Mutual kindness and mental illness

I read an article recently about the secret to making a marriage last, based on the research of John Gottman. While the article found many of his findings exceedingly obvious, the theory of mutual kindness struck a chord. When we are in a secure relationship of any kind, whether it’s a friendship, a romantic relationship or a family bond, it is easy to start taking it for granted, and to stop making the tiny overtures of friendship we make with people we don’t know so well. The research suggested that whenever someone makes a tiny comment about their day or something they’ve noticed, they’re sending out a tiny message for reassurance and comfort. And if those gestures are knocked back more often than not – “you’ve told me that before” “I don’t think that’s true” or just a “hmm” and barely a glance up from the phone/tablet/TV/computer – then the bond can begin to fail.

I was thinking about this in the context of relationships with people who suffer from mental health problems – depression and anxiety, and particularly the latter as it is what I’m struggling with the most these days. It struck me that this advice relates even more to these more difficult relationships, and in a number of ways affecting both parties.

First of all, if you are having an anxious or depressed day, it can make it much easier for you to take your mood out on the person who is closest to you. You know they are not going to leave but at the same time it terrifies you that they might, especially when you are low or feeling like a burden. This fear and discomfort with yourself makes you more likely to lash out, especially if you’ve had to spend a day pretending to be perfectly well so you can carry out your job. If you have been fake smiling or hiding anxiety attacks behind water cooler chat all day, the pent-up pressure getting released may make the evening at home difficult. You want to relax but sometimes you’ve forgotten how. You want to have a nice evening in but you’re exhausted and just want to lie down and cry. The knowledge that you’re wasting the precious free time does not make it any easier.

I found myself in this mood recently and the only thing that helped was a kind of forced reset. You know when you can only turn off a computer by holding down the power key? I did that. I forced off all electronic appliances, poured a glass of wine and parked myself on the sofa with an Agatha Christie. No electronics within reach, all notifications off. It helped, but any kind of half reset I don’t think would have had the same effect. For partners, it can be very wearing to be on the receiving end of this kind of mood. It is isolating, frustrating and sometimes hurtful. I can’t offer much advice except to try to be patient and, for me, it’s probably best to give me some space. I want company but know I’ll be bad at it in that mood. And while it could also be useful for a partner to suggest a total relaxation shutdown, ultimately it needs to come from the person who is upset. If you suffer from mental illness you need to learn your own moods and how to cope with them, to get support from people around you without pushing them away. Easier said than done, so, in the words of a best friend: communication, all the time, until you can read each other’s minds (or near enough).

The issue described at the beginning also works the other way round in these relationships. If someone with depression or anxiety reaches out, especially about how they are feeling, even in a very small way, it can be very difficult for them. In the words of Dr Brene Brown, we are making ourselves vulnerable by opening up about something that makes us feel ashamed. People get anxious about all sorts of things: job interviews, flying by plane, public speaking, driving, going out to social events, going out to places they don’t know, talking to people on the phone, going to the shops, going out of the house, going outside a set of rooms. If you suffer from anxiety, when you’re in one of those triggering situations – I, for example, get anxious about driving – then your physiological reaction to doing that thing may be the same or even more extreme than someone going to a very important interview, or sitting an exam, things that make most people at least a little anxious. Because for most people, these things like making a phone call, or going to a party, are “normal” and not stressful at all, we feel ashamed that we get so worked up about something so “small”. So with any reaching out about these things, the need for mutual kindness is ramped up to a hundred because of the shame behind the feeling. If our partner or friend or family member then replies with something that is cutting the feeling down, making it sound silly or irrational, if they respond with a deep sigh or an eye roll or even with a platitude like, “oh don’t worry, it will be fine” we feel a hundred times more shut down and irrelevant than someone might under “normal” circumstances, if they shared something they thought was funny or interesting and were met with stony ambivalence or disdain.

For partners and friends it can be very difficult to know how to respond. The best thing to do is to acknowledge the fullness of the feeling that person is having – try to imagine it from their point of view, take it seriously and don’t just shrug it off or treat it with frustration. Think of how you would want to be met if you were talking about something you find particularly frightening and difficult – this is that thing for that person. I used an example the other day – I’d booked myself a horse riding lesson, which I was really excited about, but nerves about the drive there and parking in the small and awkwardly shaped car park were making me very nauseous. My partner said, “but I thought you wanted to go riding?” because for a normal person, the excitement of going riding would outweigh the nerves of a ten-minute drive. I explained that, for me, it was the same as if he was going for a job he really wanted, or even had the job and today was the first day, and he was quite nervous about it, and then if I said, “but I thought you wanted this job?” Somehow you need to find a way to understand that what seems so small to you, is not small to the other person.

The person suffering with anxiety or depression has to be careful to do the same thing. I often find one of the best ways to get me out of a low or anxious mood is actually if my partner needs me for something  – I tend to start focussing on them and my own problems seem smaller because I’m not looking at them so closely. But it can be difficult sometimes, if you’re caught up in your own head and are used to being the one to receive support, to remember to turn around and give it to your friends and family and partner too. Especially if you are afraid that part of their issue is their worry over you. Of course they need other people to lean on too but it can help, when you’re in a good place, to talk over the effects and issues together. Talking about the difficult times and what you both want and need in those situations is essential. It’s a give and take process – and mutual kindness and empathy is absolutely key.

When you’re both feeling down, as my partner and I have been a bit this week after the US election, it’s even more important for us both to practise mutual kindness. I feel like we’ve both feeling a bit defensive, hurt and beaten down, like little creatures evicted from our safe shells, trying to find some comfort and warmth. We all need to turn in towards each other, be honest and stay vulnerable, to keep our closest circles a happy corner in which to regroup in these difficult times.

 

 

Keep hoping, friends.

Well. Since 3am I’ve been lying awake or having nightmares about Trump becoming president. Maybe it’s because I had a few run-throughs of waking up to it before I actually woke up to it, or maybe it’s because of the Brexit result in the summer, but this result isn’t such a shock to me.

