The Cure for Sleep: Voices Around Us
Season 3, 001: What messages did you receive from family, community, institutions when growing up? What was praised? What punished?
Welcome to Season Three of The Cure for Sleep on Substack: this long-term companion project to my memoir of waking up, breaking free and making a more creative life. It’s a place where you can find like-minds and develop your writing voice.
And a concern with voice is at the heart of my book: the ones around us, and what it takes (and costs) to make our own heard…
WHERE DOES IT BEGIN, our turn away from risk and adventure? Why do so many of us hide in routine, shrink from opportunity?
What I asked in my luxurious last minute of living, fear disappearing into wonder even as I was laid awake on the operating table.
Where does it begin? What I ask again, in this story of my life before then, and since.
For if the events which wake us are sudden, what leads to a sleep of soul and possibility is harder to trace.
We have to go back through all the tales told to us (or by us) about the world and its workings: that bramble thicket in which we lost our will and way.
On return from near-death, this became my life’s work: to find a way to balance compassion for others with a need to discern and demonstrate my own values. It led to many difficult conversations with those around me, as I began to change and then risk showing more of my real self. Many of those exchanges are not in the book, but one of the hardest is. I’d gone home to the West Country to visit my Mother, at a time when we were decades into being fairly estranged. As we drove through the overgrown and convoluted lanes of her childhood, I tried to share a difficulty with her:
And I said that I wasn’t happy in my marriage anymore. That I’d listened to the story of her mistaken ones my whole life, but needed now to speak of mine.
‘But my dear maid, you’re a mother! And that comes first. And you’re so lucky to have a husband like Nye…’
I asked her how she could be so sure of him, on so few short visits annually, when even then he was rarely in the room with her? That I wanted to understand, please, why he was awarded so much unconditional admiration by her and others in my life, while I was judged always against harsh and exacting standards?
'Oh you expect so much! It’s always been this way for women. And do you think there’s anyone, anywhere, anyway, that’s like you are?’
There’s so much received cultural weight in that short exchange between us. Layer after layer of constraints derived from class, gender, and my mother’s own painful experience of divorce and the social cost of separation.
It was hard to publish a book in my mother’s lifetime in which I go into all this. But the conversations she and I have had since its publication mean that she - like me - has arrived at last in a place where her head is no longer full of ‘what other people think.’ And even though she’s only had a few years at end of life to enjoy that freedom from received opinion, it’s been a joy to watch her expand in hope and confidence.
your invitation to write
In 300 words or less, share a memory or reflection on the voices around you.
What messages did you receive from family, community, institutions when growing up? What was praised? What punished? Did you internalise them, or protest? What was the cost of that approach?
[Please read the guidelines for contributors if this is your first submission to the project.]
Throughout Season Three, I’m going to be showcasing stories by subscribers who have each created a real body of work within the project, responding to multiple themes over the first two years of The Cure for Sleep…
In Sepia by Vanessa Wright
from Season One, 002: Memory Games
The 3D you is a sepia photograph now. Colours faded. I squeeze my eyes tight in a bid to bring you back to life, channelling Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. The edges are fuzzy, and I can just about make out the crinkles around your eyes. I can’t see your hands or the shape of your body in your red jumper anymore.
It is smell and sound that sharpen the lens a little. That red jumper now sits amongst my own in the wardrobe. I inhale it, but your scent has dissipated and mingled with mine long ago.
There is just one drawer I can open, though. Your old bedside table sits in the hallway, which I filled with ‘Dad’ things: a hammer, spirit level, screwdrivers and alum keys. And it is here where the last molecules remain of a life once lived: a faint whiff of tobacco and the sweet woody mustiness of you. The catchy piano chords, the snap of drumbeats, and the line ‘put a pony in me pocket, I’ll get the suitcase from the van’ take me back to the sound of you laughing. An uncontrollable belly laugh that I rarely saw. I see you slapping your thigh with tears running down your face saying, ‘Bleedin’ wrap up’ or ‘Sod my old boots.’
Never mind the Only Fools and Horses catchphrases; you had your own.
Where are you in your creative journey right now – and how does writing for this story-sharing community support that?
