The science of addiction: a personal struggle to kick cocaine gives a neuroscientist unique insights
Having survived a decade of drink and drugs as a young woman, Professor Judith Grisel focused all her determination on writing a book about addiction
When Professor Judith Grisel sat down to write her book Never Enough (a guide to the neuroscience of addiction that has been her lifes work), she didnt expect to share so much of her own story. Nevertheless the resulting chapters are a collision of the personal and professional, detailing the deep links between her work life and the decade of drug and alcohol addiction that almost destroyed her.
On paper, Grisel was an unlikely candidate for going off the rails. One of three children, she describes a privileged upbringing in a progressive, suburban area of New Jersey. With an airline pilot father and a mother who was a registered nurse, Grisel remembers growing up in a perfect-looking family.
As her research would go on to help demonstrate, there was no single factor that predicted her drug problems. Neuroscientists have found a complex blend of nature and nurture at work in addictive tendencies and their research shows that many genetic, epigenetic and environmental factors work together in complex ways that often remain elusive.
Why me? is the question that underpins much of Grisels research, and she continues to wonder why friends who drank heavily with her in high school were spared addiction. In Never Enough she offers a smorgasbord of theories behind her own and others predisposition to addiction: an extreme personality and love of risk-taking, trying drugs at a young age, lower levels of endorphins in the brain, potential hypersensitivity to the neurological rewards of drugs alongside, more surprisingly, her own parents strict response to her behaviour.
If they had just been a little more lax, if I hadnt been the first child, I probably could have been normal, she reflects. Grisel did not experience the childhood poverty, insecure housing or abuse we have come (rightly) to associate with some drug users histories. Instead she believes the misery within her parents relationship and the pressure she felt to keep up appearances had the greatest impact on her trajectory. Their marriage was so dysfunctional that my mother eventually got an annulment from the Pope but we never acknowledged it at the time. As a kid I felt like a prop in this play of the perfect family.
A pivotal moment came when, aged nine or 10, Grisel found her mother crying at the kitchen sink. I asked her what the matter was and she answered that she was crying because she was so happy. My stomach sank a thousand feet because I knew it wasnt true but I also knew there was no way to reach the truth. Her mothers insistence that the family ignored the reality of their problems and instead went along with a pretence of happiness had a profound and negative impact on the way Grisel herself came to understand her own emotions and place in the world.
What I learned to do in that moment, she explains, was to doubt my reality; to realise that what was critical in life was the story, the veneer. And that felt like dying.
So began Grisels search for a way to escape her everyday life, a life that felt false and full of pressure to go along with the pretence, and instead to find a way to feel something that felt like the truth. It started with an obsession with reading books, I would read constantly, upside down if I had to, and then aged 13 (reaching a key developmental point when the teenage brain is primed for risky behaviour) she had her first drink. I thought, this is how people get through life. I can pretend all this stuff, because I can have this little secret where Im nice and warm inside, remembers Grisel. It was the first time in my life I remember feeling relaxed.
Grisel swiftly progressed to the solace of daily drinking, smoking marijuana and regular drug use. I loved being able to connect to my true self and I only seemed to be able to do that when I was wasted, she explains. Unsurprisingly, she was soon in trouble at home and school, trouble that escalated through her teenage years until she was kicked out by her parents when she was 19 dropping out of her first year of college at the same time. After years of trying a range of ways to stop Grisel taking drugs her family now withdrew financial support entirely. As she left home, despite her brawny high school football player brother crying in the street, she felt exhilarated: I felt like all the restraints were off and things got very bad after that.
Increasingly detached from her parents, who she barely saw over the next four years, Grisels life became entirely focused on drugs. I was scraping by on nothing but lies and evasion and my only priority was staying loaded. Now injecting cocaine, her dedication to the next hit led to frequent homelessness and unemployment. When she did find work she stole from the till, she regularly took credit cards from strangers and ruthlessly stole money and drugs from friends. Soon she was facing lunatic dealers and DEA agents with a single-minded determination that she also credits with her subsequent scientific tenacity.
The depravity of Grisels addicted life, described in the memoir chapters of Never Enough, illustrates the vicious cycle of the A and B process she explains in the scientific sections of her book. When humans engage in any mind-altering activity, the effects are known as the A process. Whether its the sedation of alcohol or the rush of cocaine, users often feel pleasure from the initial use of their drug of choice. But as Grisel is at pains to explain, There is no free lunch.