I know how terrifying this is, especially for people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, women – or essentially, anyone who isn’t a straight white misogynistic power-crazed man. I am very depressed for what this says about people’s attitude to women in the 21st century. By voting for Trump, people are voting for a view of women which many hoped had died off around the 1950s. And by going with an “anyone but Clinton” attitude, although people say it’s because of her corruption, it seems to me pretty obvious that one of the main reasons for it is because she’s female. If you keep their histories and behaviour but switch their genders, there’s no question about how this election would have played out. A 70-year-old woman who had been divorced three times would never have got close to the White House, while a man with Clinton’s experience would have been, I would guess, far more popular. I don’t understand all the reasons why people dislike Clinton so heartily, but I do think they underestimate the role sexism has to play in it. If we take the view that people see women as Madonnas or whores, Clinton doesn’t fit: she’s clearly not a whore, but she can’t be a Madonna because she is powerful and, at times, ruthless. Terrifyingly, apparently the majority of white women voted for Trump. This is baffling to me, but perhaps feeds into arguments that women are threatened by the power of other women. Or maybe they enjoy that kind of ‘man taking control’ bullshit that Trump espouses so brilliantly.

Anyway. We could talk for hours about what a depressing result this is. God knows 2016 has been a hell pit for anyone of a liberal persuasion. Here are a few thoughts I’ve been having to try and counteract the negativity this morning:

  • I have such low hopes for Trump that really, the only way is up. If he hasn’t nuked China within the first six months, I’m counting it as a win.
  • I am taking solace in the fact that there are millions of people all around the world who are feeling just as lost and powerless as I am today. Thanks to today’s technology we all have ways of connecting and joining virtual hands around the globe, and that kind of connection can only be a point of comfort.
  • I have recently finished The Art of Happiness, a book full of conversations between the Dalai Lama and an American psychologist. Together they try to find ways of creating happiness which take elements of both Eastern and Western philosophy. It is a heartening book particularly at times like these, showing the surprising similarity of ideas that originated in such different cultures, and also what it can be like when people are open and receptive to other people’s thoughts and opinions. One idea that is helping me in particular is samsara, or cycles of death and rebirth, which is central to Buddhist thinking. I do not believe in reincarnation per se, but Buddhists also believe the world goes through cycles of samsara. I’m not entirely sure if it’s supposed to be used in this way, but I am looking at history today for these cycles.

    In the nineteenth century there was a rapid increase in communication across the world, with the advent of telegrams, railway lines, and increases in trade. This was in many ways the beginning of western hegemony, as previously China was one of the most powerful empires in the world. With western industrialisation, the balance of power changed. Through the first half of the twentieth century many racist attitudes held sway, and extreme nationalism brought several terrifying leaders into power. After a massive cycle of change and, of course, wars, the balance changed again. The second half of the twentieth century saw many of these “scientific” racist attitudes thrown in the trash, empires slowly began to come apart, and since then we have had huge steps forward for women, gay rights, and civil rights.

    I am, of course, simplifying MASSIVELY and I’m sure any academic reading this will want to step in and teach me a few things. Not today, please. Be tolerant today. Unless you believe my views are harmful or you’re really in the mood for teaching and debate, in which case, let me know and we’ll discuss it like adults, and like rational human beings, and I’m sure we’ll both enjoy the conversation immensely. But sadly we are now seeing a backlash to this “opening up” which has brought joy and happiness to so many. Unfortunately, for some, these expansions in rights have not been a sign of progress, but a sign of their own power being reduced. If we believe that there is only a finite amount of power and influence to go around, these are frightening times if you are someone who has, to date, held most of that power. Or if your beliefs are such that you think only certain people should be allowed to hold it. If you believe in the verses of the bible which prohibit homosexuality, then I can only imagine that the day the US allowed same-sex marriage you had much the same feeling as I do now. If you believe that the colour of someone’s skin has something fundamental to say about what they can and cannot achieve as a person, then the anger that has flowed through many American cities of late can be read as confirmation of your beliefs, rather than the righteous fury of people mistreated for too long, too often. And if you believe women’s main role should be at home raising a family, then this year will have been a real shake-up for you.

    I am sad to think that people believe these things. But I am not surprised by the fact that they have not disappeared yet. It seems clear that these attitudes have risen up again, that we are rushing headfirst into a new era of intolerance and rolling back of the rights of people who have been fighting so hard for them. I am hopeful that we will avoid wars of the kind of magnitude we experienced a hundred years ago, especially as, with someone like Trump having their finger hovering over the button, it would literally be the death of the earth. And although that’s depressing to think about, if it does happen, then we’ll have nothing to worry about anyway. (Side note: I’ve just started watching The West Wing (I know, I’m ten years behind the times. When I’m 40 I’ll start Breaking Bad) and I had no idea that it is basically ONE person’s decision to start attacking another country. Just the president. Terrifying! Also, is Aaron Sorkin and the West Wing cast available to run America? I feel like they’d do a stand-up job, especially compared to this crazy waxwork clown who’s got in instead.)

    Steering back to my positive point: the world has gone through some serious shit before. We’ve had men who chose to try to exterminate an entire race. We’ve had terrifying eras of persecution and intolerance and people treated like less than animals. And it does end. Eventually. Although sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, we’ve come a long way and more people have more than they have done at any time before in history. A friend said she read an article which argued that if Clinton had got in, as the ultimate establishment figure, the feelings that started with Sarah Palin and ended up in Trump would just have got worse. Maybe getting what they think they want will prove that it isn’t as advertised (hello, Brexit). Keep up the hope, my friends. We are all human beings underneath. I know it is tough for everyone who has already worked out this fundamental human truth – that we are all just people – to see the rest of humanity continue to be so fucking stupid, but the millennial voting map in America was very positive. Hopefully this new generation, of which I am a part, will rise up against the bigotry and dumb rhetoric which has characterised politics in the UK and US this year, and we will fight for a brighter future. The cycles will keep on turning.

    And in the meantime, there’s The West Wing to distract us.

