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Distraction—why are we so easily distracted, by anything and everything?

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Here we are, the primary primate. In holding onto the top spot, we have managed to wipe out a thousand species in the past century. Stretch this out across around two hundred thousand years and we are shown to excel in annihilation. This rate of extinction does not bode well for us when you look at our own track record on human extermination.

There are now 7.6 billion of us, almost identical in evolutionary design and function, but we seem to disagree about a great deal, and agree about very little. In spite of our infinite disagreements we have become highly efficient at keeping ourselves alive for longer, even as we find ever new ways of destroying each other with increasingly clinical efficiency.

As as it is when staring at the sun, or thinking about death, our human capacity for destruction is probably best considered from time to time for brief but lucid moments.

A short, close look highlights one aspect of our human nature that does unite us. Our battleground of differences, of thinking and thought does unite in one shared trait—we are all highly distractible.   It makes no difference where we were born, our gender, conditioning, education or abilities, we all very good at distraction. Some of us are utterly brilliant at it. And some of us have gone to great lengths to shore ourselves about against this equal-opportunities aspect of our nature. Zen masters, snipers, and surgeons are amongst those who have found ways to de-programme themselves from this capacity for distraction.

I need to be very precise here because the Oxford English Dictionary definition of distraction is: ‘A thing that prevents someone from concentrating on something else’. The nature of distraction does a great deal more than preventing us from concentrating on ‘something else’. It prevents us from concentrating on our lives.

There is a simple way of looking at this, through the Laws of Existence. We spend much of this very existence fighting it out in the life of the mind between two of these laws, the Law of Attraction and the Law of Distraction.

 

The Law of Attraction

The Law of Attraction is this: our lifetime is a continuous expenditure of energy from the moment we are born to the moment we die. What defines us is how we expend this energy. The Law of Attraction draws us powerfully towards something or someone. We channel energy to bring it into our lives. The more energy we expend, the more we draw this subject or entity towards us.

Take a child who sits with their nose pressed against the window, watching squirrels in the garden. Most of us might just see nut hunters scooting about with bushy tails. Yet to this child there is perhaps something else, a fascination about how the squirrels manage when they are weak or diseased. This squirrel fascination may translate into biology at school, and then on, to medicine and medical school with a focus on, say, genetic disorders. By the time this squirrel-fancier is in their mid-thirties around 80% of their life has been spent pursuing this ‘attraction’. It dictates the majority of their waking life, the jobs that they will get, and where they will live. It is their focus and indeed their meaning and purpose.

Take this single focused young medical practitioner, perhaps at twenty-five, right in the heat of med school.  Another ‘attraction’, the very thing they have been studying, a human, grabs their attention. Except that they do not want to study this human for disease aetiology. They just want to spend time just flopping around with them. Now there are two ‘attractions’ driving this young doctor-in-the making. Life is jammed full, there is no space for anything else.

Except that there is.

The Law of Distraction

The Law of Distraction does everything in its power to drag that driving focus away from doctoring and romancing, or whatever it is that we are trying to focus on in our search for purpose and meaning.

The Law of Distraction is designed to win when it comes to stealing our attention. Any kind of digitally-delivered message that flashes in, someone asking you something, an advertisement, hearing a song that triggers a memory waterfall, anything and everything, have an extraordinary capacity to drag us away from the principal things that we know we should be focusing on.

Why is it so powerful?

Evolution—we are designed to be infinitely distractible.

Rinsing it down, there to the two things with the greatest powers of distraction: anything that presents itself as a threat, or as a source of pleasure, is going to grab our attention.

Perhaps you step out into the road, daydreaming about the week-end ahead, or worrying about something. Suddenly a bus looms, at speed. This is highly distracting. Fight or flight takes over and your every system flips into overdrive to get you out of the way of the bus. It is the same reaction when the threat is less direct. Take something like getting a message that you were not expecting, asking you to go and see the boss, your professor, or anyone else who seems to have power over your immediate future. If you were not expecting the meeting the strong tendency is to view it as a potential threat. Whatever you were doing is forgotten and a rapid assessment follows as to the why, what, and how bad this possible threat may prove to be.

In the aftermath of either of these scenarios, the bus or the boss, getting rid of the excess threat response is a potent way of cutting through the distracted state. Something like bouncing, as described in the previous blog [Bouncing—not as babyish as it sounds…] works very well.

The distracting pleasure principle is just as greedy when it comes to gobbling attention. The fancy name for this is the dopaminergic response. The key is in the name. Anything with the anticipatory promise of pleasure is being driven by a dopamine hit, a reward-seeking message being sent by this busy neurotransmitter in the brain. Whether you are being distracted by the deep desire for a Red Velvet cupcake, or a longing to lay down too much money on a horse called Calamity, dopamine gets the blame laid at its door. It is simply a messenger, sending its powerful message that we must pay attention to the possible pleasure ahead.

The Law of Attraction versus The Law Distraction

So here is our human challenge—the Law of Attraction versus the Law of Distraction, or determined attention versus the total lack of focus and productivity when we are distracted.

How much does it help to know that we are distractible by natural design? Does the knowing allow us to ask ourselves, on a very individual basis, what it is that we are being distracted from and why? Are we able to recognise the moment that we are being distracted, and either ignore it, or go along with it, knowing that we will lose our main thread for as long as we are being distracted?

In knowing ourselves, with clear self-awareness, we gain a profound understanding of what it is that gives distraction such free rein. Subtle self-awareness means that we can tell whether we are easily distracted because of an underlying factor, perhaps the fear of failure, a lack of confidence, a battle with sustained concentration, or anything else from across the wild gamut of personal anxieties that can make us doubt ourselves.

There is a simple test. The next time you are trying to settle to focus on something that you have been drawn to strongly by the Law of Attraction, see if you can catch the exact moment when you become distracted by the first flash from your phone, by a sudden burning desire to do the washing up, answer an overdue email, or anything else from the vast box of tricks that distraction has at its disposal. Take a step back by taking a slow, steady breath. Then pay very close attention to what it is really that is making you so easily distractible, beyond the aspect of our universal design.

The answer may be very interesting.

 

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Bouncing—not as babyish as it sounds…

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and  often a lot more effective than drugs 

 The room was full of adults bouncing, jammed together in a space that was too small, all of them trying hard not to bounce into each other.

On that cold late winter morning in Kashmir our breath was visible around us—a mix of stale night air expelled from morning lungs, and the bitter-smell of anxiety being released from churning guts.

Almost everyone was young, but not very fit. They were starting to sweat, even in the thin cold air.

But no-one cared because we were bouncing, and it’s hard not to laugh when you’re bobbing about.

One of the group was both gasping and laughing.

‘No more!’ She stopped, her hands on her knees, panting.

‘Come on,’ the others puffed back at her.

She frowned as she began to bounce again, just tentative knee dips at first, but as she did, the laughter began again.

The air we breathe in Kashmir has a particular make up in winter. It is one-part pollution, another part the thin frailty of Himalayan air under siege from too much crammed in life. The final third, and perhaps the major component, is the static of fear. It is recycled with every inhale and exhale to the extent that it has become part of the cellular make-up of people in the valley

This was why we were bouncing in that slightly smelly room because we spend every working day trying to puncture through this same thick mist of fear. The bouncing releases the build-up of tension that comes of sitting beside those in physical and mental pain, day after day, hearing their stories, accompanying them through the pain.

There is a lot to shake off—vast human loads of suffering, anxiety and malignant sadness.

Bouncing works.

There are two predominant reasons for this.

The first is that it allows the body to shake off the excess survival hormones that accumulate when people are living with daily violence. Our primal reaction to danger is usually referred to as the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. It is a hair-trigger reaction to anything that the mind reads as a potential threat. It results in a build-up of the two hormones that enable the survival response, adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol (hydrocortisone). The hormones speed up our system to fight, flee, or freeze, this survival mode putting the subtle ‘thinking brain’ onto a lower priority setting­. In shorthand, that’s about 2.5 billion years of evolution on hormonal override. If actual physical fight, flight or freeze is not required then we feel restless, agitated, unable to concentrate, anxious.

Bouncing gets rid of this surplus of hormones. It is what animals are doing when they shake things off—the way dogs get up after fighting, shake furiously, and then trot off as though nothing has happened, any excess of ‘fight’ hormones having been released.

The second reason is that we were bouncing in that cramped room in a place described as a ‘disturbed area’. This is a questionable euphemism, a political expedient that translates in human language into a very heavy security presence, and a constant round of violent unrest, killings, arrests without warrant, imprisonments without trail, and ‘disappearances’. The population is often locked down under curfew for extended period, stretches of time shut, in, cooped up, unable to move. As I write this, they are caged again.

We humans are designed by those 2.5 billion years of evolution to move. When we do not our immunity is compromised, blood and lymph circulation slow down, undermining all the systems that keep us functioning well. Bodies stagnate. People feel unwell as they swing between a hyper-adrenalized state and one of deep fatigue.

Bouncing shakes everything up, moving stuck toxins around and out of the body, increasing the circulation, releasing tense muscles.

The Chinese describe it as ‘Shaking the Tree’, as in moving ‘Chi’ or energy around the body. Another way of looking at this is that bouncing frees human sap to rise again.

Like so many of the best antidotes to physical and mental pain, it is quite simple, though perhaps not necessarily so easy for some to adopt.

You could try now–just for the fun of it.

If you are alone, then why not?

If you are with other people, perhaps this is your chance to start a bounce revolution with your friends, those you work with, the people at the café tables around you?

How to bounce

It starts simply, standing with your feet about hip width apart.

Have a soft bend in the knees, and then just start bouncing—arms loose, body relaxed, toes un-gripped.

We are not talking about Masai warrior leaping. This is not about trying to wow the tribe with our strength. It is just moving the body up and down, each muscle, each bone, doing its job, rebounding from the ground, moving into the air, for a moment, a split second of flight, of freedom.

As the body warms up, and as we move through the first ‘what the hell am I doing’ wall of resistance, there is a loose-limbed ease and rhythm to it that makes it hard not to smile, even as the heart rate soars, and the panting begins.

Starting with maybe just ten or twenty seconds is a good beginning. Building towards several minutes, maybe three or even four, well, if you are physically able to bounce, then I would pick it over anti-depressants and pain-killers every time.

Come on.  Get up.

See what happens.

 

 

 

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What does resilience mean? When it seems as if there is nothing left in us, when we long for more strength, more inner fight, what is it that we are really asking for?

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‘How do I become more resilient?’ asked a young man, his eyes too old for a nineteen year old.

He was born in the Kashmir Valley in an era of violence. Not much has changed in his life time—a period pitted with brute force.

He is not the first to ask this question. If I had kept count of the number of times it has been asked, it would give a percentage, a human quantity brought low by circumstances that most of us are afraid to even imagine.

This young man was asking for resilience in the face a particular kind of loss.

His father and brother had died on the same day, three months before he asked the question.

During a demonstration in the centre of Srinagar, the capital of the Kashmir valley, the young man’s brother had been hit by pellets fired into the crowd of protesters by the counterinsurgency forces. Pellet guns are used regularly in the face of protests in Kashmir. It is a form of ‘non-lethal weapon’ control that has killed many civilians in the valley in the past year, and wounded thousands. In spite of extensive civil protest the weapon continues to be used.

After being hit, the young man’s brother was carried to the nearest hospital on a fruit pallet. When the family reached the hospital the wounded boy was still lying on the pallet in a corridor, but his parents and brother could not get to him through the crowd.

His mother began to wail. As his father reached out to take her arm he crumpled silently to the floor amidst the noise around.

He died an hour later as the result of a cardiac arrest—an attack on the heart His son was one of four who ‘succumbed to their injuries’, as their deaths were described in media coverage of the protest.

In total seventy-four people were injured, four fatally so. This was why the hospital was jammed with panicking families, in a place where most nursing care is provided by the family members of the patient.

The young man’s father and brother were declared dead within two hours of each other.

Of course he longed for resilience. It was the only thing that he believed would give him the strength to support his mother and sister in their paralysing grief. At nineteen he had become the man of the family, though without a job or any obvious way of supporting his mother and sister.

An Answer

‘You are already resilient,’ was the reply to his question.

‘What do you mean?’ he asked.

‘You are here.’

That makes it too neat an exchange, veering dangerously close to being one of those pithy exchanges steeped in hidden meaning. It was not one of those ‘You are here, therefore you are,’ moments, more likely to be written in the swirling sand of a Zen garden in the silent section of a quietly expensive retreat centre than in a place where pellet guns are used to break up demonstrations.

The conversation went on for much longer than those three lines—an hour a week for over six months. During that time the young man was one half of an extended conversation, each week just a comma between one part of the conversation and the next. As he talked, and as he heard himself speak, he began to unravel the stories that he had always told about himself about who he was. He looked again at the times when he felt he had failed, moments such as losing in a puppy brawl with a neighbour in the street about a broken cricket bat; not getting the marks he had hoped for in tests; or failing to get the jobs he had applied for. As each of those times was examined again we picked out what it was that had enabled him to keep going: to get up and walk away from the brawl; what it was that had convinced him to go on studying even though he felt so flattened by various tests results; how he had made himself apply for jobs even as he was being turned down at each interview.

Across the hours of conversation, the deaths of his father and brother would take over again. Each time his reaction was different. Sometimes he was lost in the grief, his head held silently between his hands, unable to speak. At other times spitting rage ricocheted around the room. There were days when he just felt numb and others when he described the agony of the helplessness that he felt. Through all of these times we kept coming back to resilience—that growing strength that had picked him up after the childhood puppy fight, the gritty muscle that had helped him to study again when he felt he was failing, the bold hope that made him apply for more jobs after each rejection.

And then there was a day when he stood up and laughed.

‘You’re right! I am resilient.’

It is not a magic ending. There is no TED talk standing ovation moment. Nor is it another flourish in the sand of the Zen garden. It was a young man realising that indeed there was no magic, but that if there was any at all, it was within him. The resilience he yearned for had been there all along, building each time he just kept on going, every time he showed up and carried on.

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Out in the Backcountry—Post Traumatic Stress

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At the moment I am again in the disconcerting backcountry of PTS.

I know this place. The terrain is ugly, but it is also familiar. I can predict where most of the attacks are likely to come from, and what is needed to mount counter-attacks.

It is not a safe place, most of it mined with the risks of flashbacks and a sense of doom that has the power to stop everything in its tracks. Both have the capacity to blow up in your face at any given moment, often without warning. And in the foreground there is the constant war playing out between Life and Despair.

Despair is a guerrilla enemy, setting cruel ambushes, attacking when I feel the most bruised, naked, unprotected, and vulnerable. Life tries to fight back in a more old-school way, holding ground, sending back messages from the frontline that the situation is under control, that Despair is being pinned down under fire.

For a moment I believe the message being sent by Life.

I relax.

Yes, all is going to be okay. I just have to stick with the steady routine of sleep, eating well, exercising, and paying very close attention to what is actually going on, even when being constantly knocked back down, each time Despair launches another ambush, and then another, and another.

Every part of the daily round feels as though it is a challenge demanding more energy than there is available. Another cruelty of PTS is that is does not distinguish between the important and the mundane, between having to pick up something at the supermarket, or take on some major professional task—both seem equally fraught with threat, everything open to attack.

Each morning, every re-entry into consciousness from sleep, means the weight of dread falling back down around me. And so the battle begins again: attack, counterattack, attack. On it goes, until I, we, everyone who lives with PTS reaches the time when we do not think we can fight anymore.

Taking Back the High Ground

But unlike so many I have the lucky advantage of a carefully-tutored awareness of what is actually going on.

This is my work. It is what I do.

I was trained to observe thought, and to rigorously separate what is real, and what is not; between the present and a lie branded in the mind by violence that repeats its dark story over and over, to the point where you cannot separate between the dark lie and the truth.

Even out here in the backcountry I can still experience joy—the temperature of the cool summer air in London on my skin as I run in a park, the scent of the lime trees, the sharp good taste of coffee drunk beside a lake.

I know those things are real even if the message the mind keeps sending is that the only thing that is real is violence—the people shot down, the wailing of those who are wounded, or of their families as they die, the sucking silence after a grenade has been thrown.

The daily battle in this backcountry of PTS is trying to find the balance between these two, between life and despair. Our challenge is to find someone or something that gives us the ability to be able to distinguish between the two. Then we have to persuade ourselves, over and over, that the cool air on our skin, the scent of linden blossom, the taste of coffee, is the present, and that the recurring memory of violence is a part of our inner landscape that must not be the inevitable winner.

And even if, at times, actual violence again becomes our present, we have to keep reminding ourselves that it is not the only reality—that it will end.

I am going to put a part of that again, in another way. Please, if you are someone who battles it out in the backcountry, find someone or something that will train you and your mind to be able to engage with the world around you as it really is, to help you know and believe that the back-country battleground is indeed a battleground, but it is not your life.

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Autonomy and Control—and our human need for both

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It’s interesting thinking about autonomy, sitting here now, in Kashmir, the whole valley curfewed, everyone confined, shut in, locked down. And it was another version of interesting when flying out of the United Kingdom a few weeks ago, just as the reality of the vote to leave the European Union began to set in.

The first, this current curfew, could be called a draconian denial of autonomy. In the case of Kashmir this rapidly becomes steeped in layers of complex regional politics and duplicity. So, let’s just leave it at the point where curfew is an action that stops people from leaving their homes, and that there is the threat of severe punishment if they do.

The second example, the ‘Out’ vote, claimed to be a bid to be unfettered from the bend-of-your-banana dictates of the EU.

The first is seen as a serious loss of autonomy, the second claimed to be a reassertion of economic independence.

But this is not about the politics of these two things. It’s a dig at both in order to look at the driving human intentions behind these two things—our human need for both freedom and also for a sense of control and order in our lives.

Life in Four Parts

If we look at our lives in four basic parts: early childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age, both the desire for autonomy and the need for control play out, continually.

For many of us our early childhood is entirely controlled by our parents. They provide safety and nurture, and they make almost all decisions on our behalf. It is this part, the decision making, that we push back against in adolescence. Whilst the teenage fug and funk isn’t exactly the best method in advocating for increasing autonomy, it is all part of that pitted road towards adulthood.  The hardest bit is that, while flailing to find the way through the doom-laden teens, demanding more freedom means also being prepared to take the responsibility that goes with this great prize.

