Getting Honest - May 2023
Ok, let’s get really fucking honest.
I came to South America to travel, because something was brewing in me that needed looking at. Really, this came about because the poor, wonderful, beloved Haggis died a horrible and catastrophic death last summer, at a festival, after eating through the bins and poisoning herself (again).
The first time she did this, I was on my game and worked furiously along with the amazing vets and nurses at the Royal Dick in Edinburgh to save her. Between us, she made it, by the skin of her teeth. People, amazingly, chipped in, we fundraised to keep her in hospital and she pulled through. And I felt like such a proud Mummy - of her as well as myself for the focus that didn’t let her die at several intervals where she could have done on the somewhat convoluted route to the Royal Dick.
That was five years ago. This time was very different.
I felt, in life, that I had become a little distant from Haggis. I was busy trying to study for a Paramedic degree, whilst also working at Youth Vision several days per week and was drinking at least a few Henry Westons every night. She was EXCEPTIONALLY fit for a 12 year old Lab, having worked her little butt off walking the length of Scotland and having a wonderful, stress free life in the Pentland Hills thereafter. I was proud of the life she had and that I expected her to go on for another three years at least - full of beans and fit as a fiddle. The kids at work loved her, she was a peaceful, brilliant soul and she had earned her retirement in the Pentlands.
Once the Paramedic course term finished, I decided not to go to another festival but to go up to the forests of the Highlands with Haggis to regain some time together and reconnect - one of our favourite things to do. For some reason I decided to text a man who I hardly knew whom I had met at a previous festival to let him know. He told me he could give me a free staff ticket and that I could eat meals and didn’t have to work. A strangely good offer. So I decided to go to the festival and continue to the Highlands with Haggis afterwards.
I had not been drinking alcohol in the weeks leading up to this in an effort to control my habit of having way too much of the stuff. When I turned up I didn’t like the vibe of this person whom I had previously met. Still, he cracked a beer and I, stupidly, allowed myself to be influenced, thinking (or falsely hoping) that I wouldn’t get sucked into a crazy session and lose the plot over the weekend. The opposite happened.
Haggis on one of her last walks in the Pentlands, basking in the sun after a nice, excitable swim.
I was introduced by the man to the crew area and immediately found the ‘messy’ tent. It was great fun, but unsurprisingly I allowed myself to get completely carried away and got increasingly hammered through the weekend.
There was sex. Which is very, very yuck to think of now. It was supposedly ‘consensual’, albeit within that it certainly would not have happened sober. I forgive myself, because I have to. And there was an ‘accident’ that led to me being severely and seemingly permanently injured that I now know to have been abuse. I am on a waiting list for colorectal surgery. At this point, however, I possibly would never have questioned it without what came later.
The day before I was due to leave, the man was leaving in his car and was therefore sober. At the beginning of this day, I had had the feeling to stop the partying, or at least calm down. That internal voice was making it through to niggle at me, despite the skin full of booze that I had on board from the weekend. But, again, when I was offered whatever I was offered, I didn’t say no and carried on anyway. I have a memory of, at one point, feeling a very strong reluctance to eat a mushroom tablet that I had in my hand, but did it anyway as I felt obliged to, given that I was giving one away. (WTF.) By later, I was very much not sober.
Throughout the weekend, the man had 'helped' look after Haggis by taking her lead or by watching her whilst I went off to the toilet etc. On this day, there were two occasions when I thought he had her, only to find on my return or on lifting my head (from snoozing on the grass) that she had gone. I rescued her from approaching the bins the first time. I rescued her from inside the bins the second time.
Before I go on, I want to make it clear to anyone reading this and to myself that I absolutely know, accept and take ownership of the fact that I was 100% responsible for Haggis’ welfare at the festival. I have processed both extremes of thinking on the story and I believe I am clear. I hate what happened to her and how she died. And if I wasn’t trolleyed, it wouldn’t have happened. EndEx. I wouldn’t have let go of her lead, or been unaware of someone else letting go of her lead for long enough that she could have gone off to get knee-deep in the bins.