Going home

Recently, I had a worried conversation with my Canadian, reliant-on-a-work-visa partner. He works in academia, already intensely competitive, and possibly soon to be chronically under-resourced. Getting a job here if you’re from outside the EU has already become more difficult in recent years, and with the recent hateful headlines from our home secretary and PM, the situation looks like it could get significantly worse in the near future. If this government go ahead with their plans, his name will be on the list of ‘foreign workers’ his university will have to hand in. If he wanted to move on from his current position, would anybody take the risk and hassle of employing him without British citizenship? I told him I was frightened, that if things get worse, he would want to go home.

Go home. As I said the words I felt a jolt. Were we not already at home? Where would home be, if we moved to Canada? We would both likely know nobody, and have only each other. Would it be home for him again? Could it ever be home for me?

I’ve been musing on what home means for almost a year. I use the term to refer both to the flat I currently live in, and my parents’ house where I lived permanently from the ages of 4 to 18, and where I’ve stayed at various intervals since. In the last ten years I have moved house ten times. Looking back, were all those places home?

Do any of you ever have that experience of thinking, “I want to go home!” when, technically, you’re already there? Home isn’t just a place, but a feeling. I lived in a flat for three years and it never truly felt like home to me. I never settled properly there, rarely had that warm, comfy, I’m at home feeling about it. I consider this feeling to be similar to the suddenly trendy Danish idea of hygge – that warm, comfortable, safe, and entirely without stress feeling. I suppose the time I lived in that flat was full of stressors, not least a deeply unsatisfying and, In the end, mentally damaging work environment. Would anywhere have felt like home, under such circumstances?

I left there and moved home to my parents for six months. Going back to my family home is such a complicated feeling for me, in part because I’ve never fully left. This is true in a physical sense – my old bedroom is so full of stuff it looks like it is still occupied day to day, with clothes in the drawers and wardrobe, four bookcases full of books, and a dresser covered in jewellery. I go back and feel the pull of all those belongings that I still, aged 28, cannot have with me as I can’t afford somewhere with enough space. I am wondering, like many people my age, if there will ever come a time when I’m not storing some possessions with my parents.

Mentally, too, I am still deeply connected to this home. I get on very well with my parents and deeply enjoy their company, and they mine, so trips home always feel too short – even when they also feel constrictive, being back under their rules, and feeling the pain of things they do and think that I cannot change. This is one of the pains of growing up: some people find it fairly easy to start a life on their own terms, in their own space, with their own chosen people, and don’t feel much guilt at having flown the nest. For me, it is more difficult. I have never had a Christmas away from this home, and with all the emotional ties of Christmas traditions, this is one holiday when I feel I should be at home. I feel guilty for not visiting more often, and for not staying longer when I am there. Whenever I leave, it is painful on the one hand, and like getting out of an effortlessly warm and comfortable bed on the other. It is still, and always will be in some ways, my home, even though it is not without difficulties. For most people, the family home has some elements of push and pull, as all families are rarely entirely without tensions.

Recently I moved out of London after ten years, settling in Canterbury and commuting back to the city every day. Canterbury, the town, does not yet feel like home. I am too transient, spending most of my waking hours still in London, and still feel like a weekend guest here. I have joined the library, the cinema, the gym, but only know small bits of the town and have barely begun to join them together. The flat I’m in is starting to feel like home – but for the first time in a few years there is no space here that is mostly mine. My partner has the “spare room”, which really is his office as he works so much at home. I only go in there to hang laundry. It contains none of my possessions and the futon we have for guests, but also for me to sit on, is both very uncomfortable and currently facing a wall. My space to sit in is the living room, but it is a communal space, no corner to hide in, and no part of it to which I can withdraw. It feels sometimes like trying to make a nest in a corridor. It is too open and there is too much traffic to make a properly cosy, individual space.

If I feel unsettled sometimes at the lack of a specific room I can go to to be at home and shut the door on the world, how must people feel who are home-less? The number of people unable to afford a roof over their heads is on the rise, as renting rules get more and more out of hand, combined with a still struggling economy. Many families find themselves in temporary spaces and individuals find themselves on the streets. I cannot understand how having a home isn’t a basic human right. It is the bottom of the pyramid, the base on which all wellbeing is built.

And if homeless people here are feeling desperate, imagine being one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe. The people trying to scrape a life in the camps in Calais, and those waiting to hear the verdict on whether they’ll be allowed to claim refuge. The newly settled refugees in Germany, who I’m sure are hard pressed to feel like they can build a home there, knowing how much anti-refugee sentiment is present. Even the people hoping for better in Canada, where so many have offered to take refugees in, trying to find jobs and their own ways forward.

Recently I read the news that tens of thousands of Afghan refugees will be sent back to their country, in a deal between Europe and Afghanistan. They lie and say that it is safe for them to return, even though the Taliban are now controlling more territory than they have since 2001. One of the largest cities, Kunduz, has been without electricity and water for days at a time. They are not being sent home. There is nothing akin to hygge on offer there. And what of the Syrians, whose home is being bombed out of existence? If they ever get back, what will there be? It will not be the place they remember, perhaps ever again.

Even here, in England, in this affluent and apparently civilised society, I am struggling lately to feel that this country is my home. The words and actions of this past year, from citizens and especially from politicians, have made me very afraid. I would be afraid even if I hadn’t had the audacity to fall in love with someone who wasn’t born here, but the fear of being separated or forced to make a huge decision about our futures is pressing on me. Theresa May said there is no such thing as a global citizen, that if you are a global citizen then you belong nowhere. She is telling the people who live here and have done so for years, and paid for the privilege, and contributed to this society on so many levels, that still they do not belong. This is not their home.

I don’t understand. Why is it so wrong and bad to have not been born here, and to want to live here? Why do these people want to stifle our differences, and force us all to be the same? Rudd talked of the injustice for poor English people of having no job “because of immigration”. I would like her to show her working. I do not believe this can be the case for the majority. More likely that the jobs market has shrunk as investment in infrastructure and public services has been cut.

