Category Archives: Non fiction

Schizophrenia (or something like it)

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echoes_of_schizophrenia_by_xhimsoulsx

I’m writing a play about a family member who lived with schizophrenic symptoms for ten years. She had been diagnosed and medicated. She spent a year in a care facility for people with mental illness. She stopped doing all the things she excelled in: writing, singing and acting. And she was very good at these things.

But she’s not schizophrenic. She has something called somatoform disorder. And she’s been told that in 2-5 years, she’ll be free from most symptoms. Plenty of people with schizophrenia live life to the fullest, but she hadn’t had time to get past the idea that the illness was a life sentence. A sentence that has now been reversed.

I’m not writing from her perspective. I don’t think I could ever really understand what she went through, and what she’s going through now. I’m writing from my perspective, a family member who abandoned her when things started to fall apart. I told myself she was faking it. But I noted with no shortage of fear how much her reported symptoms sounded like my own. I was diagnosed with pretty severe anxiety in third grade, and it’s the kind of disorder that mutates into a thousand other weird symptoms if you don’t take care of it. It’s not something I like to talk about, because I hate sounding like a victim. But it’s there. Things were pretty out of control for me around the same time she went to the hospital. I didn’t leave the house much, and when I did, i felt like everyone was watching me. I used to sit at home, frozen on the couch, because I thought that if I moved, the kitchen knives would fly out of the drawer and stab me. I was embarrassed about this. I joked with people about it! But I was trapped in it. I assumed that my anxiety had crossed the line into the full blown crazies.

I convinced myself that a diagnosis for her was a diagnosis for both of us.

So I avoided her, as if that might keep it away from me. I told people she was faking her symptoms because she wanted attention, and I argued with my parents about whether she was actually sick. I had to go through every tiny wrong she had ever committed against me with my therapist, like I was banking reasons to cut her off. When we were together for family events, I simply endured her. I never told her how I felt. Sometimes, she hinted that maybe she knew. Over time, we just stopped interacting.

Now, she’s “well” and on her way to recovery, and from what I understand, she has been suffering from an illness that is anxiety related.  On the mental health front, we did have something in common.

She sent me an email when she found out.

“I didn’t want it to be anxiety,” she said. “I know that is your thing.”

“I didn’t want to take away from what you’ve been through.”

Silence on the flight path. (the midnight sum)

raven lunatic

The Northern solstice is pulling the top off my skull and I feel like a healer’s cliché.

The motifs are ravens (raven lunatic!) and the (ubiquitous) light. Midnight sun in the black coffee, and pushing through the blackout blinds.

The smells are lavender (on my pillow) and pine in the air. Pine at the footbridge over the green Yukon river. still a tangle of current, even with the rapids blasted out. The trees are so skinny here!

The colours are red (on my pillow) and green in the waking hours, but the sun is ubiquitous  so where does that leave us?  with magnets in our heads. nodding toward the midnight dome.

I feel like a cliché because I want to talk about dreams, but what else is there to talk about in this sleep-wakefulness? My daytime self is nearly incoherent but my nighttime self is busy writing happy endings to nervous dreams. The ones lucidity usually cuts off before the finale. Frantic packing for a flight I know I’ll miss. But last night, I filled suitcases leisurely in comic-strip frames: black and white and red.  Shook hands with my old life, and flew away.

Free-running through an exotic hotel and into a courtyard, so lithe I’m on strings. This is usually a chase scenario, set in a steel-and-glass venue of elevators trapped between floors. This time it’s green and pink and terracotta. Curved awnings and stone passageways, flowered vines trail out of windows. Last night I ran for the feel of it, and when I had my fill of movement and architecture, I stopped. Then there was nothing left to do but walk into wakefulness. When I open my eyes (midnight sun!) I realize how seldom I let dreams run their course, preferring a smash-cut into consciousness. These endings are anti-climactic, but satisfying. Good will messages, assurance that everything on the inside is okay.

