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Eli Harriss

A Self-Portrait

 

When I was 17, I read the blurb in the Cambridge prospectus for the Archaeology and Anthropology degree, and I fell in love. I knew instantly that that was what I wanted to do. I loved watching ‘Time Team’ on Sunday afternoons, and I did a week of archaeology outside in a field midway between Milton Keynes and Northampton very shortly after my 17th birthday, one week in late August, in an effort to be a hit at the college interview for the BA. I loved the people who ran the site, Pat and Jon, and I loved being outside all week. The small of my back got burned from where my tshirt didn’t quite cover the gap between the bottom of the T-shirt and my jeans, it was so sunny and lovely. On the Friday night, three of us ‘girls’ went out on the town in MK, which was an education. I nearly got thrown out of a bar because I evidently looked underage. We saw this rubbish horror film which scared the pants off me. For a long time, on the bus ride between Oxford and Cambridge, I got all sentimental and thoughtful when the bus went past the various places I’d visited with Abby and the other girl (after five years, I’ve completely forgotten her name). It was a week for growing up, as I was camping in a site all by myself which was rather exciting, and there was nothing to do after a day’s work in the field but to listen to a lot of Radio 4 on my walkman.

That degree has changed my life. I ended up ‘specialising’ in Social Anthropology, which is the ‘comparative study of human cultures’, which I’m now noticing is important simply for cultural awareness between the different students on my course. I became interested in mental health for two reasons: firstly, my own problems, (especially in those terrible first two terms of my first year); and secondly, when I met an acquaintance of my mother’s who is bipolar and who was part of an online discussion community, made up of bipolar people and their carers/ family. The piece of work that I did as a result of my ‘participant-observation’ among that community has led to my interest in media-based interventions for people with mental illnesses, which is why I’m doing the particular masters degree that I’m enjoying so much now. I’m proud of the work that I do. If I get the ‘bug’ to do a doctorate, if and when I find something really really interesting, I’ll apply for the money to spend three years of my life working in a university department, enjoying the culture of that setting, whilst also working in a mental health context, which is challenging and wonderful in so many other ways. That’s the plan. Else I’ll go to Australia and get a research-based job.

I feel very young at 22, despite all the heavy stuff I’ve been through in those 22 years (3 Ds: Divorce, Death, Depression).

I don’t feel that I’ve lived long enough to get a grasp of how my priorities have changed over the years. I guess my priorities have always been set out for me, in terms of what I should be doing with my life, and then seeing friends and family, prioritising going to the cinema with my mother in 1999 instead of going out with my friends because she was now a widow and needed someone to play with on a Friday night. I try to be a well-rounded person, again, partly because of my background (in which a well-rounded life meant doing the school work, doing some exercise, such as going to tap-dancing lessons, playing the violin for good cognitive development, and then seeing my Dad and stepmother at the weekend because when else would I/ we see them?)

My priorities are limited to my MSc, volunteering and cleaning at the Mill on the Cowley Road, keeping in touch with a few friends, and making sure I get to go to the pub at least twice a week. I have to prioritise the MSc though, and ‘work’, because I really do want to get a decent and nice research job or project to run this time next year, primarily, (so I tell strangers), so that I can move out of home and live elsewhere, but possibly also so that I can gain the transferable skills which will enable me to get a job, any job, in Australia. Australia and my family there, who I met on a month-long visit this year, are also a new priority.

Apart from some friends and family, I definitely prioritise my cat in life at the moment. I missed him horribly when I was in India earlier this year and when I was in Australia. So if, and when, I move from home again, I’ll have to think about What to Do about Nelson. I could see him at home when I visit my mother… My mother thinks that the cat actually feels true ‘love’ for me. It’s not just self-interested, ‘I’m hungry, and this person usually feeds me and cuddles me, oh yummy massage, so I’ll ask this person for attention and food’, it’s real love. I didn’t notice him pining away for me when I was in India though. At least, my mother didn’t write to me to tell me that he was off his food, etc. 

My grandmother died on Monday 10th October 2005 after becoming rather demented in her last few months. She was incredibly important to me. I miss her. Despite still grieving after Granny’s death, I must say that I am very very lucky. I have never lacked or suffered… and I don’t want to think or talk about this matter right now. Crap stuff has happened to me as well as good stuff: death, divorce of parents when I was little, and several years of depression have meant that whenever I see a new counsellor, which happens about once a year on average now, they say: you need help. But do I really? I’m trying to get through without needing anyone in that way at the moment. I have a friend I can ring for this stuff, and many other friends to talk about life more generally with.