She believes people might make better choices if normal brain function was more widely appreciated. The brain adapts to any addictive substance or activity by producing the exact opposite effect, says Grisel. This opposite state, known as the B process, is led by the brains drive to return to its baseline state and its why hangovers and comedowns are such unpleasant experiences. Our brains are so efficient at returning to normal that with regular use we need more and more of the drug or activity to feel the A process and the oppositional B process kicks in almost instantaneously. Soon, as Grisel herself experienced, we need the drug just to feel normal and without it we only feel the negative impact of the B process.
With addiction rates rising steeply, helping people avoid being imprisoned in this cycle is a priority for many worried parents, case-workers, researchers and Grisel herself. But, just as a simple set of causes of addiction doesnt seem to exist, there doesnt appear to be a magic recipe for recovery either. Grisel describes her own transformation from addict to sober scientist as a collection of coincidences and luck. I was inexplicably fortunate. I think I was carried through by circumstance, she says.
A lucky break led to better housing and a move away from injecting cocaine. After a terrifying encounter with her reflection in the mirror, the final push she needed to start her recovery came from her parents. In a crucial moment of compassion from her father, he told her he wished only happiness for her life and the 23-year-old finally realised just how unhappy she was.
A drug-treatment facility in Minnesota was followed by a three-month stay in a womens halfway house and then Grisel began to repair her life. A key motivation for staying sober was her determination to find a cure for addiction. At the beginning of her career, Grisel and others in her field were convinced they would swiftly find that cure, but as neuroscientific understanding has deepened it has revealed just how much we dont understand. In the book, Grisel reflects, I was shocked that I couldnt say that neuroscience is making great strides. It didnt seem true to me.
Though she cant yet offer a magic switch to turn off addiction, She now believes much of the answer lies not in manipulating DNA but in encouraging human love, compassion and connection. With more high-potency drugs available more widely than ever before, alongside a sea of addictive technology enticing adults and children to fritter away our lives checking updates just like users fritter away their lives snorting cocaine, Grisel believes we need a range of tactics to tackle the global problem of addiction. The people right next to us are an obvious place to start, she adds. Human relationships and connections are the low-hanging fruit.
With her own 16-year-old daughter and grown-up stepsons she and her husband have prioritised staying emotionally connected to their children and, when they are worried about behaviour, sharing their own feelings rather than telling their children what to do. I will say, I love you and Im really concerned about this. If you need help, I will give it to you, Grisel says. But I will also be clear that I am not going to enable the behaviour. Despite choosing to parent differently from the way that she was brought up, Grisel now reflects on her parents with compassion, believing that if you have a child who is an addict, Its an almost impossible situation to be in and very hard to know what to do.
Decades of research and experience have led Judith Grisel to believe that the dominance of addictive substances and activities in contemporary life are leading society to the brink of an addictive black hole and that it is only by connecting with each other that we can avoid being sucked in. Right now were in a rising phase of escapism and pharmacology this epidemic of addiction is really an epidemic of avoidance. Above all we need better ways to cope with life and to be present to our experiences. Despite her concerns, she does have hope. Ultimately you cant avoid yourself. It didnt matter how high I got, I was stuck with myself. I think were soon going to get to that point as a society and then we might finally have our moment of truth. Then, Grisel believes, well discover that the way out of addiction was actually inside us all along.
Never Enough: the Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction by Judith Grisel is published by Scribe, priced 9.99. Buy it for 8.79 at guardianbookshop.comRead More
Make the most of bright summer produce with saffron and yogurt grilled chicken, tomato and roast pepper bruschetta and cherry jelly with orange cream
You come back from the shops with cherries, their skins tight and bright, the colour of beaujolais. Green-shouldered tomatoes too, fat red peppers and a bunch of basil, its leaves as big as bay. A heavy wedge of watermelon perhaps, a cool cucumber and spiky bunches of hot rocket. Summer shopping is frustrating. Peaches or nectarines? Peas in the pod or broad beans? Should we buy radishes and artichokes? We need food for the grill, something to marinade, and yet we still want something of substance. (Seafood for a potato-topped pie, chicken for the barbecue.) From now till late autumn there is almost too much from which to choose. We should make the most of it.
Watermelon, salted ricotta and pumpkin seeds
A halved watermelon becomes a fixture in the fridge from now till early autumn. Its ruby flesh chilled and waiting to become part of a salad or cut thick and brought out on a plate of crushed ice to finish a garden lunch. A watermelon laughs loudest when it is matched with chilli as it is so often in Mexico, but also when in the company of salty cheeses such as feta or ricotta salata.
