The cure for pain is in the pain – Rumi
We left Azerbaijan when I was five and with it the childhood of my youth. Transposed from a crumbling post-Soviet country to a benign world of pink petunias, tits on page three and birdsong on the platform; my parents felt like they had well and truly arrived. For no particular reason, we settled South of the grey-green Thames in Croydon. A provenance still betrayed by an obsession with Gregg’s cornish pasties and the occasional dropped T.
With any visitor from home, we would talk about the grass – for days. They had never seen anything like it. It was phosphorescent. Manicured. Glowing with life and human endeavour. So different to the low skies and barren biblical landscapes of home; with its streets where the rare flower grew to be plucked and pocketed, rather than adorn.
I write this book many years later as my dad is cooking a barbecue on the terrace of our apartment building.
“Did our neighbours like us?” I ask.
“Oh yes, I think they did.” he responds, threading lamb through a skewer as smoke billows up from the grill.
“I don’t know..” I say, not convinced.
I’ve lost count of the number of times where our foreignness clashed with life in the suburbs. It was 1994 and we were from the first wave of immigrants descending on the New World West of the Iron Curtain. The bemused tightly permed grannies of Park Hill didn’t know what to make of us. We were the only foreigners for miles. The ConeHeads would have elicited fewer exchanged glances than an outing of the Ibrahimov-clan. Our excitement was through the roof. The plentiful shelves of the local ASDA, phone booths and milkmen all filled us with glee. We rode escalators because we could. We posed for cloying photos in front of pretty houses and at Christmas inserted ourselves amongst the garlands and the presents of shop window displays before grinning “cheese”. We gorged on McDonalds and drank Sunny-D (for the vitamins). And on weekends my parents would go for dinners with other Soviet misfits who drank brandy as they railed against the decadent bourgeois depravity of this inequitable and doomed economic system. Out of respect for their age mum and dad would nod politely, all the while pretending that they hadn’t seen them in the local Poundland with groaning baskets of Lynx to be pedalled for cash back in whatever decaying part of the empire they came from.
In the early years mum longed for home. So just when everyone thought the cold war was over, my dad did what any romantic husband would do. He bought her a present. On a bright Sunday morning before any of us had awoken he pitched up with a huge satellite dish that looked like an artefact straight out of GCHQ which was installed on our balcony with pride. Surprise! Now mum could watch her Russian game shows (much to the scepticism of the neighbours).
The offending object was so big that it had to be secured precariously from the railings using a couple of barbells. These makeshift counterweights dangled above the bistro set on our downstairs neighbour’s terrace. Mind you, my parents weren’t knowingly inconsiderate. This was plain Soviet ingenuity at work, the sort which fashioned bath-plugs out of boot heels and cobbled together TV-aerials from cutlery. In the 80s, when my dad was stationed as a military translator in a deeply Muslim Bedoiun settlement, he and his comrades buried a keg of cherries to ferment deep under the sand of the Yemeni dessert. At night (and probably during the day), the Soviets took turns to sip on their home-brewed concoction from a piece of plastic tubing that ran meters under the sand and conveniently into their tent. Therefore it’s little surprise that my parents thought nothing of the barbells above the bistro-set. Of course, what came as second nature to any outsider of Capitalism, left the Joneses downstairs awed and indignant in equal measure.
“I don’t remember any of that”, responds my dad. Convenient.
Now I sort of wish I could tell you that this is the part where things get dark. Real dark. That growing up in white 90s Croydon was traumatic and gave me enough material to write this book without the months spent pouring over the research of experts far cleverer than me. It wasn’t. What it was, however, was mildly difficult. Much of that difficulty was cumulative. There was no defining event. No before or after that crystallised the badness of being “othered” as a child. I was not subjected to life-changing abuse or the deep trauma of real persecution, but I learnt many difficult and valuable lessons that I’m thankful for to this day.
Before I continue, I should say that at this point in the book I am not interested in the right or wrong of my childhood experience – we will get to it later. Some of it will be wrong and some of it may well be a child’s vulnerability echoing through the decades. In any case, this is not important at this stage. I am more interested in the effects of negative experiences on us as people; what do we feel when we are treated unfairly or hurt – is this always a bad thing? Or can it be empowering?
There are many ways to make a person feel unwelcome. Growing up I learnt them all. From the subtle shoo-ing away by elderly ladies, to men muttering “Paki” under their breath on the bus. I remember feeling sad on my first day of primary school when a teacher hugged everyone – except me. I didn’t speak any English but thought maybe she had forgotten and walked up to hug her. She peeled me off her before turning away and kneeling to talk to a blonder lovelier girl.