I was in India on the coast near Chennai last Boxing Day when the tsunami struck and so I got to see a disaster at first hand. I felt truly lucky then. My own situation living with a family in their flat in a small town, working for the parents, was precarious, but at least they did look after me and I had enough money to supplement my diet with biscuits. Those people, and the orphans in Mamallapuram we went to see, they didn’t have much in material terms, maybe, but they were incredibly impressive in other ways. Amazing.

A lot of the job ads I’ve been looking at lately mention that they’re open for all applicants, and especially with jobs working with different ethnic communities, that’s fair enough. But I still feel like being small, white, and female is a disadvantage. I’ve felt like this ever since I was 10, going to see my Dad with my sister in Nepal, in Kathmandu, when he was working there for Save the Children, and we got stared at a lot and that’s when I first noticed the lack of freedom I had in that city. It would have been dangerous, maybe, if we’d been able to wander the streets by ourselves, as at the very least I would’ve gotten lost. But the idea of myself as being little, white and female has remained with me for the last 12 years at least.

*** Eli on loneliness:

I’m used to being lonely. I felt incredibly lonely in India earlier this year. So alone and isolated. By then, though, I was used to loneliness. I felt lonely for most of my three years at university. I hated and yet loved my little room in Cambridge, which was my only space in that entire town. Everyone else in my college was having a loud and happy, fun time, and very often I’d be alone in my room watching telly feeling miserable because I didn’t have anyone to play with and I felt like no-one wanted to play with me. But then even when I lived at home, especially doing my A levels, I loved being in the house by myself. I still do it: I sing along with The Divine Comedy on the stereo in the kitchen, cook for myself and feel happy that I don’t have to worry about anyone else. I’m happy then.

There’s a line in a Divine Comedy song: There is nothing as frightening as being alone. When I was really quite ill with depression in my first year, I’d repeat that line obsessively to myself. I’d love to have someone to share my life with. I’ve tried a few times with close male friends, but those relationships have fallen through and ended most painfully and so now I don’t really trust anyone to come close enough. Plus I’m still dealing with the death of my grandmother at the moment, as well as some horrendous news about the death of a friend’s little brother, which means that I’m all over the place in my own head at the moment. One might say that this is not a normal time for me, which makes this portrait all the more important for being a snapshot of the present Eli.

*** Eli on love:

Obsessive love, family love, sexual love… I dunno really. It’s a tricky one. I have been ‘in love’ with maybe even four different people during the last four years. One of them was a girl. Two of them I’m not entirely ‘over’ yet, for reasons I cannot fathom.

I thought my stepfather had died without me telling him that I love him. Then I remembered, and this was when I was 14, that I’d ended phone conversations with him with those words, and that he’d blatantly known it. I wish he wasn’t dead. I miss him. Why do all these people keep dying in my life? Maybe I’m feeling rather insecure because of that. Or maybe, yes, death is part of all of our lives, and those poor people who lost families in New Orleans, or during the recent Pakistani earthquake, or during the tsunami… My friend Sam, who lost his brother.

I relate love to death, apparently, considering this flow of consciousness. I relate loving Mark still, and the regret of the Drew relationship with losing people. That’s me. Horrendous.

Only recently have I and my friends started to say that we love each other. These are girls who I’ve known and been close to for the last six years, and it’s sweet that I can tell them that I love them. I like that.

Love is unfair, love is a chemical reaction in the brain committing two people together for at least as long as it takes to ‘make’ and then raise a baby for its first few years of life. More loving in my life would be nice…

*** Eli on tastes and the sixth sense:

What’s this sixth sense rubbish? I associate that with Bruce Willis!

Tastes… I still dislike tomatoes, avocados, erm… I love fried onions, raw carrots, baked potatoes, sweets, red wine, all those kinds of flavours, but not at once. I like to wear perfume but usually forget to put it on. I like the touch of my cat’s fur, and I’m trying to think of something I own that’s ‘soft’, just because my mate Jenny always likes my ‘soft’ coats etc. She liked one so much that I gave it to her. I like baths too, which is quite a recent thing for me: lying in a bath reading a fashion magazine. Yummy.

I don’t cultivate my tastes in the sense that I’ll go and buy some posh cheese and think that I’m being all fancy. I did discover brie last year or the year before and got addicted to cheese and biscuits. My tastes actually haven’t changed that much lately, only I discovered Guinness when in Dublin around my birthday this summer and now I order a pint of that instead of lager when I’m in a pub.

*** Eli on: men and women. Gender:

Men leave. That’s my experience. Men leave.

