Loops of memory

I recently read the Derren Brown book Happy, which included some intriguing quotes from Douglas Hofstadter’s book I am a Strange Loop, prompting me to loan it from the local library. I’m now about a quarter of the way through. Both books have pushed me to start thinking about philosophy in ways I hadn’t previously – I always saw it as something too lofty and divorced from real life to be in any way useful – but now I am starting to apply it to ideas I was already interested in, about the mind and how it reacts, about mental illness and maintaining good mental health. The following post is about my recovery from a recent car accident, but is heavily informed by ideas from these two books – namely the ideas of confirmation bias and our self-narratives from Happy, and the discussion of feedback loops and memory and the existence of “souls” in physical objects from I am a Strange Loop.

It is only three weeks since the crash, so I am probably expecting too much of myself, but I still feel impatient to be “over it.” I believed that if I could get back in a car, and drive (which I have done) then that would be most of the problem solved. My anxiety has generally been rather worse, I have been struggling to relax properly, and lately I have been haunted by a strong feeling of sadness, making my default mood more depressed and low than I’ve been for a long time. None of this sounds hugely surprising when I type it out, but still I find myself surprised.

Until Monday of this week I had a hire car, provided by my insurance company, which was happily a dream to drive and went a long way to restoring some of my depleted confidence. Sadly my search to buy another car has thus far not been fruitful, due to a combination of factors. The first car I went to see was at some cowboy garage, and it had decidedly alarming brakes, which screeched at the lightest tough and brought you to such a sudden stop you felt you were about to be thrown through the windscreen. I drove it for about two minutes before returning it and dumping it in the middle of the forecourt. Just those two minutes made me nervous of driving at all, and made me far less eager to drive very far to view any more cars. I saw a couple of vehicles at a local garage I know and trust, but the ones they had were either too small or too expensive for the wishlist I had drawn up for myself. I am now in the state of wanting a car, but not being able to look at cars because I don’t have a car to get to them in, and even if I did hire a car to go and look at a car, if I wanted to buy said car I wouldn’t be able to drive it and the hire car home. My partner doesn’t drive and I don’t know anyone where I live well enough to want to ask them to do me the favour of driving me twenty miles to see a car, which may in all likelihood have kangaroo-jumping brakes at a garage run by an adolescent with the sales acumen of a damp sock. I am also uncomfortable at the idea of having other people in the car with me at present, and feel better driving alone. This isn’t just due to the practicalities of being able to focus better when I am on my own, but also because the majority of my thinking after the accident was about how close I came to inflicting injury on other people. Particularly my partner, but also the innocent people driving around me. Thoughts of what could have happened to me personally did not feel so important.

Aside from the practicalities that come with having my own car, I feel it is a necessary step in my recovery from the accident. Others may be surprised when I say that apart from the nerves and negative memories of the accident, I also feel very sad at the loss of my car. It was the first car I had owned since passing my test, which I’m sure makes a big difference, although perhaps some people always feel attached to their cars. I felt “sorry for it” when I was staring at its smashed-up front on the motorway, and seeing other fully whole silver Renault Clios since has given me painful twinges, which are entirely divorced from the horror of what might have been, and are only connected to feeling bad for the car itself. In the same way as I might feel sad after the end of a relationship when I visit places I went to with that person, I have felt sad revisiting places I drove to in my old car. Of course, I am aware that these feelings are not bound up in attributing reciprocating emotions to a lump of metal and plastic and glass, but are connected to my own feelings at those times, the feelings of anxiety and triumph and happiness at driving somewhere I wanted to get to, and doing it successfully. The greatest of these was the longest drive I’ve ever done, to Somerset, in May, when I drove myself and my partner there to one of my favourite places on earth. Since the accident, looking at pictures of that holiday has also made me feel sad. The memories are tainted: whereas before, that beautiful place felt so much closer to me because I knew I could drive there whenever I wanted, it now feels so much further away, knowing that it will take time and effort to get my confidence back up to a place where I can drive there – but also gaining the confidence and trust of my partner so that he would be happy for me to drive him there again.

