Anxiety and despair in 3 words

POETRY

A 45 RPM I wrote, which spins for about 14 seconds. It’s about stumbling back into life in Tonbridge after ten years in London, and all that’s meant over the last five years. I made it black and orange, as a kind of reflection of a one-way train ticket. Off the rails and onto the streets, but from where I live now, there’s a direct ThamesLink train line straight back to Catford…

Tonbridge Station Poem 6

If I’m eating my dessert with a teaspoon, please don’t give me a big spoon. I’m having a great time and I know what I’m doing.

The mended heart of Catford

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Where you’re from is not necessarily where you were born or spent your childhood, but where your heart is, and where you feel at home. Despite a comfortable upbringing in the country, I feel I’m more from London, specifically the borough of Lewisham, and Catford, SE6. That’s where my heart misses a beat…

catford-cat-702x336The Catford Cat (from LoveCatford)

At my recent benefits assessment, I was asked when my depression was originally diagnosed. That would be in 2011, after I was robbed at knifepoint in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham, a place otherwise full of pleasant memories. And in a way, even the attack wasn’t all bad. It was the start of everything going wrong and me losing all I had, but it redistributed people to where they better belonged.

A lot has happened in the last seven years and much has changed, most of all me. The last few weeks have been hectic, as I’ve been assessed by life and dealt with more changes, while making peace with where I am.

The benefits assessor asked me many probing questions, including what fuels my depression now. Mainly it’s guilt. I feel guilty about being a drunken, abusive, narcissistic sociopathic monster, and all the upset I caused so many people, during and after; most of all my long-suffering ex-wife and my children, but also my parents, forced to kick me out on the streets when I became unmanageable at the last chance saloon. That was the greatest act of bravery on their part, but the world didn’t want me the way I was. On the streets I’d either die like that or get better. As it was, I was a Tory. But as some of my more liberal friends have observed, I was very sick.

Mum stopped watching Pointless when I was on the streets, because we used to watch it together. When I stayed at my parents’ last week, after helping them around London for dad’s latest assessment, we watched Pointless together again. Dad’s doing well, so much so that I can write about it now that we’re seeing an improvement.

Long story short, he had suspected hydrocephalus, requiring a surgical drain of fluid which had built up around his cerebellum. He ended up with a severe infection which hospitalised him for three weeks, then had intravenous antibiotics administered by a district nurse at home for three months. He was very sick indeed.

When I met mum and dad for lunch before our trip to London, the first thing which struck me was how dad’s face matched his jumper. It was light brown in colour, where before there was nothing but grey. The last time I saw him, he was confined – physically and mentally – to his armchair. Even though he’s still largely confined to a wheelchair, he’s getting his mind back and he’s starting to walk short distances. He says he wakes up now and looks forward to the day, where before he was waking up and not knowing where he was, only to realise he wasn’t dead and that another day threatened.

After a day of trundling then watching TV together, my dad said it was great to have me around, because he knew that I was now. It was great to be there, spending time with my parents now that so much has changed for all of us (and brought all but my obstinate sister closer). Before I went to bed that night, I apologised about all that had gone before, when I was a Tory. “That’s all in the past,” mum said. If only they were.

The last time I saw the kids, I made a heartfelt apology to my ex-wife. “What for?” She knows of course, but she’s speaking from an over-it position, where I can’t get over it. I don’t swan around in life, happy with where I’ve got to. I spend every day feeling guilty about everything I did when I was drunk, looking at the little I have but glad to be here (alive), and glad that everyone else is in a better place. Except me.

Which ought to be enough for my remaining detractors (friends who are very much no longer, or still Tories), but they won’t rest until I’m gone. Even then I’m familiar with the technique of haunting. While I’m still here, I’ve changed into something those people don’t recognise.

