A smoked salmon bagel of doubt

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I find it difficult to be open about my anxiety and depression, to speak and express myself freely (outside of fiction), because like many others, I find it confusing and contradictory. Mental illness is a cocktail as unique as the vessel which carries it, so I don’t expect people to understand me when I misunderstand and contradict myself.

During Mental Health Awareness Week, remember the friends who say “Always here…” Because who would welcome that kind of call?

When all you need is to talk to someone, you don’t wish to be a burden, especially at 3am. You want people to call you. But how are they to know you’d welcome the distraction?

Depression is like leprosy. It’s a paradox of our humanity.

Fine not fine

The saying goes that a problem shared is a problem halved, but I believe it’s the saddling of an unsolicited burden, like much of my fiction. The salmon of doubt, the smell of fish…

When a real-life friend recently posted a #MentalHealth message on Facebook, I was grateful but confused. Thankful that someone had posted something I wouldn’t, but unsure of how to respond. I’m not one to follow instructions, least of all when a copy-and-paste request is so generic in such a complex field. So I’ve copied and pasted it here:

Anxiety sucks. Being isolated and believing your friends don’t care sucks even more.

How many of you have had a night out planned, or arranged coffee or a beer with friends and suddenly the 4 walls you inhabit seem the only safe haven because it’s the only place you don’t have to pretend you are ok, so you cancel?

Or when you are invited out you tell them how terribly sorry you are but you’re already booked up that weekend, when you are actually just really busy holding it together in your safe box. And so the first problem starts, all by itself.

People stop asking you and the isolation that at first wasn’t true becomes your only truth.

Please don’t give up on your friends. Ring them, go round, even when they don’t want you to. Because they really do they just don’t know how to say it.

And in work every passing comment is a negative, you constantly do more to get over the feeling you’re not good enough. The exhaustion from not sleeping because you panic all night over what you cannot influence means you make mistakes, you live in a fog and it is a vicious circle.

I’m going to make a bet, without being pessimistic, that out of my Facebook friends that less than 5 will take the time to put this on their wall to help raise awareness of and for those who have mental health difficulties. You just have to copy it from my wall and paste it to yours.

Who will be my 5 … I wonder?

Yeah, damn straight. But I wasn’t one of any arbitrary number, because although I’m everything in that post, I’m also more. And who am I to post on my own timeline when it’s parts of me which are buried in there? Why ask people to check their other friends are okay while overlooking me? No point sending them on a guilt trip they wouldn’t otherwise have known, and I know what those are like when I live every day with many. Little point in burdening them. But I did reply:

Asking us to copy and paste about mental health seems very well-meaning, but the trouble is, not many of us with anxiety will actually copy and paste, for fear of being ignored, but at the same time not wanting to attract attention we can’t escape. I know I won’t, and neither will I post it as a stand-alone, for the same reasons. That’s anxiety, and depression, and paranoia: socially crippling. Thanks for sharing what I can’t explain though…

My friend then posted his thread, and my reply, on my timeline. Again it was of the best intentions, a plea to my friends whom I’m loath to trouble, especially when some still don’t understand addiction, and can find no sympathy for someone who – as far as they’re concerned – put themselves where they are. It was sharing problems which I didn’t fully understand in myself. That more public post by proxy would have been more like a plea for help, which I know no-one can provide, because there’s no cure. It’s not one I would make on behalf of myself.

Hello Hi How are you

This quieter way of sharing is where I’m more comfortable, just telling a few friends, who for some reason come here to see what I’ve written. I prefer the semi-secret society of blogging, keeping it on a need-to-know basis, while still wearing the heart tattooed on my left hand. Anything more public would fill me with an inner anxiety that everyone might run away, or become obsessed about how many may respond. Based on previous best intentions, those who do are rarely ‘always there for you’ when you need them.

Friends have offered to come over in the past, even take me out somewhere quiet. I was grateful, then backed out as the date approached, but not kicking unwanted attention away any more than I’m happy in my own company. Both are uncomfortable, and I don’t want to subject anyone else. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Others let me down after promising to come over, and in a way it was a relief, because it’s one less person to try to explain to, what I don’t understand.

That shared post might have looked like I was asking for help, but afraid to do so directly, so I’d appointed a spokesperson to speak about what I couldn’t. And I didn’t want those who still judge to think I was asking for financial help, nor anyone for somewhere to go at Christmas, because if I couldn’t be with my family (kids or parents), I wanted to be alone, watch Jimmy Stewart and eat cheese. I deleted the post, just as Christmas was cancelled for me anyway. This too shall pass.

I’m making the same point here as I did by not sharing on Facebook: I want to talk about it; I can’t talk about it. I have a smaller, less judgemental audience here, who won’t patronise me, say they’ll come over sometime, or always be there. At least I know they’re more likely to listen with their eyes.

