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.

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When God was a chicken

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Lately I’ve been spending time with Lenny, the chicken which hatched from a Campbell’s soup can painted by Andy Warhol. I’ve been accused of making Len up, as though the cure for my social anxiety was all in my mind. In any case, we’ve been touring the places I know. We’ve been out in my village, and anyone who saw us will know we’re real.

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As Helen (as she turned out to be) had grown restless in the studio, we first visited the local charity shops. As an assistance chicken, she was allowed in, which eased a burden of pressure on me. Len could choose her own toys, which she did by pecking and clawing at various pieces of plastic tat. She also took an interest in the books, vigorously headbutting a children’s bible. It was a win-win for me: Money to charity, and a happy self-educating chicken to boot.

Len was keen to return home with her toys and book, but we still had shopping to do. As we walked through the village, she was tugging at her lead in various directions she considered to be toward home (she was no pigeon). The zebra crossing on the high street contained poultry for much of the afternoon, as we crossed repeatedly from one side to the other.

Eventually we made it to the supermarket, where I stocked up on food for us both. Len stayed close, perhaps sensing my relief that this was the last stop and we’d be home soon.

Back at the studio, I unpacked the shopping while Len made a bed with her toys and started leafing through her children’s bible. I asked her if there was anything she fancied for dinner, and she headbutted an open page in her book. It was Jesus and the feeding of the 5000. I made us fish finger sandwiches.

While I was cooking, Len read some more of her bible. As I was putting our sandwiches together, I heard a tapping on my typewriter. Craning my head around the doorway, I saw Len at the desk, on this very laptop. I saved what she typed:

I am God.”

Maybe my chicken couldn’t speak to me directly, but she’d found a way to communicate. I had to reply:

What makes you say that?”

My family are dead. I am the only one left.”

Who were your family?”

Those in the supermarket, the Indian, the Chinese and the kebab shop.”

No wonder we’d crossed the road so many times. Thankfully there isn’t a KFC in the village, and Deliveroo don’t deliver(oo).

I am God.”

How do I know?”

I couldn’t ask for proof besides her survival outside the local food outlets, because that would deny faith. Even though I’m an atheist, I at least had a chicken for company. My chicken – imaginary or not – had helped me overcome my social anxiety.

You’ll never know,” she wrote, “my beautiful typewriter.”

Why?”

But there was no reply. My chicken had disproved herself, because I’d asked.

As an atheist, I don’t pray to any false deity made in man’s image, but Lenny the chicken will forever live in my mind.

Kentucky friedKentucky fried | Protect me from what I want (Michel Koven Blog)

© Steve Laker, 2019

 

A momentary lapse of location

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

It’s been a while since I wrote anything, mainly because the battle to regain my personal independence from the Department for Work and Pensions is still ongoing, and becoming more like dealing with Vogon democracy by the day. But more of that another time. For now, this is a return from self-imposed social isolation.

social isolationHuffpost: from an article on technology and social isolation

Like playing truant from school, the longer I go without writing, the harder it is to come back, and the deeper I have to dig to pull myself out. But something dawned on me yesterday: I was effectively surrendering to the government’s social cleansing and economic murder machinery, by allowing them to stop me from writing, by weighing down my mental baggage.

Whatever holds you back from what you want to do is a demon. Don’t let that consume you, cast it out, like so much toxicity in your life. How? By realising it’s doing you no good for as long as it’s in your head, because it’s consuming you. When you realise that, you’ll see what’s in your head like you probably haven’t before (you were blind to it), and you’ll hate it. It’s been hating you all along, like a memory which taunts you by cheating on you. Don’t feed the trolls.

Some things I can’t write about autobiographically, but neither can I be censored as a fiction writer able to capture parallels. The story below is part analogy of the effect the social machine has had on me, and an exorcism.

This is where I’ve been. It’s short, but each word carries hours of feeling from being away. So many things banging in my head that I placed them into a single entity.

blood film strip

THE ORIGIN OF RECALL

I first became aware of my neighbours when I realised I could listen to them through the wall. I grew closer to them as I got older, but it I couldn’t meet them. My self-containment meant it would be a long time before I fully understood them.

