Brushing My Tongues

You can tell I’m manic this morning; no sooner have I finished one post than I want to write another. I’ve started listening to the Greek conversation practice and it’s so hilarious I just had to tell you about it. They start with things you do in the morning and it begins normally enough; I get out of bed, I make some coffee, I brush my teeth etc but then it goes on to I argue with the children and I avoid the neighbours before proceeding to I get on the bus followed by I have a nap. Well I guess after all that arguing and avoiding people you’d need a nap. The phrases are much too fast; having taught both French and English I know you need to go a lot slower, but listening is good. The trouble I’ve had with learning Ancient Greek is that it’s totally book-based, whereas I learn best if I can hear the language spoken. I might get the Italian one as well, which I’ll find a lot easier because (a) they have the same alphabet so I can visualise the words and (b) I already know some Italian. It’s slightly disconcerting though because it begins with a phone conversation;

Woman: Hello. How are you?

Man: I’m fine. What are you doing?

Woman: I’m washing the dishes. What are you doing?

Man: I’m watching TV.

Hmm. Language-learning does tend to be more stereotyped because stereotypes are easier to recognise. I once had a Punjabi teacher who had a fund of sayings in that language, most of which were horrendously sexist. Know your audience, guys! A propos of which I once, as an English teacher in Spain, showed my class an episode of Fawlty Towers and was struck by how insulting the character of Manuel must seem to them.

So today’s going to be a bit linguistic I think.

Kirk out

Mainly Mania

I’ve been a bit manic the last few days; not so much physically as mentally. I think it’s the sun; when I taught yoga for mental health a lot of bipolar people tended to become manic in the summer. It’s understandable because everything else is manic; the insects and the plants, the weeds – oh, the weeds! – everything’s up and doing and it’s hard not to join in. I wish I were physically manic though; I’d be able to lose a bit of weight, but as it is the mind is buzzing but the body slumps: I have the brain of a bee and the body of a slug.

It’s hard to concentrate on days like these. You want to do everything at once; it seems that if you don’t do it now, it won’t get done; so this morning I activated my birthday Google Play voucher and started downloading audio books like there’s no tomorrow. I want to learn modern Greek so I can put it side by side with Ancient Greek, and Italian and Anglo-Saxon (though I don’t think there’s an audio book for that) and ‘read’ the rest of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet and – and – everything. I’m just getting used to audio books; in general I prefer the physical page and as I’ve said I can’t deal with ebooks at all (though I did read Edwin Drood, what there is of it, on Project Gutenberg.) The result of all this activity is, predictably, burnout and depression; it’s a cycle I know well. Therefore I started the day with meditation, which has slowed me down a bit, and if it comes back I shall maybe play some slow music or do some breathing exercises.

Aaaaand breathe!

I would never claim to have full-blown manic depression or bipolar syndrome – or depression or psychosis or any of the problems I experience from time to time – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real. They’re just a taste, really, of what other people have to deal with on a daily basis, and I can only imagine what that’s like. Fortunately I have techniques to manage these experiences so I can usually bring myself back to a state of balance. In any case it’s quite damp here this morning, so perhaps that’ll settle me too. And now if you’ll excuse me I’ll get back to my audio books and Greek and Italian and Anglo-Saxon…

Kirk out

My Last Troll

The majority of my readers are delightful people; they like and comment and follow and post interesting and insightful thoughts. If they disagree, they do so respectfully and politely. But every so often I get a troll. They often start off quite pleasantly, just making one or two points on which they differ from me, but as soon as I start engaging with them they become ruder and ruder until finally their posts consist of nothing but insults. The last one who did this was blocked, though not as soon as he ought to have been (so far I’m pretty sure they’ve all been male) though as I’ve just discovered in the trash folder, he carried on commenting and trying to get me to react for about a year.

Actually reading through all his comments I found myself in tears… of laughter. Like the death of Little Nell they were so ridiculous that I actually found them funny. I’m not going to repeat any of them but I think it’s real progress that they made me laugh instead of getting to me. Because that is the point: to get to you. It’s not about what the comments say, it’s about that person trying to get under your skin in any way they can; to undermine, to pour scorn and loathing and vitriol and keep pouring it until (they hope) you just give up.

It’s my theory (and OH’s) that trolls are generally people with impossibly high standards. I always check out my followers and invariably these trolls don’t have a blog or website of their own with any content on it at all, because they’re afraid to put themselves out there. And because they’re afraid they envy anyone who has the guts to do this; and because they envy us they try to bring us down.