Now I’m a left-wing liberal socialist, embracing diversity and all the colour and variety of life, music, art, culture, history, and personal identity you find in the kind of place where I’m at home. I’m an ageing punk, but from the days when Carnaby Street was all independent clothes, records and accessories shops. Now I’m a bit queer.

Home was once a country to be proud of, when the London Olympics showed the world what the UK could be. Now we’re a nation divided by fascist politicians, but the resistance is coming soon, on the streets where my heart beats.

I’m squared with the people who matter in my life, my family and the friends who stuck around and forgave me, even if I can’t. As for the rest, I don’t care if they love or hate me: If they love me, I have a place in their heart. If they hate me, I trouble their mind.

I’m from Catford after all.

peace-rainbow
‘I love my hands!’ (Academy of Ancient Reflexology)

 

Getting the hang of Wednesdays

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Days like these are the worst, when you wish for the emptiness of the vacuum which is a typical day with depression. These atypical days are filled with thoughts. My mind is always full, which is why I suffer insomnia, but these thoughts are the darkness escaping the vacuum. For Arthur Dent, it was Thursdays he couldn’t get the hang of, where most of my problems seem to haunt me on Wednesdays.

Arthur and MarvinHeroes of fantasy and sci-fi (Stark After Dark)

I’m looking at everything ahead and I can’t see any bright horizon, just the red glow of dusk. The optimist and the pessimist have no control over an outcome, but the optimist has the better time leading up to it. As low as I’m feeling today, the optimist is a far-away stranger in that crimson landscape.

As the Marmite filling of my family’s generational sandwich, my main thoughts are with either slice of bread. Thankfully my eldest seems to be over the worst of his recent derailment (when you’re 13, you’re just looking for somewhere to go off the tracks), which means my dad is an even greater focus.

His health isn’t improving. Long story short, he was getting a bit forgetful, culminating in him forgetting where he lived one night when he was out in his car (alone). After much debate with mum, I phoned the police. I knew someone was always going to be “The one who…” and seeing as I’m usually assumed to be, I didn’t break with stereotype. The police picked him up and got him home safely, but he subsequently had to surrender his driving license.

The whole family was disrupted as a result, and my dad’s lost a great deal of his freedom and liberty. The memory thing was found to be a build up of fluid around the base of dad’s brain. It wasn’t a degenerative condition and a simple drain should alleviate the problem.

He was admitted to hospital and the procedure was initially deemed a success. Trouble is, a succession of setbacks followed, as dad developed an infection which required intravenous antibiotics, prolonging his stay in hospital. Eventually when he returned home, he took a fall down the stairs. I can’t help thinking that I’m “The one who…”

You wouldn’t expect someone to get better after all that, but the old man’s still with us, albeit never fully recovered from the initial diagnosed condition because of these complications. Mum and dad have made adaptations to their house, but dad longs to get back to tending his garden. I’ve suggested it might be quite nice to let it meadow a bit, to attract some wildlife, which dad also loves. It’s about quality of life now, and he’s probably got some years in him yet if he’s kept engaged by people and things around him.

Which all serves to reduce the importance of my own issues, which are short-term, relatively speaking. At worst (ever the pessimist), I’ll have my PIP application declined as it was the last two times. I have no reason to think otherwise, as despite claims that mental disability is given equal consideration to physical restrictions, mental illness remains invisible. Yes, I can walk a short distance to a local shop. I have legs which work and I don’t require a physical aid to walk. Sometimes though, the anxiety and paranoia are such that I simply don’t attempt it. That can’t be seen when you’re asked to walk up and down in front of an assessor.

If my application is declined, then I’ll appeal at tribunal, as I did the last two times, and both times I won. It hardly seems worth putting me through it, but I suspect there’ll be another attempt at social cleansing by wearing me down in the hope I give up. I didn’t the last two times.

