamed at me to run.’ I feel like that now: like packing it all in, running for the hills. I watch people walking past, resolutely oblivious to me, as I sit in the car staring out at them. In a full, busy car park, I feel very alone. And just wrong somehow. I feel like I’m floating outside my own skin, looking down at myself, but all I can see is a faint outline, a shell, emptied of organs, vacant. I can’t articulate these feelings, not even to friends and family; I can’t seem to relate to anyone, except perhaps Mrs Dalloway: ‘She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, far out to the sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.’ Perhaps it is insomnia? For the first time in my life, I am not sleeping. I’ve been waking, routinely, every night at 3 a.m. foam-mouthed, shaking and sweating with anxiety, like a rabid dog.
Am I a terrible mother? Is the world ending? Did I turn the oven off? Did I pay the parking fine? Is my TV licence up to date? Will I go to prison? Who will take care of the children?
I worry about everything, but mostly about my teen children. They have been watching me suspiciously, recently, as if I am possessed. They move past me cautiously staring, a little confused, and when they ask, ‘How was your day?’ in bright, breezy voices, I tell them, good, great, I’m fine, and ask about theirs, but instead of sounding reassuring, my voice sounds artificial, saccharine.
I spend an entire weekend staring at the television screen. The only problem is that the television is turned off.
I search every morning for my keys, which I keep in the zipped part of my bag. They are never there when I first look. I scour the house, the kids’ bedrooms, even the oven and fridge, where I do keep finding random things: my wallet, passport, a lipstick. Finally, when I check my bag again, they are there – suggesting they were there all along. ‘I don’t believe you,’ I tell the keys. Even the keys look worried.
I get out of the car slowly and head into the shop. I always pick the trolley with the dodgy wheel, which is a bit of a meta- phor for my love life, really. My trolley today, though, is worse than unmanageable, so I give up and grab a discarded basket.
I look at the rows and rows of food and my head spins. All I need to do is buy food to fill the almost entirely empty fridge and cupboards and make sure there are dinners. The basics. And yet it feels like a mammoth task. I don’t care; it’s as though I have no care left, it’s been totally rinsed out of me. I’m empty of it, this woman’s resource that is assumed unending. I have suffered compassion fatigue in my nursing career before, but this is something entirely different. Care fatigue? A woman walks past with a shopping list, checking things off as she goes, aggressively ticking. I can’t plan. I walk down the aisles quickly, and chuck random items into the basket as if I’m doing Supermarket Sweep. Pasties, courgettes, Mini Cheddars, tinned sweetcorn. I am burning hot. My legs and feet stop working properly. I suddenly shuffle as if weighted down, through the aisles, and my eyes blur. I feel the cool coming out of the freezer section, and stop. People walk past, ignoring me still. I must be sick. Flashes and dots float inside my eyes. I open a glass door, the shelves behind it half empty of fish fingers, and lean in, and in, until I am able to half close the door. The air is cold on my back and I feel sweat drip down my spine, almost in relief. The icy blast on my body goosebumps me into calm, and I take a few deep breaths. My head settles and I come to a pause, half in a freezer, next to the fish fingers, frozen in all senses. I should feel humiliated. I often do. I’m standing in a freezer. Surely, I should be cold-water swimming, like everyone else seems to be, all those women who are doing life better? But instead of getting out of my fish finger freezer, I watch the other shoppers walk past, dare them to say something, anything. I lean into the cold. Still nobody looks at me. They aren’t averting their eyes, embarrassed, or pretending to be on the phone; they simply carry on as if they can’t see me. One man comes over to the freezer next to mine, opens it, takes out some breaded cod, then closes it, without a flicker of awareness that I am there.
