Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Mental Illness: You Or The Universe?

I've been pretty ill this past week. It wasn't an easy time, I was in a lot of pain, but I did what I could -- I sought medical help, took what was prescribed to me, let people know what was going on, accepted support and sympathy where they were offered, didn't blame myself, and took the time needed to heal. It was a tough thing to go through, but I faced it the right way, and it turned out to not be so bad.

I'm talking here about getting shingles, but I could just as easily be referring to a bout of depression. And yet, if my illness had been mental rather than physical, the likelihood is that I would have dealt with it in a very different way.

I tend to isolate myself when I am depressed. I work extra hard to pretend everything is fine. I suffer in silence. I don't ask for help. But, most of all, I really struggle with blame.

Either I blame myself, for being weak, for being pathetic, for being a coward, and suffer the pains of guilt and shame and embarrassment, or else I blame the universe for foisting this misery upon me, and I drown in self-pity.

I doubt these feelings are unique to me. There is still such a taboo against mental illness in our culture, especially among men, emotionally cut-off as we often are, dealing with outmoded concepts of masculinity -- having to be the strong one, the breadwinner, the head of the household -- as we often are.

We're terrified of something unseen affecting our will, our resolve, our sense of self. We feel if something goes wrong with our ability to want, to care, to hope, then something horrendous has gone wrong with us, in a way that we don't when we have a problem with our leg, say, or our liver, or, as is the case with shingles, our skin and nerves.

The thing is, despite decades of knowledge garnered from neuroscience, psychotherapy, quantum mechanics, philosophy, countless other varied disciplines, our common understanding of the relationship between our mind and our body, between our body and the universe, between self and other, is pretty much stuck in the Dark Ages.

Here is my bold statement for this post: There is no point blaming either yourself or the universe for your depression, because in truth you are the universe, and the universe is you.

I'm going to get a bit trippy here, but let's go for it...

Everything in the universe, right, is made of the same stuff. This stuff cannot be seen, or known, because it has no opposite. There is nothing that isn't it with which it can be contrasted. It is all that there is.

Everything that we think of as individual things, including you and me, is simply this universal stuff arranged into different structures.

Bear with me here. Let's say you made, I don't know, a child's fort out of chairs in your dining room. The fort itself wouldn't be an intrinsic thing, it wouldn't be made of "fort", it would simply be an arrangement, a structure, of chairs.

And yet a chair is not an intrinsic thing, either. It is an arrangement, a structure, of smaller things, known as atoms. And atoms are not intrinsic things -- though we thought they were when we discovered them, hence the name, which is Greek for "unable to cut". But atoms are not atomic, they are simply structures of smaller things, of electrons and protons and neutrons. And electrons and protons and neutrons are not things themselves, but structures of quarks and leptons and gluons and the like. And these fizzly bitty little things may have been named "fundamental particles" (rather quixotically, I feel), but what can we expect to find, if we are ever able to peer down inside them, other than more arrangements, more structures?

There is an emptiness going all the way down. In place of substance, of matter, of stuff, we find instead shapes, patterns, space. Relationship. A dance of order and chaos. All of it joined with all of the rest of it.

Or, OK, try this: At the moment of the Big Bang everything occupied the same point in space. All of space, in fact, occupied the same point in space. And then it exploded. Simple structures were formed, and began themselves to form into more complex structures. Atoms arranged themselves into the lightest elements, hydrogen and helium and such.

As these arrangements cooled they formed together into stars. And the immense pressures at the centres of these stars pushed the structures of atoms together with such force that some of the structures were broken or fused together into new patterns. Yet more patterns were created in the supernovae of dying stars. And, in such ways, every single element that makes up our world was created. Carbon, oxygen, magnesium... byzantium... rope... jam. The whole periodic table. There is no difference between any element in existence save the way its electrons, protons, and neutrons are structured -- like different forts all made from the same chairs.

