'The Mean Reds: an Ode to Maggie Nelson', by Tanya Vavilova

Some reds: crimson, ruby, scarlet, vermillion, carmine, rhubarb, mahogany, hibiscus, burgundy, cranberry, cherry, blood.

My hatred is not academic but visceral, producing a distinct physiological reaction – a pounding heart, sweating, shaking and, in extreme cases, fainting. I wish this were an exaggeration, but what would be the point of that?

Having finished Maggie Nelson’s Bluets – her lyrical and loving meditation on the colour blue, I’ve been thinking about reds. For Nelson, blue is a comforting presence – the curve of the ocean, a clear sky, a china cup, a piece of glass – but the colour is also associated with solitude and sadness.
For me, the colour red fizzes and frightens but, like blue, it, too, has a history, a kaleidoscope of personal associations.

I think I could have left these pages entirely blank, except for the words, “I don’t like the sight of blood.” Because I guess that’s what it comes down to.
And yet, that would be too simple. Lots of people, after all, look away from the nurse’s needle.

Year One. School Hall, St Anne’s Primary, Bondi. I am told to sit with the other children around a table and to press my hands firmly into a hot water bottle. The blue rubber objects are unfamiliar and strange to touch. They move like sea-creatures.
The light is yellow, dusty. It is summer, short sleeves.
I am led around to the corner to the makeshift nurses’ station, under the big windows. I keep my hands hidden behind my back.
The conniving nurse distracts me with the “cream that won’t hurt” – and then she plunges the lancet in! I feel the twinge and watch the red blossom on my thumb, the droplet grow and grow and grow.
The school hall begins to dissolve in a wash of red, everyone talking through tin can telephones.
I let myself fall.

To clear up any misunderstanding, I did not faint – though I do sometimes. I had what is called a psychogenic seizure (also called a “dissociative attack”). It looks like a grand mal seizure to the untrained eye.

Red things: buoys, fire trucks, fire hydrants, fire blankets, stop lights, letter boxes, emergency signs, power and abort buttons. They are red because you are supposed to notice them – and at first glance. The colour signals danger, demands attention.

Which brings me back to blood. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s good to be aware of bleeding. Blood loss can signal serious injury or death. So we’re careful with the rock, with the blade, with the gun. The problem for me is that, on some days, I can’t even cope with a paper cut.

Please do not try to offer me advice. Believe me, I’ve tried it, whatever you’re about to suggest, I’ve tried it.

Year Four. Mary Immaculate Primary, Quakers Hill. We are bunched together on the hard concrete listening to a lecture on safety in sports. The girls are asked to remove their earrings. I see Michelle, the school’s star athlete, remove her gold sleepers, and I see a speck of blood in her pierced ear.
It is a long seizure. I stop breathing. I lose bladder control. I grind my teeth.
The ambulance arrives before my father does. The paramedic wants to take my blood. How can I explain that this will only make it worse?

I let the kids at school assume I have epilepsy. There is a stigma around this too, but at least it’s a condition they’ve heard of.
We don’t talk about any of this at home. My parents are silent, which feels barbaric. In the evenings, we gather on the couch and watch reruns of Seinfeld.

Image by liquidnight. Reproduced under the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Yesterday, I find a bunch of waratahs on the coffee table, wrapped in brown paper. Bright red bulbs, hardy stems. My flatmate loves them. I am starting to like them, too. I guess.

Holly Golightly: You know those days when you get the mean reds?
Paul Varjak: The mean reds. You mean like the blues?
Holly Golightly: No. The blues are because you're getting fat, and maybe it's been raining too long. You're just sad, that's all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you're afraid, and you don't know what you're afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?

Years Seven to Twelve. Cheltenham Girls High. Health class is almost intolerable. We cover illness and disease, reproduction, pregnancy and birth, first aid, substance use. We watch graphic videos of the sick and dying, the drunk and maimed, the down and out. I still remember the VHS we saw of a blonde-haired boy, four or five years old, living with AIDS, his carer taking him to the clinic where they prod and poke, test and drug. He is hooked up to a plump bag of blood. I am drenched in sweat by the time the bell sounds. Fifteen years on, I can still hear his blood-curdling screams.

An angry red canvas used to hang in our living room. My flatmate said she was premenstrual when she painted it. It hung above the couch for months, radiating hatred. She took it with her when she moved out.

Sometimes I housesit for a colleague in Randwick. Above her dining table is a scarlet feature wall. There are also red paintings, red ornaments, red sofas, red cushions, a red rug. Maybe the red, the electric crimson in her house, signifies love and kin. I feel warm and cosy there, though it’s not my place.