In the early days of this blog I was terrified that as soon as I expressed an opinion I would get a load of criticism from all sides. But that never happened, and over time I’ve learned to handle people disagreeing (so long as they do so respectfully). What took me longer to learn was zero tolerance of rudeness; I put up with it for far too long. All of which links to…

Mental health. This was going to be my main topic but I went off on one. Thankfully it is much more acceptable to talk about mental health nowadays than it was in my youth; although when people say ‘I’ve got mental health’ I always have to stop myself from saying ‘congratulations’ and asking how they managed it. What they mean, of course, is ‘I’ve got mental health problems’ and that is an area I know something about. I know depression and I know psychosis, and right now – whether it’s the hot weather or just a burst of energy or something else – I can feel psychosis nudging at my elbow. What does it feel like? I’ve learned to recognise the signs now, so it doesn’t generally sweep over me. This can be terrifying. The best way I can explain it is like an old-fashioned swirly ‘dissolve’ on TV which they used to indicate a dream or the passing of time (I don’t know what it’s called so I can’t find any videos of it.) Anyway, it feels like that; you’re just walking along and suddenly everything goes swirly and you lose hold on reality. It’s very frightening. I think mental health is very relevant to trolls; I’m not saying they’re all mentally ill but a healthy person does not spend their time trying to bring others down. I’m tempted to write a poem now in the style of Browning’s My Last Duchess:

That’s my last troll up there on the wall

looking as if he were alive…

Kirk out

An Exhaustion of Larks

Thank goodness, the weather seems set to warm up a bit so maybe I will as well. I’ve had to have socks in bed and though I resist turning the heating on, I have to wear jumpers in order not to start shivering. But my main preoccupation at the moment is not cold but fatigue. Why am I so tired all the time? I can’t be – in fact I’m sure I’m not – the only person to be wailing this on a daily basis. Why am I so tired all the time? I had a lovely sleep last night, eight hours of the dreamless and I woke feeling… exhausted. Why? Should I go to the doctor? It’s been a while since I had a thyroid function test so maybe it’s that. Maybe it’s lockdown? I thought getting more exercise would help, and it has, to an extent but come ten o’clock I’m invariably shattered. It’s not that I’ve been busy, rushing around all day; but maybe it’d be better if I had? Maybe then I’d have some sense of purpose instead of being stuck in this ‘I-must-write-because-I-can’t-help-writing-but-it’s-not-getting-anywhere cycle. But if I give up, where is there to go?

Then again, maybe it isn’t me; I was reading the other day about how climate change is affecting people’s mental health, and surely exhaustion has to be a part of that? In a way it’s worse than a war; in a war the danger is present and immediate and you take steps to keep yourself and others safe – assuming you’re a civilian. But right now we’re being told of a threat that is approaching daily, getting worse almost by the hour, and yet most of us feel paralysed with impotence. It’s like sitting in a cave hearing an enormous monster coming ever closer and not knowing what you can do about it.

I believe that we have the power to tackle climate change if the will is there. But too many people are slow to realise the danger; too many greedy corporations want to hang on to their profits, too many governments want to hold on to power. So like many people I feel infinitesimally small and totally impotent. And that is exhausting.

Another thing that’s exhausting is rejection. I had an email from the BBC yesterday thanking me for my radio play but unfortunately… It wasn’t in the least unexpected – I’d have been astonished if they’d liked it, for all sorts of reasons, but it’s another blow in a long sequence of blows. Sometimes you wonder what you’ve done in a past life to deserve all this – but as with every rejection, you pick yourself up and carry on. But that takes energy.

Or could it be that I’m just getting up too early? I can’t seem to stop being a lark right now. So I think we should change the collective noun for larks – forget exaltation, it’s an exhaustion of larks.

Kirk out

Perfectionist? Is That the Word?

It’s a forlorn hope but I’ve been trying for years to get together a series of short and snappy jokes, along the lines of ‘Pedantic? I?’ So far I have:

Pedantic? I?

Pretentious? Moi?

Wordy? I myself personally?

Ungrammatical? Me?

Avoidant? Them?

Defensive? You?

and finally, Perfectionist? I? Is that right?