It’s as I stand here in this freezer, transparent, see-through, quite possibly mad, that I understand that I need to take urgent action. Michel Foucault said in Madness and Civilization, ‘Madness, in its wild, untamable words, proclaims its own meaning; in its chimeras, it utters a secret truth.’ I want to know my secret truth. But the only person who understands me is a chronically depressed – and arguably narcissistic and bourgeois – fictional Virginia Woolf character. I am unravelling in a spectacular fashion. I need help simply to function. And also, fuck invisibility, I still want to fly.
Luisa is an older woman, dressed brightly in cheerful summer colours. She has a wise face that is somewhere between kind and stern, a lived-in expression of someone who has seen, up close, humanity at its most mysterious and perhaps unimaginable. Hers is the face of an older nurse. ‘We will fill out these forms at the start of each session. It’s a good way for us to record your progress.’ She nods to the pieces of paper she has left on the chair opposite her. I pick them up, tick boxes about how I’m feeling. I have no idea how I’m feeling. I skim down and scribble random answers anyway. I hand the forms back to her, and watch as she reads my answers, knowing they are all wrong.
There’s a print of that famous Japanese woodcut, Hokusai’s The Great Wave, on the magnolia wall. I turn to stare at it for a while, and imagine the crashing of water engulfing me, the relief. I imagine drowning. I can’t afford therapy. But like many women, I really can’t afford to be sick. ‘Honestly, as a single parent I felt I didn’t have the time to deal with dark thoughts,’ a friend tells me after a major depressive episode. I look away from The Great Wave.
Searching for a therapist seems like it should be straightforward but I found it anything but. Therapy is an unregulated industry, which feels particularly dangerous. I have done my homework, asked around, and found Luisa, who is based in a clinic on the outskirts of north London.
‘What brings you to me today?’ She half-nods and half- smiles; carefully curated movements. It’s a sunny day and dust particles float between us. The dust moves slowly, as though the air is sad. Sad air. I think of all the people who must have sat here, breathing out sad air, until it changed the atmosphere itself.
I have googled every possible mental health issue and taken every quiz available on the internet, and discovered I apparently have the same personality type as Malala Yousafzai and Barack Obama, which only makes me feel utterly inadequate. I must have some sort of untreatable neurological disorder, or end-stage undiagnosed syphilis or Lyme disease or an incurable mould allergy that will mean I need to go and live in the desert in Utah.
I don’t tell Luisa this. I do not mention neurosis. Instead, I talk about feeling unseen. I’ve never felt myself to be a particularly beautiful woman. Striking, possibly – in the right light – but not head-turningly stunning. Yet I always noticed the glances, the slightly too long stares, and the subtle – and not-so-subtle – flirting that made me feel seen by men, and by women. ‘When I was younger, I imagined that I wouldn’t miss being visible in our patriarchal society and its obsession with the young, the fetishisation of youth, and external, sexualised ideas of beauty. But now that I’m becoming invisible, and I have the ability to see without being seen, I realise that I was wrong. I mean, I know how strange I sound, but I feel totally not there. Like I’m creeping away from being real or something.’
Luisa doesn’t ask about my anxiety, or my low mood, which I’ve ticked on the forms, or the self-diagnosed breakdown (I climbed into the fish finger freezer in Sainsbury’s, I tell her. I hard relate to Mrs Dalloway).
She doesn’t even frown. Poker faces are important for therapists too, I realise, thinking about my twenty years as a nurse, my own poker face. Instead, she asks me about my age, and about my periods. I’m confused as to why she’s even asking. ‘It’s as if I’ve got insects crawling all over my body,’ I tell her, in a bid to prove that my psychological state is pathological and serious. ‘I am totally disconnected to my sense of self, outside my body, outside my own reality. I fantasise about disappearing, running off to join an ashram, somewhere far away. I’m not right,’ I tell her. I describe looking in the mirror and wondering who I am, or at least, where I have gone. ‘I feel empty. And like something catastrophic is happening in my brain and my body.’