In deepest summer, I soak iceberg lettuce, bunches of thick-stemmed watercress and white-nippled radishes for 20 minutes in a bowl of ice and water to crisp and refresh. The watermelon needs a good hour or two in the fridge before slicing. The marriage of ice-cold melon, salty cheese and chilli is dazzling. Tweak the amount of chilli flakes to suit your own taste. The batch I have at the moment is fiercely hot, so I proceed with caution, a pinch at a time.
Serves 4-6 as a side dish
watercress 1 bunch
red chicory leaves 100g
coriander seeds 2 tsp
olive oil 4 tbsp
pumpkin seeds 45g
fennel seeds 1 tsp
chilli flakes a pinch
mint 10 leaves
salted ricotta 50g
Wash the watercress, discarding any tough stems or less than perfect leaves then submerge in a large bowl of ice and water. Separate the chicory leaves, halve the radishes, then add both to the bowl. Leave them for 20 minutes to crisp and curl.
Use a pestle and mortar or spice mill to grind the coriander seeds to a coarse powder. Warm the olive oil in a shallow pan, then add the coriander, pumpkin and fennel seeds, moving them around for a minute or two until they are warm and fragrant. Add the chilli flakes, continue cooking for a minute, then remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
Peel the watermelon, cut into thick slices and then into large chunks into a bowl, removing the seeds as you go.
Finely chop the mint leaves, add to the melon then crumble or coarsely grate the ricotta over them. Drain the watercress, chicory and radish and add them to the bowl.
Tip the seeds, spices and their oil over the watermelon and tumble everything together gently then transfer to a serving dish and bring to the table.
Grilled chicken with saffron and yogurtRead More
Carine Roitfeld, queen of French fashion, reveals her rules for Parisienne chic to a terrified Sophie Heawood
Carine Roitfeld was the editor of French Vogue for 10 years, worked closely with Karl Lagerfeld, is an adviser to Tom Ford and is an absolute titan in the global fashion world. Naturally, what this means to me is that the thought of meeting her is absolutely terrifying, so I sit down in the Parisian hotel where we have arranged to do the interview and tell her this. She is dressed in black, of course, her slightly hunched posture making her look more like her 64 years. She is sipping a tiny coffee, and isnt remotely surprised Im terrified.
People think Im judging, but Im not judging, she says. Im watching. Its different. People sometimes say, My God her eyes will scan you, but its not to judge you. Its to get ideas. Its observation.
Well thats all right then. French Vogue, under her tenure from 2001 to 2011, was a force to be reckoned with. It looked like nothing else. She believed in bold ideas and she loved boobs, even naked on the cover. She loved cigarettes dangling from models mouths. She loved fur. And she loved curves. She used unskinny models Crystal Renn and Lara Stone, and did a cover with the blonde, mainstream-looking model Carolyn Murphy prancing around with Andre J, a black transgender model in a dress and a beard. Would Anna Wintour ever allow such a thing? asked the American website Jezebel at the time.
I have brought the current issue of French Vogue with me and we flick through it together. All the models are the exact same skinniness. I do not like this, she says. I like older women. I like bigger girls. I like black women. I did everything first. But people forget, because people forget everything. I feel totally comfortable with everyone. It is my strength, to be open-minded, always.
It does seem to be true she is even interested in my red handbag, which is made of fake leather, cost about 50 from a small animal-friendly brand shes never heard of, and is bursting at the seams because you put too much stuff in it, she says, as if shes my mum.
After too many years spent reading all those books about how to be chic like a Frenchwoman and hating them so much Id feel compelled to go straight out and buy one about how to date like them, too, and then how to raise children who eat like French enfants, I feel I should be expert in how to be an insouciant yet glamorous Parisian except it hasnt worked at all. I am not remotely chic. My love life is so English its practically Chaucerian. My child subsists on potatoes. So I want to ask this most Parisienne of Parisiennes for her secrets can she make me chic? I have this scarf, you see, and every time I tie it in a knot it doesnt look right. I ask her to tie it better on me, but she takes it off me and ties it better on herself by not tying it at all.Read More
Richard Godwin catches up with five pensioners, aged up to 108, who thrive on extreme exercise
Edwina Brocklesby: triathlete, 76, Kingston-upon-Thames
I didnt do any exercise at all until I was 50. I remember trying out for the long-jump team at university for a laugh and I couldnt move for two weeks afterwards. So that was the end of my athletics career. And then I had three children and I was busy with my job. I was a social worker and ran two adoption agencies.