On a run around Centennial Park, I spot an ibis on the edge of the oval, the underside of her wing smeared red. I look away, but it’s too late – I’ve already seen it. Later when I tell my psychologist about the ibis, she says, "You know that’s just their colouring."

I am primed to notice reds because of my blood-injury-injection phobia. I am constantly scanning the horizon for cuts, scratches, grazes, scars, bruises, and band-aids.
I cannot look at a puppy with a bandaged paw. But then again, who can?

Four years ago. Hiscoes Gym, Surry Hills. I sign up and I get a free fitness assessment. The stout personal trainer weighs me, prods me with big silver tongs, and gets me up on the exercise bike. “Pedal faster,” he says. I pedal and pedal and pedal. And when he takes my blood pressure, I black out.
Another seizure. Ambulance callout fees. A ban from the cardio equipment.
I lift weights for a while and wait for my membership to expire.

Some more reds: tomatoes, chilli, cherries, poppies, flame trees, autumn leaves, sunsets, magnets, iron oxide, haemoglobin.

When I tell another writer that I’m imitating Maggie Nelson, she assures me that it’s called “remixing.” Still, I feel like a red-faced fraud.

I blush in patches of pinks and reds. “Looks like you’ve got a rash on your neck,” a colleague says to me one morning. I tell him to fuck off.

I keep a rattling bottle of Beta-blockers in my handbag, for off-label use. The tiny buttons are a Crayola-red, perhaps to remind the geriatric user that these pills are for their heart. The colour a child might choose to paint a love-heart.

When I’m in Year Eleven or Twelve, my mother finally tells me that she suffers from seizures too. As does her mother. I have had seizures since I was five years old. Though they are irregular, they have knocked me sideways for days, if not months. How do you keep a child in the dark like that?

When I’m having a seizure, all I see are roving, red images. A film reel of fuzzy shapes at dizzying speed. My eye is the camera shutter. I kick and I scream. On a scale of one to ten, the pain is out of this world.

I have flame-red flashbacks. I see red when waiting at intersections, or walking to work. I hear a faraway voice and suddenly I forget where I am. For a moment, I think I’m having another episode.
When the lights change to green, I force myself to step off the pavement, to join the throng of the fit and strong, and cross the road.
Blood is the stimulus, the seizure the reaction, and the flashback of the seizure god’s joke.

When I am five, I beg my mother to let me pierce my ears. She tells me that it will really, really hurt. Tries to dissuade me (why?). But I guess I must have been persistent because I find myself sitting on a squishy blue bench at the chemist between aisles of vitamins and baby formula, a lady leaning over me. When the gun punctures my right earlobe, I shriek. Even though the lady is nice and gives me a balloon, it takes a long time for anyone to convince me to let her do the other ear.

Unlike other specific phobias, the blood-injury-injection phobia has a genetic component, tending to run in families. Something about the way our bodies are wired – the way our blood pressures soars then suddenly drops, that predisposes us to syncope.

Vampires give me the heebie-jeebies. In school, we had to read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and watch the various adaptations: Count Dracula, Interview with the Vampire, Buffy. When the teacher invited us to her house for a catch-up lesson, I stayed home because with her black, billowy dresses and dark curls, she seemed to me, at least, a textbook case.

Image by tgerus. Reproduced under the Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.

On my twenty-first birthday, my flatmates fill a shiny red box with red fruit, and place it outside my bedroom door. It’s bursting with lychees and rambutans, strawberries, pink mangoes, Corella pears, even a red toffee apple.
We are no longer friends, but thinking of this gift, received all those years ago, takes away some of the bitterness.

I don’t remember the names and faces very well of the people I meet but I can tell you whether or not their ears are pierced and what earrings they were wearing. This information is utterly useless, and only serves to make me anxious.
A childhood phobia that was never nipped in the bud, that simply grew and grew and become this thing that took over a life.

Because my triggers are so diffuse, I cannot plan ahead of time. I simply drink, to soften the edges. Merlot, cabernet, shiraz, malbec, pinot noir, sangiovese.

Three months of last year, I dated a blonde with chipped nails and red knickers torn at the leg. She called me “crazy” and “weird” as in, “I’ve never dated anyone as crazy as you.” For Christmas, she bought me a matching red bangle and ring. And after I popped Christmas crackers and champers with her family, we broke up. There’s a silly photo of us wearing party hats.

My writer friend reminds me about Alfred Hitchcock’s film Marnie. As a child, Marnie struck a sailor with a fireplace poker, killing him, in a mistaken bid to protect her mother. She represses the memory and, in adulthood, develops a sensitivity to the colour red, the red standing in for the blood of the sailor’s wound.

A ladybug zigzags across my hand and, when I tire of her affections, I nudge her onto a nearby fern. I read somewhere that ladybugs are bad to eat (if you are a lizard or bird).