At first I couldn’t make out what they were saying, their voices muffled by our adjoining wall. I learned that voice inflections, volumes and tones, belie a mood in any native tongue, and that anger is the same in any language. They made more sense as I heard them grow louder with every passing day, as though my hearing was improving. His name was Jonas, but I never learned hers.

I’d never seen them. Perhaps we’d meet outside one day, but for now I wasn’t ready to go beyond my comfort zone. Noisy neighbours slamming doors can be intimidating, and I had no wish to be a part of any argument beyond that internal wall.

My sleep was sporadic, I was unable to settle into any kind of routine, never knowing when I’d be woken by the neighbours. Days drifted into sleep through exhaustion, and I slept when they did, when the walls weren’t pounding in my head. There I’d sometimes dream of getting out.

The earth is billions of years old, and humankind have only walked on this planet for a fleeting moment. Given that we have so little time here, shouldn’t we all question what’s around us? At least then, our children will be able to continue conversations which we started, like so many small human legacies.

When the noise started again, I didn’t want to open my eyes. When I’d dreamed, I found the human senses are connected, not with one compensating for another if it’s lost, but withdrawing together in solidarity. The longer I closed my eyes, the less I could hear, and so I could sleep.

The last time they woke me, I’d still not met them, never ventured out into that corridor. He was pounding on the wall again, their voices so loud that no barrier could cushion the anger.

I knew I was what they were arguing about. I was “that fucking thing in there,” and I feared my reception if we ever met outside. The anger was punching through now, knocking against my head and chipping the paint from the wall.

I had an almost overwhelming urge to get out of there, but feared anything outside of my confines. I’d had time to think, learn and dream in there, and I couldn’t leave.

They say kids develop their formative memory at around two years old, and before that they know nothing and are subject to conditioning. We are all different, but we’re born the same, with memories which we forget, long before we’re able to talk. Knowledge boils while curiosity evaporates.

Maybe I should have got out when I could, improving my chances outside by being premature. But I stayed. Born still, I was free. I did everyone a favour. Natural selection, preserved in ultrasound images.

They hadn’t decided on a name for me: either Jonas or Joan, depending on what I came out as. If I was a boy, I’d have been named after him. I was Jonas.

ultrasound

© Steve Laker, 2019

So that was me exorcising the demons who would prevent me from doing what keeps me living. I won’t give up. I’ll keep writing, and I shan’t surrender to the mind beating.

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.

Incoherence in the past tense

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The more I have on my mind, the less inclined I am to write. I can’t write much of what’s in my head (mainly unfinished and mostly involving other people), but I can still write. There’s only so much you can get from a blog about a depressed writer, writing about being that, but I have a past I’ve written little of. There was a time when I couldn’t, when I was too drunk. Life’s a quieter affair now and I can make better sense of some of what went before.

Cat asleep at desk

I have plenty of interests but not many hobbies, as most involve meeting people with a common interest. That’s not as much of a problem as having to leave home to meet those people, only to find you have just the one thing in common and the conversation quickly runs dry.

Real-life friends I’ve known for many years (since before my alcoholic breakdown) have tried to extract me from home, but I’ve always grown too anxious as the event approaches and ducked out. Lately this has included the chance to see a play at a local theatre about David Bowie, and to meet John Hegley for a book signing at Tate Modern.

It seems nothing is so important that it will cancel out my anxiety and paranoia, and of course, I always regret missing these things and letting people down. So the depression grows deeper with more time spent alone, and I hardly dare trouble anyone for company when I’m so prone to backing out at the last minute. It’s why the few friends I have come to me: I’m not likely to leave them.

The depressive does not make their own life easy, which is pretty much how depression works (it’s self-propagating). It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad company, but they’re generally complicated, with higher- or differently-functioning brains, which is handy when it comes to my main interest beyond writing: I play poker.

An alcoholic gambler: what a mix. The perfect storm, where each feeds the other and generally turns out badly. That was indeed the case once, but before I was ill I played well and made some money. At my peak, I was playing live cash games daily at The Empire Casino, and there’d be a pub tournament most nights around where I lived in Bexley. Failing that (or as well as) there was often a home game at someone’s house, and I played online too. Those were heady days and long weeks, usually endured with a Colombian cold.

