Tag Archives: friends

The arrival of Arrival

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of watching a newly-released film with a dear friend – something I’d been immensely looking forward to, and not just because this week got very I’ve-fallen-into-a-parallel-universe-and-I-can’t-get-up with the election of a sexist, racist demagogue as President of the United States of America. Being able to distract ourselves with a big cinematic experience was thoroughly lovely, and while we were surprised at first by a rather large local street festival that neither of us realised was going to be on right outside the cinema doors, even that in itself was a lovely way to pass the time, wandering up and down past stalls, avoiding the heat and humidity while we could, staying out of rain, smelling and eating street food (we both got gözleme, a Turkish fried bready dish that I love but can’t often get here in Australia), and having a relatively quiet (and cold; it was stinking humid, and a storm broke later that afternoon) drink in a café we both like. So all in all, it was a wonderful afternoon’s diversion.

It was also a particularly nice experience in that I don’t go out to the cinema very often anyway, which is due to two major contributing factors. One of those is the fact that it requires some planning and psychological strength for me to do something off routine these days, and so I often find myself “postponing” going out to the cinema to take in a film until I end up missing the entirety of the film’s run. The other is the fact that Hollywood is simply not producing that many movies that appeal to me these days, and of late the cinematic industry seems to be relying for most of its punter bucks to be coming from superhero movies, reboots and sequels, and vehicles for whoever the latest Flavour of the Month is: Anna Kendrick, Bonemarrow Crunchybits, Chris Pratt, Melissa McCarthy. Not that I mind individual instances of these – I’m super keen to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them when it comes out next week, for example – but on the whole, it seems that variety is rather lacking. Do we really need three separate Wolverine movies, you cats, in addition to the six X-Men films we already have? Did Jurassic World really add anything substantive to the ideas that Jurassic Park already explored? (And quite beautifully, I might add: not only was the film itself just incredible – beautifully shot, well-acted, and majestically scored – but for a film released in 1993, the special effects in Jurassic Park are mindblowing and stand up extraordinarily well even by today’s standards. What’s more, it was a rare gold star for Hollywood in the gender stakes. There were only two major female characters, but both were awesome: Lex Murphy ran firmly counter to stereotype as a teen girl computer whiz who hacked the park’s security system, and Dr. Ellie Sattler is serious life goals for me, a strong and intelligent woman with a doctorate who can be feminine, kick arse without having to wear heels to do so, and explicitly lampshade a few sexist attitudes into the bargain. While I have to confess I haven’t seen Jurassic World, a deliberate choice given that it was both Chris Pratt and a sequel that didn’t need to be done, I’ve heard that if anything the attitude towards women has moved distinctly backwards. Yet another reason not to see it.)

Anyway. I’m digressing again. Yesterday’s film was none of these: neither a superhero movie, nor a reboot, nor a sequel (nor an exhibit of Chris Pratt or Anna Kendrick). It was the science-fiction film Arrival, an adaptation of the Nebula Award-winning novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. I hadn’t read any of his work previously – apart from the general difficulty I have with getting into new fiction these days, Chiang is remarkably selective about his sci-fi publication, having published only 15 stories in his career (even as they’ve achieved mindblowing success, garnering among others four Nebulas, four Hugos, and three Locus Awards to date). Indeed, he apparently once even turned down a Hugo nomination because he felt editorial urging had pressed him into producing a rushed and (to him) unsatisfactory story. It seems that Story of Your Life had long been considered unfilmable, but in all honesty, I’m glad that the screenwriters persisted, because in Arrival, they’ve produced something incredible.

Alert for major spoilers from here on out, by the way.

On its face, Arrival is an alien first contact movie, and probably the most accurate portrayal of a potential first-contact scenario in cinema history, with the potential exception of Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel. Arrival takes the problem of interspecies communication that most other cinematic science fiction simply handwaves away if it acknowledges it at all (with telepathy in Independence Day, with the Babel Fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with universal translator devices of a thousand different incarnations in a thousand other sci-fi outings), and moves it squarely into the foreground, building the film’s major quest line out of the struggle to communicate with the squidlike heptapods and discover their purpose for visiting Earth in the first place. The military is involved, as they so often are, but the protagonist of the film – and indeed, the only one we really find ourselves empathising with throughout – is an academic linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, whose performance is complex, deep, and really touching), who’s called upon by the Army to attempt to speak with the alien visitors but frequently forgets military protocols and security (in that strangely childlike manner that we academics often seem to be able to muster) in pursuit of the loftier goal of communication, often with the assistance of theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