I am frightened that this country will continue to change and no longer feel like home. I am frightened that one day in the not too dim or distant future, my partner’s work visa will be one of those ‘clamped down on’. That we will have to decide whether to keep together through money and a piece of paper, supposed to be held due to love alone, or to run across the sea together, me leaving behind everywhere and everyone that have felt like home to me.

Home is a place, and a feeling, and a sense, and sometimes a person, or a set of people. If you are very lucky, you will meet someone who immediately feels like home to you. But even then, it takes effort and love and time and peace to build a home that will last. For people without all those things, and even perhaps for some of us who are not quite settled where we are, we will still know that emotional rush and ache of wanting to go home.

“Wasting” time and “changing” thoughts

Apologies in advance for the overuse of inverted commas in this blog post!

It is 8.20am at King’s Cross Underground Station. Rush hour. People stream from train to platform, platform to escalator, escalator to barrier, barrier to stairs. I am always struck by the uniformity of colour. Everyone is wearing black or navy, with only infrequent splashes of anything brighter or lighter (for years I refused to buy a coat in either black or navy, insisting on red, pink, blue. Recently I gave in as, while being prettier, they also require far more frequent washing). Being on the tube at this time of day is often dead time. With neither enough free hands nor enough space to hold a book, and with too much noise to be able to comfortably listen to anything, I mostly choose to just stand. The only entertainment I can get is reading the headlines in the free newspapers people carry, or the adverts above people’s heads, both of which make me wish I had a pair of glasses which could remove my ability to read.

I have been awake for two hours and on the move for one, but this is the first time I feel like I’m participating in a rush hour commute. The early train can hardly be described as “rushed”; nearly everyone has a seat and it is usually completely quiet, without even gossiping colleagues to break the silence. Everyone is in their own worlds, passing this parcel of time in whichever way they prefer. People watch films or write notes, start work and read books (physical and electronic). Others take advantage of the well-cushioned seats and headrests to return to sleep.

I have choices in how I use this time. I cannot work as the trains do not have internet. There is enough intermittent connection on my phone to talk to friends, sometimes discussing in that early morning time urgent happenings from the night before, and I’m sure many would use this time on various forms of social media, catching up on tweets and news feeds and photographs. I am restricted in what I can do in this area. I chose some time ago to remove social media apps from my phone, so I cannot scroll the endless facebook news feed as I used to – I found I had got into the habit of doing it as soon as I woke up in the morning, which, even when there was nothing in particular going on, gave the morning a greyish tinge and a flatness which I decided to do without.

We are given so much advice these days on how to spend our time, but so much of it passes without our conscious thought. I have seen endless articles lately about the “busyness epidemic”, that we are all rushed off our feet and don’t have time to do – what, exactly? I know many people have jobs that take up most of their non 9-5 time, but I also know – from my own experience and these constant articles – that we are also “wasting” time on websites or doing “nothing.” But what are we doing when we do nothing? This is what I’ve been thinking about recently, since I moved and put an hour’s train ride between me and my job. I now have two hours every day, ten hours a week, which at the end of a year I will be able to look at as a distinct and separate area of time and think: what did I do with it?

The cultural feeling around long commutes is overwhelmingly negative, and I was nervous about how it would affect me. While getting up so early is not my favourite thing to do, I am finding some deep comfort in this neatly packaged and wrapped slice of time I have, every day, morning and evening, to use as I will. There is nobody to interrupt me or to tell me what they would rather I be doing. I am finding it interesting seeing how doing different things affect my mental state for the working day or resting evening ahead. There is some kind of expectation we should do something profound with this amount of time, seen in a block – learn a language, read heavy non-fiction, “improve” ourselves in some way. In some ways this is appealing, although there needs to be a balance between relaxation and personal improvement. And there are ways to pass the time and enjoy it without feeling at the end of the journey, week or month, that it was “wasted.”

One thing I am getting back into is listening to books. Audiobooks require a fantastic amount of mindful concentration. We are so used to paying attention to what is in front of our eyes, that attending fully and completely with our ears is a surprisingly difficult task. Your mind will wander and you’ll realise you’ve missed a few pages. You are conscious of every moment of daydreaming in a way you are not while you are reading, when I for one will frequently skip explanations, descriptions, and chapter headings without even noticing (it is only with books like The Time Traveller’s Wife that I realise how much I do this, when you need to read each chapter heading and fully process it to know whose past or present you are about to be in). Similarly, when we are speaking to other people, our mind is often not consciously engaged with what they are saying, but attaching extra meaning, processing an emotional reaction, thinking ahead to what we are going to say, or thinking about something completely different. Listening to an audiobook for an hour I am very aware of the time passing, but I arrive at King’s Cross into the swell and sway of commuters feeling very tranquil, very aware. I have been taken out of my own headspace for a full hour, unable to follow the often pointless and petty meanderings of my brain, and it is a deeply welcome break.

One thing I have been more conscious of lately, and which led to the deleting of facebook from my phone and the installation of an app on my laptop which allows me only five minutes on there a day, is how much social media can affect my mood. It is, for me, a deeply unmindful way of passing the time. Although I think in some areas restricting time on facebook is me using avoidance tactics on things which make me anxious, which I would do better to address head on, in other ways it removed a way for me to “waste” a lot of time. “Wasting” in the sense that I am not aware of what I am doing, I am glazing over and mindlessly absorbing what I see, which is only the falsely positive, overwhelmingly negative or lists of pointless platitudinous quotations. Into this gap I moved the reading of more articles (which led to more blog writing) and also participation in some online courses. I have signed up to far more of them than I have actually ritually participated in, but three have proven very useful in this ongoing quest I and everyone else seems to be on to “improve,” find some balance, feel happier, and (in my case) add tools to my arsenal to fight ongoing mental health issues.

The first (this and the others were on the free FutureLearn website) was on Literature and Mental Health, looking at the way poetry, novels and plays have addressed mental health problems or might be used by people to help them in times of stress or pain. As a result of it I have memorised several poems that are useful in calming me down and making me focus when I am having anxiety attacks (Yeats “The Lake Isle of Innsifree”, Oliver “Wild Geese”, Auden “Funeral Blues”). The second was on Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance. I won’t bore you by reiterating that mindfulness is very popular at the moment, but I will say that the course was extremely helpful day to day in helping me slow down my thoughts and feel more at one with myself. Sadly since the course ended I have struggled to keep this up, so I am now enrolled on it for a second time.