However, I also forgive myself in that I was being manipulated by a person who, even after I explained the importance of her being on the lead in this environment, didn’t care to hang onto her anyway, or to give her back to me. I now realise he was more interested in predating me. Both things are true and unfortunately just part of the story. I researched this person after the festival by speaking with another woman who also suffered at his behaviour. I came to learn that he has the tactic of being involved with your ‘stuff’ to stay involved with you, even when unwanted and uninvited. It resonates. He would often take Haggis from me without me asking. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now I have pieced it together, the thought that she was operating as my ‘stuff’ makes me feel sicky.
So, at this point, Haggis had eaten the bins and I thought she was full from bingeing but ok. The day continued and I helped the man pack up his things. I went for a sleep in his teepee. He came in looking for ‘affection’, as he called it when I questioned him later by text on the breakage of my boundaries. (After this he stopped responding, evidencing very much to me that he didn’t care about the issue.) I responded to his approach by making it 100% clear both verbally and physically in a variety of different ways at different points that this is not what I wanted. He continued anyway. So, without typing out all the grotty details, mostly for the sake of people who are close to me who might read this and find it disturbing (of all people, my Dad won’t - I don’t think he even knows I have a website, otherwise I would protect him by not publishing it here), the man proceeded to fully assault me at a point when he was sober and I was drifting in and out of consciousness. He left and I was unaware what had happened in its true form. I continued hanging out with folk for a bit but felt a bit funny. I then went back to my van to sleep.
In the early hours, Haggis woke me up panting. Not realising how sick she was, I actually sshh’d her to go back to sleep., which is a bi grumpy and unusual for me with Haggis. Then she got up and was violently sick. I sprung to my senses, jumping out of bed, letting her out of the van, cleaning up the sick and comforting her. I felt terrible for not having realised how sick she was.
There are so many moments that happened next that I have revisited many times, including decisions I made; when I realised she was really critically ill; when to leave for the vets; when I tried to drive my van but still felt too wrecked so found someone else; that I said it was ok for them to get food first; that I didn’t argue enough to bypass my vets and go straight to the Royal Dick… It’s all too much and too irrelevant to go into. The point of honesty here is that in all of them I would have been much quicker off the mark if I hadn’t been so jaded and sick myself from the skin full of partying over the weekend - the opposite story to when I saved her years ago from the same death.
By the time we made the vets she was really critical and, even after this, there was more I could have done had I been more on the ball, like being more stubborn about referring her to the Royal Dick when the vets wanted to call it, as I had done last time. I also sensed a selfishness in me where I just didn’t have the energy to fight it all again. What was this about? I asked myself at the time but couldn’t find the answer. I’m pretty sure with more clarity I would have scooped her off to the Royal Dick without question. And I will never know if the outcome would have been different. Did I know somewhere in my body that she was fucked, or was I just be selfish? I honestly don't know. Maybe both things were true.
I had also said to myself that I would never put Haggis down unless she asked me to. I personally think that we can sometimes be premature in putting animals down, especially when we perceive future suffering. For me, suffering is not nice but it is a part of life and whilst an animal still wants to fight for their life, I am more towards letting them retain that right. Haggis was still fighting for her life, fighting to stay with me, when I agreed to the decision, confused and ambushed by the suddenness of everything that had happened, as well as a compromised mental state. Having said that, when I saw her and how much of an awful state she was in I did feel an urgency to end that experience for her. This disturbed me horrifically for a long time and the memory of her desperate relief when she smelled that it was me touching her head again will stay with me forever.
For the next six weeks I was focused on processing what had happened to Haggis and intentionally shelved most other thoughts. I knew there was something very wrong about what had happened in the man’s teepee, like the horrible ick you might get if you sleep with someone drunk whom you wouldn’t have done sober, but poignantly worse in a way that I didn’t recognise. But Haggis was more important and I was happy with this for the time being. As I started to talk more about it with people, however, their reactions to the details told me that this needed looking at. Additionally, I noticed that I had PTSD with the word “No?” as spoken by the man at two particularly awful, repeated moments. I would remember and shudder physically and emotionally when I caught the sound in the same way, but when spoken by someone else or myself. It felt particularly bad when the sound came from me. This was another indicator that something was really wrong. It still comes and goes for me now, eight months later. (I actually only remembered to add it in as I’ve had it two times today.)