Of course most parents claim to long for obedient teenagers, but if teenagers aren’t rebelling, how can they take that first step towards adulthood, and towards that vital double act of maturity—freedom and responsibility? Teenagers are supposed to demand increasing levels of freedom whilst resisting responsibility. It’s all part of the game, almost as if this rebellion is the last chance to put off the inevitable drudge of adulthood, whilst playing pretend grown-ups.

And then, after those years of feeling constantly misunderstood and nagged, along comes real adulthood, head-butting us into its endless round of having to make choices, and then take responsibility for them as well. In the constant round of this there is, of course, a natural tendency towards wanting to have a sense of belonging, to be respected for what we do, to have a sense of control over our lives, and to feel safe within our world.  Many do not conform, but the majority of us run roughly along these lines, feeling overly controlled by bosses or paymasters, and by the responsibilities that we have taken on, whilst usually feeling that we don’t have as much control over our situation as we would like.

Then comes old age, defiant in the face of the rush of time passing, pushing back against some of the controlling aspects of the long middle chunk of life. As we age we seem to need bits from the first and second stages, both control and autonomy. As we crumble we need to be taken care of, and increasingly so, and yet those who age the most resiliently seem to do so because they have been able to retain a vital sense of independence. They continue to be able to look after themselves, finding meaning and purpose in the detail that is so often missed when we are busy being younger. It can be the satisfaction of being able to manage daily life without the help of others; or still being able to nurture others, whether children, grandchildren, a dog, a prized tomato plant, the robin that comes to sit on the kitchen window sill every morning; being able to really enjoy the company of others with the luxury of time to do so; or a deepening sense of the value of life with the poignant perspective that it is beginning to run out.

I suppose we just want it all because, well, we are human—to be free to live as we wish, but with the security of feeling that we have control over our lives.

And beyond these two, a great truth, that we really have no control, but that we do have the freedom to choose to acknowledge this, to embrace it, and to control our fear of it.

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‘Good-bye’ – to anyone who is graduating

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You’re there, that place that glimmered so far in the future that it was almost impossible to imagine.

Do you remember arriving, that freshman moment when you first saw all those seniors? They seemed so full of worldliness, glossy with it. And you were floundering, trying to find your room, the student centre, the various lecture halls, the laundry, struggling with student IDs, which classes you should take, how to find friends, missing your old ones, missing so much, wary of so many things.

Do you remember feeling alone in all the newness of it all, finding it unimaginable that you could ever get anywhere near that glossy knowingness?

But you did, and here you are, except that often it doesn’t feel as burnished now that you’re here, now that it’s your turn.

How can it feel golden whilst juggling the toxic mix of sleep deprivation and finals deadlines, both looming over you like some horrendous interactive 3D horror flick, body and brain scattered in all directions?

How can you find a way to hand in a thesis, an independent study, an essay or paper, when it feels so far from the sparkling version that you had imagined in your mind’s eye?

How can you sit an exam, your brain frozen for fear of questions that you did not revise for, or based on that book that you never had time to read?

And how can you deal with the seemingly endless round of rushed good-byes? Everyone leaving, friends whose lives have intertwined so intensely with yours—that moment when you have pulled yet another all-nighter, and then one of your best of the best friends knocks on your door, heading for an early train, and you can’t tell whether you are blinded by exhaustion or tears as you hug ‘good-bye’.

On top of all this, how can you even begin to see beyond the finish line of graduation to what lies beyond, that endless savannah of ‘the future’ that you feel so ill-equipped to face?

Then comes That Moment…gowned, hand on head, holding in place the strange sitting there. In this particular blur of time how do you juggle your parents, the endless photographs, diluting family with your friends, keeping boyfriends or girlfriends away from family, or introducing them for the first time, hand still on head, trying to hold that bizarre mark of academe in place?

You can’t

That’s the most important thing to know. The best, the most you can do, is to find a manageable compromise and to find a way to allow yourself to accept…

  • that you are simply exhausted, possibly irritable, probably volatile, but this is how it is, and it is how it is for everyone else as well.
  • that you cannot achieve the imagined standard of work, and that there is a victory enough in being able to hand it in, or in sitting papers at all, considering that you are probably functioning as about 35% of your full capacity, the other 65% mired in lack on sleep.
  • That, well, to use statistics for a moment, the highest percentage of lasting friendships are formed in college. You may be saying bleary ‘good-byes’ now, but they are, for the most part, temporary. Away from the crude statistics it is just humanly right to feel emotional at this point because you are bidding farewell to something else—that delicate and rich space that hovers between childhood and full adulthood. It is a time that will not come again. It needs to be marked.

And then there will be a commencement speech—someone inspiring, booked to stir your soul, and to make your family or supporters believe that their money was well-spent. There may be wise words, a life-enhancing feel good send off, perhaps some cautionary tales, or perhaps you will barely even hear it, the words fall down around you, your brain too tired to make sense of them.

The Future

This is where the last part of the graduation list comes in. The commencement speech might tap into and enrich your excitement, but it could leave you uninspired, and simply dreading what lies beyond.

The future presents a kind of freedom that you may well not have experienced before. For some it means being able to make decisions for yourself for perhaps the first time. It an be  when you begin to find your way towards your future relationship with those who have watched over you, perhaps paid for you all the way, and hence held sway over many aspects of your decision-making to date.

Some relish this idea, this freedom to choose, and to take responsibility for those choices.  Others can be paralysed by this, sometimes just because of a lack of experience in decision-making.

Graduation is symbolic, however much it may have been diminished by time and fashion. It still marks the point when you step away from the main structure of your life to date, those seventeen or so years of education that have led you to this point, sometimes gladly and sometimes kicking and screaming.

This entry point to the future needs anchor points.

Writing it down

I am not particularly in favour of suggestions, and certainly not advice, but I have never regretted being forced to write down how I felt about my life when I was 22. I thought it was a slightly bizarre idea at the time but I still did it, mainly to humour the slightly scary person who had prescribed it.

Sometimes I re-read what I wrote then and realise how, in spite of all the spinning emotions and exhaustion of that time, I did have a clearer sense of myself than I realised.

I do remember feeling that almost every aspect of my life was out of control, and yet I still managed to put down what mattered to me at that moment. Some of it directly reflected what was happening around me at the time. Many of those things have fallen away over the years.  Yet there were other aspects of my life that I seem to have had a clear sense of then. These have lasted to the extent that they have been the central drivers of my life.

The good and the bad of it

Perhaps you have been disappointed? Maybe this whole process has failed to be the gleaming experience that you had hoped it would be. If so then you may be in for a surprise. The future may be easier than you anticipate because you have already learnt how to handle disappointment. This gives you an advantage, even before you put on your mortar board and gown.

But if it has been a golden time, you may need to understand that another lesson lies in store—learning to absorb disappointment because life may now not match up to these past three or four heady years.

There is a good reason why so many people refer to their college years as the high-point of their life. Some found that everything after graduation was a disappointment, and  instead of learning to face this, they were defeated by this sense, simply because they had not experienced it before.

But disappointment and perceived failure have the capacity to be rocket fuel. It’s about switching your point of view, and finding a way to see both as resilience-builders, psychological training for the mind that prepares you for anything and everything—the university of life in its fullest sense.

So, if you can, if you have the energy, write down who you are, and how you feel about life, now, at this turning point in your life.

The future will then have its first compass setting.

And for those I know who are graduating now…

It has been such a pleasure to work with you, and to learn from you.

Thank you

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The Power of Negative Thinking…because it’s the result of millions of years of evolution…

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Take a day, any day.

Ten good things might happen. Perhaps these aren’t big deal good things, but they are ten things that create a sense of contentment. Perhaps you bump into someone you haven’t seen for a while, and realise how much you enjoy talking to them; the cup of coffee at the usual place is better than usual; the train arrives on time, you get a seat; someone tells you that something that you did at work, or at school, was good. These are the small things that can build a quiet background buzz of well-being.

And then one thing happens, one negative thing. Your entire focus gets pulled to that single thing. All the good things seem to have been erased, rendered unimportant in comparison to this one bad thing.

This one thing is not some terrible catastrophe. It is just one negative thing, only equal in proportion to any one of the other ten good things that have happened.

Let’s use one of the above things from the ‘good things’ list, and turn it the other way, from a positive to that one small negative.

So far it has been the day of good things for you—bumping into an old friend, good coffee, the seat on the train and so on, but then you overhear someone at work talking to a colleague about you. Perhaps it is something along the lines of ‘I’m not sure if X (your name) has really done enough work on this. What do you think?’

You don’t have a chance to hear the answer because you have to duck into another office to avoid being seen. For a moment you stand there, horrified by the idea that your work quality is being questioned by people who you had thought of as colleagues.

Maybe the next thought is whether you really did do enough on the bit of work that you think they were talking about.

And then the spiral starts to spin.

  • Did I get something wrong?
  • Do they know something that I don’t?
  • Have they been talking to someone above us?
  • Do they think I’m going to mess up?
  • Could I lose my job because of this?
  • If I’m fired what will happen?
  • No job, no salary, no mortgage payment.
  • No house.
  • Nowhere to live.
  • No home.
  • What if my friends find out that I’ve been fired?
  • They will shun me because I’m a failure.
  • I’ll have no home and no friends.
  • My life will be shit.
  • Every bad thing that I have ever thought about myself will now have come true.

 

 

How does that happen?

Why do we spiral so fast?

We overhear one comment and spin into a wild vortex of negative thought. We can plunge from overhearing a small work slight to being completely convinced that we are about to homeless and friendless, and all that in about four seconds flat.

Why?

Evolution.

We were designed to survive, a self-protection system that has enabled us to continue as a species, to avoid extinction, and not only to survive but to thrive and become the dominant species. It is a highly evolved protection system and when it perceives a threat it goes into overdrive, scanning for other threats.

This is part of the flight, fight or freeze response that we are always hearing about. It triggers a flood of hormones into our system that allows us to fight off the enemy, to run like hell to get away from them, or to freeze because becoming completely still can put off the kind of predator that locks onto movement as it hunts.

This is going to serve us well if we’re walking down the street and someone runs at us with a knife. Primal survival systems will kick in and serve us well, pumping adrenalin into the system to fight or flee. They do not serve us so well when the brain reads something as a threat that is not actually a threat. It is a misread, but it will go on checking obsessively, just to make sure that what it misread as a threat really isn’t one, and it will go on and on checking.

This obsessive checking is the negative spiral.

The overheard criticism does not actually threaten our life, but it does have the power to jeopardise our fragile self-image. So our evolutionary reaction reads it as an actual threat and it keeps checking and checking again, sending out another negative thought, and then another, assessing, checking, checking again to try and work out the threat level. The overheard comments twists from what was actually heard into being something that has the apparent potential to rob us of our livelihood and well-being. It has been assessed as having the potential to end in a worse case scenario that we need to be prepared for.

Except for one thing.

It is based on no actual evidence.

It is simply evolution in overdrive.

This pattern of negative thought has the potential to stop us in our tracks and to trigger mounting anxiety. Both of these are irrational responses but they feel very real as we experience them—very, very real.

How can we stop it?

We can’t stop negative thinking, but we can be aware of it happening.

If we can see what is going on we have the opportunity to choose not to engage with it as it spirals down.

The first reaction to an overheard criticism might be shock, followed by a thought such as, ‘What is this based on, where does this come from?’

That is a good stopping point.

The rest of the negative downward spiral may keep on going but we can acknowledge what is happening.

Meanwhile there is the chance to stop at the first reaction, as in ‘What was this criticism based on?’

At this point we can start checking. In a way it is like the old journalism rule:  check your sources.

Check your sources

Just those three words—simple, yes, easy no.

It means acknowledging the nature of negative thought, and the speed with which it can plunge us into despair, fear, anxiety, depression, but those three words allow us to step back, to ask ‘what is this based on?’

Let’s apply it to the downward spiral of the example:

  1. In the face of this overheard criticism, do I trust the people I overheard? Check this on what you already know and understand about these people.
  2. If they are not known as stirrers or office gossips, why am I reacting this way? It is because you didn’t do enough diligence on the work they were talking about? Are they are in some way right and do I need to own up to myself about this? Check what can be done to remedy the situation and that is within your power to do. .
  3. Did I get something wrong? Check this based on the work that you did, and what you were asked to do.
  4. Have they been talking to someone above me? Check whether this is really something that is possible, or is this now tipping into irrational thinking based on mounting anxiety.
  5. Do they think I am going to mess up? Check whether this is based on a fear of whether you are actually going to mess up, or is it your habit to always be anxious about work that you have responsibility for?
  6. Could I lose my job as a result of this? Check whether this is actually possible in relation to the expectation of this particular piece of work. Is this really a fireable offence? If you think it is, what is this based this on?
  7. If I am fired I will have no salary? Again check, but now in a physical way. Stop, take a breath—not just in the conceptual way, but an actual slow breath, in and out. In the space created by one breath, notice the downward spiral, the speed at which it is spinning.
  8. No salary, no mortgage payment? Keep checking, in the knowledge that this spiral is spinning, and that you need to keep stepping back from it because it serves no purpose.
  9. Keep taking a breath, another breath, stepping back in the moment that just one breath gives you.
  10. Try not to underestimate or undermine the moment of perspective that one breath can give you.
  11. Know that the momentary perspective will very quickly be undermined by the weight of negative thinking.
  12. Try to find a way to trust the tiny moments of perspective.
  13. Keep checking.
  14. Keep breathing.

Simple. Not Easy.

There it is—a response to negative thinking. It is very easy to write. It is even quite easy to think about, but it is very hard to do. It takes a lot of practice, and the courage to just show up and challenge the negative spiral as it starts, rather than taking the painfully more familiar path of following the spiral down.

The irony is that this flips right back to the previous post and means rising to the challenge of saying ‘no’ to the negative, cruelly persuasive thinking pattern.

It starts with the first check, the first challenge.

 

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Rejection

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‘No!’.

This is not a word that we are particularly good at using well.

And it’s not the one we want to hear, at least most of the time.

Of course there are the times when we skew a question because we actually want to get a ‘no’, as in something along the lines of ‘Are you going to yell at me now?’, but this is not about that version of it.

Most of us are not much good at saying ‘no’ when we most need to.

Version One

‘Would you like to have a coffee?’ asks a man or woman we’ve been talking to. This usually happens in a situation where there is no choice—classic examples being conferences, enforced office socialising, the long-postponed neighbourhood meeting about recycling. The common theme here is that we probably don’t want to be there.

Every cell in our body is screaming ‘no’, but we smile, make a vague excuse, the ‘that sounds nice, but…’ kind, and then we think it’s over.

We think he or she will move on, quietly we hope, but we realise that they are waiting for a time and date. Somehow the vague excuse has been re-interpreted as a ‘yes’.

We now have about a second to choose whether we are going to find a good way to be less vague about our excuse (is there ever a good way?), or we go along with it, working on the basis of, ‘oh, it’s only about an hour of my life, how can it hurt?’

Is any of that at all familiar?

Version Two

We have been standing in the doorway of a room full of people. Actually we have probably been longing to be invisible because this is uncomfortable for us. That is another understatement—this is painful, both physically and mentally.  More than almost anything else, this is not something that we ever want to be doing, but we felt we had to test ourselves. We agreed to go, even though the people, the committee, organisation, or whoever it is that asked us, has no idea of the kind of disabling anxiety that crowds of people induces in us.

We are confronted by a wall of noise, a heaving mass of fear-inducing people, and every instinct tells us to flee, to go and find a quiet, dark place where we can curl up and hide. There may only seem be a few people in the room to someone else, but to us this is terrifying.

And then someone smiles at us—a lifeline, a welcome. We edge towards them, tentatively, and they are still smiling. We override the voices screaming at us to leave, and we approach.

We ask a question, horrified by how stupid it sounds, even as we ask.

But they reply, still smiling.

They are speaking to us, and it does not seem so bad. We know we are sweating but they don’t seem to have noticed, and even if they have, they are being kind enough not to show it.

We relax a little.

A while later we are still talking. For the first time for a long time we feel something that to us is so unfamiliar that we almost miss it.

Is it a tiny flicker of confidence?

Can we, could we, do we dare?

How bad will it be if they say ‘no’?

Maybe with this new, unfamiliar chink of courage the idea of ‘no’ doesn’t seem so bad. If they say ‘no’ it could be that they are just busy, or going on somewhere else.

That wouldn’t be so bad would it?

They say ‘yes’.

We can’t quite believe it.

And now a whole new arena of anxiety opens up, fraught with every social agony that has ever eaten into our sleepless nights.

Every ‘what if?’ rears its ugly, leering head, taunting us with the possibility of failure.

We are frozen to the spot by panic.

Why we don’t do it well

Let’s go back to the beginning, and to our reasons for being bad at saying ‘no’ in ways that are honest and thoughtful.

This is about turning down a situation rather than rejecting the person, this person in front of us, who seems so nervous.

We are designed by evolution to leverage situations that make us feel superior. Being asked to do something that we don’t really want to do plays into this, as in the idea that we are superior because we are being asked, and we don’t want to go. What can follow is a sense that this means we are desirable, and so, whether we mean to or not, we think of the other person as being less desirable than we are.

  1. Do not trust this sliding scale of desirability because it works on a purely evolutionary basis. The person that evolution thinks you should breed with may be good for a one-night stand with a higher chance of impregnation, but this primal arousal is a very poor indicator of whether the other person is actually someone you would want to spend time with, outside of the rutting season.
  2. We don’t want to offend or hurt people by saying ‘no’, or that is what we tell ourselves. Actually the truth is usually closer to the idea that we do not want to say ‘no’ because we might then be judged as not a likeable, or indeed desirable person.
  3. We simply don’t know how to say ‘no’, for any number of reasons that would require a bucketful of posts around confidence, self-esteem, early damage, the list goes on… (plenty of earlier posts on all of the above.)

Is there a better way to do this?

Let’s take both points of view.

First: the person who was asked for coffee, and who failed to say ‘no’.

  1. When in this sort of situation, an emotional subtlety is to really look at the person who is asking. What about considering about how hard it might have been for them to ask the question about having coffee?
  2. If we find it difficult to say ‘no’, why is this? How honest can we be with ourselves about why we don’t want to say ‘no’? Again the bucketful of possible reasons comes into play.
  3. Do we become irritated in these sorts of situations and simply find it easier to say ‘yes’ because trying to find a polite and honest way of saying ‘no’ seems too hard.
  4. Did we just never learn to say ‘no’ for yet another bucket load of reasons?
  5. Do we just need to start learning to say ‘no’? And if so, should we start practicing. Now.

