You'd've thought I'd've learnt better by now,
but no. I'm still lizard-bask as anyone,
come the year's new sun.
Despite that student afternoon, lasered
by light in the concrete campus square, supping one pint
then fevered and chucking up all night.
Despite that, and despite the white flag of my face,
my freckle-scarred arms that in latter
years haven't faded back in winter, I know no better.
I ought, I ought, to be born-again virgin white.
Swathed. Slathered. Tented. I'm not.
Alongside hermeneutics, you'd think I'd've learnt
my skin's limit's, my poorly head's needs. Nope.
I've heatstroked often since - once even indoors,
in a sauna.
O the faints, the piteous retchlings,
the cold baths, recantings. Still an idiot to my body,
little white dumpling toddling
out with the masses every time to prostrate myself
before Apollo's hoping dazzle, to be cooked
and eaten by the gods.
Why do we often find it hard to look after ourselves? Like the sun of Herdman’s poem, the question glares off the page. I ought, I ought, the speaker chastises themselves, to know better – an internal commentary we’re probably all well-acquainted with. As I write, I’m trying not to think about my own versions of sunstroke, the medical appointment I still haven’t booked, the last time I did any proper exercise. How often have I started a counselling session with a client awkwardly confessing that no, they haven’t done their “therapy homework”? How often have I failed to do my therapy homework myself?
For all the self-criticism, to me, Herdman’s poem seems to invite us to look kindly on our “failures”. Gently humorous in tone, it reminds us that we are flawed and conflicted beings, that we make the same mistakes, again and again. Professor Pragya Agarwal wrote a great piece in The Conversation recently on just this. Whilst we like to think that we learn from our mistakes (and often expect ourselves – and others – to do so) often our neurology is pitted against us, says Agarwal. We rely on mental shortcuts or “heuristics” which mean we’re prone to biases and errors in our thinking, and we often cling to habits of thinking and behaviour even when they are problematic for us.
There are lots of reasons, of course, why people may neglect their needs, and a huge spectrum between small-scale, innocuous lapses in self-care through to chronic, damaging self-neglect. Sometimes we might not be sure what our needs really are, or we get good at suppressing them when they’re not being met. Sometimes the circumstances we’re in make it difficult for us to look after ourselves (or be looked after) in the way we need. Sometimes we just forget, or we don’t want to have to be careful when we’re enjoying ourselves, especially if our body has particular needs that aren’t shared by other people around us.
Perhaps of particular import in counselling, sometimes we do things that aren’t so good for us in one way because we’re busy protecting ourselves from something else – feelings that are hard to bear, simmering anxieties. Part of my role is to help people figure out what conflicting needs might be making it harder for them to look after themselves; who, or what, are the “gods” that would invite them to overlook their vulnerabilities? Often, this means understanding how people have learned to cope with difficult experiences – the parts of themselves that had to step in and the parts that were forced to step back. What can be a refuge in one sense (e.g. avoidance, in all its forms) can become a cage in another. And so changing patterns of thinking and behaviour even when they’re problematic for us may be difficult for another reason: it’s often scary.
There’s another aspect to this too, which is the internal backlash that often accompanies our struggles and conflicts. In Sunstroke, it seems to me, Herdman gives voice to but also pokes fun at the authoritarian, self-shaming voices we often carry around with us; these idealised, sanitised versions of ourselves we compare ourselves against. When it comes to mental health, here in the UK we’ve come a long way in reducing stigma, but sometimes I worry that with the proliferation of (certain types of) self-help and wellness guidance comes an inadvertent message that we ought to be able to “fix” ourselves and an under-appreciation both of the external factors that may be contributing to poor mental health (see this Guardian article by Dr Sanah Ahsan), and the internal minefield of conflicting feelings, needs and motives we may have to navigate.
This isn’t to imply that we can’t get better at looking after ourselves, that we’re doomed to always repeat the same patterns of behaviour. If we can start from a place of curiosity rather than self-criticism, remembering that we are shaped by the ways we have ourselves been criticised or made to feel unsafe, and that we have brains that are difficult to manage and don’t always get it “right”, then we open ourselves up to the possibilities of change. Professor Agarwal makes exactly this point, drawing attention to how self-criticism can actually make us more likely to repeat the same mistakes by fuelling avoidance and defensiveness.
For me, poetry can be a way of cultivating this kind of curiosity, of turning towards the murky, conflicted and difficult feelings we are tempted (and sometimes encouraged) to bury. In Herdman’s poem, and the book from which it is from (see below), there is a kind of determined, courageous, almost rebellious, honesty. We have bodies and minds that are pushed and pulled, vulnerable and exposed, the poems seem to say, let’s not pretend otherwise. We are drawn by the “hoping dazzle” of instincts that can betray us, burned in the heat of judgment, punished and left with the scars. But if we can acknowledge this, hand back the shame, then perhaps we are a little more free.
Thanks for reading, and thanks to Ramona Herdman for permission to share Sunstroke here. I'm going to book that appointment now. Not sure today is the the day for a run though. It's a bit hot.
Sunstroke is from Ramona Herdman's collection, Glut, published by Nine Arches Press (2022).