Mindfulness is all about the avoidance of wasting time, in this sense I am using of wasting time by being unaware of where you are and what you are doing. Mindfulness teaches you to concentrate on the present moment, accepting it for what it is if it is unpleasant, and enjoying it fully without past doubts or future worries if it is pleasant. It is all very well and good but, of course, extremely difficult. I also read an article once against it and in defence of daydreaming – the author quite rightly pointed out that it is only the daydreams about the fool you made of yourself in science class at school that are bad for our mental health; if we are cheerfully daydreaming about winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay or galloping along a beach on a chestnut horse, we are more likely to be happy at the end of the commute than if we were sat there concentrating hard on the exact shade of blue of the chair in front. However, mindfulness is very useful for combating negative thoughts, simply because it makes you focus on them and see them for what they are, whereas in “default mode” (or perhaps “toxic thought world” as Adriene, online yoga instructor, has termed a similar way of thinking) we allow the narratives of self-criticism and worry to run unchecked. I had a silly horoscope on an email newsletter the other day (Lenny, co-run by Lena Dunham) which told me that there wasn’t a real problem, the only issue was the ‘troubling narrative’ I had built up around whatever it was I was worrying about. Like all horoscopes it trod that beautiful line of being totally specific, and yet entirely vague, so that it could neatly apply to absolutely everybody. But for me it did give me pause for thought, and pushed me to try a more mindful way of thinking.

The third course, which for me builds on the mindful aspects of not “wasting” time and of “changing” your thought patterns (I am as yet deeply sceptical of things which tell me I can change how I think, which I hope isn’t the biggest obstacle to it actually working), is about Anxiety, Depression and CBT. As someone who has experienced anxiety, depression, and undergone a course of CBT, you might think this course would be rather in the way of teaching a grandmother to suck eggs (heaven alone knows where that saying comes from). But examining it all from the outside in has been remarkably helpful. The course spells out for those who have never suffered from either anxiety or depression how it affects the brain and the way sufferers interpret things. To cut a long story short, and oversimplifying wildly, people with these issues focus on the negative. They see neutral situations as negative, remember negative things far more easily and with greater depth than positive ones, and thereby encase themselves in a self-perpetuating cycle of shrinking worlds and increasing mental anguish. It is in many ways a form of unchosen self-torture. CBT teaches people to break the cycles of negativity which influence thoughts, emotions, physical reactions, and behaviours, by interpreting situations more realistically, and adjusting behaviour ahead of changes in mood to try and kickstart adjustments in thinking, then feeling, then living. It is, like mindfulness, far easier said than done. The four or five sessions of CBT I had were very good, but like the mindfulness course, without weekly guidance I have fallen back into old ways of thinking. This course, together with the mindfulness course, is helping to reiterate to me how much of what I think and feel is not real.

It is now 6pm, and I am on the train heading home. After a day at work I may not have the mental concentration for an audiobook, or an online course, or even a book, depending on what it is. Sometimes I will daydream but the time passes slowly. Fortunately my partner gave me a straight out of left field gift for my birthday: a Nintendo 3DS. As a teenager I spent a lot of time watching my two brothers, and later boyfriends, play various computer games. It seems to be a fairly typical experience for females, which is interesting. What is it that makes us observers rather than players? Is it cultural gender stereotyping, that girls are not allowed to play these games or will automatically be bad at them? In some cases I’m sure it’s a genuine lack of interest, but for me I think often it was informed by an idea that I wouldn’t be any good. This was reinforced as my brothers, having a ready-made two player game, would play each other very often and far more frequently than I would want to join in (you see, I had a stable of model ponies to look after). They were then far more proficient than I was, and I didn’t like to lose constantly or make them feel like they were being held back by me. But my partner thought this was a shame, and that a Nintendo 3DS might be a way for me to try my hand at games – single player, straightforward, and just about me. I was sceptical. But time never passes faster on the train than when I’m playing Pokemon. I’m sure some people will think this is time “wasted”, but I disagree. For a start, as I have said elsewhere, time enjoyed is never time wasted. Also, there is a strange sense of achievement that comes from playing these games. And, it is a mindful practice, as you are totally in the moment, unaware of the people around you or the worries of the day you’ve spent. It is a fun and easy way to switch my mind off. Why wouldn’t training a high-level Charmander be a positive way of evaluating how I’ve spent some of my hours on the train? Especially if, at the same time, it is stopping me from focussing on negatives or getting stuck in tedious, grey spirals of thought. And the less time I spend on that, the “better” I think I will be.

 

The Sounds of Silence

I’ve been thinking about different kinds of silence lately. A few weeks ago I was on the phone, telling somebody something I found difficult to say. Even though there was a lot of noise around me, suddenly I was acutely aware only of the silence on the other end of the line, and me throwing words into that abyss.

Silence seems like such a simple concept on the face of it. Just an absence of noise. But what kind of noise? Sometimes by silence we refer to an absence of voices, or an absence of traffic noise, or just an absence of a noise that may have been particularly trying to us for a long or short period of time. For example if you’re listening to a song you particularly dislike, and when it stops you feel a sudden surge of relief at that silence, the absence of that particular sound.

When it comes to conversations with people, there are so many types of silence. It might be awkward, or loving, or so full of tension it seems deafening. Of course, on the phone, there’s also the silence that means you’ve been cut off and you really have been throwing noise into nowhere for the last few minutes. But most of the time we can feel something in a silence. We try to gauge people’s feelings through the lengths of their silences, the quality of that silence. Sometimes we are wrong, but silences are surprisingly easy to interpret. We wait or we break the silence, depending on how sure we are of what it means, and how much nerve we have to sit and listen to it. Silences are so important.