Second: the person who asked the question.

  1. When summoning up the courage to ask this sort of question do we really look at the person we are about to ask, or is the moment too nerve-wracking to be able to actually look up?
  2. Are we setting ourselves up for failure by being unrealistic in asking someone who is probably going to say ‘no’?
  3. And if so, is this because there is a part of us that wants to get a ‘no’ because this plays into our sense of ourselves as being someone who just gets turned down by everyone, who will never find it easy to make friends, who is destined to be alone.
  4. If we do have this doomed sense that we will always be alone do we know where this stems from? How well do we understand our own patterns of negative thinking? (And this is going to be the next blog posting…)

So this is what it comes down to two questions: asking ourselves why we can’t say ‘no’ when we should, and also asking ourselves why we ask for something when we know the answer is going to be ‘no’. And there is nothing wrong with that second one, as in asking, even against the odds. Sometimes people are surprising and say ‘yes’ when we assumed they were going to say ‘no’. Sometimes they say ‘yes’ because they are simply impressed that we have had the balls to ask. And sometimes they say ‘yes’ when they mean ‘no’, and so back we go to the beginning.

In short, we have to take responsibility for the misunderstandings caused by saying ‘yes’ when we mean ‘no’. And we have to be frank with ourselves about how much we will be affected by a ‘no’ in reply to a question.

‘No’ is not a rejection of who we are. It is a rejection of one question.

‘Yes’ is easier to say than ‘no’ and so we keep finding ourselves in these messes that we then have to dig ourselves out of, usually feeling increasingly resentful as we do.

This is beginning to go around in circles when much of this comes down to one thing, where this began—most of us need to practice saying ‘no’ to others, and perhaps more importantly, to ourselves.

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Numb or Raw—the pain of feeling nothing or everything

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It was an odd argument, except that it wasn’t one—it probably just sounded that way—animated, two bodies leaning in towards each other, engaged, buzzing, hands waving, freighted silences as the right words were scrabbled for. We were like dogs digging in sand, ideas flying, making a lot of mess.

The subject: feeling nothing as against feeling everything.

To those sitting beside us it may well have sounded tub-thumpingly earnest. But how can you not be hand-wavingly consumed when examining whether it is more humanly painful to feel nothing or everything?

We were talking about young men stuck in claustrophobic refugee camps. They may have escaped from violence, but many of them see a return to it as the only option for their future. Some see the only way out of their numb isolation as joining a band of brothers, brothers-in-arms, with guns, by continuing the killing.

That’s the extreme version, but let’s bring this out of the over-topical refugee camp situation, and into the rest of life, all life.

Numb or raw

When something shatters us, a sudden death, illness, divorce, loss, or it can be a more existential splintering—a sense that everything that once meant something no longer has meaning, there is a wide range of immediate reactions. How we first react to devastation often dictates how we will absorb the psychological battering that we are going through, and how we will find our way back from it. Out of this wide range of initial reactions, this post is about two: numbness and hyper-sensitivity, as in feeling nothing or feeling everything.

The numbness can be loosely explained in part as being the loss of empathy. Something so huge has happened, or is being experienced, that it’s as though there is no spare human space to be able to sense or imagine how anyone else can be feeling. Your pain, your experience, has overtaken everything else. In the extreme version, the disempowered young refugee, it can manifest in an apparent ‘f*** you world, you’ve f***ed with me, so now I’m going to f*** with you’. So, picking up the gun, becoming part of a radicalised and armed group might seem the only thing left that can cut through the numbness. Or there is suicide—that other kind of killing.

How ugly is this paradox: that only taking away other lives or suicide are perceived as having any sense of meaning?

This is a nuclear form of numbness.

From both sides

For you, for me, for the young man in the camp, what does that numbness actually feel like?

To those around the numbness it can come across as extreme selfishness, a kind of inexplicable level of self-indulgence that causes offence, frustration, hurt and anger, the ‘I don’t know who you are any more’ variety.

To the one who is numb there is only an experience of utter aloneness that is unimaginable if it has not been experienced. It is perhaps too rinsed down, but it does so often come down to that one-liner, ‘no-one understands me’. This is simply how it feels, that no other human being can begin to understand this pain.

On the opposite side, feeling everything is a raw, over-exposed, wincing, cowering, wounded animal experience. The sound of a firework becomes a bomb blast, a soft warm wind holds the threat of becoming a tornado, a puppy’s whelping cry sounds like the end of all life, a mobile on vibrate in someone else’s bag becomes a personal attack. The nervous system seems to have lost a layer of protection, no, more than one—it’s as though several layers of emotional skin have been ripped away. The closest I can get is that it is like living in a glass room where all the walls are constantly shattering.

If it is you

How should we react to this numbness or rawness if it is happening to us?

Some of us want to be saved from it.

And some don’t.

The second line is misleading. It can seem that those in pain don’t want to be saved, or to save themselves, but asking for help can feel harder than living with the agony.

That is the cruellest part of this because there is nothing—almost nothing that anyone can do from the outside to influence this decision. A hormonal surge, or a chemical one, a tiny human shift in a split second, can be all that it takes to make the decision. For one is might be to join a killing machine group, or it might be suicide. And then there is there is another decision, a radically different one, the enormous human choice to do something to change your relationship with yourself.

It will almost always come down to a single act of courage, one that is made with the partial realisation of how hard it will be to walk back into the world of real feelings, ones that we will have to take responsibility for.

And if it is not you

If you are the one on the outside, wanting to help but unsure how to, what can you do then?

I put ‘almost nothing’ earlier, as in there is almost nothing that can be done from the outside, but what does that ‘almost nothing’ mean?

If you are the one standing in the pain shadow of someone you love or care about, it means being able to hear and understand when they are asking for help. Sometimes it comes out arse-about. It can sound aggressive, or loaded with criticism and hurt. For you this means side-stepping the insults while trying to see the anger for what it is, and the pain that fuelled it. If you know the person well it can mean learning to read between the lines, becoming an interpreter of anger or monosyllabic answers. It can mean something as basic as going for a walk with them, without talking about the problem—just allowing them to feel normal for a bit.

You do not have to save anyone, but another sort of courage is needed—the kind that means you just have to be in the room with the person who is numb or raw. By just being there it can allow them to feel safe enough for a human miracle to happen—the decision to save their own life.

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The Divided Self – the inner civil war that we wage

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Just to clear up an important point, by divided I don’t mean those mental agonies that gets whacked with labels beginning with bi-, split-, schiz- or borderline-something-or-other.

I want to look at another divide that can and does happen deep within our core.

We all have a greater vision of ourselves, the one that most of us are too wary to voice because we’re afraid that it will sound too showy-off—a case of inflated magical thinking. And this is not the version of ourselves that’s about fame, fortune or power—the ones about starting the unstartable start-up, or running a town, a state, or a country. It is not the ambition to be regarded as the greatest of your generation, the brightest, the best, the richest, fastest, sexiest, kindest, prettiest, or even the meanest or cruellest.

It isn’t any of these.

This is the version of ourselves that stems from the core beliefs that we hold, the integrity that resides far enough inside that sometimes we forget that it is even there. These are internalised convictions. Some of them may have been inherited or, by contrast, formed in reaction to the belief systems or religion that we were born into. Others may have formed slowly, little by little through study or practice, by seeking out something that gave us a sense of meaning or purpose. Some may have been fire-branded into us in a single moment, a lightening strike of truth experienced in the face of death, violence, birth, joy, or sadness. Whatever the route to these beliefs that are, in their very essence, our very personal sense of what is right, and what is wrong.

That is the centre of self that I am trying to describe, the one that is our ethical foundation. It is that ‘still small voice’ that tries to speak to us when we know we are about to do something that we do not believe in, that we know is wrong, and yet we justify it. We tell ourselves that we have no choice; that we will lose our job, our relationship, or our position in society, if we do not do this thing that the core of us knows is wrong. It is the same quiet voice that also tells us the right thing to do, and yet we ignore it, or override it with the loud noise of justification.

This separation from the self has the capacity to destroy us. Sometimes it happens slowly, one small transgression against self at a time. Or it can happen in a second of fractured time—a trigger pulled, a button pressed, a sentence yelled, a dream crushed, love trampled, innocence destroyed.

The greater the separation, the harder the journey is back to the self.

If it’s been just a few mean things said to friend in a moment of jealousy, then it’s not that hard to fold up the ego and apologise, with that true sense of ‘I am sorry’. But if the divorce from the ethical core has been huge, played out from a position of power, one from which lives were destroyed, the deaths of countless and faceless people ordered or enacted, how can any human being find their way back from that? Is redemption possible, as in a return to an earlier sense of self, the one that once had a cleaner understanding of what was right and where wrong began?

To strip this right back: if we do things that we know are wrong, and contrary to what we believe in, we lose ourselves.

Once we are beginning to get lost it takes a very particular kind of courage to face the truth of this.

And with this realisation comes another moment of bravery, the one when we reach out for help because we know that we are lost and we’re not sure if we can find the way back alone.

All of this runs into the dangerous territory of sounding preachy. It is not intended to be.

Within my own experience and work this just keeps leaping out as a major aspect of mental health that is rarely talked about. I’m not sure if, in part, this might be because it is a form of hard won empowerment—that of taking personal responsibility. This is something that can fly in the face of the prescription pad and indeed some of the mainstream therapeutic methods. I just do not really see that any therapeutic healing and recovery journey can be made without this link back to our inner value system and sense of purpose.

With it comes an aspect of control and responsibility for our own lives, and so of course it is something that I champion.

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Shame

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Why don’t we ask for help?

I want to tell you about shame.

It is like sea mist, rolling in silently, obscuring us from the world and the world from us. Shame clings, pervading and invading, blinding our ability to know what is true and what is not. Shame has been used throughout history to destroy individuals, groups, even whole societies by isolating themselves with its stigma.

I will tell two stories about shame, one is a tapestry, the other a true story.

One

A young man was given a talent that set him a part from others, a creative sensitivity that enabled him to create magical worlds so elaborate that it was impossible not to look at his pictures and be drawn into the scenes that he conjured up. His pictures transported people, reminding them of the better versions of themselves, the ones in which they did the right thing, and stood up for what they believed in.

The young man was lauded and applauded for his wild and tender portrayals of human frailty, family life, and love.

Only the young man knew that the great driving force of his creativity was his terror of being cut off from the very things that made his creative heart beat. He believed that this could really actually happen because he was hiding something from everyone he loved.

He adored his uncle, his father’s younger brother. While his father was a carefully studious and dutiful man, his uncle was wild and fun. He made up stories that made the world seem better, more exciting, a place where everything was possible.

The young man was this uncle’s favourite nephew. He once told the boy that as long as they were friends everything would be well in the world. The boy wrote this down so that he would not forget. He drew around the words, until the whole page was filled with the magic that he had felt in his uncle’s words.

When the young man was eleven his uncle forgot his birthday. He was furious. It was so important. How could his favourite uncle forget something that mattered so much to him? He hated his uncle for this failure and imagined beating him with his fists until his uncle cried out in pain.

Three days later the now twelve-year-old boy’s father told him that his uncle had been killed in a fight.

The boy believed it was his fault. He believed that had caused his uncle’s death.

Shame crept in over him like sea fog, hiding him from the world and the world from him.

Now this young man can only connect with the world through the pictures he creates of the world his uncle made him believe in.

He still believes that he is responsible for his uncle’s death.

He still believes that if his family knew the story they would cast him out from their lives.

Two

A woman lives in a place where extended families still live together. There is an expression there, a threat that ‘every girl will lose her virginity to her uncle’. When the woman was ten years old it was not her uncle but her cousin who took her virginity. He was twenty-one.

The clearest memory she has of the first time was seeing her school bag hanging over the chair where she had just left it. She remembers staring at it, imagining the books inside, her homework, separating her mind from what was being done to her body.

Her cousin went on abusing her until she reached puberty, and then he stopped. The girl had already closed down in so many ways, and when the abuse ended, she stopped speaking as well.

She believed that no-one could ever understand. She did not know how to ask for help. She was ashamed that she had never cried out when he was touching her, forcing himself into her. She could not make sense of anything that she was feeling.

Shame fogged her whole world so that she could no longer find any words to express how she was feeling. Numbness followed.

When she was sixteen her younger sister was ten. She knew that her cousin had started to abuse her sister because she recognised the blankness in her eyes, the disconnection. And still she could not find any words.

The shame was so strong by now that she would pass out, sometimes for up to an hour, and still she could not ask for help.

 

One of these people does not exist—they are a conflation of a thousand people, a hundred thousand people melded into a one, a human plea imploring others to ask for help. The other has agreed to let me tell their story because they tried to kill themself as this was the only way they could imagine escaping from the agony of the shame.

Societies have codified shame, but individuals compound it. We create the stories that we tell ourselves, stigmatising ourselves, fogging the truth—that an adored uncle just got into to fight, that childhood sexual abuse is the fault of the abuser, not the abused, not the child.

This is why reaching out for help when lost in the fog is the most important thing to do, because someone, and something will guide the way out of the shame.

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The loneliness of alone

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Why is being alone so hard for so many?

When someone crashes mentally it feels as though they are in a living death that no-one else can have experienced, a torture that only that particular person can be suffering. There is a truth to this sense of a totally separate experience because each of us breaks down for a slightly different mix of reasons, and each of us then experiences what feels to be a highly individualised mix of hellish symptoms.

There are common elements in this cruel mix of misery: sleep disturbance, or wanting to sleep all the time as a form of escape; feeling unable concentrate as well as usual, if at all; emotional over-reactions to most things, or total emotional numbness; paranoia; an inability to make decisions; restlessness; greatly increased anxiety; a sense of despair of the ‘what’s the point’ variety. It is a list that goes on through every aspect of our lives, ranging from a hatred of every part of our body and mind, to a terror of everyone and everything. But I want to pick one out of this list—loneliness.

No-one understands

Among the many things that I hear over and over as people try and tell their story is the following, sometimes forced out as though even just trying to say this is another form of torture too:

‘You don’t understand…no-one understands…’

It would be patronising to put that it is as painful to hear as it is to say. That would be as disingenuous as the boss who says, ‘this is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you…’ just before they fire you. But I do understand, even though I cannot say this as someone claims not to be understood. I understand as much as any human can understand the pain of another.

And as each person says this, from their particular place of pain, the subtext is, ‘I am so totally alone in this, no-one can possibly understand how alone I am.’

One of the conflicts of being human is the need sometimes to be alone and at other times to be with others. There are times when we long for space, whilst we also scared of being alone. We crave company at times, human contact, warmth and understanding, whilst, at the same time, wanting to remain unique in who we are, independent, different.

Evolution again

Evolution honed our minds to send us the continual feedback that we are unique and different, that others do not understand as we do, or experience as we do, that we are as individual as our fingerprints. Yes, we are a variation on a general human theme, but we are different, very different to everyone else. In the terms of evolutionary design this is all part of the self-protection mechanism—a constant mental tick reminding us of our separateness.

This is a fine design when all is well in our world, when this sense of differentness feels right. Yet everything changes when it is an apparently unique kind of mental suffering that is setting us apart from others, a feeling of being alone that can only be destructive. It makes us want to hide away, to curl up and into ourselves, for this pain not to be visible to anyone, to hide this shame. And yet, at the same time, we so desperately want to be heard, to be seen and understood.

So, it is in this one line, in it’s varied forms, ‘No-one can understand how I feel,’ that we make the evolutionary statement of our uniqueness and also of our very own particular kind of damage and pain. With this statement we seem to be saying that we want to hide the shame of all that is wrong with us, but that we also want to be helped. Or, I could strip it down further to this: we feel utterly alone in our pain, but we are desperate not to be alone, and we have no idea how to find our way out of the overwhelming fear of loneliness.

And loneliness has this overwhelming power because it cuts to our greatest fear—death. It links directly to the human terror of dying in pain with no-one there to witness the end of us, of all our pain, and all our joy. It is the vast fear of dying alone, unmarked, without having made any impression. It is the terror that all the pain, all the joy, meant nothing.

It is a very deep fear that overrides almost everything. As we begin to understand how deeply this fear is ingrained in us we begin to dilute its power. And so we begin to realise that being alone does not always have to tap back to that fear of death. That sometimes it just means we need to curl up for a while, as a wounded animal. Then, when we have healed a little, we can emerge again, and be amongst others without feeling alone in the crowd, isolated by our pain.

There will be a second part to this looking at why the sense of aloneness and isolation stops people from asking for help when they really need it.

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Recovery

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This is the third post of a series on childhood sexual abuse, examining what recovery really means. Earlier posts are here and here.

Recovery is a word that once had an almost talismanic meaning, a power that seems to have faded. It has become folded in with the easily-used jargon of what it sometimes called Recovery Inc. That is not a cheap shot but the media-dubbed term for the wide range of recovery programmes out there, everything from the broad spread of 12-Step versions to juicing detox programmes. It is a huge machine, and I am not trying to undermine it in any way. Well-known programmes save lives every day, important numbers of lives.

The point I want to make is that a lot of us now put ourselves into so-called recovery processes without actually having decided that we want to recover. It is just another process that has to be gone through, and so the power has gone out of the word.

The burning desire to really recover is where the power lies, and it is what this post is about.

We have diluted the important truth of recovery—the profound wish to return to a normal physical or mental state after, well after what? In theory it is after anything that has taken us out of the normal state. But in practice most of us don’t even start out from this odd conceptual idea of the normal state, normal meaning balanced, healthy.

What is normal?

If a child has been sexually abused, if their entire sense of themselves in the world has been defined by an early experience of this kind of human corruption, then how do they return to a normal state if they had never experienced one in the first place?

There is such a lot of media chat about all of the many and varied levels of mental disability and scarring caused by sexual abuse at any stage. But there is a certain judgement in this, with its implication that ‘we’ who are commentating are the normal ones, passing judgement on the emotionally disabled.

We are all disabled in different ways. And we all expend much of our life energy trying to hide this from others who are equally disabled. It’s not so much the blind leading the blind, as the crippled hiding from the crippled.