Anyway, some of these structures of atoms, after taking their bloody time about it, eventually arranged themselves together into our Earth. And some of our Earth's structure eventually arranged itself together into a type of energy transfer we call life. Some forms of life evolved structures called brains. Many didn't, such as fungi and jellyfish, and these lifeforms seemed fairly content to be brainless, and survived well. But among the lifeforms that did evolve brains, a tiny minority eventually developed their brains to a level where they could invent chess, and the Sistine Chapel, and poetry, and the Beatles, and cheese on toast, and this was all rather nice.

But every power contains within it its own flaw. To be able to fly, you must run the risk of falling. To be able to float, sometimes you must sink. And for the human brain to be able to care, to dream, to hope, it must run the risk of this hope faltering. To love, it must risk depression.

So this is what I say to you: When you get depressed, you can blame the fucking stars, if you wish -- although remember that the stars are you, are burning outwards through your very eyes. Or you can blame yourself, if you wish -- although remember that you are but a permutation, a unique expression, of the whole vast interconnected universe.

Or, alternatively, you can drop the blame game altogether. Stop beating yourself up for being depressed. Stop beating the universe up for making you depressed. Recognise that depression is just an unfortunate thing that happens, like a breaking a leg, or catching a cold, or getting shingles. It is an obstacle before you, one that you would never have wished for, but one that is here -- and you can face it in a way that helps, or a way that does not help.

Be brave. Reach out. Accept support. I can tell you honestly that there will be people out there who will be there for you, if you look for them. I am there for you. We are all in this together. We all are this together.

Keep going. You are incredible. You can do this.

[A final, brief note: I am aware of a couple of scientific inaccuracies in this piece that I couldn't be bothered to write out. Electrons are not, in fact, of the same order as protons and neutrons, i.e., comprised of quarks held together by gluons, but rather fundamental particles in their own right, of the family of leptons. Also, technically not *all* of the elements of the periodic table were formed in the ways I stated; 26 "man-made" elements were created in nuclear power plants and inside particle accelerators. But as my main thrust is that man him-or-her-self is in fact a function of nature, I didn't figure this required time wasting upon it. But just in case you were worried that I didn't know, I did. Any other errors, however, I have made because I am a nincompoop, and if you find them you can go "nurr-nurr" at me.]

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Would You Just... Stay Upbeat?

Well, that’s another couple of days got through. Spent yesterday zonked out on meds, napping in front of Netflix (I’d barely slept the night before again), trying not to concentrate on the pain. The blisters were starting to scab over, and the burning, stinging pain wasn’t as intense, but I was nauseated and dizzy, and my head was aching I guess right down the major nerves to the eye and the ear and up the forehead. It made me feel seasick to try to read or to watch anything too frenetic, and when I closed my eyes it was like my vision was being pulled in different directions and I was tumbling slowly over, and my stomach would lurch and I’d have to snap my eyes open again, so I mostly just lay in bed and ate painkillers and tried not to think. It was a pretty bad day.

Things were a little better this morning, though -- I’d had the tumbling lurching sensation for a few hours in the night, somehow horrifically more torturous lying alone in that silent darkness, but I had eventually fallen asleep, and then I slept through until around 10am today. When I awoke the scabs were dryer and the burning pain was again lessened. The other symptoms were still extant, but I felt well enough to shower and apply wet compresses to my face and then to get dressed and potter around a little. I did some light exercises, tidied my room, and helped my mum with some spring cleaning.

I’m utterly exhausted again now though. My eye is sore and the pain in my head is pulsing in and out, and it’s a struggle to see this screen.

Shingles sucks, basically. But I suppose when I think of all the things that could be wrong with me, this is still fairly low on the list. It’s painful, but there are worse pains, and hopefully it’s already getting better. And when I think that I live in a time and place where I can get diagnosed and given treatment rapidly, where I can sign myself off work without losing my job, where there’s a bed and Netflix and boxes of painkillers available to ease my suffering -- the truth is that I’m still pretty damn lucky, and I’m going to choose to remember that, to be grateful for that.

I hope you can also find something to be grateful for tonight. Even if it's small, hold onto it. It matters. Take care x

P.S. Here’s what I look like today. If you can believe it I am actually attempting a smile.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Would You Just... Accept The Things You Cannot Change?