Back to (mostly) sleep. Now it’s dreams analyzing dreams: a childhood nightmare unpacked. This character was a constant: a bull with meatless head-no skin no eyes- on a shriveled cow body. It hopped on one leg, backwards, and preferred to drop in on dreams already in progress. Watched me from a tree as I fought through a corn maze. Appeared at my window while I searched for a light switch that wasn’t going to work anyway. Sometimes it just hopped backwards in-between dream scenes, from rooftop to rooftop, looking for mine.

Last night, dream-Carleigh was researching a mythical Eastern European creature: a cow head that walked backwards on two human legs.

“Ah ha!” said my dream-self, and wondered aloud if it wasn’t perhaps time to get in touch with my Croatian relatives. The relatives who are always feuding with people. And with each other. The ones who outlive their spouses and children, proclaiming every day a misery. If you ask me my background, I’ll say Métis-Icelandic. Never Croatian. This is the only part of my blood heritage I haven’t made peace with.

The last time I had dreams like this, dreams that rubbed slave on old wounds and gently suggested cutting into new territory, I was in therapy. Now, the Northern solstice is pulling the top off my skull and picking around-adding up numbers. It’s turning us all into raven lunatics in its midnight sum. But still, there’s silence, even on the flight path.

Dream analysis and writing short fiction

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The Dream. Hussien Ahmad

I was lucky enough to learn about dream analysis at a pretty young age, so I’ve got a few years practice under my belt. There are many ways to analyze the contents of your dream, and images will hold different meaning for different dreamers. I don’t necessarily want to tell you that my way is right, but I would like to share with you how my work with dream analysis has helped with my writing.  I believe that dream analysis has taught me to trust my subconscious and its ability to assemble images to tell a story.

“Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. there is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.” Henry Miller

When I’m writing I often get an urge to include an image (This story about recovery from addiction needs some benches from Expo 86!) or a motif (This story about female violent offenders needs rushing water!) and in the moment, I seldom know why.  But I don’t question. In it goes, to be analyzed at a later date. Not acting on this impulse has resulted in mini-blocks, that kept me from projects for weeks, sometimes months. That’s much worse than just deciding that the impulse was wrong, and cutting the image later. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me though. Usually I read through later and find the connection to the theme pretty quickly, and it’s pats-on-the-back all around. How clever you are, subconscious! Archivist of my days, filmmaker of my sleep. Let’s have a beer to celebrate.

So, here’s how I analyze a dream. It’s easy. I didn’t make this method up, but I’m afraid I no longer remember the name of the book I got it from.

As soon as possible after waking, I write down everything I remember from the dream. Then I draw a line lengthwise down a sheet of paper. I break the dream up into images, and list all of the images down one side of the paper. One the other side, I write down what each of those images means to me. I’m not a fan of dream encyclopedias, unless I’m really stuck on an image. I prefer my own interpretation, since it’s my dream.

So for example, let’s say I dream that I’m at my family’s old summerhouse at Shuswap Lake. I’m doing math homework, and when I’m done, I go para-sailing.

one side of the page would look like this:

1. our old summerhouse
2. Shuswap Lake
3. math homework
5. para-sailing

And on the other side:

1. Freedom, happiness, sun. The only time of the year I felt happy and pretty. My first boyfriend. Suntanning. Swimming (the only sport I was ever good at)

2. Comfort. Feeling more comfortable in water than on land. Adventure. Minnows and snorkeling. Sitting on the dock with my sister practicing fly fishing in the evening, even though there was nothing to catch.

3. Feeling inadequate, stupid. Not applying myself, or trying to apply myself and failing. Hopelessness.

4. Showboating, showing off. Looking down on others. Wanting to be seen. Fear.

If you’re looking for messages from your dreams (it’s a popular exercise to ask your dreams a question before bed) sometimes, a narrative may show itself. Keep at it! And remember, sometimes the most upsetting dreams have the strongest messages. It might be hard to relive them, but it might really be worth it.

You may also feel a little bit weird exploring your dreams like this, like some kind of astrology nut or gypsy fortune-teller, but hey you’re not hurting yourself or anyone else by analyzing your dreams. You don’t have to tell your empirical evidence-loving friends what you’re doing. It’s not like your dreams are going to send you messages not to leave the house on any given day (if they do, seek help) you’re just entering into a dialogue with them that may help your creativity.