One day at work, my boss reflected back to me her thoughts on the matter and it hit me like a tonne of bricks. I regressed to the ‘Sensory Garden’ - a place where kids can go and take some time out when needed, then violently puked air and cried for a bit, trying to release what I could. When my boss came to see me and we had a conversation, the recognition was kind of done, but it hadn’t really sunk in. I couldn’t really get my head around it. And in all the conversations that followed, I never got a sense of relief where it ‘all came out’, just an incremental understanding and disbelief at what HAD happened.
That evening I rang the rape helpline, feeling like an imposter and still hesitant to validate my experience. They gave me the same reflections. They advised me of my choices and warned me that if my choice was to report it then it could be a very uncomfortable, invasive process and that if it went to court, then the defence would look at all sorts of unethical things like my own sexual history - WTAF. In Scotland, I’m amazed that this is still possible and I find it to be, actually, pretty disgusting. If any of a person’s sexual history qualifies them for rape then I am shocked. In any case, my internal response to this information was kind of - OK. I have been bullied in court before (over a dispute with a neighbour that grew legs and arms), I thought, so I have some training. And it just wasn’t the important detail to me. The important detail was to choose the best action for me and for other people - I felt a huge responsibility to other women.
I did fully report the crime and recently, after eight months, I received information that the man had been arrested and interviewed. Unsurprisingly, there was not enough evidence (no corroboration) to press charges. But, my report is now on his record so if anyone makes a similar report against him (and I have heard that he is a serial predator from other people in the festival circuit and have heard some pretty horrible stories about his conduct elsewhere) then he is up shit creek. So, with any luck, he will be more hesitant to violate people’s boundaries into the future and I therefore feel that I have done my work on the matter. And hopefully he (no doubt) crapped his fucking pants during the process.
The man’s name is Mark, he is ugly, Irish and has the bad energy of a green-eyed wolf. He surfs the festival scene in the UK leaving a trail of women behind him that are disturbed by his behaviour. I contacted three and each one of them was weirded out and wanted to get far away from him after a short time. One of them had also been assaulted by him, but in a slightly less obvious way.
Up until this point, life had been feeling a bit ‘sticky’. I had been in a continuous state of uncertainty with respect to the Paramedic course and felt like I was split between a double life - one up the Pentlands with Youth Vision and the kids and another through in Glasgow and working in the back of Ambulances, with poor old Waggles stranded in the middle. In some ways, I wanted to retreat to my old, more simple life and in others I wanted to change everything.
The amount of boozing I had done in the years leading up to this point had evolved into something more like another full time job. Seven years ago, after two years of introspection with a very large pile of mushrooms, I had felt grounded and happy. I was also a bit confused, however, as to the fact that not much was happening in life. I remember saying repeatedly that I needed a “kick up the arse”. Be very careful what you wish for.
Shortly after, I met a man who also predated me, but in a relational sense. I made it very clear for months that the connection was distinctly non-romantic to me, but he persevered anyway. I knew I was dealing with someone who was narcissistic, but I thought it didn’t matter so much if we were only friends (not correct). My take away when I have reflected on this time is that I got into trouble by ‘over-empathising’. Over time, his story, his problems and his needs became more important. He also approached me, despite my reluctance, in a more intimate way when drunk. Now I have learned and thought a lot more about rape, I realise this this was also abusive. And, of course, there was good old drink to help me have bendable boundaries again. The part of the story that really took me by surprise is when his housemates turned on me also. This REALLY fucked up my head. I hadn’t anticipated that, as an adult, I could be bullied by a group of other adults. Didn’t even think of it.
By the time I tore myself away from the situation, I felt like I was pulling his facial expressions, not my own, and talking to him in my head, not myself. If I put on a pair of sunglasses I’d sometimes throw them off as it made my face feel like his. To lose myself that much was a scary experience. I remember distinctly feeling like a C-shaped line, with no content of my own left. Completely disembodied and completely dissociated. Every ounce of my energy had been masticated (and actually, until I found the assertion to block all of the people involved on social media, the bullying continued online for a while even after I had left). When I look back on this time I am astonished at how much I tolerated. Abuse is a funny thing and can happen to anyone.