People get emotionally attached to physical objects from cars to jewellery to books to mugs to almost anything you can think of. In most cases it is the emotions we feel when we are around those physical things that we are attached to, or the pleasure that comes from looking at something we find beautiful, and knowing that it is ours and we can take it where we like. Or they have sentimental value and remind us of people or places we cherish. In my case, with my car, I am sad to have lost the feelings of freedom and overcoming my own mental anxiety when driving, but also the grown-up-ness of having my own car, and keeping my things in it; I hadn’t yet got past the novelty of it and still enjoyed seeing my CDs and bits and pieces strewn about the car, making it mine. I cleaned it regularly, much to the amusement of my neighbours when I cleaned it in very cold temperatures, and would glance at it in its parking space every morning out of the window and every evening as I came back to my front door. The empty space outside is a constant reminder to me at the moment, not only of the absence of my sweet reliable little car, but also of my own failure. Although everyone says the accident could have happened to anyone and it wasn’t my fault, I have an idea of myself as a not particularly skilled driver, so it is easy to match this narrative with me crashing a car due to my own incompetence.

We constantly create these stories of our own lives, and because they are reinforced by our own selective memories of ourselves and of things that have happened to us, they are very difficult to change. We use confirmation bias – seeing things that reinforce that story and explaining away those that don’t – on a daily basis. And we unknowingly create endless loops of memory, thought and story which keep certain ideas alive, even if we don’t want to keep thinking about them. For example, at the moment, looking at the pictures of Somerset in my living room creates this loop: Somerset -> driving to Somerset in May -> crashing on the motorway -> I am a failure. Depending on our own internal stories, these stories tend to be positive or negative. Mine are often negative. I have endless feedback loops which remind me of stupid things I’ve said and done, or little nuggets of information my partner has given me about his exes which I’m sure he’s long since forgotten. For example, people who talk a lot are often called ‘chatty Kathys’ in North America, something I hadn’t heard until I started going out with my Canadian partner. Now, whenever he says it, this is what my brain does: “Chatty Kathy” -> Ex called Cathleen was called Cathy by her parents -> she disliked it and my partner thought it was a stupid shortening of the name (I disagree, it seems perfectly reasonable to me). Every time. It is exhausting, but an almost impossible cycle to break. I’ve also noticed this as a somewhat irritating reaction of mine when watching films, as obviously the same thing happens every time I watch the same film, and my brain has the same thought automatically when I watch it. For example, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Elrond says at the council: “One of you must do this” (take the ring to Mordor) my reflex response is to say: “Don’t all volunteer at once!!” It isn’t a particularly funny or interesting comment the first time I make it, so I feel sorry for the people I watch it with who hear me say it every time.

Of course, memories get replaced with new ones and some of these feedback loops will change over time. Once I get a new car (somehow) I will create new memories to replace the old ones, and one day I will drive myself back to Somerset, and lay that demon to rest. Perhaps I will still feel sad about the loss of my old car, but I’m sure it’s normal to continue to feel sad for the loss of a physical thing, especially if it’s something you had tied to a new and still-delicate version you had of yourself. You’ll also be glad to hear I’ve stopped saying “don’t all volunteer at once!!” when I watch Lord of the Rings. Other reflex thought reactions are more difficult to replace: it may take a long time for me to build a narrative of myself as a competent and even good driver. But one of the things that I find especially fascinating about the brain is its malleability: we can train and exercise it in certain ways the same way as we can other parts of the body. Over time, what feels now to be incessant and inescapable can slowly change.

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Working Out the Gym

Over the last few months, I’ve taken up going to the gym. I can hear the eyes roll and the bored sighs from here. People hate people going to the gym – until recently I was one of those people, and honestly I would also sigh and roll my eyes at a blog post about going to the gym. Stick with it, my friends. Hopefully it will be faintly informative, or at least faintly funny.