The risk of putting that generic point is that it could be read as sweeping us all together into the lazy and dangerous statement: ‘Oh, we’re all damaged goods, so we just have to deal with it’. No, the point of putting what I did is that the partial, or marginal damage in all of us should make us all sympathetic, indeed empathetic, to the profound wounding in those who have vast damage to take on. We should be able to admire their survival and back their recovery rather than falling back on our need to label, box, and reject the profoundly abused as ‘too hard to deal with’ in order not to have to face the underbelly of our own human condition. We don’t even realise we’re doing it, but one of the most common phrases in use is: ‘Oh, she’ll never get over that…’ as if we have almost lost our faith in our ability to recover, to heal.

Abuse controlling the story

So, recovery becomes dependent on our belief in it, in our power to heal ourselves, to take back our story. By this I mean that someone who has been sexually abused becomes controlled by their abuser, and by the story of their abuse. It gives their abuser a terrifying power that grows bigger all the time, blowing them up into figures of absolute power, and rendering the abused powerless. Recovery requires accepting and understanding the impact of these entrenched stories. It means understanding that we, the abused, the victims, have to find a way to stop our lives from being controlled by a story that happened at a point in our lives that is over.

We have to find a way to take responsibility for the truth that we are the ones still giving the story the power to control us, all day, every day.

This is a very hard truth to acknowledge, and huge support and a very dependable routine are vital in this process (this earlier post covers the five vital pillars of recovery and good mental health).

Our disabilities, our wounds, our entrenched mental stories are part of the map of who we are. To recover means finding the power to face them, fearlessly, and to accept that they are a part of who we are, the markings on our map that we have to learn to navigate. Trying to pretend that they are not there just gives them more power, the chance to lead us away from the real journey of our lives, our story, not the story of what someone else did to us. And perhaps the most important thing of all to know is that recovery is possible, and when it comes it is like being given back your life. Nothing compares to this.

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Why the abused becomes the abuser

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This is part II of a series on childhood sexual abuse. To have the fuller context, here is Part I.

It’s a survival mechanism, the abused becoming the abuser—simple, crude, an adaptive distortion. Our ability to adapt in order to survive is embedded deep within every one of us. It works very effectively in most of us, and less well in those with physical or mental scarring. Yet, even when compromised the will and impulses to survive are so strong that they will keep on keeping on, even in perverting forms. And this is not the ‘ooo-er, naughty’ misuse of perversion. It means perversions as a distortion, a twisting, a corruption.

It is arguably persuasive that the cycle of the sexually abused becoming the abuser is this kind of perversion of our survival mechanism. If this is the case then it is equally arguable that this distortion can be reset.

Neuroscience argues for this, particularly in the field of neuroplasticity—the potential of the brain to reorganize itself throughout our life. The most relevant aspect of this, in relation to child sexual abuse, is the possibility of being able to work with abused children, particularly around puberty, and post-puberty, to help them to shift thinking and habit patterns that developed as a result of sexual abuse, patterns such as extreme promiscuity, or early signs of becoming an abuser.

In practice

Let me try and explain.

A girl, a little girl, let’s call her Lucy, was serially abused from the age of three by a member of her family, an uncle who had lost his job and had come to stay with the family. For several years the abuse was apparently unnoticed by other members of the family. By the time Lucy was seven she was presenting a whole range of behaviour problems at school, but because of a series of misunderstandings, her aggression with other children, her clinginess with her mother, and sleep problems, were put down to other reasons, particularly her parent’s deteriorating marriage.

Lucy’s parents separated, quite amicably, and her father began to have her, her sister and brother, to stay at the week-ends. As he was on sole-parent duty during these stays, and because he often let his children stay up quite late watching television, while he sat with them while he worked, he tried to be diligent in watching over them. He noticed that Lucy was behaving sexually very overtly with her brother. He was two years older than her, nine to her seven. Lucy would curl up next to him, usually after fighting with her older sister, and then, quite openly, she would start to rub her brother’s groin and grab at his penis repeatedly.

Lucy’s father watched in horror, but he had no idea what to do. So, he took in what he had seen and he went to talk to a child behaviour specialist.

The point of this is not to judge whether Lucy was becoming an under-age sexual predator. The point is our point of view, our response.

Lucy was behaving very alarmingly with her brother. A common reaction would have been shock, and then to shout at or scold the child in this state of shock. Lucy would not have understood, except for beginning to experience shame without realising why. She had been groomed by an uncle to behave this way with men. She was doing what she understood as being how she was supposed to behave with males. She had been prepped to do this, perhaps rewarded, cajoled, sworn into a pact of special secrecy by the abuser.

Lucy adapted to survive, her mind normalising what was happening to her by taking it on as a learnt way of interacting with the opposite sex.

Her uncle was arrested.

Recovery

Lucy has been reconstructing the sense of who she is, with a combination of therapeutic work, normalcy, and steady support. Now, at fourteen, she seems to be doing well, with a teenage girl’s tentative though naturally growing confidence. Her performance at school is average to good, she has friends, and she has a boyfriend who she has not had sex with, she reports. Without these supports systems it is likely that she would have become sexually predatory, and by this I mean overt, maybe using sex as a way of getting things that she needed, not necessarily in the form of prostitution, though this is common too, but perhaps using her body in a harsh, functional way, as a trade. Or, she could have frozen emotionally, becoming perhaps agoraphobic, unable to function in public places without having panic attacks, or by being terrified of any more secluded scenario that reminded her of the places where her uncle abused her. Sleep problems could have become aggravated to the point where she could not function properly. Underage drug use is also a common reaction, as is alcoholism and all other methods or ‘getting out of it’—anything to numb the feelings of shame, or the drilling anxiety that comes of sexual abuse.

Her uncle is serving a prison sentence. Lucy turned out to have been one in a long history of grooming and abuse.

During the trial, a psychologist reported that, based on interviews with the defendant, it seemed that he had been serially abused as a child, and that he became an abuser when he was still under the consensual age for sex.

The questions that cannot be answered accurately

The questions are these: would Lucy have had the potential to become an abuser if her father had not realised that something was very wrong? No, highly unlikely as 97% of child sex abusers are male. But she stood a very high chance of getting drawn into a child sexual abuse ring, of becoming an addict and so being drawn into drug-muling, prostitution, sex-trafficking, the menu is endless in its capacity to destroy. She has a very good chance now of avoiding these. She is vulnerable, but she is not unprotected.

And the other question: what difference could it have made to the uncle if someone had noticed in him what Lucy’s father noticed in her? I am leery on hypothetical scenarios because of their tendency to be taken as being factual. The truth is that I do not know how different the outcome would have been. Would Lucy have become so promiscuous that she lost herself if she had not started on a therapeutic process? Would her uncle have been able to find himself if he, in turn, had been given access to the same kind of support and therapy that Lucy has had, and continues to have?

It is impossible to answer either of those questions with any accuracy, but what is clear is that Lucy has a very good chance, and she seems well on her way to reclaiming herself beyond the damage of sexual abuse. Her uncle does not have this chance.

There is too much evidence in the favour of early intervention. Those who argue against it, and there are those that do, simply do not know what they are talking about.

Part III to come, looking more closely at recovery from sexual abuse…

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The Perversion of Shame that Kills

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There is a bitter link between suicide in young men and the sexual abuse of children.

It is not the correlation that some might jump to, as in the idea that some abusers are so overwhelmed by what they have done that they kill themselves.

Even putting ‘correlation’ feels wrong, with its implication of a relationship when what ties these two groups is sexual predation, preying on those too young to understand, too small and weak to protect themselves.

The opening line raises another question: why am I focusing on the connection between suicide in young men and child sex abuse when most global statistics claim that 1 in 5 women have been through some level of childhood sexual abuse, while it is reported to be 1 in 20 men?

This is not going to be a comparison of gender sexual abuse, but it is about looking more closely at the nature of abusers. And here is that statistic: more than 90% of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse are male. They range from adolescents to the elderly, and the majority of abusers have themselves been abused.

This is the cycle that we need to look at more closely, and with care, in order to understand more fully what may lie behind the implications of the statistics.
Across a series of posts I hope you will stay with this so that we can look at:

• Why abuse happens
• Why the abused become the abusers
• How an abused child can survive and recover
• How a survivor of childhood sexual abuse can come to terms with their past and so break the cycle

Why?

In many societies, particularly more conservative ones, a poignantly high number of survivors of childhood sexual abuse attempt or commit suicide, usually long after the abuse.

Surviving abuse should be a triumph, the proof of resilience and human courage, but too often this is not the case.
Some of the reasons for this need to be looked at, particularly the ones that tend to be swept away in this time of cultural nannying and dishonesty.

Limits

In the dry language of law child sexual abuse starts under the age limit for consensual sex. As well we know this varies from country to country, even from state to state. In one place a savvy 15-year old having sex with her mature 16-year old boyfriend may be illegal, while in the next-door state it might be fine or, if it is not fine it is legal. This is where the various age-of-consent laws become uncomfortably blurred. There is also the difficult fact that law-enforcers in many places, and again particularly in more conservative societies, will arrest the ‘easy targets’, as in those right on the age limit, but shy away from the real crimes. Catching precocious teenagers on their way back from school, making out in the park, is a lot easier than going into the dark corners—into families where very young children are being serially abused by family members.
It is a desperate point that the majority, as in over 80%, of child sex abuse is by a direct family member, or a close friend of the family.

Acceptable to some

History has a habit of complicating our perception of sexual abuse. It’s too easy to wing back multiple centuries, and to use the great leap of time to make all sort of juicy judgements about the Greeks and their taste for pederasty.

Except that it is not so distant.

In the geography of where I work, The Kashmir Valley, the various Mughal courts had a great and lasting influence. Men of rank had beautiful young men as their playthings. As well as being a game for the men of power, it was seen as a way for young men to make their first mark within the tightly hierarchal court system. Of course it filtered out into society, where the habits of power were busily being mirrored by the aspirational.

And it was not just the Mughals, and it has not gone away.

American soldiers training the Afghan National Army found themselves in moral hell when they realised that some of the men they were training, and indeed getting on well with, were shipping boys into the camps as ‘donkey boys’. To explain, in this context, the sodomiser’s masculinity is rarely questioned. The sodomised are the ones who are jeered at, and called donkey boys, because they are ridden, the beasts of their society’s burden. When confronted by US soldiers the Afghans often shrugged it off as just another aspect of life that the Americans failed to understand. Even more troubling to the US soldiers was that some of the young boys told them that, for them, it was a way of getting a step up, a chance to make some money.

Rock hewn military men have wept when telling me about these cases.
And I do not want there to be a misunderstanding about the term ‘conservative societies’. In this case it is not a euphemism for cultures that we would otherwise dub, perhaps equally euphemistically, as ‘developing’. Here conservative is not about geography. It is about the misuse of ‘old value systems’ and that happens everywhere, in any kind of society, or cultural group within a society, that closes in on itself.

As soon as a community puts any kind of censure around normal sexuality any and every kind of outlet is sought. Then the distortions begin, and an increase in sexual abuse follows.

Shame

Shame has the quality of fog or gas, enveloping all, and spreading into every available space. A child does not understand what is happening, whether it is brutal abuse, careful grooming, or anything between those two. It is the nature of a child’s mind to try and make sense of what does not seem to make any sense. It is very common, and almost constant, that the abused child will think they are somehow to blame. And so the shame starts, the nagging horror that this thing that has marked their core so deeply was somehow their fault.

This is an aspect that I hope to look at separately, as in why the abused becomes the abuser.

This is not easy reading, but I ask that you stay, if you can, because the stigma and failures of understanding around childhood sexual abuse are actually killing those who could be saved, and who could save themselves.

To be continued soon….

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Pathetic Fallacy

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It’s one of those terms usually bandied about by people busy being clever. The standard habitat is under weighty by-lines in highbrow literary reviews, used in reference to something like a particularly perfect Haiku, perhaps one that imparts softly falling rain with the ability to feel the grief of love. And so it goes…

But there are times when this expression becomes both actual and accurate, particularly in the comparison between the rhythms of nature and those of the mind.

Before this starts to meander towards its very own lit. crit. pretentiousness, the context is that I am back in Kashmir, working with our team here again. In earlier posts (Disaster, So what about…, When the trauma takes over) I wrote of the floods that devastated so much of the Kashmir Valley early last September, a disaster that once again heaped misery on the people here.

A flood has the qualities of a mental breakdown, in the pathetic fallacy sense. Something of vast proportion takes over, rendering everything impossible, destroying all functioning systems and drowning so much as it sweeps all before it­—just as it feels in mental breakdown.

When a flood finally begins to recede, it seems that everything has been destroyed. Where contaminated flood water remains, stagnating, often for weeks on end, it seems as though all life has been destroyed. Colour has been stripped out or sucked away, all that was green seems poisoned with the lifeless grey of flood silt.

Existing in breakdown feels this way too—lifeless, all colour sucked away, every hour without hope.

Paddy field psychology

I have been away from Kashmir for five months and though this battered place still barely counts as being walking wounded, one thing is abundantly clear; both nature and man march on, regardless.

A farmer whose paddy fields were drowned under feet upon feet of stinking silt has been going out each day, with his family, and each day they have filled bucket after bucket with silt, trudging to the edge of their fields, piling it up into putrid mounds.

If the rice farmer had thought of how much he was going to have to move he would not been able to step out on that first morning, bucket in hand, setting out for his sunken fields.

Now I drive past the mounds of silt beside these fields, and still the farmers are wading, thigh high in the filth, digging, digging, not looking up, or too far ahead. Heads down on the next bucket to be filled. And they have uncovered whole fields again.

Where they have cleared, the wild green of the paddy is coming up.

If someone examines the enormity of how deep they are in the midst of a breakdown they will never be able to swim back up. But if they can find a way to trust that they must just show up every day, to swim just a few strokes, even if sometimes it is only one, or even half of a stroke, they will still be ascending. Eventually they will break the surface, just as the hugely alive green of the rice shoots stab through once-drowned land, just as the farmer goes on digging through the silt.

Each stroke, or half stroke, up through the drowning sense of breakdown is faith in a routine, a system—the farmer with his bucket, the powerful revival of nature in spite of all, the power of ritual, of respecting yourself enough every day to breathe, get up, move, wash, eat, even though it feels pointless, hopeless in the face of the flood of despair.

Ignoring nature

There is such endless chat about how important it is for us to reconnect to the natural world, to tap into its rhythms and systems so that we can soothe our modern world woes. Yet all the while we tap-tap away at it. Many ‘natural disasters’ are anything but—they are manmade tragedies, manifestations of how poorly we replenish and respect the land from which we so freely take. This is not an eco-lecture, but to point out that amidst all of the ranting about nature, and what we are doing or not doing to it, we seem to miss one of the most obvious aspects—that we too are created with a natural rhythm, one that closely mirrors that of natural order.

We seem so set on ignoring this that we drive ourselves mad, expecting to have the consistent level of energy, beyond those of nature and what is natural.

No wonder we break down. We create our own unnatural disasters.

We too have a winter, the time of withdrawal, of lower levels of mental and physical energy. Then comes spring, revival, regrowth, and renewed energy. We have our summer, the season of rich growth, expansiveness, bright colour and experimentation. And then comes autumn, the harvesting of our experience from those times of rich growth and high energy.

We also have our night and day, times primordially designed for the waking and alert state, and also for rest, digestion and healing.

When someone comes to work with us in a state of mental breakdown, we try and establish how far they have moved away from a natural rhythm of sleeping, waking, eating, moving, and resting. Their first stage of recovery is closely based around re-establishing a natural rhythm, just as replenishing destroyed land means finding again the natural balance of the soil so that it can sustain life.

Just as our minds and bodies are inextricably linked, so too are we aligned with the cycle of nature. Whether you are in the spring or autumn of your year, or on the edge of the hot season, consider please, how your mind and body reflect this, and please consider respecting this connection.

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Sanctuary

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It is a poignant word, one that needs to be taken hold of for a moment—a fragile thing to be cradled and examined tenderly for what it really means. By that I’m not talking about its dictionary or conceptual definition, but both its actual and symbolic sense to you.

Sanctuary—a safe place of retreat, of protection, somewhere where we no longer have to fight, where we can lay down our arms, soften and become who we really are, without artifice, free of fear.

Behind everything that I have been writing here, beyond all the agonies around the various forms of mental despair, lies this need for an internal and external place of refuge.

Once this has been found recovery can really begin.

All the time that we are fighting our thought demons there is no sense of safety. Everything that we try, whether medication, therapy, or therapeutic processes, can only really be a holding pattern if they are the only support. They may allow the sufferer to stay just above water, clinging to what may perhaps just be a temporary life raft, but sanctuary is the solid ground, the foundation for recovery. That first mental step onto dry land after battling the waves, the first pair of strong hands pulling you up into a boat when you thought, when you truly believed, that you were drowning, these are the first moments of reprieve, the beginning of the end of the breakdown.

Sanctuary is where we need to go when we are not ourselves so that we can find ourselves again.

The difficulty is that when it is bad, and when we alone, or using a minimum of discreet help, we are trying to prove to ourselves that it is not as bad as it feels, that we can still manage, and that we will get through this. This itself is a survival mechanism. But the actuality is that it probably is as bad as it feels. The longer we fight through each day, feeling less and less safe all the time, the less energy we have available to allow us to step back and realise how utterly and overwhelmingly exhausted we are.

When do we need to find sanctuary?

We need to know when we have reached the point to seek sanctuary. A clear indicator of this is when each day has become an agonising round of mental hand-to-hand fighting, when each hour is a battle, when even the idea of trying to get through more than an hour at a time seems crushing. When it comes down to this level of segmented time survival, this is the point for refuge.

But here is another tough part—the worse we feel the harder it is to recognise that we are at the point of really needing sanctuary, or even to summon up the energy to find it.

What is sanctuary?

  • It is a place, and it does not have to be a physical one, but a place or sense of place where we know we feel safe, where we can retreat in the knowledge that wounds can be licked, and where we can curl up and rest without being told off, until strength begins to return.
  • People can be sanctuary, those who we can be ourselves with, in honesty, with all our guards down. People who will take us as we are, and who we would take as they are, if the tables were turned, if they were the ones falling apart.
  • Music or images that we love, places we can visit in the knowledge that they have an almost sacred power for us in that the world retreats when we are there. It can be anything from sitting in an art gallery, in front of a picture that allows the internal world to quieten; a place in the landscape to lie in the grass, see the sky, and feel part of something greater than ourselves; a corner seat in a café where we can feel safely anonymous but reassuringly recognised as well; a piece of clothing that makes us feel protected, as though confidence is woven into it.