One day, I went to see an old friend from Nottingham University who was running a marathon. I thought that would be fun to do, at least a half marathon, anyway. I came back and told my husband and he laughed and said I wouldnt even be able to run as far as Northampton, which was about three miles from where we lived at the time. Its good to have a challenge like that! Sure enough, it did inspire me to run my first half marathon.
Then my husband died when I was 52. By then I had a small group of running friends and they were brilliantly supportive. I trained as a counsellor myself, but I found running better than counselling for dealing with grief. For one, you always feel better after youve been for a run as the endorphins kick in. But I think what is more important is the social element. Youre with people who support you and value you. You can talk if you want to, or you can be silent if you want to.
The running club was only small, but it did have one place in the London Marathon and thats when it became more serious for me. I ran my first marathon in 1996, when I was 53. I moved to London and became a member of the Serpentine Running Club and, with them, I completed my first London Triathlon when I was 58. I dont have an anterior cruciate ligament in either knee my daughter told me that Id need surgery if I kept pounding the streets like I used to and thats how I got into cycling and swimming as theyre a little easier on the joints. When I started swimming, at 56, I couldnt do crawl at all and swam breaststroke with my head above water like most women of my age. But swimming is a wonderful feeling. It might have something to do with our spending the first nine months of our gestation suspended in water.
Theres so much evidence that if you keep physically active, you dont experience some of the difficulties associated with ageing. There are lower rates of type 2 diabetes among the active, but falling over is the biggest thing. If you can keep your bone and muscle strength up, youre less likely to fall and you might also be able to prevent yourself from hitting the ground if you do fall. Falls are one of the things that costs the NHS the most money.
Im getting slower as I get older, of course I am. I do manage to run 5k, but I walk a bit more. I feel lucky that I can still jog along the Thames.
Edwina Brocklesby is the director of Silverfit, a charity that promotes physical activity among ageing people. She is also the UKs oldest Ironman triathlete. She was recently awarded the British Empire Medal
Eddy Diget: personal trainer, 74, Milton KeynesRead More
The chef and TV presenter talked about revolution, parenting, abuse and Trump voters in what is believed to be the last interview before his death
Anthony Bordains final interview has shed light on the chefs thoughts on travel, culture and politics. The piece, which surfaced on independent publication Popula on Sunday, includes Bourdains takes on Bill Clintons behaviour in office, Obamas performance as US president and his own daydreams about the demise of Harvey Weinstein (Bourdains partner, Asia Argento, was one of the first to accuse the former movie mogul of rape).
But Bourdain also spoke about other things, such as the joy that comes from friendship, and how to think about parenting. Here are some of the highlights:
I much prefer people who just showed up in Paris and found their own way without any particular itinerary, who left themselves open to things happening. To mistakes because thats the most important part of travel.
On talking to strangers
You go to a place like Beirut and you find yourself talking to a Muslim woman. If youre a journalist tasked with an agenda, you know, youre there to report a story, and you come right out with it. Youre going right into some very difficult areas. Whereas I have the luxury, Im there to eat! Presumably. Im there to eat, and Im asking very simple questions.
What makes you happy? What do you like to eat, where do you like to go to get a few drinks; you know? What do you miss about the place when you go away? And I find, again and again, just by spending the time, by asking very simple questions, people have said the most astonishing things to me. Often things that would be very uncomfortable for them outside of that casual context.
I know very much what wont make me happy. The perfect car will not make me happy. The perfect house will probably make me sad, and terrified
Im a renter by nature. I like the freedom to change my mind about where I want to be in six months, or a year. Because Ive also found you might have to make that decision you cant always make that decision for yourself.
My happiest moments on the road are always off-camera, generally with my crew, coming back from shooting a scene and finding ourselves in this sort of absurdly beautiful moment, you know, laying on a flatbed on those things that go on the railroad track, with a putt-putt motor, goin across like, the rice paddies in Cambodia with headphones on this is luxury, because I could never have imagined having the freedom or the ability to find myself in such a place, looking at such things.
To sit alone or with a few friends, half-drunk under a full moon, you just understand how lucky you are; its a story you cant tell. Its a story you almost by definition, cant share. Ive learned in real time to look at those things and realise: I just had a really good moment.