After about 12 months the sufferable overthinking began to calm down and after 18 I was feeling much better, although I now realise that it has taken until now to actually get back to myself, which is just over three years. Of course, my poor choice of medicine during this time (alcohol) did not help me and increasingly made life more difficult, but I can also see how all of that was necessary to make it to now.
Back to the end of last year, after all this trauma, drinking, lostness and uncertainty came to a head on the weekend of Haggis’ catastrophic death. Although it didn’t take immediate effect, I now wonder if it took all of these things to come full circle and become the perhaps sobering “kick up the arse” that I didn’t realise I was talking about all those years ago. At one point, I was even offered an opportunity during the awful relationship where I walked into a scene including everything I thought I wanted - a house on Eigg that I was going to buy, a handyman who said he was going to stay if I bought it, a life of music and freedom from the awful relationship. But I didn’t and perhaps couldn’t take it. So the mess went on until the worst imaginable thing finally happened. I wonder if Haggis, bless her, was the only thing that could have put that rocket up my arse and, in effect, she ended up giving her life for it.
The part of my shadow that I could not see was the selfishness of getting fucked up. We accept drunkeness as part of our culture as if it has a special disclosure. When things nearly or do go wrong they are often accepted within the context of people ‘getting messy’. This qualifies totally crazy behaviours, and when a person then incrementally begins to damage their life through substance abuse, it’s easy to hide or let go unnoticed the progression of some these questionable and repeated behaviours.
Reflecting on this over years, I came to the conclusion that drinking for me was about control and attention. I can ALWAYS retreat from life into my lounge with a bottle of wine (or two) and receive unlimited attention from it - a safe space that relies on no other. What I hadn’t spotted was how much of a self-centeredness there is to having control over what you want in any moment. Over time, the medicine became poorer and sometimes (inconsistently) took me to my trauma and a feeling of victimhood, rather than fun or avoidance. Sometimes this would involve revisiting the past, analysing how, when and why the last ten years of life had failed in different ways. If I drank enough to go ‘dark’ in my thoughts, I would manifest resentment at other factors or people for my failures. I recurrently thought about my early twenties and how I was ‘on fire’, doing a million things at once with infinite energy and enjoying it, comparing this to my level of productivity in the years since, feeling like I had lost or wasted time and missed opportunities. My integrity and sense of responsibility to myself and others also became diminished by the distraction and jaded headedness of booze. Very helpfully, I’ve come to realise that I have played out behaviours that I held onto having hurting me so much in others - abandonment, inconsistency, and willingness to not turn up properly. Seeing it this way round diminishes the clout of having been on the receiving end of those behaviours because I can now see that I was able to act them out myself without intent or malice. It is also handily humbling to see through my own selfishness. I could see that Haggis felt abandoned in the unstable last days of her life. This makes me feel very sorry and sad.
What I have now is these lessons. And what I can change now is my effort.
Self-empathy is also required. It is just as necessary to acknowledge the entirely valid struggle that all this all fed from. Some of my traumas have felt truly harrowing to me and my response was not without high effort, just the wrong effort, I now realise.
In the months after Haggis died, I made some efforts to behave better but would always go back to old, negative patterns. I realised I had to do something different and that I also had the power to leave my life as it was, now without the responsibility of a dog to look after. So, with a lot of sentiment and sadness, I left my job, delayed my course, and booked a one way ticket to Peru.
I had a friend who had just bought some land in the jungle and who wanted to build an off-grid house - something I could help with! I was also targeting my own version of a kind of jungle rehab situation. This went well and with booze out of my life (more or less) I didn’t think about it at all. We built part of a house, which was pretty cool. My jungle friend, Tomek, needs more funds to continue the project into next year.
When I felt it was time to leave the jungle, I went to Cusco to study Spanish for a few weeks. I had made a plan to walk a very long way in Chile, and needed Spanish to navigate conversations in the countryside. This also went well for a few weeks and in the week that I drank nothing at all I was very focused and felt a shimmer of the past self I had been in my twenties, with a switched on brain and enjoying studying. It felt like I was coming home to myself and it was amazing!
