Tag Archives: anxiety

Lasciate ogne speranza

In this post, as the Klingons’ Second Rite of Ascension calls for one to say, tIqwIj Sa’angnIS I must show you my heart. I both warn you all and apologise in advance; I’m unloading a lot of stuff here in order to help me push it out of the unhealthy residence it’s been taking up in my head. One of my best friends has suggested I write more #weirdthingsivedone posts, especially since she claims I somehow manage to scale new heights of Peak Nerd in her eyes every time we talk. (I’m not sure I’ve ever been complimented so wonderfully in my entire life.) And I will do that in future posts, I promise. But for now, here, I need to wax maudlin for a short while, so I ask for your indulgence while I do.

I read this small chunk of prose by a poetically-inclined denizen of Facebook a couple of nights ago – the ancient historians call these prose fragments gobbets when set as stimulus fragments for essay exams, and that term I’ve been utterly unable to get out of my head for every single one of the fourteen years since I last did an ancient history essay exam – on the news feed of a friend, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind for a couple of days (a wonderfully pleasant Friday evening notwithstanding, spent picking out new glasses and having dinner with the same dear friend who accused me of perpetual apex geekery – that was a perfect distraction that I desperately needed and am grateful for). I don’t know if it qualifies as prose-poetry as such, but certainly the style isn’t typical of standard prose; far more highly emotive, a cry of empathy with the deeply wounded. Because of the psychological place I was in, reading this piece was like a shout into a vast canyon with perfect acoustic balance, echoing countless times within the vaults of my mind and the power to silence it or call it back utterly out of my control.

I know what it feels like to live on the edge of loneliness
to have every hope crushed and everything you touch die
and to try so damn hard only to realize
nothing is going to change anytime soon
so you deal with the pain the best you can.
Reggie Nulan

I’ve been entrapped by this proselet largely because it feels almost like this Reggie Nulan has looked straight through – perhaps past – my eyes to see directly into the darkest, grimmest walls of my mind, and has unhesitatingly read the spidery scrawled inscriptions of my worst fears, shallow glyphs scratched weakly into prison walls of piled grey stone by the most anguished part of my psyche. My October was exactly like this verse says. It was a period during the start of which which I did feel occasional snatches of something like motivation, a feeling I hadn’t had in some time: motivation to work, to write, to move forward with my life in aspects that had previously been stagnant and beginning to grow heavy on my shoulders. It was a time during which I didn’t just make plans, but also took steps to – as the revolting business jargon would phrase it – action those plans. (As the great philosopher Calvin – no, not that one – puts it, verbing weirds language.)

Eek. I just wandered off searching for that link, got distracted, and fell into the Internet for about half an hour. I can’t even think about this for long enough to get through the writing of a full post on it. I’m sorry. Where was I? October. That’s right. Much as I’d have liked to forget. September came to an end on quite a high, with notifications via email that one of my academic articles had just been published and two further articles had been accepted for publication in the professional journals. This is probably, I’m pretty sure, what gave me the motivation to start building on the momentum I was experiencing: to keep it rolling forward while it was there, and try to avoid falling back into the lethargic inertia I’m prone to. (I’ve long since come to the conclusion that Newton’s first law of motion has relevance to more abstract forms of progress, too – that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, and conversely, an object at rest will tend to stay at rest.) I was getting my medication régime back under control with the assistance of a good psychiatrist, some academic success had come my way in the form of these three papers, there was promise of upcoming paid contract work at my alma mater, I’d had an offer from a friend to move out of the living situation I’m in that’s contributing to my worsening health, and I was feeling ready to step back out into the world of romance by asking out someone who in recent months I’d been both getting to know better, and growing to fancy, roughly in lockstep with each other.

None of these things have really worked out, though. It brings clouds to my eyes just to type that, but it remains true nonetheless. The romantic thing didn’t work out, which isn’t a problem in and of itself (particularly since the person I fancied had the immense integrity and wondrous grace to sit down with me and talk honestly and openly about why it would be best if we not date, at least for now) – it just feeds into a long, long history of romantic missed opportunities, missteps, and failures to act (more than forty in all; I counted once, in a particularly deep fit of despondency) that always, always make me criticise and harshly judge every aspect of myself to see in which ways I don’t measure up. In addition, my friend’s offer of moving out of my problematic living situation had to be cancelled entirely at the last minute because of the breakup of her relationship (that week was not a good one for relationships – another couple I know also had their civil partnership come to a screeching halt at that time). And I feel doubly awful for that because I know my friend and her partner were both themselves struggling with serious mental health issues, issues that ultimately contributed to their breakup but that must have caused them extraordinary hurt during that process and that make me feel really guilty for feeling upset about the situation for my own (and utterly selfish) reasons. The offer of work I’d had has also had to be postponed several times for a variety of reasons mostly revolving around people being in the field or caught up with other commitments that couldn’t be broken, taking me past the end of my third full year without full-time employment and making me feel even worse about my prospects for beginning to build a life that I can in any way take joy in. As a consequence of these three situations – romance, habitation, employment – I’ve taken a solid backslide even under the increased dosage of the medication my psychiatrist has been working with me on (no doubt situational rather than fundamentally biochemical, which at least does give me a tiny but mathematically non-zero degree of consolation), which has subsequently impacted upon my ability to focus on the writing of further academic papers, on the writing of job applications, and on the continuing effective conductance of my life on a day-to-day basis.

