Thursday, 26 April 2012

Let's Talk About The Dark, Part 3: Eric Maisel and An Existential Solution Suggestion

If you made it this far into this little series about being sad, well done and hello!!

Quick re-cap: Part 1 of this series told you the story of me and why I get depressed, how it feels, how I feel about it.  A personal tale, partial and leaving out loads of things, as any story will, not perfect; a human told it.  Part 2 had a quick investigation into the ‘medicalisation’ of some of our ills, and the labelling we accept from the medical profession, and those that benefit by them.  Whether these labels are useful or not.  This related to a segment at the start of Eric Maisel’s new book, Rethinking Depression, which is what has prompted this little series of mine.  I’ll return to the topic of labelling and its usefulness or not briefly, at the end of this post. 

This is the segment where I tell you a little bit about Eric Maisel’s ideas for how to cope with feeling sad, and how to live a better, more authentic life.  The clue as to where this will be going is in the word ‘authentic’ – it’s the catchword of Existentialists.  Existentialism is a philosophical line of thought; remember Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, France after the Second World War?  Ever read Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, heard of the Theatre of the Absurd?

The key idea of Existentialists is that there is no meaning to life and the universe other than what you give it yourself, what you make for yourself.  In your attempts to make a life of meaning, your own meaning for yourself and true to your own personality, you are attempting to create an Authentic Life. This is – clearly – an atheist philosophy; you’ll find no god concept here. (Though interestingly, did you have a partiality to a god or two, I think you can work this philosophy fine alongside any faith you have, working along the simple idea that my nanna told me, and all your nannas told you: God helps those who help themselves.  Pray to God sailor, but row for the shoreEnd of aside for anyone of faith.)   

Sitting about, feeling rather confused and down and thinking: ‘Why am I here?  What’s it all for?  Does anything I do count for anything at all?  What’s my place in the universe?’  is a valid Existential angsty moment (or decade or two if you get really stuck with this)…Their answers would likely be versions of, as Eric Maisel would put it:
The most important shift for the contemporary person to make is the…shift from the despairing “Why do I exist?” to the bracing “I exist”.  She must stop pestering herself with the unanswerable questions that plague her […] and accept as her mantra “I am alive”. […]  We opt to really live the twenty years or the sixty years ahead of us.  This may be all that we have, but it is exactly what we have.  As nineteenth century philosopher Richard von Schubert-Soldern aphoristically put it, “To understand life, we must contrast it with death”.  We force life to mean because we are alive and not dead.  We force life to mean until death releases us from our responsibility to live authentically.  We say, “While I am alive, I can love”.  We say “While I am alive, I can learn a few things”.  We say, “While I am alive, I can create”.  We live authentically because we can. (pp.78-79)

Why would trying to live ‘authentically’ help a person feeling down?  What would an authentic life entail, what does it even bloody mean?!  I’ll set out Eric Maisel’s suggestions of an authentic life for you, with a small explanation of each, which will answer these questions, as we go along.  Now bear in mind and keep it there – this is a PHILOSOPHY book.  It might help you, you might find it in the Self Help or Psychology section of the bookshop, but I find the best thing about this, is that it’s a philosophy book.  It’s a way of thinking about stuffs in life that relates to the Real World, and action you can take there.

You Look Life in the Eye (pp.63-67) and You Decide to Matter (pp.75-81)
Basically, for anyone who has a love of film and pop-culture references, this is the metaphorical taking of that pill in The Matrix, and seeing that life is tatty and grey and really unattractive – and preferring the stunted nature of how things do actually seem to be than the shiny leather kung-fu lies of the Matrix illusion, because if you know the truth of the universe as you see it[1]: you can begin to work within it purposefully, to change your world for the better, according to values you will decide upon.  Your actions will mean something, because they mean something To You.  The first thing to do, he suggests, is to accept that things can be quite crap, regularly – for anyone.  Life can be horribly unfair, and our own and everyone else’s motivations are complex and ethically suspect, often (p.66).  He agrees it may not be less painful to admit to our failings than to deny them and feel (falsely) better (p.65).  A double-edged sword.  The thing is – I would say that most chronically sad people see this sort of reality anyway – and are badly confused at a lot of other people’s avoidance and denial of it.  So it’s a cheery message really:  Life IS terribly hard, you were right!!  Let’s accept you were right about all that pain around the place and the universe not caring about you or anyone in particular, and move on from that starting point (p.75).  Not going to argue with you about it…

You Investigate Meaning (pp.69-73)
If you are down and have decided to look life in the eye, and acknowledge all the sadness and awfulness around us – as well as all the beauty and joy – you may still feel that it’s all futile and meaningless.  But if you don’t try and have a go at making some meaning for yourself (are you not bored of waiting for it to come upon you, all this time??), he suggests you ‘will likely remain confused about and estranged from life’ (intro points, p.57).   He defines meaning as ‘what we value, how we construe our life purposes, what we make of the facts of [our] existence’, and he makes clear this will be ‘entirely subjective’ to each individual (p.71).  I would add that actions are never futile, they just sometimes don’t have the intended results, but trying is better than not trying for your sense of self worth, right?  Futility and meaninglessness are not the same thing.  What means something for one person (he gives an example of ‘watching ducks’ hopping about for an hour in the park (p.72) – something I would find very meaningful, cos I like that sort of nature watching), will have zero meaning for another.  Start to try and find things that mean something just for you, and try to populate your life with more of them.

 You Accept Your Obligation to Make Meaning (pp.83-88)
He points out that faced with a decision to make personal meaning most people opt out in some way, choosing religion, selfish hedonism, indifference, obsessive seeking or simply crumbling into despair at the mammoth nature of the task (p.84).  He suggests that maybe people stumble so early because they feel arrogant at making their own meanings: we have had other people’s meanings pushed onto us all our lives.  He suggests that thinking of it as an ‘honourable’ thing to do, to live by principles you have decided on, is a better way, and need not suggest a superiority of attitude to anyone else (p.85).  He makes the incredibly relevant point that ‘we object to a universe where meaning has to be made’ for ourselves (p.86, my italics), and where it will, by that nature, never be settled once and for all – it will shift as we learn and live (p.88).  And linked to that, that it’s very hard work, and ‘we know ourselves too well’: we will let ourselves down and constantly – which will generate massive anxiety (pp.86-87).  He suggests that we view it as the ‘epic’ story of our lives, the ‘loving work of self-creation’(p.87) – if you think that sounds pompous, could it be because you don’t think you deserve to matter, only other people do? Why not just try and see, and keep trying – we already, all us sad people, know what it feels like to give up, get up, try again, give up, get up, try again…

You Decide How to Matter (pp.89-96)
This section is quite vital, and is about how you make decisions in your life, acknowledging that you often have whole cartloads of semi-conscious desires and prejudices within you as you do so, so that there is no such thing as a pure intellectual, or even pure emotional decision – there is just trying to do the right thing as you see it, at any time.  He describes it like this:
You weigh your actions against a vision you have of the person you would like to be, the person it would make you proudest to be; you take action, you learn from your experience to what extent you guessed right; and you make use of what you’ve learned as you weigh your next decision.  We can give this a shorthand name: the principle of personal pride.  You use the principle of personal pride to make your meaning.  This may be the beautiful, imperfect, harrowing way – the way of making meaning. (p.96)
(Me speaking to sad people:  This idea should work, I reckon, even in nasty twisty decision scenarios, for the reasons I give in footnote 1 – that you can only ever work with the info you have at the time, if mistakes are made due to lack of information or due to misjudging information all you can do is learn: becoming mired in a pit of blaming yourself is understandable, should an error occur, but you need to try and tease yourself out, and look clearly again.  The next decision awaits, as does your life, of course.  You will learn, and sometimes having learned is all you can take from a situation that has harmed you greatly.)