This got me thinking about other silences, including very brief, even momentary silences in poems or songs. In poetry, a break, or caesura to give it its fancy name, changes the flow and feel of a poem or gives the reader and the listener a moment to reflect on the words that have just come before. Sometimes it can be where we would naturally take a breath when reading aloud, but often it serves to isolate a particular thought, and give it extra emphasis. In songs, breaks in the music can mark the end of a phrase, but, particularly when you’re dancing to music, breaks and pauses and silences can be full of feeling. There’s a great satisfaction to anticipating a break and stopping dead for it, but also in continuing to move in a certain way into that silence. When the silence ends the music may have changed. The silences mean as much as the sounds.

I’m sure you’ll all remember John Cage’s 4’33”, a piece of music that consisted only of silence. It is a strange concept, and many people thought it was just ludicrous. How can we say it is a composition or a performance when it’s just nothing for four and a half minutes? We are so uncomfortable with concentrated silence in modern Western culture – perhaps in Eastern culture too, I’m not really sure – maybe less so. It is so rare to sit and consciously not do anything, especially now when we all have smartphones and tablets readily to hand, not to mention books and music players. I can imagine the silence in those concert halls being full of tension, confusion, antagonism, but perhaps for a few, a deep and peaceful quiet.

When we’re with others we expect there to be sound. Everybody pities the couple sitting in a restaurant who aren’t speaking to each other. But who knows what kind of silence they’re sharing? It could be bored, distrustful, resentful, panicky, tired, restless, or apathetic – take a moment to think about how each of those silences would feel. But it might also be comfortable, content, smouldering, happy, teasing, sleepy, or peaceful. One of my favourite quotes of all time is from Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction: “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody really special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute, and comfortably share a silence.” But it’s so rare. People are usually more comfortable with noise when they are around others, feeling that they should be interacting and saying something.

The exception to this is when we are surrounded by strangers. Then only silence, a particular type of silence, will do. This is a silence characterised by noise spilling out of earphones, and keypad tones, and muttered expletives when people get in our way. People on tubes and trains keep their silence, even if in this case silence just means no speech, unless it’s between people who already knew each other. But, thinking about it, even with this broad definition of silence, the individual people are rarely sitting in total quiet and peace. In their heads, there is noise from the music they are listening to, or the videos they are watching. Or if they are reading, their minds are full of the voices they are giving each character, and the pictures and places that are being conjured up by those silent pages. I used to experience a total silence toward the outer world when reading – I would be completely deaf if I was really involved in a book. I didn’t hear people calling my name or telling me dinner was ready or that it was my turn to read aloud to the teacher. It was a gorgeous self-imposed deafness. I am, sadly, less good at creating that silence outside my own head now. It is something I am working to reclaim, and not just when I’m reading. I’m working on sitting in a crowded place, or an empty place, and doing nothing. Just sitting and being, and ignoring any noises around me that I don’t find interesting.

In the wider world, there are many other different qualities and types of silence. I’ve been living in London for almost ten years, and a lot of the time it’s very loud. Constant traffic, chatter, sirens, and building work. But I’ve noticed that every now and again, and not that infrequently, the noise stops. I’ll be walking along a street in central London and just for a few seconds the noise dies away. There’s a brief but full and peaceful silence, like somebody pressed pause. Then a car engine will rev and the silence is over.

I love those small and gentle silences. But the quality of them is so different to silences in the country. There silence is the norm, just trees and the wind and sometimes the odd bit of traffic. It’s absolutely lovely in many ways, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I find it harder to sleep there now because of this almost total silence. I have become used to the buses moving past my window at regular intervals through the night, and to falling asleep to the sound of traffic. If I wake up when it’s dark I can guess the time by the sounds of the cars. Sometimes at times when you think that silence would be preferable to noise, silences are, again, less comfortable. For people who suffer from insomnia, silence can be much more difficult to rest against than some kind of noise. I personally think there is no silence more lonely or that inspires more desperation than the silence of those around you sleeping. Even if, technically, it is not silence because you can hear their breathing, I would call that a silence and it can be a very difficult silence. There is so much to be felt in that silence – all the rest and quiet we are missing, because we cannot fall asleep.

Moving from these silences, I thought about the invisible and private silences inside ourselves. Silences can be easy to stay inside, if speaking will cause discomfort or irritation or danger to ourselves. Then many people will stay silent. Other times silences are difficult to keep, but are kept because they serve a better purpose than speaking. The example of this that has affected me most recently is from the book To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron, about his journey to the sacred mountain, Mount Kailas. In the book Thubron also tells stories about his family. His father shot several wild animals when he was in India, and he kept the hides and taxidermied remains in their family home. His mother never liked them, but was deeply conscious of the complex emotions her husband had towards them. He was proud of them, but at the time that he shot the animals he was also afraid, and uncomfortable, and overcoming those emotions to bring the animals home had enormous importance in the view he had of himself. Despite the discomfort they gave her, his mother never said anything about the animals. She knew that voicing her displeasure would cause great disquiet to her husband, so out of her love for him she kept her silence. I think there’s an important lesson here, in an age when we feel we always must have the right to be comfortable and to have our voice and opinion heard, either in the wider social cause, or in this concept of “keeping things in” being unhealthy to ourselves. Of course most of the time speaking out is very important, and staying silent about things that are unjust or wrong is not something we should maintain. But, in smaller ways, we should sometimes consider the impact that speaking or acting will have on everyone else. On some occasions, keeping your silence might serve better than making noise for the sake of making noise.

Highlights of 2015

I’ve been reading a few articles looking back at 2015, and most of the news has been bad. With the notable exception of marriage equality in the United States, most of 2015 has been pretty depressing. Plane crashes, a refugee crisis, a dreadful UK election result, many senseless deaths, the rolling back of women’s reproductive rights, and all too often a huge absence of human understanding and compassion. So I’m going to give a summary of all my highlights of the past year. They are often small and are all entirely insignificant to the world at large (apart from the one on what3words), but I’m hoping that by outlining a few, you’ll remember the better parts of the past year, and the joys of life that can be forgotten all too easily in the constant barrage of negative news.

