Take your stinking hands off me you damn dirty ape!
Possibly the most erudite words ever spoken by a man who had supposedly just been caught in a net by bipedal apes working for the security class, but still, they got me thinking.
Recently I’ve been reading a book called ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg. It explores the research that’s been done on the ‘habit cycle’ in both humans and other mammals, essentially the psychological mechanism that leads us to experience urges or even cravings for things. It’s pop-science and so high on interest but low on reference but it rings true to me – take that how you will.
Essentially, it takes three things to make a habit. You need a stimulus (lets say a doughnut), a routine (buy the doughnut, eat the doughnut) and a reward (the sugar rush after eating the doughnut – which your brain reads as a form of joy). Then you have to repeat the above behaviours until your brain learns to anticipate the reward its going to get every time it completes the routine. Then you have a habit.
That last bit is key because it means that when your brain thinks about the doughnut it experiences the jot of the sugar rush. This joy comes without eating the damn doughnut – you seem to get the sugar rush for free, or at least on credit. Here’s the sting, now you’ve had the rush your body demands that you pay up by following the routine and getting the reward. You start to crave, everything pales into insignificance compared to the need for the doughnut, and somewhere within that brain of yours a damn dirty ape gets ahold of you and beats you about the head until you’ve paid your debts.
Of course, it doesn’t end there. Now every time you see a picture of a doughnut you get the reward fired off in your brain and the need to pay the debt by eating one. Ever wonder why advertising hoardings show pictures of stuff. It’s not to convince you to buy new stuff, it’s to fire off the reward that you get from a doughnut, or a toy, or owning the latest technology. They’re not trying to net new customers they’re reeling in the ones they already caught before – the ones that are programmed to respond and obey. Ever wonder why you replaced that ‘phone that still worked perfectly well, or bought bottled water that you can cleaner and cheaper from a tap or ate a doughnut even though you knew it would make you feel sick? Well now you know, but you wont stop doing it because as any heroin addict will tell you knowing aint enough.
So how does the reported science say we can break with habits we no longer like. Well, in extreme cases you can remove the reward – no-ones going to be able to ban alcohol but some alcoholics take anatabuse which makes them vomit uncontrollably if they drink alcohol (interesting chemist aside, if I’m not mistaken antabuse is tetramethylthiuram disulfide, an ingredient I used to use to cure rubber gloves). Most of us don’t have this option however and so we need to focus on changing the routine part of the habit.
So… I get the craving for a doughnut. My usual routine would be buy doughnut, eat doughnut but this time I do something new – lets say I buy gum, eat gum. The gum gives me the sugary taste that my brain is expecting but I’m good with it because it’s better for me. After some time spent repeating this new routine I will cease to crave the doughnuts as badly and even when I do I can use gum to make the feelings go away. Of course I’ve probably developed a gum habit but it’s better than the doughnut one – at least my breath smells good.
Anyway, what about the Planet of the Apes quote? Well this quote made me think of how my life was being driven by scores of concious and unconcious habits that I’d developed seemingly at random of the course of my life. The ape was something inside me taking hold of my mind and diverting its energies away from the stuff I wanted to be doing. We all have habits, we all need habits, but I’m going to start taking control of some of mine. So, ‘take your stinking hands off me you damn dirty ape’ rang true. I decided to make a plan (don’t blame Duhigg, this is all my bad idea). Whilst making the plan I realised that at first sight the things I want to change don’t easily fit into the box of ‘habit’ but they sort of do and so I’m going to give it a try anyhow:
I don’t discuss my emotions with people that I love, this leaves me feeling safe but isolated
Cue: Talking to my fiancee at the end of the day, talking to my parents on the telephone
Routine: I steer the conversation to discussion of their feelings or to facile jokes
Reward: A sense of relief that I have not had to expose myself to risk
New Routine/Reward: The new routine will be that when my fiancee or parents ask me ‘how I am’ I will tell them whatever I was experiencing immediately before they asked. I may tell them more if I wish but I will tell themt hat as a minimum. As I trust my fiancee and my parents to be responsible with my emotions the reward will be a lessening of my feeling of isolation and an active act of self congratulation at me strength (a pat on the back, if you will).
I am very bad when it comes to eating ‘nice’ food. I binge.
Cue: A feeling of boredom
Routine: Search the fridge and the ‘nice’ cupboard. Go to the shop. Eat my findings.