Ultimately, all this is why I feel so keenly the sting of the wound that propelled Reggie Nulan to write his lovely but heart-wrenching prose-poem. Living on the edge of loneliness feels like my reality at the moment; I feel lonely at virtually every moment, even as I try to push myself to address it, to connect with friends, to remain in contact with people I care about. And all that I hoped would come to fruition during October shrivelled on the vine. Life is as stagnant now – moreso, perhaps – as it was at the end of September. At moments like this, I almost fear that my depression and my anxiety are the correct and true way of experience, slyly and underhandedly suggesting that optimism is abhorrent and hope to be shunned. On one level, I’m used to feeling that in my own head. I suppose it just causes a rather deeper ache to feel that the universe around me should be nodding its head so vigorously in agreement.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.
(Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.)
– Dante Alighieri, Inferno III.9

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A short poem, a long ramble

雲おりおり
人をやすめる
月見かな
“Occasional clouds
bring a person respite from
gazing at the moon.”
– Matsuo Bashō, 1644-1694 (my translation)

Poetry is a secret vice of mine, though one about which I’m involuntarily selective. Much as I’d like very much to expose myself to more poetry in the hope of discovering new and emotive mental fodder, my experience with doing so in the past has been that the moments of true enjoyment of poetry are few and very far between. When I read prose, very often I can find a wide range of material I like within a certain genre, or a specific author’s style and expression will enrapture my imagination. This latter is particularly true of some authors. When I first read Stephen King – my first exposure was The Shining, I think – his glorious, intrusive-thoughts writing style and my imaginative faculty slotted together like the two halves of a giant clam’s shell, summoning imagery in my mind’s eye that was rich, vivid, entirely memorable; he takes his craft extremely seriously and has produced fine, engaging prose as a result. Similarly, the power and fluidity of expression emanating from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series captured me more or less immediately as I began to read A Game of Thrones, such that after finishing it I immediately went out to purchase every subsequent available book in the series. (And this was no small feat, as I was struggling with a deep period of depression at that point and had read no new fiction in more than two years: virtually unthinkable, since as an undergrad there were long stretches – and I’m talking months and years on end – where I’d buy and read two or three novels a week, every week, almost without fail. The woman who ran the book stall at the flea market used to know me by name, and moreover, I knew hers too. Gwen. I probably bought upwards of four hundred books from her over the course of a few years.) Others whose books I’d read more or less on the strength of their author’s name are Robert Silverberg, Tim Willocks, and Isaac Asimov, all of whose writing styles and subject matters I find a pleasure to engage with.

But with poetry – and I’m mystified as to just why this is – it’s more that a specific poem has to speak to me somehow on more than one level at a time. It’s not enough to just be by a poet whose style I happen to like; I may love one of a poet’s works, and loathe the next even if it’s similar in subject matter, style, tone. A poem has to move past intellectually objective criteria to touch me emotionally through its form, through its topic, through its power to evoke imagery, through the context in which I first heard it. That doesn’t mean, of course, that only poems of one specific form and subject are eligible for this. I love complex full rhymes just as much as half-rhyme and blank verse, I’ve been touched by epic just as much as by haiku. Indeed, what I think is one of the finest pieces of English-language poetry of the last hundred years isn’t what many would think of as a “poem” at all: it’s Eminem’s Lose Yourself, which is not only a deeply emotional story delivered with richly evocative language, but is also a mindblowing tour de force of rhyme and vocalic assonance so complex that it defies straightforward analysis and makes Alexander Pope’s poetry look like it was written by a primary schooler. But I’m also enamoured of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (my love of the poem was what drove me to translate it into rhyming Klingon verse, my longest complete composition in the language), which has a much simpler rhyme scheme and a much more rigid metre, but expresses itself with such vibrant and almost psychedelic imagery that it conjures its supernatural and deathly visions effortlessly – due, no doubt, to Coleridge also being a well-known and incorrigible dope fiend. The fact that the Rime‘s so widely quoted and alluded to means it’s got some historical importance, as well: an albatross around one’s neck; water, water, everywhere; and so forth. There are several other poems I enjoy just as much – such as John Donne’s A Fever, William Blake’s The Tyger, A. B. Paterson’s Been There Before. And the haiku I quote above is one of these.

It’s a classical Japanese haiku, and such is how I’ve rendered it in the translation above as well – a rigid sequence of three lines in five, seven, and five morae (though the original has six in the first line). The clean minimalism of the haiku format has always appealed to me, though as I don’t read Japanese except with the aid of a dictionary and kana charts, it’s an arduous task for me to access most classics of the genre. And I know virtually nothing of Bashō beyond the fact that he’s widely acknowledged as one of the greatest poets of premodern Japan, and even less about his poetry specifically. This haiku holds meaning to me for other reasons. To begin with, it’s a philosophically interesting idea to hold onto: the idea that not all of life is brightness and beauty and illumination, and that the coming of occasional periods of darkness is natural, to be expected, and perhaps can help one to better appreciate those times when the beauty and brightness shine forth most radiantly, filling one’s life with light. In Japanese culture the moon is also a symbol of autumn (for some reason best known to someone else), and in this poem I think the moon’s own inherent quality of flux in its constant waxing and waning, combined with its cultural embodiment of the season of turning leaves, probably reflect the Zen Buddhist concept of anityatā “impermanence”. This is the idea that nothing stays the same forever, and here Bashō seems to imply that anityatā isn’t to be avoided, but to be embraced – that even the clouds cloaking the moon’s luminescence aren’t inherently bad and may themselves be fruitfully considered from a positive perspective instead (if you’ll permit me a moment of mixed metaphysics):

五色令人目盲。
五音令人耳聾。
五味令人口爽。
“Too much color dazzles the eye.
Too much noise deafens the ear.
Too much flavor deadens the taste.”
– Agnieszka Solska (transl.), Daodejing 12.1-3