From a purely linguistic point of view, I don’t think the process of monolingual fieldwork with a previously unknown language has ever been so accurately depicted upon film; the hesitating first steps, the breakthroughs that form a foundation upon which the rest of the language can be constructed in the mind of the learner, the rapid acceleration of mutual comprehension thereafter. The film also explores a particularly strong version of what linguists call linguistic relativity or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that one’s language influences or may even define the ways in which we see the world, and the whole film’s premise turns out to be that the purpose for the alien visitors coming to Earth is to impart their language to humanity. The heptapods’ form of visual communication is a semasiographic system in which a single complex symbol forms an entire sentence or utterance, and the form of every subpart of that symbol is morphologically influenced by every other part. In other words, in order to start talking in this form of communication, you already have to know exactly how the utterance will end – to predict its future, in a sense. So the story assumes from this a particularly strong version of Sapir-Whorf, stating that in essence, being able to use the heptapods’ visual language can impart the ability to “remember” both the past and the future: to perceive time not as a linear progression from cause to effect, but as a single flow of temporality.

But despite realising Ted Chiang’s heptapod aliens in arresting visual form, and hinting at a much greater alien universe in which they (and we) are situated, Arrival – like the novella on which it was based – rises into a higher class of sci-fi in that it never gets lost in exposition of extraterrestrial creatures at the expense of exploring the human condition, telling us first and foremost something about ourselves, about humanity. Even though the film’s focus would superficially appear to be upon the arrival of the heptapods and the process of establishing meaningful contact, and indeed that’s the bulk of what you see on screen, it isn’t so much that as it is the story of Louise Banks herself, and by proxy, her future husband Ian Donnelly (the selfsame physicist with whom she deciphered the heptapods’ language, who she will eventually marry) and her daughter (and the fact that the primary character’s a woman is also eminently pleasing in a genre so often dominated by male characters). It’s the story of how Louise’s acquisition from the heptapods of this ability to perceive all of her life at once affects the way her life subsequently unfolds, and how it impacts upon the decisions she has to make in the rest of her life (including whether or not she should have her daughter at all, knowing as she does that her  child’s life will be cruelly cut short by a devastating genetic illness, and that she and Ian will divorce because he finds out she knew it would happen and couldn’t handle it). This underlying story, as much alluded to as depicted outright, is what raises Arrival from an already pretty gripping and beautifully realised alien arrival tale into the top echelons of philosophical science fiction, up with Interstellar and Blade Runner as some of the best deep-thinking sci-fi ever put to screen. Those looking for a standard humans-versus-aliens Explosionfest are going to walk away sorely disappointed from Arrival, but so they should. There’s plenty of room in the vast and unchartable multiverse of sci-fi for first contact films that are basically cheesy disaster-movie-style crash-and-bang cinema (which are nonetheless awesome; Independence Day is still an old favourite of mine) as well as for highly cerebral, richly emotional examinations of the human condition through the lens of a science-fiction scenario.

So I’m very grateful for being able to get out and experience one such film, and particularly with such lovely company.

Why superheroes anyway?

So this afternoon my dear friend and I were jawing at length about a wide range of topics, as we’re both wont to do – I have a dreadful habit of digressing from an original subject onto a sequence of tangential topics, each one related to the last but altogether forming a flimsy daisy-chain that can take a conversation parsecs away from the original subject. And she has a habit of letting me do so. (One of the many things I’m grateful for in my very best friends is this tolerance of my ridiculous digressions.) I’m not entirely sure how it is our conversation came to alight on the topic of superhero movies in particular, but such was the subject we found ourselves nattering about. Part of the conversation came from my personal state of had-it-up-to-here-ness with the fulminant rash of superhero movies that have erupted all over the Western cinema over the last ten years. If it’s not a Batman film, it’s a Captain America film, and if it’s not Captain America it’s Spiderman, and if not Spiderman it’s Thor, or the Hulk, or Wonder Woman, or Superman, or the Green Lantern, or Deadpool, or Aquaman, or Iron Man, or some ensemble cast outing in the form of the Avengers, or the X-Men, or the Justice League, or the Suicide Squad, or the Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m not against any individual one of these superheroes as a storytelling vehicle – indeed, I’m quite the fan of the X-Men film franchise in particular – but I suppose I’m feeling rather inundated by the mêlée being waged between Marvel and DC in the last few years, a clash of titans in a duel with the chosen weapons of superhero films at ten paces. Recent cinematic releases that have piqued my interest or caught my fascination have been relatively few; the last few films I saw at the cinema were Star Trek: Beyond, The Hateful Eight, and (though not by specifically my selection) Kung Fu Panda 3. Trailers for the upcoming science-fiction offering Arrival (such as this one) are also spectacular and particularly tantalising – admittedly, I do love me a good alien invasion film, and the promise of a linguist as main character, combined with an examination of the challenges of establishing meaningful contact with an alien species and a hefty dose of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, seems a wonderful opportunity to mix good sci-fi with good hard science and philosophy in a way that one doesn’t see very often in cinema these days.