Me and Tomek in the jungle just before I left.
Then, of course, I dabbled. It was pleasant at first. And then I dabbled a bit more. And then I met a person who very much dabbled and we dabbled together. Again, the warning in my body told me that this person wouldn’t be good for me, as nice (fortunately for me) as he was. By the time I left Cusco I had been drunk for a few days and somehow managed to navigate my way out of Peru and into Chile. I made some mistakes on the way and people scooped me up and helped me. I felt that people could sense I was a bit lost and carried me. Fortunately I didn’t bump into anyone who sensed I was lost and so took advantage of me. Whilst nothing disastrous happened, I recognised that I had made myself vulnerable again and, this time, was just lucky.
After a few weird nights in two others, I arrived at an accommodation in Santiago that I had booked to stay for 11 days whilst I organised myself to prepare for walking. I had hoped to be alone to get myself sorted and focus, stay away from booze, exercise and stretch to get flexible for walking. But the house was full of people and very busy. Not what I wanted at all. “OK, there will be a purpose to this” I thought and tried to make the best of it.
The day I turned up I was still drunk and that evening people were having a party - oh no! The evening was ok and I wasn’t too detectably weird, but I then kept drinking for the next few days and was fairly quiet and absent in the space. I’m not sure how much people noticed but one person did ask me a week later why I was doing so much better, when my personality started to come back, so it was at least some.
The most poignant interaction I had in the house was with a guy who we'll call R. We got on well immediatelybut then, again, I made an error in my communication with him under the influence of alcohol. He was understandably angry and hurt and reflected it back to me the following day. When he did, he said something with a fair amount of force that for some reason in the moment really hit me.
“You don’t want to change.”
I was taken aback by this because in my mind I believed that my narrative was that I really did want to change these nonsensical and disruptive behaviours, but was at a loss as to how to control my choices - it just didn’t seem to work. Like any person who ends up in a position of knowing that they are misusing a substance but can’t seem to change it, I had tried all kinds of different approaches. And here was this person telling me that I didn’t care. It wasn’t true, but that the picture of behaviour I had painted to him was this reached me in some way. As I responded, I watched his demeanour and empathy change and this shift and forgiveness gave me some feeling of companionship and support in my struggle in the following moments and days.
During this time, my body felt like shit. Like, really shit. I would have bouts of 4-6 hours of extreme dizziness and head fog so it was hard to do anything and I also struggled to eat. I had some heart palpitations and woke up at night with the feeling that I was holding my own heart out of my chest, amongst other weird shit (I also thought I saw a cat a few times that wasn’t there - eek, that’s like the withdrawal symptoms listed on Google right, like hallucinations and shit…). And I felt desperate. I hadn’t drank for the best part of three months previously and after one proper binge I had the worst and most long-lived ‘hangover’ (withdrawal) I have ever experienced.
I reached out to a friend whom I had met a couple of years ago on the topic of drinking. He got back to me immediately and we talked - for a long time (thank you Assimo!). Something in my willingness had changed and I started to approach it like a study. One thing you can’t do when you’re drunk or hanging is study. This provided part of a solution. By not just avoiding booze (and dealing with, actually, five full days of my body feeling completely fucked afterwards) and instead actually also taking action in the opposite direction, I was much more motivated than just feeling short of a thing (albeit an old, broken thing). Actually I was really enthusiastic! I read a lot of material very quickly and reflected on a lot of my own behaviours. Victimhood that I didn’t realise I had turned into humbling recognitions about my own conduct and I felt lighter the more I went on. There are many things that I've done that I hadn't looked at with true clarity before that I regret under the influence of booze.I will write more about this process in a different blog, but the point I am aiming for here is the recognition that this all brought me to - that, actually, I have been living some kind of split personality for some time. The old version of Jen that I thought I still was kept trying to manifest, but this other half was getting in the way and I denied that it was part of the real me, rather treating ‘it’ as just a blockage to me. In truth, of course, it is all me, trauma, shadow and struggles all included. Part of my task now is to accept all of myself so that I can stop being in a fight with myself and tidy up my behaviour (no one will ever win because we’re equally matched, me and me!).