But the reason I know of this haiku isn’t because of its usefulness as an illustration of how one might see the silver lining in the clouds (…as it were). Rather, it had been printed on the program of the memorial service for an old friend and mentor, Tom Loy, back in 2005. Tom was a renowned lecturer in archæology at my alma mater (the only scientist mentioned by name in both the book and the film of Jurassic Park, no less); a great polymath, but more importantly a man I was proud to call friend, his theoretical perspectives on the discipline and friendly openness to fellow seekers of knowledge – whether full professors or lowly undergrads – have basically informed the entire direction of my professional development. I was enormously honoured to have been asked to deliver a eulogy at his memorial service, since no other archæologist has influenced me more radically. More importantly, Tom was also a Buddhist, and even in his archæological lectures he taught the utility of anityatā (though never referring to it as such in his lectures) for conceptualising cultural change, emphasising that even in periods of what may appear in the archæological record to be cultural stasis, people constantly die and are replaced, tools constantly broken and are repaired, buildings constantly decay and are rebuilt; what appears to be stasis is only what the Yijing categorises as a distinct type of change, the 不易 bùyì ‘non-change’ that comprises the continuous activities necessary to maintain a diachronically ‘steady state’ or ‘permanence’.

But I digress. (My apologies. Tom never published these perspectives before his unexpected death, so I rarely get the opportunity to discuss them or how they’ve impacted upon my own conceptualisation of how to do archæology.) In any case, Tom’s memorial service was a Buddhist one, and the program bore another translation of this haiku on the back, just above the standard funerary verse from the Mahā-Sudassana Sutra; it’s only just recently that I came across my copy of the program again, unearthing it from a drawer while searching for something else entirely. The first time I saw this haiku back in 2005, it was singularly appropriate to Tom’s death already as a reminder of the evanescence of things, but having seen it anew it’s stirred up a diachronic maelstrom of emotions. I relate to it in an entirely new way now, after my struggles with anxiety and depression ramped up in earnest, but at the same time the poem still serves as a conceptual memento of my friendship with Tom and of the emotions surrounding his death. And the novel set of feelings that’s been awakened clicks snugly, almost seamlessly, into the older emotions; just as it did back then, the poem still reminds me that the idea of the impermanence of experiences and of things isn’t only to be looked at through pessimistic eyes. It’s for just that reason that I was moved to compose a new translation of the original Japanese haiku – the English translation that’s at the beginning of this post – to share with a dear friend earlier in the week, a friend who’s also suffering through some psychologically rough times. For us sufferers of anxiety and depression, much of the time it’s hard to maintain optimism and hold onto the idea that though it might seem like good times and pleasant feelings are gone for good, bad times and unpleasant feelings are just as impermanent, are just as much anityā. So I wanted to share this haiku with her, and now with anyone else who might read it here on my blog; not just because it’s one of my favourite pieces of poetry, appealing to me in its form, its subject matter, and in the hidden depth of its meaning, but because it’s been helpful to me as a mental tool. I’ll be well pleased if it can serve as such for anyone else.

The faults in our stars

So about a year ago, I sent a letter to a complete stranger. I was fifty-fifty even then on whether I’d receive a reply at all and I still feel like a bit of a weirdo for having sent it in the first place; by now it was to the point where I’d forgotten I’d even sent the original letter. But in the mail this week I received a reply letter, postmarked Louisville, Kentucky. This is what was in the envelope.

20161026_2312491

Yes, I wrote a letter to Jennifer Lawrence. Although I have a pretty fair collection of autographed memorabilia (most are books, and most of those are signed by their authors, and most of those are people I either knew already as friends, or was introduced to by friends or family), writing fanmail is not a pastime I make a regular practice of – not only can it be pretty expensive to write letters from Australia to Europe or the US, especially if one would want to receive something back, but in general I don’t have any more admiration for actors, musicians, sportspeople, and other celebrities than I do for any other group of people. Though top-flight actors and sportspeople might get paid ridiculously moreso than virtually anyone else on Earth short of corporate rorting ratfink bigwigs CEOs, they’re just people like any other, doing a job that they’ve trained to do and that they’re paid to do, and my attitude is generally to treat them as such. (Last year, I took a friend visiting from Germany out into the City to have dinner and a beer at an Irish pub I like; while we were in the pub sipping on pints of Guinness – an obligatory first beer for me whenever I visit an Irish pub – my friend all of a sudden recognised a man with a companion at a table behind us, and it turned out the man was Nick Frost, frequent collaborator of Simon Pegg and actor in Shaun of the Dead, Kinky Boots, and Hot Fuzz. And while we were both surprised to see him eating in O’Malley’s on Queen Street, of all places, we made the conscious – and quite easy – decision to just leave him and his companion to enjoy their evening out together. We smiled and nodded at him as we left; that was the sum total of our interaction.) Consequently, I’m not one to go nuts with fanmail.

There have, however, been precisely two occasions in my life where I’ve been moved to write to a celebrity – and more to the point, to someone I didn’t know in person at all – in order to tell them something I felt they deserved to hear, not to approach them as a capital-C-Cᴇʟᴇʙʀɪᴛʏ, but to approach them as a fellow human being who succeeded in touching my life in a small way, just in the same way as I’d leave a friend a note to cheer them up, just as I’d thank someone who picked up something I dropped. The first time was to Delta Goodrem back in 2003, when the news broke that she had been diagnosed with lymphoma. She was 18, and I little more than a year older, at 19; more to the point, though, my grandfather was at that time in the middle of his own long battle with lymphoma as well. The combination of the two was an unsettling first confrontation with the real potential of mortality for the first time in my adult life, and so in an effort to face those grim thoughts head-on, I decided to write a short letter to wish Delta well in her fight. I never sought a reply nor expected one, but several months later an envelope addressed to me, with no stamp and no return address, was dropped in my mailbox. Inside the envelope was a Delta Goodrem postcard, bearing a simple but lovely handwritten message on the back:

Thank you for your letter, and kind thoughts / x D

So that was the only other time. And like the first, the reason I wrote to Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t actually to ask for her autograph. That was a complete afterthought, more or less along the lines of “hell, if I’m going to send a letter to her anyway, I may as well ask if she could sign my copy of Silver Linings Playbook“. I was moved to write to her for another reason entirely, and that was the fact that in the last couple of years, she’s made use of the enormously visible platform she occupies to speak out – more than once – about her experiences with social anxiety. (A couple of articles detailing her opening up about these issues can be found here, and if you read French, here.) As a sufferer of (among other things) a social anxiety disorder myself, and a friend to several others who also struggle with this sometimes debilitating illness, I was almost startled to hear someone speak frankly about their own experiences with anxiety in an open and public forum, and intensely grateful that someone with such influence upon the world’s media was willing to sacrifice her personal privacy in exchange for the betterment of awareness about an issue around which a great deal of stigma still revolves. The same feeling of surprise would have come if it were anyone in the public eye to any degree: a tennis player like Roger Federer, or a royal figure like the Duchess of Cambridge, or even Melissa Downes who reads the Channel Nine news. And so it was that I wrote to Jennifer Lawrence, of all people, to thank her for her forthrightness:

Partly it’s unclear to me why I felt so drawn to write to you, someone I’ve neither met nor seen except on a screen (whether it’s been in your film work, or interviews you’ve given to the broader press). What I do know is that part of my impetus was learning recently from one of your interviews about your confrontation with social anxiety, which hit me in a rather personal way that I wasn’t expecting. Because some unkind people still do stigmatise or minimise anxiety’s impact, as a sufferer myself I’m grateful for your willingness to be honest and open about those issues… though I know that isn’t why you do what you do, I still felt it was important to let you know, and I thought you might like to know, that you’re genuinely inspiring to me as I battle through my own challenges, and I’m sure to many, many others as they battle through theirs.

So I suppose my motive for requesting that she sign the cover of my copy of Silver Linings Playbook was twofold. In one way, the simple fact was that I was writing to her anyway, and I thought that, since I was already paying for postage to the US, it would be nice to have her sign a DVD of the movie for which she won an Academy Award. But the second and more important reason was, I suppose, that to be able to see her signature there – on the front of a movie whose entire plot revolves around the challenges of mental illness, no less – is a reminder of the fact that I was moved to write to her in the first place by her willingness to talk about her own battle; a reminder of someone who’s successfully working through her own anxiety to reach the pinnacle of success in her chosen field; and a reminder that anxiety need be neither invincible nor eternal.

22 Days of Musing: 22

22. A letter to the sufferer.

So tonight is the last night of the 22-day challenge I set for myself in lieu of doing the 22 Push-Up Challenge, which asks one to record 22 push-ups a day to raise awareness of those suffering from mental health challenges, particularly combat veterans. And I thought what might be a good way to bring the challenge to a conclusion is to address the sufferers directly. To anyone who might read this who suffers some form of mental trauma or anguish – any psychological illness that in some way holds you back, that prevents you from socialising with friends, from forming romantic relationships, from even getting out of bed some mornings – I have a few things I’d like to say to you.

My dear, beloved journeyer through the valley of the shadow of death:

I feel pain like yours. No-one else feels your pain – no-one can – but I, and others, feel pain similar to yours. The pain you feel is the result of an illness, not a failing. You are wonderful. You are enough. You’re simply sick. It’s okay to be sick, and being sick is not your fault. If you can’t climb out of it alone? Still not your fault. There is help available if you can reach out for it, so please hang in there until you can summon enough strength from within yourself to make that step of reaching out. Please hang in there. You are wonderful. You are so very enough. I can’t and won’t promise that the darkness will pass; nonetheless, there are things that can help to make it more bearable. Seek counselling. Talk. Whether with a counsellor, or a psychologist, or a psychiatrist, or even the lone and last friend that you can trust, talk about your feelings, your emotions, your stresses, your worries, your fears, or your emptiness. Call one of these numbers, if you have no-one else to talk to:

Military: ADF Health (in Australia) – 1800 628 036 (24 hours, free call)
Military: ADF Health – +61 2 9425 3878 (24 hours)
Military: Walking Wounded – 1300 030 364 (24 hours)
Civilian: Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636 (24 hours)
Civilian: Diverse Voices – 1800 184 527 (3pm-midnight, free call)
Civilian: Lifeline – 13 11 14 (24 hours)
Civilian: Suicide Callback Service – 1300 659 467 (24 hours)

Do those things that do help you to feel again. Visit a friend. Give yourself a manicure. Start a journal. Watch two hours of gambolling kittens on YouTube. Take yourself out on a date. Order your favourite delivered take-away food. Soak in a hot bath for an hour. Take pleasure in something small. Make sure to take your medication, if you’ve been prescribed it – it’s not a crutch. You’re simply sick. It is okay to be sick, and being sick is still not your fault. Your life has unfathomable value, and a value perhaps most unfathomable, right now, to yourself. Taking your life is an escape, but not a solution; you are unique and your life has value because of the unique combination of gifts that you possess. The trauma, or the genetics, or the sheer accident that visited a psychological ailment on you are not your burden to carry. They are not your fault. They do not get to define you. Your past does not define you; your present will not torture you forever; your future is, even though you may not see it from the bottom of the pit, far brighter than the despair and the terror and the agony that you’ve suffered. Even if you feel you need to tell yourself so, this is not your fault, and brighter days will lie ahead, whether they be temporary – in which case, cherish them while they last – or permanent – in which case, do the same thing. Above all, find people who can be your people. They’ll help to show you the way out of the darkness, and they’ll help to take care of you when you can’t take care of yourself. They see the good and the wonder and the positive and the immeasurable value in you, because they’re outside of your mind, not obscured by the blurred, dusty, warped filter through which you judge yourself.