But I digress again. You’ve really got to get better at stopping me from this. Where was I? Superhero films. Yes. Well, my friend and I were discussing this societal outbreak of superheroism in the cinema, and considering what the appeal of this broad genre is to the masses, if it’s not simply about cashing in quickly and effectively on firmly-established franchises – with the release of Doctor Strange later this year, even Marvel alone will have been behind no less than 21 films in the last five years – or about allowing filmmakers to engage in scenery porn on the grand scale, à la Michael Bay, while not concerning themselves too deeply with the telling of a complicated or rich story, also à la Michael Bay. (And to be honest, I do suspect both of these factors are in play nevertheless. The irrepressible grinding of Fróði’s mill, churning out gold aplenty for its owner.) At first, I joked with my friend that people watch superhero movies to get a kick out of watching awesome people be awesome in someone else’s face, or watching the overcompensation of broken people (as most superheroes are in some way or another – Deadpool’s scarring, Batman’s daddy-and-mummy issues, Superman’s isolation as a Kryptonian among humans, the Green Lantern trying to recover from a disappointingly shithouse first movie). But then the thought hit us that perhaps the brokenness is a truly important aspect of what many people relate to in the superhero genre, broadly construed. Maybe there are some people who go to watch purely for the wacky shenanigans or for particular characterisations; for Bruce Wayne and Alfred’s repartee in various Batman incarnations, for Sir Patrick Stewart’s honey-gold baritone or Hugh Jackman’s irreverence in X-Men, to fawn over Bandicoot Crumplysnitch Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange.

(To disappear onto another tangent for a moment, what is it about Bumblewump Cambrian that people are so desperately enamoured with? He’s certainly a good actor, it’s true; his portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game was wonderful, I thought, and while his Smaug in The Hobbit trilogy was a little too campy to hold a candle to the Sméagol of Andy Serkis – whose failure to garner even one Oscar nomination for the role is, I believe, the greatest shame in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – Busticle Candygram’s dragon was nevertheless well portrayed. But still, I’ve seen roles in which his acting left me cold, such as his Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness – or should I say, Star Trek II 2: Electric Boogaloo. In fairness, although I was grateful as always to see more tlhIngan Hol depicted on screen, fuckin’ J. J. Abrams and his fuckin’ lens flare are partly to blame for that for doing a blatant Wrath of Khan retread that neither needed to be nor should have been done, and even with great direction, Ricardo Montalbán is a hard Khan to follow. But the Khan of Into Darkness was a cold, implausible, cardboard cutout of a villain. Ultimately, I just don’t see the extraordinary actor in Bulbasaur Charizard that puts him so far above the rest. I’m sorry to all his fans for that. Anyway.)

But instead, what we came up with was a more serious idea: perhaps there are many people that go to superhero movies not to be entertained by watching awesome superheroes do awesome-superhero shit, but to watch broken people rise above their brokenness and use those very qualities that set them apart from society to do what they can towards making life better for the very society that they are separated from. This is one of the reasons I love the X-Men franchise so much: it’s focused very firmly on serving as allegory for people who are different, people who are ostracised for being strange and bizarre and threatening and dangerous, but who still work hard at using their peculiar set of talents to make the world a better place not only for those like them, but for all people. Do some people go to superhero movies for precisely this reason? To take their brokenness and their damage into the theatre and use them, subconsciously or no, to relate to the hero? To help them relate to the possibility that their own brokenness and their own damage may become a source of their own strength as well, if they can learn how to harness it? I can’t say that I know the answer to this question, but it strikes me as a thoroughly intriguing possibility, and gives a new perspective – that I hadn’t previously given thought to – on the value of the superhero movie as entertainment.