Another day that has been precisely no fun whatsoever. The shingles rash has grown into large, painful blisters that are beginning to ooze fluid, my vision has gone blurry and teary in my right eye, and I’ve got a headache, dizziness, and mild nausea. Plus the cocktail of different medications I’m taking has left me wiped out. I didn’t sleep last night, and I’ve been dozing on and off today, trying to watch episodes of things and read, but unable to concentrate. I’m staggering painkillers to get the most use out of them, but they don’t have much effect.

But it’s all right. It’s quite nice, in a way, to know what the problem is, to know that I’m doing everything possible to get through it. I find with my anxiety it’s easy to spend a lot of time worrying about what might happen, picturing how bad it could be -- so having found that something legitimately quite horrible has happened, it’s almost a relief to be able to simply face it, to quit worrying and instead deal with it.

And with depression as well you’re always fighting an unknown, unseen foe, chronic pain, yes, debilitating tiredness, yes, a lack of joy, a loss of hope -- but all as it were “in your head”, impossible to get your hands around, to truly understand. And because you never really know what it is, you never really know what to do to fight it.

Yet with the shingles here is something with obvious causes -- the varicella-zoster virus lying dormant in the roots of nerves -- with physical pain that is clearly understood, with medication to combat the worst of it, and with a good estimate of the duration of the suffering.

And so I am finding myself feeling remarkably Zen about the whole thing. It hurts, sure, but I’m doing everything I can about that. My face is a mess, but it will heal. I hope my eye isn’t being permanently damaged, but if there are complications then I’ll deal with them when they arrive. For now all I have to think about is eating soup, taking painkillers, letting the virus run its course.

Pretty much everything in life takes care of itself, I guess I’m saying. There’s no point worrying about anything other than what is in front of you, and even what is in front of you can only be handled to the best of your ability. Or, as those recovering alcoholics like to say:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, 
Courage to change the things I can, 
And wisdom to know the difference.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s Zovirax and codeine time!

Step light x

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Well This Sucks

I have to admit, when I heard that I had to book the week off work due to shingles, there was a part of me that thought it’d be fun. I remember having chicken pox when I was five and spending a week over summer sequestered with my best friend in his garden, playing with our Transformer toys in the golden sunlight, having a good scratch of our spots every time our mums weren’t looking.

This is not like that. The pain is like an incessant scalding of the nerve endings in my face, and has spread right around my eye and into the upper and lower lids, which is worrying me as to long-term complications, not to mention hurting like a mother-bitch. I’m taking as many painkillers as possible, and trying without much luck to distract myself. There are definitely worse things that could be happening, but right now it’s hard work thinking of them.

I watched the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale on whatever 4oD is called these days -- good shout, Katie! -- which I thought was great, if a little reliant on voice-over narration to directly copy the strengths of the novel, rather than reforming it for a visual medium. It’s that eternal problem of adapting first-rate literature, that so much of the power is entwined within the way the book is written, rather than simply its plot, and a televised version can run the risk of illustrating the material without owning it, of telling rather than showing.

But then maybe I’m just too close to the novel, having studied it for A-Level and loved and reread it many times since. It’s hard not to notice the things that were left out, the subtleties that television isn’t good at picking up on. But certainly the performances are all excellent, the scenes with Janine and the Salvaging were very well done, and there is a drowning sense of oppression and claustrophobia, of how easily we can be turned against one another -- I’d say “more important than ever in this day and age”, but in what age is this not important? We are always vulnerable, always at risk. So far The Handmaid’s Tale does a good job of making that clear.

Another adaptation I’ve been enjoying recently is American Gods, streaming on Amazon Prime. This feels much more disassembled from its original book form and rebuilt into something new than The Handmaid’s Tale, although I confess to not having read the Neil Gaiman novel, so I can’t say for sure. Certainly, though, there are places where I hear Gaiman’s distinct voice, and the storytelling core is all him, but it’s visually intriguing in a way that I doubt came from the book, with great use of slow motion, fragmented narrative, match-cuts, and a whole host of filmic techniques to speak its meaning in a more visual language.

I know, I know -- I’m in too much pain right now to rewrite all that so it doesn’t sound insufferably pretentious. Whatever. Sue me.