I tell you all this from the darkness of my own mental illness, and I hope that some small part of what I’ve suggested, and of my reflections over the course of the last twenty-one days on my own experiences with mental illness – its causes, its triggers, its symptoms, its pain, its treatment, its passing – can help to provide even a small piece of the map that will help you to find your way out of the despair. Paradoxically, this despair, the little-death of depression, reminds me sometimes of the fiercely defiant words of House Greyjoy from the novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, which I leave you with now:

What is dead may never die,
but rises again, harder and stronger.
– George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

Thank you for allowing me to share these thoughts with you over the last three weeks, and much love to you, fellow traveller. I hope your days in the dark will be short, your years in the light will be long, and that you too will rise again, harder and stronger.

– A fellow journeyer

22 Days of Musing: 21

21. It’s okay to not be okay.

Hoookay, folks; tonight’s reflection is going to be a relatively short one, I fear, as I’ve come down with a rather nasty case of cellulitis on and around my left elbow and resting it on the arm of the chair to type is causing it to ache rather unpleasantly. I’ve already been prescribed a good heavy dose of erythromycin, though, so don’t worry about me (at least, not until my arm turns black and falls off entirely – let’s try and avoid that, shall we?). Nonetheless, I’ve just found out that this week, from the 9th to the 15th of October, is National Mental Health Week, and focused upon the now-passed World Mental Health Day on the 10th. This is a week in which to reflect on mental health as a phenomenon, as an experience, as a burden, and try to ask ourselves what we can do or improve on to help both ourselves and others to move closer to a state of mental wellness, and I think it’s apposite, then, that I reflect on that. This kind of awareness campaign is incalculably valuable, I believe, because such a powerful stigma still exists even now against talking honestly about one’s less-than-ideal state of mental health in a public arena. People are in varying degrees content to ask a friend how their treatment for cancer is going, how their broken arm is mending, whether their cold has cleared off; but when it comes to mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia and PTSD, we really lack the cultural ability and social framework within which to engage with those kinds of conversations. There’s a feeling pervading almost every niche of society, even now in 2016, that feeling mentally ill is still something that it’s proper manners to keep the fuck to yourself, as tightly wrapped as a pharaonic mummy – to the point where I even found myself apologising to my psychiatrist when I burst into tears during my last session with her. Prima facie, this should be completely ridiculous, the idea of apologising to the very person I should be opening my feelings to for the very act of opening my feelings to her in what felt to a part of my brain like it was an excessive, if not outright shameful, manner. I fight this feeling every day, battling hard to maintain a matter-of-fact attitude towards my own mental illness (while not being cavalier, of course) when I discuss my health issues with others. Awareness campaigns of the sort we’re seeing in the National Mental Health Week give me great heart for this reason. It’s one thing for me to model the kind of approaches I’d like to see when it comes to engaging with mental illness more generally (and even here I’ve been told at times that I share too much, that it’ll hurt my future career prospects, that it’ll scare people away from me, et cetera – ironically, mostly by an ex-partner who herself was at the time suffering from rather serious mental health issues that were at the time going undiagnosed and untreated), but having the backup of organisational-level efforts like National Mental Health Week, the It’s Okay To Say (If You Don’t Feel Okay), and the R U OK? campaigns to normalise the discussion of mental illness in public is truly cheering for me. It’s a big public display of support for the mentally ill in general, and for me in particular it helps to reinforce the small, serene voice in my head that tries so very hard to convince me that I’m allowed to speak up while being constantly drowned out by the other voice in my head, the shouty Don Rickles-impersonating motherfucker on the megaphone. So if I can make a request of you, dear reader, I’d ask that you please do something this National Mental Health Week to show your support for those with mental illness, even if all that is is to ask a suffering friend if they’re okay, and listen without prejudice. And if it’s you that’s suffering, please look to those around you to try and start building a support network. There’s a wonderful quote I like from, of all places, Tumblr; some time ago, a user going by the alias tahtahtahtia posted this to their Tumblr blog, which I reproduce here verbatim.

today my anthro professor said something kindof really beautiful:
“you all have a little bit of ‘I want to save the world’ in you,

that’s why you’re here, in college.
I want you to know that it’s okay if you only save one person,
and it’s okay if that person is you”
– tahtahtahtia