Liz, another psychologist, asks if I’d prefer a world where no one has ears. I tell her I genuinely believe this would solve the problem.
She isn’t convinced that people out there in the real world have red ears or sore-looking ears. I assure her that they do. It’s just that she doesn’t notice.
Another psychiatrist, hairy and mean, tells me there’s something deeper going on. What sagacity!

Red is the blood of martyrs. I used to pray three times a day and keep a beautifully illustrated children’s bible on my bookcase. My favourite story was the one where Noah saves all the animals (I loved, still, love animals, most of all).

Hannah has her period. I say, I don’t care. (Do I mean this?) I am drunk, so is she.
She spreads a bath towel on the bed and gets the strap-on out. It’s big and black, her favourite, kept in a suitcase at the foot of the bed.
Afterwards, our bodies are covered in blood.
We stand in the shower rinsing off, skin stained red, and I watch her blood swirl and pool in the drain. My arms are stretched out wide. I am pretending to be an aeroplane. Why?

My anxiety balloons in public places, and around people. Things are more manageable when I’m in my comfort zone (at home, at her home) or cradling a drink in a safe space (a saggy couch at the pub, three drinks in).

Image by Max Braun. Reproduced under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Liz introduces me to the resident psychiatrist. Allan is tall and dorky, black frames and mussy hair. His veins are thick, spongy, snaking up his arms like tree branches. He makes me touch them.
“Harder,” he says, “really press down.”
And then I have to touch my own veins.
The ones that are the worst are on the inside of my wrists; they feel so fragile and exposed. Allan tells me they’re as strong as car tyres. I try to believe him.

When I imagine having an orgasm, I picture the colour red. I see reds leap and pirouette. Maybe, I’m just looking at the inside of my eyelids under the lamplight in my room.
Anyway, I’ve never had an orgasm. But I imagine orgasms are red, bright and hot.

I order a self-help book online: The Ultimate Guide to Orgasm for Women. There are four and a half pages on ‘Anorgasmic Women’ like Rita who “with her strong and analytical mind, is probably fairly typical of the kind of women who do not easily let go into orgasm.” I pay thirty-five dollars for this gem.

I cut my own wrists, once or twice. The cuts are superficial; little pink scratches, really. I think I do it for the attention (no one notices).
Everyone always says they do it for the attention.

The room is clinical, bare. A table, two chairs. A computer in the corner, a clock above it. A generic print on the wall – a harbour or a sailboat or something like it to soothe the deranged.
Liz arranges tiny squares of paper on the desk. When I’m ready, I flip them over one by one. Black and white cartoon drawings of syringes – different shapes, different angles, but all tiny, about the size of five or ten cent pieces. My job is to look at them, to ride out the anxiety.
I feel like an ice-cream cone melting on the pavement.
This process is called graded exposure.
Eventually, I’ll be able to handle a real syringe.
(For what?)

If I’m being honest, the colour red is only a problem in relation to bodies, to skin and blood. I do not like red nail polish or red jewellery or red lingerie.
But I do not mind a red coat, for example.

In the clinic, I watch Allan give injections to Liz. I watch him draw her blood, week after week. I know I am next; I understand where this is going.
I ask if I can sit on the floor, lean against a wall, be close to the earth. Allan says, “Ok, but eventually you’ll need to sit on the chair.”

A friend and I are crossing an intersection in Surry Hills, holding our takeaway lunch containers from About Life.
“Is that a red dot on your ear?” she asks.
“Yeah. It’s just pen.”
“I’m de-sensitising myself to bleeding ears.”
We both laugh, but I know she understands. Out of everyone, she gets it. She has her own weird shit too.

Artwork 'Staircase III' by Do-Ho Suh. Photograph in the public domain.

Sometimes when crossing the road, I am stunned by the pointlessness of everything.
Why not just lie down in the middle of the pavement, I think to myself. What colour is that?

The lines of Robert Herrick’s poem, “To the virgins, to make much of time” come back to me. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, he implores. We are here for a good time not a long time. But who, here, is having a good time?

When I was growing up, Cadbury ran some effective ads for Roses assorted chocolates. The blue box adorned with red and yellow flowers was a way to say, “thank you very much, thank you very very very much” to anyone for anything: washing the car, doing the dishes, giving the dog a bath. (I never got one.)

When I go back downstairs, the coffee table is bare, the waratahs are gone. I wonder if I imagined them. Are they in a vase in someone’s room by the window? Are they in the trash? Clutched by someone smiling ear to ear? I think of replacing them but suspect this might be the equivalent of buying oneself roses.

Tanya Vavilova works with university students from all walks of life as a case manager and program coordinator. She writes about obsession, identity and intimacy - and other things that embarrass or keep her up at night.