You Negotiate Each Day (pp.163-168)
I personally, hate any Trying To Help Me book, that gives me loads of good ideas, but then leaves me there, like the real world and its constant demands aren’t something that will really bother me, now I have reached a higher level of perception.  This book doesn’t do that.  This is a lovely chapter – and it gives many examples and many different sorts of choices you can make for each single day, be it working day or free day, or a mixture.  From the minute you get up to the minute you sleep it gives you ideas on how to get through that day without feeling so wan and despairing, if you do feel that way:
Each day is a special sort of negotiation.  You make decisions about where you will invest meaning, how you will handle activities that hold no particular meaning, when you will take your vacations from meaning, and so on.  You make a daily bargain with yourself that if you hold to your intentions you will find no reason to doubt the meaningfulness of that day. […]  You do not aim for some unattainable perfection. […]  You accept that you need daily vacations from “the whole meaning thing” [as well as] adamantly demanding of yourself that you put in that hard hour …doing the thing that you’ve been avoiding, because that is your prime meaning-making activity on that day. (p.163)

I think these chapters are the core of the book – the rest is incredibly useful elaboration on these ideas, and back-ups, things to help you integrate the ideas into your life more and more closely, with many specific scenarios and examples for thinking with.  There is quite stringent help on how to formulate values without feeling you are contradicting yourself or not allowing for wants and needs as well, for example (pp.97-104).  Prepare to really feel like your head is getting bent trying to work that one through! I ended up questioning some values I thought I held (and I have few, very few), and adding some I really did not think I had sympathy with (oddly, things make a bit more sense with them in the mind-mix).  As usual, all these things are provisional, we’ll see how they go. 

There’s a section on pages 125-8, in the section on You Focus on Meaning Rather than Mood, which describes quite heart-breakingly why we can feel so constantly up against the experience of ‘the void’ in our daily lives, despite all our scientific progress and civil society: its almost poetic.  He suggests that because we are so used to this experience of scary disappointment, and the ‘taking the temperature’ of ourselves (p.128), checking in on our moods and seeing it as ‘bad’ during these moments, that we have slipped into a sort of trance, ‘convinced that an unlived life is less painful than reality’ (p.129).  A trance where we live only half awake, because it’s the only bearable way to get through, say, a dead-end job (or even a great job that just isn’t satisfying us anymore – the guilt!!).  The trance is aided by the advertisements coming at us all the time, trying to get us to buy something, the lifestyles we see on TV or film, all over the place (on p.131 is an absolutely brilliant rant against advertisers).  He makes it clear, as he does throughout the book that you need to rebel, against trance and culturally induced desires for unimportant things (my friend Mr Hooting Yard would call this The Man), against allowing all that to constantly derail you in your attempts to live life by your own principles.  Earlier, he says:
This is the dynamic, unavoidable tension that adds unwanted stress to every contemporary person’s life: even as she is poised on the brink of meaninglessness, she must repeatedly fight her way back to meaning (p.79).

He gives several chapters of attention to how to fight back if you feel your meanings slipping – how to get it back; or make new meaning for yourself: to understand it’s not a static thing – you will grow and change, and so will your ideals, and your meanings you make (pp.169-206).  It reads both fierce and calming. 

My thoughts on all this are twofold.  Firstly, to live life authentically, that is, true to whatever you have personally decided is important for you, is going to be utterly uphill – because it involves going against the grain of our society which is all (outwardly) about working, acquiring, competing, celebrity and money.  I think those of us that have become depressed, sad, whatever: I don’t think all these things are working for us anymore anyway.  I know I wish they did; I have many times wished to be stupid and quiescent and living a quieter life!!  But they aren’t, so trying to think clearly, when we can, is I reckon, a good start, and trying some of the tools for trying to become closer to the person you wish yourself to be are surely better than just giving up on life?  Surely worth a go?  It can’t be a bad thing to try and be that change you want to see in the world, as Gandhi said, just starting with yourself, surely?  (And remember, for those of you out there allergic to the idea of self-help – this is a sodding philosophy book!)

Secondly, to return to the issue of ‘Depression’ as a label and whether it’s helpful or not.  I asked Eric Maisel some quite raw and open questions on how to cope with my feelings of isolation and overwhelmedness some days as a mother alone at home with a demanding toddler.  I confess, I was expecting answers along the lines of, ‘on days where you feel xx levels of anxiety and sadness, possibly you could try [insert various strategies here, that are in the book].’  ‘And on days where you feel worse, possibly these ones might be of help’.  ‘And on the worst days, maybe to get right back to basics, possibly remembering just this or this might help’.  What he actually said, was that he had had a fantastic time raising his two children at home as a house-husband, and didn’t ‘understand the question’.  His answers were well-meaning and said in a spirit of kindness, but they underlined something that has occurred to me more and more when I think about ‘depression’.

It’s about EMPATHY.  Though Eric Maisel had been in a similar (not the same, note, as he is him and I am me!) situation to me – rearing children at home, mostly alone; because he himself had navigated this challenge very successfully (he produced both personal meaning and a body of work in that time-frame), he was for some reason unable to mentally step into my shoes, and inhabit my experience of this same challenge as different from his own.  This despite many examples of him stating in the book that people view situations very differently, and that circumstances can appear great on the outside and yet still you feel sad.  He did not see that I felt very lost sometimes, and suggested I view my ideas about ‘proper parenting’ and ‘proper house-management’ differently, to allow more time for creation (my writing).  The suggestions were valid and practical, but not talking to the spirit of desperation I had attempted to convey, for when I am very sad and anxious.  I know I am not the only woman who finds child-rearing at home very hard sometimes, exhausting and weirdly unsatisfying, despite having chosen this role freely.  I felt very cast down.  I admire the man’s work; I find his books very helpful.  And yet, on communicating with him, I found him unable to meet me where I was inside, and engage with me there, however briefly. 

This is just a shade, a reminder of the way that people who get sad feel when they try and explain this to other people.  I think it’s likely that the reason the population of Western society were so eager to have the word ‘depression’ replace the word ‘unhappiness’ in our vocabularies, was the lack of empathy and compassion they experienced from others.  We wouldn’t have needed a medical definition of sadness, made respectable with the word ‘depression’, if we were ALL more empathic to one another and didn’t discount each others sorrows and difficulties as unimportant or un-understandable.  Empathy is incredibly important.  The reason depression is a helpful label sometimes, for some people, is because it provides them a validation of their feelings and their existence as they are experiencing it in a way other people in their lives have not.  It gives them a starting point to dealing with their sorrow.  I am here, oh – where do I go from here, how?

And that, along with the proviso that as long as you can think clearly enough that day to try and read, this book may be of great help to you, is that.  It doesn't matter that my personal communication with Eric Maisel did not feel as successful for me as I would have hoped, in the end.  I’ll give him the last proper word – this is what I would have said to me perhaps, as a start, were I him…but it's there already in his book, so I have it anyway:
It makes no sense to suppose that a creature with consciousness could always feel happy.  It is absurd and telling that as a society we think unhappiness is an embarrassing, inappropriate emotion. (p.49)
Maybe we feel trapped by a life that sounds all right in the expressing but that feels dark, stressful, and ordinary in the living. (p.51)
Some endeavours, such as service [here think motherhood, me!], are indeed regularly experienced as meaningful…But they are not intrinsically meaningful.  They are only meaningful when they are experienced as meaningful. (p.70)
You can’t make all the meaning you want.  You can’t provide yourself with a continual experience of meaningfulness.  Authenticity is not like a ladder you climb…where one day you see all the authenticity you need.  Authenticity is about trying, day in and day out, in the small gestures and in the big decisions you make, to live out the vision you have for yourself and to earn the experience, if only on that day and for that day, of having lived authentically.  There is no journey from unhappiness to authenticity, as if unhappiness were something that could be left behind in the dust.  You live authentically, and sometimes you are unhappy. (p.211)
Nothing could be more natural.  What sort of creature do we think we are?  A kind of wishful thinking has washed over the developed world that life has become simple and settled.  […]  This is a false view of life.  Life is a project. (p.209)
You will have plenty of reality with which to reckon.  This reckoning is heroism.  It is how you earn your feeling of authenticity. (p.140)

I do recommend this book, I do. I think a bit of Existentialism can be very good for the brain, if you aren't too flat on the floor to concentrate for it. If you experience depression as a sort endless trapping in a nasty self conscious present moment (as I often do), these ideas could help to nudge you toward a more advantageous self consciousness.