So the worst case scenario is I’ll have my benefits reduced throughout the appeal process, then reinstated and back-paid afterwards. I might just have to adjust to a lesser quality of life for a while. Then again, the ‘Medically-qualified’ PIP assessor might not be a midwife this time, they could be a psychiatrist or psychologist, who is more likely to confirm my various conditions, thereby sparing me the ordeal of the appeal process. If government out-sourcing fulfilled its function properly, a simple thing like appointing an appropriately qualified assessor would save the state considerable funds.

But it doesn’t work like that. The savings are made by getting claimants off of benefits, and subjecting them to an extended dehumanising process is one way of thinning out the numbers, when some people just don’t have it in them to fight. My last two appeal processes made me far more unwell than I’d been at the outset, but I didn’t succumb to the social cleansing machine.

Beyond the small sphere of me in my sandwich, there’s the world at large and plenty to worry about, not least of which is the rise of the right. Those of us on the left, and anyone who cares about the planet we all share, we need to find our voices. Fascists will not be reasoned with, so there’s little point trying to debate, negotiate and be democratic with the blinkered and socially-conditioned.

I’ve written of positive outcomes for humanity and our home, just as I’ve doomed them both in other stories, where the right’s solution is population reduction. Being an optimist or pessimist about such existential things might actually determine the outcome. At the end of it all, that thought strangely perks me up, as it’s more a duty than a choice.

I feel slightly more hopeful about the coming weeks and months now than I did when I started writing. Sometimes it’s nice to talk to myself as I type, just to relieve some pressure. It’s always been my only real therapy. Thanks for reading.

Going forward (can’t find reverse)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’m somewhat in limbo at the moment, part way through the dehumanisation process which is the biannual re-application for Personal Independence Payment (Daily Living Component only) on the grounds of having crippling depression and anxiety. I’ve been called for an assessment, a one-to-one consultation with an out-sourced medical professional (my last one was a midwife) to determine if I’m mental enough to be paid to stay out of society’s way.

oneflewovercuckoosnest-ratched-mcmurphy-700x330

I’ve not been writing much because my mind is focussed on the short-term. It’s difficult to concentrate on anything else when you’re fighting to keep the money you need to have any quality of life. I decided to take a trip to find ideas.

My favourite time to be alive was when I was 14, in 1984. Apart from being 14, it was an era which introduced me to the emergence of home computing, Steve Barron’s Electric Dreams, and aspirations of having a room like David Lightman’s in John Badham’s WarGames. He had a lock on his door and could connect to the early internet via dial-up and an acoustic coupler. Aged 48, I’ve managed to acquire more or less the same, but with more internet.

When you don’t go out much and you’re stuck for something to do, you can do far worse than take a wander around the entire universe which is online, beyond your bookmarks. Anything and everything is there to be discovered, away from the well-trodden paths.

Here’s a few I’ve happened upon today, starting with some personal exploration by way of translating my words into pictures with AI art: Type in some text and it will interpret it as art. It’s pretty shit, but it can be quite inspired (and disturbing). For starters I just typed in what I was, then what I was doing and what I wanted:

Writer sitting at desk   Writing science fiction   Dying to be heard
Left to right: “A writer sitting at a desk”, “Writing science fiction”, “Dying to be heard”

As I staggered from that virtual gallery, I found someone who’d stumbled upon a hidden computer museum. This little-known place hosts exhibits which were fundamental to the evolution of the computer, from 4000-year-old Mesopotamian tablets to computers of yesteryear, and the kind David Lightman and Miles Harding found so much life in:

Mesopetanian tablets         Computer Museum

I finished my little trip by taking in some more art. With OCD among my many labels, there are some sights which disturb me (Alphabetti running out of letters I need to make words on toast), and antidotes to erase memories of such things. There are video compilations of these little CGI perpetual motion machines on YouTube, and the dude who makes them is one Andreas Wannerstedt. He has an Instagram page, filled with dozens of examples of things like this:

After that brief stumble up the internet corridor, I’d have liked someone to hug when I got home. I once lived on the streets, where love and fear are never far apart. I was ready to laugh at this guy, because I’ve become (in some ways) reconditioned to life with a roof. How quickly we forget not to be too quick to judge, as Catfish Cooley tells us so eloquently:

If I’m judged unfit for work in the upcoming PIP assessment, I’ll be able to get on with life again. I just wonder who’s fit to judge. The process is designed to reduce one’s will to live, but I won’t be a statistic in a government’s social cleansing exercise. While I can’t go out, I still have a virtual universe to traverse.