Films

I think most of you know from this blog that I am a big film fan, and in particular a big cinema fan. One of my favourite memories of 2015 was this year’s Oscar season. I went to see several of the frontrunners, including Birdman, Whiplash, Foxcatcher, and The Theory of Everything, all alone and mostly in the middle of a weekday (hurrah for being a student, a time now sadly over). All the films were very good and when I think about any of them, the feeling of tranquillity I had when I went to see them comes back to me. It was a great few weeks. Another less highbrow film highlight of the year for me was Trainwreck, which I saw twice, once with my boyfriend and again with my best friend. I haven’t laughed so much at a film in years.

Amy Schumer

Of course, Amy was the star and writer of Trainwreck, just one high point in what has been a phenomenal year for her. I think she is an amazing woman and I can’t wait for what she does next – I am hoping with all hope that the rumours she and Jennifer Lawrence are writing a film together are true. They’re two of my favourite people. Here’s a link to 50 of her best quotes from this year. One of my favourites is: “I am a woman with thoughts and questions and shit to say. I say if I’m beautiful. I say if I’m strong. You will not determine my story — I will. I will speak and share and fuck and love and I will never apologize to the frightened millions who resent that they never had it in them to do it.” I like her particularly because I know that if I showed my Mum any of her stuff, right before she got freaked out by how sexual and uncouth it all is, she’d say: ‘Oh, she’s not very pretty. And she’s not very thin.’ And I’d be able to say that it doesn’t matter a damn. Because she’s awesome.

The Ragtime Gals

This video of Jimmy Fallon and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a barbershop quartet version of Rihanna’s ‘Bitch better have my money’ (a song I’ve never heard the original of, because I can’t see how it could top this) is my absolute hands-down favourite video of the year. It makes me laugh no matter what, and even got me out of an anxiety spiral a few months ago that stopped me going to sleep for bloody ages. I watched this video a few times, and at least was convinced the world wasn’t about to end. Thanks Jimmy.

A first date, 30th April, 3pm to 9pm, Foyles café and Zizzi

The beginning of something amazing. You know who you are. I feel very lucky.

Candles

I didn’t realise until this year how much of a massive fan of candles I am. My bedroom is now a fire hazard every evening. But I love watching flames and find them very soothing. Also the smell when you blow them out is gorgeous.

10th September, 1pm, SOAS

I handed in my MA dissertation, drawing a line under two years of work. It was a great two years and I enjoyed most of it, but I was very, very happy to see the back of that dissertation!

Books

Favourite books of 2015 include but are not limited to:

  • The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon – fantastic adventure.
  • Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg – I have a notebook full of quotes from it, one of my favourites being that one of the most important career decisions a woman will make is whether or not to have a life partner, and who that partner is. Women are still far more likely to make career sacrifices for their partners or family, so you need to be damn sure your partner is supportive. Great book. I’m looking forward to seeing Dawn Foster in January, who has written a book called Lean Out, arguing that Lean In is too focussed on women in corporate jobs. I agree in principle but I hope she’s not going to spend the time picking Sheryl Sandberg apart. As Amy Poehler wisely said, more women need to be able to say: ‘Good for her! Not for me.’ Fighting each other all the time isn’t helpful.
  • The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – beautiful and amazing and unexpected.
  • Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman – so many fantastic characters, and now I’ve joined the angry mob asking why he hasn’t written another full-length novel in the same universe.
  • The Garth Nix Old Kingdom series – I’ve read them before but I reread this year for the first time in a while and wow, they’re good.

 

Dancing

This year I went blues dancing in Madrid and Toulouse. I don’t think I need to explain why those trips were a highlight of the year!

Yoga

This year I finally tried yoga for the first time. I’d read several stories from people with depression saying they’d found it useful, but I’d also heard some horror stories about people being humiliated by unsympathetic teachers in classes, which put me off. Then my friend Gillian said she watched videos on YouTube by a woman called Adriene. Her bedtime routine has genuinely changed my life. I have been bad at sleeping for many years and around September had got into a habit of taking a very long time to fall asleep, mainly because as soon as I lay down I’d construct imaginary situations in my head of things going wrong, or of having terrible arguments with people. Unsurprisingly I then didn’t sleep and when I did I had restless, nasty dreams. For a few weeks I did Adriene’s bedtime routine most nights, and not only did it help me sleep on the nights I watched it, it’s reprogrammed my brain so I can now switch off much more easily when I go to bed. I’m doing more of her other ones now too, although building myself up slowly as in the first week or so I went at it a bit too strong and pulled muscles around my shoulder blades, which made sitting at a desk all day very painful!

A TED talk on addiction

The message of this video about how to tackle addiction makes so much sense, particularly as the way most societies and governments approach it right now clearly isn’t working. The video made me cry, though, because I know addicted people and although it rang very true, it’s also such a difficult attitude to remember when it’s someone you know personally who you cannot seem to help. It might then seem an odd choice for a highlight of the year, but it’s also representing TED talks in general which I always find fascinating, and I did find it useful to watch a video about addiction with some hope in it.

Awards for what3words

The company I work for, what3words, has had an incredible year. what3words is an app that gives every 3m x 3m square in the world a unique 3 word address, and in 2015 the brilliance of this simple concept was recognised by the United Nations, The Tech Awards, Cannes Lion Festival of Creativity, and many others. I’m currently writing from nets.hatch.truth. What are your 3 words?

The concept of hygge

A couple of times this year I’ve come across the Danish concept of hygge, meaning “the absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming; taking pleasure from the presence of gentle, soothing things.” I have tried to bring more hygge into my life in the last few months, since I heard about it, but I think it will be a big project for next year.

Friends

I’ve said it before, but I’m very lucky to have such a supportive group of close friends. I have six or seven wonderful people who I just have to say “I’m not okay today” to and they know what to say and do. Although obviously I would prefer not to have to rely on people for a lot of emotional support, some things can’t be tackled on your own, and I’m proud and thankful that we’re at such a good level of communication that so few words can convey so much. Thank you all.