If I had a live audience, I could talk for hours about how depression, anxiety, paranoia and all the rest affect me, because it’s such a mix I’m always trying to make sense of by speaking to myself: Sorry you can’t get through, and neither can I. But I’ll get back to you, probably in fiction. There I can find my inner confidence and contradict myself about being too shy to talk about it, so I close down and resist the exposure everywhere else.

I can write, and maybe one day unpack what’s inside my head, this post, and that last sentence, about why I fear to be out while placing myself in full view. It’s partly because I have to edit the weight of the burden, leaving myself with all the untold narrative in my head. When memories are forgotten, they become stories. But some stories can’t be written, because they’re still practising to become memories.

So many molehills in my mind, and from the outside that’s all they are. But I walk like Hannibal on eggshells, around a tower of giraffes (because it’s a better collective noun than a herd of elephants) in a mountainous range with many volcanoes. One day, all of this will make sense.

Not doing it wrong cows

It’s all in the mind, of course. A very lonely place to be with only your own thoughts.

I was there once. I was on Brick Lane and I had a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, with a squeeze of lemon and a grind of black pepper. I got a coffee too, and I had brunch on a doorstep in E1.

Some people really are right here, and they don’t mind those calls. You can’t catch a disease over the phone.

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Fava beans and a nice Chianti

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The best friendships are those where time and distance become irrelevant. You can continue a conversation where you left off, even if you’re on opposite sides of a planet. I have few friends, but the ones I have are like this. I could invite them all to dinner and have ample seating for them in my studio. I can’t help thinking that most people have fewer true friends than they realise when they’re measured like that.

Fava bean and ChiantiLiver and fava bean risotto recipe (YouTube)

Recently I’ve had even less human contact than normal, partly because I’m financially disabled by the Department for Work and Pensions taking my Personal Independence Payment (and therefore my independence) away. I’ve lodged an appeal at tribunal and I’m waiting for a date, but the process is likely to drag on for a few months yet (by design).

My processing through the social cleansing machine has already gone on for six months, during which I’ve had to choose between eating and heating. It’s dehumanised me and robbed me of any sense of self. I’ve become more withdrawn than usual, and found it difficult to write amidst the darkness. There’s fuel for fiction there, but my attention span has become shortened so that stories are the briefest flashes.

I realise I’m not alone. Despite my medical diagnoses of depression and anxiety, there are thousands more undiagnosed, as we live through what could be the end of days. The UK and the wider world are depressing places to be, like in my head. My opinions on Brexit, Trump, the rise of the right, climate change, and myriad existential threats to humanity, have been scant on this blog. But I’m always activist on Facebook and Twitter, other voices spreading environmental and socialist propaganda in the name of pacifism. 

It doesn’t help if you detest what you represent. Being male, white and British, I’m a gender, colour and nationality which has inflicted much damage on others, just like I did in my former drunken life. I’m perpetually repentant of my personal deeds, but I’m a member of demographics whose ideologies pollute other minds in a repeat of human history. In a world which grows gradually more bipolar, World War 3 will most likely boil down to left vs. right, socialism against fascism. I’m on the opposing side to all that my appearance might suggest. Without a voice, I can’t adjust the balance. As a writer, I can write as anyone; a pan-gender African if I like.

I’ve got new short stories in the pipeline, addressing human redundancy by technology and the resulting increase in the social divide; plastic pollution and a possible solution; and a world event which ought to unite divided factions. For the here and now, I need to concentrate on myself. The best way help me be me and regain my sense of worth, is to write. I’ll get back to the politics of living, once I’m in control of the policies of being.

I need to keep telling myself to write, where once it wasn’t forced, when I had less on my mind. I need to turn the darkness around the world and in my head into words, fiction or fact, just so long as I write. The longer I write, the more I feel myself again. At the very least, I’m a writer with depression, writing about being a writer with depression.

I get lost in personal longhand journals, where much of my offline self lives. But I can always find myself in my own words when I write at the typewriter and self-publish online, not because I’m addressing an audience, but for a simple fact that I can speak and stand a chance to be heard. When I talk to myself, my thoughts don’t penetrate the walls which contain me. When I write, I’ve broadcast something which is out there for others to listen to if they choose. Less immediacy reduces anxiety.

If I’ve not written much, when I can write a page and unburden a few words, I feel better. Sitting chain-smoking at this typewriter, with coffee and spirits within reach, I feel like a writer. I don’t want to leave here. It’s comforting to know I have this place, where I have editorial control, and where I can share thoughts with friends where time and distance are irrelevant.

Neurotribes and shadow selves

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There are three distinct personae which we all have: The person others see, the person we ourselves see, and the third person, the inner one which no-one sees. Therein lies the shadow self, one which I’ve embraced to deal with issues of my mind, and that I’ve researched, for myself and for my fiction. I’m exploring ‘Neurotribes’.