I started going because I have an ongoing issue with the nerve in my right elbow, due to the amount of time I spend sitting at a computer. Three physiotherapists have asked me if there’s anything I can do at my job that doesn’t involve a computer – the answer is no. Perhaps I need to retrain as a shepherd or a taxi driver to avoid the problem. But in the meantime, my solution is to go to the gym to try and release the tension that runs from neck to shoulder to wrist and back again.

The gym is a fascinating place to observe human behaviour. It is at the same time an intensely private and completely public place to be. People are frequently half-dressed, or in clothes so tight-fitting they may as well be half-dressed. Men with shoulders the size of their heads stride around calling to each other, obviously at home and at ease. Women run on the treadmills with their headphones in, making no eye contact. I am one of these – I avoid looking any other people in the eye, mainly for fear of judgement. I am blessed with a slight physique, so don’t have to worry about people thinking I’m too heavy to be in a gym (which is, by the way, a completely bizarre piece of logic) but I worry anyway about being judged on my appearance or abilities – and on being compared to other women.

There is one woman who goes to my local gym who is pretty, petite and blonde. She wears a crop top and leggings, showing off a lovely figure. She does do some exercise in the gym but she also spends a lot of time chatting to the guys with shoulders the size of their heads. It’s a proper flirt party in the middle of a gym. Once, she was doing some kind of squats while kneeling on the floor – fair enough – but was pausing for minutes at a time in between sets to chat to the guys while rocking back and forth on all fours. For heaven’s sake – just grab your favourite and take him home for a romp in the sack.

I feel bad for judging her. I shouldn’t really, and honestly she only really annoys me when she’s hogging some equipment I want while doing her flirting workout. Obviously, the main reason she makes me feel bad is because she makes me feel unattractive, with my unwashed hair (I’ll never understand people who shower BEFORE going to the gym) and my already modest chest squashed a little flatter thanks to sports crop tops. I act aloof among the men at the gym, rejecting them before they can reject me. I’m quite sure they don’t notice and don’t care even if they do notice, however. While I’m feeling insecure and worrying about people watching me, most of the people at the gym are entirely focussed on themselves.

I mostly do weights stuff at the gym, trying to strengthen my arms and back to take the pressure off my arm. The weights area is lined with mirrors, which are sometimes useful to make sure you’re straight and centred, but which personally I hate because it brings my attention back to my appearance instead of my performance. If I’m not in front of a mirror, I’m in front of screens playing music videos (without the sound, the music is something else) which infuriate and depress me in equal measure as the women bounce around and stretch and make sexy faces at the camera. Why on earth would anybody find me attractive, I think, after staring at them for five minutes, getting up to do something else, and trying to surreptitiously wipe sweat marks from my hands or back or arse off the equipment.

I’m really selling it, aren’t I. Of course the point of going to the gym isn’t to judge yourself and come out feeling like a bag of manure. It’s to take control of your body and push yourself and feel the difference, in fitness or strength. In the media, for women it’s always about losing weight or getting toned, which I hope is slowly beginning to change as the world and her mother push the benefits of exercise, quite apart from any weight loss. Even though I’m not really going to the gym to lose weight, I am still (clearly) thinking too much about how I look while I’m there. I read this article this week about taking exercise in a body positive way, which has some great tips. I went to the gym after reading it but tried to ignore everyone else, view myself with detachment instead of negativity, and focus on how my body felt and on whether I could push myself to do a little more. It worked, and I set some new personal bests.

For my partner, going to the gym is very useful for his mental health. It’s a pure, uncomplicated feeling for him. He enjoys going through motions, going through routines, and appreciating the complexity of simple exercises. Doing things properly requires focus, and practise. He says although our stereotypes are of meatheads in the gym, they are good at what they do and often I see them helping each other with exercises, making me think they are just nice normal guys even if seeing them in the gym I’m tempted to stereotype them as dull and narcissistic. In a way, the gym is an entirely judgement free zone, because whatever anyone thinks of you you’re unlikely ever to hear about it. You are all strangers. I see the same people, I’m sure, but I’ve realised how little attention I pay to them, because I can never remember whether I’ve seen them before or not. As much as you may think people are watching you and laughing behind their hands, it’s in your head. It’s a natural thing to think, because that’s how we’re wired – to think people are hyperaware of our mistakes and completely oblivious to our successes. For me, that’s how I think of myself, not how other people think of me, and I need to get out of the habit of projecting those negative thoughts into other people’s minds.