 

Slugs, snails and all things nice

THE WRITER’S LIFE

One of the many functions of depression is to kill your emotions. I and many other depressives have written about how we don’t feel down all the time, in most people’s understanding of the word, but that we have no emotion at all. Depression is not feeling sad, it’s a feeling of complete emptiness.

Balloon pop

The unexpressed emotions build up, and sometimes they all bubble over at once. When they do, we might suddenly become overwhelmed by (in my case) a feeling of guilt over past actions, and become inconsolable in our grief. Other times, we might realise – just for a fleeting moment – that all things considered, everything is okay. We’ll suddenly feel happy, and grateful of the life surrounding us, expressing ourselves by letting people know we love them, and that we appreciate what they do. It’s ‘the manics’, but when you’re also an alcoholic, people can assume you’re on something. It seems I can’t win, I’m not allowed to be happy, so I stop being it.

Social anxiety and paranoia are best mates with depression, imprisoning the afflicted, so they have plenty of time to think about life, the universe and everything, and everything just gets worse. It’s a self-perpetuating and degenerative condition. Apart from visits to the local Tesco every other day, my outings are limited to well-rehearsed known quantities, the monthly trip to Milton Keynes for a day with my children being one. This month was different, as we had a day out in London.

I’m fine with London. Even though it’s a mega-city, I feel more comfortable in the capital than I might in some remote village. It’s because I know London, I lived and worked there, and it’s where I’m from. I sometimes think that if I had the means to move back to the capital, my mental health might improve. On Saturday, I was okay, and the emotions which London evokes for me carried me through the day. It’s quite surreal when you’re not used to having feelings, like being carried around in someone else’s body, a haunting of the living, a possession.

I met the kids at 11 and we went for an early lunch, our thinking being that few others would be lunching at that time, and we were right. Our further thinking was that when we got to our first attraction at about 1 pm, most normal people would be having lunch. And we were right, as the London Transport Museum was sparsely populated when we arrived.

There’s only so much you can do with stationary vintage vehicles, and with the youngest in tow, we were bound to end up in the gift shop, which is rudely expensive: £60 for a sofa cushion (albeit one in Victoria Line seating material), and £40 for a magazine rack (ditto, Northern Line) being two examples. The littlest filled a bag with stationery in London Transport livery (and paid for it), then we set off for our next destination – The National Portrait Gallery – on foot.

The Portrait Gallery is hosting the BP Portrait Award, but before we troubled that, I took the kids on a whistle stop tour of the main National Gallery. Although they’ve been to London before, and to some of the paid attractions and national institutions, it was when they were very young. Neither could recall seeing a Leonardo da Vinci or a Vincent van Gogh, so that’s where we headed.

Leonardo_da_Vinci_Virgin_of_the_Rocks_(National_Gallery_London) Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_127
National Gallery, London

Carried along by my emotions, I was a little overcome standing in the presence of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. To be just inches from a painting, able to see the brush strokes made by da Vinci over 600 years ago, is a humbling position to find oneself in. There I was, standing only as far away from a priceless treasure as Leonardo did to paint it. Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers was a similarly belittling experience, and when we left I was grateful of some dust in the wind blowing through Trafalgar Square as I wiped my eyes.