Travel, expectations and reality

Today’s been a dreary day, and I eventually summoned myself out of my bed at about a quarter past two in the afternoon after some eleven hours of sleep and a period of just lying in bed, phases of sheer motionlessness. I did manage to rouse myself, though, and brought myself to send out some emails and messages and so forth, but on the whole this weekend has been a quiet one indeed. For this I’m mildly grateful in one way, as today marks the end of a complicated fortnight: seven doctor’s appointments, two rounds of blood tests, a hospitalisation, an alternatingly ecstatic then painful rollercoaster of romantic emotions, helping two friends through breakdowns, another two through breakups, and the disintegration of plans to do a test-run of moving out of home… not a torturous fourteen days, to be sure, but certainly one that’s taken a physical and emotional toll. This weekend has become a time of rest, then, and yesterday I was moved to spend some of that time in writing. What excited me to this feeling has been a reflection my dear friend recently wrote about her perspectives on visiting and travelling in England, a reflection that transported me back to some of my own travels – never as far west in Europe as England (more’s the pity, though I hope to reach western Europe one day soon), but the feelings she describes as having been stirred in her reminded me of my own emotional responses to some of the cities I’ve visited. What surprised me, I suppose, is that my friend found herself sensing genuine distaste for London, a distaste she described in no uncertain terms and in a manner that’s utterly foreign to my experience of international travel. Of the eighty-odd cities I’ve visited in eight countries, never has my feeling been one of dislike or discomfort; although there are places I’ve liked moreso than others, of course, none has been an experience that I could ever use the words regret or hate to describe. Even when there have been particular events that haven’t been so pleasant (losing my camera on the last day of my visit to Tbilisi, for instance – I had to purchase a new one in Athens – or being screwed out of thirty lira by a street shoe-shine hustler in İstanbul), I’ve come away from every place that I’ve visited with a sense of enjoyment, and satisfaction that I did.

New York is such a place (and I mention this primarily because I can’t speak to the experience of London, but I have visited New York, twice). Like my friend’s dissatisfaction with her London experience, my two brothers have been to New York and both found it overwhelming, noisy, crowded, oppressive; as one of them puts it, it was too much of the big smoke and too little of the open sky. I can counter none of these assessments, primarily subjective as they are, but when they told me about their trip and noted that they wouldn’t go back if given the option, I was – there’s no other word that’s as apt – gobsmacked. For me, New York was a unique and brilliant experience. It was a world apart, every bit as different and exotic and alien as if I’d been whisked off the surface of the Earth and teleported Star Trek-fashion into the centre of some Asimovian metropolis on the other side of the galaxy. The explorer in me was enthralled by the microcosm that the city represented, the stupendous diversity of humanity crammed into this one urban concentration. Some linguists believe that native speakers of as many as 800 languages may reside in the city, perhaps the most concentrated hotbed of linguistic diversity anywhere on the planet, and each gives their own unique spin to what it means to be American; that diversity is bleeding out of the Five Boroughs’ every pore. Every day I went walking I felt like I was entering a new town of sorts, a new locale, able to experience something starkly different from whatever it was I’d done the previous day. Strangely, I never felt crowded by people; even in Times Square it was easy to navigate around clots of tourists, and the area of Upper Manhattan I stayed in the first time it was positively peaceful much of the time. Meandering along the streets I’d read signs advertising all sorts of goods and services – Jewish delicatessens, Russian bakeries, Korean laundries. I heard more different languages spoken in one day in New York than on any other day before or since. Look here; see vaulting skyscrapers sparkling with thousands of mirror facets, white-gloved security staff calmly alert under canvas awnings that arch over brass-fitted foyers. Now look over there; see low two-storey red brick buildings, a graffiti-covered roll-a-door protecting a family-run convenience store with “Se Habla Español” on a handwritten sign in the window. On one day, I might see the frescoes of a reconstructed Pompeiian villa, the world’s largest collection of shrunken heads, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s planetarium, and come out of one of the city’s best pizzerias to see a two-time Academy Award nominee leaving the theatre opposite. (Jude Law, for the record.) On the next day, I might eat a pretzel and tandoori chicken with rice and salad from street vendors, then spend three hours discovering bronze statues, bench dedications, and wildlife in the surprisingly peaceful vastness of Central Park. Even the hostel I stayed at the first time – in the bottom levels of a brownstone in the middle of Harlem, a dodgy little place with rips in the vinyl of the couches, vegetation overgrown in what passed for its backyard, and a spanner kept in the shower so that you could actually turn the water on (the faucet head had long since been stolen) – was an experience that, while I maybe mightn’t stay there again, I enjoyed greatly nevertheless. My stay there gave me both richly memorable experiences and deeply treasured friends; two aspiring career musicians I met there, Grace and Kenny, I still keep in touch with. They brought me to a fun Mexican eatery not far from the Museum of Modern Art that I made it a point to go back to on my second visit; another night, we bought fountain sodas in a fast food place and spiked them with vodka while we wandered the streets of Harlem. The mixture of brazen wide-eyed camera-wielding tourism during the day and relaxed enjoyment with knowledgeable locals during the evening was the perfect way to experience the city, and I suppose that these reasons are what influence me to find it striking that one might visit New York and come out of it disappointed.