Writing this and disciplining myself to publish it now also felt necessary because recognising the phenomenon of having split my perception of who I am into two relates to what I am about to try and do, which is to walk a very long way in some very remote and challenging territory. The reason this relates is because there is another phenomenon that happens in the expedition scene where a person sometimes needs to sell themselves or an idea to secure funding. For the Chile / Argentina / Patagonia trip that I am about to set off on, I am not asking for any sponsorship, so this is not an issue, but it made me realise that talking about the trip could invite me perhaps to hide some truths (or only publish some of them) and for me this would be critically unhealthy. For me, I need to be fucking truthful about who and how I am because otherwise I think the dishonesty, now I have recognised it, would kill me quicker than the Henry Westons! Oh Henry…
So in a way, this blog is a statement of how flawed I am, with a complete commitment to rejecting that I am therefore unqualified to try and pull off a really hard thing. I am not a crazy fitness superhuman machine person (I know there are some!) with no shadowy behaviours and struggles to navigate. But by being honest, at least we know that I am real!
My truth is that I can be an extremely dedicated person - in any direction! I AM an adventurer... and, I also drank too much! Oops. If I put in a similar walking effort then I’ll get something done for sure. My biggest concern is how my body will respond since I haven’t walked back to back days with a heavy pack for seven years and I also had more all over strength back then from rock-climbing. So it will go one of two ways. And this journey will tell me if and how I can progress to Antarctica next year also.
When I had finished writing this I sent it to my housemate to read over, explaining that I wanted an outside perspective because I needed to balance openness with self-protection. I am used to conversations surrounding booze and addictive behaviours because it is part of my story and that of many of my friends - we are good at finding each other! But I have purposely avoided using buzzwords and labels that may carry connotations or trigger prejudices and judgements. She said:
“Well, you’re writing an open and honest piece so maybe you can talk openly about the fear of being labelled and the unhelpful negative connotations that are often used in dialogue around drinking.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself and I think that covers it - thanks Rachel!
Finally, and very importantly, I have also found a dog in South America in the dog refuge that I volunteered in for a short time whilst stopping in my tracks to get the work written here done. She is called Sofia and has an amazing, calm, old soul energy that I was drawn to immediately. I wasn’t looking for a dog because logistically it would be very difficult to have one right now, so initially I just noticed her, but it stuck with me. She is also the first dog I have come across who feels in no way a sort of invasion to Haggis. I toyed with the idea of rehoming her, but found that the National Parks in Chile don’t allow dogs. I’m also happy not to carry dog food! Actually, the logistics of taking her on this journey would be very complicated so it is not a goer. I then thought of taking her home on my return, but let go of the idea when I looked up the cost of flying her, which made it impossible for me. Then, however, whilst talking to my housemate about her, it occurred to me that if I made it a fundraising goal for the trip that I am about to do, then this seems like a fair enough effort to raise money over. So I have told the refuge of my intention and if the rest of the universe responds then I will too! The refuge, by the way, is also very spacious, with 6-8 dogs in a kind of field and house environment, rather than little kennels. So I think she is OK and happy enough. Otherwise, of course, I wouldn’t create a reason for her to stay there for longer than she needs to. She has also already been there for two years, was rehomed and abandoned again once, and so adoption in the next eight months is also unlikely.
So, my goals for the rest of the year are:
- To make it to Punta Arenas, as much as possible by foot, by January 2024 - see this page for progress!
- To raise £2,500-£3000 to get Sofia home.
- To raise £2,500-£3000 for Rape Crisis, who helped me when I needed them but whom also could have helped me more with better funds. I was in a good position, relatively speaking, when this happened to me as I was a bit older and more aware, but the thought of a younger person having to wait a long time for counselling support is horrendous.
- To keep working on myself and finish writing the book that I have been poking at for seven years.
- To stay away from booze - entirely. If I write this here then it is harder to break as I’d be betraying anyone who has made it this far! And if you have - thank you.
This seems enough for one year. I’m setting off in two days… Let’s go!
In the Refugio, Concon, near Santiago.