I have a condition called Stendhal Syndrome, on top of all my others. It’s a psychosomatic disorder, manifesting in me as an emotional mental weakness or vulnerability. When I see or hear something beautiful, it evokes the same outpouring of various emotions as the manics or the guilt. I feel sad, but they’re tears of joy. It takes quite a lot to set me off, and it happened again pretty much as soon as we walked into the Portrait Award exhibition, when I saw this:

Bertha
Bertha (c) Jesus Maria Saez de Vicuña Ochoa

I did a double-take when I read the cue card next to it, which said it was oil on canvas. Up close and personal, it’s the kind of thing which stops you in your tracks and glues you to the floor.

My young companions were as into all of this as I was, if not quite so visibly moved by it all. Eventually it was time to feed their curious minds with Chinese food. They’d never been to Chinatown before, more used to eating oriental cuisine from take-away cartons, so dinner was a multi-sensory experience. Frankly, the food was mediocre at best, the service arrogant, and the prices bloated. Eating in Chinatown is more Russian roulette than I remember, but the kids enjoyed it, so I kept my mouth shut.

Of course, all good things must end, and so it was yesterday. As soon as the kids had headed off on their train, I got the most almighty emotional comedown. If I hadn’t been in London, with all that atmosphere keeping me going, I might have been tempted to play with the trains instead of riding one home.

In a few days I’ll be back to just feeling dead inside, but until then separation anxiety feels like I’ve had my chest ripped open and my heart pulled out. For a while last night, I perked up as I remembered all I’d done in the day. I texted someone and told them how happy and grateful I was to have had that day. They replied that I seemed to be acting oddly, and was I on something?

I wasn’t. I wasn’t under the influence of anything, just a brief feeling that life was okay, quickly popped like a balloon at the end of a party.

A hitch hiker’s guide to chemists

THE WRITER’S LIFE

“Space,” notes The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster2

As an anxious introverted recluse, I don’t get out much (even going to the chemist can take planning). I never travelled far in my life (to Belfast and the in-laws half a dozen times, and once each to France and Chicago) and my children have already both accumulated more air miles than me (visits to Belfast, school trips and holidays in Europe). I’ve travelled in space, like we all have, but I think about these things more than most.

At 48 years old, I’ve travelled around the sun 48 times, which is roughly 45,120,000,000 km or 28,032,000,000 miles (and counting). To my mind, that’s forty five thousand million km, but nowadays we call it 45 billion, when that’s not what it is. A billion (in maths) is a million million, just as a million is a thousand thousand. So I’ve travelled 45 ‘billion’ km, which is roughly the distance to Neptune and back, five times.

To put that into the perspective of the universe, it’s about 0.005 light years. So in 48 years, I’ve travelled as far as light does in 42 hours: Strange how that number crops up when you’re considering your place in the universal scheme of things. Even if I’d spent my life travelling at light speed (in which case, I wouldn’t have aged), I’d only recently have reached the nearest exoplanets outside our solar system.

That’s where humans need to go, to places like the Trappist system, about 41 light years away. But we are nowhere near ready or evolved to do more than contemplate the science we need to take us there, or to terraform and colonise the moon or Mars. For whatever future is foreseeable, we will remain a one-planet race, so we have to hope we find ways of getting along as a species and being nicer to our neighbours who were here first. Those are other blog entries, already written or on my mind.

I may not have travelled much on the surface of the planet but I appreciate where I’ve been while sitting on it. It’s humbling and often emotional to place ourselves relative to something else, in space or in time, to remind ourselves not how small we are, but how big everything else is. There’s a regular mind exercise I do, sometimes exploring ideas for stories, and other times just to remember or imagine.

I think of my age now (48), then I go back to a time when my dad was that age, which would be 1990, where I remember a lot about myself. I also think forward, to when my son will be 48 (2052) and imagine what might be going on then. But first, back to a time when problems seemed far away, when I was my son’s age (I was 13 in 1983).

Both are going through changes in their own lives at the moment, yet I can only relate to the younger one, who’s where I’ve been before. My dad is way ahead of me. At 76, he’s travelled that many times around the sun and clocked up just over 71 billion km, equivalent to five return trips to Pluto and just a tiny fraction nearer the closest habitable planets. I don’t see either of them as much as I’d like, because I don’t get out much.

