You feel disconnected from yourself.
Sitting in the office one day, it strikes you that these days there are three levels of separation between you, and the world. You live mostly inside a computer, which is inside the room, which is inside the office (or, in the morning and evenings, the house). The walls and floor are white and flat. The desk is smooth and polished. The windows are sealed, the door locked. The air doesn’t move. All smells and sounds are shut out. Nothing comes into the space unless you allow it.
You like to call yourself a writer. In these controlled conditions you try to breathe life into your characters and their worlds. Sometimes they live, and at those times, it is wonderful. But often, and increasingly, the words are hesitant, or stilted, or plodding, or rambling. They limp out, then plopping castrated and lifeless, to die on the page. You feel like a bird with damaged wings, or a river cut off from its source. It just doesn’t flow.
In the similarly controlled conditions of your home life, you try to breathe life into your conversations with your partner and child, with similarly disappointing results. It’s the same topics over and over again, devoid of depth. You’ve largely stopped trying to say words that matter, because they seem to go over the head of your significant other. Or maybe you’re scared to say them, because you don’t want the argument.
The words that want to be said occasionally whimper or growl discontentedly from somewhere deep inside you. But you feel it’s better to keep a lid on them, for the safety of both yourself and others.
Once you had an affair. It wasn’t for the sex. It was because he took you out to dinner and was interested in what you said. After a few months it got complicated, and he stopped listening. So you stopped offering him sex.
You dream of escape. Often. In a myriad of ways. Sometimes it’s into a fantasy family. You’ve been watching re-runs of the Waltons on television. That loving family who run carefree and barefoot in the fields. Last week the characters were de-frosting their toes around a log fire and eating gingerbread, still warm and soft.
Inspired, you bounced to the kitchen to bake gingerbread men, a curious 4-year-old in tow. But somehow the mixture didn’t gel. The figures were born from the oven disfigured. You heart sunk just as the recipe had. Your son bit the head of one of a gingerbread man, and spat it out in disgust. Your husband laughed.
You also think often of desert islands. On Pinterest, you came across a photograph of a black woman who had painted a whole desert island scene on to her fingernails, complete with palm tree, golden sand, and turquoise sea. With an awed intake of breath, you determined, with immediate affect, to stop a lifetime habit of biting your nails. And you did it. It was three weeks before your nails remembered how to grow. It was another two weeks before they were long enough to hold a painting. All that long five weeks, it was closing your eyes, and hearing the sound of the sea in your head and heart that stopped you returning to chewing on your fingers. But when it came to the actual painting, your expectations were so high, and your fear of failure so great, that you couldn’t keep the nailbrush steady in your hand. The palm leaves seeped into the sea. The golden sand and azure sky merged until they were swamp green. Furious with yourself, you bit your nails off one by one, sadistically, just as your son had snapped off that gingerbread man’s head.
In the evenings at home, a memory from a childhood holiday in Southern France keeps creeping into your mind. It begins to haunt your nights too.
Driving through a small town, you’d spotted the tomato-red trailers and big top of a circus. You’d stopped to look. You remember walking towards the back of that hulking tomato-red trailer cage. The metal vibrated and you smelt sawdust. Rounding the edge of the cage you saw him. The tiger. He was dewy-eyed, repetitively limping the circumference of his cage, sliding his sleek body along the bars. His giant paws slapped on the floor. His mouth hung open, the swollen pink tongue lolling. You smelt rancid meat on his breath. He stopped every few circuits to gnaw at holes in his sleek orange coat. He was bleeding where he’d pulled out his fur, and the skin along with it. Looking at him made you feel so sad.
He’s never even seen a jungle, you thought.
Now, as you rattle round the cage that your house has become, it seems that your trapped thoughts have morphed into that caged tiger, and your head is the cage. The words start to talk to you. They spit, they bite, and they tease. Then they roar and they rage. They crash against the bars of their cage. They ask- why do you keep us slaves like this? They are threatening to tear you, and themselves apart.
You remember what a friend who worked with an animal charity told you about animals kept in captivity. They spend more time sitting, lying and sleeping than their wild counterparts. They react fearfully and aggressively to new or unexpected events. Their range of behaviours becomes narrow, repetitive, and pointless. They bite bars, pace cages, over-groom or nibble each other. This can turn to cannibalism. As length of confinement increases, they often turn on themselves, developing various forms of compulsive self-mutilation. They pull their own fur or feathers out, or gnaw at their limbs.
It dawns on you. I am that caged tiger.
How on earth are you going to free the trapped life, to be the human animal that you want to be? All you know is that you have to get out of that room.