So, there wasn’t some defining moment where I was like: “Eurika! I’m in touch with my subconscious!” I’d say that over time, I just started to listen to what it was telling me. After a meditation retreat, I blogged about my weird and vivid dreams and let people laugh or share their own. I kept a dream journal. I even shared bits of my dreams on Facebook, and  I still do. I gave my subconscious a bit of space on the page, and it responded with a little creative inspiration for me.

Greatest Hits?

I’m stitching together a bunch of my Thai Travelogue odds and ends into a collection of postcard non-fiction. So you’ve read this all before. But I am polishing it up, and I invite your feedback on how you think it’s working.

Image

Step on a plane and get off two days later.
Shanghai stopover won the day, like flying into a garage filled with exhaust. Freighters, even-spaced, into brown forever. After, the plane just stopped on the tarmac, as if it had also reached its limit of screaming infants, and passengers with no prior knowledge of Gravol.

Zero degrees. We were loaded on a bus, then driven aimlessly around the airport for 20 min. Aysia, my friend, I wished you were there so we could have sung transit show tunes, the situation demanded them. Maybe some Queen.

Teens with expensive haircuts in pseudo-paramilitary dress at Shanghai airport security, whose answer to everything is “no problem.”
“Take my shoes off too?”
“No problem.”
“Computer out of the bag?”
“No problem.”
“Just put the Nuke in the plastic bin then?…”

Deserted, dungeon like hallways, and an escalator that spookily ground to a halt as as I arrived at its base, then resumed its grumpy ascent seconds later. STOP WASTING ENERGY signs. Caps Lock. Sterilized water machines that play little tunes as they dispense your 25ml portion into a paper cup.
China, what’s up wit u?

***

If you’ve come here to drink, you may drink Hong Thong. Specified only as “local Thai spirit.” Sold in 40 oz bottles for about 400 bhat ($14). At first we think the Hong Thong is stored in a milk crate in the sun, away from the other booze, like maybe it’s contagious. Then Zander tries to buy one, and is asked whether he actually wants to buy gasoline. Thai woman says they fill the empty Hong Thong bottles with gasoline to sell to motorcycles for only slightly less than the Hong Thong itself.

“Any difference in taste?” He deadpans.

“No,” she deadpans back. She’s heard all the Farang jokes.

This booze needs representation. A slogan. I’m thinking a booty-licious girl in a thong, leaning into a car window, shot from the back (of course) with some kind of slogan like “Hong Thong: Deliciously Cheap.” I’m open to suggestions though. One liners aren’t my forte.

***

We decided to save a few bucks. Checked into the Serene resort, very Buddhist, in that staying there constantly reminds you that life is suffering. I could go on about the bed, the mould, the ants, the bar that is open 24 hours a day and only plays the same 6 songs, including an inane big beat remix of “Signs” by The Who…but really, all I need to say are those three little words: broken sewage line. Keep in mind, it’s 35 degrees, and I’ve had food poisoning for the last two days. Keep it in mind, but try not to picture it.
Being in the Buddhist heartland, we practiced grim acceptance until about ten minutes ago, when I fucking blew my top, pulled myself together, because getting angry at people causes them to lose face, and politely asked the owner what could be done. Over and over again. With a smile.
Now we are in a loft above his massage parlour with no view, no bamboo ambiance, no mosquito net, and ABSOLUTELY NO FESTERING SHIT. And we are DELIRIOUSLY HAPPY.
Asia, I’ve got your number.
Watch out, motherfucker.

***

Very good day. We’re out of the Serenity Now and back at the lovely Lipe Beach resort, where we were greeted like old friends by the staff. Thais love to welcome you back. We’ve been on Lipe nearly a month, and people at the resorts we’ve stayed at and the restaurants we frequent wave and greet us when we walk down the street. “You’re like a local now!” people say, which of course is utterly untrue, but is the highest compliment an islander in any country can bestow on you.

There’s God, the gay bartender. Loves classic Trip Hop.

Some guy with a hatchet who is endured because he hasn’t chopped anyone yet.

