Image by Storyset on Freepik

Talk & Listen Sessions

Wednesday 27 December 2023

Authenticity and the Life of Dogs

 The world is full of broken people inflicting their brokenness on others.

~ Dannie-Lu Carr

Earlier this year my psychotherapist reflected back to me my need for authenticity. This was within the context of wanting to be liked and accepted as the "real" me, without having to present a refracted image of my true self. My reckoning was that external acceptance of a portrayal of an imagined self serves only to connect with a facade. The real self remains in a void, remote and disconnected. I had explained I just wanted to be me, to not have to try and be someone or something that I was not, and to be accepted in that way. This means being aware of thoughts and feelings, acknowledging them, and being open about them. Allowing our emotions to surface and then naming them, rather than pushing them back or deflecting them away, allows congruence with our inner reality. This fosters integrity which makes us more wholesome human beings. I believe that this is the only way that human connection can have real meaning.  To me, this is what it means to be authentic. I had explained this thinking in one of my sessions. I clearly remember my therapist nodding at the time, perhaps in agreement or maybe just to indicate he was listening.

Authenticity is a topic that comes up regularly at Talk & Listen, my peer support group. It's interesting to see how this is something that seems to resonate with so many people. Some time ago somebody new started coming to the group sessions. This person, who I shall call "Mark", talked at length about how important authenticity was to him. I remember him explaining that it was one of the values that he lives his life by and that he believed honesty was essential to fostering good relationships. He had shared a story about how a small group of people had not acted with honesty and authenticity towards him and that he had felt betrayed, depressed and upset as a result. Members of the group, myself included, offered emotional support and at the end of the session he said that he felt much better as he felt he had been heard and understood. 

Most people generally acknowledge that authenticity is an essential ingredient for living a good and meaningful life, whether or not they practice what they believe. It's such a fundamental part of human connection and one that becomes apparent very early on in life. Six year olds are pretty clued up on it even at that age! Here's a quote from one such child that views this from their perspective:   

Post-It note written by a six-year old about authenticity
Post-It note by a six-year old

Last Saturday I met up in a coffee shop with someone I've got to know from my support group. We had lots to talk about, including our experience of the group. My friend remarked how well it seemed to be going and how it seemed that everyone who comes along always feels that they really benefit from it. I then told her about a situation that had stunned me and left me feeling quite anxious and upset. A recent meeting had not seemed different in any particular way to any other. I always conclude the meetings with a go-round at the end asking everyone how it was for them. One of the regular attendees said that he had enjoyed coming along again and had got a lot out of the session, just as he had said on all of his previous attendances. This person was Mark. After I formally concluded the meeting, he even stayed behind for about a further half hour to chat with myself and a few others who had also decided to hang around for a bit, before leaving as normal and saying that he looked forward to coming along again next time.                     

"Meetup" is the main platform I use to advertise the group. They introduced a rating facility some time ago where people can leave a star rating and additional feedback of events that they attend. The additional feedback comprises some tick boxes and free text where people can describe their views in their own words. I have always felt pleased and reassured to see that where people have left feedback for my support group meetings it has always been at the five star level with corresponding feedback. Mark's rating, however, when I saw it later that evening, left me in shock and utter disbelief. He had rated the session with just two stars, and ticked boxes to state that the meeting was "not as described", "not engaging", "had no impact" and that he had a "problem with host". He had left the free text box blank, so provided no clue as to why he chose to leave such incredibly negative feedback. He had said nothing other than how useful and engaging the session had been whilst he was there but then left feedback that completely contradicted this.

Screenshot of rating and feedback from Meetup
Meetup Rating and Feedback

The support group operates on a peer-to-peer basis where we all support each other. I am just the same as everyone else who attends, with my own anxieties and insecurities. I recall vividly that during the meeting in question I had explained that I was feeling particularly anxious and that my confidence had taken a knockback. I too was asking for support and understanding in making the effort to organise, turn up and run the session despite being in a frazzled state. I remember Mark saying during the session that he felt I was "doing a great job". It's not possible to get inside Mark's mind and identify the causes of his subsequent behaviour. He had made a point of explaining at a previous meeting how important authenticity was to him and how the actions of others who had not been authentic with him had left him feeling. At this most recent session he said he enjoyed and benefitted from taking part but then left pretty toxic feedback, and without offering any explanation as to why. 