Although I was a child, I was beginning to understand. The English kids were so beautiful with their fresh complexions, clear bright eyes and flaxen hair. Maybe it’s because they were born breathing this clean bright air, whilst I inhaled the soot and sea of the Caspian? I blamed this (over genetics) on my sallow face, blunt black bangs and serious mouth. I looked different, talked different, ate different and had a funny name. I would never belong.
To this day, I still think English children are the most beautiful in the world. A representation of all I couldn’t be. So is it any wonder that when dreaming of a husband in the shamefully Austenian recesses of my very single mind, I sort of hoped he’d be… English. And not because I liked English boys any more than I liked Spanish boys, or Jamaican boys or Jewish boys (I really liked Jewish boys) or let’s face it, ANY BOYS. No, it was something quite different, for fee-fi-fo-thumb, it was the blood of an English-man I was after. His perfect double-helix. An antidote to a very long blood-line of serious unsmiling 5 ft 2 ancestors, where the body hair of just one generation could span Jupiter and back. Twenty million times. But sadly Reader, love conquers all, even amateur eugenicists, so no, I did not marry him. Instead I married a tall rugged man with hair as blonde as the sun. And that’s where I fucked up. Because he was Russian. And now I’m stuck with two perfect children, who are a little less hairy than I was, but smile about as much as inner members of Kim Jong-Un’s politburo. Bloody genetics.
My memories of growing up are clean with technicolour edges. I had a very happy childhood but in the early years of the move there was a sense of having to overcome. At home I was just a regular kid and had what any regular kid wanted, Sabrina on Nickelodeon and a loyal obedient servant of a younger brother. The rest of my time was spent on a benevolent crusade trying to escape the endless cycle of nurture and death involving my tamagotchi. Meanwhile, at school I practiced the art of deflection. Most kids experience some form of bullying, but this was more than occasional. It was constant and pervasive. It flourished under teachers who turned a blind eye, the eternal perpetuator of so many of life’s small injustices. I won’t bore you with the everyday realities of being the bullied kid – it’s a narrative we all know well. Most of it has long since receded in consequence, although some memories still remain.
One that’s still with me is the time when I mysteriously took home the trophy for a speech and drama competition at school. Now maybe I had a bit of an accent and the judge was a bit of a joker. Or maybe I was actually good. In any case, the ancient adjudicator sent by LAMDA with the mischievous twinkle in his eye decided that whatever I had done on stage merited first place. The competition was the Superbowl of our school calendar. Except the year I won. There was none of the customary celebration which was heaped on previous year’s winners. No picture on the notice board or handshake from the headmistress. At the assembly we were told it was a great event. Naomi, the runner-up was singled out for her amazing costume. No mention was made of anyone else.
It’s a bit weird that aged thirty I still haven’t forgotten this. How firmly it’s anchored in the mythology of my past. Sometimes it would recede. Until that is, the annual Academy Awards where Leonardo Dicaprio’s every unsuccessful nomination reopened old wounds anew. The year he finally won best actor I wept over a bag of kettlechips and my demons were finally laid to rest. But I digress. The reason I remember this so well is that as any outsider will tell you, wanting to belong and more importantly succeed (at something, anything) matters. Of course, doing something well should be good enough. But it’s more than that. It’s the recognition that although you wanted it more than anything, belonging ultimately didn’t matter. It’s the celebration of every obstacle on the path to something self-affirming. Of course, success doesn’t need to be extraordinary. Taking home an Oscar or an Olympic gold is beyond what any of us can ever hope to achieve – and as a lazy bugger I’m pretty happy with that. It’s the modest victories I’ll cherish; the decades old trophy, a like from my favourite Instagram influencer, ten minutes on the treadmill when I didn’t much feel like it.
Throughout primary school, the name-calling was relentless. Fairly early on, someone decided that I didn’t need a name. From then on, I was simply the “Baboon”. It’s hard to say without laughing now – but at the time it was dehumanising and I was mortified. The best thing about being the Baboon was that it rhymed with everything.
“There’s the baboon. She’s gone to the Moon. Licked a big spoon. Did a big poon”…
Well, nearly everything.
