Shame. It’s a shameful thing. To feel ashamed. It makes you feels weak. It feels like you’re kind of worthless. The other day, my GP shamed me. He told me that I just “need to suck it up & live with it”. (it being bad-ass headaches/migraines/face/shoulder pain) I’m not sure he meant to, but he did. I wasn’t even there for that. He tried to quickly move on – but it hung in the air & it is now burnt into my mind ever since. I keep replaying the moment inside my head of all the things I *wished* I had said in response to him. To call him out. But I stumbled over my words and I itched my head as I usually do when I feel socially inept and at a loss of words as all of the emotion came over me at once.
This moment, which I had gone for antibiotics for a chest infection (which i got!), all came down to him reading some clinic notes that the physio had written. She had said that I take (over the counter) codeine about twice a month for a 5-year chronic headache & INTENSE neck/face pain, but only when its pain scale 8+ & it’s grinding me down. And it’s true. The neurologist prescribed me stuff for it 3 years ago – but the GP refused to keep on prescribing it. we tailored the drugs off – and now I just live in pain. I get it. I understand why he doesn’t want me on these drugs. It’s chronic pain, it’s probs a bit psychosomatic – but i do have shit wrong with me that would actually give me chronic headaches like hypercalcemia that gets so high sometimes I have to be hospitalized. And also like, migraines are a real thing! But he doesn’t see that. And again, I do it get the “no drugs thing”. That’s why I have adapted my own coping systems. I know stress makes it worse, Physio helps my neck & shoulder & gives me really good relief for a decent amount of time, and I know I need to sleep-in at weekends to give my body *Something* to building itself back up. I know the GP won’t give me shit for it – so I take the odd over the counter pain relief? So what!? If he wants control over the stuff I am taking – then he should offer the support. But he doesn’t – so, I guess that’s structural iatrogenesis for you.
I have to take the pain relief when the pain grinds me down so much that I feel COMPLETELY worthless – like the pain makes all my left side of face feel numb and sometimes I can’t actually get language out. It’s embarrassing. My job is about communication – and sometimes i just can’t communicate properly with people cuz the headache/face numbness is so bad i loose my ability to grasp the correct word – or know how to spell it? It’s a weird sensation. It’s like having the worlds slowest seizure. But it goes on FOR DAYS. WEEKS. Even months if it’s SUPER bad like it was back in the radiotherapy training days. It literally makes me feel like I want to kill myself – because anything is better than not feeling like you’re alive. I joke about this with friends at work. They laugh but pull me up on it. “You’re not serious though, are you?” they say. I just laugh and & say “i don’t know” because honestly on those days, i just – don’t know. We get back to typing on our laptops and pretend we’ve not really exchanged this odd truth because it doesn’t sit well with who i am. When the pain is manageable – i’m like the chillest, generally happiest person you’ve met that day.
The GP – a dude who I really respect & admire – made me feel like *proper* shit by shaming me like that (again esp when I didn’t bring it up!). I carry the shame around with me all the time. It weighs me down, and the dirty secret of mine. I don’t need to hear to suck it up from someone who is supposed to at least be pretending to help. So I was like, what’s even the point, right? And It’s not the 1st time he’s shamed me. I can’t blame him directly tho. Healthcare is historically built upon shaming women (Especially) .
I’ve been making my medical shames into comics (this 1 isn’t finished yet). Maybe one day, i’ll give them to my GP.
So what’s this shame gotta do with everything else? Well, this is the thing. I know that shame is the opposite of art.
When you live inside of your shame, everything you see is inadequate and embarrassing. The pain you can’t seem to get rid of. A lifetime of traveling and having adventures and not being tethered to long-term commitments looks empty and pathetic and foolish, through the lens of shame. You haven’t found a partner. Your face is aging. Your body will only grow weaker. Your mind is less elastic. Your time is running out. Shame turns every emotion into the manifestation of some personality flaw, every casual choice into a giant mistake, every small blunder into a moral failure. Shame means that you’re damned and you’ve accomplished nothing and it’s all downhill from here.
Working in art and academia/research kind of makes it super easy to fall into shame. The way these worlds work – defaultly – can make you feel pretty inadequate at times. I mean, anyone who has received the raft of reviewer #2 will know what I mean.
Shame creates these imaginary worlds inside our heads. This haunted house that I have created is forged from my shame. No one else can see it, I keep trying to describe it to them. I find ways to say, “You don’t want any part of this mess. I’m mediocre, stupid/boring, and poor. Do yourself a favour and leave me behind.” Sometimes I think it’s because I want to be left behind, though. That way, no one bears witness to what I’ve become.
I’ve gotten super lucky recently though when it has come to work, somehow. I’ve been blessed with an incredible opportunity to do a commission for Yorkshire Visual Arts Network (YVAN) – on creating a work based on snapshots of working in Yorkshire and Humberside as an artist. And I decided I’d look at this iffy word Resilience. It absolutely does my head-in, does that word. It’s a new buzzword. And it gets banged around in scenarios where people are in really stressful situations: an overstretched NHS, an underfunded school, understaffed university, a over-stretched and increasing demand public sector. The reasons why people are stressed & burnt out & things are taking longer *isn’t* the underfunding – no – people just need to be *more* resilent. Here this is the placing the structural injustices onto individuals – and it turn it shames them too.
The North, traditionally and currently, gets less funding than the south. But – it’s cool because WE ARE RESILIENT.
Over the past few weeks I have been digging down deep across various areas: Sheffield, Doncaster – soon Hull and Withernsea. A bit of Huddersfield. I’ve been taking documentation, talking to people. About labour, about art, about making, about worth/value/time.
But I am left more inspired than I first thought I would be. Every single conversation has ended up about being and providing some sort of care. I am refreshed. This wasn’t what I was expecting to find. I had chosen these specific people because I knew they were doing something special, and was responding to these structures that build shame around us all. They are responding with a resilence built around care.
Over the past few decades the individual, the self, has been at the center. But I’m finding people who are leading us toward a culture that puts relationships at the center. They ask us to measure our lives by the quality of our attachments, to see that life is a qualitative endeavor, not a quantitative one. They ask us to see others at their full depths, and not just as a stereotype, and to have the courage to lead with vulnerability. These people are leading us into a new culture. Culture change happens when a small group of people find a better way to live and the rest of us should copy them.
I am excited to share this new body of work (still in the process of being made) with you – but the website will be shared with y’all soon.
All of this has made me see that we all need to discard some of this shame that we’re carrying around all the time. But even if we can’t cast off all our shame that quickly, through the lens of art, shame can become valuable.
When you’re curious about your shame instead of afraid of it, you can see the true texture of the day and the richness of the moment, with all of its flaws. You can run your hands along your own self-defeating edges until you get a splinter, and you can pull the splinter out and stare at it and consider it. When you face your shame with an open heart, you’re on a path to art, on a path to finding joy and misery and fear and hope in the folds of your day.
Instead of thinking what needs fixing? we need to be here instead. We can build a new kind of existence, one that feels small and flawed and honest, but each day we can accumulate a kind of treasure that doesn’t disappear. A reminder that you are alive. And you’re worthy and valued and seen. Chronic pain, citations, published journal articles, bad reviews and all.