AN OPENING AND A CLOSING
June 29th, 2020
Words by Alia Wilhelm · Artwork by Reena Makwana
When I put pen to paper, I became the omniscient narrator, instead of the heartbroken protagonist
A few years ago, my therapist and I came to the conclusion that journaling, though a seemingly cathartic activity, actually enabled me to side-step my feelings rather than experience them.
I was going through a break-up and, though it was painful, I set aside some time every night to sit down and recount the happenings of the day to my diary. I had recently returned to London from three months in southeast Asia, where I’d engaged in some supremely unoriginal millennial behaviour, like attending a yoga teacher training in Thailand and hostel-hopping my way through the Banana Pancake Trail. The experience bore more resemblance to the premise of “Eat Pray Love” than I was ready to admit, minus the love part - in fact, love was the reason I had decided to leave London in the first place. My ex-boyfriend and I lived in the same building, and my lack of self-control meant that I was often orchestrating “accidental” run-ins with him, prolonging the heartbreak and evading any sense of closure that might have been available to two people living under the same roof.
It was a lovely roof, the tiled apex of a Victorian townhouse with five floors. The rent was suspiciously cheap, especially considering how nice the area was. Our neighbours were cashmere-clad 60-somethings who spent Saturday apres midis watering their waxy homegrown tulips and Sunday mornings playing expensive-sounding classical music on their grand pianos. Sophisticated tenants had probably inhabited our house at some point, too, but that was no longer the case.
My roommates were an eccentric bunch. Someone was always naked, covered in glitter, wearing a costume, or donning some sort of latex contraption while running around the house. We laughed hysterically, amused when the floorboards shook as a result, though later we found out this was because the house was literally falling apart. The place was in dire need of some TLC: Once, a friend who worked in Health & Safety had felt so uncomfortable staying there that she had threatened to check herself into a hostel. But the landlord, a successful portrait painter, was either too disorganised or too rich to care. And we were too busy having fun. Life in that building was a daily spectacle. In many ways it was what I had always hoped my 20s would be like.
My ex-boyfriend had a garden-facing room in the basement, and I lived on the third floor. While people my age were busy stalking their exes on Instagram, all I had to do was throw my windows up and peer down. Finding his room shrouded in darkness at 10pm on a Thursday guaranteed hours of insomnia punctuated by frantic window checks, the real-life equivalent of obsessively refreshing my social media feed. What did the darkness mean? Could he be on a date? Was he right that minute having sex with some hot purple-haired Swede? Or did his life feel so meaningless without me in it that he was lying alone in the dark, his sad, sunken face illuminated by the blue glow of my Instagram profile on his iPhone? I reported these daily sightings in my diary, noting a lack of activity in his bedroom or a brief, awkward exchange in the hallway, the way I imagined a dutiful bird watcher would keep track of the comings and goings of a robin or a blue tip.
My journal entries were often dozens of pages long, filled with lengthy descriptions of my emotional state at the time of writing. My handwriting changed daily, which I took as sure sign of some sort of personality disorder, and if I accidentally cried onto the page I would circle the teardrop proudly, marking its landing spot and labelling it “tear”. The ritual of writing seemed symptomatic of my suffering; surely it was because I was in pain that I was attached to my desk like a barnacle to a rock, writing until the words left me. But when I look back on it now, I wonder whether I was overwhelmed by feeling and therefore thrust into writing, or whether I was writing in order to evoke the semblance, the image, of feeling. Maybe I suspected that I was actually not as sad about the relationship’s end as I had expected to be and didn’t want to face that and the host of other lies I had told myself while we were together.
Apart from the evening ritual of diary-keeping, I seldom paused to really consider how I was dealing with the end of the relationship. Instead, I found creative ways to dispel any opportunities for nostalgic rumination, filling in-between moments like my morning walk to the bus stop with phone calls to friends or listening to audiobooks while brushing my teeth at night. I saw silence as a fertile breeding ground for dark thoughts, and told myself I couldn’t bear it.
Having spent the past few months listening more closely to the world around me, I realise now that I was wrong to think of the world as silent: The birds must have been singing on the tree-tops during my pre-work commute and my toothbrush would have been sweeping rhythmically with a familiar ch-ch-ch against my teeth. I could have taken meditative refuge in these sounds, but I tuned them out instead, mistaking the birdsong for silence because it wasn’t loud enough to cancel out the sound of my thinking. My desire to evade self-confrontation meant I was no longer free to be fully present in the world, since being fully present would mean accepting the world in whatever form it presented itself to me, instead of trying to mould it into a shape I could handle.