I rather like to think that my brothers’ dissatisfaction was at least in part caused by a combination of the time of year (they visited during the unseasonably cold snap of early 2014, and so the city was largely snowbound – by contrast, my visits were made during the late summer and early autumn, a time that’s warm but not intolerably so, when Central Park’s rich verdure is in full flush and the city’s denizens are more outgoing) and the fact that neither of them are particular fans of museums. Much of my New York state of mind came from the rich range of world-class museums they have: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Johannes Vermeer first captivated me with Det Melkmeisje that was on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; the American Museum of Natural History, because I’m a nerdy freak for all things natural history and particularly palæontology, and the AMNH has a wondrous collection of mounted dinosaur fossils; the Museum of Modern Art, where Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night was on display, far more spectacular in person than in a print of any fidelity; and even the Ripley’s Odditorium on Times Square, basically a fuck-off enormous Victorian curio cupboard with probably about as much authenticity about it but still some fascinating exhibits. One of my brothers tells me, too, that he rather fancies a little of the type of culture shock the Japanese call パリ症候群 Pari shōkōgun (in English, Paris syndrome) might also be to blame. This manifests when visitors to Paris (for some reason particularly Japanese tourists) suffer a psychological shock from realising that the reality of the city differs sharply from the received and preconceived ideal version of Paris: the Eiffel-Tower-in-spring, croissantsaveccafé, skinny-Chanel-model-in-marinière-and-beret Paris they’ve been delivered in Western movies and glossy magazine liftouts (and honestly, sometimes the stereotypes  write themselves). Certainly New York is a city that’s similarly widely represented in mass media, and so people’s perceptions of it would, one presumes, be subject to this same kind of unpleasant dissonance – a Stadtschmerz, if you like. This makes a lot of sense to me, particularly as my mental illness brings me to feel a good deal of Schmerz about the Welt in general, and I can objectively wrap my head around the idea that a specific place might trigger such a feeling too. I’d also never even flown in a commercial plane until I was 23, and never overseas until 26, so I suspect that for me the novelty of overseas travel of any sort is still in play. Even now there’s little that makes me feel more like a young kid opening her presents on Christmas morning than the intensifying roar of jet engines outside the heavily-insulated window that seems to dampen the sound not at all, and the heady feeling of being shoved backwards into my chair by g-forces as the pilot puts the hammer down to take off.

And of course, none of this is to say that anyone is at all wrong in assessing their visit to any city as being disappointing, unpleasant or distasteful. Travel isn’t about the objective beauty or charm of a place, and nor should it be; it’s about the way in which a person and a place interact, a tourist’s experiencing of a place within the context of their own past experiences and education and perceptions, both of that place and of all the others they’ve visited previously. From my friend’s description of her stay in London (and Hackney, she goes on to note), I can absolutely understand how the places she stayed would have struck her as being a letdown, an unsettlingly and maybe stereotypically twee self-caricature of a sort she wasn’t expecting. I guess I just fervently hope to continue avoiding such disappointments on my own travels, and I’ve been immensely fortunate that I haven’t been disappointed yet.

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: 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: 6

Day 6. One among many.

I’d originally had thoughts of writing this reflection on another topic entirely, but a comment on Facebook in which I was tagged by a friend was speaking on a topic that, upon reading it, took me like a mallet striking a gong in the dark: resonating unexpectedly, powerfully, and suddenly. Consequently, I found myself needing to write about this, and I’ll leave the other topic for another day (which I’m not unhappy about, in fairness, as it was going to be a topic which still distresses and confuses me when I talk about it; but that’ll come tomorrow, so enough). The topic I’ve decided to reflect on tonight is that of connectedness, both within the community of those who suffer from mental illness, and between sufferers and well people. You see, this comment on Facebook was that of a new friend I met through my best friend’s birthday party on the weekend, and part of the wonderfully emotive, complimentary, deep post she wrote was a brief defence of the value of Facebook as a means for interpersonal connectivity. This was a very small part of the post, truth be told, but it was the mallet-strike out of the darkness that set my thoughts resonating. And this is what I said in response:

Without Facebook, I would have long since mentally disintegrated by now. For those who suffer with depression and anxiety, as I do, Facebook allow us to continue to see how our friends’ lives are progressing when we don’t have the energy to interact, to interact by comments and sharing posts when we do have small amounts of energy to spend, to exchange messages and conversations and plan get-togethers when we have a greater energy reserve. And while I don’t really use Facebook to meet new people so much as I do to keep in contact (or to try, at least) with people I know already, it’s almost a lifeline of sorts for maintaining that contact.