Mark has been one of the more outspoken members of the group. He isn't someone who seems to have much trouble in getting his points across or speaking his mind. If indeed he had issues with the meeting he had plenty of opportunity to let me know after it had formally ended during which time he stayed behind to chat. He also had a free text box where he could have offered some explanation but left this blank. I told someone else I know about the feedback and they said they thought that Mark was clearly dishonest and that he'd had plenty of opportunity to talk about the meeting if he'd felt he wasn't happy for some reason. She also said I shouldn't take it personally. However, the dishonesty and the "problem with host" don't really allow much room to see it any other way. My coffee shop friend was as baffled as I was. She said she couldn't understand why he would leave such negative feedback, especially as he would have been aware what harm and distress it would cause me personally. The hugely inspirational and insightful Dannie-Lu Carr, who I've worked with in the past, sums things up perfectly: "The world is full of broken people inflicting their brokenness on others".

There is one final bit of the Meetup feedback where attendees are asked the question "Would you attend again?". Mark responded "No".

Monday 25 December 2023

An Imaginary Friend at Christmas!

Loneliness is not solitude. Solitude requires being alone, whereas loneliness shows itself most sharply in company with others.

~ Hannah Arendt

It's the afternoon of Christmas day! As I sit and occasionally look out of the window I am struck by the stillness of the world outside. I don't see anyone walking along the street nor do I see any cars. It feels like a place and time in a post-apocalyptic and dystopian future world. The view is foggy. The silence is deafening. The absence of any signs of life is ominous. Yet this moribund state is not a true reflection of the day. Whilst there will be many who are alone there are many more who are spending time with friends and family. I can only imagine the lovely food, the paper hats and crappy cracker jokes (does someone actually get paid to come up with those!?).

It's not even clear to me how I feel today. I knew Christmas was coming and that I would be spending a few days on my own. I made an effort on Saturday to go to some events to try and maximise the hours of human contact on that day. I saw this as a way of filling up with as much human connection fuel as my emotional tank could accommodate. My theory was that, the more human contact I could immerse myself in, the longer I would be able to keep going over the Christmas void. It would take longer for the effects of being on my own to start to have a negative impact. Normally, after an overdose of socialising, I almost always need time to recharge anyway, so even if it wasn't Christmas, I wouldn't yet be looking for any further dose of social activity. I think I've still got enough fuel in the tank to last me for Boxing day. After that, I know I will start to feel some desperation to connect again, even if at least on a superficial level.  

Hannah Arendt, an American-Jewish philosopher, wrote about loneliness, isolation and solitude. I think it's useful to note some distinctions in the meanings of these words. She said that "Solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about when I am alone without being able to split up into the two-in-one, without being able to keep myself company". Arendt distinguished isolation from loneliness, saying that it was "Destructive of power and the capacity for action". Loneliness is a feeling. It represents an emotion arising from an unmet need to be connected with others but not being able to do so. Feeling lonely is a craving to connect with others on a meaningful level but being disconnected and alone. It is not important whether one is physically on their own or surrounded by many others; I find I am often surrounded by people but still feel completely disconnected and lonely.

Photograph of Hannah Arendt
 Hannah Arendt


Isolation is different to loneliness as it represents a circumstance and not a feeling. It is a physical disconnection rather than an emotional one. During the Covid-19 lockdowns we were told we had to isolate, to keep ourselves to ourselves and to not spend time with others. Not being with others meant we were physically isolated. Our need for human connection was impacted. As social animals this caused us problems as it made us miserable and dysfunctional. The social cohesion that is the essence of our existence was impaired. Of course, we still had our mobiles, Instas and Facebooks, and along came Zoom, and whilst these provided a way to reduce the feelings arising from isolation, they were not a panacea for the quality and depth of human connection that can only be experienced in real life. Looking at someone's image on a screen or giving them a virtual hug can never replace a real gaze into their eyes or the tactile sensation of their warm embrace.