I’m going to go try to shower now, although I splashed some water on my face before and it felt like the skin was melting off.

… And, OK, that was not the smartest of ideas. Water is NOT my friend. Also I look like Two-Face from Batman. Here is a picture:

I'm off to order pizza and watch a nice film to cheer myself up. Toodles x

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

I Have Shingles :(

If you’re thinking about getting shingles around your eye, I’ve got a tip for you: Don’t get shingles around your eye. It’s your call and everything, but I really wouldn’t recommend it.

A few days ago I got what I thought were a few spots, one on my forehead, and a cluster around my hairline. I’ve got terrible skin anyway, so this wasn’t a surprise. They hurt more than normal, but I thought that was just because of where they were on the face. When you get spots a lot you get used to the different varieties, the sore ones round the lips, the rosy red ones on the nose -- and on the forehead, where the skin is stretched tight, they can hurt like hell.

But then yesterday when I woke up the spots had become a rash across most of the top right side of my face, and it was clearly something else. It looked like a mild chemical burn, was more painful than before, and I assumed some kind of allergic reaction. I found a Boots that was open on bank holidays, and the pharmacist there gave me some strong antihistamines and told me to apply plenty of moisturiser, but he didn’t examine me closely, or seem much interested. Maybe that Guardian exposé was right. Or maybe he was just tired and distracted from working on Bank Holiday Monday. I know I hate it when I have to work bank holidays on the bar.

I dosed up and hunkered down. But then this morning the rash was worse again, what I’d thought were spots had now become welts, and another cluster had developed around my eye. And the pain, which had been awful yesterday, was now excruciating. It felt like the skin was being burned off my face.

I managed to book a same-day appointment with the nurse practitioner at my local surgery, and within minutes she had diagnosed me with shingles. I didn’t know much about it, other than that it was somehow related to chicken pox. But I picked up the antiviral drugs she prescribed me and came home and did a whole lot of Google research.

Shingles is herpes zoster, the reoccurrence of the chicken pox virus. After recovering from chicken pox the virus is not eradicated from your body, but rather lies dormant in the roots of your nerves. The virus can then reawaken in later life, especially if your immune system is lowered or you suffer from anxiety or stress -- which, like, *waves* -- at which point you develop shingles.

Anyway, the rash is supposed to blister and then scab and then heal, which with the help of the meds should last a week or two, and the pain, because it is nerve based, will likely last a while longer. I have to be careful with it being around and so close to my eye, because damage to the eye itself can cause permanent scarring and vision loss, which is scary, but hopefully the meds will lessen the risk of that as well.

You can’t give shingles to anyone else, but you can give chicken pox to someone who has not had chicken pox before, and because of this I have to sign myself off work until the blisters scab. Which really sucks for work, although my manager has been lovely about it, and kind of sucks for me, because I don’t fancy being house-bound for up to two weeks.

But I’ve been letting the blog slide of recent, not through depression but simply having other things to do, so perhaps it will be good to have some time with which to focus on writing again. I shouldn’t really go out, I’ve already ploughed through most of the Netflix library I can be bothered with, and the fiery pains up all the nerves of my face makes it hard to concentrate on anything too active.

So I’ll come here and let you know how I’m getting along, I’ll write whatever I have in me to write, and it’ll hopefully distract me in between doses of Zovirax and paracetamol and ibuprofen, of which I’ll be taking a whole shit-ton.

I hope you wonderful people are all good, anyway. Peace. 

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Would You Just... Talk About It? Part Four

I've been struggling with depression again recently. It has been creeping back in over the months since restarting the antidepressants, creeping back through any cracks it can find. The medication holds it mostly at bay, but here and there it still trickles back in.

Getting up, getting moving, going to work are all more effort than they should be. I'm more tired at the end of even the easiest days. And days off when I have nothing I am forced to do it is all too easy to simply do nothing. Sticking with the writing is proving especially tough -- I'm finding I just don't care enough about it, or enough about anything.