She doesn’t say anything, but her careful listening, half-nodding, half-smiling propels me on. I describe the anxiety nights, the neurotic days, the feeling that I have no idea who I am any more, and I reiterate that everything is distorted. ‘I’m worried I’m really sick,’ I say, crying. All I seem to do is cry these days. ‘And I’m not a crier.’ There are strategically placed tissues next to my chair, I notice. ‘I’m losing it. My body is falling apart. And my brain is mashed potato. I’m a writer. An academic. I can’t read – all I do is watch reality TV. I need a working brain.’
She waits until I finish blowing my nose. ‘This could all be hormones,’ she says. ‘I think you need to see your GP in the first instance. Of course we will carry on talking, if you think it would be helpful, but I do think it’s wise to get your hormones checked too. Sounds like the kind of thing a lot of women experience at perimenopause.’
Perimenopause? The word is becoming more familiar, with a much-needed movement of women speaking out publicly and in the media about their experiences of both perimenopause and menopause. But at this point, I only recognise the term in a vague sense. A sing-song word, quite beautiful said out loud: perimenopause. But I’ve not really heard it as anything but passing conversation.
The word ‘peri’ comes from the Greek peri and means ‘around, about, enclosing’. I certainly feel enclosed, constricted, not held in a calm and reassuring way, but squeezed. But surely I’m nowhere around the time of menopause? I thought that happened mid- to late- fifties? Something to shelve and worry about later. And anyway, if this were a common thing experienced by women, wouldn’t we be talking about it all the time? Surely lots of women don’t all have colossal breakdowns, quietly, invisibly. . . I am surprised and sceptical about Luisa’s advice. I can’t believe that these enormous emotions I’m unable to contain are down to hormones. To getting older. In her TED Talk ‘How to Live Passionately – No Matter Your Age’, the novelist Isabel Allende said, ‘For a vain female like myself, it’s very hard to age in this culture. Inside I feel good, I feel charming, seductive, sexy. Nobody else sees that.’ I also feel like I’m disappearing, like I am vanishing. And I hate it. I am vain. But is this really about my simply getting older, and my vanity? A hormonal imbalance might be part of the story, of course, but there must be something far deeper going on. This tumult is too big, too uncontrolled, to be related to menopause.
The word ‘menopause’ was invented by French (male) doctors at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Some of them noted that peasant women had no complaints about the end of menses, while urban middle-class women had many troubling symptoms. I wonder why women had such different experiences. I have troubling symptoms. Yet I feel as if I do not know myself at all. I am urban, it is true, and, although I grew up very working class, could now for sure be considered middle class. My situation is more than troubling: it’s debilitating. I am swimming in syrup. And surely troubling symptoms hap- pen at the time of menopause, not a decade beforehand? I don’t even feel menopausal. But what do I know about the menopause, really, other than what I imagine it to be?
I later discover that although menopause typically occurs at forty-nine to fifty-two years old, it can begin earlier. It varies from person to person, with 80 per cent of women having their last period between the ages of forty-four to fifty-eight. And it varies from country to country, too: the average age of a woman’s last period in the UK is fifty-two, but in India it’s forty-four. So it’s nearly upon me, a turning point, a pause of re-evaluation, the change, but at forty-two I am surely not there yet. But then I find out that women who work nights – just as I did for many years as a nurse – can reach the menopause a full decade earlier. And experience the perimenopause even younger. Perimenopause, the before, is something for which I am totally and utterly unprepared. And when I try and find information about it there is no clear-cut advice; instead, there are tons of contradictory explanations and theories. The time leading up to the menopause, this perimenopausal state, according to the North American Menopause society, can last between four to eight years. But the NHS website tells me that one in ten women experience perimenopausal symptoms for up to twelve years. Harvard Health describes perimenopause as the ‘rocky road to menopause’, but I’d never really considered that it might make women feel totally unhinged. Let alone that it would happen to me. Surely, this madness can’t be attributed to perimenopause, and surely it can’t go on for a dozen years.
Luisa looks at me again, with pity. ‘Middle age can be a really hard time.’