The kebab guy is a Greek with a mohawk that’s usually un-gelled, so it looks like a hipster side-shave. He calls me princess and teases Zander because he always pays for the food-says if women want equal rights, they should pay up. Zander told him he has the money because he has the pockets. We didn’t tell him that all of the money is ours, because that wouldn’t be as much fun, but the last time we bought some kebabs, I pulled the money out of my bikini. You can imagine the reception that got.

***

Frank learned bar stool
Trip for collective signs
wind renders ears deaf

Crevices sulk grey
Icicle axe slides sideways
tarred with hungry hand

O, tinder box blue
To fold souvlaki sharp, I
suspend space like flame

***

08lightingNapaStyle

A Hua Hin night out, music in the center of town. Ex-pat Jazz band is shoved off the stage early to make room for a long ceremony with a 50 000 baht novelty cheque. Before he leaves the mic, the singer says they’ve never played to an audience who wasn’t dancing. Silence. 200 white people sitting in chairs with white seat covers. Behind them, a statue of Pone Kingpetch, flyweight champion of the world in 1960.

The cheque is presented to a Farang so tall he could be standing on the shoulders of a Thai. The leader of Biggles Big Band, all the way from Amsterdam. Last year they were rained out after playing only one song. He speaks Thai to polite applause. Asks if anyone is from the Netherlands, and most hands are raised. So he switches to Dutch.

Then it’s time to play: Henry Mancini and Glenn Miller, and compositions by the King himself, ภูมิพลอดุลยเดช. Two pieces: Blue day and Hungry Man Blues. Christmas lights over the heads of the Biggles Big Band, 200 Farangs, and the flyweight champion of the world. Kingpetch has one gloved hand raised in victory. Thais selling Heineken. Children and crippled Thai women selling roses, we shake our heads “no.” Thai lanterns in the canal that carries waste to the sea.

***

So, pesticides are generally a way of life here, and I’m trying not to judge, since I’m only a visitor. But the bees. An open air house that gets sprayed for termites, and the bees fly through and are almost instantly incapacitated, but not killed. At night they are on the floor, sometimes one or two, sometimes a dozen. Sweep them up and whisper an apology.

I’m getting to the part of my novel where the bee hives were coming into the honey house faster than our little team could keep up with. Stacks on pallets every day, and yeah, the bees were supposed to have been blown out of them, but many weren’t. And by many I mean hundreds. Bees everywhere, now exhausted or injured, crawling on the floor, the walls, the ceiling. Pieces of bee from the honey comb-filled frames gone through the de-capper, mixed with splintered wood and wax. At the end of the day, I swept them into piles, and down the drain. Our tiny co-workers. Expended. When I left that place, I didn’t ever want another bee to die by my hand.

Last night, in the open air house, I stepped on one of them. It surprised me how that indignant why me?  feeling, a sense of having been bullied by nature, stung far more than the stinger itself.

***

Of course, every moment here is a “Thai” moment by default, as authentic as it gets. But there were the promises I unwittingly turned into expectations: the serene Buddha-moments, marigolds strung into the stories of earnest young Canadian travelers, awarded prizes by Canadian journals for their gritty but delicate portrayal of Thai life.
Well, there’s no shortage of grit. But where the hell are the marigolds?
Then it’s four in the morning and I’m banging away at the laptop and slapping at the noseeums and I hear the monks. Chanting? That’s what it sounds like.

Pad over teak floors to the window. There’s the call of cicadas and rooster zealots, and yes, definitely chanting but no- this is wrong, I need a gauzy dress and a “steaming mug” of ginger tea in my hands, I need to be on a breezy porch, or on the beach. But the air is thick and tepid-I can’t hear the chanting from the porch, and there’s no beach, so I’m catching my Buddha-moment through grimy glass slats, cement and overgrowth in my view, noseeums watching from the other side of the net, and still it’s okay, it’s only me here. And it’s right now.