Though journaling appeared, on the surface, to allow me to come to terms with the relationship’s demise - or perhaps I should have been more Buddhist about it and seen it as an evolution, rather than an ending - something about it still felt avoidant. When I put pen to paper, I put names to feelings, zeroed in on events and my reactions to them. I became the omniscient narrator, instead of the heartbroken protagonist, analysing my emotions from afar rather than choosing to experience them from up close.
It has become clear to me these past few years, and increasingly over these past few months, that I am very good at fooling myself into believing that the measures I take to avoid suffering are simply signs that I’m coping well with pain. Even in therapy, following the break up, I often went into detailed descriptions of my sadness without shedding a single tear, or expressed an event that had enraged me in monotone. I saw my detachment as proof that I was strong-willed and healing, some kind of above-it-all stoic. But later on, I saw it differently: The more afraid I seemed to feel the feelings, the better I was at describing them. My words may have been vivid, but my insides were mute.
After those therapy sessions, I never kept a diary again. I had written in notebooks from the age of four and I had dozens of journals, reams of tearsheets covered in my sometimes cursive, other times blocky, handwriting. Sometimes, when I look over them now, the pages feel like relics from a past life, or personalia that belong to someone I no longer know. Writing was such a big part of my life for so long, but for some reason I felt relieved when I let myself let it go.
These days I focus more on cutting and pasting images into my journal pages and adding the occasional thought to the page in large, childish handwriting. Sitting in solitude, cutting mountains and armchairs out of old magazines, gives me the chance to think things over gently, though sometimes I wonder whether this act of creation is just an extension of my work week, since I make collages for a living now. Then I ask myself whether this is just another method I’ve constructed to side-step my emotions, if it’s just productivity masquerading as catharsis. The semblance, the image, of feeling.
I take long walks every day now but still block out the natural world using my AirPods. Last week I used up all eight of my Audible credits on books I’ve been wanting to read: I have a digital bookshelf I can go to now when my thinking gets too loud. One I recently listened to was Jenny Odell’s “How To Do Nothing”, though I was always doing at least one other thing at the same time, even as I could feel her ideas making waves in me. And when I’m walking through the British countryside now, I make sure to keep track of my step count because if I don’t quantify the activity in some way, is it even real? If a tree falls and I wasn’t there to record it on my iPhone, did it really happen?
I have to be able to laugh at my own ridiculousness, I suppose. But mostly what I see when I picture myself walking in my mind’s eye is how sad it is that I can’t fully be here. From the outside, I look like someone soaking up the sight of sun-drenched maple trees and the smell of grass and rose bushes. But on the inside, I am in a state of constant friction with the present moment. I have a desire to appreciate it, but not fully. It’s about quantity, not quality. How far I walk, not how deeply I process my surroundings. As with writing in a journal or making collages or typing up this personal essay on my laptop, it’s about the story I’m telling myself, the scene I’ve placed myself in, rather than how the experience feels. How things can seem as opposed to how things really are.
So then I think: Maybe it was never about the relationship to begin with. I wasn’t avoiding heartbreak when I blocked the world out so much as I was avoiding myself. These past few weeks, if I think of my laptop or my phone as something akin to the presence of another person, I have hardly had a moment of solitude. It’s been several years now since I’ve even been to the bathroom without my phone. But the world is offering me the chance to sit with my thoughts now, and I know I’ll regret it if I turn the other way.
One prescient part of “How To Do Nothing” that I loved was the idea that, “Most people know someone who has gone through some period of removal that fundamentally changed their attitude to the world they returned to… That pause in time is often the only thing that can precipitate changes on a certain scale.” I hope I grasp this period of removal, the opening offered up to us by the world, and refuse to shy away from it. I hope I walk towards it and step to the very edge so I can see there is nothing to be afraid of at all.
Alia Wilhelm is a Nearness co-founder. She works as a multimedia artist and director's assistant in London. You can follow her @aliiiiia and check out her work at www.aliawilhelm.com
Reena Makwana is an illustrator working in London with felt tips and embroidery. You can check out her work at www.reenamakwana.com. You can follow her on Instagram @reena.makwana and on Twitter @ReenaMakwana