22 Days of Musing: 19

19. Paint yourself out of a corner.

Actually, because I mentioned it in last night’s reflection as well as the nominee I chose – a friend who happens to be a spectacular artist herself – I find myself thinking more about painting, a pastime that I mentioned I’d engaged in on occasion. This might seem to be well and truly off point, but I promise that I have a reason for talking about this. I’ve never considered myself particularly artistic; although music’s always had a role in my life (or at least, it did up until depression set in in earnest) and I enjoyed playing and listening to music of a wide range of types, I’ve always thought of myself as having little to no skill at all in the visual arts. Many years ago (and we’re talking many years, as in, back when I was in high school) I did ponder taking up the art of cartooning and took a workshop to that end, and in all fairness it’s true that I do appreciate the beauty of a unique piece of visual artwork. There was great wonder and excitement in visiting the art and archaeology museums I’ve experienced around the world – the National Gallery in Melbourne, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the Getty in Los Angeles – that contain spectacular examples of art both ancient and modern. At the Met, I fell in love with the work of Johannes Vermeer; at Olympia, the Hermes and the Infant Dionysos of Praxiteles. But largely, my experience of these artworks has been with the understanding that I could neither imagine nor execute works of such beauty and vividness, and with this knowledge I was, and remain, largely content. But in late 2012, about eighteen months after starting on my first antidepressant medication, I experienced another period of darkness mainly focused upon the time around Christmas (a holiday that in recent years has come to give me less and less joy, to the point where I no longer look forward to it at all; but that’s a story for another time, I think). Each time I’ve fallen deeply into the pit of depression, I’ve noticed something that has deserted me; in this instance, it was my ability to maintain focus for any length of time. Even when I wished to write an email to a friend, I’d write perhaps one sentence, then have my focus begin inexorably drifting in a manner that I found I was unable to control – such that it would take me weeks to write and send an email to someone I wanted to stay in touch with. And so it was in early January of 2013 that I found myself scrabbling for ways to claw back some of the focus that had by that point entirely deserted me. What I decided at that time was that I needed to find something that I had a solid theoretical knowledge about, but that I was entirely unskilled at: something that wasn’t time-sensitive but demanded periods of specific focus, something that, because I wasn’t naturally skilled at it, would occupy many parts of my mind all at once in order to execute successfully. And what I decided upon was painting. At the time I’d only recently rewatched Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a story and fictional universe I’ve always taken much enjoyment from, and so it was from here that I drew inspiration. And I was successful, in the main; after three weeks of this self-administered focus treatment, this was the result, which now hangs above my door in a place where it looks over me every time I go into my room. (Forgive the curvature at the top and bottom; to get a sufficiently detailed shot, I had to take the photo from close enough to cause this distortion as well.)

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Ú-chebin galad anim. Acrylic on canvas, January 2013.

Unlike some of my subsequent paintings, which have been done largely just to keep my hands and my mind busy, with virtually every aspect of this painting I spent much time developing the theme and filling the piece with rich symbolism; it quickly moved past being simply a picture to paint, and has come to take on a more deeply therapeutic role. The role of this specific piece of work in my self-treatment for depression has been significant, and I think I’ll explain exactly how in tomorrow’s reflection, as it’s a little convoluted.

22 Days of Musing: 18

18. Swings and roundabouts.

Forgive me tonight for going down a bit of a grim direction, but this is something that I think needs talking about just as much as any other aspect of mental illness, and especially depression; while I’ve touched on it previously, there’s more I’ve realised I needed to get out. One of the aspects of this illness that I’m still wrapping my head around even now is the challenge of working out how to set up mental and physical spaces in my daily life that can assist me in breaking out of a phase of anxiety or depression when it happens. For some people, it can be a small trigger that sends them into a tailspin that might take days or weeks to recover from. One such small thing in particular I’ve heard of is a show of fireworks. To the average person with a tolerance for noise, they’re a joyful, raucous and beauteous display of celebration, and every New Year’s Eve I love to watch them (usually at a party with dear friends), vivid bursts of incandescent greens and magentas and cascades of golden sparkles, watching the phantasmagorical tones illuminate friends’ captivated faces in shades neither sun nor moon could ever produce. But fireworks are explosives, of course, and to a military veteran suffering from PTSD the sharp reports of exploding fireworks – and indeed, also the smell of gunpowder that often lingers after a large pyrotechnic display – may be indistinguishable from sounds of gunfire and artillery combat, thence triggering an episode of intense anxiety, or even a full-blown flashback. I’m immensely grateful that this association is not one that I suffer from, but nonetheless, there will be times during the course of some days where someone might say something insensitive, or even something that reminds me of a traumatic event in my past, that will set me off. And the phrasing of such events as “triggers” is exactly right, in my experience: like a gun’s trigger, or a set mousetrap, the right (or wrong, as it were) pressure will switch on those unhealthy, unproductive thought processes almost immediately, and the stimulus will make you think of one thing, which then leads to another, and then another, and before you know it you’ve fallen back onto the carousel of crazy, the vicious cycle that you know intellectually is bullshit but you can’t stop yourself from being dragged into anyway. There are, however, ways in which you can gently help yourself down off the madness-go-round. This is related in some ways to the “Spells of Coming Forth into Daylight” metaphor I used in a previous blog post. My personal set of spells is fairly neatly delineated into tools in my environment, tools I can summon physically, and tools I can summon mentally. Long work with my psychologist and psychiatrist has given me many conceptual tools with which I can analyse my thoughts, and try to step outside the illness to look at a scenario more objectively rather than letting emotions run away with me. But when I’m in the middle of a dead phase, summoning such conceptual frameworks can be challenging in itself, when there are no emotions, just sheer emptiness and vacuum. This is where the physical (or at least quasi-physical) manifestations of my brain repair kit come in handy: they’re unarguably present and direct stimuli that can remind me of cheery things even in times when I can’t think of such things unbidden. In my phone case, I have a small pamphlet from my psychologist giving me a step-by-step guide to overcoming a panic attack, which has come in useful more than once. On my phone itself, I have a carefully-curated collection of digital images and videos, every single one of which I’ve saved only if it’s never failed to bring a smile to my face on an absolutely involuntary basis. There’s an image macro of Lyanna Mormont snipping back at Ramsay Bolton. There’s a video of a cute little marching band made up entirely of cartoon cats. There’s another video of my little nephew, burbling formlessly for a few seconds before he spontaneously grins and sings the word “Pickles!”. When I’m feeling poorly or defeated, these little digital pick-me-ups are pure gold: they help to create a tiny chink in the robust armour of the anguish, and remind me that emotions do exist, that they’re things that people feel, and that they’re things that I can feel too. And around the room that serves me as workspace, there are more permanent fixtures – the tools in my environment that I mentioned just before – also aimed at breaking me out of the darkness before I fall in too deeply. The three trophies I amassed from winning poker tournaments. A whiteboard prominently bearing reminders of effective ways to minimise negative feelings and improve the impact of the positive (above the aphorism your current situation is not your permanent destination). A canvas I painted myself, bearing a quote from the film Clerks II that’s always struck me deeply (even moreso considering the film is supposed to be a comedy):

If you had any sense whatsoever, you’d fucking stop trying to bray it up with the rest of the sheep and live your life the way it makes sense for you!
– Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), Clerks II

It’s never just one tool for one job, you see. The protean nature of mental illness means that the sufferer may often need a whole arsenal of methods through which to learn how to deal; and while my toolkit remains far from complete, the tools I have are at least sharp and efficient, and get ever more so as I continue to accumulate insights and support from my psychologist, my psychiatrist, my doctors, and my allies.