The listlessness and lethargy that come along with depression do make keeping in touch with loved ones difficult indeed, and I’ve spoken to both my psychologist and my psychiatrist about the challenge posed by the constant tension between my conscious mind on the one hand – my intellectual desire to be in contact with people, to let them know how I am, to ask them how they are, to find out all that life is delivering to them and celebrate or enquire or empathise or offer assistance in those ways I can – and my emotional subcurrent on the other, the part that’s affected by and stunted by the depression, that steals away my motivation the moment I sit down to write a message or email to a friend. But I agree absolutely with this friend in the extraordinary utility of Facebook as a tool for the mentally ill person to maintain a lifeline to the outside world: to friends and family who may be widely dispersed even while incredibly dear, and also to those experiencing very similar challenges with their illnesses. It allows me to remain in contact with people as much as I’m able, to seek advice when I need it, to find a digital shoulder to cry on if it should become necessary. And if all I’m capable of on a given day is a sentence or two in a personal message, or a brief comment to a lolcat someone’s posted, so be it. (Whatever deities may exist, may they all bless the lolcat. There are days when funny image macros and memes can winch me out of the quicksand, and it can buoy me no end to know that someone I love wishes to bring cheer to their own friends by passing forward something they found pleasing. Even if it’s nothing more than a kitten in a beer glass, or a selfie with a quokka.) In any case, being part of a network of digitally active people on Facebook is a wonderful way of remembering – or being reminded, on those days when you struggle to keep hold of the thought yourself – that others are around you, that you are not alone, that people care for you, that people miss you, that people want you in their lives, that you bathe in the love of others. And to have all of that is to possess and be enriched by an immeasurable and infinitely beautiful gift; it’s just that sometimes, you need a bit of a poke to be reminded of it.

22 Days of Musing: 4 and 5

Day 4. Quick as lightning in its tracks.

As much as depression and the anxiety that accompanies it are a part of me, the way in which I perceive my mental illness is often as a sort of entity apart, almost (though not quite) a spiritual companion – albeit an entirely less than pleasant one. It helps me, sometimes, to conceptualise my illness this way in order to obtain a degree of psychological distance from it, which in its turn allows me to view it through a lens of greater objectivity while seeking to find ways to treat and ameliorate it effectively. It also seems as though it does actually have a kind of mind of its own on occasion; certainly it’s often the case that its ebb and flow seem to have not much in the way of pattern, and while there are events that can trigger a phase of depression, or an attack of anxiety, there are also many instances where I have no idea why I feel more poorly than I do at other times. It seems almost like the wendigo of Algonquin and other folklore, and latterly Algernon Blackwood’s classic supernatural story: a strange malevolent being of great “height and fiery speed”, and always at my back no matter how rapidly I turn around to face it. Sometimes it can be little more than a particular thought that spirits it into existence for its eldritch fingers to begin enlacing themselves into the convolutions of my brain. Then at other times, it’s as though its whispered chant – a silent siren call to a dangerous, isolating state in which the normal ability to emote disintegrates – has lowered a veil of tiredness and desolation over me, a magical mist out of which excitement, optimism and determination can’t filter.

“…for the Wendigo is simply the Call of the Wild personified, which some natures hear to their own destruction.”
– Algernon Blackwood, The Wendigo (1910): IV

There are times that this helps, the metaphorical construction of my illness as an intangible but distinct being – not really an evil as such, but more an omnipresent irritation I’m constantly trying to learn how to deal with. There are times also when this conception is considerably less helpful, but it at least brings me a means by which I can maintain a clean separation between the depression and myself; it helps me to avoid being overtaken by it completely.


Day 5. In a mirror, lightly.

The reason why no separate reflection appeared on this blog yesterday was that I was out of range of wireless Interwebs, attending the 40th birthday party of my best friend in Armidale, some six hours’ drive from my home city of Brisbane. And upon my return, I feel that this is an excellent opportunity for me to turn these reflections on their head in a sense, and speak on one of those times during which the coin I spoke about in an earlier reflection has been successfully flipped in the air, overturning the void-swallowed obverse of the coin and revealing the reverse face, rich with the spectrum of emotion. With the exception of a hard lightning-strike of anxiety associated with a sudden change in plans today that I took very badly for a short while, the past 48 hours have been wonderful. Filled with excitement, joy, intrigue, awe, gladness, fascination, intellectual debate, and perhaps a little hilarity under the influence of a little cider and sangría, it was a night and a day of gorgeous emotional positivity that I’ve not experienced much of in the last little while. Few of the people at my friend’s birthday shindig were people I knew personally, but I knew several from either direct or indirect interactions on Facebook, some I’d met previously although briefly, and some were complete strangers. But after some initial uncertainty and anxiety on my part, the night progressed with all the celebration a good party requires, and much more besides. An exceedingly intelligent, well-informed group of partygoers interested in a wide variety of topics of conversation – gender politics, potty humour, quantum physics, gothic country music, natural and constructed linguistics – brought me pleasure of a rare magnitude, and every conversation I engaged in was a genuine treat. The reason I speak of all this in such glowing terms is that this, too, is depression. Or at least, it’s part of the broader phenomenon of depression, which need not be continuous and inexorable; if depressed people have good days, or feel happy or pleased or excited temporarily, that is not to say that they are suddenly “no longer depressed”. Depression is a descriptor for a condition moreso than a specific disease, and can be symptomatic of a wide array of underlying disorders. What this means is that a person may experience depression in a manner that might be constant, or periodic, or seasonal, or largely aperiodic. Some types of depression may even show temporary improvement in the presence of positive stimuli. In my previous reflection I spoke about the aperiodicity of my own depression, and the fact that even if I’m not suffering from a phase of that depression, a specific event (whether it be by words or by actions) can sometimes shove me into the zone in which my emotions shut down for the sake of self-preservation. The opposite is rarely true – it’s hard to move out of that zone once I’m there – but certainly I’m still capable of feeling, of emoting, and of enjoying, while I’m psychologically not in that zone. Depression may be a crippling disability, but sufferers still may have occasional bouts of relief; for my part, I usually try to take advantage of my rare such periods whenever I’m gifted with them, as I managed this weekend (although having to push through much anxiety to make myself go in the first place). And for the fact that such relief does come to me at all, I’m infinitely grateful.