Reward: Sugar rush. Feeling of happiness
New Routine/Reward: I will modify the routine as follows – whenever I feel the cue of boredom I will deliberately get up and go for a short walk whilst eating a piece of sweet fruit. If I do not eat anything that I would consider to be bad during the day then I will allow myself something unhealthy in the evening (perhaps a serving of Jam Roly-Poly for desert).
I am overly conflict averse and this affects my effectiveness in life
Cue: An angry person or a situation in which I reasonably expect a person to be angry
Routine: Feeling of extreme vulnerability, picking at my skin, fight or flight response, leaving the area.
Reward: Feeling of adrenaline at having escaped injury.
Modified Routine/Reward: I will modify the routine, initially so that if I stay in the area and do not engage in acts of minimisation or (mild) self harm. A future modification will be to actually engage with the person and address their behaviour in an appropriate way. I will also modify the reward, undoubtedly I will continue to experience the relief at not being injured but I will also purchase myself a gift (such as a book) immediately after the episode as a form of self congratulation.
I have no idea if these techniques will work, they’re half pop-science and half my own crazy thoughts but I’m going to give them a try. I have a secret weapon hidden up my sleeve – I’ve told you about it. I will come back to you and let you know hows its working for me but somehow, the mere fact that I’ve stated my determination in public gives me hope.
As is becoming predictable my title is somewhat disingenuous. I have no idea why ‘we’ write. You might write because the purple monkey people living in your shed say you have to or they’ll eat the rakes – that’s your business. I’m musing on why I write and just wanted an excuse to plug Eisenhower’s famous speech in the opening paragraph (if you’re saying eh? Then type ‘Why We Fight’ into YouTube and then watch it, it will change your understanding of the world you live in).
Anyhow. Why I Write.
I write for selfish reasons. I write because only through the exercise of sorting, arranging and processing my lived experiences into a coherent text can I give those experiences emotional meaning within the context of the world around me. I write to bring order to my own personal chaos, order that I cannot impose without it.
That, at least, was the sum of the motivation when I kept a diary for a few years in university. Those were turbulent times in which my view of the world around me was, quite literally, distorted by mental illness and the medications that accompanied it. Writing in that diary kept me grounded far more effectively than the pills ever could and even now I go back to the black and blue books and remember who I was then. I open a window on the past and see how far I have come, and in other ways, how much I have forsaken. In the heady days of the mid 90’s I was an anti-war protesting, French goods boycotting, depressed, self harming bundle of confusion and writing helped.
Back then it was enough to address myself – indeed the idea that another might read it was anathema. Now, the emphasis of my writing has shifted to that of an address to a third person. In a very real way, although I am still writing for my own selfish reasons, I am writing for you. I no longer find catharsis or even meaning in simply addressing myself. Now I must have an audience for the mental and emotional ordering to occur, or at least I must have the possibility of an audience. It does not matter if the work is read, only that it could be read. Providing that possibility is in play the peculiar magic of the word upon my turbid thoughts can commence.
My experience of topic selection is pretty much subconscious. In response to the increasingly intrusive pressings of the world around me I find myself, both my muscles and my brain, becoming increasingly taut – as though a well-equipped musician might be able to reach into me and pluck my thoughts and tendons to create a melody, or at least a musical Discordia. And then (you can start sentences with ‘And’ by the way, your teachers lied) as if released from deep below the roiling sea of my thoughts I feel something rising, something huge, displacing all else as it rises from the sea bed and breaks the surface with a slow majesty. It is a topic. It is fully formed and, like some keystone of the psyche, I know that if I resolve the topic into text the others antagonists will find themselves destabilised and I will attain a measure of peace. It is possible not to address a topic until eventually it re-sinks but it is never possible to ignore one whilst it’s there on the surface.
To address a topic I must work fast. Its hammer and chisel time as I edge above and around it, cutting away the dross that isn’t needed and exposing as best I can the perfect shape of the words locked within. Walk away from the keyboard, put down the pen and the whole thing can stale or even sink and never again merit reading. I am driven, I type fast and with unusual deftness. I do not go back and edit, editing comes later, editing is what you do to pretty up the flaws you introduced into the finished piece – I’m making the piece itself now and it has to be raw. The topic could be the death of millions, the topic could be a children’s story, or a day out at the zoo but the first cuts are the same. I will only find truth if I’m working fast and I will only find beauty through luck and accident.