All these places, things and experiences, they are all the fabric of sanctuary. And then there is perhaps the most sacred of all, and the most readily available—to be able to lie in the quiet of that moment of waking, when the world is still clean. To put your hands on your belly, and to feel your own breath rising under your hands as you breathe in, falling gently as you breathe out. This is real, safe, solid, unchallengeable—this is sanctuary.

 

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Beyond Suicide

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Suicide is not a decision made from a balanced or rational place, but it is still a choice.

The act of suicide is someone deciding that the only choice left is death.

Except that is not what they’re thinking at the time.

The common drive in suicide is the consuming and desperate need to stop the pain: mental and sometimes physical pain too, but in short the unbearable pain of being alive.

But this final and terminal choice is still that, a choice.

I am using the word ‘choice’ consistently for a reason. But if I switched to ‘option’, ‘alternative’, or ‘course of action’, the point would become diluted. This is very clearly about a choice that needs to be understood.

I have written several times, in other posts, that trying to understand what triggers this final choice, and wondering what could have been done to stop it, is a path to mental hell.

But for those heading there, and for anyone who has thought about suicide, there is something that needs to be looked at closely when the idea of suicide begins to spread, as it does, like squid ink, darkening all around it, sucking life out of everything.

Because that is what happens when you consider suicide—the singular focus on the idea of death suffocates life.

When someone starts to think about killing themselves they need to consider this: it is very hard to think about life when you are thinking about death.

In this vein, it is hard to think about being happy when you are sad, and it can feel impossible to believe that the sun will ever rise when you are flailing in the dark night of the soul.

Thinking about death in this single-focused way becomes entirely consuming.

It mines such a very deep seam, arguably the root of all of our fears—our fear of death.

We are designed to think about death for two reasons: in order to avoid it while we are alive, and so that we can grasp its inevitability.

If evolution has designed us to avoid death as best we can, soulful philosophy demands that we examine the meaning of our life. For how we feel about death is inextricably linked to how we feel about life.

An over-simplification of this is that if we are afraid of death we are likely to live our life fearfully. If we accept the inevitability of death, we are more likely to be able to accept the difficulties of life.

An over-simplification, as I put, but it is an interesting starting point to see our fear of death as being the thought pattern that stops us from living our lives fully. It’s also interesting to consider that understanding our fear of death may enable us to live less fearfully. Both ideas are indeed simple to put, but very hard to live by without a profound understanding of where the fear stems from, and how to challenge it.

It may seem too basic but it is arguable that suicidal ideation is when obsessive thinking about death becomes too highly personalised, as in obsessive thought about our own death, by our own hand.

So, to go back to the starting point: in order to fully understand our sometimes obsessive and compulsive thinking about death, we need to grasp, fully, that our minds have a pre-set to overthink death.

And we must not let ourselves be fooled­—choosing not to think about death, pushing it away, is still thinking about death to the extent that it is still a response to our fear of death.

When I am working with someone who says that they can no longer see the point of being alive, the first two things we usually talk about are:

– Whether their desire to kill themselves is as a result of long-term and compounding despair, or if it is a response to a recent personal disaster.

– Whether there is a family history of suicide, this being one of the most commonly occurring pre-existing triggers for suicidal ideation. To grasp this is to give a breathing space, a chance to re-assess, something that is literally vital when suicide seems the only remaining choice.

Once the underlying cause and the possibility of inherited pain are out in the open, then we can begin to explore our mind’s design to think about death too much. From there we can start to talk about life, and the meaning of it, to them, to their life.

To summarise: we are designed to think about death, therefore we have to train ourselves to consider the importance of our own life.

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Self murder – trying to face the unimaginable

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A man flew a plane into the side of a mountain. He killed himself and 149 other people.

It is a statement of fact, and it happened last week in France. As this is posted we still do not know what actually happened, but because there is so much coverage of this as a case of planned suicide it needs to be looked at.

First and foremost it must be addressed because the risk is that the stigma around suicide will be made worse by this fatal crash. Those already suffering the agony of profound depression are so fragile that something like this can easily stop them from seeking help for fear of being judged, branded, marked as being weak, damaged or dangerous. It could also stop people from asking for help or medical support for fear of losing their jobs, because this is what it is claimed that pilot did—hiding his mental and physical state from his employers, repeatedly.

If it was a pilot suicide it is another on a painful list. There have been eight recorded pilot suicides on commercial flights in the past forty years.

Much of the news coverage since this latest devastation has also talked of the crash of an Egypt Air flight in 1999 that killed 217 people. By comparison the recent crash is described as being ‘the second biggest pilot suicide’.

Does that help in anyway at all? It is comforting to know that someone you loved was killed in ‘the second biggest’ case of pilot suicide? Is it constructive for the family of the pilot to know that their relation was responsible for the ‘second biggest’?

It is insulting to everyone who was killed by the pilot, to their families, and for anyone in the aviation industry who now has to find a way to carry on doing their job.

News cycles turn. We know this—the cruelly tender enquiries of journalists in search of an exclusive from grief-stricken family story fly in the face of all that is human, but this is the nature of news. And then the cycle goes on, around again, leaving all those that are grief-stricken to fend for themselves.

How can we confront this, the idea of someone who commits suicide and murder at the same? How do you get back on a plane again if you an anxious flier? How do you get back on board if this is your job, if you are a pilot, or any member of a crew? How does anyone contend with the agony of knowing that someone they loved was intentionally killed as the result of someone else’s suicide?

The following statement cannot help or comfort but it is very important to understand. When someone kills themselves they are incapable of thinking of anyone else in that moment in rational, human, or emotional terms. This lack of responsibility is almost never deliberate, and again it is very, very rare that there is an intention to kill others.

Suicide is a final act of absolute desperation. The mind has one single point of focus, and no other thought has the power enters into the mental firestorm that triggers this final act of despair.

To ask why, or to try and imagine what could have been done to alter what happened is only to start a cycle of mental torture that will never end.

It is so profoundly human to need to find meaning in death. We crave to understand, to find a reason, something we can grasp in order to make sense of the vast loss. Suicide offers no answers, only more questions. It is how we react that is the lesson.

As the days pass we will read the news, and hear the strained voices of shocked families as they try to grapple with the enormity of this kind of violence to self and to others. Many of us will want to turn off, or turn away, because it is too painful to imagine this being done to someone we love, or to try and understand what it means to come so desperate, so profoundly broken, as to do something like this. And then most of us will move on, turning with the news cycle, because this is something too agonising to think about.

I do hope that we can find it in ourselves to face it for long enough to become braver about understanding why people resort to suicide. Every time we turn away we miss a chance of learning how to recognise the signs, in others, or ourselves. We miss the chance to begin understanding ourselves more, of becoming psychologically stronger, and less afraid of reaching out and asking for help, or of holding out our hand to someone who needs it.

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Let’s talk about text

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Why we get so angry and hurt…

Complex introductions should act as a warning that you are about to embark on reading a lot of waffle—a bunch of complicated theories that the writer may be struggling to get to grips with themselves. The more adjectives involved, the more rubbish you are probably about to read. So, I am going to make the following as clear as I can.

Social media is depressing.

To be more specific: social media is depressing if you are tired, vulnerable, feeling lonely, or anywhere remotely on the scale of being either anxious or depressed.

It will make you feel worse. It is as simple as that.

If you are down and flicking through the faked and fabulous lives of your ‘followers’ it is going to make you feel worse. And if anyone says anything even the tiniest bit critical about any of your posts you are going to read it as being roughly seven times worse than it is. That is an actual as in, yes, it will feel seven times worse than the actual comment is. This is because we know, both consciously, but mostly subconsciously, that this perceived criticism is also being seen by hundreds, maybe thousands, tens of thousands or even more other people.

It’s the ether equivalent of walking into a party naked.

Criticism taps into our deep-seated sense of shame, and, when it is a social media shaming it is very public. It is advised that if you have been caught in a Twitter-type shaming incident you need to shut down and go away for a year and a half.

Oh boy!

How did we get here?

Simple again because this is about how the nature of social media taps into all our primal instincts, and indeed into our insecurities.

  1. Image: Our need to project ourselves as having more glamorous lives than we really do digs deep into our sense of ‘living a lie’. This is a guaranteed recipe for insecurity. And it mines everyone else’s insecurity about their drab-by-comparison lives. Even if we know that everyone is posting the airbrushed version of their lives, because we are doing the same thing, it does not stem the insecurity. It makes it worse.
  2. Instant gratification: Because the images on Instagram, Snapchat et al give us a tiny pleasure hit (some, but not all of the time) the mind just goes on looking for more, and more, and more. This becomes the law of diminishing returns. The more we flick, the less pleasure response there is. This is just a mind design feature—the first time is always the best, everything afterwards pales in comparison, and goes on getting paler. But still we keep on flicking, getting less and less pleasure, while hoping for more, the mind getting increasingly frantic on this fading pleasure hunt.
  3. ‘Likes’ are cheap gratification: Perhaps you’ve just posted your latest delicious ‘look what I’m about to have for lunch’ shot, and you get 354 ‘likes’. Meanwhile the ‘friend’ you follow most closely gets 475 for their latest pic of what looks like a pretty standard cheese sandwich. Guess which of those two you will focus on? Yup! Not your hits, but the fact that your ‘friend’ got over a hundred more hits. How can we be so in thrall to the negative? That goes back to the savannah fight and flight of earlier posts. The mind loves nothing more than a good negative, and then it goes digging, on and on, regardless of whether there are any. It will dig so deep that it will turn those 354 likes into ‘they’re all just liars’ if we give it a chance. That’s the inner self, the endlessly doubting internal commentary, the misery maven set on the bad news story all the time. And so back we go to challenging the teller of endless bad news, and to recognising that it is just doing its job, minesweeping, constantly patrolling. We have to have the presence over that mind to report back to it that, ‘No, actually that’s not a threat, perhaps people just really like cheese sandwiches.’
  4. Rude, aggressive, ugly: Do you think arguments would escalate as fast face-to-face, in the flesh, as they do over the ether? I give a resounding ‘no’ on that. Face-to-face we can read each other, assess the threat, work out who is the attacker, and who is the more likely to try and cool things down. In the disembodied world everyone just goes on the attack because we can’t see who is attacking us. So we attack and attack and attack, because we are designed to.

So war breaks out between ‘friends’, and when the fighting of each ether battle is done, no-one is victorious. We are just alone, battered and haunted until there is another ‘ping’, another missile to send us further into despair.

And all the time our life is happening and we are not paying attention. We are choosing to believe in an alternative method of communication that is an extraordinary marketplace of ideas, but it is only that.

Your life is not this.

Look up.

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Altering Ego…some of the lies we tell ourselves and others

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When humour is black it is also very telling.

There’s the: ‘Oh, that’s my depression talking’ as someone tells a staggeringly negative story about themselves, the ‘me and my life are totally shit’ kind of story.

And then there’s: ‘that’ll be my OCD’ as an obsessive-compulsive disorder explanation for the repeated missed calls and blizzards of texts sent to you.

Or: ‘That’s bi-polar-me doing that’ to explain away a mood spike and trough so extreme that it went from giddy euphoria to suicidal despair in a space of minutes leaving the listener reeling.

Beyond the flip humour, what do these three lines have in common?

They are all said as a frontline defence, the outer persona covering up for the inner pain.

But here’s a question: how much does it help when you’re outward persona explains away the agonised behaviour of your inner self? Doesn’t it just create an ugly co-dependency, an internecine internal battle to the death? And sometimes it is actually to the death.

Let me be very clear about this, the distinction between the inner and outer self, the two aspects of ourselves that have the capacity to both exist in harmony, but also in a state of continual mutual destruction.

I am going to use the terms ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ self, just to simplify the terms.

We Two

The outer self is the one we project on the world, the one that says ‘Fine thanks,’ in response to the anodyne question ‘How are you?’ Meanwhile the inner self is screaming ‘I am not fine at all, you have no idea, every part of my life is agony, thank you for asking but you’re not really interested, but just for the record it’s all shit, shit, shit…’

The outer self is a marriage of evolution and ego, and there’s a big fat overlap between those two. We are designed to project ourselves in the world to our best advantage, to cover up the flaws so that we can look bigger, better and brighter. It means that, again from an evolutionary point of view, we have the best chance to get our genes successfully into the next generation.

The outer self spins a good yarn, and it can fool almost all of the people most of the time, to misquote Lincoln, but the one person it never fools is, well of course, the inner self.

The inner self is the perpetual commentator of our lives, second-by-second, choice-by-choice. It is highly critical, and hugely sensitive, by design. Again it’s a product of evolution, married with our conditioning, our lives and experiences to date. It will live beside us for all our life, passing judgement on everything we say or do. When we are disinhibited, as in high on whatever is our drug of choice, it might report back very positively, in the vein of ‘I’m wonderful, that was cool, what a brilliant answer, wow! I’m good’. It might also report back even more negatively than the un-drugged version of ourselves, if we are down, anxious or depressed. With the last boundaries doped and dumbed away, it will tell us how unremittingly crap we are, and how pathetic our life is.

But why—why do we have such a cruelly critical inner reporting system? How can this be evolution serving us in any useful way?

Of course I had to get back to evolution because, before we can get our genes into the next generation, we have to survive, to protect ourselves in order to be able to do the gene passing.

Our mind evolved to scan for threat, all the time. This has been delved into in a previous post, but this is to re-iterate the point that our mind’s nature is to go in search of the negative all the time, in order to assess it for threat, and then to go on looking for further threat. This is its job, its design—useful when avoiding a predator out on the pre-history savannah, not so useful in a state of big city despair, looking out on rain on tarmac, drumming down, drumming down your soul. A negative looking for a negative will always find one, every time, feeding despair with more despair, seeing rain on tarmac as a sign of the pointlessness of life.

Our life’s journey is to know how to challenge the inner voice when it is misreporting, when it is telling us negative stories that are simply neither true nor helpful.

By its nature the inner self is more introverted, the outer more extrovert, hence inner and outer. The inner is the self-examining soft animal of who we are. Its journey is understanding and learning who we are to the extent that we know ourselves so intimately that we find ways to feel tender towards our flaws, our errors and failures. It also has the heavy task of challenging the outer self, checking it when it is getting too bolshie, or indeed too fragile and insecure.

So, instead of the outer self saying, ‘Oh, that’s bi-polar talk’, the inner self learns how to watch the mood spike, and to explain it to the outer self with the commentary: ‘You are too tired, overwrought, or hurt,’ or whatever other reason lies behind the extreme swing.

The outer self will acknowledge this. The inner self can then advise gentle action, or rest and withdrawal to a place that feels emotionally and physically safe.

The outer self will be relieved, the inner self will feel stronger.

And the ego will not have to lie to the world about how you are feeling because you, the two of you, are living in balance rather than at war.

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Pushing Back

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At times pushing back against the people who are supporting you can be yet another symptom of anxiety or paranoia, but sometimes it is an early glimmer of recovery

There are times when having to tell people how you are feeling is just one more agony in the daily round of mental pain. Everyone is looking for signs of recovery. And so are you. You have been trying to give the right answer, to do what you have been told, to follow advice. You have read up on the subject, you have listened to doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, your family, and friends.

Sometimes it can feel as though you are simply going through a process, almost as if the whole things is happening to someone else, and you are looking on in frozen horror.

In order to get through the endless round of appointments, sessions, and assessments you might have learnt a few tricks to stop yourself from running screaming out of the room when you get asked the same set of questions, yet again, by yet another earnest person. They lean in a little towards you as they ask. They make sure to use your name each time they pose another question. When they ask you how you are doing, you’ve learnt to tell them that you are doing better, and you have got the answering smile down pat, while in your head you’re screaming ‘How the f*** do you think I’m doing, I’m here aren’t I?’

Maybe you get through sessions by predicting when they are going to get to various questions—the big ones about your childhood. Was there any inappropriate behaviour from your teachers/family members/family friends/neighbours/strangers who hung around the school gate, or indeed anyone at all? Did anyone touch you in a way that made you uncomfortable? ‘You’re making me uncomfortable,’ it’s so tempting to reply. Sometimes, when you’re really bored of the questions, you have learnt to pause for just long enough when they ask you a particularly juicy one, just to see how they react to the silence. And perhaps there are days when you skip the medication to see if you can? Or maybe you are being watched over so you can’t get away with that, but you’ve learnt to hold it at the back of your teeth so that it doesn’t get absorbed, and you keep it there until you can spit it out.

I am not putting all of this down to encourage anyone to cheat any system. How often have you heard ‘You’re only cheating yourself,’ when you have been caught doing any version of any of the above? After all the statement is true.

Or is it? One man or woman’s apparently childish rebellion is another’s bid to take back some sense of control when so much feels out of control.

When is cheating not cheating?

This is not about cheating anything or anyone. It is to clarify the very human need to feel in control of our destiny. This is also about when and how this need becomes destructive, and when it can be used as a great ally and healer.

Many of us do not want to have to take medication for post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, or any other psychological pain. We have a visceral sense that it is a form of giving in, or giving up, of losing control. There is also the lurking question of whether it is going to change our brain chemistry in the long term. Fighting against taking it can feel like an act of defiance, a last stand to prove that you still have some control over the constant mental agony. Second-guessing the doctor, psychiatrist or therapist can feel the same—an act that helps you believe that you are not really going mad.

But how can you know whether these apparent acts of defiance are working for or against you?

It is about timing.

If little acts of rebellion coincide with the worst symptoms then they are not going to help. Then they are an unreliable mental reaction that wants to avoid being trapped and disempowered, a hyper-state of the fight or flight response. Your executive mind systems are not working in the way that they should. The result of any push back at this stage will probably be increased levels of supervision and medication. You will feel both crazier and more paranoid.

But if these little revolts start at the same time as other glimmers of recovery, say better sleep, easier concentration, or fewer panic attacks and waves of despair, then the push backs can also be a sign of recovery. It is your mind recognising that it is ready to make decisions again, to discern what is good for you. The executive systems are coming back on line.

But what is the difference?

A relatively simple way of knowing the difference is this: if the act of resistance comes with a sense of panic or fear then it is not helping you. It is likely to make the situation even more terrifying. But if pushing back genuinely feels like an act of free will, a small victory that make the future seem possible, then this can mark the beginning of your journey back to yourself.