22 Days of Musing: 3

Day 3. The upside-down reflection in a spoon.

Some of you may have noticed that when I speak about my experiences with depression and anxiety, the challenges that they present, and the way that they draw upon my energy reserves, I’ll often talk about the said reserves in units of spoons: I ran out of spoons, I didn’t have the spoons to do such-and-such, that sort of thing. This isn’t my metaphor, it must be said; it’s originally owed to one Christine Miserandino, an American sufferer of lupus who in 2003 wrote a heartfelt and simply splendid article about the ways in which sufferers of chronic illness must manage their activities with the comparatively limited amount of both physical and psychological energy they can deploy to fuel those activities. She spoke of a time when, in discussing the challenges of a disabling illness with a friend, she made use of a bundle of physical, actual spoons from the restaurant they were eating at to demonstrate to her friend how this process rolls out. Getting out of bed after a bad night’s sleep costs a spoon. Doing something in the bathroom that requires additional energy, like shaving your legs or washing your hair, costs a spoon. Choosing clothes and getting dressed may cost a spoon. And while the average person has the luxury of a limitless supply of spoons with which to spoon out the little pieces of their day, those who do suffer from a chronic illness or a disability (such as lupus, PTSD, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome, endometriosis, depression, MS, or any one of a cast of thousands) have to be more careful with their energy, as their condition places certain limitations on both the way they spend that energy, and the amount they have to spend. For my part, the way I experience depression can at times make the number of spoons I have to work with frustratingly unpredictable; if something takes place that triggers me to shut my emotional responses down and retreat into myself, it may strip me of basically all of my spoons. And paradoxically, if an event occurs that causes me to feel a particular rush of emotion – whether it be joy or love or excitement – then after the event is over, the subsequent neurotransmitter crash may be sufficient to do the same, robbing me of spoons when spending time having fun and enjoying myself should really be allowing me to regather them. There are times when going to a dinner on a Friday night, even if (and sometimes especially if) I have a wonderful time, may mean I basically have to write Saturday off in terms of productive achievement. In the end, negotiating the balance of spoons on a day-to-day basis is one of depression’s great challenges; indeed, one of the great challenges of mental illness more generally, and even moreso given the notion that some purely psychological stimuli may decrease your spoon count substantially and without warning. But the silver lining of this rather dark cloud is that, as Miserandino herself has said, it means that when you choose to spend spoons on something – or someone – you value it more as a consequence. You cherish it more. And so when I can gather up the spoons to write a friend a long email, or message enquiring as to how they are, or call them hoping to catch up, it’s a weird, perhaps slightly twisted means by which I can at least attempt to show how much I do cherish them, even through the blackness.

To Pride and back

Aaaaaand this blog post is going to be written slowly indeed: partly from my desk, and partly from a prone position on the polished hardwood floor that I’ve spent much of the last few days on, a position that I’m altogether too familiar with over the course of many years and that I’m utterly sick and fucking tired of. Anyone who’s known me for even a relatively short period of time knows about the intermittent but persistent issues I’ve had with back pain over the course of the last nine years, and every once in a while this unwelcome visitor pokes its head in the door again, and screams out “YOUR PAIN IS BACK! YOUR BACK IS PAIN!” like a bad punster at a shitty open mic night. For those that don’t know the backstory, these are all indirect consequences of having ruptured two spinal discs back in 2007, an injury for which I eventually underwent surgery (I still have the fragment of disc – my father set it in a little resin cabochon while I was still convalescing, and I keep it now in a small mosaic box I bought in Damascus some years ago, a vessel that’s perfectly fitting in both senses of that word). I’ll show you the MRI pictures one of these days; they’re fairly spectacular examples of disc injury. Although I’ve had several relapses in the intervening time – some requiring several sessions of physiotherapy, and one requiring an intraspinal cortisone injection – it’s never again been so severe as it was that first time around. It often takes me by surprise yet again that it happened so very long ago. Nine years. It seems almost an eternity: so much has taken place, has changed, has become different in the last nine years. But I digress. (I feel it’s important to warn you, if you haven’t already noticed, that I’m very good at going off onto long and sometimes superficially bizarre tangents, and you shall have to get yourself used to that, one way or another.)