***

Three hundred and nine steps up Doi Suthep, Theravada monks are wondering what we’re up to in the city. Terracotta under their feet. Don’t be bamboozled  by the robes, or statue likenesses outside the chedi of the monks as cartoony infants. If they could see Chiang Mai through the summer haze-farmers burning fields-they’d be peeking. Sure, there are bells to ring in Wat Phrathat. There’s Farangs to ask the Buddha’s view on Cancer, and whether he’ll be there for the Rapture. A white elephant transport, for the Buddha’s shoulder bone. Climbed Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times, and died. This was a sign. Leave your elephants at the bottom of the mountain. The first chedi was built.

***

Teaching English in Chiang Mai in exchange for room and board. The kids probably think I’m weird, but it’s because I love them, like, I’m really crazy about them. I can’t stop smiling at them. It’s got nothing to do with biological clocks. I still don’t want a kid of my own.

But these kids.

These kids with their polite gooood mahhning teachuuh Ka-Lee and the way they let their little hand rest on your leg when they show you their drawings. Their Angry Birds themed, over-dressed, long-sleeved bathing attire, and matching bathing caps. And their smiles: shy, semi-toothless, genuine. I don’t know how to talk about smiles without getting all cliché on you, but I’d heard there was something special about the Thai brand of smile, and I heard right. It’s not just a routine tightening of facial musculature, it’s an event. A little bit of good passes into you. And you can give some back, if you remember to be present while it’s happening. This isn’t easy for me. I often forget to be present during hugs, too. I had a friend who used to get me into hug position, and then remind me to pay attention to what was happening. Hugging. He was a good friend.

***

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Q: When is a Yoga retreat not a Yoga retreat?

A: When it’s a gathering of business professionals in a yoga-based industry, who have come together from both fitness and entertainment fields to offer you, the quiet couple from Canada who just wanted a weekend getaway in the mountains, this amazing one-time offer complete with free yoga classes, the pained general camaraderie that comes with being a sales professional and surely guarantees a slow and painful death due to diabetes or heart failure, AND a chance to test our products AT NO COST TO YOU and OH MY GOD- this is going on Facebook the moment this three day “internet cleanse” is over.

***

One more backpack trudge back to a cheaper hotel in a better part of town. Greener grass. Songkran water-festival scrubbed the alleys clean. Back to My Mum guesthouse, where three generations of women will greet us. Polyester tight-perm grandmothers will give up their chairs for us, and there will be nothing to do but sit. Green smoothies on the corner at the end of the alley, girl picks the basil from a pot at her feet. Avocado omelettes for breakfast. The sun’s going to be too hot, but we’re not going to sweat it any more. The street’s going to smell like shit, but we’re not going to notice. The mountains still won’t be there, not visible.  Next time we pack up, it will be to catch the overnight bus to Bangkok. Overnight flight to Shanghai. Morning flight to Vancouver. We’ll arrive nearly before we’ve left.

The Family Carrière (excerpt)

tourtiere

After my Grandma Carrière died, I inherited her Tortière recipe and her Polaroid camera. Polaroid stopped making the film for the camera, which is a shame, but I’ll get plenty of use out of the Tortière recipe. It’s typed-with a real typewriter!-on a gravy stained four-by-five inch recipe card. The ingredients would horrify any hippie-yuppie hybrid Grouse grinding Vancouverite: two pounds of ground pork, breadcrumbs, spices, and pastry dough for the pie crust. The early French settlers were clearly more interested in survival than looking good at Pilates. There’s a few spelling mistakes on the card, the kind of mistakes a young French-speaking woman would make in the process of perfecting her English. I love that recipe card. I laminated it so it wouldn’t fall apart.

If only Grandma Carrière had been as easy to love as her cooking. She was a nasty drunk, although I seldom saw that side. I remember her calling on Saturday afternoons; she’d talk about things that didn’t make any sense and people I didn’t know. She’d ask-again!- if we received the commemorative Expo 86 video she’d sent. Had I watched it? I had. She was SO sorry that Mom hadn’t taken us to Expo, because of her goddamn socialist beliefs. I never knew what to say to that. Eventually Mom or Dad would get on the phone, and there’d be yelling. After that, my parents would disappear for a bit, to the basement or the back yard, and they’d have one of the arguments they never had in front of me.