Solitude is a positive conscious choice. It maintains balance on the social interaction scale. I may go to a bunch of meetups, feel emotionally and physically fatigued as a result, and then choose to spend a couple of days on my own to rebuild my resources. I may equally choose to stay in on my own rather than go out as, on some occasions, I might just prefer my own company, have some thinking to do, want to watch something on TV, go on the internet or read something. Loneliness, on the other hand, is not a choice, and neither is isolation. It is entirely possible to be lonely but not isolated, and it is equally possible to be isolated but not feel lonely. I was at a social event surrounded by people a few nights ago but couldn't strike up conversation or establish any rapport with anyone at all and felt very lonely. I've just been writing this post for my blog over the past couple of hours and, despite there not being even a hint of human life visibly or audibly anywhere around me, have somehow not felt as lonely as I did earlier. I feel as if I am actually talking to you, the reader! I am experiencing the state of solitude rather than loneliness at this point in time.  

The subject of feeling alone and discombobulated (I've been dying to use that word in my blog since I started writing it!) at social events, and in life in general, came up at some psychotherapy sessions a few years ago. The therapist at the time suggested I try a technique which she described as having a conversation with an imaginary friend. She explained I should create a mental image of this illusory friend and actually talk to them out loud as if they were physically present. A question arises: isn't this the same as talking to oneself? To an observer, yes, it would appear no different. But if, in my mind, I am talking to someone else then I cannot be talking to myself. The fact that they don't exist doesn't change the fact that I am talking to them! Ok, it's a bit of a grey area! Maybe we can dissect it over a cup of tea. Who am I talking to now?

Spending Christmas on my own means doing so in isolation and for me it is a fundamentally lonely experience. However, the fuel tank is still half full (notice the optimism!) and so has some mileage to see me through a bit longer. Whatsmore, there is a smidgeon of respite from a bit of the loneliness which has been replaced by solitude: on the receiving end of this blog post I feel as if I have an imaginary reader who I am "talking" to. Perhaps my therapist wasn't cranky after all!

Thursday 21 December 2023

Nothing's Working; The World is Broken!

There's a difference between feeling "a bit under the weather" type depression, which everyone in the world suffers from fairly routinely on their "bad days", and "depression", the chronic mental health condition. The former is something that people might even say with a smile! The latter is an actual psychological affliction the symptoms of which spill out into all sorts of manifestations: lack of motivation, irritability, insomnia, over/ under eating, spirals of negative thoughts, lack of enthusiasm, withdrawal and isolation. Depression creates a dark, morbid and bleak view of the world for the sufferer that clouds everything else in a thick fog through which they cannot see their way through. There simply isn't any light at the end of their tunnel. Hell no, there isn't even any tunnel, but rather just a thick, muddy quicksand in the middle of nowhere that gradually swallows us bit by bit until we start to suffocate. So yeah, it's not really anything like feeling "a bit under the weather"; it's something a little bit more deeply troubling.

Scientific and medical research has probably been carried out since decades before I was even born and I am sure there have been discoveries made that show differences in the brains of people suffering from depression from those who aren't. I'm no expert but I imagine that differences can probably be seen in things like MRI scans and tests carried out on brain chemistry. Dopamine and endorphin levels spring to mind (no pun intended!) but I'm sure there's a lot more to it than that. There's probably a significant psychological aspect to this too. The brain's development over time will have facilitated the script that we're working from, the one that automatically informs us what and how to exist and to function, which determines the thoughts that we have which impacts on how we feel. It's complicated and I can't even begin to work it all out; I doubt that anyone fully understands the infinite complexities of the human mind!