So gyms may be a bit strange and a bit intimidating and some might say a little dull, but they are also fascinating and interesting and fun places to find out what your body can do. There are people doing every type of workout, and it’s entirely up to you what you work on and why. I like that freedom, and at its best it feels like you’re a child again at one of those play centres – although without the ball pit, thank goodness, because as an adult they’re impossible to get out of. People might go there for different reasons, but remember that you don’t actually have to give any of them a moment’s thought. They are all there for themselves, and you’re there for yourself too.

Radical self-care part 2: Not Giving a F**k

Last week I mentioned that as part of my resolution to engage in radical self-care, thereby protecting my own mental health, I was going to read Sarah Knight’s book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k.’ Thanks to the speed of online ordering (not from Amazon, I hasten to add: I refuse to buy books from Amazon now) and the fact I am a very fast reader, I have already finished said book. It’s amazing and I’m going to share its basic concepts with you, as well as a list of some of the things which I, personally, do not give a fuck about.

The basic premise of the book is that you should be spending less time you don’t have, doing things you don’t want to do, with people you don’t like. By deciding what you do and don’t give a fuck about, and compiling a ‘Fuck Budget,’ you can spend less time, energy and money on things that annoy, and use that time, energy and money on things that bring you joy. Knight divides your Fuck Budget into four different areas:

  • Things and concepts
  • Work
  • Strangers, acquaintances and friends
  • Family

For each you make a list of things to do with that topic that you just don’t give a fuck about, and then later work out whether you can not give a fuck about those things without hurting people’s feelings. Of course, some things are much easier to not care about than others, and you have to be careful at all times to be polite and honest without going over the line into the ‘Asshole Quadrant.’

I don’t want to deprive her of book sales by going into the details of how you achieve not giving a fuck about all these things, and as I only finished reading it a couple of hours ago I can’t tell you yet how well it works in practice. However, I have already mentally discarded several things or events that do not fit into my Fuck Budget, and just deciding to let go and not care about whole lists of things is fun and invigorating. By carrying out Knight’s NotSorry Method, I’m feeling stronger and like I’ll have more time and energy to take care of myself and do the things that I genuinely enjoy. Yay!

So, here is a sample list of things about which I, personally, give zero fucks. Most of these come under the heading of ‘things and concepts’ – by far the easiest category because, in general, not giving a fuck about these things affects nobody but you.

