I do not have the words to write this piece, it needs years of consideration, of learning, and of careful deliberation. I cannot guarantee I have years and so I feel I have to try and mould it now and risk it being half formed. I cannot be sure I have hours, none of us can be sure what time we have and that motivates me to put my thoughts to paper. Mayhap I will return to it another time and, as a wiser person, make it what it truly should be. For now this is what I have to give.
“We need to highlight the role women play in perpetuating and sustaining patriarchal culture so that we will recognize patriarchy as a system women and men support equally, even if men receive more rewards from that system. Dismantling and changing patriarchal culture is work that men and women must do together.”
– bell hooks
We have a tendency to devalue that which we possess and to over-value that which we are denied.
In the feminist gatherings and events I have been privileged to be a part of I have seen the greatest of human strengths – the strength of people from diverse backgrounds to stand together against seemingly immovable domination, the strength to fight against impossible odds and carry on regardless of defeat after defeat, seizing the little victories, taking the baby steps that lead inchingly closer to equality. I have both learned from, and been humbled by, what I have experienced.
At these gatherings I have been taught by the most inspiring of people. Women who chose to accept my lack of knowledge and, sometimes harshly, correct my beginners mistakes. To them I am and will continue to be indebted. I have seen so much good and so much hope and yet I have also, repeatedly and subtly, seen a lack of understanding when it comes to the actions of men; most especially a lack of understanding of mens oppression under patriarchy. Perhaps this is to be expected, men have many benefits under the patriarchal system and it is easy to see men who have been warped by patriarchal society as the cause of the oppression as opposed to a symptom of a greater issue. This lack of understanding is perpetuated by the fact that, under patriarcy, the vast majority of men are cut off from their ability to experience their own feelings and articulate their emotional needs. We, as men, are self-prevented from educating others by the deeply ingrained rules of our society. We are guilty of being unable to take the step that those brave feminists took with me to help educate other genders about our own personal experiences and through teaching seek to redefine and mold them into a healthier form.
Others have done good work around the experience of male oppression. I recently read bell hooks “The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love” and also Terence Real’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” and there is huge insight there – but the body of knowledge surrounding the male experience of oppression is under-developed. This subject needs to be furthered and, if patriarchy is to be replaced, it needs to take it’s place alongside the other oppression literature that helps to educate us about the world in which we live and arm us for the struggles ahead. We need to understand men’s oppression not as an excuse for patriarchy – there is no excuse for patriarchy, whichever group seeks to further it – but as a legitimate position in the web of oppression that we struggle with on a daily basis. Men need to be helped to see their oppression for they are strongly conditioned against recognising it. Groups need to come into being in which men can share experiences without judgement and learn to reflect and reconnect with the feelings that were taken from them in their childhoods. Men need help to see they are wounded so that then they can take responsibility for learning to heal and through that healing learn to moderate their own privilege.
The Emotional Purging
I am capable of fully experiencing three emotions – Fear, Love and Despair. I have the capability to properly express one emotion – Fear. Everything else can be felt only up to a limited point. I feel happiness, but only in a limited way, beyond a point my body shuts down and I become instantaneously numb. It is as if the gas propelled shutter that protects a bank teller from assault has been activated – you do not see anything move but suddenly an impenetrable wall is there and the happiness is on the other side. It cannot hurt me, cannot leave me vulnerable. I can experience a little but then I experience nothing at all.
I can remember a time when I had access to a full range of emotion – aged ten is the latest age I can be certain I experienced life fully but I may have had a few years longer. By 16 I definitely had a foreshortened ability to experience emotions. Somewhere in between, most certainly in my years at senior school, the emotional range left me and was replaced by the safety mechanisms that keep it out today. These mechanisms hold the emotion on the other side of a barrier, I still know they are there, I still know that I should be experiencing them and feel despair at my inability to connect with what I, perhaps naively, equate with the ability to be human.
This experience does not just belong to me. The few men that I know who are capable of speaking out about it tell similar tales and, almost exclusively, the emotional disconnection happens in the teenage years. The years in which we take the step from being boys into being men. It is in this period that what I choose to call the ‘masculine ideal’ is embedded into us.
How We Survive
How does a person survive within the masculine ideal if they cannot allow themselves to transmit, or even experience emotions? Well, it turns out that humans are ingenious and plastic animals. If the majority of the male sex is incapable of communicating a concept due to the same disability then it actually gives them an ability to empathise (at least intellectually) with the suffering of their fellow men. It is this empathy (or perhaps proto-empathy as it is highly limited in its scope) that both drives the male urge to bond and allows a coded understanding to exist between men regarding their general emotional state. The fact that I can let another man know how I feel, that he can decode my pain and I his is just enough to carry on.