For other stops on Eric Maisel's Blog Tour for this book, see here
Eric Maisel, Rethinking Depression, California: New World Library (2012)
And these posts can be in honour of my dad, a difficult but brilliant and sometimes very kind man, who I loved very much, and whose echoes in my mind keep me engaged with life, to this day.

[1] Notice I say the truth as you see it.  I do not think there is any such thing as objective 100% true Truth, all of the time, for anything much.  I think truth moves, I’ve said so before.  You can make a decision at any time, based on the best information you had, the truth as you then saw it.  Later you can find out that there were many other variables you were unaware of.  These may have caused you to make a bad error.  Truth changed.  Information comes, or not.  You only do the best you can at any given time.  (Maisel makes this point with some very good examples, on p.72.)

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Let's Talk About the Dark, Part 2: Eric Maisel, R.D. Laing, Ben Goldacre and Adam Curtis

Warning!  This post is ridiculously long!  Be prepared to sit for a bit…

Last post I wrote you a mini history of why I think I get sad, and what it feels like for me.  This is so you know that I’m not speaking of these things with no damn idea what I’m talking about.  On the other hand, what I told you of is simply and only, my personal experience.  No two people’s experiences of anything will ever be exactly the same.  Before I begin to tell you about the first part (actually, it’s only the first 3 chapters and the introduction) of Eric Maisel’s useful new book, Rethinking Depression[1], I want to make one thing crystal clear to anyone reading.  It’s this:

Everybody’s feelings are different, though similar.  One person may struggle with a feeling s/he calls depression their whole lives and say little about it to anyone; another may seek help by talking or medicine, and often.  Some people feel chronic sadness or depression is a deeply private thing; others feel the stigma of it should be fought and we should talk about it openly, a lot.  Some people are greatly benefited by drugs prescribed them for their feelings and their management; some people have had awful reactions to these medicines; some people will not touch them out of principle.  Same goes for talking therapies, or any kind of help.

Never think, for one second, reading this (or anything I write, I’ve told you this before), that anyone’s own experiences of this life are invalid.  Personally, I have been sad on and off my whole life, and several times very badly.  Personally, I have tried 6 different types of anti-depressants and had awful side effects from each one, and zero help from them.  So I won’t be trying anymore, I shouldn’t think, and I will worry for you if you do or are, in case you have the same problems I did with the meds.  Personally, I have tried several therapists and 2 psychiatrists.  All the therapists I tried had hobby horses of their own disciplines, and all were a disaster for me.  One psychiatrist was worse than useless, and one was a lovely man, who tried me on cognitive behavioural therapy – which didn’t do much for me; I don’t think it’s the saviour of our minds other people think it is.  I don’t like or trust most doctors, due to my own mental health experiences with them, and to watching them ill-treat Troubadour when we were married, and he had been seriously ill.  But these are My Experiences Alone.  I will be talking out of them, of course.  I will reference them.  But I do not mean to invalidate anyone else’s.  If you take meds and it works for you – good.  If you have a great counsellor or therapist etc, and it works for you: good.  Good for you.  We are not all the same; we are similar.  Got it? 

Evangelism is never going to work for me.  Sharing information and experiences and trying different tactics at different times for different things, IS.  What works for me may not for you.  And vice versa.

For this reason, I have a slight problem with the tone and assumption of the first bit of Eric Maisel’s book.  He writes very conversationally, as he always does, very persuasively – he is a great writer, a great polemicist, and I have admired some 20 so far of his 35 or so book output on creativity, living creative lives, and staving off sadness and meaning loss in our lives by organising our thoughts and philosophic leanings more cleanly and clearly. 

Eric Maisel sets out a thesis in the first part of the book that really, there is no such thing as ‘depression’ as we know it now.  What there is – and he goes to great lengths to not underplay it[2] – is a deep and persistent, chronic human sadness, that we can all feel.  It can come at any time, for a reason we can see, or for no apparent reason at all.  Furthermore, it has been hijacked by the pharmacological industry, for their profit.  He says that we have ‘unwanted’ emotions sometimes, that we have been taught to label as ‘abnormal’.  He says: ‘Unwanted does not equal abnormal’ (p.9). 

He argues the chicken and egg scenario of biological brain differences in those feeling chronically sad: are their brains showing differences in chemical actions and areas working more or less BECAUSE they became sad and it changed the working of their brains?  Or because their brains were like that anyway, because they have a proper biological disorder and this MADE them sad?[3] 

He argues the medical industry would like us to believe the latter, when he thinks the former is more likely.  The same goes for the effects of various anti-depressants.  Do they work because chemicals have an effect (you drink; you’ll get drunk), which means you may think you must have had depression because this pill FIXED it?[4]  Or is it simply that your feelings were altered by chemicals, your symptoms masked – while the causes of your malady were left completely unaddressed, and therefore, likely to make a quick return once the pills are stopped?  He is angry at the way the medical industry as a whole seems relatively uninterested in finding the causes for this modern epidemic of depression (an idea we’ll return to), and trying instead to validate their own authority arbiting status by merely inventing labels for maladies, syndromes, disorders, and then offering us drugs for them (all of Chapter 1).  Drugs that he says may or may not do anything for you (pp.31-35). 

He worries that we are as a culture laying down for all this, adopting the language given to us by the medical and pharmacological industry (I regularly refer to my late father as both ‘OCD’ and ‘obviously clinically depressed, just never diagnosed’, for example).  The fact that it can be mightily comforting to have a name for the thing that ails us, is not lost on him. 
The fundamental linguistic game played by the mental health industry, is to characterize anything that remotely needs remediating or changing a disorder.  That hundreds of millions of people agree to play this game only proves the power of naming. (p.39)
But he suggests that by buying into the labels of medicine, wholesale, and taking all their drugs and their expensive talking therapies, we are giving up what personal responsibility and control we could have for trying to feel better ourselves.  He argues that by remembering that this modern thing we call ‘depression’ is in fact a 20th century label and construction; by remembering that throughout history, people were seen as ‘melancholic’ of temperament (a philosophical word rather than a purely medical label)[5], some more so than others, and that we can find ways of living our lives differently and training our minds and thought processes better, so that life is less easily able to lose its meaning and sink into a pit of greyness – we would be better off.

He isn’t by any means, a lone voice in the wilderness saying that our Western society is too quick to yell mental illness, and ‘pathologize the experiences of everyday life’ (p.9).  He backs up his points with several scientific studies (all supporting his points, of course), and quite a few good books, some of which I have read[6].  I need to make clear that a lot of this story takes place in America, and is about the American pharmacological industry for a large part, which functions a bit differently to ours.  Though the idea of comforting labels is all over both our societies.