Everything else is faff.
When all is done, when the words are there and masquerading as the thing that the topic wanted to free, there is calm. Not just the calm of a single issue resolved but an all encompassing calm of spirit that envelopes and analgises every stressor. We are back to the serene baseline lake for all too short a time before things once again start to build and as before we uneasily scan the horizon for a surfacing behemoth to address.
I am currently sitting on a train in the last hour or so of my biweekly journey to work. A journey that should take just under three hours but on this wonderful occasion is set to take just over five. I am tired and crotchety, but then I’m also in the low cycle of my manic depression so that’s just normal. So, cue a rant about the inefficiencies of the British transport system? No, actually, the transport system is pretty good (if overpriced). The reason this journey has taken so long is me and the perception and memory issues that come with my illness.
A little talked about symptom in bipolar disorder is a marked deficit in short term memory and the inability of some sufferers to plan effectively. Some evidence exists that these deficiencies are markedly worse in men and that they worsen over time (as a male of the species who is getting older I don’t particularly appreciate this insight). What’s more even if we recognise this deficit and try to find strategies to control it something about bipolar disorder makes the use of verbal memory strategies less effective (not only do we score lower than control, we score lower than OCD sufferers and they have a lot of mental clutter to contend with). Reading on this I start to wonder how the hell we remember anything at all. There is one light for us, although our thinking I slower our ‘executive function’ (our ability to connect things like past and future in order to draw conclusions) apparently remains unchanged – so we’re not talking about the same issues seen in people with learning disabilities or the latter stages of Alzheimer’s. We can still be geniuses, just slower and with a few more holes.
Oh yeah, one study suggested our emotional learning abilities were deficient as well, let’s hope that wasn’t replicated.
I’ve read every book ever written about decluttering my life and improving recall, and I may one day write a management book based on the rehashing of the ten thousand management books that I have absorbed (there’s nothing wrong with my long term memory). None of it works for me and the research is starting to help me understand why. Today, when I went to the station, I read the departure board and noted my train was leaving in ten minutes. I went to the correct platform, stood in my usual place (at the point where, if it’s a short train I get in the last carriage but if it’s a long one I can walk to the emptier rear carriages) and I listened to the announcements. Because everything was happening as it usually does when the announcements come over the tannoy I heard the London train being announced (at least that’s what my memory tells me I heard) but the fact that the wrong train isn’t filled with people who thought they were going to London means that I have to concede my memory is faulty. My personal theory, the one that fits my facts, is that I have trouble processing the huge amount of ambient information in my environment and therefore my brain walls my consciousness off from it and simply manufactures or at least edits a reality out of the din based partly on actual reality but partly on my brains re-creation of reality in a simpler and easier to process form. This seems to be backed up by other observations such as my inability to read if the television is on or if people are talking near me (I cannot hold my attention), and the fact that social situations are incredibly exhausting to me as I am having to process so much all at once. So, I believe I got on the wrong train because my brain relied on an overly simplistic set of cues to identify the state of things surrounding it and in this situation those cues did not gel with reality.
Of course the fact that bipolar sufferers experience innate memory problems has another, depressing, side to it (bipolar pun!). Lithium and other common bipolar medications can have a significant and long term effect on memory. Add the fact that our disease leads us to develop memory deficits to the fact that our medication leads us to develop memory deficits and I start to wonder how the hell we remember anything at all (memory pun! I’ll stop now).
Before anyone asks, the doctors do admit it’s real, they can measure it with all sorts of tests and actually see the deficits in functional MRI brain scans (which rates as significantly more convincing to them than the fact we’ve been shouting about it for over 100 years). For all this diagnostic technology the doctors don’t know why any of this is the case and there are no known treatments. It’s a case of suck it up and get on with it.
Oh, sidenote, our emotional functioning under the MRI is apparently much closer to schizophrenics than to controls as is our working memory. What does that mean? No one knows.
So, back to the train journey. I just got off at the wrong stop. The stations really clearly signposted and there was no reason I should have thought I had reached my destination but in my disordered mind I was there. I saw the cues (brown brick buildings, white picket fence etc.) and my brain embraced the reality of the location instead of checking further. No help the fact that I have been repeatedly telling myself to check before I move and have had Google maps open to check where I am. More strange is the cognitive dissonance of not being able to find the gate that I usually use to exit the correct station – of actually pushing against the fence where the gate should be because I know it is there but reality is stubbornly hiding it. I’m writing this sitting on a metal bench in the dark and waiting for the next train and I’m actually finding it really calming. I am in the eye of the bipolar thought storm and have surrendered myself to it, what will be will be. I think that will make this journey six hours now.