If I am depressed, if I am feeling truly bad or perhaps even suicidal and a close friend asks me ‘how are you doing’ I will not break down in tears or explain how my world is falling apart – I will not because I cannot – but I will say ‘not too great’ and if I am feeling seriously bad I will give a single firm pat to his shoulder as I pass him. Those words combined with such a blatant digression from the rules of no contact acts as a strong signal regarding my pained state of mind. A signal most men would ‘get’.
I can express my love for a friend through my actions, my willingness to takes risks with him and for him. Indeed, as my friendship with this man grows I may seek increasingly risky situations in order to enable both of us to express our mutual trust and platonic love. The means of expression for this potentially life altering emotion? A half nod before the risky act, a short smile afterward as the adrenalin begins to ebb, a spontaneous hug with back slapping and verbal high fives. These are examples of the strictly regulated means that men are permitted by patriarchy to share emotion. Though crude these means can and do serve to form a bond of common purpose between groups of men that last a lifetime and allow the spanning of vast periods in which the men may be apart. In a world without emotional communication those you make any contact with will always remain your friends.
Although it seems like a blunt instrument, and contrary to popular stereotype, communication within the masculine ideal is incredibly subtle and nuanced. It’s defining factor is not its lack of depth but its lack of breadth. It can communicate a limited range of what may originally have been ‘forbidden’ emotions between men and serves to both bind those men closer together and lessen the mental anguish associated with their inability to express emotion. From the moment of group expression onward the individual will feel more comfortable with that group of men than he does alone or often with members of the opposite sex. He will have found a family, but a family that is ‘addicted’ to each others presence, a family that needs to engage in occasional acts of societally unacceptable behaviour in order to enable it’s members to renew their bonds.
A Personal Perspective
My personal experience of emotional amputation is re-played inside me every day. I suspect it is the same for others, to some extent we can all hear the knocking on the other side of the barricade.
I have cried once in nearly twenty years. There is no capacity for me to cry – any emotion that would cause tears gets shuttered before it becomes intense enough to have an effect. I suspect this reaction was learned in the schoolyard to protect against the violence doled out to those who didn’t meet the masculine ideal. Nowadays it means I do not cry at the funerals of friends and relatives – indeed I often give the readings because I am unencumbered by emotion and unlikely (unable) to break down part way through. During moments of intense passion the shutters come down – suddenly I am not passionate, all I have left is an intellectual image of passion that I try to enact. When I do experience any emotion it becomes paired with anxiety. Even the emotion of love is an anxious experience inextricably tied to the fear of loss.
In a disaster I am calm – I’ve been among the first on the scene at several vehicular accidents and in those moments I become a ‘man’ and take control – the internal conditioning kicks in. Afterwards, when the adrenaline dies down and I begin to shake, I will take myself away and hide somewhere quiet because I cannot accept others seeing my perfectly understandable physiological reaction – a reaction I (and many men) interpret as weakness. People ask men why they do not seek help when they are hurting, why their rates of alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide are so much higher than those of women. I say that the answer lies in patriarchal society teaching us that the single most important thing is the masculine ideal. Teaching us that, by inference, it is preferable to be a drunkard or an addict than to lose our masculine status by expressing emotion. It is even preferable to die by our own hand, an act that carries a certain manly respect, than to let our emotions free and become nothing.
It is an act of immense courage for a man to cast off his allegiance to the masculine ideal and enter into a potentially permanent period in which not only other men and women but he himself is forced to regard his current and past personal worth as zero. It would be a truly rare man who could take that step alone – to leave himself without any form of traditional or cultural support, who would choose to become a no-one. To my mind this is reason that most of those who have begun this journey were already outcasts or had already buckled under the pressure of maintaining the masculine ideal and exhibited mental illnesses born of that strain. It is mostly those who have had little or nothing to lose that have chosen to walk a path that begins with total loss. Even then the man may find that he chooses to regress as his self-esteem raises, as he realises that he can reintegrate into the society of men at some level and once again receive the emotional support that it provides.