I had greatly furrowed brow while reading all this.  I agree that our society is very quick to jump on bandwagons; and that we all seem to love a Label, for ourselves or others – as Bill Maher recently said, I need to label you, as if I don’t, I don’t know whether to ignore all your opinions immediately or not (I paraphrase, as we have annoyingly deleted that download of his Real Time – if anyone can give me the correct quote, please do, its within the last month).  Its scary to consistently be feeling things that go against society’s grain of needing us to be team oriented, happy happy happy all the time, and mostly extrovert in behaviour.  It’s scary to feel unable to talk about this for fear of being criticised as wimpy/ malingering/ unable to look after your children/ unable to hold down your job, or the nicest one of all: ‘mental’, ‘crazy’.  So its no surprise that some of us have chugged down our diagnoses of depression with a relief or gusto that may seem odd to others.  If it’s got a Proper Medical Name, then its REAL…and because more people are speaking out about it, its starting to lose its stigma – because so many of us seem to have it, or have had it, or will have it at some point.  There then lays out before us an array of ‘help’: support groups, drugs, psychiatrists.  This can be very comforting.  And it can work, for some people. (I'll come back to this in the 3rd and last post of this series.)

But I do agree that it goes too far.  It’s very tempting to say things like, if you grieve too long after a death, you have gone from mourning to depression.  How long is too long?  It’s obviously different for us all.  You can’t bring it all down to numbers, and lists of symptoms.  That’s over-generalizing, and creates its own problems. 

This was dealt with in depth by the UK documentary film maker, Adam Curtis, in the first episode of his short series The Trap: What Happened to our Dreams of Freedom? broadcast here in 2007.  (If you want to go see that bit, it’s on YouTube here, and it starts about 36 minutes in, with R.D.Laing looking very thoughtful and pinched, listen from there – I warn you, its dense, lots to take in.)  The section I am mentioning is part of a wider critique of political control in Western and specifically UK society, so I am quote mining, in a way; it’s a small part of what he was saying, but an important part. 

Eric Maisel’s book focuses the early sections on how depression is not a real thing at all, but a construct, made by doctors, and an incredible find for the psycho-pharmaceutical industry.  He doesn’t give any background as to why this may have happened, or how.  This is where Adam Curtis comes in, and the section of his documentary I just mentioned.  So before you jump up and down and yell: ‘But I AM sick!’ do have a think about how the label of depression arose, and what it does in our society.  The background information is, in fact, vital to thinking about it all.

What Adam Curtis proposed was this (for those of you who have no time to watch a 10 min clip, or don’t want to) - any phrases in speech-marks indicate direct quotes from Curtis's narration; indented paragraphs are longer quotes:  

Celebrity Scots psychiatrist RD Laing goes to America, mid 1960s.  He is against the medical elite, as always propounding mental illness as a purely biological thing, taking no account of intellectual and social factors.  He viewed psychiatry as a ‘fake science’ used for political control of people. Labels of madness or sanity have no actual reality, they are just convenient labels to lock up people ‘who want to break free’ politically – who differ from the norms.  One of the many young US psychiatrists who came to Laing to learn was called Rosenhan, and he devised a truly breathtaking experiment to see if psychiatrists could tell the difference between madness and sanity.  You need to watch the documentary clip for this bit alone, or read this link that describes the experiment: it’s truly shocking.  Basically, they really couldn’t.  Healthy people were judged sick, sick people judged healthy.  It emphasised the immense dangers of psychiatric labelling.  It was an important experiment and sent shockwaves through the American psychiatric establishment at the time (1973).  (Maisel sites some similar though less dramatic experiments, pp.27-30.)

The psychiatric establishment fought back though, with a new system of diagnosis that relied on the scientific, clear and clean beacon of numbers.  ‘All human judgement removed’.  The new system was based on ‘measurable surface behaviour of human beings’.  Curtis has Paul McHugh, then psychiatrist in chief of Johns Hopkins Hospital explain quite clearly that psychiatry has no clue what causes any of the conditions – ADD, ADHD, OCD, BPD, PPSD, GAD etc, but could just tell you ‘what they look like’ based on surface behaviour that could be observed and recorded.  Characteristics of all these Disorders, including depression, were listed very specifically, and questionnaires devised asking people if they thought they had these characteristics (NB: human judgement straight back in there, doh!).  The choices were ‘yes’ or ‘no’, so that anyone could conduct an interview with a symptom checklist, and the results could be fed into a computer, that would then diagnose a person as having this or that disorder, or none.  If they were normal or abnormal. Curtis has Dr Robert Spitzer, creator of the new diagnostic system in 1979, confirm this was how it was supposed to work: ‘no clinical judgement required’.

This is the bit we will start to be familiar with, over here in the UK.  In the late 70’s, to test the checklists, interviewers were sent all over the USA to question randomly selected people with them.  The point is made that till then, psychiatrists had only seen people who felt they needed help, who felt ill.  'No one had asked regular people how they felt'.  Do you need me to tell you that the results were apparently terrifying?  That more than 50% of Americans suffered from some type of mental disorder, 17% of them had a depressive incident at some point.  This is where the idea of a ‘hidden epidemic’ of depression comes from, in our society.  More surveys were done, more random people: very similar results were returned.

Many many people found ‘the checklists were a liberation: their private suffering was finally being recognised’.  But here come the unforeseen consequences:
Millions of people began to use the checklists to monitor and diagnose themselves; to identify what was aberrant or abnormal in their behaviour and feelings.  By definition this also set up a powerful model for them, of what were the normal behaviour and feelings to which they should aspire.  Psychiatrists began to find more and more people coming to them, demanding to made normal.
Paul McHugh makes the point that previously people did not wish to seem ‘psychiatrically injured’ but that now they had a new ideal of NORMAL they wanted to be made to fit the model.  Curtis concludes this section with saying:
The disorders and checklists were becoming a powerful and objective guide to what were the correct and appropriate feelings in an age of individualism and emotion.  This was a very different system of order: no longer were people told how to behave by an elite.  Instead, they now used the checklists to monitor their feelings and police their own behaviour.  They were reassured that these new categories were scientific and could be checked by the power of numbers.

Now, you may think it weird I have devoted so much time to Adam Curtis in a review of a book by someone else, but I ask you – if an author declares depression doesn’t actually exist, is a construct, and serves other ends for those who created that label, not really much for us…would you have liked a bit of background to such an immense claim?  I had already seen this documentary, read a fair bit of Laing and knew about the anti-psychiatry movement (of which Laing did not like to think he was associated, by the way), so I could see where Eric Maisel was coming from.  The other point of course is that RD Laing is very important for modern existentialists – he saw mental illness as part of lived experience, cultural and societal, not just a biological phenomenon and that it must be treated as an intellectual, societal, cultural phenomenon; and Eric Maisel is an existentialist, so tends to take the same view.

I think the problem I had with the first part of this book was that whilst this modern thing, ‘depression’ is almost certainly a creation of the mental health industry and its adjuncts, and that restating how we feel when we feel awful as simply part of lived experience, and then trying to live differently and more mindfully, with a set of good existential tools on how to do so…will not work for everyone.  Maisel makes it clear that existentialism is a tough philosophy, hard and rigorous (bit like I find Zen Buddhism – too hard for me by far)…BUT.

Let me put it like this.  I read Sally Brampton’s Shoot the Damn Dog (2009) a while back.  (As a result of it I became quite vocal for a while about ‘my depression’ in an attempt to remove stigma, at least from around myself.)  Its one of the most harrowing books I’ve ever read.  That woman had a hell going on inside her for a long time.  I did think, reading it, that all the meds she had given to her did not seem to be helping at all, and she freely says they gave her awful awful side effects.  Eventually she came out of it all, years later (also unimpressed with cognitive behavioural therapy, as I am).  I also note that Marion Keyes, beloved chick lit Irish author is only just now feeling better from a depression that she described on her website in absolutely heartrending flat clear terms.  Both these women, and these are but 2 examples, were on the floor with whatever ailed them.  And their lives were fine before sudden felling by depression, or whatever we want to call it.  Marian Keyes had had some depressions like mine before, but nothing like what befell her the last 2 or so years.