I have little to show for those days besides a PokerStars.com baseball cap, but anyone familiar with the game will know how many Frequent Player Points you need to get one of those. I host my own home games but they’re mainly heads-up (two players), as I only have a small table.

Since I dried out and got my brain fully functional, I can play again. Despite what many say, poker is not a game of luck. I play No-limit Hold Em (Texas Hold Em), and the maths in calculating odds, the psychology of bluffing or reading another player, and everything else a successful player needs to be aware of, make it far more a game of skill than luck (about 70 and 30 per cent respectively). Unwilling or unable to go out much, I found myself coaching other players, so that they can.

This blog post has virtually no literary merit, it doesn’t make many points, and it’s not the usual unloading of my mind or chest. But there’s more to me than that, I just don’t get out much to meet people and tell them. It’s helped just to sit at the desk and type away with almost gay abandon, and that’s why I originally started writing this blog, as an escape and a coping mechanism. It doesn’t matter how many people read it, just that I said it.

These are the kind of notes I normally scribble down longhand throughout the day, then review every now and then trying to make a coherent narrative. When my own life and mind are as incoherent as any confused, lost and lonely depressive, I don’t feel so abandoned when I write.

There’s much to tell which I’ve not written before, mainly because it’s from around the time my life changed (the alcoholic and mental breakdown of 2011-13), when so many other people were affected. Now that I’ve moved on from places others would rather I’d stayed, I can look back and find chinks of memory in the dark.

There are many anecdotal stories I could tell of the poker life, some of which would be more plausible written as fiction. I have other interests besides, which fellow recluses might like. When I think of all that, I realise how little those who only know me online actually know me. They know the writer, but one who hasn’t ventured far from the depressive narrative. I’m really not that depressing in real life, and anecdotal memories are a good way of reminding me.

I can never claim to have nothing to write when I’ve done so much. Even if I can’t make my thoughts coherent, I can at least share them, and some will make good stories. It was right under my nose, like all I put up there in the poker days.

Life might be shit sometimes, but I have another one, a better one I once lived to look back on. That life, to be continued…

A countdown of improbabilities

THE WRITER’S LIFE

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was at my physical prime. Today I lose prime number status as I turn 48. Birthdays aren’t what they used to be, which is somewhat stating the obvious, but there’s not so much to celebrate as you get older. It becomes less an achievement of making another year and of progress, and more a countdown of improbability.

landscape-1463492454-countdown-bumhole

I’m resolutely single (for many reasons, but I don’t see how anyone could live with me when I find it so difficult myself sometimes) and don’t go out much (no-one to go out with), so my opportunities to celebrate are limited, even if anyone else wanted to. Instead, this is one day of the year when I call the shots, when most days I’m dealing with the affairs of others (mainly the young people who still visit, and chiefly the adopted kid sister, Courtney). It’s my chance to be as selfish as all those people, but just for one day.

In my virtual life, I’ve been quite touched by the number of people sending birthday greetings on Facebook, a place which – despite its many faults – still kindles, ignites and stokes friendships with individuals I didn’t in real life. Some types seem to feel more at ease discussing things in a public forum, and I’m one of them. It’s because it’s less personal than a real world physical conversation, which eases my social anxiety. The virtual world has brought me closer to some people than the real world could, through mutual empathy with matters of the mind.

Anyone who visits my real world on any other day, knows to keep a distance on my birthday. There’s sometimes an exception, but that will only be someone who might be passing and whom I’ve chosen to spend time with if they’ve said they need mine. I don’t expect anyone to turn up and I’ll just get on with my day, but knowing someone might show adds a level of jeopardy (improbable though it is).

I’ll probably spend the rest of the day writing, like I should so many other days but for distractions. During my recent hiatus, while my dad was sick and I couldn’t think of much else, I filled several journals as I watched TV (mainly documentaries) and carried them around with me. My life will continue to be fractured as the lives of others progress in my real world, so my next book will most likely be a third collection of short stories, many of which are plotted and scribbled in longhand in those notebooks. Today gives me a chance to set out for myself, everything I want to do next.

My family history book is on hold, mainly through paranoid superstition, as my dad seemed to be in perpetual decline most of the time I was writing it. I’ve stopped, so as not to tempt fate (and he’s got better). I’ll start writing another novel once I’ve got a few new short stories finished, maybe the planned (and imaginatively titled) Cyrus Song II, or perhaps something completely different, from the many notes I made in those journals.