Corgis

I hadn’t really noticed before how ridiculous and brilliant corgis are. They’re like real dogs, but they don’t have proper legs! I find them incredibly comical and now have a goal in life to have one of my own. I don’t see how you could ever be sad when you’re looking at something so cute and funny.

Happy New Year everyone!

Paolo Nutini at the O2

This post is serving a few purposes: 1) it’s a Part 2 to my article Date Nights for One ; 2) it’s a (very amateur) review of the concert, basically just listing all the things I liked about it; and 3) it’s a review of a review of the gig in The Guardian, which was almost completely made up of bullshit, and also a reminder that sexism most definitely works both ways.

A few months ago I posted a piece on how much I enjoy going out for “dates” by myself – to restaurants, to the theatre, and especially to the cinema (I’ve been to the cinema alone five times in the last two weeks, and it’s been brilliant). I also said I’d booked myself a solo ticket to see Paolo Nutini at the O2, which would be the first time I’d been to a concert alone, and it was all a bit of an experiment. Well, it was awesome. I loved it. Going alone meant I didn’t have to worry about whether other people had a view, or whether they were being stepped on, or hold their drinks interminably while they went to the bathroom. It was just me, enjoying some of the best music I’ve ever heard.

There were other advantages too. Travelling to the O2 was a shambles, taking a convoluted route and an hour longer than it was supposed to. It was a very tedious experience but one I began to strangely enjoy, once an excellent member of Underground staff suggested an alternative route to the back end of beyond otherwise known as North Greenwich. Once on the train substitute, I was next to a couple who were also trying to get somewhere but had been delayed and were going to be late. They’d reached the point where just the sight of the other person was an irritation, and all she could say to him was: “Shut up. Just shut up.” Haha. I know that kind of stress. You’d think being with someone else would be a rock and a comfort in those situations, but actually I found myself an excellent support, and didn’t need to tell myself to shut up once. I didn’t need to argue with anyone over the right route, or put up with residual grumpiness when we arrived. I could get on with being bloody excited that I’d got there at all (and, because Paolo Nutini is a sweetie, he’d delayed the start and I didn’t miss anything. Sure, I was further back than I’d wanted in the standing area, but – another plus to being alone – if you start shouldering your way through people on your own, they assume you’re on your way to join your party of friends. Hahaha).

The concert itself was phenomenal. I booked my ticket at vast expense from one of these selling-on tickets websites, after I saw a clip of Paolo Nutini playing at Glastonbury and decided I just had to go, even if I didn’t have anybody to go with. He isn’t one of those artists who plays songs exactly as they sound on the recordings only louder. For many of his older songs, heputs a twist on it. He played ‘Jenny don’t be hasty’ much slower than normal, with a different beat, so I didn’t realise it was the same song until I recognised the lyrics. ‘Pencil full of Lead’ was not as we know it. It made it a unique experience, hearing these songs in ways that you hadn’t heard them before, and might not again.

He is generally an exceptionally good live singer. Many of his songs are full of passion and angst, and all that came across a thousand-fold live. His latest album has a lot of very soulful, bluesy tracks which were wonderfully intense and evocative in the flesh. The whole crowd were completely swept up, and he knew it too – he kept thanking us all for being there and applauding us when we applauded him. Apparently it’s the biggest gig he’s ever played and he said when he came on that he was ‘a little overwhelmed,’ but you’d never have guessed. Especially with the way he chose to end the concert. I assumed it was over because we’d already had one encore and the rest of the (excellent) band had already left the stage, after much bowing and applause. But then Paolo turned back and picked up his guitar, and asked if we had time for one or two more. Er, obviously. Even if it meant another five trains and seven buses to get home. So he ended with two acoustic guitar performances, finishing with the never-endingly excellent Last Request. I’ve been listening to his albums all week since, and I just don’t get tired of these songs. His lyrics are absolutely beautiful.

So there is my very amateur review. In fact I think review is a stretch, it’s just a list of adjectives. But not once have I mentioned how he looked or how he was dressed, or the division of genders making up the crowd. I don’t personally see why they are relevant, but this woman writing for The Guardian disagrees, not touching on his performance so much as his good looks and the fact the audience was predominantly female. Apparently there was a ‘predictably hormonal’ response when he announced that one particular song was written for his mother – I actually thought the shrieking at that was fairly restrained. But she accuses him of ‘knowing what strings to pull,’ which you wouldn’t do if you were talking about someone who was ugly. And I think any artist announcing that a song is dedicated to their mother would get some vocal support.

I mean, obviously, the fact he is very attractive has an effect on the audience. But it doesn’t have an effect on the performance he’s giving, or the music he writes, and that is what she is supposed to be reviewing. I find it particularly annoying in this case because it’s often struck me how little Paolo Nutini uses his looks to sell his records. Look at his album covers. These Streets: vague, black and white pictures where you can barely tell who it is. Sunny Side Up: a cartoon-type drawing which bears a passing resemblance to him at best. And Caustic Love: another drawing making him look almost more animal than man. Why does she feel the need to bring his looks into it at every turn? If a male reviewer did that with a female artist, everyone would shout sexism.

Her conclusion was also stupid: that she can’t tell what he’s like as a person because he uses a lot of different musical and vocal styles in his performance, and therefore ‘Perhaps it’s better to enjoy him without asking too many questions.’ To me, the fact that there are such differences between his songs and even between different versions of the same song is what makes him such a remarkable artist, particularly to see live. Would she rather he sang the same type of song over and over for two hours? I get the impression that she has an idea of what he should be like, based on his general looks, and now he’s not really following the stereotype and she doesn’t know how to deal with it. It makes for a very irritating review which glosses over most of the best points about the concert. If any of you read it and thought, ‘Ugh. This Nutini guy sounds like a bit of a prat, having all these women just fawning all over him and mixing up too many different types of song and style in one concert. I think I’ll give it a miss,’ please ignore it. If you like his songs at all, go and see him live. I’ll be buying a ticket as soon as they’re released next time. If any of you want to come too, let’s go! But maybe we should travel there separately.