After several months of this daily, I begged my parents to take me to Woolworths. It was here that I shed my name. I bought a black velvet headband emblazoned with “Hannah”, a “Hannah” keyring that proclaimed that Hannah is fun, outgoing, loved by her friends and that her spirit animal is horse (amen to that) and a ruler that said Helen, just in case I had a change of heart. My reinvention was complete. That is until at my next school, my PE teacher Ms Reckstrew, decided to christian me “Poonam”. Despite my many protestations that I was in fact not Indian and definitely not a Poonam (big-up all the Poonams out there – your name is cool, it’s the Ms Reckstrew’s of this world who aren’t) – she refused to budge and continued to call me that for the entirety of my school career. But hey, I’m not complaining. At least this time it was a human name.
These memories now make me smile – especially as my brother still affectionately picks up the phone with the words “what’s up baboon?”. Being the bigger person, I don’t reciprocate. My brother Alex (real name Ayaz – or to his school mates, “Gayaz” or “I-Ass”) might not have got the headband, but like me, he got his very own, English name.
None of the events described above can be called catastrophic. They were however, formative. Each of us have our own first experience of pain and these were mine. Before I return to how these experiences shaped me, I’d like to take you through what the experts who study negative experiences have to say on the matter.
Our relationship with negative emotions is peculiar. In many ways, the pursuit of happiness is the central preoccupation of the human condition and a defining one for our species. Writers, philosophers, psychologists, parents and marketing execs have all sought to capture this miracle-salve for a life well lived. Yet, as Professor Joseph Forgas points out, for humans “our emotional repertoire.. is heavily skewed towards negative emotions. Four of the six basic emotions are negative – fear, anger, disgust and sadness”. Yet these are seen as “problem emotions”. To be fixed, avoided, therapied out. We read self-help books to let go of fear. Take a breath and count to ten to avoid confrontation. And we see sadness as debilitating, a stepping stone to depression or a sign that our lives are somehow lacking.
Feelings of fear, anger and disgust are easier to explain. These make sense. Pushing our prehistoric ancestors towards flight or fight – or in the case of disgust, avoidance. It is sadness that is more puzzling. When was the last time you felt sad and to what purpose? We have become afraid of the sadness that flows from uncomfortable experiences and if sadness is indeed undesirable, why has our species not evolved out of it? Why have some of the greatest accomplishments of the human race been born of loneliness, isolation and a bleak-world view?
Our most famous composers including Beethoven, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff all suffered severe bouts of depression. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, considered one of the greatest piano concertos ever written, was composed during one of his darkest periods. Critics had savaged his first symphony likening it to a punishment wrought upon the inhabitants of hell by an infernal conservatory. With shattered confidence and the agony of failure hanging over him Rachmaninoff composed his greatest masterpiece.
Whether it’s the opera of Puccini, the prose of Tennessee Williams or the haunting vulnerable lyrics of Radiohead’s Creep , there’s so much that gives us pleasure which is either born from sadness or distills the emotion in melody, language or the strokes of a brush.
Researchers have observed something that humans have long known. Listening to sad music can actually make you feel better. My own cure for heartbreak has always been Leonard Cohen’s ode to Janis Joplin, Chelsea Hotel #2. A masterpiece of understatement and words unspoken. A fleeting encounter, could-have-beens sacrificed to the pursuit of ‘money and flesh’. Rejection. We’ve all been there. What a supreme consolation that it’s Leonard Cohen on the receiving end of a ghosting, despite the poetry of his mind and the beauty of his thoughts. A moment of melodic catharsis.
Our desire for sad music is strongest when we feel sad. A powerful example of music as solace, as a balm for wounds that words cannot heal is African American ‘roots’ music. In fact whole genres such as gospel, blues, and jazz owe their existence to the horror of slavery and its legacy. Psychologists suggest that the reason we choose sad music when we feel low is about more than expressing those feelings – the music helps us accept and process these situations – a consolation when we are at our lowest, showing us that the purge for sadness is somehow in the feeling of it.
Reaching for the negative in our moment of need is unique to humans. Research shows we are biased toward negative compared to positive emotions: we have a propensity to focus more on negative experiences, talk more about them and ultimately have more vivid memories of negative emotions than positive ones.
Much research has been done on why we continue to feel emotional anguish and its role in mental wellbeing. Indeed, it seems the negative is far more important than what culturally we are led to believe.