This is the position I find myself in now. I choose to renounce the masculine ideal and try to reclaim the emotions that I feel will make me human once again but for every two steps I take along the path I take at least one back. For every dream I have of my freedom I dream another of dominance and violent aggression. I talk to my loved ones more about my feelings but I am acutely aware that I cannot access many of those feelings – and if they are unshared with me how can I share them onward? I am walking in a wilderness in which I feel little worth in my achievements and a constant pull toward returning to past harmful patterns. What keeps me moving forward are the supportive friendships I have with a number of people, mostly feminists. Lately I have felt that these friendships are not enough. For all their support these mostly female friends cannot understand the nature of the thing with which I struggle because they themselves have never experienced it. They cannot truly understand a man’s oppression by patriarchy just as I can never truly understand a woman’s. We can acknowledge each other, support each other, but we cannot truly know the other’s enemy.
My experience of the birth of the masculine ideal within patriarchy, as a man, begins within the schoolyard. In no other place within our society are the rules so strictly enforced and failure to conform so rigidly punished. At the age of eleven your friend relationships are everything, even eclipsing the familial, and those relationships are governed by strict rules learned from our relatives, peers and the media at large. Strict rules regarding the attributes of maleness and the concomitant suppression of emotion that involves. I personally grew up with a solid diet of war stories, war films, tales of singular heroism and stories of individuals or small groups overcoming all odds. The values these things project are oddly similar to the masculine ideal I have found as an adult.
The traits of a man, as presented within my culture to a boy of eleven are as follows:
- A man can be anything he wants to be if he tries hard enough (and by inference, if he fails to be what he chooses he has not tried hard enough and he is not a man).
- To show any emotion but anger is weakness (to shed a tear is an act of failure whilst to intimidate another is to be a success)
- Physical ability is a paramount achievement (and so those who fail to make the team have failed to be men)
- A man is sexually attractive (to be unable to secure a woman is a failure to be a man)
- A man is resolute (to take time to think or search for balanced opinion is a failure)
What is telling about the above traits is not what they prescribe – all men know the masculine ideal – but the meaning ascribed to the failure to meet any or all of these requirements. To show emotion does not make you a woman, it makes you not a man. In the absence of another gender identity it makes you nothing. It nullifies everything about you, it makes you zero and leaves you unmoored and adrift. If you are not a man then you cannot partake in masculine bonding and form emotion venting groups, no matter what you achieve in the state of not-a-man the sum value of your life will always be multiplied by zero, it will never amount to anything of worth. If the child, and later the man, does not follow the code then they must rapidly break free of the entire patriarchal masculine ideal or be forced to live a life with no forms of connection at all. To be male is not a state of being, under patriarchy it is a target one must constantly fight to achieve lest you cease to exist at all.
We absorb these truths from innumerable films and television programmes. Every war movie in which the stoic hero goes to his death in the service of a cause or saves a friend by dying in his place. Every time a hero runs after an opponent, leaping from rooftop to rooftop before pummelling his nemesis into bloody unconsciousness. We absorb these things from our fathers who in turn have absorbed them from their fathers. We absorb them from our mothers and grandmothers who encourage us to be whatever we want whilst openly admiring the strong or the quick or the beautiful, who identify a character as a ‘baddie’ because he is ugly or limps. It is not the fault of most parents, they cannot do anything but reinforce the dominant patriarchal current within our culture – but they perpetuate and strengthen that current nevertheless.
Even those of us with access to somewhat more open-minded parents cannot be protected. Our schoolmates bring their parents attitudes with them and re-enact them with great force. There can be no meaningful escape. To survive we buy in to the patriarchal narrative, we bury ourselves deep in the knowledge that our emotions cannot, must not, be found if we are to survive.
By the time we leave the schoolyard the damage to most men is done. We carry the lessons onward into the world at large. We carry the understanding that we must constantly push and dominate to maintain our maleness and that those who are ‘weak’ can be looked upon with love or sympathy but can never be considered equal. We understand that only by playing the game will we acheive any emotional release any catharsis regarding our internal divisions. We also carry with ourselves the knowledge of the absence of our emotions. It is hard for any person to come to terms with an amputated limb, even if they understand the amputation was necessary for survival, so too is it hard for any man to come to terms with his amputated emotions – especially when he thinks he can still feel them behind the barricades – like a phantom limb cramping where no real limb now exists.
Many men are desperate to find a way out of patriarchy but they do not know it or at least cannot name it or see the bars of the cage that restrains them. Men everywhere struggle to understand their feelings of entrapment and desperation in a world in which they feel they should be masters, who are appalled at their own destructive behaviour but cannot identify its root or control its expression. Many men need help and whether it is our role or not the only way many will receive it is if we help to educate and rehabilitate them. I would even suggest that to help to heal them is the only viable way to overthrow patriarchy in our world.