Two years ago, I hadn’t written anything other than corporate communications. Writing creative non-fiction on my Masters course was a scary prospect, but I loved it. Experimenting with different types of form and subjects to find what I enjoyed was part of the fun. I even tried poetry! Having just graduated from my course, alongside being listed as a finalist in a few writing competitions has been a boost to my confidence. However, I still feel that I am at the beginning of my writing career; starting to publish with a small portfolio of publications. Contributing to The Cure for Sleep with elements of memoir amid such generosity has been a huge support.
How did you come to join The Cure for Sleep community?
I first 'met' Tanya on Twitter and was fortunate enough to be offered a mentoring conversation with her. I was grappling with an assignment on my Masters where I was writing about the death of my Dad and was finding it extremely painful. Her advice has stayed with me ever since: focus on small moments or scenes and allow yourself time to heal. My contribution to The Cure for Sleep was one of the first things I had published. It took me weeks to pluck up the courage to post, but Tanya’s supportive feedback was a gift and has encouraged me to write more.
Vanessa splits her time between Hertfordshire and the Hebrides. She gave up corporate life during the pandemic, taking the plunge to follow her passion for wildlife. Soon after completing a Masters in Nature and Travel Writing last year, she was announced as Runner-Up in the BBC Countryfile New Nature Writer of the Year competition. She has also been a finalist for the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards 2022 and Save Our Seas Ocean Storytelling Writing Grant 2023.
Follow Vanessa: Twitter | Instagram
explore the story archive
Desire, time, longing, friendship, regret, faith, promises . . .
There are now hundreds of thought-provoking true tales on these themes and more in The Cure for Sleep story archive.
There are several ways to explore it:
By theme - all the stories, organised by monthly prompts
By A to Z - read a single story from each contributor
By name - search for all the stories written by a single author
Thanks for reading The Cure for Sleep with Tanya Shadrick! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
ask me a question…
If you have a question about The Cure for Sleep or writing more generally, do remember that I have an always-open thread for this on my Substack. I always try to give answers with links to further resources that might keep you good company in your own creative journey. Do read through questions asked by other members of the community too, in case there are things of use to you in those, and my answers to them.
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The Parable of the Ladder Maker
Words make formidable fences, rising to tower above us, easily reinforced with yet more words if they prove not to be sufficiently strong.
My parents made their fences from sentences that started “People like us don’t…” and for 14 years I contentedly lived behind those fences, made secure by other words that encouraged me to ‘Work hard at school” and “Look for a good job”. I was never conscious of the contradiction at the heart of that domestic claustrophobia. I was stifled within the fences.
Until I found that beyond the fence there was the possibility of a life spent more easily outdoors. I met people who appeared not to recognise those same fences; who walked, and ran, and climbed, and swam and talked of places that existed only in my dreams. They led me to believe that words could also be used to make ladders, indeed that words were in many ways better suited to fashioning ladders than building fences. I decided to become a ladder-maker.
Suddenly discovering that they had raised a ladder-maker came as a shock to my parents. They raised their fences higher and made impassioned statements “People like us can’t have lives beyond the fence”. I challenged them, showing them my story-ladders, “I met somebody who….”, “It’s really cheap to go….” “I’m reading this book…” My challenges only seemed to provoke them, I had to acknowledge that for some reason they needed the fences that I was trying so hard to leave behind.
Finally, at 16, my story-ladders grew stronger and higher than their fences, I traded the security of their home for the uncertain freedoms of independence, knowing that when I encountered other fences, in other places, my story-ladders were always a means of escape.
Oh, the messages we receive as children! The confusion of them! The stickiness! And let’s be honest, a certain reality of them. The reality of that time, place, family, a state of mind …. One message immediately springs to mind. It was a message from my dad that shaped my early years like no other. It was a meme of my childhood. It was like a sticker with no small print, or a story behind it, or an explanation.
That’s the trouble with memes, they rarely come with a context. They don’t inspire questioning and feeling around them. The message often made me freeze with fear, it kept me quiet, it kept me locked in my bedroom. But also, it kept me reading, dreaming, craving for a better and safer place to be. Ultimately it did lead me to questioning too but that was much later. And acceptance… later still. The message still haunts me and follows me around, but I can look at it with different eyes, because now I can see a bigger picture and a story behind it.
“It takes one second to make the wrong decision. That one second could ruin your whole life”. You can’t really argue with that. I just wish he realised that years of fear can also cause irreparable damage.