The final distinguishing point between the two comes down to one question, a question not to be asked by someone else but by you, and to you: ‘How am I?’ If the answer is that you are feeling terrible, defiance is not going to help. It will make the situation worse. But, if you are surprised to find that the response is that think that you are doing better than yesterday, the day before, or last week, then the rebellions could be an early sign of spring.

It is vital to be able to understand the difference between rebellions of recovery and potentially dangerous defiance. Our minds are very effective at making us believe that we are being rational when we are not, so get someone else to validate your view. Ask someone you know you can trust, someone whose opinion is going to be clear, professional and supportive, someone who really knows what they are talking about, and who knows what is going on with you. Ask them how they think you are doing, and see how close it is to your view.

And if the push backs are good ones, enjoy them, delight in them, but without pissing off those that you are pushing back against. You will still need their support.

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And what about when the treatment doesn’t work?

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A lot is now written about post-traumatic stress, to the extent that most people are familiar with the idea that the deepest wounds of war and violence are to the mind. But that is an idea, a concept. I am not sure how much all the column inches actually add to a genuinely deeper understanding.

Many reading these stories of trauma suffering often just end up with the sense that this is something truly awful that makes them shudder to think about.

Why is it so hard to understand?

It seems so easy to be gentle, respectful and caring of those with physical wounds or injuries. But what about when people see a man or woman screaming at someone in the street for no apparent reason? What if they notice someone being hand-cuffed for picking a fight in public, or if an apparently healthy-looking man or woman is overly rude to them for no obvious reason. Most people, actually nearly all of us, will make a quick judgement to stay away because that person must be crazy or dangerous, or both. This is a natural response because we are, after all, designed to protect ourselves.

But while Joe Public is doing the shunning shuffle, another of the multiple cruelties of post-traumatic stress is that if you are the one who is shouting, being cuffed, or skirted around, it feels as though you too are watching the whole thing, witnessing your own ritual humiliation, in graphic, slow-motion detail. And even as you are watching yourself in this horrendous situation the battle goes on raging inside your head.

You have to keep defending yourself from the enemy.

And so the darkness closes in even more.

As I put in the previous post I come at this having experienced it, studied it, and now through working with people using the various methods that I used to treat myself, and many others I have worked with across the past decade.

I do not have any instant answers, and anyone who claims that they do is not being honest, but a lot of these methods seem to be working, and this success is based just as much on the determination of the individual to recover as on the methods being used.

But what about the moment when that determination has run out, when a state of utter exhaustion has taken over?

The rest of this post is for anyone who has reached the end of the line

I am going to write about the various recovery methods in future posts, one-at-a-time, but for the rest of this post I would like to look at a particular aspect of post-traumatic stress that does not get written about very much—the part where people don’t recover.

There is a bitter moment that is very hard for people to understand who have not been through this. It is when someone who has been fighting post-traumatic stress believes that they are doing better, and that they are through the worst, but suddenly the symptoms seem to flood back.

They catch the fighter off-guard. Energy has crashed through the reserve tank, and there is nothing left but a sense of all-pervading darkness. In that moment suicide seems the only option, the only action that can stop the pain. This is the point when many do make the choice to kill themselves because it really does seem to be the only choice.

The Silent War

There will always be fighters in this internal war who are killed in action. We who remain carry a very particular kind of grief for them, rooted in the sense that the wrong soldiers were lost in the wrong battle, and for all the most wrong of reasons.

Those left in the void where that person was must find a way to understand that, in that moment of utter pain, there is no room for the rational questions about the people they loved, for thoughts about the future, the things that had once been planned and hoped for. In that place it is impossible to connect to any of the things that make life seem so imperatively important and worth living. In that place there is only one thing to be done— end the pain.

If you think you are getting anywhere near close to that point, please be aware that there is a possibility that relapse or returning symptoms are not because the treatment is not working or that there is no hope left. It may be that the post-traumatic stress has morphed into something else.

A New Angle

The mind is so brilliantly creative and it is always looking for ways around a problem. Often it will find a route around the endless pain of post-traumatic stress by simply going missing-in-action. In short, your mind learns to leave the room in moments of stress. It is called Dissociative Disorder, and it has various forms. The more we can understand this range of disorder, the more likely it is that many people who feel like giving up could recover.

If any of this resonates, if the meds, the therapy, and the group you joined worked for a while, but then stopped working, please look at these questions.

As you read each one, do consider them carefully. Rather than grabbing for answers, just let each question sit with you for a bit until you get an answer.

Does it often feel that you are just going through the motions of your day-to-day life?

  1. Do you have the feeling that you are living in a dream, and that nothing really feels real anymore?
  2. Do you sometimes see yourself from a distance, as though you are watching yourself from outside your body?
  3. Do you feel that you can easily separate from your emotions?
  4. Does it seem as if your behaviour is sometimes, or often, out of control?
  5. Do you cut yourself, or physically hurt yourself because you just want to be able to feel something?
  6. Do you feel spacey at times?
  7. Are there times when you do not recognise yourself when you look in the mirror, or that you look like a version of yourself that looks very different from how you are feeling?
  8. Do you ever have conversations with the person that you see in the mirror, and does it feel that they have a separate entity to you?
  9. Are there times when it feels as though parts of your body are disconnected from you, or feel alien to you – for example that your arm or leg actually isn’t yours?
  10. Does it ever feel as though everything around you is moving in high-speed, and you cannot understand what people are saying, or it’s as though everyone is speaking in a language that you do not understand?
  11. Or, does it ever feel as though everything is slowing down to the extent that everything is an uncomfortable form of slow motion, and people seem to be speaking in a language that you do not understand?
  12. Have you lost track of chunks of time, not in a day-dreaming way, but to the extent that you just have no memory of a period of time, whether a few minutes, a few hours, or longer?
  13. Do you ever have the experience of feeling invisible?

If you have answered ‘yes’ to more than two or three of these questions your mind may have shifted from post-traumatic stress to somewhere on the range of dissociative disorders, and there is a very good chance that you can recover. If you have a doctor, psychiatrist, therapist, or any kind of professional support, please ask them about dissociative disorders. If you are on medication it may need to be adjusted. And your mind needs to relearn how to stay put, right where it is, and this takes time with a therapist who is confident about working with dissociative disorder.

The next post will be about some of these methods of re-training the mind but the first of these is exactly the same as the end of previous post.

Please stop reading now, put your hands on your belly. Close your eyes take one slow, steady, smooth, relaxed breath, right down to your belly. Feel your hands move as you breathe in, and as you breathe out, slowly and steadily. And take another breath like this. Take as long as you can with each breath.

And just notice how you feel after a few breaths.

Try this breathing each time you notice your mind flipping off somewhere else.

This is the first step.

More soon.

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When the trauma takes over

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I would like to try and explain two things: what it is like having post-traumatic stress, and some basic recovery strategies. The first part is for those who are trying to understand what post-traumatic stress is. The second is for those living through the daily and nightly assaults of the trauma. Though I am trained in this field I am going to write from my own experience, because I think that can sometimes be more helpful. I am not suggesting that professionals in my field cannot help with post-traumatic stress. They can and they do, and to great effect, face-to-face, working with and alongside those in this kind of intense pain. It is just that being around people that went through the same violent experience is a very important first stage of recovery. Not having to explain yourself means a great deal when almost every aspect of life has become an internal battle. Post-traumatic stress splits existence between two worlds—‘Now’ and ‘Then’. ‘Now’ is just that, wherever you are right now. ‘Then’ is the world where the trauma was triggered. The apparent neuro-sadism of post-traumatic stress is that the world of ‘Then’ makes the world of ‘Now’ unbearable for the sufferer. At times they cannot tell which one they are in, and characters seem to move between the two worlds, cruelly haunting in both. My experience was that the ‘Then’ world had a lurid reality that the ‘Now’ lacked. The world that I was trying to convince myself was the real one had a muffled quality, and it was as though I saw and experienced everything from a distance. Different stories Here is a soldier. He and his patrol unit were ambushed in a hot, busy marketplace. His two closest comrades were killed beside him as he was trying to pull off his dust goggles because he could not see. He had looked down, for one moment, and he still cannot understand why he was not shot as well. He may have come home, he may be back with his family, and in the apparent comfort of daily life, but the ambush returns all the time. If someone comes towards him when he is in the flashback world of the ambush, whoever they are he attacks because they are a threat. In that moment he cannot tell who anyone is, his wife, brother, his children—anyone who approaches is the enemy. There is no peace. One of the most patronising things someone can say to this man is ‘I understand’. You do not, unless you have been through the same thing. This is hard to accept because it could be read as a criticism, but what he has been through is unimaginable to anyone who has not been through the same thing. Here is an eight-year-old girl. She was asleep in her parents’ bed when floods tore through her mountain valley home. A month later she can only remember one clear image from that night—her grandmother clinging to the side of their rescue vessel, an inflatable child’s paddling pool, her clothes torn away by the dark, thundering water. The girl was horrified by the pale weakness of her grandmother. Many other children experienced the same flood, and a month later a lot of them are behaving in the same ways as this girl—nightmares, clinginess, crying, tantrums, not doing well at school, for those where the schools are still functioning. Every night the girl has nightmares. She cannot sleep without holding her mother’s hand, and she wakes screaming, seeing again her grandmother flailing in the water. Even though her grandmother survived the girl seems to find no comfort in this. In fact it is the opposite, and being around her grandmother upsets her. Her teachers, equally traumatised by the flood disaster, lose their tempers with her and the other children, for their inability to concentrate, and their apparent stupidity. Yet these are all natural responses, and will pass in time as the children adapt again after a couple of months or so. But if the nightmares do not fade, if the girl continues to be disturbed around her grandmother, if she goes on finding it hard to understand class material that used to be easy for her, and if she needs to go on holding her mother’s hand in order to sleep, this is when more than patience is needed. This is when, in spite of the extreme differences in the nature of the violence that they have experienced, the girl and the soldier are having the same struggle with processing what happened to them. The soldier says: ‘I don’t recognise myself anymore.’ The girl says: ‘Everything inside me is black.’ This soldier and this girl need to be supported in different ways, partly because of the differences in their ages, their cultures, the circumstances of the trauma they experienced and the aftermaths, but there is also a set of basic principals that both need to follow. Finding the way back Anyone who thinks or knows that they have post-traumatic stress needs to understand that the best place to be is with other people who know what you have been through. This is hard to get because every base instinct is probably telling you that you need to be alone. It is very important that you find a way to accept that your basic instincts are not serving you well at the moment. They are very, very loud and persuasive, but they are giving you the wrong messages. Your most profound survival mechanism has been badly bruised, and it needs time to recover. The structure for that recovery needs to be based on the following things: Routine – the days and nights will get easier if you have a structured system. This means getting up and going to bed around the same time every day, and having a realistic timetable that works around these two times. This is harder for adults. Children are used to being put to bed, and woken. For adults support in sticking to these times is vital. Key to these times is…. Sleep – this can be the place of the greatest comfort but it can also be a place of torture. We are conditioned to think of bed as ‘safe’ but the flashbacks and nightmares can make the nights hell. This is why so many traumatised people actually go to great lengths not to sleep so that they can avoid the nightmares. Finding the way back to a good sleep pattern is very dependent on allowing your system to slow down before trying to sleep. Stay off all the things that stimulate you for a good two hours before sleep – that means caffeine, alcohol, smoking, sugar, hard exercise, being on-line (in any form), and away from TV unless it is something very mellow. It’s a good idea to eat at least two hours before going to bed. Which leads on to… Eating – one of the many difficult impacts of this kind of trauma is that is messes up eating habits. A lot of soldiers, actually let’s face it, almost all young men, are not great about how and what they eat. Children are fed, and parents usually go to great lengths to make sure that their children eat as well as possible. It is an act of love. So why do we cling to junk-eating habits as adults? (Don’t answer that—‘it tastes fabulous’ may be true, but would your large intestine give the same answer?) Nourishing food just makes you feel a lot better, and good food is one of the most natural ways to soothe your brain chemistry. Eating can also be a good way of staying in the ‘Now’, as in focusing on the tastes in your mouth, the different textures, and how the tastes change as you chew. The more you chew the better. Half-chewed food is hard to digest, leading to yet another load on an already over-stressed system. It’s useful to remember that there are no teeth in the stomach. Conscious, thoughtful enjoyment of chewing is good, and surprisingly relaxing too, though I know that is beginning to sound like a schoolteacher, and on that note… Exercise – here is a line from John Ratey, a professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School: ‘A bout of exercise is like taking a little bit of Ritalin and Prozac right to where it is supposed to go.’ In short, exercise is the equivalent of taking an anti-depressant. And to flip that around, not exercising is like taking a depressant. Exercise is arguably one of the most powerful supports that you have. I struggle if I cannot exercise, and I can feel the symptoms sneaking back, particularly when the pressure is high. Walk, run, swim, box, wrestle, dance, skip, just do anything that will allow the excess of adrenalin in your system to be burnt off. Exercise has the extraordinary capacity to shift the whole mind-set, and its importance cannot and should not be underestimated. It is particularly important for children as exercise, or any kind of jumping around, allows them to release both physical and psychological tension. Talking – we are all storytellers by nature. Answering the simple question ‘how are you?’ is a form of storytelling about ourselves. When we stop talking there is something wrong. Grief, despair and anger all have the capacity to shut us down. With post-traumatic stress, all three of these are often in play. To be able to tell your story is the beginning of recovery. But the question is, who are the right people to talk to? This is very important, and perhaps the key is talking to people who you feel safe with – those you served with, those who you went through the experience with, and those you know you are not going to have to explain yourself to. Seek out those in my field, a psychotherapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, or counsellor. This is the chance to begin a powerfully supportive therapeutic relationship that has the potential to change how you see yourself and your life. And go and find a group of people, whether it’s a military support group, a 12-step progamme, just any group where you can be with others who will get you and what you have been through. For children school provides a group environment, and this has its own advantages and disadvantages, but there is going to be another blog just on this subject… It is easy to write about joining a group, but often we cling to the idea that we will be okay, that we can do this on our own, and that joining a group would be like an admission of defeat. It is not. Just walking through the door into the group for the first time can feel like one of the hardest things you have ever done, but you will never regret it. Awareness – the past, the world of ‘Then’ makes it very hard to be in the world of ‘Now’. Awareness is the key. It means focusing on something that is happening right now. The easiest one is breath. All you have to do is put you hands on your belly and take one slow breath in, right down to your belly, and then exhale slowly and steadily. Take a few more breaths like this, staying very focused on your breath, and also relaxed in your body. See how slowly you can take these breaths. And notice how you feel afterwards. There is no more to read now. More will follow on this in further postings, but now it’s your turn. Please look up from the screen. Start by taking just one long, slow, easy breath. Close your eyes. Breathe.

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So, what about…

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This comes as Part II of the previous post ‘Disaster’. It is about what happens next

So, what about…

…when the rescue teams begin to pull out, and the emergency aid drops of food and medicine slow down?

There is an overwhelming moment when those who have survived a natural disaster see their rescuers leave. It is very physical, the breaking of that initial human contact. As the safe solidness of the rescuers departs they take a powerful psychological prop away with them. Those left behind then have to face the enormity of everything that they have lost.

In short, the adrenalin-fuelled survival mechanism has exhausted the mind and body, and as the pumped-up system begins to slow down, a sweeping wave of despair is the most common feeling that follows.

There is a flagging of the vast human energy that was been focused on survival. As it begins to sink in that death has been cheated, for now, the weight of loss comes crashing down, stopping many in their tracks.

For those living through the floods in Kashmir, as the first wave of emergency response dies away, all that remains is a level of loss that the mind can barely grasp. For many this means a lifetime of hard labour submerged beneath silt, mud and contaminated water. For as many again it means the loss of a home that holds every memory of their lives. And for so many, and in so many ways, it is the idea that everything they believed worth fighting for has now gone, forever.

The crushing weight of this realisation can be one of the biggest barriers that people have to face, the enormity of it disabling them more than physical injury, or the vastly reduced quality of day-to-day life.

For anyone reading this who has, at some point, believed that they have lost everything, you get the point. For those who have not, I would like to try and get it across without sounding like an old windbag.

We all, every one of us, have had a moment when we thought something huge was about to be lost—jay-walking and feeling the wind of a car that came out of nowhere, gambling on something that risked losing far more than we could afford, over-taking at almost the wrong moment. We know the thrumming thrill of having cheated disaster in those moments. In that instant we felt so very alive in a way that no other experience can really equal.

Failing to cheat disaster is exactly the opposite of this. With it comes the pulverising sense that nothing means anything anymore, that there is no point, and that the best idea is to give up. The sense of loss is frankly unimaginable, unless it has actually been faced.

For anyone who has just faced disaster please read the following carefully:

The routine of the day-to-day is vital. Go to whatever lengths you need to in order to preserve aspects of your privacy and dignity that matter to you. There is a practical limitation to this, particularly if you are living in cramped conditions, but find one thing that gives you an important sense of your dignity and hold onto it. Maybe it means a moment at a window, with your face lifted to the sun, or being able to fold the few clothes that you still have in a way that gives you comfort—whatever it is, hold onto it.

The enormity of loss overwhelms, knocking physical strength away as it sweeps over you. In those moments stick with something that gives you comfort—counting your breaths as you breathe; counting your steps if you are walking; reciting a prayer, mantra, or phrase that you know brings you comfort; holding the hand of someone beloved, and resting in the power of that human connection.

Seek out ways to remember the things that give you joy. If people you love have died, focus on those you still have around you. If you have lost material things that you cared about deeply, look again at the lives you still have around you and what they mean to you in comparison to the things that have gone. Focus on something that you still need to do in your life: the loved one you want to spend time with; the child you hope to see married; the child you hope to have; the book you want to write; the poem you thought of so often but never wrote down; the simple invention that you never actually put down on a piece of paper; the home that you want to build again. It does not matter whether you thought of it once as a wild and unreachable dream, you now have access to a source of energy that can be redirected from what feels like disabling loss into a source of re-creation.

And if you are in Kashmir our team is doing all we can to get back to work so that we can support you. We hope our helpline number will be reconnected soon: 1800 180 7020 or contact us through www.kashmirlifeline.org or www.healingkashmir.org

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Disaster

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This may not seem to be about staying sane, but it is because…

…there is a moving and powerful human response to disaster – the need to do something. And there is an equally poignant reaction – to freeze, and to be overwhelmed by what has just happened. All week both have been happening in and around Kashmir, amongst those of us who are linked to the place but who are not there at the moment.