The crisis facing men is not the crisis of masculinity, it is the crisis of patriarchal masculinity. Until we make this distinction clear, men will continue to fear that any critique of patriarchy represents a threat.
– bell hooks
I have looked for and failed to find a body of support for men as they pass through the wasteland of the post-masculine ideal and attempt to construct or discover a new, more holistic, way of being. Some resource exists, the Goodmen project, for example, are centred around responsible and fair behaviour by men within this society but fail to address the underlying problem. No-one I have found addresses the twisted form of socialisation that our society takes as normal and uses to wring the emotional capacity from their male children. I support the Goodmen because their stance is well meant and does some good – but they are not enough to address this problem.
I dream of an organisation of men who have chosen to enter into the wilderness and, at least temporarily, discard their values. A society of men that can offer the support that each of them will need as he is tempted to return to the aggressively dominant ways that he has been taught; who struggles with the truth that it feels better to be emotionally crippled and yet supported by your peers than it does to start out on the journey to wellness alone. I dream of a society of men that can offer each other support, as best they are able, and who strive to find a better way for themselves and the generations that will follow them. They will get things wrong, they will need to learn from others and be constantly forced to build and rebuild bridges. They will need to learn to find a new way of being, a way that feels alien to them and that may well leave them rejected by the women and men they’ve left behind. They will need to break a new way that ultimately lets them feel and express the emotions that were stolen from them in their childhood. A way that their children wont consider new, but normal. A way that will grow and help all men.
Such an organisation does not exist.
I will try to do my best to help build it.
This past Christmas was hard because I have a happy and supportive family.
This past Christmas was hard because I saw the happiness of homeless people.
This past Christmas was hard because, when all was done, I turned homeless people back out onto the street.
This past Christmas was hard because I lost my good CPAP machine.
This past Christmas was hard because straight afterwards I started a new and well-paying job.
This past Christmas was hard because we were planning a wedding.
Some of the above, most of the above, should be positives in my life. Not unmitigated positives, new jobs and weddings are undoubtedly stressful events, but they mark progression – they mark the growth of wonderful things. They are positives, huge positives, but when set side by side with my experiences working with Crisis over Christmas to help rough sleepers in London these positives become hard to deal with. These positives, when set against the suffering, victimisation and demonization of others become hard to reconcile mentally. The fact that my life is going well makes the gulf between me and a group of people, some of whom I would like to call friends, that much harder to reconcile. I am taking that difficult but liberating leap into flight as they are trapped and held down against a cold and hostile earth.
One way to resolve this is to forget them. To take the road that most choose to take and fail to see them asleep in doorways or begging in the street. To pretend that they are criminals or drug addicts who brought their own misfortunes down upon themselves. To fool myself that they could not be me and I could not be them. I won’t ignore them, I couldn’t even if I chose because I have met some of their representatives and I know they are people like me. Some are nice, some nasty; some intelligent, others slow; many are sick or have turned to alcohol to try and cope with their situation – but less have become addicts or alcoholics than you think. Many have mental health problems, vulnerable people are easy for the system to side-line – the mentally ill often don’t know how to fight back. Many do not have mental health problems when they first go out onto the street, the environment provides them; they can then be used to ignore the afflicted individual.
This year one of our guests (that is our homeless guests to whom we gave a bed) was an English teacher – a very erudite man who gave us a talk on what the work of Crisis meant to him and the other homeless people he knew. That talk meant a great deal to me at the end of the final shift, the shift in which we have to take the people we have helped and turn many of them back onto the street, the shift at the end of which you are more emotionally and physically tired than any other. I don’t remember his exact words but I think I can paraphrase an extract here:
“The quality of volunteers at Crisis has not changed. You still give hope to people through food, shelter and, perhaps more importantly, through conversation and little things such as opening doors for your guests and treating them like human beings – an experience that is rare on the streets.
“The calibre of volunteers has not changed, but the calibre of guests has. This year the centre has had one professor, two doctors and several teachers – all homeless. There are more of what society calls skilled people, people who you would not have seen in the past.”