I’ve just put myself through the first part of the human mincing machine which is the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) bi-annual re-assessment. Filling out the form, ‘How your disability affects you’ made me realise how my own mental health has declined over the last couple of years.

When you live a life of social exclusion, depression becomes degenerative. If I’m not fully dehumanised by the whole process, having to prove my mental disability at tribunal (for a third time), then maybe I’ll have the confidence to seek further treatment, now that I’ve seen with my own eyes how bad things can get by writing it all down in an application form. Then I could see more of people.

Just remember, next time you’re looking at the night sky: You’ve been there, about 300 million km away. The Earth passed through that part of space six months ago, but that’s like a walk to the chemist’s on the universal scale. In our singular worlds, we’re much more significant in time than we are in space.

Like a wave from a subway train

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There won’t be anyone to stop you if you’ve truly made up your mind, but no matter how bad it is, and how little people might seem to care, every lost life affects others. You’ll only be aware of the splash you make, not the ripples you create.”

Vincent SchiavelliVincent Schiavelli (‘Subway ghost’ in ‘Ghost’) at WarpedFactor.com

I was thinking about that last paragraph from my previous post, and recently watched an excellent documentary on BBC4, called The Secret Life of Waves. It dealt not only with sound and light waves, but poetically and philosophically with the waves on the ocean as metaphors for individual lives.

The programme posited the thought: Is the world around us static or dynamic? We as humans – as sentient, self-determining, conscious beings – are fluid within the world we occupy, but even that which we consider permanent is also in transit. It made my own life make sense, when it’s been so transient and turbulent.

Buildings are static, but they come and go, with fashion, with gentrification; abandoned, squatted, reclaimed, demolished; they are eroded by the waves of life. The building materials came from the Earth, inflicting upon it another scar of humanity, like every person passing through each place they lived, all leaving a mark.

Now I sit and write, very much aware of my place. I feel my own weight bearing down on my buttocks in the chair, and it’s gravity. It’s the world, pushing up beneath me as it travels through space at 50,000 miles an hour with me attached.

The planet is moving not just in space, but within. Mountains and landscapes form and grow, like mineral waves, titanic and slow. Ice caps melt, glaciers carve new canyons and continents shift, geologically. Up above, the geopolitical world is a surreal kaleidoscope of shifting sands and oil. All of these things are waves which have a beginning and an end, and we’re watching various speeds of transit.

We can blow the surface of still water and it will ripple. We can jump from a bridge, land with a splash and make bigger waves. We speak and we create sound waves, and simply by being, wavelengths of visible light allow us to be seen.

It’s a fundamental law of the universe that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, so all of those actions – conscious and not – are transfers of energy, from one form to another; potential energy within us creates kinetic energy in the waves we make. Eventually those waves break, like the ocean on the shore, moving and eroding the surface of the Earth as the energy is converted again and returned from whence it came.

And so it is with life. When a life ends, all the energy it contained is dispersed, like the breaking of a wave. Some of that force lives on, in ways we don’t yet understand when we leave our physical, organic bodies. And part of an individual’s energy will become the grief (or celebration) of others. We live on, beyond here, but there’s no place where life is a singularity. That was at the beginning, before the Big Bang, where all the energy in the universe came from. It’s still here and it always will be, because the force can’t be destroyed.

Back on Earth, it’s easier to ride the waves of life than creating the kind which might drown others. We all have a powerful weapon within us, an energy which could destroy our loved ones. It’s a big burden sometimes, but it would be selfish to unleash that on those less able to deal with it.

best-gary-zukav-quote-by-gary-zukav-1856173Gary Zukav

Don’t get carried along by the waves made by others, when you could otherwise channel their energy differently. Be careful who you surf with, and always wear sunscreen.