I don’t think either of these women could have been helped, at their worst states of mind, by existentialism, or by being told that depression doesn’t exist and they felt ‘chronic human sadness’…Semantics would not have helped them, at this point, I think.  Do you see?

Many of us feel quite shitty, quite a lot of the time.  And there are degrees of it, different for each person.  Whilst I think many of us are far too quick to embrace the idea of being mentally ill (for whatever reason), I think there are states people get into where you genuinely cannot, for sometimes a feck of a long while, think your way out of it, or do things that will make you feel more in control and thus feel better about life and yourself.  Some people really do disappear into an abyss for a while.  Whatever we want to call that, depression, a melancholic episode…it’s REAL.  People die there sometimes.

The dangers of the first part of Eric Maisel’s otherwise very useful book is to blithely state that depression is just a word.  A bad word in service of the psycho-pharmacological industry.  It may well be, as I have tried to show you with a bit of background. 

But it is very dangerous indeed to lump all the ways people feel when they feel sad together and if someone in the absolute pits of sadness came across this book, and tried to read from the start, when they are at that point where you aren’t capable of proper action or thought, I don’t think it would help – it would make you feel worse, because you would feel guilty and powerless to feel any better, despite seeing the logic in some of what he says. I don’t personally think meds are the answer either.  But that’s just me, ok?  I don’t know what the answer is.  I think the fact may be that its different for each person.

I too think the pharmacological industry is not an altruistic one by any damn means, and I would totally concur with (UK medical doctor) Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science, in this assessment of ‘medicalisation[7]’:
[which is] the expansion of the biomedical remit into domains where it may not be helpful or necessary…In its most aggressive form, this process has been characterised as “disease-mongering”.  It can be seen throughout the world of quack cures – and being alive to it can be like having the scales removed from your eyes – but in big pharma the story goes like this: the low-hanging fruit of medical research has all been harvested, and the industry is rapidly running out of novel molecular entities.  They registered fifty a year in the 1990s, but now its down to twenty a year, and a lot of those are just copies.  They are in trouble.

Because they cannot find new treatments for the diseases we already have, the pill companies instead invent new diseases for the treatments they already have.  Recent favourites include Social Anxiety Disorder (a new use for SSRI drugs[8]), Female Sexual Dysfunction (a new use for Viagra in women)…and so on: problems, in a real sense, but perhaps not necessarily the stuff of pills, and perhaps not best conceived of in reductionist biomedical terms.  In fact, reframing intelligence, loss of libido, shyness and tiredness as medical pill problems could be considered crass, exploitative and frankly disempowering. (p.153, my italics)

Which brings us back to Eric Maisel, who would also utterly agree with that, I’m sure.

 Despite the fact I am in two minds about dismissing the word ‘depression’ for everyone, I have actually found dismissing it for myself quite useful.  In my last major fit of being in the pit, I frantically googled about the web looking for things to help me think.  I’m a pagan by inclination, so I googled pagans and depression (wondering why my own notions were helping me so little), and found this blog article.  It’s noteworthy because of one line, for me.  It said that pagans are often quite left-leaning, politically, and lefties have a lot to be depressed about in the way our society is going.  Or this one, about free-thinking people being more often classified as mentally ill (harking back to RD Laing’s point of psychiatry as something to label and lock up those who disagree with societal norms).  That really made me think.   

Why was I so quick to embrace the idea of being depressed as thing that was happening to me, against which I was powerless (in a way)…making it seem like an alien, or chemical invader.  In fact: there’s loads going on all around me, that explain perfectly well why I am worried, anxious, and downright upset, a lot of the time.  Watch the news!  Live with someone like Stanley who watches the news a lot!  Have an upbringing like the one I described last post. You’ll then be a bit vulnerable to paranoid feelings, insecurity and phases of feeling worthless.  Trust issues.  It’s understandable, not a mystery.   Be someone who seems to think a lot, to over think, analyse a lot.  To have been alone often, so sees things from the outsider perspective, often.  To get into bad mental habits as a result of all ones experiences, is not a surprise.  And it would affect and take each of us differently, depending on what our personal experiences were.  Obviously. 

So whilst I’m not going to be one to take the label or idea of depression away from anyone who is finding it helpful in learning how to feel better, and live differently; unless I am in the real pits, I do take it away from myself.  I’m me and I get damn sad, damn often.  But I like to try and deal with it with my own brain, which is why I do like the rest of Eric Maisel’s book, the meaty bit, the solutions.  Which we’ll get to next post, the last one of the series. 

It won’t work for everyone, it won’t always work for me, and its only part of an answer.  But it is part.  I think it can help.  Some of us could do worse than try some of his ideas.

[1] Maisel, Eric, Rethinking Depression, California: New World Library, 2012.
[2] Rethinking Depression, all of pages 49-52, give a long list of reasons why we get unhappy.
[3] RD – p.16, p.20
[4] RD – p.34, p.41.
[5] RD, p.10.
[6] The ones I have read and can recommend as interesting to the topic are: Charles Barber’s Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry is Medicating a Nation (2008), Richard Bentall’s Doctoring the Mind: Is Our Current Treatment of Mental Illness Any Good? (2009), Daniel Carlat’s Unhinged: The Trouble with Psychiatry – A Doctors Revelatins about a Profession in Crisis (2010), Peter Conrad’s The Medicalization of Society: On the Transformation of Human Conditions into Treatable Disorders (2007), Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield’s (also featured in Adam Curtis’s documentary The Trap) The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depression Disorder (2007) and lastly, Joanna Moncrieff’s The Myth of the Chemical Cure: A Critique of Psychiatric Drug Treatment (2009).  There are many more he lists that look very interesting, but these are the ones I can vouch for as MOST interesting.
[7] Goldacre, Ben, Bad Science, London: Fourth Estate, 2008
[8] An antidepressant, Prozac is of the SSRI family.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Let's talk about The Dark, Part 1: secrets of my personality, 1, 2, 3...

Ok.  There hasn’t been a serious thought piece in this blog for a bit.  So there are going to be 3 now.  One after the other.  This is a bit of an exploration, an expedition to stuff I usually allude to but don’t come right out with.  I’m going to be frank in these pieces.  We’re getting ready for Eric Maisel to visit next Thursday, and I’m not going to write a small fluff review of his new book, I’m going to really think about this topic.  Depression, sadness.  My home turf, yes?

So.  Let’s talk about the dark.  Ready?

I had a dream the other day.  A nightmare.  It went exactly like this:

I was in a dark shadowy basement boiler room, as me, now.  A real one, that I used to go to with my dad when he was alive and I was a girl, in the bottom of the office block at Grosvenor Hill.  We had a storeroom down there where we kept our excess books.  I was alone, just there, looking at the red massive old boilers, reading the old dials, to check the temperatures were right, just as I used to when helping him.  A man appeared in front of me, dressed in a faded security guard’s uniform.  He was middle aged, nondescript.  I was holding a hammer.  I beat him in the head, slowly to death, while he weakly pleaded with me, almost conversationally, to stop.  I don’t know why I did it.  Afterward, covered in blood and bits, heaving huge sobs of terror and revulsion at myself, I stumbled further into the boiler room, to our store room door.  Behind one of the boilers there, I saw a body.  Shaking and dripping, I squeezed through the small section between the wall and the boiler’s edge.  My father lay there, dead and decaying.  Wearing a security guard’s uniform.  I realized what I had done.  I hated myself.  I couldn’t bear the feelings rushing through me, blotting out everything.  I knelt down by his body.  The head was crushed in.  I leant forward, and took up part of the skull.  It came loose with a viscous noise.  It was wet in my hands.  I had the forehead, the eyes, part of the mouth: large browned teeth glistened as I moved it closer to me.  I put the skull part over my face, like cleaning myself with a cloth doused in cool clean water.  As I put my fathers face over my face, I felt so comforted.  By the complete darkness, the crushing out, winking out, of everything else there ever was.  Just the darkness was left.  I was so relieved.