And now I’ve ground to a halt. I suspect it’s a very niche market. But let us reflect on the last of these traits, namely perfectionism. Handmaiden to competition and midwife of depression, perfectionism is the enemy of every achievement. It’s Scylla to the Charybdis of apathy, it paralyses the will and disables excitement. It subtracts joy and replaces it with endless, grinding labour.

As I’ve said before going away tricks one’s demons into leaving you alone for a while. They take a few days to wake up and realise that you’re gone, but as soon as they do they stand up, shade their eyes and peer at the horizon to discover you. ‘There she is, lads!’ they cry, and they set off to overtake you with bags packed full of misery. Sometimes if you leave before they get there you can trick them by coming home by another route (like Mary and Joseph avoiding Herod) but before too long they’ll spy you out and come home again. ‘There you are!’ they cry, sounding like a solicitous but abusive father. ‘Now don’t run off like that without telling us, you naughty woman.’

I managed to evade this noxious tribe in Scotland but now that I’ve been home a few days they’ve spied me out and the first to settle on my shoulders is that old albatross, perfectionism. We know each other of old, her and me (is that right? should it be ‘she and I’? Yes, it should.) OK – we know each other of old, she and I, and she settles quite comfortably into the niche she’s made for herself on my right shoulder where, like a pirate’s parrot she monotonously repeats her few phrases. ‘Is that right? You got that wrong!’ and of course, her all-time favourite, ‘That’s rubbish! Do it again!’ Oh, when will I be free of this demon?

Answers on a postcard please. And they’d better be good ones…

Kirk out

What Shall I Think About Today?

This is not an idle question. We tend to think of our thoughts as phenomena which come and go like the weather and which we cannot control; but thoughts can absolutely be cultivated and trained. Think of it less like weather and more like gardening; helpful and fruitful thoughts can be nurtured and harmful weeds can be uprooted. The more we do this during our waking hours, the less we will be disturbed by unwanted thoughts during the night.

Even so, I often wake in the night and start to Think with a capital TH. Last night around 4 a m I started off worrying about climate change and graduated to an unfolding horror-film where I was discussing my novel on live TV and burst into tears when someone criticised it. Oh, the embarrassment, the humiliation! Oh, the millions of hits on youtube! Oh, the total inability to ever live it down! These are the scenes that my brain presents to me in the early hours, and it’s a total pain. I know why it happens: the reasons are well-documented. First, it’s the middle of the night; it’s dark and there are no distractions, so the unregarded thoughts and fears of the day grab their chance to get a little me-time. Second, there’s an energy dip; it’s a long time since you last ate and blood sugar is low, meaning that the defences are down. And third, you haven’t yet had enough sleep, so the brain is more suggestible.

It’s not always terrible during these hours; sometimes I get amazing ideas, lightning-flashes of genius that illuminate the entire landscape of my life. Sadly, just as the terrific fears don’t seem so bad in the light of day, these ideas don’t seem so brilliant either. The cold light of day is a great leveller.

One thing I’ve learned from reading Paul McKenna’s book on sleep is that it’s a good idea to tackle these things while you’re still awake. Write down your fears; transcribe your ideas. For me the best time is often the late afternoon when my work for the day is done and I have a little time to contemplate where I’m at; what’s worrying me, what’s exciting me, what dark fears lurk beneath the surface, what great hopes are straining at the leash. The more time you give these things during the day the less likely they are to pop up at night.

Another thing I’ve learned is that it’s not a good idea to read before going to sleep. Now, this presented me with a problem: it’s been my practice ever since childhood to read in bed and before I needed reading glasses I would lie down with a book propped beside me on the pillow and often fall asleep that way. However I couldn’t but acknowledge that reading almost any novel is likely to stimulate thoughts and emotions rather than calming them: enter Pooh. I was able to read the House at Pooh Corner and Winnie-the-Pooh over and over and found that they sent me into a dreamlike, contemplative state and satisfied my need to read without stimulation. After I’d read them each about a dozen times I turned to the Narnia books and these have kept me going ever since. You’d think I’d get bored but I don’t because it’s not about what happens so much as entering a new and eternally fascinating world, and this has an entirely different effect on the brain from reading an ordinary grown-up novel. Those novels are wide-awake but in Narnia you seem to dream.

I have other techniques for when I’m awake in the night: rewinding the day is one (describing to myself the events of the day in reverse order) or counting backwards from 300 or putting my hands in shakti mudra or asking my subconscious to put it all in a dream instead of keeping me awake – a bit like asking your secretary to put all their ideas in an email. There’s no doubt that as a people we are overstimulated; turning off the TV half an hour before bed is a good thing (not that I usually do) practising meditation or visualisation is another, and I’ve gone back to this after a Holiday Hiatus.