I can add to his comments that we had at least one person homeless because they could not work – on the waiting list for an operation (and so not someone an employer would take on with major time-off looming) and another who was a barely controlled diabetic. A third had a crippling heart condition. Our speaker did not venture an opinion on why our homeless guests suddenly seemed more educated, more professional. Why they were from areas of the workforce that have traditionally been ‘safe’ or why people who were so sick had been left homeless and rough sleeping. He did not venture an opinion on why all our centres (more were opened this year than last) were swamped by numbers never seen before. I can venture my opinion:
We have seen a massive spike in the numbers of homeless people in the last few years as the coalition government has implemented austerity measures. Crisis loans for the disabled have effectively been removed (they were moved under local council control but no funding was transferred to pay them). ATOS, the government’s private medical assessor, has been ruling disabled people fit for work against their specialist’s direct recommendations and thus taking away the benefits of people who cannot in reality hold a job. Job centres have become incrementally harsher in applying penalties to job seekers in the case of minor infringements (such as missing a meeting due to a sick child, the flare up of a severe disability or to attend a last minute interview for a job). With DLA/PIP, ESA and many others being removed or slashed in real terms or placed behind a bureaucratic wall that takes months, and a huge emotional investment, to penetrate more and more people – skilled or otherwise – are finding themselves abandoned by the systems they have been funding for decades through taxation.
So, my life is doing well, but as I watch the gap between myself and the people that I have met opening ever wider my heart is filled with a deep impenetrable sadness. I see a void, a gap that our current austerity blinkered society refuses to see, expanding and start to swallow people that it could never reach in the past. I see a void looming behind friends who have not seen its growth or, instead, stubbornly deny that it could ever reach out to them. I have met people better qualified than them or I, people who had better jobs and better prospects who have been swallowed whole and deposited on the streets. I see a shadow at the edges of this void and I fear what is coming.
I have met homeless teachers, doctors, market traders, professors, literary critics, chef’s, cooks, musicians, labourers, civil servants, taxi drivers and businessmen. They have been a mixture of healthy, sick, disabled, desperate, hopeful, determined, broken and unbreakable. To cope they have stayed sober, gotten drunk or high, denied reality or faced a nihilistic world with grim resolve. They have been people like you and for some of these readers they will be you, one day in the future.
That void is opening up below you and unless we all open our eyes and work to close it down some of you will be swallowed by it, as might I.
There was a famous statement made by Pastor Niemöller with regard to the cowardice of German intellectuals in the face of Nazism. You have probably heard the official version:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.”
There are other versions, one of the first written included these lines:
“Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. – I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it’s right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn’t it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? — Only then did the church as such take note. Then we started talking, until our voices were again silenced in public. Can we say, we aren’t guilty/responsible? The persecution of the Jews, the way we treated the occupied countries, or the things in Greece, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia or in Holland, that were written in the newspapers”
I do not claim we are facing a holocaust, but we are facing the deaths of people because politicians have decided that those who are a burden to society, the incurably sick or disabled, are no longer worth supporting. We are seeing a rise in homelessness amongst our educators, a sign that their moral and intellectual guidance is being devalued. We are once again adopting the creed that an individual that does not contribute monetarily does not deserve the basic rights afforded to all humans. The last holocaust began with the gassing of the mentally ill in specially modified vans because society deemed they were a burden. Be alert and speak out when once again we are shown that these people are not cared for by the state. Place Niemöller’s statement into your mind every day and speak out now, it is too late to speak when the void has swallowed you.
Diamond mind welsh child riding the rails
Sweetly inquisitive now grown up impressive
Just because we don’t talk anymore
Doesn’t mean I’m not your friend
Melancholy man with your head full of tricks
Knowing smiles of whimsy borne from your lips
Just because we don’t talk anymore
Don’t think I’d spurn your call
Tear stained crazy hair crying frustration
Black cape aswirling as you tumble through time
Just because we don’t talk anymore
Doesn’t mean I’ve stopped searching
Pensive and powerful quiet worded traveller
Walking worlds pathways that my feet wont tread
Just because we don’t talk anymore
Does not mean you have no harbour
Far flung recollection of moments of magic
Sweet fossilised life filled with memories of joy
Even if we never make contact
You have free acccess to my heart
”The sea is the same as it has been since before men ever went on it in boats.” Ernest Hemingway
In the reality in which I live (and we all live in our own realities, intersecting but never converging) the concept of change is a terrifying thing. There are solid reasons for this, the lack of internal stability that comes hand in hand with my manic depression means that I compensate by enforcing external predictability. By limiting the number of new external inputs I can reduce the number of potentially harmful mis-reactions to a manageable degree. This manifests in a number of ways.