CCHRCCHR

Those of us with cracks covered with labels tend to flock together (it’s empathy with one’s own kind). Many of us don’t understand ourselves, but we feel most at ease in the company of other misfits. Some of us like being different, strange even (I prefer “Queer”). Personally, I like most people – human and animal – and it’s the quirks and oddities of a person I find most interesting. I fall in love with personalities, what’s inside, in an asexual way, which means I don’t have to be sexually attracted to a person to love them.

My own mental health scouting badges are depression and anxiety (diagnosed and medicated), paranoia (goes well with social anxiety), bi-polarity and psychopathy (on the spectra and self-managed). I’ve written before of how the latter doesn’t mean I kill people (only in my fiction and imagination), but that it’s a tunnel-vision thing, with the psychopath able to concentrate on one task to the exclusion of all others. The only evidence I can offer, is my writing, and that in the past I’ve managed to cook a deep fat fryer on the hob, because I was cooking while my mind was almost totally on something else.

I’ve had multiple diagnoses of PTSD to make my inner head more interesting. My first badge was awarded after I was robbed at knife point in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham, a setting for many scenes in my stories, and my feeling of personal futility and vulnerability was what began my later alcoholic breakdown. My Grade 2 PTSD badge was a multiple award, after all that happened out on the streets. The most recent and permanent one, is the perpetual memories I have of everything.

The easiest way to deal with all of that, has been to write, (The Perpetuity of Memory was almost exclusively written while I was out on the road) to confront it and embrace it. The unknown is one of the greatest instinctive human fears, so those who explore more are less scared (Cyrus Song explains why cats have nine lives: it’s to do with curiosity).

I’ve explored and interrogated my inner self, to find that third person. I had to conclude that you can never be ‘you’, because too many people place expectations on that person, including the one we think we know best: ourselves. We don’t exist, because we can’t find ourselves in worlds where we have to be someone else, for ourselves. Far from bringing us closer together, social media has made our world bigger and more lonely.

What I have easier access to than most, is the shadow self, formed as it is around all that we know to be wrong. There’s much which happened on the streets that I’ve not written about directly, but those experiences are in my fiction, which is why my anthology was described as “A dark mirror to the human soul” in a review.

We all have baggage we wish to leave at the door, and we all have scars. Some are better at hiding them than others, while some are proud of their marks, outside and in, like a good book. And just as a book shouldn’t be judged on its cover alone, neither do people deserve to be. It’s about getting to know them (all we need to do, is keep talking).

They’re not broken. They have a different operating system (more like Linux, when everyone else runs Windows). They are the cracked and the wondering, wandering. They are kintsukuroi (more beautiful for having been damaged). They are the Neurotribes.

A personal data tax could pay for a Universal Basic Income

DEAR DIARY

Imagine a world where everyone’s basic human needs are taken care of, a world with no homelessness or poverty. In this same world, people are paid a basic wage, simply for being who they are. Difficult though it may be to imagine, it’s a world which doesn’t have to be too far away. In fact, it’s one we could live in right now, if we think differently. Not as a hive mind, but as a colony.

steampunk_observatory_by_akira_ravenlier-d4mlbeqSteampunk Observatory by Akira-Ravenlier (DeviantArt)

Here’s a radical idea: Imagine if data were taxed. That’s not to say that we – the average internet user – should pay a tax on all the data we access for free. Rather, the companies who make huge profits from mining and selling our personal data, would pay a rate of tax on the volumes of information they use. It’s not an entirely new idea, but it’s still radical and would require a lot of work to come to fruition. But it’s an idea which could work, and which could solve many other problems as a fortunate side-effect. Big ideas need big money though. New ideas need new money. Is there such a thing as social capitalism?

For over a generation now, human kind has had free access to more or less all human knowledge. That’s the internet by design, and the way things should be: sharing and co-operation, mainly for the greater good. The cost of this free access is personal data, which is a fair exchange for most, although there remain those who are ignorant of this: Some people really do think they can have something for nothing. But when we sign up to Facebook, Google and all the rest, we agree to give them our personal data in return for the use of their platform (it’s in the Terms & Conditions, which very few people read). The internet companies then use this data to sell targeted advertising, keeping their sites free to use, and it’s a model which works well for the most part, and to monetise it in any other way (subscription sites aside) would go against the whole ethos of Sir Tim Berners-Lee‘s genius (my insertion of that hyperlink was the basis of Sir Tim’s brainchild: a link to further information, stored elsewhere. Rather poetically in this illustration, that’s the father of the internet himself). And yet, here sits this unimaginably huge thing which we’ve made through co-operation and altruism. Sir Tim’s wish was for it to remain free forever, and so it should. But might there not be a humanitarian way to monetise it?