22 Days of Musing: 16

16. A brain of many parts.

A question I’ve been asked more than once since having transitioned earlier on this year is whether or not the process has given me any relief from my mental health issues – whether the transition has enabled me to feel freer, more open with my life in a way that’s allowed my depression and anxiety to be ameliorated even in part. This is an extraordinarily difficult question to answer, but I think in tonight’s reflection I might well try. Difficult though the question is to answer, it’s an entirely fair one: the fact that even under the law, QUILTBAG people in our society still don’t enjoy the kinds of freedom afforded to the privileged, the cishet upper-class male white Anglo-Saxon Christian (the recent and puke-inducingly-named Budgie Nine being classic examples), factors heavily into the appalling statistics for the state of their mental health. The stigma from society, both real and perceived, contributes to the oppression of QUILTBAG people and the deterioration of their psychological well-being. (Most of the stats I’m about to cite come from this link, in case you’re wondering.) In Australia, the rates of depression and anxiety in straight people are about one in seventeen and one in seven, respectively. In lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, these rates increase approximately to one in five for depression, and one in three for anxiety. Thirty-six percent of trans Australians currently suffer from depression. One in eight lesbian, gay or bi people have attempted suicide in their lives. Australian statistics on transgender suicidality aren’t available, but comparable surveys in the US indicate that two in five trans people have attempted suicide at least once in their life. Two in five. Sobering indeed; if the same rate applies to transgender Australians, it comprises a 14-fold increase in risk on a background rate of around 3%. All this is largely the result of stigmatisation that’s present everywhere and still seeps even from much of society that thinks itself progressive; for this reason, it does make sense that friends and others would ask whether being out of the closet – being able to be open and actively performative about my gender, rather than keeping it firmly under wraps and detesting myself anew every time the shame touched me – would assist my mental health. And there are certainly ways in which it has done so. I’m more likely to be frank and honest with people now than I was before; it’s something I still am learning how to do effectively, but I’d like to think I’ve gained certain aspects of confidence that I lacked previously. I’m less likely to tolerate people’s bullshit, more likely to call them out on it. (I’m just waiting for the day someone calls me a transphobic slur overtly and to my face. To hark back to that Pixar film Inside Out for a moment, the little fire-headed Lewis Black inside my mind has a seriously fucking itchy trigger finger and is just waiting to go verbally R. Lee Ermey on some arrogant bigot, with all the energy pent up from having to tolerate reading articles about institutional anti-QUILTBAG perspectives while not being able to reach into the Internet and smack Cory Bernardi and Miranda Devine and Lyle Shelton and Tony Abbott right upside their stupid fat heads.) And on a more genteel side but also related to that previous point, my ability to express my feelings to those closest to me has also improved beyond what I’d expected. I’ve always craved physical contact, and consider it one of the most direct and unmistakable signs of genuine affection of all sorts, but for decades I’ve felt immensely awkward about initiating it and paranoid about overstepping the bounds of social convention, most especially the social conventions that limit those who identify as male. Not so much any more, and that brings me a more reliable sensation of closeness to those I care about. Verbally, too, I’m less worried about being effusive with praise or compliment or affection. Telling someone how much I care, or that I love them, is easier now after opening myself up, and that’s been inexpressibly wonderful. And I think that’s a nice note on which to leave tonight’s reflection, so I’ll save the rest of that thought for tomorrow; there are a couple of tangents (hopefully interesting also to the rest of you) that I’d like to explore while I continue to talk about the relationship between my transition and my mental illness.

22 Days of Musing: 15

15. Grokking my fullness.

I’d like to talk tonight about how desperately important it is, when you suffer from any kind of mental illness whatsoever – depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa, obsessive-compulsive disorder – to maintain a network of supportive and trusted people around you who can assist you to maintain at least a certain handle on the illness, and can act as a soft place to fall if the disorder should get difficult enough to require that. For a plethora of reasons individually too small to consider problematic but joining together to form a larger and more formidable challenge of my psychological strength, it tends to be my friends in whom I place the most trust when it comes to being open and frank about my battle with mental illness. I don’t know what it is that makes me trust them moreso than anyone else. Perhaps it’s the discomfort I feel with the fact that there’s a societal obligation upon family to care – that blood is thicker than water, to the point where in many cultures the word for “family” or “clan” even comes from terms for body parts, as in Māori iwi “clan” (literally, “bone”) and the Ubykh equivalent lhepq (literally “blood [and] bone”) – an obligation that anxiety makes me sometimes question, even as I tell myself not to be so bloody bone-headed. I ask myself, are they being supportive because they truly want to be? Or rather because blest be the tie that binds and the omnipresent ᴛʜᴇʏ would look poorly upon kinship coming not before all? Having anxiety sometimes makes me ask such terrible questions even as I loathe myself for doing so. And so the hands of my friends, bound by no such ties of kin that might conceivably oblige them to catch me as I fall, tend to be those I trust with my psychological well-being (or lack thereof), because I’m more comfortable, on the whole, with the idea that they’re supportive because it pleases them to be so.