  1. What other people think. I’m actually still working on this one, but Knight insists that it has to be on the list otherwise all those fucks you save by not going out to parties you don’t want to go to with people you don’t like will be wasted on feeling guilty for not going to said parties, just in case somebody noticed your absence and cared on some level. In my experience, this is, in any case, unlikely.
  2. Organic wine. I’ve tried it, it’s nasty. I’m going to waste no more fucks worrying about whether I’m a good person by not drinking it.
  3. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I know this is controversial because so many people love him, but I tried to read Love in the Time of Cholera and I just couldn’t get through it. I’m giving zero fucks about not wanting to read any more of his books.
  4. Political theory. When I arrived at university for my Masters I found that I’d missed a memo on doing at least an A Level if not a degree in political theory. And reading Foucault’s entire back catalogue. I tried but I just don’t give a fuck about any of it. Most of it sounds either so narrow as to be useless except in very specific cases, or so blindingly obvious I don’t understand why anybody felt the need to write a book (or several) on it. Perhaps I’m missing something, but really, zero fucks given.
  5. Dietary/alcohol intake/what does and doesn’t give you cancer advice from the government and various experts. I am sick to the back teeth of articles telling me what I should and shouldn’t be eating, and what is and isn’t going to kill me, and whether it’s okay to drink wine on a Tuesday but only if it’s a full moon and only as long as you then don’t drink ‘til the following month. FUCK OFF. When did we stop being trusted to realise what generally is and isn’t good for us, and act accordingly? The amounts of time, energy and money I will save by giving zero fucks about this is at stratospheric levels.
  6. Apple merchandise. Enough. I get it, it’s pretty. But it breaks like all technology, stop pretending it’s magic.
  7. I’m actually looking forward to the next fad so people can stop telling me to eat kale. It’s nasty and I don’t want it. (See also no.5.)
  8. The nuclear threat from Iran/North Korea/any country that America etc. have deemed too “uncivilised” to be allowed to hold a stick to have some defence against the bigger bullies in the playground. This is doubly useful as something to save fucks on as there is also bugger all I can do about the nuclear capabilities of any of these places. I could read all the news items and absorb the rhetoric that all these nasty barbarians are going to try and kill me, but really, it seems pretty unlikely so I just don’t want to spend a fuck on it.
  9. Conversations about TV programmes I haven’t seen. The list of things that have come out in the last several years that I haven’t seen includes but is not limited to: Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, Grey’s Anatomy, The Killing, The Wire, The Sopranos, The West Wing, Lost, True Detective, Dexter, Homeland, Parks and Recreation (although I wouldn’t mind seeing that), and Downton Abbey past series 1. As you can tell I give few fucks about keeping up with recent ‘must-see’ programmes. This means I give no fucks about conversations about any of these programmes. If you insist on talking about them at length in my presence then please don’t be offended if I check my phone, stare into space or go for an extended bathroom break. Telling me I’m “really missing out” will be met with death stares. Sorry NotSorry.
  10. Anybody’s opinion on whether I should or should not have children, including the opinions of friends, family and the media at large. I am tired of being asked if I’m broody, or being told that when I hit 30 I’m going to suddenly desperately want a baby. I feel like I’m waiting anxiously for a stealth attack from my own ovaries. I’d love to know for just a day, or a week, what it’s like inside a man’s head without this sodding pressure to think about children, and whether you want them, and just in case you do, to plan for the degeneration of your own body. I’m resolving to give no fucks about this from now on, and set up a zero-fucks barrier against all baby-related propaganda.

I feel like I’m taking better care of myself already.

I hope you’ve all had a good first ten days of 2016! And apologies for this post to anybody who had ‘resolutions/any New Year new you bullshit’ on their ‘Things I don’t give a fuck about’ list (Hi Emma!).

Resolutions and radical self-care

Last year I wrote a post about New Year’s Resolutions, looking back on what I had and hadn’t accomplished from the 2014 list. I have lost the proper list I made for 2015, which is probably for the best as I think most of them were extremely vague or fairly odd. As always at this time of year there is a lot of chat about what resolutions mean and whether or not they’re helpful. When I’ve asked people what theirs are, there are all the classics like ‘go to the gym more’ (one resolution for 2015 I do remember, go swimming or cancel the membership, is sadly still on my list for 2016) but others were different and often very specific. My favourite so far is someone’s resolution to watch all the Star Wars films, as he’d never seen any of them. That’s nice and easy, although I’m sure he’ll need a few drinks or a Jar Jar Binks dartboard to get through The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.

I’ve also seen various alternatives to resolutions which I’ve found interesting. One was to find a word for 2016 which would guide you through the year. This is through Susannah Conway’s website, which has some really interesting and useful pieces on it. I haven’t found my word yet, and I feel like it might be difficult at the end of the year if you want to try and measure your success rate. But then maybe that’s one of the less helpful things about resolutions: if you haven’t ticked them all off, you feel like a failure, even if in other ways your year was very successful. Just because I didn’t make fishcakes last year (strange resolution) doesn’t mean 2015 wasn’t a success. A website called moodnudges.com had a potentially more helpful and healthy way of looking back on the last year – an Old Year’s Revelation. The idea is you look back over your past year and find the one thing you are most grateful for. This at least has the benefit of highlighting the positive.