This scene of disaster, The Kashmir Valley, is a place of lakes and mountains, and now it is underwater, great swathes of it drowned by floods caused by excessive rain.

This is a place that can claim the label of victim more readily than most. If it is not being fought over, the earth shudders and swallows up lives, or the skies open, the rivers burst their banks, and whatever little has been clawed back in progress is swallowed back beneath water and mud.

So, it is very human to wail, to raise fists to black skies and rage at God, Allah, gods, the devil. Take your pick, any rage will do. The apparent randomness of natural disaster renders us helpless in the face of its capacity to destroy, to crush all our frail human endeavours to nothing.

And our ability to survive spins us through a range of reactions. Here are some:

  • Shock and awe—though most of us are too afraid to admit to the second part of this, the moment when the absolute power of nature smashes all before it.
  • Fear—for ourselves, and for those we love.
  • Paralysis—the physical and mental freeze when we feel incapable in the face of something so huge.
  • Rage—as we seek out someone or something to blame. Governments and big business usually get it, and often rightly so, but they also give us convenient scapegoats to distract us from taking any personal responsibility as consumers, users of the raw materials—in this case the paper, wood and trees, that once held the sides of mountains in place.
  • Action—the need to do something immediately, regardless of whether we are qualified, or with only partial information. The need to do something distracts us from the rest in the list above.
  • Despair—as we realise that any individual action can have no effect in the face of such enormity.

And then, very slowly, the brilliance of the human condition takes over, enabling us to adapt, and to begin to find balance again. But this balance is very dependant on several vital things:

  • Recognising that unless we take care of ourselves we can be no use. To ‘burn out’ is an act of pointless martyrdom. I know this is harsh but it is also true. A conflation of all of the above, from shock and awe, to despair, pushes people to their outer limits. There is no point in ignoring the signs that we have reached those limits. It just means one less person capable of useful action.
  • Knowing those limits, and not trying to turns ourselves into medics, hydro-meteorologists, engineers, epidemiologists, et al in 24 hours flat (I am obviously referring to a flood situation). Our greatest asset is what we can already do well.
  • Saving our energy for the battles that matter and not wasting time, breath or mental and physical energy on the inevitabilities of emergency service and aid failure and co-ordination, corruption, political co-option (unfortunately this particular list is too long to reel off comprehensively)
  • Listening to the advice of those who have experience and putting reasonable trust in them to do their work, in the knowledge that they are under extreme pressure. They will never be able to perform to the level that we would hope or want, but that they are far better prepared for the job in hand than we are.

Another thing happens as we get worn down by the adrenaline-fuelled need for action, the sleepless nights of worry, and the sense of hopelessness in the face of the devastation—we look for heroes to inspire us as we flag. And up they pop, shouting from the rooftops, their powerful and persuasive words drawing us to them, these makers of white noise. Many of them really do believe that they are being motivated by good, but the truth is that many of them are driven by a sort of disaster-sanctified form of self-promotion.

The heroes to watch for are the ones who appear from within the devastated places, or who come in from the outside, moving quietly amongst the wrecked and the wreckage, propping up, digging, rebuilding, reassuring, leading by example. Yet they work in a way that makes most of those they are supporting believe that they are doing the rebuilding themselves, that they are rising from the wreckage, phoenix-like and on their own terms. And when these heroes see that their work is done, they move on quietly, so silently that those they have rescued barely notice they have left.

I am keenly aware of how smug a lot of this may seem. I have either done, felt, or fallen apart under the weight of everything that I have described. I hope by passing this on that the same will not happen to others. That is all.

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Somewhere between All or Nothing

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This is for anyone who has ever thought of themselves as an ‘All or Nothing’ person.

Sometimes it’s the instant hit version, shovelling down an entire bucket of double chocolate fudgie-goopey ice-cream and then claiming to be allergic to the evil frozen stuff when it’s next offered, or there’s the variety of being wholly, madly in love over dinner, and then ‘screw you, I hate you’ before bed. Those are just two in a wild range that sweeps across everything from pulling all-nighters on a deadline and then being unable to function for the rest of the week, to Hoovering up enough coke to fell a horse, and then swearing off every kind of stimulant forever, even green tea and goji berry sweetened cough drops.

‘All or Nothing’ is both exhausting and contrary to everything human about us. We are all a mix of ‘All’ and ‘Nothing’ moments. On a grey Monday it is very human to feel unmoved by what needs to be done, to want to extend a bacchanalian week-end mood by carrying on with the boozing and lassitude, or to just shut down and close out the world. Both seem convincing ideas.

And yet by Thursday the world can seem to have changed colour entirely. Everyone and everything has become suffused with possibility and beauty, even the over-flowing street bins can seem to be bathed in a poignant light when on Monday those same bins represented just a disgusting, stinking re-iteration of the fact that all will rot, decay and die, particularly us.

All the time we are fluctuating between versions of Monday and Thursday, some of us at high speed, some more slowly. The high-speeders tend towards the ‘All or Nothing’ view. On a Monday this crowd may well see the slower movers as being lucky, or indeed gifted with the steadier flow of their internal mercury. By Thursday this more febrile lot may well see the previously envied and steadier crowd as being frankly dull.

To believe in ‘All or Nothing’ as a way of being in the world is to decide that we can only exist in extremes.

What a very limiting choice.

If this same view is applied to our psychological well-being it means existing between the polarities of mania and despair. This is how ‘All or Nothing’ translates when it comes to our state of mind. ‘All’ is the wild state, the hyper state, when every mental process is in overdrive, when all seems possible, and yes, you really believe that you can write an essay on Islam and Peril of Disempowerment, at the same time as updating your Facebook page, Tweeting on next season’s fur trims for dog coats, and talking to your best friend on the phone about their collapsing relationship. ‘Nothing’ is the fog of despair that comes after the all-ness of ‘All’, plunging everything over a cliff into nothingness.

And what about the vast expanse of the human condition that exists between these two?

This is where the possibility of mental safety lies—the understanding that our most extreme habits require an ‘All’ response, and that there are whole swathes of our lives that, contrary to the Monday ‘f*** it’ mode, need very little attention, beyond perhaps a little fine-tuning at certain more vulnerable times.

And how this works…

Let me try and rinse this down.

I know my own mental balance depends on a clear-cut daily routine, and that the extremes of my nature and accrued life damage will kick in if I don’t stick to it. So I do, knowing that if I don’t the fallout will be my fault, and that I just have to police myself with authoritarian attention, rather than blame anyone or anything else for how bad I feel if I don’t get the right amount of sleep, exercise, focus, and good food. In contrast I have no problem with time-keeping, so I do not need to be draconian about this. I can relax and actually just enjoy the fact that I am good about being on time, and if someone else runs late I have the luxury of having time in hand, to read something I want to catch up on, to work through an idea I have not had time to think about carefully, or actually just to sit and stare because I have time.

Then there is a whole range of other human elements that fluctuate all the time: energy levels, concentration, attention to detail, patience, on the list goes. Sometimes they all need policing, and at other times they just seem to flow without any extra attention. This fluctuation, this grey area, is not comfortable for many of us. We seem to prefer the black and white of ‘All or Nothing’, even if this limits us.

But to be able to separate out, very clearly, what we need to guard against with a ‘take no prisoners’ approach, and what we can go easy on opens up infinite possibility. If we can learn to recognise that there is a balance between the extremes, and that we need to apply different levels of control across our own range of weaknesses and strengths, then we give ourselves the chance to flourish, whether in a Monday ‘f*** it’ frame of mind, or a Thursday ‘beautiful world’ mood.

 

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Part II – Disarming the F*** it Switch

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This is the second instalment of the saga of the F*** it Switch. Part I is here, fully fleshed out, or in short: we all have an internal F*** it Switch that can be triggered by a whole range of things, from a teeny spoonful of cookie dough ice-cream, through to a trawling the streets in the grey of dawn looking for a fix. Once the switch has flipped all bets are off are we descend into a personal hell from which the struggle back can be painful.

My argument at the end of Part I was that controlling the switch was less about draconian self-control and more about awareness.

Easier said, or written, than done, but what exactly do I mean by that?

Awareness of what our mind is up to, and trying to watch its habits and games, is quite like watching a film. We believe in our own thoughts just as an audience buys into a film. There we sit, in the dark, entirely focused on the silver screen. As the story builds we become more and more involved. Let’s say it is that classic formula, a rom-com—we’re there, becoming intimate with the characters. We see the courtship, the screw-ups when it all goes wrong, the moments when the romance is wrested back from the abyss. Unconsciously or consciously we’re guessing what’s going to happen next. If it’s a good film we’re gripped, wholly involved, right there with them, laughing with them, crying, sighing, hoping.

And then it’s over. The credits roll. The names of the actors come and go, and even if we’re not really aware of the realisation, those moving names prove that none of it was real, that the characters did not exist, that the story was just that. The lights come up and, as we pick our way out through the carpeting of pop-corn, the screen goes blank, and there is nothing there anymore. No characters, no story, nothing tugging and nudging our emotional responses with big screen lingering looks, cute lines, swelling scores as the lovers meet, kiss, part, screw, screw-up, get it wrong, then right. We know this, we understand it and accept that we, the audience, are being sold a story and that we are being willingly manipulated in our belief. It is the contract we make when we buy the ticket.

We’re not so good at recognising that our thoughts work in the same way, playing out on the blank screen of our awareness. This, our awareness, remains unchanged, like the screen. It is constant, always there, unchanging. Our thoughts are the movies, fully fleshed out stories playing all the time, endlessly trying to convince us that they are real, and that we must believe them. But, unlike at the end of the film, we do not pick our way out through the pop-corn detritus, knowing that the show is over. It is as though we are stuck in our seats, believing the film to be real, that we are in the film, that we become the film, its story our story, shaping how we feel and react.

We are not those stories, and we can get up and leave our seats anytime we like, we are just are not good as realising that we can.

So, to apply this movie analogy back to the F*** it Switch – if the line that cannot be crossed is eating sugary things, then even a teeny spoonful of ice-cream has the capacity to flick the switch. That weeny amount can trigger the powerful movie-thought that all resistance has gone, and that the only thing to do is to wallow in a tub of cookie dough ice-cream. The game is to understand that this is just a story-idea that the movie-mind has come up with. It’s a powerful story, and so believable that it’s a though the cookie dough ice-cream has its own voice, as though the thought is real, and that you are actually the cookie dough ice-cream because that is the intensity of the thought-movie. Sugar, by the very nature of its addictive quality, is one of the most common F***it Switch triggers, but it can just as easily be a day of loneliness too far that flips the over-whelming need to re-open the old scars on an already cross-hatched arm, or the wrong kind of questioning from an aggressor that throws the switch into uncontrollable violence. Awareness is seeing that we are just being controlled by another story, and that we have bought into the sugar, the need to see blood, or to vent a sense of disempowerment through attacking. We can, if we choose, just watch the movie-thought playing out without responding because that blank screen of awareness allows us to understand what the fallout will be on the other side of the flip of the switch.

This watching, this awareness, is how to trick the F*** it Switch. It is also the equivalent to a backstage rock festival ‘Access all Areas’ pass into the mind, but that is drifting off point and into the secret code to joy, and that is very definitely for another post and time.

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The F*** It Switch

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This one can mess up just about everything in a split second. It’s the inner switch that flips when you do something you know you shouldn’t, and it particularly likes to trip at the worst possible moment, with a penchant for destroying your whole day, or causing a drowning rush of embarrassment.

Let’s be very clear about this, everyone has one. The most vulnerable to the F*** it Switch are often those who appear to be successful, clever, witty, and talented, but they have an inner narrative that tells a very different story to what is on show with all the flash and bejazzle on the outside. They get an especially big designer-sized one with twinkly diamanté ‘On” and ‘Off’ signs.

But what is it?

Here’s a story: it’s about a student band singer who got picked to go big. To the viewing public it seemed to happen overnight, but as far as she was concerned, her music life had been one long round of pee-smelling back street venues where the band had been continually ripped off, however packed the place, and she had spent too much time fending off lurching, drunken, octopus-handed so-called fans.

And then some of the band started bickering about which direction they should be heading in, artistically speaking. The in-fighting made her thin—not drug skinny, worry thin.

She’s a member of the Clean Team. Drugs were for all the other dummies out there. Not her.

Then she and her group were discovered. A big label producer saw her and worked out the fastest way to get rid of the rest of the group, by signing them all, and then dumping everyone except her.

And now she’s on the red carpet at an awards ceremony, nominated for the theme song on a big movie. She teeters up the red runway in a sliver of silver, and that is about all there is left of the once softly curved girl.

There is an ethereal quality to her as she joins the songwriters to collect the award. The television commentators are in swoony hyperbole. They can’t get enough of her. Her agent even had the foresight to hire three assistants for the night—their every medium of contact is exploding. The hordes are circling for beauty, talent and blood.

But no-one can find her. She has disappeared in the bit between coming off stage, the Green Room, and returning to her seat. Everyone is waiting. Everyone watching at home is waiting. Her agent manages to field it for three minutes with the lie that she had to bolt to the bathroom because of all the emotion.

She is found, forty-seven minutes later, at a McDonald’s, just teetering distance from the awards shindig. By the time the press pounce she has already worked her way through a Big N’ Tasty (with cheese), a Ranch Snack Wrap, two lots of fries, and a surprised server has just delivered a second round on the fries, topped off by a McFlurry with M&M’S as a chaser. She is buying for everyone in the joint because she doesn’t want to eat alone, not that she is alone. The word has already gone out and she is sharing the second round with a growing crowd of hoboes who know they have hit ‘F*** it Switch’ pay dirt.

So…

That is a super-charged version of the switch in action. It had to be the high octane version, to get the point across, as in just as she cracked it, and then it cracked her right back.

To paraphrase: at the same time as she was ‘discovered’, she had also lost a lot of weight. In her mind she linked the two. She was pushed hard, and too fast—not sleeping, not eating, surviving only on the adrenaline drug of being surrounded by people, constantly telling her that she could do it, that every sleepless night was just creative brilliance, that every kilo lost was another step towards photogenic fame. And then, when she was right at the very top, at that moment, waiting to go and collect the award, in her nervousness she ate a mini-burger, only about the size of a ping pong ball, part of the grazing canapés for the very polished and very, very jittery nominees waiting in the Green Room.

That was all it took, her Rubicon of not eating snack food had been crossed, her mantra being ‘I don’t eat junk’. But she did, and at that pinnacle moment, even though she had just had the greatest success most people can imagine. She had spent so much time depriving herself of food, thinking about food, feeling constantly hungry. It took just one little ping pong ball of grilled mince, brioche bun, and all the other fru fru filling to act like crack cocaine in her brain, flicking the F*** It Switch.

It’s at that moment that a primordial drive takes over, compelling us into behaviour that seems, on the outside, to be both inexplicable, and hugely self-sabotaging.

But in the real world

That starry version is to illustrate something that happens to all of us, regularly. Well, to almost all of us. Even those who seem not have the switch are usually just a lot better at hiding it, and sometimes for good reason because their switch can have a kinkier trip. But, back to your average, every day version­—most of us have a personal inner line on various things that we have decided we will not cross. For some people it’s not eating cakes, biscuits or chocolates, while for others it might be rationing themselves to no more than three porn sites a day. Someone else might feel safe as long as they stay on the right side of getting six hours sleep a night, while another can stay under control as long as they can have three cigarettes a day. And then there are those who have sworn off drugs, of any kind.

The cruelty of the switch is that it can just take one biscuit, four porn sites, one night of three hours sleep, four cigarettes, or one puff of a joint to flick, and then everything goes to hell, the safety barriers are down, there is no going back. Extreme behaviour seems to ride roughshod over everything we know to be rational. The biscuit and cake depriver pigs out, the porn fan goes on an ether bender, the one lacking sleep spins out into a sense of sleep-deprived anxiety, and the one who inhaled goes off on another kind of bender.

‘I don’t have any control, something else just takes over,’ is what so many say when they are talking about that moment when the switch is tripped.

And that is it exactly how it feels, as though there really is something beyond us controlling our actions. There is in a way, millennia of evolution that, in the face of certain kinds of mentally created or real deprivation, will trigger a fight back. Or, in simpler terms, if we deny ourselves something we then think about it a lot, and that singular focus on what we are depriving ourselves of makes the chances of cracking high. The more intense the pressure we put ourselves under, the higher the risk of cracking.

Just knowing this can help. If we know when we are tired, under pressure, angry, lonely or hungry, that we are more vulnerable to the flick of the switch, that is the time to be on high alert. Then, when it does happen, we see it for what it is—a very human response. These two things are really the trick of The F*** it Switch: know what is going to flick it, and understand the craving is a very powerful combination of a primal drive and our very own personalised vice.

My sense now is that it is less about discipline and self-control, and much more about awareness. If you constantly try to beat craving into submission, it is going to win—again those eons of evolution and human desire are just stronger than any one of us. Awareness is the equivalent of shining a white light on craving as it shambles around in the black recesses of the mind, creating havoc. Knowing very clearly what is going to flip your switch is key. Whether it’s a third chocolate when you had rationed yourself to two, a fourth porn hit when three was the personally set limit, it doesn’t matter what the trip is, just being aware of what it is gives us power.

This is a huge subject for something that flicks in a second, so there is going to be a Part II – The Disarming of The F••• it Switch…

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Warning

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What would it be like to believe that depression has a benign side?

What if we all grew up with the understanding that feeling low is natural, and that it is the same as a bruise being the body’s way of healing itself after a fall? Imagine if we could accept that the mind slows down as its own healing response to an emotional knock?

Is it possible that we have just made a huge mistake in using the same word to describe what could be an evolutionary response, as we use for an utterly life destroying mental breakdown?

Instead we just seem to buy into being told that we are getting more depressed all the time. It is the biggest crisis facing global health, the headlines yell at us­. Statistics back up the statements. Each year ‘as many people in the world now die from suicide as from homicide and warfare combined’, to quote Professors Richard Layard and David Clark, in their co-authored book Thrive: The Power of Evidence-Based Psychological Therapies. And here’s the tricky question—how do you take on something this huge when the stigma around it is such that most people will not seek treatment until it is dangerously late into their mental suffering, so late that they see death as being the only alternative to the pain?

Please read the following with care.