Nkiéjuale mğiéjuale waléwmıt.
(Old friends and old roads will not deceive you.)
– Ubykh proverb

This very evening, in fact, I spent a solid two hours (we can’t seem to help talking longer, always, than what either of us plan!) on the phone nattering with my best friend, ranging over a whole slew of topics and running along glorious tangents at every other turn. The peculiar thing is that it need not be a conversation about anything in particular that helps me to feel better or more positive; I don’t necessarily need to drop my bundle or vent my spleen to get a sensation of improvement. It can simply be the mere fact of having contact with another human being who cares about me for just exactly what and who I am, warts and all, that gives salve for the wounds that respond to no physical cure. When you’re mentally ill, the value of having somebody understand you is incalculable. And I’m not talking here simply about passive understanding, the sage nod of the “oh, I see” from someone who intellectually comprehends the words you’ve said, the scenario you’ve described, and might perhaps even feel sympathy, expressed (or not) in a platitude of some sort. Merely being understood is sometimes not what you need, or at least, is often not what I need. Rather, what I mean is having someone actively understanding you, or (with apologies to the late Robert Heinlein) grokking your fullness: not the mere statement of someone’s understanding, but an activity that communicates that understanding. Actions speaking louder, et cetera. The kind of understanding I most value is that shown not by attempting to “understand” as such at all, but by simply interacting, talking, laughing, commiserating, joking, raging together, in a way that demonstrates – that perhaps even performs – one’s understanding of me. Not of my illness, or of my circumstances, but simply of me. This is exceedingly difficult to describe, and the English language really lacks the lexical and grammatical tools to express the idea as cleanly as I perceive it, but equally impossible to describe is the value I place on spending time with people who’re willing to perform this kind of understanding. And sometimes all that’s necessary is to simply exist in the right place at the right time. On two occasions in 2011 after the “girl from the conference” débâcle, I lost my composure and fell apart in public towards the end of two nights out with a group of friends. In both instances, I realised what was happening and separated myself before I dropped my bundle completely. But one friend noticed my unexplained absence and came out to simply sit with me as I sobbed in the gutter and rest his hand on my shoulder. Both times it was the same friend, and he said nothing as I wept. But he knew, somehow instinctively, that I didn’t need someone to comfort me with words; I just needed someone to be with me and perform an understanding of the fact I just needed to feel like I was not alone. To turn a phrase, he understood the shit out of me on those nights, just as my best friend did earlier this evening. Loneliness is one of the curses of depression, and knowing who your truly understanding allies are can help to fend off that loneliness when it becomes too much to bear; I imagine this could be true for any mental illness, that the establishing of a small group of intimately trusted people who can grok your fullness can save you in those circumstances when your mind is seeking rather to betray you.

22 Days of Musing: 12

12. The candies of fun.

The treatment options available for mental illness are rich and varied, and include not only counselling – the first place I looked to for assistance, primarily because I was not in stable employment and the counselling service they offered through the university support services was free – but also psychological and psychiatric intervention that may or may not include medication. After some time spent working with the university counsellor, I experienced a general reduction in the severity of my symptoms, but not a complete dispersal by any means, and I had a relapse after a couple of months. But as I mentioned in yesterday’s reflection, in this little while I’d come to realise that there were additional options I could seek out through the public health system, and once I did my general practitioner was my next port of call; through him I was referred to a psychologist, and subsequently started on a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and medication, with which we were able to get my depression more or less adequately managed.

When we anticipate, we’re the happiest. Unless you’re on antidepressants. The reason you take antidepressants is because you can’t anticipate. You think everything’s going to be horrible, so it usually is.
– Lewis Black

Previously I’d never thought about the idea that in my depression and anxiety a chronic illness might be affecting me, but after sitting down with the doctor and psychologist and developing a list of the episodes I’d experienced – not only since January, but since the first phase of depression I’d recognised in myself back in 2008 – it gradually dawned upon me that I was staring down the barrel of exactly that: chronic mixed depression and a social anxiety disorder (this is the precise nature of my illness as it was eventually diagnosed). Over the five years and a bit since my first diagnosis, I’ve been moved onto and off a range of medications: sertraline, desvenlafaxine, escitalopram, diazepam in a couple of instances where my anxiety has come to the fore unusually strongly, and most recently, paroxetine. Psychotropic medications of this sort can be of great assistance once the right one is found, but here also there are many challenges to confront. Starting on an antidepressant medication can disorient you, or even appear to worsen your symptoms for a short while. Missing a day of medication can unsettle you, either psychologically or physically (or both). Being on a medication too long can cause it to lose effectiveness – one of the reasons I’ve been on several different antidepressants; I was on sertraline for about three years before it lost its potency, desvenlafaxine for another year or so after that, escitalopram for just a few months (long enough to realise that it didn’t really work well for me), and paroxetine for the last few months. And changing from one medication to another, which necessitates spending a few days withdrawing slowly from the previous one to the upcoming one, can be even more disorienting than starting on antidepressants for the first time. That only happened to me once, fortunately, while coming down off desvenlafaxine; I’ve heard from other depression sufferers that this is one of the tougher therapeutic drugs to withdraw from, and the otherwise basically indescribable phenomenon some refer to as “brain zaps” were entirely alien to my experience. But they didn’t last long, thank goodness, and upon moving to the escitalopram they subsided within less than a day. I know people who are fundamentally opposed to much of psychiatric practice because of the use of psychoactive medications, but in my experience they’re a tool just like any other, to be respected but not feared; though times do occur when I feel as though the medications veil the positive and pleasant and desirable emotions nearly as much as it does the negative and painful and torturous ones, certainly I don’t think I would have made it through the last five years without their assistance.