In order to limit my potential exposure to chaotic inputs I will only let a small number of individuals get close to me. I can have many colleagues but a very limited number of friends who I will seek to be with. These friends do not have to agree with me, or treat me with kid gloves – we can argue (indeed, I enjoy it) – but they are all people who I can trust to be responsible with my feelings. They are all people who will not push when I need to have my space.
To avoid fatigue I will avoid going to events on two consecutive nights, and by ‘going to events’ I generally mean leaving the house. This again relates to my experience of manic depression and the observation that I become restless and mentally agitated if exposed to too much stimulus over consecutive days. I may enjoy the actual events but when I come away the insistent thoughts and ideation are far stronger than they were before. The ever present haze of depression is harder to penetrate, the rushing of my mental processes that much more difficult to dam. I cannot go out night after night and simultaneously maintain control of my mind and emotions and so I don’t go out night after night. My manic depression does not control me, I control it; but some of the tools that I utilise cost me in time.
I tend to avoid excessive planning (or even any planning as my fiancée can attest). This seems unusual at first glance. To minimise uncertainty you would assume that thorough planning was a requirement. However, in my world, the feelings associated with deviation from a plan can be extreme. Before the event my thoughts will fixate upon the pre-determined timings involved and obsess about the potential to fail to meet those deadlines. During the event I will fail to enjoy anything that is taking place because I am worrying about the next waypoint and, ultimately, if we go off track I experience a terrible sense of fear and failure for having been unable to adhere to the plan. I cope with this by having no plan, by placing no timings upon events and pre-selecting no list of goals or requirements except, perhaps, ones so general as to be easily achievable. My decisions are taken, as much as can be possible, in the moment. I rarely fail to achieve an objective because my objectives are usually short-term, vague and easily achievable. I attempt to pass from one moment to the next without judgement or expectation. In my ideal world I have no history and no future, I am only now and I am at peace. The parallel with Buddhist teachings is not lost on me.
Of course the ideal world in which I only meet individuals who are responsible with my feelings, who do not press me to accept more inputs than I can easily process and who are happy for me to exist in a bubble of immediacy does not, can not, exist. Accepting the non-existence of perfection is something that can be hard for those who are ‘mentally different’. It is hard for me because I judge myself against an extreme of perfection that solely exists as an idea contained within me. If I cannot reach this perfection then I label myself a failure, but intellectually I know that the best I can hope for in such a contest is to occasionally reach perfection and that therefore only very occasionally will I be satisfied with anything I do. Perversely my judgement upon others is wholly reversed – of course they cant achieve perfection, it is an unattainable goal, and so I find myself willing to forgive them any transgression and reluctant to levy any punishment for a wrongdoing.
That, the above, is the day to day. It is the tension between theoretical need and actualisation. It is how I live from minute to minute and hour to hour. It is an adaptation designed to let me survive in what, essentially, is a hostile reality of my own invention. However, as I alluded to in the opening paragraph there is another time-frame that I am forced to address, that of lifelong happiness.
There are times in life when change, or the option for change, inserts itself. Moments of crux when we must make a concious decision to take one path or another and where the need for a decision is hard coded into the reality itself. The decision must be made because either the status quo has become untenable or doing nothing is a decision within itself. If your landlord decides to stop renting your home, you must move on somewhere. If you meet someone you love and, against all expectation, find you cannot imagine being without them then you must adjust. If you are offered a better job nearer to your home then you must choose to move forwards or forever wonder at the opportunity passed.
I have encountered all of the above and at these times I have no choice but to abandon the day to day. No choice but to turn the incumbent order upon its head and make those changes necessary to encode a new normality, find a new day to day. The transition between different day-to-day realities is hard. I must un-moor myself and ride for a time upon potentially treacherous waters in order to attain the new port – I must take a risk that I am extremely uncomfortable taking. But, there is no choice, and furthermore to refuse to take the risk would be foolhardy in the extreme. The option itself has shattered the current day-to-day and will quickly erode its comforting safety if I try and ignore the new possibilities that I have been presented with. The choice is no real choice, to stay in the safe mooring is to condemn myself to certain downfall, I must take the risk. I must make the attempt.
Next year, in January, I will be starting a new job, a job of frightening complexity. Next year, at a date yet to be set, I will be getting married to the most wonderful lady in my reality. I will be co-arranging a feast for friends, relatives and acquaintances that will be judged and talked about. Next year is set for a great deal of treacherous water and the possibilities of sparkling new ports of destination.
I have cast off from the day-to-day and am adrift, looking to find that sparkling port, looking to find that better place one step closer to perfection.
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.
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.