Because at the same time, we have humanitarian issues to address: causes which require revenue. Close to home, and close to my heart, is homelessness. Cutting through many debates to get to a point, is it not an immoral government which presides over a public, who see a home as more of a luxury than a necessity? Let’s not get into the many debates about individual liberties and how we got here, this is about a new idea which – like all – would need development. For now, I’m trying to keep it on that track. But homelessness is just one of many social issues which could be addressed by the introduction of a Universal Basic Income.

In its simplest form, a universal basic income is an amount given to everyone, regardless of status. It’s just enough to put a roof over someone’s head, feed and heat them. It’s the means for people to live modestly. What have they done to deserve this? Unfortunately, that’s the most common question. Instead, I’d ask, what have they done that they should be deprived a home? We’re not talking about Acacia avenue semis here, but basic accommodation, a bit like I have.

What I have, is a studio flat: a 12 foot square room, with not even enough room for a bed, once my other stuff is crammed in. I use a futon, which I could write a whole blog post as an ode to, as it’s at least a bed. And it’s mine. I have a small separate kitchen, and I have a toilet and shower room off-suite. As I’ve said before, it’s not an ideal flat, but as a studio which I use as an office, it’s fine. It’s as much as I need.

My rent is covered by the housing benefit I receive from the local authority, and it’s paid to a social landlord. I’m a social tenant, because I’m recognised as a vulnerable individual with a disability. Mine is invisible, but I’m no less deserving after the years of work it took to get to this place in my life. As well as housing benefit, I receive benefits commensurate with my needs, as I’m mentally unwell and unable to work in the conventional sense (for anyone else). With my basic needs taken care of, I can concentrate on being the best at something which I enjoy. From that, I gain satisfaction, and I hope that others gain from what I do too.

I’m perhaps not the best example, but I’m an example nonetheless, of someone who has been given their basic needs, so that they are free to do something worthwhile. For many others, this might be finding work with a company, or forming their own. For some, they may wish to study, then enter employment later with higher qualifications. And there will be some, to whom the basic income is enough, because they want for no more. Even so, the problems of poverty and homelessness could be solved with a universal basic income. As an ex-tramp myself, I know that all a human needs is a secure base from which to build the rest, whatever that may be. As the benefactor of that rare modern phenomenon, the social landlord, I know how that works. The greater debate about the way things came to be like this eventually becomes moot, as people realise what happens when everyone is given their basic human needs, in order to live as a human being. For the most part, it’s a positive thing.

Society as a whole needs to adopt a wider view, and just like those given a home to sort themselves out, so everything that’s left behind will get cleared up too, because people will be free and available to address those things.

Many countries already operate a Guaranteed Minimum Income system: Canada, Ireland, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, The Netherlands, and many of the United States of America. Other countries are advocates, including many in the EU (including the UK, while still a member). And the founders and CEOs of those online giants are supporters too, because they see the long-term advantages of happy people and nations. It’s those people who hold the keys.

While the rest of the world lags without a universal income, such a societal change requires not only a different mindset, it requires capital. In the UK at least, we are not of a sufficiently evolved mindset (as a nation) to accept a simple tax-the-rich policy, but this overall point I’m striving to make ought to transcend current politics. Because I believe there is a way to effectively make the necessary money appear, as if by magic. And all it is, is a radical idea. At the moment, it’s a case of throwing it out there and seeing what happens.

It’s no secret that the internet giants pay very little tax. That’s another debate which can be left aside for the purposes of this, because there is another way. It’s a far-reaching vision, but many of the founders and CEOs of those online behemoths are true visionaries themselves, thinking long-term of future worlds, not necessarily run by their companies.

Elon Musk made his money from PayPal. Ask the average person in the street what PayPal does, and they’ll have an idea, but most wouldn’t be able to tell you how the model works, and how that fortune came to be. And yet the idea is a very simple one. Essentially, PayPal is a means of exchanging money, which is simple and free. I myself have a PayPal account, which I use to receive some freelance payments, then make small online purchases with. For me, it’s a micro account which I run completely independently, and for many people, that’s the simple solution it represents. Others use it in more sophisticated ways, but in total, there are tens of millions of PayPal users with sums of money sitting in the limbo which is PayPal, a holding house between merchant and buyer. Many of those accounts lie dormant most of the time, and all contain funds. To a business, this is a cash asset, and it has liquidity. All of those millions of currency can be used, to invest, to speculate, and to grow. PayPal exists on the money made from what are effectively stock market cash trades. Give a good investor your funds, and that investor will grow them for you. And that’s what Elon Musk did very successfully, while providing a free service for many others. Now we have the Tesla electric car and all of that company’s research into producing power which can be transmitted, just as Nikola Tesla himself envisioned. Musk is also one of the pioneers of commercial space travel and exploration. His long-term vision is to change the world and humanity. Elon Musk made his initial capital so that he could pursue this greater goal.

Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon, envisions a future world where his company’s infrastructure exists in ‘cloud cities’, manufacturing and distribution facilities constructed above the earth’s surface. His vision is to return much of the planet to nature, while some of mankind moves into these vast cloud cities. The sci-fi writer can be a pessimist in seeing a two-tier dystopia in that, or a natural utopia. In any case, it’s long-term vision. And it’s that of the internet entrepreneur most likely to be labelled a capitalist, because Amazon sells tangible goods.

Returning to Google and Facebook, they make the majority of their money from our personal data, which they sell to advertisers. In return, we receive free and unlimited use of their platforms. It’s a simple business transaction of an intangible product. But what if we suddenly said, “Hold on. I realise I’m receiving something in return for giving you my data, and that it’s in the terms and conditions of our contract. But I think my data is worth more than that.”

Naturally, there would be objections and much debate. In an ideal world, we, the serfs, would say to our governing classes, “Hey, we’d like you to tax those companies for mining our information. We accept that they use it for their own gain and to improve their business and our lives, and we accept that they are very tax efficient with their business affairs. We also see that you don’t have sufficient means through tax collected, to use that as a government should: to benefit the tax-payer. So we wonder if perhaps we might make a suggestion: could you could place a ring-fenced social tax on our data please?”

Once the mechanisms are calculated and agreed, the revenue raised from placing a tax on personal data could be sufficient to finance a universal basic income sustainably. Like I said, it’s a very simple but radical idea, but one which governments and the internet giants subscribe to. Unfortunately, the machinations of government (especially in the UK) are painfully slow. Politics can be radical, if the elected politicians think differently, or if someone just thinks differently, perhaps by listening. There is a rumour of Mark Zuckerberg running for US president. For my part, I’ve tried to write all of this in such a way that it’s accessible, and I hope it’ll be shared.

It’s power to the people. It’s about addressing the balance of power and returning that to the people. That’s anarchy. But could human kind use what it has created, to evolve as a race? I just wrote a late night diary entry. 

But I’m just part of Earth 2.0, the organic supercomputer designed by Deep Thought in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to work out why the answer is 42. The computer only works if all of the component parts co-operate to the greater good of the machine.

steampunk_goggles_11_1_by_ambassadormann

For an alternative answer to the greatest question – that of life, the universe and everything – I wrote a ‘Sci-fi Rom Com’ (it’s now been called): Cyrus Song. It’s about what happened when three humans were able to talk to the other people they share this planet with: The animals.

Increased risk of independence

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Almost exactly six months since the process started, I’ve made progress in regaining the ‘benefit’ of Personal Independence Payment (PIP). There’s a long way to go, and I might have been out the other side of the mincing machine by now, were it not for the Vogon incompetence of the Department for Work and Pensions. But I’m one stage nearer to winning a human right back from the Tory social cleansing apparatus. Here’s what’s happened so far, including an insight into the dehumanising methods the machine employs to encourage applicants to give up (on life, to kill themselves).

Vogon assessorA DWP decision-maker

In short, it’s like being put on trial when you’re reaching out for support. Meanwhile I’ve survived the last six months on charity, but with little of the independence I had six months ago.

Way back on 3rd September last year, I was required to attend a biannual health assessment, or ‘Fitness for work’ (despite being signed off sick pretty much for life). The assessments are out-sourced to a private company (with shareholders focussed on profits, and whose directors recently awarded themselves £40m in bonuses (presumably for saving the government so much money by denying benefits to claimants)), and the assessors are all ‘medically qualified’. But unlike a GP who might know the claimant personally, or another health care specialist who may understand their patient’s condition, these out-sourced assessors are ‘medically qualified’ as having once worked in any field of medicine. At my most recent appointment, the assessor was a physiotherapist: hardly the best qualification for understanding mental health, which is where my disabilities lie.

The assessments are timed to be around 3-4 weeks before a claimant’s previous benefit period ends. The initial decision takes at least six weeks, so benefits are withdrawn before a decision is made. This deliberate timing is just one of a number of factors which stack the odds against the applicant by making the whole process as difficult as possible.

My depression was diagnosed as an underlying contributor to a number of my life functions back in 2011, following a knife-point robbery after I’d been drinking in Lewisham. After an initial diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), my alcohol dependence was linked to depression, where one quite happily fuels the other and often leads to the kind of mental breakdown I had in 2013, when I was unable to cope, so I drank my life away, lost everything and ended up on the streets, where I found many more causes for the multiple PTSD diagnoses I now have. I have physical function, but it’s impaired by my anxiety. This has entitled me to PIP for the last four years, as I’m almost constantly anxious of reminders from a life on the road haunting me with threats of repeat. All of this had gone into my re-application form, and was conveyed verbally while not being able to maintain eye contact with the government-outsourced automaton.