There were many years that we didn’t speak to Grandma Carrière at all. We blocked her phone number, and sent her Christmas gifts back unopened. When I complained about the gifts, Dad told me about a Christmas from his youth. He had opened all his presents, and Grandma Carrière had opened a bottle of Sherry. As guests dropped by for a Christmas day visit, she was so far into the holiday spirit that she gave away his gifts. That shut me up. She had lots of brothers and sisters, most of whom didn’t want to speak to her either. They must have kept my dad at arm’s length too, because I didn’t meet any of them until my grandma’s memorial service a few years ago.It was a small gathering at the Maple Ridge Ramada, which wasn’t far from where Dad had grown up in Haney.

There was no use in feigning sadness, Grandma Carrière had pushed everyone who loved her away and drank herself to death at age 93. Instead, the feeling at the memorial was one of relief. The older, more Catholic generation talked about how happy she’d be in heaven. Their children, now in their 40’s and 50’s, wished her better luck in her next incarnation. When my dad had rolled up his pant legs and waded into the Alouette River to spread her ashes, Auntie Jo, who leads a church choir in Maillardville, sang Amazing Grace. We all joined in. That was in July, and the Salmonberry bushes on the river bank had been laden with fruit; the same Salmonberry bushes my dad had robbed of their bounty when he was ten years old.

A funeral is not a very good place to get to know people. So when Dad had suggested that we all meet again for a family reunion, everyone agreed.

Performance FEMENism.

christ what a hassle

What’s a girl got to do to get noticed around here?

Whether it’s nip slips at the Super Bowl, or boobies for beads at Mardi Gras, the obvious answer to this age-old question remains: show us your tits. Yes sir, boobs turn heads—which may make FEMEN, a Ukrainian-born feminist movement that has turned topless protest into a performance art, the best idea ever.

“There is an ideology behind protesting topless, but we quickly realised that if we took our tops off and screamed loudly it was a good way to get attention,” says Alexandra Shevchenko, one of FEMEN’s founders. “It works. Of course, people talk about our nakedness, but they are also listening to our message.”

Are they? I’m not so sure.

The FEMEN movement was created in 2008 to raise awareness for women’s rights in the Ukraine, particularly to combat prostitution and sex trafficking. Since then, they’ve broadened their scope, opening an office (and a topless protest boot camp) in Paris, and participating in worldwide demonstrations for women’s and gay rights. If their Vimeo page is any indicator, FEMEN’s modus operandi is: show up, get naked, and scream blue murder when the mortified cops show up. And bring your chainsaw.

Read more at The Other Press.

I’m doing a series on FEMEN, hopefully culminating in a trip to their topless training bootcamp in Paris, if I can convince VICE magazine to send me. Fingers crossed!

Vipassana Meditation: Ten Days Of STFU.

chakra-Meditation

People often ask me what the hell the deal is with this ten-day silent meditation thing I do in January/ February. And if they don’t ask, I often bring it up- because I like to toot my own horn.

Like most smug assholes who have found something that makes them happy, I want everyone to follow my lead to the promised land! You don’t have to go to a retreat to meditate, but for those who appreciate the baptism-by-fire approach to spirituality, this is it. Needless to say, the experience is not the same for everyone. But for most people, it’s pretty intense.

Alright then.

Gong is rung at 4 am
4:30: Morning Meditation in the hall until 6:30
6:30 Breakfast and rest time until 8:00
8:00 Meditate until 11:00 (with a few 5 minute breaks)
11:00 Lunch and rest time until 1:00
1:00 Meditate until 5:00 (with a few 5 minute breaks)
5:00 Tea until 6:00
6:00 Meditate until 7:00
7:00 A pre-taped talk given By S.N. Goenka (the real hard cores meditate throughout this) until 8:15
8:15 Meditate until 9:00
9:00 Ask the group leader questions about the practice or go to bed.
9:30 Lights out.
Repeat for 9 days.

It’s hard.
It’s hard to be quiet for 10 days. It’s hard to sit still for an hour at a time. It’s hard to keep my eyes closed for the better part of the day. Sometimes at the end of a sitting, my eyes are crusted shut. As I slowly quiet my mind and become more aware of my body, I become exponentially more aware of how uncomfortable I am. My back. My hips. I’m bloated. Get off my lawn. We’re packed eight to a room, and the girl across from me snores at night. I can hear it through my earplugs. I want to stab her.