Today I found myself in the mire and engulfed in a dark fog in which I was lost without a psychological compass to show me a way through. On days like these I put my detective hat on to try and pinpoint the source of these feelings. It didn't take long to see a pattern of thoughts with a common theme. It boils down to a despondency arising from a complete lack of control in being able to do anything about things that are in the hands of untouchables. It's a story of David and Goliath in reverse, where David is actually helpless against the might of Goliath, who has all the power. I hear in the news, in other media, and in conversations about how Covid-19 has had a hugely detrimental impact on the mental health of the population. It's truer than I had at first appreciated. I also see that organisations are becoming bigger, more distant, and less human. I see them putting corporate financial gain above helping their customers. I see politicians gaslighting the population for their own political gain and pursuit of power. Let's put this all together: you do the maths! The vast majority of life-changing power affecting everyone's lives is in the hands of the very few.

Man standing in middle of landscape looking at distant trees in the mist

When I started writing this blog a few months ago I wanted someone to read it. Ideally I wanted a few people to read it! I knew that as soon as it were to be indexed by Google that people would start to find it and there'd be someone who would read it and either appreciate something I've written about or relate to something I've said. But my blog was refused by Google for reasons that I cannot even guess. Google says that it will only index good quality content. Well, I see a lot of garbage in Google's search results so I guess that Google finds my writings below the lowest of the low. That's fine, but the realisation that one global behemoth, the monopoly that is Google, can command such vast power on a global scale is very, very scary. Our online life is dictated to by this one untouchable power; it is the Goliath of the entire internet.

Before the coronavirus pandemic things weren't perfect but they generally worked. You could 'phone up your energy company, bank, internet service provider and anyone else and get through to a human being who would usually be helpful and quite knowledgeable. You wouldn't have needed to wait too long and neither would you get cut off whilst waiting or as soon as they answered. More often than not your query would be dealt with in a way that was satisfactory and conducive to good professional relations! Not anymore. I've had to make several calls in the past few days where I cannot get through to anyone, or if I do it's only after typically waiting for over an hour. But it's even worse than that! That hour requires an excruciating endurance of some useless royalty-free eighties disco tune or some obscure classical music, neither of which I am in the mood for, to then be greeted by a human voice to be immediately followed by the line going dead. The only alternative option is the dreaded online instant chat bots which take up an entire afternoon and get nowhere. These organisations are the Goliaths that blight our daily lives.

There are so many things I needed to get done recently but have not been able to get through to anyone. The lines of communication have been severed by all these companies and public institutions. I can't get the over-charge on my energy bill corrected; I cannot get the fault on my internet fixed; I cannot report my phone lost; I cannot get the service charges corrected by my landlord; I cannot get my hospital appointment sorted out; I cannot make an appointment with my GP; I cannot contact my MP. And Google won't index my blog (maybe Google is right; maybe my blog is just a load of ol' cobblers). Nothing's working; the world is broken. David has lost; the Goliaths have won. 

It seems to me that depression can have many sources. I am feeling depressed because I've spent hours, nay days, trying to sort so many things out but have achieved nothing. Endless time and energy has been expended with the result being a feeling of helplessness and frustration. I have no control over the responsiveness and understanding of any of these organisations. They hold the keys to unlocking the problems they create but they keep them locked in their cabinet of impunity. Profits and power come first on their list of priorities; mental health and well-being aren't even on it. The feelings of helplessness have come about through an accumulation of events with a common thread: the failure of David in what is an insurmountable battle against the mighty Goliaths. I know that I also feel depressed when my endeavours for human connection fall flat on their face, just when I need such connections the most. That depression is much more profound and I am saving writing about it for another day. I suppose it might be something to look forward to! In the meantime I need to try and find a way out of this quicksand and hold onto some hope that the fog might start to clear.