On cycles of abuse
You know a lot of the chefs, all of the really bastard chefs, most the really oppressive ones, the old school ones, were abused children, were abused by their parents, were abused and neglected, physically, mentally, in every possible way, and then became just like their abuser, and would perpetuate the system.
A lot of chefs never really understood, or understood only really belatedly; theyd been powerless for much of their careers. I dont know. For most of my career, chefs were creatures without power. To talk about power imbalance, is in retrospect, there was one. But I think we all saw ourselves at outcasts, as weak, except in our little bubble in the kitchen.
On Trump voters
The contempt and the ridicule which has been heaped on places like West Virginia, which is the heart, demographically, of enemy territory, as far as New York liberals like us are concerned This is something we fucked up in the sixties. We were fighting against cops and construction workers cops and construction workers were exactly who we fucking needed! They were the first to die, in Vietnam. We werent gonna!
Somebody at the White House press briefing has to sacrifice their job and say: You utter piece of shit! Do you really expect us to swallow that steaming load of horseshit? How do you live with yourself? You should be ashamed. Give me one guy to throw themselves on a fire like that, lose access, lose the gig at the White House, for that infinitely repeatable meme. Give me that. Just give me that. Someone to stand up.
On not being an artist
From the very beginning Ive always and only made the television I wanted to make, and as soon as I could I told whoever was involved to go fuck themselves, and somehow landed on my feet someplace else, with somebody who was willing to indulge me in even grander fashion. So I havent had to deal with the grim reality of well, you either do the Best Burgers in America show, or you have no work at all! I havent had to live with that. I havent had to be particularly nice to people I dont like. Ever.
We cannot choose the leaders of our revolutions, theyre all deeply flawed and they will all all revolutions will be corrupted
The minute everybody in the room agrees with you, youre in a bad place, so Im a big believer in change just for its own sake, just to show that you can change, to move forward incrementally, but aint nobody gonna make everything better. Whoever has the intestinal fortitude or the megalomaniac instincts sufficient to lead any kind of a revolution will inevitably disappoint horribly.
The best revolutionaries of course are martyrs who died before they could turn into disgusting, self-serving, corrupt pieces of shit. As they all do.
Asia [Argento] said this to me: children create themselves independently of us. All you can do is show, like in my case, my daughter feels loved. She knows shes loved. She has good self-esteem. Very important. And good martial arts skills. So she knows she can take any boy in her age group. Thats all I can do as a father I cant pick her music, her boyfriends, whatever, however shes going to turn out. I can give her these basic things.
On the imagined death of Harvey Weinstein
My theory of how he goes is uh, hes brushing his teeth in a bathroom, hes naked in his famous bathrobe, which is flapping open, hes holding his cell phone in one hand because you never know who on the Weinstein board has betrayed him recently, and hes brushing his teeth he suddenly gets a massive fucking stroke he stumbles backwards into the bathtub, where he finds himself um, with his robe open feet sticking out of the tub, and in his last moments of consciousness as he scrolls through his contacts list trying to figure out who he can call, who will actually answer the phone.
And he dies that way, knowing that no one will help him and that he is not looking his finest at time of death.Read More
Most meat animals are raised with the assistance of daily doses of antibiotics. By 2050, antibiotic resistance will cause a staggering 10 million deaths a year
Every year I spend some time in a tiny apartment in Paris, seven stories above the mayors offices for the 11th arrondissement. The Place de la Bastille the spot where the French revolution sparked political change that transformed the world is a 10-minute walk down a narrow street that threads between student nightclubs and Chinese fabric wholesalers.
Twice a week, hundreds of Parisians crowd down it, heading to the march de la Bastille, stretched out along the center island of the Boulevard Richard Lenoir.
Blocks before you reach the market, you can hear it: a low hum of argument and chatter, punctuated by dollies thumping over the curbstones and vendors shouting deals. But even before you hear it, you can smell it: the funk of bruised cabbage leaves underfoot, the sharp sweetness of fruit sliced open for samples, the iodine tang of seaweed propping up rafts of scallops in broad rose-colored shells.
Threaded through them is one aroma that I wait for. Burnished and herbal, salty and slightly burned, it has so much heft that it feels physical, like an arm slid around your shoulders to urge you to move a little faster. It leads to a tented booth in the middle of the market and a line of customers that wraps around the tent poles and trails down the market alley, tangling with the crowd in front of the flower seller.