Depression wears away at your ability to care, at your desires, your hopes, your passions, it blunts your essential life-force, whatever that is, whatever that means. At the milder end of the spectrum this life-force is only dulled round its edges, reigned in, but the more severe the depression, the more your spirit crumbles, right down to the complete collapse of a breakdown, and to the dark places beyond.

I am somewhere nearer the easier end at the moment, for sure, but I still feel it daily, am still plodding rather than skipping through my life. My spirit is still weak.

The antidepressants help, for me, but they are not a cure. As the writer Andrew Solomon puts it in The Noonday Demon, his superlative book on the subject, if depression is a vine entwining and strangling a healthy tree, then medication can push back the vine, but the tree beneath may still be withered and fragile, and pills alone will do little to help fresh shoots to grow.

This is an excellent analogy, but I am not sure if even this is completely true, if there even is a universal truth to depression to ever fully be understood. It is too nebulous a thing, too idiosyncratic, too intimately connected to who each of us is as a complete, living being. Unlike the vine and the tree, in reality there is no obvious dichotomy between what is the depression and what is the person underneath. Depression cannot simply be zapped away, like a patch of infected skin, because it infects everything, is a part of everything -- it is a curling at the edges of existence itself.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to treatment. Katie Hopkins recently Tweeted that "People with depression do not need a doctor and a bottle of something that rattles. They need a pair of running shoes and fresh air." This comment is clearly intended to be incendiary, to keep the spotlight on desperate, wretched Hopkins, and of course it is stupid and wrong, but I understand why it might have made sense in her head.

There are a million ways to maintain and refresh mental health -- exercise, yes, fresh air, yes, and eating well, getting early nights, getting up early in the mornings, having plenty of hobbies, meeting friends and socialising, discussing rather than bottling up problems, doing maths puzzles, reading, especially fiction and poetry, involving yourself in some kind of creative pursuit, limiting your time on social media, meditating, doing the morning pages, practising gratitude -- all of these things can either prevent or overcome depression.

The problem, however, is that they are all the things that are the hardest to do when you are depressed. Depression, in fact, basically is the inability to do these things.

When you are depressed you withdraw from life, your spirit withdraws, and so of course examples of a life lived to the full, which is what that list is, are the opposite of that. Not the antidote, but simply its opposite. Telling someone who is unable to get up and live their life that they would feel better if they got up and lived their life is tantamount to telling a diabetic that they should just produce more insulin.

Medication can, I think, cut away much of the pain of depression, and the various forms of therapy involve handing over your withdrawn spirit to a trained professional who can teach you routines and habits of thinking that will benefit that spirit -- but truly reigniting a dulled or extinguished life-force is a far more complex and involved undertaking than any health service can be reasonably expected to survive. There are no simple solutions.

Another analogy I like to use, although again, of course, it is only useful up to a point, is one of flower beds. If a depressed mind is like a flower bed where only sad and choking weeds grow, then medication is like the weed-killer that, sprayed every day, will continually push back the tangles, while therapy is like paying an experienced gardener to come down every week to teach you how to pull out the weeds by their roots and cultivate the rough soil and encourage more beautiful plants to grow.

But what I have found from my own experience, and this I believe corresponds to the data, is that once those sessions with the gardener are over, it is all too easy to start slipping back to your old ways, over perhaps years, and for more and more weeds to begin sprouting once again. It takes such an enormous strength of will to prevent this from happening, when the old ways are so ingrained. And strength of will is precisely what depression attacks first. Perhaps someone close to you comments that your garden is starting to look a little ragged again, that maybe you need to spend more time out there with the trowel, and you know this is true, of course you know, but you find you don't care enough to do it, you simply do not by yourself have the drive to work that soil, to grow those plants, to live your life.

And yet. People do recover from depression. They overcome it completely, or, more likely, they find a way to accept it, to structure their lives in a way to get the gardening done despite often not feeling like it, they create a reality that contains the fact of having a weaker spirit without being ruled by that fact.

Yes, an element to their garden will perhaps forever be darker, shrouded, they might always have to work harder to achieve less, and that danger of the weeds one day overcoming them and reclaiming all will never utterly be banished -- but they will have a garden, still, one for which they have battled hard, and the parts of it that blossom will appear to them, in comparison to the decay, more vital and glorious than anything they would ever otherwise have known.