After a few screamingly painful days, heightened self-awareness doesn’t really seem like such a great idea after all. At that point, a noob meditator may quit, or she may make a choice to buy into this marathon of pain, and believe that things will get better as she learns the technique. Or, if you’re like me, you’re just too intimidated by the nuns to tell them you want to get the fuck out of there. And you have no money or cell phone, since you foolishly handed everything over to them on day one, so staying seems like the path of least resistance.

If you are one of those people who fear losing control and screaming in church, or laughing uncontrollably at a funeral, you will have a teeny, tiny idea of what we go through in those ten days. We are supposed to be QUIET all the time. No speaking. No heavy footsteps. No closing the door or turning on/off the tap too loudly. (The latter command was issued on a little sign next to the bathroom tap, making me laugh the first time I saw it- then clap a hand over my mouth in sheer. fucking. terror.) Did I mention the nuns? They’re scary. Unsmiling, they communicate in intense eye contact and swift, economical gestures. Not what I expected from Buddhists. But then, the retreat is serious business.

During an evening sitting, a woman to the right of me makes some kind of strange gurgling noise, and I dare to open my eyes long enough to catch a single, violent convulsion. It looks like a one-step exorcism. She bursts into tears-full on shrieking sobs-and several nuns rush to help her out of the hall. I had noticed her on the orientation day because she looked like a famous writer: mid-fifties, swishing around in a purple wool kaftan and shamelessly flouting the no jewellery policy. I had wondered if she was there to do research, or maybe just decompress after a big project. She and her equally fabulous friend are gone the next morning. I’m sure the nuns didn’t want to let them go. S.N. Goenka, the current head teacher of Vipassana, says leaving half way through a retreat is like walking out with an open wound. And I can relate, since my body feels like it’s been through a wood chipper.

Around day five, I stop paying attention to my body, because I’m going crazy. Now it’s almost impossible to be quiet, because my mind is bitchslapping me over and over and over. And when you shut your mouth up for 10 days, your mind will have a few things to offer up. Trust. Mine is apparently dominated by an insane 5-year-old. The anger, the tears, it all comes out, and somehow I try to make it come out QUIETLY. Memories present themselves and I’m not sure if they belong to me, or the other people in the room. During a morning sitting, I have a lengthy vision of a black and white Bollywood film, grainy and flickery, like I’m watching it on an old projector. Oh god buddha. Tinfoil hat time.

And the emotions. It’s awful and kind of hilarious to be weeping uncontrollably through my lunch, but it’s my last meal of the day and dammit, I am going to EAT THIS MEAL NO MATTER WHAT IT TAKES, so every fibre of my being is devoted to bawling as QUIETLY as humanly possible. Of course, this is an absurd exercise, because there are people seated inches away from me on either side, and they would have to be deaf and blind to not know what is happening. But this is what I do, and I hope people aren’t too annoyed by my blubbering. It’s probably just as well we can’t converse, because I would be obnoxious.

And then there are other days, or moments at least, where I feel so far away from this messy vulnerability. When I don’t want to leave the meditation hall to go to lunch, because a weird calm has settled in my shoulders and opened up a yoga studio in my chest. Awareness becomes so saturated that I lose myself-I’m doing it!-and aww fuck I got too excited and now it’s gone again. But I had it for a second. It felt like hope, and as a modern-woman-of-the-world, I don’t spend a lot of time being hopeful. And that realization comes as a bit of a shock, annnnnnd I’m bawling again.

At the end of the retreat, other participants-people I barely know-approach me with wide compassion-filled eyes, and say things like: “I don’t know what you were crying about at lunch that day, but I wanted so badly to hug you and tell you that you’re not alone.” And then I cry again, because I had forgotten that I wasn’t alone, and it feels so good to be reminded. But that’s not all. While making conversation with the Indian woman who had been in the bunk to my left, she tells me she had been a movie star in India in the fifties.

“Old movies, black and white,” she says. “You wouldn’t have seen any.”

Oh god.