Now.  The thing about that massively melodramatic dream, and the fact I woke up hugely disturbed and freaked out at my own obvious nuttiness, is that it’s one of those easily interpretable dreams.  There I am at a subterranean level, where things are boiling away, unseen.  Things I might not think about consciously, so much.  My father was a housekeeper, a sort of security guard for a lot of his life.  Live in, with us, his family, mum and me.  We lived at the top of office blocks around London, through my middle to late childhood.  We didn’t really mix with other family much, and I didn’t have friends over much.  I did go and help on the locking up rounds often, because an empty office block has an amazing spooky charm unlike any other emptiness.  I learned to not be afraid of literal actual dark on those rounds.  Dark is just dark. 

My father, on the hand, was a man for whom life had not gone as he hoped and wished it had.  He was embittered.  He had not become a lecturer at a university, as he would have wished, one of his dreams; he had had to look after his younger brother instead, as happened in those days, in poorer families.  My mother and I were often something of a disappointment to him.  He told us this, sometimes quite plainly, sometimes by his behaviour (contempt, dismissiveness, cruel gestures or statements).  Other times, he was sweetness itself, and was incredibly kind and empathic.  We loved him.  My mother loves him unswervingly and with many kind explanations for his personality, to this day.  I found I was treasured as a small child and looked upon with increasing suspicion as I came of an age to think for myself – even though some of the time, he loved my brain and praised it.

I don’t want this to be a dad bashing post. I merely attempt to be very frank.  I loved him wildly, he was a little god to me, as most fathers are to daughters when they are young.  It was difficult to stay in his good books; it was great when you were there.  When you weren’t, you were simply eclipsed.  He wouldn’t talk to or acknowledge you.  If he did, it would be to slice with words.  Waiting out the displeasure period quietly and unnoticeably was usually the best option.  I learned to sneak about, to tell half truths, then outright lies; I played rooms with him in by ear.  I learned to value dissembling quite a bit.  I became an amazingly earnest liar at one of my first schools, until one day I was caught out spectacularly in my invention of a life different to my own (I spun a tale to my mother about an incident at school, completely untrue, that was unfortunately checkable, and I had made it sound like it needed checking, stupidly – so I humiliated my mother when she phoned the parent of the other child it involved…never my intention, I remain eternally sorry for that).  I learned the value of keeping lies as close to the truth as possible after that; though to this day will occasionally embark on an outright untruth with huge embellishments, just for the joy of it.  (Or I write a short story.)

My dad was tough to love and live with.  He hurt me and my mother many times, never physically (lucky), just with his anger and disappointment at just about everything.  I would like to say I used to defend her, he used to put her down infront of people and such, treat her like a doormat in front of me.  When I was quite young and he was god, I observed her just taking this behaviour and saw her through his eyes: as weak, and deserving of contempt. Act like a servant, get treated like one.  I joined in.  I treated her like dirt too.  Thankfully (for my sense of self), this only lasted a couple of years. Once I hit the earliest possible puberty, life kilted itself right over.  I remembered my mother had been caring for me all my life: taking me to museums and ‘places of interest’, taking me out and away, encouraging my love of stories and writing, reading my little ‘books’ I made.  She was always so concerned if I was sick, or unhappy.  Apart from believing my dad was always in the right (a religious belief; that is, taught to her by her religion, that men were better, and women subservient, especially wives to husbands), she was damn near as lovely as a quiet person gets. 

Also, at this point, dad seemed to become suspicious of me.  I was suddenly, sometimes, for no reason *I* could see, the enemy.  I got the benefit of the treatment my mother had been receiving all this time.  Nothing makes you have sympathy with someone like suddenly BEING them!  I remained in this boat with my mother till he died, decades later.  Never getting back that early relationship of him being loving (teaching me all about classical music and films and having endless mini philosophical discussions), just sometimes brittle and difficult (always ending up making me cry when helping me with my homework, because he had no patience if I was slow in any way), and never being the Horrible Daughter for him again, never the co-conspirator again.

To get back to the dream, it was quite clear to me that I am terrified of becoming him.  I have very little patience with people when they are slow about something I understand well (I NEVER understand when people say I should be a teacher because I know lots about this or that bookish topic and can express myself reasonably well; being a teacher is about loving to help people think for themselves, and I fear I would get too frustrated and be rubbish and unkind).  I have had a lifelong experience of something we could call low mood.  I see things as full of great joy, and great sadness.  Everything feels A LOT, far too much.  I often lose my own side of a discussion or argument, because I have entered into the other person’s so much and can really feel it.  I don’t know where my bit has gone.  I feel permeable, skinless, almost all the time.  I have to be careful in crowds, or I vanish and feel only the cacophony of the hive, the mob, the cult.

Things are either ok to wondrously quietly euphorically peaceful (no massive unrealistic highs here, ever); or they are dark dark dark.  On good days, I go about my business and my head is quiet.  I can think thoughts and do stuffs, and smile and I feel the sun, I feel my connection to everything.  It hums quietly: and all is well.  On the bad days, usually from very early, I just feel that the raincloud is over my head and I am soaked and foggy.  On these days I am just in fear, despair and…darkness.  My head says unkind things to me all day, and when I contradict them, I hear only myself telling me lies.  (Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t separate voices, this is me ganging up on me.)  It has been this way since I was very small.  One of my first memories is of being sad.  One of my others is of Victoria Park’s orange garden and the wonder of those colours, the green, the orange, the blue sky: I reached up from my baby stroller and grasped an orange.  I stroked the sun.  I smiled at my mother. 

My point there, is that clearly I grew up with loads of baggage, and I worry that I will end up like my dad – a contradictory person who is at once terrified (he was practically a hermit, yet liked to paint my mother as the scared one – it took someone pointing that out to me after his death before I saw it), very mean and yet full of warmth sometimes, and creativity he never let out.  (He wanted to compose, to write; he wanted to be a missionary preacher: he wanted to be a change in the world.  He was quite the autodidact all his life.)   

In the last couple of years before he died, he and I were almost estranged.  I had divorced Troubadour which really really upset dad.  I had ‘broken Biblical Law’, he said.  The one and only time Stanley ever went to meet him, he got the silent treatment.  Dad would not acknowledge him beyond a muttered hello; would not look at him.  Would not even get dressed, or look away from the TV.  I was mortified; mum tried to explain it away, and I didn’t bother with dad for some months after that incident, deciding silence – finally – can go two ways.   

Of course, what mum and I didn’t know, was that by this time the COPD that had been eating him up for years (what a smokers cough, was what we thought – we thought he was the only one spitting up all that phlegm all the time) had been joined by prostate cancer.  He didn’t tell anyone.  We think he knew he was dying, but didn’t want to know what of.  He never went to the doctors unless my mother somehow made him.  He quickly became much smaller and wizened than he had been (I missed most of this, busy making my point as I was), and oddly nondescript.  He lost all his colour, all his fire.  In a photo of him shortly before he died, he smiles benignly out at me, with genuine gentle sparkle, genuine good humour – none of his anger remains.  He has a semi shaved head, as he got bored with doing anything to his hair, which remained thick into his late 60’s.  By the time I was speaking to him by phone again, I was stunned by his compliant behaviour – he was kindly, nice, welcoming, happy to hear from me.  Not sarcastic or unkind at all.  Not thinking I was just ringing to borrow money (as I had borrowed a lot of money one way and another over time, and his always giving it to me, and the way he behaved about the loans, were one of the most dysfunctional things about us).  I thought I had shown him that you can’t treat people this way without getting your own medicine back at you sometimes.  I thought we were finally relating as – sort of – regular people: two grown ups. 