So that’s me. How have you been?

Kirk out

How Much is That Thingy in the Window?

Things are becoming very Thingish nowadays. We say to each other, ‘is that a Thing?’ meaning, ‘is that a cultural phenomenon/extant object/recognised custom?’ We package stuff; ‘reify’ it, make it into a Thing with a use value and an exchange value, so that it can take its place in the marketplace of Things. We don’t just assemble objects, we ‘curate’ them because ‘curating’ is a Thing. We don’t just have experiences, we have ‘issues’ or, if they’re more intense, ‘mental health issues’, because these are things.

Anyway, to cut to the chase (that’s another Thing) in searching for a Viz cartoon I came across a post from 2008. I’d not long started this blog when I was plunged into a period of psychosis that lasted three months. Psychosis is defined as being out of touch with reality as it is usually experienced and in touch with a different reality – at least, that’s a non-judgmental way of putting it.

So what happened? Basically the menopause happened. I was expecting it of course, but I’d anticipated hot flushes, night sweats, all that sort of thing. Then one night it hit me with no warning: I woke up in the early hours with a strong desire to meditate. From then on I found myself waking up at three or four o’clock every morning to meditate and believing that in meditation I was in contact with Someone (the Someone was an actual human being but we’d never met.) At three a m I’d be ecstatic, high as a kite; then I’d go back to bed and sleep. But the corollary was that in the afternoon I’d come crashing down to earth with a deep depression. This cycle went on for three months and I could no more stop it than I could stop the sun rising and setting.

Eventually it slowed and faded – but it never completely went away, and even today I get moments of it. They’re almost like an attack of faintness, except they’re mental not physical events. Momentarily I lose everything: my sense of myself, all idea of what and where I am and what the hell I’m doing. It’s like the earth moving under you (and not in a good way). It’s frightening.

Anyway, here’s the original post, which includes some strategies which worked for me.

Kirk out

It Worked for Me: Tips for Sufferers of Psychosis

(Note: posts describing the period of psychosis have been deleted.  In this post I attempt to sum up a retrospective view of this period.)

Here’s what I think now:

it seemed real to me for the following reasons:

1.  It came to me unbidden, without any conscious or voluntary action on my part

2.  I did not believe my unconscious could invent such things

3.  Experiences such as waking at 3 am and being in ecstatic communion were so far outside my realm of reality that I thought they must be connected with someone else.

I now realise that the mind is far deeper and more complex than I had understood, and that in times of upheaval it is able to present as reality those experiences which are not real.

I also believe there was a deep wisdom in all of this, which allowed me to believe in the reality in order to get me to a certain point, viz:

I was very stuck in my life and my art.  Fulfilment involved an upheaval so terrifying that I kept putting it off from day to day just as Proust did.

Whether or not there was any connection with anyone outside me is something I will never know.  And that is as it should be.

On a deep spiritual level this has all been for my development.  I have experienced divine love.  It all got tangled up with one individual but now I can separate the strands.  Even though it has been the hardest thing I have ever done, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

I hope these comments may be of use to anyone who is going through a similar thing.  If you are, here are some of the things that worked for me:

  • be aware that the physical is where we live
  • stand.  Literally!  Stand on your own two feet.  Practise the mountain pose
  • connect to your breath
  • do lots of karma yoga (washing up, gardening etc.  Connect with the earth and nature)
  • avoid meditation, even if you are deeply drawn to it
  • eat regularly and eat wholesome food
  • try to get enough sleep
  • Use your support network.  Don’t neglect your family and friends.  Tell those who love you what is going on with you.  Ask for their support but ask them to refrain from suggesting solutions or interpretations.
  • Give it all to a higher power (whatever you believe in.)  If this means nothing to you, just give it to the earth.  Imagine you are breathing it all out.
  • Try to enjoy life!  Don’t stop doing the things you enjoy.  Go out for meals, drinks – visit friends.  Connect yourself to others in an everyday sense.  Keep in touch.
  •  Avoid taking up any new activity or challenge at this time.

If you want to post any comments or questions, please do.  I am not an expert, except that, having been through these experiences, I am an expert on my own psychosis.

Take care

Kirk out