In any case, while I’ve been feeling this phase of back pain slowly creeping up on me over the last couple of weeks, I did aggravate it further by going out to my city’s Pride parade this last Saturday, but had I known I was going to further intensify my back pain by doing so, it would have made not the slightest lick of difference to whether I went or not. Although I’ve never before attended a Pride parade (having been more or less firmly in the closet in previous years, of course), not only did I feel the need to attend to show my support – particularly given the fact that issues of equal rights for the QUILTBAG community are in the forefront of Australian sociopolitical discourse right now – but I felt a driving wish, an active desire, to go: to throw my weight behind the entire Brisbane queer community, to assist in showing the entire city that we exist, that we are here and we are angry and we are hurt and we are pushing with all of our might to move towards equal treatment and equal rights both within the law and within broader society. And the turnout to the Pride parade here showed that, I think. I was deeply anxious about going at all, and this anxiety I managed to conquer only with the assistance of a good friend who also pushed with great strength through her own anxiety to join me, but both of us were in agreement afterwards that the event was well worth the angst we had to work our way through. We didn’t march in the parade, preferring only to attend the rally and then go for lunch at a gyōza place I like thereafter, but the rally itself was brilliant. People were out in force, thousands of queer people crowding the streets in casual wear and suits and shirtless, ace and gay and lesbian and trans and bi folk wearing feathered wings and rainbow suspenders and garish makeup (though I’ve never been one for costuming, I couldn’t stop myself doing my own nails in rainbow tones as an explicit show of my own support). In my own life I’ve known so very few out queer folk: nobody in my own family, even my extended family (and on both sides,  no less), has ever so much as come out as bisexual, let alone transgender, and this lack of queer role models in my life has been a major reason why it took me so long to come to terms with my own issues of identity. And so it was richly heartening, I confess, to see so many queer people concentrated in one place, all of us there to celebrate our identities, to proclaim our legitimacy. Several queer activists as well as elected officials, including our acting Premier, spoke passionately and forcefully in favour of continuing to work towards queer rights. And considering the fact that our state’s Government have introduced legislation for State-based civil unions, and recently managed to have the age of consent for vaginal and anal sex equalised, I’m cautiously optimistic that they, at least, are actively interested in fighting for our community. For us. For me. Certainly, the federal Government seem utterly uninterested in doing so – and in many instances seem more intent on actively fighting against us.

When I was first questioning my gender identity I had a lot of things zipping through my mind, but as I’ve said to some of my friends, I never pictured myself at the sharp edge of a civil rights movement. But without wanting to sound too arrogant – I don’t wish to compare myself to Eddie Mabo or Edith Cowan or Rosa Parks or Nelson Mandela, or other, more visible champions of more devastating civil rights battles – that’s where I am, and I suppose I’m coming now to realise that coming out as transgender means that I have not only a responsibility, but also a right, to stand up and fight for my own rights when those in power will maintain their willingness to deny them. On one level, I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in that apart from those shitheads on the train that one time, I’ve never experienced a great amount of active anti-transgender or queerphobic sentiment myself. People have been, by and large, both respectful and lovely. Still, both passive and institutional queerphobia are pervasive, not least of which are those bigoted provisions lurking in dark backwaters of law (and I do mean backwaters); while not always actively oppressing the queer community, such pitfalls do still passively lie in front of the queer person who seeks to avail themselves of the law’s protections, and we have a very, very long way to go in the quest for equality with many, many of those pitfalls on the road in between where we are now and the ideal of equality. I’m realising that I’m in a unique position to make my voice heard and join in the battle of the community to which I’ve only recently realised I belong. While the fight for gay rights dates back many decades, it seems to me (even if it be little more than my falling for the recency illusion) that the groundswell of support for the queer community more generally has been rapidly growing, both in volume and in population, in the past five years or so. My perception’s been that voices are becoming louder, angrier, more insistent. And I can’t help feeling not just that I should, but that I want to, join them in getting loud and angry and insistent.