Then I visited one last time, saw how thin he was and realized he was very sick.  My mother was trying to not notice (she had become – and remains – very good at not noticing things she does not know how to deal with in a way that squares with how she wants to be, which I do not fault her for; the woman has not had an easy life, we all have our mechanisms).  While I was there, he became suddenly very ill, breathing troubles, pains, terrible pallor.  We called the ambulance.  Two nights later he was dead.  Pneumonia has a way of intervening.  We only found out about the prostate cancer at the hospital the night before he died – they thought we knew. 

So I hadn’t ‘shown him’ at all.  What I had done was have an unequal battle with a dying man, who died quietly without forgiving me for being such a bloody disappointment.  (There’s the nondescript security guard who I beat to death.  And yes: he was a Housekeeper, a sort of security guard; and what is a dad, but a security guard of his children??)  They had asked my mother and I, at the hospital, about resuscitation when his lungs gave out, as they unquestionably would; a machine was already helping him breathe...They made it clear he would just be on life support after that, no more waking, no more dad, his body had given up.  My mother was unable to have this decision alone, and turned to me.  I said no, let him go.  I was thinking of all my cats, who get the dignity of going when its clear their bodies are given up on them; when we humans don't always get that choice.  And yet, it came to pass, and I somewhere within feel like I killed  my father.  Mercy it was, but nonetheless.  Before you say – oh for fecks sake, enough with the guilt and the melodramatic way of interpreting events, all I will reiterate is that I am telling the truth as I see it, for me, and for no one else, with reference to no one else.  I judge no one but me.  What happens in our lives, and how we tell the story to ourselves is part – how can it not be? – of who we are.  At any given time.

There’s the other fact that as I am sure you will have noticed from all the previous writing exercise posts and such, that I had all this going on at home and school was rather a disaster too.  The pack scented a bit of a freak and I wasn’t able to be less freaky, at that time; I just couldn’t understand why people kept judging me as lesser, not good enough, a bit of a joke.  I withdrew, and stayed withdrawn.  My whole not good in groups thing.  Work has been an improvement on all that, especially my last job, where I was, for the first time ever, accepted as myself in a group type situation, after hours.  (I always do jobs where I work alone; but I can socialise after.)

Anyway.  So I have always been an odd, delicate flower of a person; and my childhood more or less explains it.  Dad was unhappy and didn’t deal with it very well, mum was doing her best, and I had a bit of an approval deficit problem looming.

The Dark is always with me.  Even on good days, I feel it in the background.  I am just well capable of ignoring it, those days.  On the bad days, I see the light, but I think it’s a lie other people indulge in – the truth is that it is, and always will be: Dark.  I wish I could be in on the lie too, of course, but on those days, I can’t.  I can only just about do what’s needful on those days.  Yes, I think of suicide, I always have thought of it. Once I tried it and failed, despite my best efforts.  Raven Digitalis has memorably called this feeling the Goddess Suicidia – “she challenges our fears of Being”.  I’m afraid I can’t reference that properly, as he said it on Facebook on a status ages ago – it just caught my thoughts: challenges our fears of being.  That is exactly what I am afraid of: being here, dealing with everything.  When I think of suicide, I am aware what I actually want is to Go To Sleep, and Wake Up When I Feel Better; or next week sometime.  I DO want to stay here, I just want a bloody good rest.  And a brain clean…

Eric Maisel’s new book that I am going to talk around for the next 2 posts, is a book of 2 halves.  The first half posits that there is a difference between regular human unhappiness (however profound and longlasting or persistent) and this modern beast we have come to know as ‘depression’.  The second half talks of ways to take care of yourself and your mind, your body, to minimise the effects of human unhappiness.  It’s a lot about existentialism, a lot about not surrendering all of yourself to a label, no matter how comforting it can be to finally have one.  To take some control and personal agency back, from where you can actually lose it, in the medical system, and do some helping for yourself, quietly, gradually and at your own pace.  To learn to stand bravely in your life, knowing it won’t always be good feeling, but knowing you always have some kinds of tools to help you try to Be.  Gently.

Now I’ve explained where I see my own Dark as coming from, and the fact I am still, on and off, in thrall to it, I will state that some days I can’t existentialize my own way out of a paper bag.  And I will ask him about those days.  I don’t agree with everything he says – but he has some very useful things to say, and they are well-reasoned.  We’ll start on them in the next post, with a little background to his ideas too – he isn’t the only one worried by the way we are laying down as a culture and wishing to be Made More Normal (by the same people who told us we are Not)…

Come back soon…

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Watching trees, a polar bear, no faery rings, and a purple haired old lady marching through the time...

Sitting in my room, looking out, past my desk, to the outside (not at that lovely pic I have included - that's on one of Alias True's walks).  So quiet and air locked in here.  So illusory.  Here: a feather could arc its way to the ground with no problem.  Outside: all the bushes and trees quiver, constantly.  In motion all day, since early light. Its blowy outside, fresh today.  The huge cherry tree, with its tiny new droopy leaves, all hang headed and curly.  It's covered with fat pink blossom at the moment.  Heavy with it.  Some have already fallen, in threes, as if holding hands.  Its tallest branches stretch, thin and proud, skywards.  They weave and keel in the wind; the blossoms arc upward and defy the wind and gravity.  The firs, behind them, do what the firs always do – they sit calm, only topmost branches moving, and those with a frondy underwater intensity, an economy of movement.  The small closed berry clumps do not deviate from their tight position at the centre of each branches spread.  Squirrels run in a fervour I don’t know the reason for, up and down the branches, practically flying.  The holly tree barely appears to move – but it does, as its ultra shiny leaves catch the light and glint, always changing.  They move. The washing line, propped tall by its pole, also weaves back and forth in the wind – like a sail of raggedy tarpaulin – my trousers, dunny green and old.  Leaves from the hypericum and buddleia scratch at the side of the outhouse, the white paint already flecked and peeling away.  So old.  The wood is rotting on the whole thing.  If it was our house we’d fix it.  As it is, the landlady won’t pay to.  I think it will just fall down, one day.  The bird feeder hanging on the body of the rose bush judders slightly. It’s a very old one, filled with only a snail and the snail’s curled black waste.  All over the lawn are small curled black worm holes, where they have come to the surface with the rain.  The tiny sparrows still hop about, regardless of the still spitting rain.  Little heads dart to the ground, beaks easily penetrating the earth – its muddy today.  Blackbirds and robins are zipping about.