Sunday 10 December 2023

My Brain is Lit Like an Airport

My brain is lit like an airport
So the angels will find me
Recruit me
She wants me on the show
I’m considering as it will give me more exposure
Perhaps I could help others by showing my recovery process
Sharing my tools and insights

~  Katiejane Garside/ Liar, Flower

I'm having so many doubts about so many things so much of the time. I've been asking myself things like why I am writing this blog, why I am running a peer support group, why I did a counselling course and why I attended the recent peer mentoring course. I am wondering what I am able to offer and what I may be gaining. If I hadn't been doing all this, how I would have spent that time and energy. My motivations seem a little hazy; I can sort of see some answers through the mist but some of these are a little obscured through a foggy cognitive distance. There's so much going on in my mind; it's in a constant and intense state of critical thought, as I continually try to piece together the infinite number of pieces of an impossible and forever changing metaphorical jigsaw puzzle. The neurons race around at high speed creating flashes of light throughout their paths. My brain is lit like an airport.

On the last day of the Talk for Health peer counselling course I took in a bottle of antidepressants. I explained to the group that I believe it's a terrible state of affairs that for decades medical professionals have been prescribing these as if they are some wonder pill that cures all mental ills. They really don't. They treat the underlying conditions by reducing their impact through artificial means. They alter the chemical balance in the brain, numbing the parts that give rise to psychological or psychiatric problems and enhancing those that give rise to us feeling good. Essentially, they just brush the problems under a heavy shagpile; they don't attempt to deal with the underlying causes. Talking, and being listened to, understood and acknowledged, on the other hand, is a direct path to accessing proper awareness of these causes and is the only way to tackle them head on. I think it's beliefs like these that fundamentally motivated me to pursue all the mental health related activities that I've spent much of my time on.

Whilst explaining some of my thinking to the group I opened the bottle I was holding, turned it upside down, and out poured a whole load of badges, all uniquely patterned and coloured. There were no antidepressants in the bottle; I'd replaced them with these colourful badges. Each of these, I explained, represented someone in the room, each one of us a unique individual with our own unique good and bad points, issues and world views. We shouldn't rely on antidepressants or form a dependence on them. An alternative option is just to talk and listen to each other through the lens of understanding that we are all human with similar ways of feeling. This really works when we appreciate that we all have unique perspectives on the world, our internal filters having been created through our own individual experiences, so that we can establish connections fuelled by empathy. If we can share what someone else is feeling by tapping into our own emotions then we connect with understanding and compassion.

There's one particular advantage of helping others in this way, that is, through offering the space and time to actively listen to them and extend empathic understanding: we help ourselves. I know from recent experiences that when I have been there for others and genuinely wanted to listen, understand and empathise, it's had a remarkable positive effect on my own well-being. These kinds of feelings are likely to be an evolutionary trait. Millions of years ago we relied on each other to survive and if we had not helped each other then we would not have helped ourselves; we would have been wiped out as a species. Survival, physical and emotional well-being, is dependent on co-operation and so it feels good and beneficial to help others as we are helping ourselves in the process for the greater good of humanity.

Listening to other people's stories can also help us to relate to them. I've discovered that when I am available to hear and experience what someone else has to say I am particularly moved if there is a direct personal resonance with my own experiences. This works both ways. On the last day of the Talk for Health course someone came up to me during the break and said to me how hard it must be for me to cope with the TMJ situation (I talked about this in my blog post Just Another Manic Monday) that I had shared during the previous week. She told me that it is "ruining my life". How right she was. That is pure, unadulterated empathy right there. Then she told me about exactly the same problem that she's had to endure for years but all the while empathising with the situation as it affected me. What a wonderful human being! It's people like this that restore some faith in humanity. Sharing our stories, tools, insights and our recovery process is an integral and fundamental part of meaningful connection.

One such tool for me at the moment is writing this blog. I've been writing it for a few months and I know Google doesn't want anyone else to read it but, despite knowing that nobody has even seen it or is even aware of its existence, it provides a medium of catharsis as it allows me a way to get things out. By writing things down, or typing them on a keyboard to appear on a screen, I can sometimes achieve some level of awareness on a few of the things that are on my mind. It's not the same as talking to a real person which has the benefit of being listened to and receiving feedback or empathy, but it's something. Every little helps! Talking to someone who will listen and extend empathy or facilitate insight, ideally both, can't be beaten as a therapeutic process; it deals with the heart of the matter rather than gloss over it in the way that antidepressants do. It can be done in a formal setting with a trained therapist but it can also be done with peers who are familiar with the principles I write about in my blog.