So my depression is still here. I guess I wanted the medication and the work on this blog to have eradicated it, and that has not been the case. I don't think that ever will be the case. But that is all right. I get to be here, on this insane fabulous world, having this sometimes wonderful sometimes terrible adventure. If you are struggling as well, I am there with you, I understand. I'm not sure if it is the stronger, but as well as depression there also exists love. Whether you are in a position to feel it, there is also love. Hold onto that truth.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Would You Just... Stop Taking Life So Seriously?

Oh boy, I am tired from work last night. It wasn't even tough, I'm just getting too old for these late nights. I didn't go out afterwards, however, and I didn't drink. So that's grand.

I'm not going to be around this weekend because it is Jake's birthday, and he has the same ideas on size and duration of birthday celebrations as Bilbo Baggins. My next three days are booked solid. I just hope to be the mysterious Gandalf regaling youngsters with stories and fireworks, rather than the cantankerous old hobbit yelling that it's ProudFEET -- although as long as I don't spend the weekend passed out on pipeweed I'll take it as a win.

Anyway, before I put on my wizard's hat and disappear into Middle Earth, aka Jake's flat, I want to write a bit here so I can then go and party guilt-free.

I was thinking about existence a bit over my morning cereal, which I tend to do, so I guess I'll try to scribble out my thoughts now, for wont of anything more organised to say.

It's weird, existence, isn't it? I mean, none of it matters. None of it. There are seven billion of us, all thinking we're the important one, that it's our promotion or degree or car insurance or battles with personal demons that matter. But we're wrong. We're all just going to die. And everyone we've ever met or connected with or given birth to will also die, and every thought about bank accounts or dandruff or office sales leagues will crumble like ephemera torn apart on the breeze.

I, uhh, realise that sounds a little pessimistic. But I don't think it has to.

The thing is, it's so easy to die. OK, yes, that doesn't sound better, but bear with me. It is so easy to die, to stop existing. We're suffocating every instant, and we take a breath to save ourselves only long enough to begin suffocating again in the next instant. We're teetering on the precipice of destruction. It takes so much energy to keep ourselves from falling.

But there's no necessity. It's much more sensible, when you think about it, to not exist. It's the default setting. It's what we'll all be doing soon anyway. It's what we were doing for all of eternity before we were born. I don't remember it being so bad.

We have the biological urge to survive, for sure, but this is only an accident of evolution. Organisms mutated into existence, and some of these organisms mutated in ways that kept them existing, and these passed on their code, and the others were lost. Over millennia this has been hardened through insane amounts of repetition into the will to live, but it's still only an accident. Not a commandment from some God. Not a moralistic duty. Just an accident that we pass on.

So if we don't want to live, it's no big deal. It's hard work, after all, breathing, pumping blood, repairing wounds, remembering PIN numbers, thinking of new and exciting meals to cook every night. And it's hard work that in the end comes to naught.

We're not going anywhere. We're not reaching anything. The point of life isn't to procreate, it's just that procreation keeps life happening. Otherwise it'd be rather like saying the point of watching an episode of a TV show is to get to the next episode.

This is it, then. We bumble about for a few years -- three? fifty? -- and then it's over.

But, Christ, this isn't a bad thing. What it really means is: no pressure. If life is unimportant and meaningless and ending soon, then so are all our worries. If existence itself is not precious, then neither is your university degree that you might fail, or your car that has just broken down, or the fact your friend always looks so sexy in her slinky dresses while you look so misshapen and gross, or the lads in your office saying cruel things about you, or having to stay together for the kids, or having to break up for the kids, or confusion, or illness, or despair. If we're insignificant and temporary, then so is everything that troubles us.

And don't get me wrong, there will still be troubles. Your car will still break down, as will your body, and that will suck. But discomfort and strife are intimately tied to existence. There can be no pleasure, after all, without pain. No up without down. No beauty without Piers Morgan. It's all just part of the experience, the glorious, mysterious, terrifying ride.

You can get off whenever you want. Otherwise just enjoy it.

Or don't. It honestly is up to you.