Beyond the trees, the sky is the white of fat clouds, with the grey of scudding bird flight.  It’s cut constantly by the swaying leaves.  There’s blue in the distance.  The houses, mostly white with their black painted beams and orange slate roofs, stand firm against the wind.  Solid, their window panes glinting in the morning light.   Occasionally cars go by, a slick of colour and light, a crunchy suction sound of wet tyre on tarmac, then the shingle of someone’s drive.  There must be a school outing or something, a weekend jaunt: children dressed in blue gingham, and bright blue blazers go past in streams: golden hair flowing out behind, skipping; short brown hair downcast, sports bag careless and casual over the shoulder, scuffed shoes kicking the ground.  Ears plugged in, fighting the wind with tunes, with shouting. They go by.  Their teacher is shouting at them for straggling, and for shouting.  Uhum…

I was out in the garden earlier, checking for seedlings.  Then I felt a bit fey and distracted and checked for faery rings instead.  I have looked for one of these in the garden since mushrooms kept appearing last autumn.  They go as quickly as they come, though.  First there were some field mushrooms, then some tall tan mushrooms, their helmets like half closed umbrellas, thickly scored. All those mushrooms grew in little circles.  And now, spring having roared in, sometimes the dandelions and daisies grow in small rings too, close to the same spots as the mushrooms were.  But not today.   Nonetheless, I am full of the notion that there are definitely fairies in the garden, as how could there not be, the garden is so beautiful and lush, and getting lusher all the time with its growth of grass.  The places where I have sown the seeds, so far sprinkled with tiny plants that look like clover, but may not be.  Inside each, a small sister to a dryad, or cousin to a  nymph; an elemental of some sort, a growing creature, aiding each section, each blade.  And surely the smaller creatures so inclined dance, softly on little feet, when embodied, touching each mushroom or daisy lightly with gentle hand, or lithe toes?  Who would not dance for joy if they could? (Well, me usually, but then, I am strange and often stupid.)  I water my invisible germinating seeds, and try not to think of my headache from a broken night, and from Fluffhead feeling very repeatedly rebellious this morning.

Back inside, I am uncertain.  I look over at my shelf, where the polar bear sits.  My white marble polar bear comforted me when I was pregnant.  I felt strangely adrift and incapable, and the polar bear was solid.  I felt comforted by its mass, and the idea of the way bears move, stolidly when slow, and surprisingly lithe when fast.  The defending of its young filled me with hope that I would be this strong, this warm, this capable.  Seeing it there in the Litlington Crystal shop – the best crystal shop I know – I felt it call to me, and I answered with relief.  I still hold it when I feel sad or worried, and its smooth solidity reassures me.  It’s the perfect fit in my hand, my whole hand.  (Fry and I have a silly in joke that whenever he's cross or sad I say, irrelevantly, 'do you want to hold my polar bear?' and he will scowl at me and laugh a bit because of course he doesn't.)

I finger one of my old cassettes that I keep on the same shelf. It doesn't yet have a home.  The tape of Alias Octa reading, that I am not entirely sure why I keep – to remember his voice when he still liked me; before he hated me, when we shared dreams?  I don’t think he will ever be anything other than a dream figure in my head now – a figure of past early love, and present nostalgia – and future dread (though that drains, slowly).  And there, somewhere, is a story.  A person with that effect on another.  I put down the history and move along.  (It is amazing that I have a tape of someone speaking over 20 years ago.  He won't sound like that anymore, I shouldn't think.  I have some frozen past.)

I dyed my hair again, about half an hour ago.  It’s going to be Morello Cherry this time.  I got tired (once again) of being ‘a girl with hair of softest brown’ – and why should this be a curse, a drab sentence?  Why not a disguise, a ruse, a clever spell, a trick?  Why not the best way to observe without being observed in turn – a way to learn all secrets and be undervalued before swinging through to greatness, like Claudius?  Why not?  Well, maybe for someone else, it is.  For me, the week hung heavily, and I wanted to shakes its shirttails this morning.  So I made a change.  In it’s not quite dry yet state it looks almost purple.  Okeydoke.

Despite the almost purple hair I am still feeling like an old lady today.  My back is hurting again.  (Ooooo – me leg, me hip, I can hear my elderly, now dead, relatives intoning – I used to love all that old lady complaining from them: they managed to do it so spiritedly, with such grammar: I ACHE.  FULL STOP.  Fierce eyes.  Why did none of them dye their hair purple?  I feel maybe, that they had no need – they were purple on the inside…)   So I stop wandering near the shelf and sit down again.  What is more urgent than a chair, sometimes?  I can’t stand up for any length of time at all for a few years now, though I can walk for hours.  I love this chair I’m sitting in now.  I love its old pine, its worn varnish.  I love the way it had a whole life with another family who may or may not have cherished it but here I am, and I do, now.  (It came with the house.)  Its warm round curving back, leading to arms, which turn out slightly at the ends, like an arthritic old woman gripping the arms of her chair with splayed wrists.  That sounds a horrible uncomfortable image, and for that reason, doesn’t fit right; though it does for the directions of the bones.  Interesting.  The image is correct, and its mood is wrong.  Though the chair itself is very hard and unrelenting – but I find it comfortable.  Enclosing.  It’s a friendly chair, for all its odd proportions.

Spitting again outside, a bit harder now.  On the left of me, the street side, the window has both drops appearing on it, and little needles of diagonal rain.  On the right side, the garden side, as usual, there is no rain visible.  The wind must rarely come in this direction. The tops of the cherry tree and next doors sycamore wave briskly.  Shaking themselves out, shaking off the rain, shaking out their hair.  The firs, sway portentously in the now cold air.  The shrub that has become a tree, closest to me, has two pink blossom-like flowers on it now, not one; many small green leaves.  The unidentified (as yet) smaller bush sprouts more and more perfect yellow flowers; like flattened out daffodils, intense and innocent.  The trees look unsettled at their tops, and rooted solid at their base.  I must be more like a treeWhy can’t I be more treelike, in life??

I sit here, day after day, in the small silences between Fluffhead’s noise, trying to think of the best possible thing to do with the remaining time.  I can never be sure just how much of it I might get.  Sometimes only about 40 minutes – very occasionally up to two hours.  Do I do yoga?  Aerobics?  (I feel I am getting bloody fat, especially round the middle – and don’t doctors say the middle is the worst area to get fat, as it increases risk of heart disease or somesuch?  And then again – what is more valuable?  The quiet mind and body flexibility brought by yoga; or the less risk of heart disease caused by simply burning fat off the middle?  Then again – if I did a proper aerobic workout, I wouldn’t have time to do anything else with my time, or bathe afterward which I would need to, if it was the usual just over an hour…And the pressure to DO is so great.)  I could write some more – but do I have time to do anything worth starting – its not like I can just dive into a story, I have to read back and get to sort of where I was before I can continue.  And if I’m starting something new…I have to have a vague idea what I’m doing, I need time to think a little, if not plan.  (These are not excuses; they are the reasoning of a rather undisciplined mind that knows it needs structure to work well, usually.)  I usually end up doing small household tasks that are quick and needful, and then reading.  Even then, I feel like I have to cram so much into so little available time that I can’t settle to just one book.  I read a textbook (history, or feminism, or philosophy), and a fantasy type book (something fictional with magic in there somewhere), a normal lit book (something current), a classic (whatever and whomever I am fancying at the time), a pagan-y type textbook (always trying to round out my nature consciousness) or a self-help book (I have so many neuroses I am trying to talk myself out of…).  I read about 10 minutes of each so I feel I got a bit of everything done.  Then there are those days I am just so tired, all I can do is lay down, love the silence, and doze.  Even 15 minutes in a state of doze can be an amazing powerful thing for me.

I seem to spend more time, in these snatched and precious moments trying to Remember Who I Am, than I spent Being Who I Was, back when I Had The Time.

Just now, waiting for the baby to wake up.  Ears are completely 360 degrees, like radar, sonar.  I am aware each second may be the last second.  What with the garden, the hairdying, the blogging, I have had over an hour already – an absolute delirious haven of time.  An acre, as my life is now.  Any extra is a thing of great preciousness. 

Does age feel this way?  I wonder when I will get to the age where each day is a gift (or a dreaded burden)?  I wonder when (if ever) I will have an easier relationship to time…?  And in that spirit, I am not going to tie up the loose ends of this post.  It’s just going to drift off, like me; still learning to be more like a tree.  Until next time.