The scale across depression and anxiety is huge. To compare what is sometimes referred to as mild or bearable depression with a major depressive disorder is almost the same as putting a dose of ‘flu on par with a brain tumour. One can make you feel quite crappy for a while, but the other can kill you. Similarly the difference between a lower level of depression and the brutality of a total breakdown is as extreme. As with ‘flu and a tumour, the former can make life difficult for a while, while the latter can result in self-inflicted death.

So, to the warning or the title—there could be a profound misunderstanding of a very important aspect of depression. There is the possibility that what is hard but bearable might be mental evolution, as in an internally enforced state of mental rest combined with a very personalised form of emotional resilience training.

Here we are, at the top of the food chain. It has taken millions of years to get here and, as we have clambered up, one of our greatest protectors has been the ‘fight or flight’ response, triggering a hyper-alert state that enables us to fight the predators that we think we can beat, and to flee from those that we cannot. It was vital for the survival of the species out on the savannah, hunting wild boar, or when up against a pack of wolves, but most of us are now living in pretty comfortable societies. Different varieties of wild or lupine bores may still be out there, but most don’t actually threaten to kill us, at least in the flesh.

So, we do not need to fight or flee on a regular basis, but this primal response is still very much in place, and almost unchanged across the millennia. It gets topped up all the time, pushed to even more heightened states by great slugs of caffeine, refined sugars, sensory over-stimulation of every variety, right across the gamut, from artificial light through to hard-core pornography. The emotional system gets over-loaded and it spins out into anxiety, fragmented thinking, loss of concentration, messed up sleep, neuroses, obsessive behaviour patterns, violence, paranoia.

On the back of that charming list comes a depressed state, and I use depressed in a different sense, as in a lowering and slowing of both physical and mental systems. They begin to shut down. At first it crops up as not wanting to see people, not wanting to think, or to have to make any decisions. It is not long before it becomes not actually wanting to do anything at all. Sleep seems the safest place to hide.

And we have decided to, or we have been told to, perceive these things as being both debilitating and destructive? We have labelled them as symptoms marking a descent into despair, a place that is most commonly responded too with a prescription for anti-depressants or anxiolytics, as in the ‘mother’s little helper’ roll call, from slow-dose sleeping pills to Xanax.

What about changing our point of view? How about relabeling these very human responses as evolutionary answers to extreme levels of over-stimulation? It is possible that the label is just wrong, and that it is demonising what could just be our natural processes of deep mental rest, withdrawal, and healing?

I am not just throwing a controversial view on mental health out there because I am an ether masochist who gets off on ‘I wish you were dead’ cyber hate mail. Nor am I trying to dilute the utterly debilitating and dehumanising impact of all kinds of severe depression. But let me give you an example. Those I work with in Kashmir have been exposed to almost perpetual violence for more than twenty-five years—an era of bloodshed that is on-going. The levels spike, creating a matching peak in the collective ‘fight or flight’ response. When the violence cools off a bit large numbers of people experience, at first, a period of distressing restlessness. This is followed by what presents clinically as an epidemic of depression and anxiety. Our psychotherapy team help those that we treat to understand that this is a cycle, a very natural one, and to value their mind’s response to the spikes with a time of recovery, a time when everything feels dulled down for a while, maybe numb or, to loosely translate the word that we use, the mind takes rest. As people grasp this, their point of view changes and so does their sense of despair. They understand that their minds have had a bruising, and that they just need to go very quiet for a while in order to heal. As their point of view shifts, it seems to trigger recovery.

If you had been told, since you were a child, by your parents, at school, on television, on-line, that this dulling down of the senses was just a natural response, the normal off-set to over-doing it, do you think you would feel differently? Do you think that you might have another kind of understanding about your mind’s response to a period of particular stress, over-excitement, or over-stimulation?

Is it too late to rethink our view on bearable levels of depression? Can we find a way to see them as states of recuperation rather than despair?

I think we can.

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Learning to Fly

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This comes on the back of the previous blog, carrying on along the slightly uncomfortable path of where our inner and outer worlds smash into each other, with all the versions of ‘I’m sorry’ ‘I’m so embarrassed’, furious blushing, and over-complicated lies that this crash can create.

So, the context is flight.

Not birds, nor those deliciously eccentric Darwin Awards ‘Birdman’ nominees who try to fly off the end of a pier into the freezing English Channel of a July week-end each year. The former were designed for flight. The latter are mad, in the fun sense, and they get very wet. We were not designed for flight, and almost all who attempt it, without some sort of jet or prop engine, will fail, or even die. So, we are looking at the jet version, unless you are a field doctor in some seriously boon dock region where single prop is the only thing on hand. Of course I chose the virtuous-sounding option. You could of course be taking that faintly risky flight option because you are bored to f*** of watching your local version of porn, that being insects getting it on, buzzing wildy across your fly screen door, hence a potentially dangerous air flip to the nearest town for a few beers could seem a very good idea. After all, boredom can kill more effectively than a single prop flight.

But, back to the more conventional flight routine, as in lots of people sealed into a metal tube, moving at high speed and at very high altitude. Regardless of the statistical evidence of the same old, same old – along the lines of ‘you’re more likely to be bitten by Luis Suarez than die in a plane accident’, we bump up against our most primal survival mechanism in a situation where there is not very much we can do if something goes wrong. We know that, even in our wildest imagination, jumping to safety from a plummeting plane is not going to happen, and the inflatable evacuation slides don’t have a hell of a lot of chance, even if we happen to crash into a convenient water body­­­–basic physics, as in the descent velocity of a rapidly moving, aerodynamically designed projectile into deep water. Flight staff have to grind through the not-very-likely-to-work safety procedures, and a lot of us (though sure as hell not all) are polite enough to pay some attention to the rictus smile of the man or woman being made to demonstrate topping up a faintly useless inflatable vest. And most of us even manage to refrain from the obvious fellatio-jokes as the blowing is in play. But, the actuality is that if we’re going down, we’re really going down, and that is not a blow joke.

Flying creates a state, subconscious or indeed very conscious, of heightened awareness. And in this state there lies a fascinating laboratory of basic human behaviour. On terra firma it takes a bucket of serious alcohol, or other drugs of choice, to make most people even begin to consider having sex in a tiny, confined, smelly, and indubitably germ-ridden bathroom, particularly one with a foldy door that can be opened from the outside ‘in an emergency’. In our day-to-day lives we would not laugh, and indeed cry to the weepy extent that we do, when watching pretty crappy films on screens that almost everyone would now consider embarrassingly low-tech. But we are in a mix of ‘fight or flightless flight’ mode and also, considering the end of life possibility, our genes are kicking hard to get passed onto the next generation. Those genes are not considering that anyone impregnated will be going down with the rest of us, flight having not been on the agenda at that evolutionary stage.

Flying is a strange middle place, neither the place we have just left, nor where we are going. This middle place is a suspension, an actual and physical waiting room. And while our primal setting is in threat-assessment mode, most of us are pretty exhausted, having pushed the limits ahead of travelling, to get everything sorted, if in work mode, or partied out, if on holiday. Preparing to fly taps into our need to have our ‘house in order’ or ‘everything tried’, just in case… We are hyper-sensitive, and so very vulnerable to self-medicating. Look at the junk most of us eat, drink, and watch on flights. I met a man who had found a way to watch hard core porn on flights, sort of without anyone else realising, thought his modus-getting-offus was actually the thrill of being caught, as against the content, but that’s a subject for another time.The point of all this is that who we are when we are flying is a very useful and tightly focused look into what we are missing when we are on the ground. Our fears, methods of distraction, and emotions displayed while flying tell us a lot about ourselves.

We can treat our boarding passes as a somewhat expensive form of introspective therapy, so see what you’re up to, next time you fly.

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Prudes, Debauched or Both?

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It doesn’t really matter where you are, whether swathed from tip to toe amidst a highly conservative crowd, or in a beach and not-very-much bikini setting, there are always going to be certain words that almost everyone struggles with. Try sitting in a room of people you don’t know very well, and fitting the following words and phrases into a general discussion: masturbation, erectile dysfunction, orgasm, premature ejaculation, clitoris, penis, vagina. Of course there can be the clinical delivery of the doctor’s clinic, but I am talking about how we react to these words in our everydayness.

Here’s the rub, and I mean Shakespeare’s version rather than the frottage kind—let’s look at it as the paradox of arousal. We are designed, according to evolution, primarily for the purpose of getting our genes into the next generation. Not much nuance about that. We’re here to breed. And the twist is that the twittering of society and religion has turned this drive into a thing of shame, giggling, judgement, or all three. If I was to disclose the percentage of the people I work with who have torturous issues around sex it would probably get a big old chorus of tutting. And here we go, swinging back to an earlier posting about self-stigma because the tutting really is a self-commentary.

If our most intimate moment of strange arousal was made public most of us would run for cover, blushing all the way. Your colleague at the desk across the way might find it hard to walk past the yoghurt section in the supermarket because the creamy texture has the ability to arouse her every time, very visibly. Would you send her different internal memos if you knew that? Your favourite barista, who has such a light hand on the frother, might fantasise about ejaculating into a frozen chicken, but does it mean that he is any less good as a barista? Would you find it harder to engage him in your daily chit-chat as you order if you knew that? The thing is that most people would, simply because it’s easier to make judgements about others than to have to admit to our own faintly bizarre moments of arousal.

Masturbation is the one that so many people get stuck on, particularly around anxiety and depression. Excessive masturbation is common for people who are struggling with general or major anxiety problems. It is a stress release, but it has the familiar result of diminishing returns. The calming endorphin rush of orgasm decreases with over-stimulation, as in too much masturbation. For men it often results in premature ejaculation, in women a longer lead-time to orgasm. If you stick those two together you get two frustrated people, and sexual frustration has the viral ability to infect every other area of our lives. Almost every man I have worked with, and many women too, have at some point asked ‘How much is too much?’ There is no particularly useful answer. The usual clinical response is two times a week is fine, to keep everything healthy, functioning and not hyper-aroused. But everyone has different sex drives so that is simply a median point of reference.

And here’s the way of looking at it that a lot of people with anxieties around sexual habits seem to find helpful. It is to separate our sexual life from the rest of our life. The primal motivation means that, in a state of arousal we think and do things that we would be pretty embarrassed by when not aroused. Here is the most common one—a lot of people use streams of soft- porn, or even not-so-soft porn chat when they are turned on, as if arousal allows them a release from the social strictures that perhaps they find limiting in daily life. Would that same person use that flood of flesh-slapping vocabulary at the breakfast table, or in a board meeting—of course not. But you can bet your favourite porn clip that when you see people flushing for apparently for no reason, somewhere such as in the midst of a board and boring meeting, or on the bus, it is quite often because they are getting a flashback to a previous moment of heightened, erotic arousal when all their guards were down and the primal drive was running the show.

Who we are in our sexual inner world is ours alone. It needs to be protected by the understanding that we are being driven by the tsunamis of nature and evolution. Isn’t the point to let those we love, and make love with, into this world on the basis of consent, trust, and mutual respect, and in the understanding that this part of us links back directly to the very basis of our being, and survival?

This does not give us licence to be sexually incontinent. If our inner life of arousal is ours alone, this means private, and not something that spills out, possibly hurting those around us, or indeed ourselves. Who we are when we are aroused, and who we are when we are not, are two parts of our identity that should be able to co-exist in a state of mutual respect. This is what we often refer to as a healthy sex life or, perhaps to clarify, it is the understanding that a word like masturbation might embarrass us a bit when heard in the middle of a working day, but that it can have a very different charge when we are aroused. We are both of these things, the embarrassment and the erotic, the one complimenting the other.

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The Stigma of Stigma

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It is a sort of onomatopoeia—stigma. It sounds harsh, a cruel brand. Stigmata: a mark of disgrace or, in medical terms, a visible sign or characteristic of a disease, such as a mark on the skin, a rash or lesion.

Except that mental illness does not usually have a mark. The wounds are internal, lesions of the mind, and the paradox is that the lack of visible stigmata creates the stigma.

If someone hobbles down the street with a plaster cast on their leg, people often smile in sympathy, or even offer to help carry things if the hobbler is trying to balance bags and a crutch or walking stick. Yet if someone walks down the street talking to themselves, loudly involved in a frantic inner dialogue, most people will shy away, fast. But perhaps the person in the plaster cast broke their leg while blind drunk. Perhaps they injured others. Perhaps they were driving.  And maybe the person walking down the street has been driven to a psychotic breakdown by grief because someone they loved was killed by a drunk driver. We stigmatise one, but not the other.

That is an overly dramatic comparison, but it is to make a point. And what is perhaps the most poignant aspect of this point is that the worst stigma of all in mental health is self-stigma, our judgement of and against ourselves. A common figure used to illustrate this comes from the country with supposedly the most open and robust attitude towards mental health in the world, the US: the majority of those struggling to live with depressive disorders do not seek help for an average of ten years into their suffering.

Ten years.

Maybe there will be chunks of those ten years that might not be so bad, but it probably means around 3,000 days of waking up with the dread of how to survive the day ahead, of living in fear of everything, of being over-whelmed by the simplest decision, of not remembering what it really feels like to feel alive, let alone how to experience joy.

This is really a form of madness, this stigmatising. But it is also a very human response, a primal one. Evolution designed us to protect ourselves, and an important part of that is what is referred as the disease avoidance response. It is natural for us to shy away from someone who might be infectious. It is mapped into us at a deep and unconscious level. If you watch footage of crowds moving on streets there are moments when people seem to move as a shoal of fish, heading as one in the same direction. On closer inspection if often proves that someone in the crowd was coughing badly, or sneezing, and so the primal response was for people to move to a safe distance, beyond the spray range of the germs.

To take on stigmas also means rebelling against aspects of our evolution and its drive for self-protection. It is neither easy, nor comfortable, but having a sense of the profound pain of isolation creates empathy, a potent weapon against stigma. Surely almost everyone alive has experienced loneliness? If we dive into the memory of how that feels, of how profoundly and cruelly alone it can make us feel, then it becomes easier to rebel against stigma, to reach out rather than to recoil.

This morning at our main clinic in Kashmir we were role-playing a case about sexual abuse: a young man who was abused many times by his eldest brother. Even though our team here is sadly familiar with this kind of abuse they still react when the ‘bomb is dropped’ during the role-play, as in the moment when the person playing the role of the abused young man admits to the abuse. Even after years of training they have a mix of responses, the equivalent of a sharp intake of breath, of judgement, but at the same time there is a sadness in their eyes, of sympathy, of empathy. It is the latter that we work on, as much as is humanly possible in the face of our primeval response to what we find horrifying.

Perhaps the first step of the rebellion against so many stigmas is to understand them as a perversion of self-preservation, and from there we can push back against these distortions.

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On Mental Health and Stigma

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The Madness of Stigmas

Stigmas have the same nature as gas, or fear, they fill whatever space is made available to them. Almost everything about mental health still has a huge pink elephant of a stigma going on. I don’t care how we face it down, but if we are really going to tackle it, front on, then we have to. I will adopt any effective method going. Writing about some of the most common themes coming up as I practice seems one way. This first post is about one of the most common anxiety triggers that comes up during sessions, particularly with patients and clients under 30.

Flesh and the Internet

I would be more at ease if I was not working with a young girl who had tried to hang herself because of what her ‘friends’ wrote about her on-line. I would also like not to be one of the moderators on a media forum where the bullying got so bad that intervention became necessary—and the irony: it is a site for international peace discussions. Many sessions would be far less embarrassing for some younger patients if I did not have to define, very carefully, the difference between Internet pornography and what it is like to have real, human sex. And I would rather not have almost been evicted from where I work in India because of some crazy fabrications about me on a particularly over-loaded social network.

I would also rather not have had to put ‘I’ so many times in that paragraph, but there is something about the nature of the Internet that has created what seems to be a new kind of tribalism that demands personal proof of everything.

Except that it is not new, this particular variety of created community.

Here is the paradox of the Internet: it is a great leap forward, but there is little that is new, fantastic, or modern about it. Really it is just a very old-fashioned idea that has had a ‘pimp my ride’ technology makeover. What the Internet does is, in many ways, fabulously retro. It is a worldwide version of the apron-waist high fences that separated terraced houses in so many cluttered mid-twentieth century European cities. Every day, as women went about their lives and laundry lines, they leant across the fences and chattered. They bitched, cried, laughed, and went away feeling unburdened, or at the very least giggling about some heinous street gossip, usually involving a condom hanging out of next door’s dog’s mouth, or variations on that sort of theme. In addition to this it is also the ether form of the factory gate, the working men’s club, school playground, campus common room, hospital waiting room, the bus you catch, the train you take, your local café, your favourite pub or bar—it is anywhere and everywhere that you connect with people, except that there are no people.

When we click off a call, jump out of a chat-room, or any other kind of ‘instant’ forum, we are usually alone again, except that we feel even more alone. There is no-one to wave to across the low fence, no shy smile across the crowded tube, no shoulder to sway against on the way back from the pub after the half pint too far, no quietly supportive hand in the hospital waiting room. We are neurologically designed to respond to human warmth, to touch, and yet here we are, entrapped in a medium that stimulates our brain to think we are

in some form of intimacy, but without the vital component—human contact. The result is that when we click off the sense of aloneness is heightened, the anxiety of isolation increased, the chances of compulsive behaviour exacerbated, and depression becomes darker, the urge to click back on-line even greater.

And so we have teenagers in suicidal despair, and grown men and women behaving like drunk teenagers. Meanwhile the various security systems, national or otherwise, try to work out how to respond to the wave of unresolved human emotion that pours out across the ether, without the powerful holding pattern of human touch to control the excesses of those emotions.

There is a lot of dialogue in play about how we should behave on-line. Quite a lot of it steers fast into the realm of the absurd as people claim human rights abuses, if and when their right to scream abuse on Internet forums is challenged.

Effective dialogue is based on truth. This is how psychotherapy works – a relationship based on trust wherein someone can speak the truth about themselves, knowing that everything that is said is confidential. The Internet is the opposite of this, but it requires its own code of truth to curb some of the violence being spread across it, and some of the violence that results from what people find on-line.

Imagine if we only put on-line what we were prepared to say to someone face-to-face and sober? This is often suggested, but it is usually presented as an almost throw-away idea, too simple, or even simplistic to be followed.

Just as there is both simplicity and enormity to breathing…but that is for another day and another post.

So, in short summary, intimacy is created and shored up by human contact, by tenderness and touch. The Internet cannot do this, and we need to stop pretending that it can. 

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