This one day a year reserved as mine, to collect my thoughts, think ahead, and in the company (if any) of my choosing, helps me get through the next year. I’ll be a prime number again in 2023 and a lot could happen between now and then. I only have to look at the last five years to know that’s true.

It’s improbable, but I might yet pen a best-seller (I may have done so already, and people just need to pick up the book). But I’ll keep writing anyway, probably into the night and probably in solitude.

I found myself in a place I never realised I wanted to be, around an imaginary birthday cake. Even if I hadn’t done everything I was supposed to with my own life, I could have another go. I felt like the living memory of my future self. Thoughts can be remembered or forgotten, so I wrote mine down.

(Simon Fry, Cyrus Song)

Noodles in the soup of memory

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Far be it from me to post a restaurant review, because I never have. I’ve dined at the odd fictional place I made up because I don’t get out much, so what good would it do to post an opinion on a real place? It’d probably get as many more visitors to a Chinese takeaway as I might expect sales of a book if a restaurant were to review one of mine.

blade-runner-2049-700x290SlashFilm article, on Asian cultures and characters

In the interests of reporting all which needn’t trouble the world outside my own, and in supporting local business, this week I visited a China just up the road.

It’s rare that I get out, let alone as far as the Asian continent. I went to France once on a family holiday, and happened to be in Chicago on a business trip when the world’s political axis was tipped on 9/11. I don’t fear the wider world any more than I do the planet in my head, which still makes travelling a challenge.

At the most recent surveilance of the horizons in my mind’s world, it was a narrow perspective. Rather than gazing and wondering outward, I was looking in; kind of like having a telescope round the wrong way.

The limited stocks of food I had wouldn’t go to waste, but my miscomprehension of why I eat told me I didn’t fancy what I had to hand: Such a first world problem. As I contemplated what to think about cooking and eating, the paradigm was shifted by a neighbour.

The kind of guy who’d offer you unsolicited advice at a pub fruit machine, my friend is harmless if humoured, and a social tenant like me with a past. Nevertheless, when I had no instant coffee which he’d forgotten to buy in the morning, he asked me if I’d make him one of my nice filter ones (which I did).

Like me, my neighbour doesn’t get out much. So I decided to save both me and him further bother by going out to buy him some instant coffee. Then I wondered why I was out on my own in the dark. To solve problems, I guessed: Those of others, which might alleviate my own. As fresh as the coffee I’d just bought from Tesco Metro, the air drew my attention to my local Chinese takeaway.

I’ve lived here for two years, but I’ve never troubled the local cuisine. I’m happier instead to buy food to look at (and sometimes not cook) from the supermarket. So I crossed the road.

I wasn’t particularly hungry and neither did I want to eat, but both were down to my own inaction. I forced myself to eat by buying a takeaway, from a place not unlike many whose windows I’d gaze through longingly when I was homeless.

For all of twenty minutes, I was back on the streets again, but now looking out on a world in which I had a home to return to. It brought back memories, so I reverted to type and ordered what I always used to: sweet and sour king prawn balls, with rice vermicelli, Singapore style. The walk home was less eventful than the paranoid mind imagines, and nothing happened.

The words “Fresh” rest uneasily in my mind with Chinese takeaway, but my king prawns were somehow new in their batter, the sauce not like that I remember from artificiality, and the noodles disguising nothing but the sweetness of fresh chillis from that other continent, just outside my door.

It’s a place called “Lovely”, it’s right on my doorstep and it helped me find my way, by way of Chinese takeaway. It also served well as a day-after snack, where the measure is now less of a hangover cure and more about preserving food inside the body.

Once upon a time, I shared many meals from China and around the world with others, without actually going there. This week, I fed myself with a breath of outside air. I don’t go out much, and it’s no wonder when I’m let loose for a few minutes and all this happens. It’s a reminder of why I’m not allowed to roam free-range and why I just write about it. Anyone passing through and who can’t be arsed to cook, should call into a lovely place not a million miles from me.

I guess I just used this post to write.

I previously reviewed August Underground’s Diner and The Green Inferno in fiction. Lovely Chinese takeaway really does exist.