In many ways this sort of thinking is a culmination of the positive psychology movement of the 90’s. Maybe we needed it? After all, it was the era that gave us Nirvana, Doc Martens and grunge (as well as an act which was by far more disturbing – the Vengaboys). The 90s was a blessed place. Maybe because it was the last decade we didn’t have our phones or perhaps it was the relative peace and prosperity of the era? As Douglas Copeland puts it “history was over and it felt great”. For the first time individual happiness became the priority. It’s little wonder that Martin Seligman’s positive psychology movement became self-improvement gospel and everything boiled down to two things – happiness and positivity. It is the currency upon which the likes of Oprah, Ricki Lake and Sally Jessie Raphael became household names. In any case, it became acceptable to ask for help (as it should be) and to talk through our pain in order to escape it (also perfectly healthy), but happiness as the ultimate goal is a way of thinking that led to creep, pulling our expectations as people, as women, along with it. The idea that a happy state is the most desirable is a pernicious assumption – one that leaves no room for any experience which falls short and as a consequence is seen as undesirable or wanting.
Of course, happiness is the easier sell. Advocating negativity is described as masochism. However, happiness all the time is not a desirable or healthy state and the value of the difficult should not be forgotten. For it’s the difficult that makes us grow. It’s the difficult and the ugly that propels change, movements, protests and creates last impact.
Difficult emotions help to make sense of what is happening around us. They provide crucial information about how we should direct our behaviour in a given context – in this way they can be seen as “data”, designed to inform us about the external world. Unlike happiness, sadness is hard to ignore. It focuses our minds on states in the world that need to be responded to.
As a first generation immigrant I learnt lessons about difference and lessons about tolerance. These were more than abstract insights into other people. I learned about myself, about the sort of person I was and who I wanted to be. Growing up as an outsider did two largely contradictory things. On one hand it made me hugely empathetic to minorities within communities. It was a sentiment shared by my parents who were fascinated with discovering the traditions, social norms and of course, cuisines of other nationalities. I still remember visits to the Indian sweet shop in Thornton Heath where Mr Gupta would serve us plump glistening spheres of gulab jamun and tangerine hued jalebi that bled rosewater syrup. And thus it began. A lifelong love affair with communities within communities. With the idea of people recreating their homes with the best of the places they left behind, as incongruous as the result may be. But my childhood did something else. Each negative experience was a powerful prophylactic against adversity. My brother and I talk about this all the time. But something in our mildly tricky childhood has meant that nothing much gets us down. Criticism penetrates without wounding. At work or at home every problem seems short lived. We know not everyone will always like us – and don’t much mind. Growing up with the wrong colour passports was a lesson in not waiting for things in life to be just so in order to be happy. And here is where the contradiction comes into play. My mildly tricky childhood and the many conversations that went into the writing of this book have made me believe that the first step to defeating the negative is to stop fearing it. It’s only when we have steeled ourselves against the sting of painful experiences that we can move towards overcoming them – but crucially, not from a place of victimhood – but from a place of strength.
When viewed from this prophylactic point of view, negative emotions begin to make sense. Whilst undoubtedly a bitter medicine, within a healthy emotional landscape they act as signals, leading us to be harder, better, stronger. These feelings make us more focused on the external world and less likely to rely on what we think we know. In fact, there is a whole area of research devoted to it called ‘crisis studies’ – when extrapolated from the individual to the wider community, negative events can have powerfully beneficial consequences. Peter C Baker writes “whenever crisis visits a given community, the fundamental reality of that community is laid bare. Who has more and who has less. Where the power lies. What people treasure and what they fear…In such moments, whatever is broken in society gets revealed for just how broken it is, often in the form of haunting little images or stories.” But as Baker writes, a crisis is more than an opportunity to muse on what has been lost – it is a chance to grasp what may be gained.
Now, I am not telling you to chase pain, or suggesting that racism, prejudice and injustice are ever acceptable or anything no matter their unlikely consequences. As mental health professionals recognise states that are painful, enduring and debilitating can have deleterious long term consequences. However, to live life is to have things happen – good things and inevitably, bad things. It is to recognise that we cannot control everyone. How much we suffer from the latter and what we take away from that suffering, is largely down to us. Whilst it remains hard to argue that our ultimate goal, distilled in one word, should be anything other than happiness – it’s also impossible to deny that experiences that make you uncomfortable also make us stronger, better and more appreciative in the long run. Of course, this is not to say that you should consciously chase the painful or accept the toxic. The goal is neither to chase or run from adversity. It’s to turn towards your experience, looking it in the face, strong and unafraid.