I watched a fascinating short you tube video recently about liminal spaces and how they’re used in cinematography and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. The illustrations of films where these concepts are used were interesting, The Trueman show and The shining in particular. But it was the general concept which has hovered around my mind over the last two days, and particularly in relation to living with ME and chronic illness.
The you tube video outlined three forms of liminal space; physical, temporal and emotional, before discussing a form of universal back room liminality. But what is liminality, and why am I obsessing over it? I think it can be most easily understood when thinking about physical transitional spaces: a waiting room, a hotel foyer or hallway. Spaces that are sparse, functional but non-descript, a little creepy perhaps, especially when there is no one there. They aren’t there for any reason other than to transition you from one place to another. You’re not meant to spend time there. I remember growing to love Subway food when I lived in Canada in 2000. When I returned to the UK I was excited to see Subways open up where we lived and I used to grab a sub on the way to work as a lunchtime treat sometimes. But something stuck with me, which a Canadian friend told me about Subway premises… that the dining areas are designed to move you on as quickly as possible. They want people eating their food, but they don’t want people staying for longer than it takes to eat the food and bog off! The mustard patterned wallpaper, bright lighting and only-just comfortable seats were proven to prevent people from wanting to spend any enjoyable time socialising there and so they could maximise customer traffic. You come, you eat and then you leave. Functional. Transitional.
So as Google states, liminality is a state of being on a sensory threshold, or of relating to or being an intermediate state, phase or condition (Merriam-Webster). It’s a state of being between one thing and another.
I often feel like I’m Truman from the Trueman show. If you haven’t seen it, it’s an excellent movie, even if you don’t particularly like Jim Carey. Trueman is a man who discovers that his whole life has been lived within a small geographical area which is all a set, with him as the star of a reality tv show. While I’m not on tv, I am stuck in a pleasant rural physical bubble which has its boundaries at the farthest distance I’m able to drive from our home, which isn’t far. Like Trueman, I’m prevented at every opportunity from leaving the dome around my life.
With ME, at some point in the early stages we find ourselves shoved into a temporal liminal space. A time shift into an in-between life stage, a marker in time. Our bodies become a physical manifestation of the eerie empty hallways of The overlook hotel in the Shining. It could be post viral fatigue, just stay in the empty hallway a little longer, it might pass. As time passes, the horror show becomes more apparent and we’re trapped in a physical space, our home, which we always viewed as a staging post, a base camp for the life we previously lived. Time becomes wibbly wobbly. Hours pass like years but a year passes in the blink of an eye and emotionally every day becomes transitional. We’re transitioning into a heavy PEM/PENE crash, or coming out of one. We’re testing the waters of increased energy and imagining all the possibilities that might be open to us, while knowing the reality, that we’re likely to open a door leading us out of the nightmare only to be faced with another empty hallway, or bigger monsters.
When considering liminality, it feels like living with ME means we’re always on the threshold, but never knowing what’s on the other side. Our lives are reduced to swathes of emptiness, to functionality. There’s mustard coloured wallpaper lining our emotions. We’re not meant to spend time here but despite the odds we exist on abandoned railway platforms and huddle down in the corner of bus shelters.
We see others become stricken with serious physical or mental health conditions, enter their own disorientating liminal space in life, receive treatment and support, make a full recovery and leave the ferry terminal, writing a book about overcoming in the process. And it’s heartbreaking. Not that we’re not happy for them, but that we’re stuck here, running through the lift doors, like Trueman, only to find no lift shaft, but the backstage of a movie set. Genuine recovery for 95% of us is just an illusion. Life with chronic illness leaves us questioning ultimate reality and whether being stuck in the inbetween, in no man’s land, in purgatory, in limbo, a space between life and death is a place in which we really want to exist.
Can we hang on in our liminality long enough? Can we somehow live with the mustard wallpaper, the endless maze of hallways, the train that never comes, in the hope that one day it might.
While we age and we find more white hairs and wrinkles, can we abide the nightmare just long enough to maintain hope that we can journey again? Can we find joy in the small achievements that others take for granted (I swept the floor yesterday, yay?).
In the UK, our government appears to be finally taking a biological model of ME seriously, research is finding that microclots may be responsible for our exhaustion and a large scale DNA research programme is underway. We’re decades behind but things really could change for the better. There may not be a better day ahead, that’s the painful reality of ME. Hope itself is a painful thing. But we can stare the monster down while the crack of light grows brighter. Let’s stare the monster down together, for just another day at least.