Saturday 16 May 2015

Girl in the Dark

Imagine yourself forced to live in total darkness. Not the normal curtains-pulled sort of night-time darkness, but total, impenetrable blackness, so dark that you must feel your way around. That’s what happened to Anna Lindsey (a pseudonym) when she developed a severe sensitivity to all forms of light, natural and artificial. Exposure to light, however small or dim, caused excruciating pain, as if her skin were being burned by a blowtorch.

Girl in the Dark is her account of how life changed. It’s not a misery memoir. Although Lindsey admits she gets depressed – and has even, on occasions, thought of suicide – generally she remains upbeat, and her book is both uplifting and life affirming. She is no longer angry about her condition, and she has stopped seeking reasons or answers. She explains: “‘Why me?’ is the question of an idiot. The sensible person says simply, ‘Why not?’”
Girl In The Dark: Anna Lindsey's beautiful, moving
account of living with a severe sensitivity to light.
As her photosensitivity worsened, her world contracted to a single blacked-out room in the house of her boyfriend (now her husband). “It is extraordinarily difficult to black out a room,” she tells us.  

“First I line the curtains with blackout material, a heavy, plasticky fabric, strange flesh-like magnolia in colour, not actually black. But the light slips in easily, up and over the gap between the rail and the wall, and at the bottom through the loops made by the hanging folds. 

“So I add a blackout roller blind, inside the window alcove. But the light creeps in around the sides, and shimmies through the slit at the top. 

“So I tackle the panes themselves. I cut sheets of cooking foil, press them against the glass, tape them to the window frames. But the foil wrinkles and rips, refuses to lie flat. Gaps persist around the edges, pinpricks and tears across the middle.” 

Eventually, with curtains, blind, layer upon layer of foil and tape, and a rolled towel along the crack at the bottom of the door, she has blackness. But even that is not enough. To protect her skin from light rays that cannot be seen, but can still be felt, she must cover herself from head to toe in an assortment of garments, discovering through trial and error that some materials and styles are a more effective barrier than others. 

The room is small, but when she is first in the dark she often gets lost, for ‘the darkness can cause disorientation that is total, and terrifying’. She develops strategies to cope and listens to audio books and Radio 4 – plays, readings, debates, current affairs but, to start with at any rate, not music. At the beginning music ‘unhinges’ her, reminds her of what she has lost. 

And she plays word games in her mind, sometimes on her own, sometimes with visitors. Most tricky is the word grid, five squares by five, forming five letter words down and across - difficult enough when you have pen, paper and light, but well nigh impossible without them.

During the 10-year period covered by the book Lindsey has periods of remission when she is able to emerge from her room and venture to other heavily veiled parts of the house. In semi-darkness she cooks and reads, and is even able to creep outside in the dark. There are some memorable moments, like a night-time walk in the garden in the falling rain. She tells us:

“From the crown of my hat to the toes of my boots, an indescribable thrill runs through me. I stand poised at the edge of the lawn, and my starved senses open to this delicious, half-forgotten joy... 

I let myself be soaked. Like a young plant, I let myself be watered well in. It is as though I am being kissed by the world, welcomed back to life.” 
Roses at Montisfont. (Pic from National Trust website)
And on another occasion Mottisfont, a National Trust property near her home, arranges an extra-late midsummer opening so she and her husband can visit the walled rose garden. As they go through the door the smell ‘wallops’ them in the face. 

“It is as though we have passed from air to some new substance, formed of a thousand interlocking scents that twist languorously about each other, like invisible smoke.” 

It’s a magical interlude and as they leave she says: 

“…on the inside of my eyelids I carry with me the imprint of glorious flowers, and in my nostrils, the ghosts of their perfume.” 

It’s a shadowy sort of existence, and timings become all important during her good spells: her life is ruled by sunsets and sunrises. A photographic light meter helps track the amount of light she can tolerate. For example, f1 is almost dark; f4 is more or less when street lights come on; f8 is the sun just above horizon on a clear day. Light levels at noon are f200 plus, which she cannot cope with. She is, she says, ‘nibbling at the edges of the day’.  

Sadly, these periods of remission are all too brief, and she is always forced to retreat back to the sanctuary of her dark room. She looks back on them, grateful for the respite, but never lets herself hope for more, because she is unsure they will ever be repeated. 

Girl in the Dark is very moving, and very lyrical. Lindsey writes with great warmth and lucidity, and is able to consider her consider her situation and analyse her feelings in way which reveals more general truths about humanity. It made me laugh and cry - moments of high drama and intense sadness and despair are juxtaposed alongside interludes full of joy, and almost farcical episodes, for Lindsey retains her sense of humour, and is well aware how ludicrous her life can seem.  

Reading it took me on an emotional journey which left me exhausted, and I cannot begin to envisage what it must be like for Lindsey to live like this. Yet she seems to have achieved a degree of serenity, a feeling that what will be will be, and she is thankful for small pleasures in life. I was left with the feeling that we should all put a higher value on things we take for granted, like the feel of rain, the smell of a flower, the warmth of the sun – and having enough light to sit and read a book.

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