Like so many others, my application was denied, and I was judged to require no help with anything, by someone who’d never met me before and didn’t care to know me. The next stage then is to ask for a ‘Mandatory reconsideration,’ which concludes as the first assessment found, after a second decision-maker has given the initial application a cursory glance (which takes a further 6-9 weeks). It’s just kicking a can down the road. It’s at that point where one is able to appeal to have their case heard at tribunal. This is where the phone calls to DWP’s PIP helpline engage gears in the social cleansing machinery. I was sent the wrong letter by DWP, so was prevented from launching an appeal. On that occasion, it turned out they’d treated my request for a mandatory reconsideration as an initial claim, despite the fact they’d already declined the latter, and asked me to notate the 32-page report from my assessor and decision-maker.

Finding someone who’ll treat you as human at DWP is like a game of telephone Russian roulette. Sometimes you’ll strike lucky, but often you won’t. You’ll fail, or that’s how you’re meant to feel. But back to the telephone system, the largest grinding machine in the apparatus, like a steam punk combine harvester protecting a Victorian dehumanising farm behind it. If DWP were a private company, they’d be as financially bankrupt as their government is morally, all the while committing economic murder.

If the Spring movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons had words, I’d know them by heart, having spent several hours in all on hold. But they play the Karaoke version, at deafening volume, and as though through a really cheap, tinny sound system. That distortion of reality is only the start of a process designed to break you down, without even any direct human contact, like military drones operated remotely and killing civilians.

While listening to Antonio’s work being strangled, there’s no indication of a caller’s position in the queue or the time it might take to be answered. My waiting time has averaged around 20 minutes every time I’ve called, which has been daily for the last couple of weeks. Once you get through, you’re in a minefield.

Ask a question they can’t answer and they’ll cut the line (never lose your patience or raise your voice. My tongue is sore from being bitten many times). Even when you think you’ve got somewhere, once you’ve had your query (their mistake) rectified, they simply don’t do as you’ve asked them to, and which they say they will. In fits of wanton inefficiency, they send the wrong paperwork, lose information you’ve sent in, or forget to act at all. Anyone less able (infirm, with a shorter fuse, with less tenacity) would give up, which is what they want. It becomes like a conspiracy against the person, and with depression and anxiety comes the third of the unholy trinity in my head, the paranoia (that this will never end).

I reached the end of some sort of tether today, when I tried for the fourth time to extract the ‘Manadatory Reconsideration Notice’ necessary to start an appeal, because I’d been sent three copies of the initial refusal in the course of as many weeks. Despite DWP allowing themselves up to nine weeks to respond to applicants, it’s only 28 days allowed when the boot is on the other foot (although it’s more like your opponent removing their outer footwear to lend you their socks). So when it came to asking for the correct letter to be sent by post today (DWP use 2nd Class mail), I had little faith in my fourth attempt being successful, or of the dates on the incorrect letters being changed to give me back the time DWP had wasted. My period of grace to appeal was coming to an end. I was running out of time.

I don’t believe in God, but if he (or the aliens, or whomever) woke me up this morning, they hadn’t finished with me yet. They had plans for me. I didn’t so much pray before I got on the phone to DWP, as prepare myself to break down if I met yet another wall, after a further several minutes of excruciating Vivaldi and of eating my own teeth. The game of telephone Russian roulette got me through to someone who was human, and like any good operator at a functional enterprise, they put my call through to a different department. I feared being lost in the system again, but I’d found myself on the phone to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS). The divine intervention, the extraterrestrial contact, whatever it was which answered my half-arsed prayer, what happened different today was circumnavigating DWP.

I found myself talking to a human at HMCTS, who told me I could launch an appeal against DWP online. This was news to me, and not information which DWP will volunteer themselves (they don’t want to be sued). But now they’re ‘The defendant,’ and thanks to that (God-sent) human (or alien) at HMCTS, my appeal is now lodged, with me as ‘The appellant’. If I’d been told I could do this a month or two ago, I might be out the back of the machine by now.

There’s a long way to go still. I have to attend the appeal hearing and win, then I have to wait a further 4-6 weeks for my payments to be reinstated. But it’s hopefully more of a downhill slope now than the slow and steep one which got me to this great height and nearly had me throw myself off it. Because it did, and now I can admit it. There were times over the last six months when DWP’s incompetence convinced my paranoid mind that I couldn’t overcome it. I couldn’t see an escape from the frustration, and instead saw a life where I’d have no independence. That was one I didn’t want to live.

It means I can get on with life while I wait. It means I can regain my independence, by spending the time I’d have liked with my parents, and more with my kids (And being more cheerful company). I need to win the appeal, but I have the last two times, and over 70% of appeals are successful. So it begs the question: Why incur the expense? Why put people through it? Because in fascist economics, enough will be beaten that those who make it to tribunal only represent a few of those who originally applied. This is not Britain’s Got Talent.