Let’s assume we have a handle on the effect this all is having on my train journey (this thing plays itself out every six months or so in some form) and take a quick look at the effect it is having on my life as a whole. To begin with I have learned not to plan in advance – oh I’ll throw a few societally required things in, I have a pension for example, but I’ll never buy advanced tickets for anything because I cannot guarantee I will be able to arrive at a train station, airport, restaurant or gig at the time required to use the ticket. So I never go for the cheap advance rates because, for me, buying them at the point of travel is ultimately cheaper. When I have to buy in advance, such as for an airfare, I just accept that I will sometimes lose out. This is probably best illustrated by the time I went to the wrong airport to catch a flight (I went to the airport I usually fly from, all the simplistic cues told me that was where ‘planes left from).
It has an effect on how I manage my day to day work and life. My job involves a lot of coordination and technical expertise. With no meaningful capability to plan or ability to reliably recall recent events I place a great reliance on electronic diaries and notes. If my calendar sends me an email or a pop up saying I have to do something then I do it (there is a great story in their somewhere, unfortunately someone already wrote it). If that thing seems complex or involved then I will read back through past email, documents and notes to ensure I get it right. I will do this EVERY SINGLE TIME. In a quiet environment I can read and absorb information very quickly and my longterm memory for processes (as opposed to specific events) is impeccable. The fact that I work from home three days a week in a controlled and quiet environment is a godsend, I have also learned not to open my emails until the afternoon because they are distracting and 90% of the urgent things they flag are resolved by the people that flag them anyway. As an aside, my calendar sends emails and uses pop ups because I will not remember to open the calendar and look at it without such prompts. The calendar does not objectively exist until it imposes itself upon my reality and that is an important fact for me to remember in all things – they must be set to externally impose.
Another effect is fundamental and personality based. I tend to be very sanguine when it comes to errors such as those of the train journey. I have learned that these errors cannot be avoided (or at least I have found no method to avoid them after years of searching) and so have learned to accept them as part of the experience of life. Moreover I tend to give others excessive benefit of the doubt, no doubt projecting my own failings on to them. This can be a problem if someone actually does have malicious intent. Indeed, the truly malicious individual, when my brain finally has the realisation of their existence then becomes a massively disruptive force in my life as they acquire a simplified persona that means that they are actively out to get me as opposed to the more probable subtle reality in which they are trying to achieve a goal that I am in some way impeding them from achieving thus leaving open the possibility of negotiation and reconciliation.
Above and beyond the effect on me these deficits have a terrible effect on my loved ones. My partner has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and cannot afford to have three hour train journeys turn into six hour train journeys. She does not have the luxury of being sanguine about wasted time and energy but equally she does not have the time or energy to take on all of the planning tasks in our relationship (and nor should she have to). Therefore there is always a tension – she needs to plan far in advance, I need to wait until the last minute. She reacts to last minute changes with understandable stress and dismay whereas I appear uncaring in my nonchalance. The effect of this is incalculable but we are starting to find ways to address it. We often have days apart, where we do our own things. Or days when we are in the same location but manage our own time, telephoning to arrange for me to go to wherever she is in her plan when I feel like meeting up again. I have alarms set to remind me to ring her when I am away, not because I don’t care but because I do – not to make contact upsets her and through her me but my brain will not trigger a memory to call without the external prompt. There are ways, but it is hard and I don’t understand how she can stand it (I’m certainly having trouble with me).
By way of a final musing (for I finally reached my hotel, total journey time 5 hours 45 minutes) I can only expect this condition to get worse with time – possibly to the point where I cannot longer function in my job or perhaps even society. I hope things won’t advance to the point where the strain on my partner becomes unliveable but I cannot rule it out. I have no answers, I am staring into an apparent abyss and hoping that, as usual, my perceptions are flawed and that somewhere below is a bottom that I cannot fall beyond. Whether this is a typically sanguine view of a problem I cannot see a way to influence or a realistic hope only time will tell.
Feeling very low and very tired with everything that has ever been. Mostly I feel guilty, for not having done enough to fix this world.