In the middle of the booth is a closet-size metal cabinet, propped up on iron wheels and bricks. Inside the cabinet, flattened chickens are speared on rotisserie bars that have been turning since before dawn. Every few minutes, one of the workers detaches a bar, slides off its dripping bronze contents, slips the chickens into flat foil-lined bags, and hands them to the customers who have persisted to the head of the line.
I can barely wait to get my chicken home.Read More
Kiran Aldridge and her friends are in their 40s and none of them have children. They have decided to buy a house together, where they can pool resources, skills and a yoga teacher and never be lonely
I have a group of female friends and we are all in our early 40s. None of us have children. We have known each other for what seems to be an eternity; we went to college together, and then visitedeach other at different universities and remained good friends. I clearly see a timeline of our conversations throughout the years: how we stayed up all night studying for exams fuelled by copious amounts of Red Bull and Hula Hoops; how we compared notes of the first time we dabbled with drugsat university; we talked of the hedonistic parties we attended and the hearts crushed by an array of unsuitable partners. These days, as well as discussing the healing powers of yoga and green tea, a new topic of conversation has entered our midst like a brick through the now-opaque window of our youth: who willlook after us in our old age?
I feel we have reached an age where this question can no longer be swatted like an annoying fly. It needs to be answered, or at least wrapped up and packaged like an unwanted gift. It is assumed that, if you have children, getting help in your older years is easy. But what if you dont have children to help you chug along when life becomes tough? Who will look after you then?
There are myriad reasons why noneof us had children; some made conscious decisions not to, others did not. Regardless of reasons, we are all in the same position of facing what will certainly be the most challenging times of our lives, in terms of physical capabilities, without children. This makes me feel a little disconcerted. Itold a friend who has three children. Igot an unexpected response: Youdont have kids so they could help you in your old age! To do so would be a selfish motivation, she added. I asked her why she had children. Iwanted to have my own family, she said. Iasked her why, and she said: Iwanted to be surrounded by love. Iquestioned whether her own motivation to have children was an altruistic one.
We want children to love, to fill our lives, to give us purpose, to carry on the family name, and to satisfy our own maternal desire to nurture and to love. The decision is never altruistic. Essentially, we are all asking for the same thing: to be loved.
In India, where my roots lie, family does mean looking after each other, especially in old age. Living in an extended family with an elder is the norm. As arebellious teen and as a woman in her 20s, Ihad a very bleak view of this;there seemed to be no room for individuality in a family that worked as a nucleus. (This was my view when I would stroll in at 6am after clubbing trying not to wake anyone).
As I get older, I understand the value of living in a family that has several generations looking out for each other. As a younger person, the focus is on the individual, but when you get older, I believe the focus changes to your connection with others.
My grandmother lives in a house that has two generations under the same roof. She is in her late 80s and doesnt worry about whether she can pay the heating bill or not, there is always home-cooked food and a plethora of visitors; loneliness is an alien concept. More importantly, as her ageing body weakens and is prone to falling, there is always someone to pick her up. My granny, who doesnt speak English, who hasnt visited any country other than England, whose world is microscopic compared with mine, will most certainly have a more comfortable old age than the one I see myself facing.
My friends and I have come up with an alternative way to live out our golden years. When the time comes, we have decided that we will pool all our resources and buy a property that we will live in. According to AgeUK, more than 2million people in England over the age of 75 live alone, and more than a million older people say they go for more than a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member. With our alternative old-age plan, wehope to avoid that loneliness. Wewill all live together and be eachothers carer and emotional companion. Therewill be no one tutting and losing patience with our slower pace of life, as we all would be ageing together. Our own individual care will be paramount, as each of us will be relying on the other.
There will be collective responsibility for each others health. Currently, we all participate in pursuits such as running, swimming, yoga and cycling, and none of us are smokers. When were old and living together, we will hire a yoga instructor, who will visit us once a week for a group class.
The feeling of losing ones usefulness and purpose plagues older people, whether you have children or not. Iwonder whether this feeling is magnified if you dont have grandchildren to babysit or children to worry about. When our golden years come a-calling and we all move in together, my friends and I have decided that all our talents and skills will be utilised. No one will feel useless. Its a highly practical plan. One of my friends is a nurse, one of us is a whizz in the kitchen, another a keen gardener, while I love DIY and have an eye forinterior design. We will be pooling not only our resources, but also our unique, individual talents and skills. Instead of being redundant, these willbe needed more than ever andcelebrated.