That’s where I’ve been for the last six months, in some competition where the aim is not to fail, but everything’s thrown at you to ensure you tire and give up. It’s been a constant worry, day and night. I’ve not been sleeping or eating. I’ve not been taking care of myself, which is what happens in the deeper depths of depression, and I’ve become more unwell. That’s lived in my mind with me alone in the midst of it, unable to explain what I can’t understand, and once thinking I couldn’t carry on in that confusion. I reached out for help and I’m still on public trial. How many others don’t make it?

Discouragement conspirator

I deal with the life inside my head by employing fiction to try to convey what’s in there, to make it more entertaining than the reality, and perhaps helping me to understand it by getting it all out while not being completely open. It’s my writing as therapy. Now I can write those stories I already outlined, but which I couldn’t concentrate on because a Vogon Bureaucrat would creep in from the real world which was consuming me. I need to rebuild this home I made for myself, by insulating it with words. Our minds are a dangerous place, mine especially so, when I have so much time to dally there alone and excluded.

Your pain could be for a reason, a necessary path which is already predetermined to get you to somewhere you once wished you were. You may not want to exist right now, but someone’s glad you do. Keep moving and try not to dwell, for this too shall pass. Now I can write again.

Buy me a coffee one off

When your best friend is fictional

THE WRITER’S LIFE

While I remain in the government’s social cleansing machine, now in my sixth month of battling to win back my personal independence (a ‘benefit’ which some might call a human right), I’m not normally expecting anyone to visit me unexpectedly, so I was surprised when my doorbell rang earlier. Then I remembered I’d replaced the batteries.

This-Little-Girls-Disturbing-Drawings-of-Her-Imaginary-Friend-Will-Freak-You-Out-FEATTheOccultMuseum

Whoever was there (it could have been anyone, given I was expecting no-one), I was always going to be surprised when I opened the door, but I hadn’t imagined I’d be as surprised as I was to see who it was, which was surprising in itself, seeing as I’m a writer who’s meant to be able to see these things. But I write best when everyone else is asleep.

It was Doctor Hannah Jones, a character I created originally for Cyrus Song, and who’s appeared in various short stories, where she’s met Simon Fry many times. He’s been over before (first when he suggested we meet, when we had Pi, then when we made flans), but I’d never met her, until now. She was just as I’d imagined (I wrote her): attractive, smart, and disarming.

Hi,” she said. “What happened to your face?”

Hello Hannah,” I replied, “nice to see you too. What about it?”

Well, I’m used to seeing you in character. Now I can see what’s beneath the words.” Which was odd, as I was at pains to explain.

That’s odd,” I replied, “because I knew what you looked like before you ever started talking, but when you did, the way you looked changed.”

Well, you wrote me.” Which was true, but Hannah had actually written herself, which I could never really explain. She sat at my desk. “Why did you ask me round?”

She’d brought her own drink, which was handy. And Hannah swigs from the bottle, because she’s a thug. So we drank, with her at the desk and me on the couch, like it was her office and I was her psychiatric patient (she’s a vet).

Tell me about your childhood,” Hannah said. “Could no-one else be bothered to come over?”

People visit,” I replied, “but I can’t really engage with them at any depth.”

And you find me deep?”

I thought I might see if I could do what you do, and write myself.”

But you’re you; why would you need me to do that?”

Because I don’t feel like I know myself lately, and I need a way to do that.”

And that’s me?”

I suppose it is.”

But who am I? Aren’t I a part of you?”

Only a small part. Each of us is partly everyone else we know. Not just because we’re all connected to the universe anyway, but none of us is truly ourselves. We’re all a montage of other people and their stories.”

But we each have our own lives and history, which surely makes us what we are?”

Yes, but what if there was no-one else around to know that? See? We’re all made of the people we know, including ourselves. Most of us are afraid of that if we’re honest.”

That’s deep, Simon.”

Steve.”

Oh yeah.”

I don’t get many visitors, and little conversation. I can talk to myself and to my blog, but I find it easier if I’m talking to a person, even if I don’t have anyone to do that with. And I can be more open like this, writing fiction which isn’t really that, but real life told as such.”

Is that you ducking the issues?”

Far from it. I spend too much time wrapped up in myself and getting confused. This is my way of clearing my mind, getting things off my chest, confronting myself.”

So you don’t really need me.”

I need someone to talk to.”

You need someone to write for. This is an outlet for you, a means to write.”

It’s my coping mechanism. Even when I do see real people, I can’t open up. They’d have to have immense patience, I wouldn’t get everything out, I’d feel I’d burdened them, and I’d be in their debt.”

So you invited me round to be a captive audience.”

I wasn’t even sure you’d turn up.”

Is that why you’ve not cooked tonight?”