I really only have one major resolution for 2016, but I think it’s going to be broad enough to encompass almost everything. I follow a woman on facebook called Laci Green, who posts fantastic videos explaining a lot of different topics, including what ‘Intersex’ means and Condom Tips for the Ladies. She hasn’t been posting so much for a while as she was suffering from some mental health issues, but she’s recently said that she’s feeling much better after taking a break and practising ‘radical self-care.’ This is a term I’ve read elsewhere in the last few weeks and both times what was meant by ‘radical self-care’ wasn’t explained. I found this frustrating until I realised that self-care probably means different things to different people, and I need to come up with my own ways to care for myself and feel better. The last few months I’ve been suffering more with anxiety, and been in and out of depressive moods, which I thought were just blips until someone pointed out that I’d been low more often than I was up for quite a while. I needed to evaluate where I was going wrong and what I could do to give myself some help.

I haven’t got a fully-fledged plan yet for how I’m going to do this, except that I need to make time to exercise and also make more time for writing, which has been neglected lately. I have ordered a book which I’m hoping will be my guidebook for practising radical self-care, called The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k, by Sarah Knight. I am a terrible people-pleaser, to the point that sometimes I genuinely can’t work out what I want to do because other people’s wants are encroaching too much on how I think. I am also highly empathetic, so I can often tell what people might want me to do even if they think they’re being subtle about it, and have a habit of trying to mind read which can backfire as I will normally assume people are thinking the worst, and often they’re not. This all means that I struggle to put my own needs first, because I haven’t defined what they are, and only realise too late that I’m doing something I’d rather not be doing. The subtitle of this new book is: ‘How to stop spending time you don’t have with people you don’t like doing things you don’t want to do.’ I definitely need this. I am often astonished by other people saying no to things I wouldn’t be able to say no to for fear of hurting someone’s feelings or altering their opinion of me, or people asking for things they want and need without tiptoeing around or saying ‘just’ or ‘maybe’ thirty-seven times. The book is winging its way to me as we speak, and I will let you know who I get on and whether it’s useful.

The only other definite thing I’ve thought of in terms of practising radical self-care is turning off facebook more often. I find it exhausting, the constant barrage of negative news and the pictures of people apparently having so much more fun and being so much more productive than I am. It puts my brain in a strange sort of trance, where I’m not really focussing or taking anything in but not in a relaxing way, more in a way that makes me feel strained and anxious when I stop. Of course, sometimes facebook and other social media pages are useful for links to interesting sites or funny pages, but in many ways they just aren’t useful, especially because they encourage you to have a shorter and shorter attention span. I’m hoping to use facebook in particular less and less this year, and escape that odd compulsion to check my news feed just because I can: if I’m away and have limited internet I find I do not miss it at all, which I think is very telling.

I’m hoping that by setting more boundaries for myself and deciding what I need to feel good, I’ll feel more confident and successful this year than I did last year. I don’t exercise good practice when it comes to measuring my own success, as I am a perfectionist and likely to berate myself for very small things. During my Masters it was easy, in my head, to measure my success: I got given grades every few weeks which told me if I was successful or not. Of course, academic grades aren’t a very good way to measure your self-worth, as they only cover something so specific. I placed very tough expectations on myself to keep improving where improvement wasn’t possible, or to be perfect where perfect wasn’t attainable. At work I feel like I need to find my own way of measuring my success, something I am still working out but which makes me feel quietly confident. I’m also thinking of ways of widening my perception of what makes me successful, and counting up all the things that I discount about myself but which are actually worth their weight in gold. I tend to assume that things I find easy are things everyone finds easy, even when other people tell me that this isn’t the case.

Whatever resolutions you make, or don’t make, I hope 2016 is a successful one for you, by whatever terms you measure success. Take care of yourselves.