It all depends, culturally etc. In the rural area of northern Tamil Nadu, where I lived and worked for five months, I learned to hate the way that men and women treat each other. I’m basically still slightly scared of men anyway, and seeing women whose husbands had tried to kill them, and who had scars all over their arms, or worse, their throats… Where do I stand on the issue of Gender? Men are bastards, but can also be lovely wonderful amazing creatures. Women can be bossy and seemingly powerful, or meek and vulnerable people. As I consider myself to be very much ‘work in progress’, I’m sure my opinions and behaviour will change as soon as something interesting happens to me. It’s not just a matter of penis = male; vagina = female, or of ‘gender’, that grey area between the extremes of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. The way people treat people is shocking, the way that women still earn less than men for doing the same frigging job is shocking.

Let me tell you something that still amazes me. I was in a village about this time last year, and had been told to interview some women about ‘their lives’. The lovely lady translating my rushed questions reported back that whereas the men can earn up to 100 rupees for a day’s labour in the fields or whatever, the women can only earn up to 30 rupees, apparently ‘simply’ because they’re women, because of their sex. As I probed further, it turned out that it takes about 100 rs per day to feed the average family, and yet as that money earned by the male of the household is usually drunk away, the woman of the house is left with 30 rs to feed them. Which isn’t enough. Mind you, if I was living in those villages, I’d drink a lot. But I don’t, and I don’t have the responsibility of having my own family to feed yet, so I’m left still marvelling that the men allow their families to go hungry.

*** Eli on fear:

I’m scared of being alone. I’m terrified of death. I used to think that I’d never be able to work and earn money, but I’m no longer all that afraid, as I soon found in my teens that people would pay me to waitress etc, or play with their data on the computer. I have a lot of family-related fears. Guilt, too.

I have a huge fear that I’ll lose my mind. During the last few months before Granny died, she became increasingly demented, and we ‘lost’ her in the sense that nothing she said made much sense anymore, and it was bloody difficult to have conversations and engage with her. Ever since I was 17 and had a huge panic attack thing during my A level exams, and lost it on a number of occasions, I’ve had recurrences of this and the incidents always leave me scared. Last week, for example, I didn’t get any lunch at work and so couldn’t take my antidepressant at the usual time, and I noticed that by 3pm I was getting really quite paranoid, upset, anxious, and it was very scary. It took a sandwich, two doughnuts, some tea and Neighbours to calm me down. It was horrible.

I guess my fears have increased over the years, in different ways. Well, my ability to handle with bad situations as well as myself varies from day to day, so one can never tell how one will respond, or whether one will stay awake til 3 or 4am in the morning worrying endlessly, needlessly.

I’m terrified of being rejected.

*** Eli on learning:

I’m learning lots at the moment. I have to learn to actually read all the papers I photocopy in the library though. I wish I knew a bit more about philosophy, lots more about psychology and psychiatry, a little more about politics, some more on British and world history, and I will endeavour to learn all I can this year about my course.

I generally dislike learning about myself, getting feedback from people or from those online test things, because I feel that I know it already and so it’s boring, or else I feel antagonistic towards the resulting information.

I love learning about my family. My Australian family history. Not the recent stuff, because most of it isn’t very happy and raking up the recent past once again doesn’t do all that much good, I’ve found.

No. I don’t always love learning about my family. I learned something about one friend flirting with another friend recently and that made me feel disgusted with myself because I’m such a stupid innocent person. I don’t usually see the subtexts in a context. I see what I want to see, and then I discover that I’m wrong and get all upset about it. I feel deceived. And that makes me distrust people even more and not want to know them anymore. To protect myself. Why should I get hurt again? Once, surely, is enough?

Sometimes I want to bury myself away in my bed and not learn anything new. I can’t cope with the world at these times. I don’t want to know. I don’t want anyone else to know about me. It all changes in a flash. I find something out about someone, and suddenly I don’t want to know them anymore. It hurts too much.

*** Eli on travel:

Travel has made my life more interesting, I don’t know about whether it’s made me a more interesting person. I’ve been lucky to be able to visit countries in Eastern Europe, France, Zambia, India, Australia. All those carbon dioxide emissions is a terrible thing to own up to, but the trips were educational and important for my own happiness. It was wonderful to visit Melbourne, Alice Springs, Brisbane and Sydney in Oz earlier this year and to meet all my distant relatives. I’d like to live and work in Australia, maybe even as soon as autumn of next year, if I can get a job.

*** Eli’s final word:

What I think I need now to make my life at least feel complete is a more intimate relationship with someone nice. Some weeks are much better than others in terms of my depression, and when things are good, I’m quite contented. I would like to continue to meet all different kinds of interesting people and share experiences with them, learn from them, hang out in pubs. I think that’s all I want right now. To have decent relationships with my family, to maintain the bonds with my Australian family, to enjoy my course and the people in the university, to dance Tango on Friday nights, to go to the cinema as often as possible, and to keep working at the Mill. That all sounds pretty cool to me.

November 2005