Yeah, I normally do that when I’m on my own.”

But you’re not.”

Other than you, I am.”

But when you’re here talking with me, you feel like a writer?”

Yes, because I’m writing this.”

This is quite surreal.”

I’m a surrealist.”

Do I have free will?”

Of course you do. Even though I wrote you. In fact, I wrote you with more freedom than I’ve ever known.”

I need to eat, so you’d better get some food in. But never forget, I don’t really exist.”

Doctor Jones decided to hang around for a while to help me, but she’d sleep on the couch.

Maybe I can keep writing, despite outer influences intent on stopping me. Only if I let them. To be continued (again).

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BunchFamily

Doctor Hannah Jones first appeared in Two Little Things, the short story which spawned Cyrus Song. She’s also cropped up in various related prequel (A Story Tied by Strawberry String), sequel (Quantum Entanglement in Hamsters) and sideline stories (The Invention of the Pencil Case).

Calling occupants of writing craft

THE WRITER’S LIFE

While my offline self continues to deal with real-life situations I needn’t trouble the world with, the one who’d like to tell everyone everything was suffering writer’s block. And I’ve been revisiting my favourite science fiction universe in Firefly, the demise of which I mourn daily, just like Sheldon Cooper.

Serenity_Pierre_Drolet_06-1This sci-fi geek modeller is my favourite person right now: He’s made a model of an aircraft carrier and parked Serenity on the deck (Pierre Drolet Sci-Fi Museum)

I read an article recently on hobbies to help with anxiety and depression, and writing wasn’t one of them, which was strange, because it’s been writing that’s helped me most over time. In the beginning, it was all I had.

That was five years ago, when I begged money on the streets to buy exercise books from Poundland (and white cider), and stole some bookies pens. When I used to sit in various warm, dry and light places, I planned to turn my story into a book. Then I got over myself and realised no-one would be interested in a Charles Bukowski fan boy (although I’ve been compared to him since, and many others in fact: some of the greats in the genres I write). In any case, The Paradoxicon was a fair stab at a semi-autobiographical flash fiction novel, allowing me to move on, and I’ve written four other books since.

Much has changed since then, and life has got easier in many respects (somewhere to live helps), but without the constant distraction of life keeping you on your feet, there’s a tendency to get stuck. I’ve never lapsed back to drinking, but I know why I did, when I’d sometimes rather blank something from my mind which won’t sleep. But I’m a writer.

Unless you’re writing for a mass market, it’s a very internal affair, and prevented from writing about much in my real life (the privacy of others), my solitary offline life gave me little else to think about. Well therein lies the paradox I’d created for myself: As a writer, I can write anything. And as a blogger, that can just be a diary entry.

Right now I’m perched on a cushion on my chair, not just because I’m short but because the air canister has emptied itself, so it’s lost its power of levitation. Nevertheless, the dead chair is full of memories that I’ve written while I sat at this desk on many other late nights. I’ll keep my old seat, because I can’t afford another one anyway, but most importantly, it’s where I am now.

I’m aware of the weight distribution in my arse on the cushion, and because I think different to most, I feel speed. Because what I can feel below me – the weight of my backside on the seat – is the feeling of my own gravity in relation to that of the Earth. So in another way of thinking, the pressure I feel is not me bearing down, but the entire planet pushing up beneath me. Like this world and everyone else on it, I’m spinning at 1000 mph and hurtling through space at around fifty times that. These are the things which keep me awake at night, sometimes joyfully.

If I get it right, I can sometimes lucid dream, and within my mind I can explore the universe (there are articles dotted about this blog). It’s getting to sleep that’s the problem, but writing is good for insomnia.

I’ve got sufficient followers to guarantee at least one will be interested in what’s on my mind, because they’ve chosen to follow me and be a part of another virtual life. And in a life cut off from most human contact, for someone like me, that’s a comforting thought.

So even if I am rambling, I know that someone besides me will be reading, then I feel less alone.

This blog was originally that of a writer with depression, like so many others, and yet it was the illness which prevented me dealing with it. Such is the power of the mind when it’s cracked. But other times, living with a Kintsukorai mind (one which is more beautiful for having been broken) is one long lucid dream.

Whenever I question what’s in my head existentially, I’m reminded of a documentary Stephen Fry made about his own brand of depression. At the end, he posed a question: If there were a big red button, and hitting it would just restore you to “Normal”, would you? Same as him, I don’t have to think for long: No.

Paul Auster once said he’s happy with a day’s work if he has 500 words of perfect prose at the end. I’m happier when I’ve pumped out 850 words of pulp thoughts in an hour and cleared my mind for others to read. A problem shared, is one divided or multiplied.

Suffer in silence

Now Serenity awaits, somewhere in the universe. If I can just dream, I can hitch a ride, with friends, the captain, a shepherd, a doctor, and a companion or more.