Since my friends and I came up with our alternative old-age plan, getting old no longer feels like a daunting prospect, and I no longer shy away from it instead it feels hopeful and promising. Iam almost looking forward to it. Sam plays the piano and the guitar, Steph is a published novelist and Im a writer; Ilook forward to the bohemian life that we will lead and being surrounded by like-minded people I will have known most of my adult life.
It almost feels like the perfect society, where we all focus on the greater good: helping each other out when we need it most. I envisage songs and storytelling by the piano and a house filled with a certain joie de vivre. Yes, we have no children to rely on, but we have each other, and we will share the understanding of what it means to get old. In fact, several friends of mine, who do have children, have asked me whether they can be included in our old-age plan.
To some it may appear a little utopian, but as my friend with kids insightfully pointed out, its no more utopian than believing that your kids will look after you in your old age.Read More
When Tess Morgan's son came home with a tattoo, she was griefstricken. She knew her reaction was OTT (he's 21) but it signalled a change in their relationship
Put out the bunting, crack open the beers, stand there in the kitchen smiling from ear to ear, because hes home our student son is home and the family is together again. And after supper, after the washing up is done, the others his younger siblings drift off to watch television, and he says: Would you like to see my tattoo?
I say, Youre joking.
He says, No, Im not.
But still I wait. Any minute hes going to laugh and say, You should see your faces because this has been a running joke for years, this idea of getting a tattoo the hard man act, iron muscles, shaved head, Jason Statham, Ross Kemp. Hes a clever boy. Maybe during his school years he thought a tattoo would balance the geeky glory of academic achievement.
His father says, Where?
On my arm, he says, and touches his bicep through his shirt.
His lovely shoulder.
In the silence, he says, I didnt think youd be this upset.
After a while, he says, It wasnt just a drunken whim. I thought about it. I went to a professional. It cost 150.
150? I think, briefly, of all the things I could buy with 150.
Its just a tattoo, he says, when the silence goes on so long that we have nearly fallen over the edge of it into a pit of black nothingness. Its not as if I came home and said Id got someone pregnant.
It seems to me, unhinged by shock, that this might have been the better option.
His father asks, Does it hurt?
Yes, I say, cutting across this male bonding. It does. Very much.
For three days, I cant speak to my son. I can hardly bear to look at him. I decide this is rational. The last thing we need, I think, is an explosion of white-hot words that everyone carries around for the rest of their lives, engraved on their hearts. In any case, Im not even sure what it is I want to say. In my minds eye I stand there, a bitter old woman with pursed lips wringing my black-gloved hands. Hes done the one thing that Ive said for years, please dont do this. It would really upset me if you did this. And now its happened. So theres nothing left to say.
I know you cant control what your children do. Why would you want to, anyway? If you controlled what they did, youd just pass on your own rubbish tip of imperfections. You hope the next generation will be better, stronger, more generous. I know all you can do as a parent is to pack their bags and wave as you watch them go.
So I cry instead. I have a lump in my throat that stops me from eating. I feel as if someone has died. I keep thinking of his skin, his precious skin, inked like a pig carcass.
My neighbour says, Theres a lot of it about. So many teenagers are doing it. I stare at pictures of David Beckham with his flowery sleeves, Angelina Jolie all veins and scrawls. Tattoos are everywhere. They seem no more alternative than piercings these days. But I still dont understand. Sam Cam with her smudgy dolphin, the heavily tattooed at Royal Ascot these people are role models?
My niece had doves tattooed on her breasts, says a friend, And her father said, you wait, in a few years time theyll be vultures.
Its the permanence that makes me weep. As if the Joker had made face paints from acid. Your youthful passion for ever on display, like a CD of the Smiths stapled to your forehead. The British Association of Dermatologists recently surveyed just under 600 patients with visible tattoos. Nearly half of them had been inked between the ages of 18 and 25, and nearly a third of them regretted it.
I look up laser removal. Which is a possibility, I think miserably, that only works if you want a tattoo removed. And Im not in charge here. My son is.
My husband asks, Have you seen it yet?
I shake my head. Like a child, I am hoping that if I keep my eyes tightly shut the whole thing will disappear.
Its his body, he says gently. His choice.
But what if he wants to be a lawyer?
Or an accountant.
Hell be wearing a suit. No one will ever know. And he doesnt want to be a lawyer. Or an accountant.
I know. I know.
