I set out on Sunday in territory less familiar than my usual stomping ground, only intermittently checking my progress against the map. Avoiding a crowd of noisy cattle, I plunged through shoulder-high bracken, soaking my trousers with the residue of the previous day’s rain. I headed for a path I thought I recognised only to realise, ten minutes later, the rest of the topography didn’t fit. But I pressed on, seesawing between anxiety and excitement. I love discovering new corners of the landscape, finding enormous satisfaction in the moment when the strange intersects with the known. But there’s an edge of concern that I’ll delve too far into unknown territory, that I won’t make it back to base in time.
I could hunker down with map and compass, take the time to work out exactly where I am. But there’s a part of me that’s too scared or too stubborn. Calling time on my meandering means admitting I’m lost.
We often stumble through life shackled by our problems, encumbered by the burdens we must bear. Parts of our personalities that we don’t dare look at for fear the monster will destroy us. Better to pretend it doesn’t exist.
But sometimes, if we can bear to be truly lost, someone will find us. It could be that Miri’s stoicism in An Untamed State resulted in her kidnappers detaining her for longer; perhaps, if she’d wept and pleaded, her father would have paid the ransom sooner than he did. But acknowledging one’s desolation can feel like compounding the trauma. What if we call out and no-one comes?
The way we respond to threats will be shaped by previous experience, perhaps by the attachment styles developed in infancy. Some of us discover early that our cries for help are likely to be ignored. In these circumstances, it can take more courage to reveal our vulnerabilities than to go it alone.
Therapy can go some way towards mending: not the sticking-plaster type of therapy but the long haul. How apt that the subtitle of Stephen Grosz’s book of psychotherapy stories (which I didn’t rediscover until I was halfway through this post) should be How We Lose and Find Ourselves.
My novel, Sugar and Snails, is about one person’s attempts to find herself that lead to her getting more and more lost. She’s tried conforming to societal and family expectations. She’s tried studying it dispassionately in her academic research. She’s tried hiding her real self behind a facade. She’s tried romance and she’s tried self-harm. She’s desperately in need of some fictional therapy, but far too prickly to consider it (although she has benefited indirectly through the therapy I’ve experienced on her behalf). Her attempts at transformation haven’t magicked her problems away. Yet even Diana finds that it’s when she’s most lost that she can be found.
Shouldering his haversack, my dad strode off. I followed through woodland and moorland, on muddy paths and sheep-cropped grass. He didn’t stop to help me over stiles. He didn’t pause to admire the view. He didn’t wait when I pulled off my wellies to smooth the wrinkles from my socks.
Feet throbbing with every step, I scrambled up the slope. Through misty eyes, I scoped the terrain. When at last I spotted him, he didn’t wave or beckon me across. Ankles twisting on the uneven ground, I limped through the heather towards him. I was safe, but not saved.