I meet a colleague for lunch. He knew how much it would hurt me, I say, tears running down my face. For years Ive said, dont do it. Its there for ever, even after youve changed your mind about who you are and what you want to look like. Youre branded, like meat. It can damage your work prospects. It can turn people against you before youve even opened your mouth.
She says, Tell him how you feel.
But I cant. For a start, I know Im being completely unreasonable. This level of grief is absurd. Hes not dying, he hasnt killed anyone, he hasnt volunteered to fight on behalf of a military dictatorship. But I feel as though a knife is twisting in my guts.
I get angry with myself. This is nothing but snobbery, I think latent anxiety about the trappings of class. As if my son had deliberately turned his back on a light Victoria sponge and stuffed his face with cheap doughnuts. I am aware, too, that I associate tattoos on men with aggression, the kind of arrogant swagger that goes with vest tops, dogs on chains, broken beer glasses.
Is this what other women feel? Or perhaps, I think, with an uncomfortable lurch of realisation, just what older women feel. I stand, a lone tyrannosaurus, bellowing at a world I dont understand.
Tattoos used to be the preserve of criminals and toffs. And sailors. In the 1850s, the corpses of seamen washed up on the coast of north Cornwall were strangely decorated with blue, according to Robert Hawker, the vicar of Morwenstow initials, or drawings of anchors, flowers or religious symbols (Our blessed Saviour on His Cross, with on the one hand His mother, and on the other St John the Evangelist). It is their object and intent, when they assume these signs, says Hawker, to secure identity for their bodies if their lives are lost at sea.
Tattoos, then, were intensely practical, like brightly coloured smit marks on sheep.
Perhaps even then this was a fashion statement, a badge of belonging. Or just what you did after too much rum. Later, the aristocracy flirted with body art. According to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (they know a lot about tattoos), Edward VII had a Jerusalem cross on his arm while both his sons, the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of York (later George V), had dragon tattoos. Lady Randolph Churchill, Winstons mum, had a snake on her wrist.
But you can do what you like if youre rich.
On day three, still in a fog of misery, I say to him, Shall we talk?
We sit down with cups of coffee. I open my mouth to speak and end up crying instead. I say, You couldnt have done anything to hurt me more.
He is cool and detached. He says, I think you need to re-examine your prejudices.
I think, but I have! Ive done nothing else for three days! But I dont say that because we arent really talking to each other. These are rehearsed lines, clever insults flung across the dispatch box. (This is what comes of not exploding in anger in the heat of the moment.)
I say, Why couldnt you have waited until youd left home? Why now when youre living here half the year?
Its something Ive been thinking about for a long time. There didnt seem any reason to wait.
Which makes it worse.
Im an adult, he says. I paid for it with my own money. Money I earned.
But were supporting you as well, I think. As far as I know, you dont have separate bank accounts for your various income streams. So who knows? Maybe we paid for it. If you dont want to see it, thats fine, he says. When Im at home, Ill cover it up. Your house, your rules.
In my head, I think, I thought it was your house, too.
He says, Im upset that youre upset. But Im not going to apologise.
I dont want you to apologise, I say. (A lie. Grovelling self-abasement might help.)
He says, Im still the same person.
I look at him, sitting there, my 21-year-old son. I feel Im being interviewed for a job I dont even want. I say, But youre not. Youre different. I will never look at you in the same way again. Its a visceral feeling. Maybe because Im your mother. All those years of looking after your body taking you to the dentist and making you drink milk and worrying about green leafy vegetables and sunscreen and cancer from mobile phones. And then you let some stranger inject ink under your skin. To me, it seems like self-mutilation. If youd lost your arm in a car accident, I would have understood. I would have done everything to make you feel better. But this this is desecration. And I hate it.
We look at each other. There seems nothing left to say.
Over the next few days, my son always covered up talks to me as if the row had never happened. I talk to him, too, but warily. Because Im no longer sure I know him.
And this is when I realise that all my endless self-examination was completely pointless. What I think, or dont think, about tattoos is irrelevant. Because this is the point. Tattoos are fashionable. They may even be beautiful. (Just because I hate them doesnt mean Im right.) But by deciding to have a tattoo, my son took a meat cleaver to my apron strings. He may not have wanted to hurt me. I hope he didnt. But my feelings, as he made his decision, were completely unimportant.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
I am redundant. And thats a legitimate cause for grief, I think.
Tess Morgan is a pseudonymRead More