Some doubts about why I do what I do are likely to persist, particularly at this relatively early stage of my own personal development with therapeutic processes, learning and experiencing. Perhaps over time, if I am able to observe better results in exchanging awareness, empathy and connecting with others, it might lead to a greater sense of feeling worthwhile and I might be able to look back and conclude that it was all worth it. Lack of direction is another factor that causes me to doubt what I am doing but as this starts to take better aim it too should help to reassure me a little. Somehow though, I don't think I am doing anything inherently wrong. My brain is lit like an airport, so the angels will find me.


Katiejane Garside/ Liar, Flower; My Brain is Lit Like an Airport, available on YouTube, accessed on 10/12/2023 ~ the wonderful and amazing Katiejane provided inspiration for this post through her singing and music

The Unrealised Promise of Mingling at Meetups

It's Sunday morning. I'm mentally and physically drained. There's not a single cell in my system that has even a nano unit of energy. This is mostly the result of simply trying too hard and doing too much. This fluctuates with periods of doing virtually nothing other than just waiting for time to evaporate and bring me closer to the future (I have analytical thoughts on this which I will share in another post), a state that is equally draining but perhaps in different ways. Friday was the last of four weeks on Talk for Health, a peer counselling course that I've been doing once a week. By the end of the afternoon my brain was rendered virtually inoperative. There was something mentally exhausting about the course. I don't think it was even primarily the subject matter but rather the delivery and interaction; there was a tiring slowness and weightiness about it which expended considerable psychological effort. When I got home I slumped on my sofa in a zombie-like fashion from which I did not recover.

Over the past few months, when I've felt frustrated or depressed I'd been resorting to telephoning a helpline, such as Samaritans. Recently, however, I noticed that I'd developed a dependency on this which I felt was an unhealthy place to be as essentially it became a de facto addiction. A couple of weeks ago I made a conscious decision not to make any more such calls, recognising that reliance-by-default was neither sustainable nor conducive to mental wellbeing. So on Friday the confused emotional hopscotch I was experiencing would have to play out on its own. I was aiming to be at least refreshed enough by Saturday morning to function again on some level as I'd diarised a coffee afternoon with a group through Meetup. Poor weather is one other factor that has a major impact on whether I even go out but it was actually a sunny December morning, with seven degrees Celsius and virtually no contributory wind-chill factor or rain forecast.

There was a pro-Palestinian demonstration in central London resulting in curtailment of bus journeys. Having to walk a few stops as a result meant I arrived to find most people from the meetup already in the coffee shop. The host pulled up a chair for me which felt very welcoming. I counted twelve in the group; I am always counting and re-counting everything! Even whilst sitting with the group I periodically counted everyone many times over. I'd been doing the same in the Talk for Health group and I always do this in Talk & Listen as well. I can't stop counting things; even as I lie in bed I count through things or repeat numbers to myself; on buses I keep counting the number of passengers, the number of bags, mobile phones and all manner of paraphernalia. Anyway, I digress, and not for the first or last time! Whilst everyone present was engaged in conversation it was with their immediate neighbours. This applied to me as well and did not change for the entire two hours that we were there! I would have liked to talk to everyone in the group but nobody budged; there was simply no mingling. 

The whole point of these meetups is to meet people and not to get stuck with the same one or two people for the entire duration. In the unfortunate scenario, as often happens, that you end up sitting next to someone that you very quickly discover you have nothing in common with, or find very hard work, you're lumbered! There is no get-out-of-jail-card option other than just leaving which in itself would feel awkward. I don't feel I have the confidence to do that but just staying can become a real test of endurance. It just so happened that it wasn't so bad yesterday although there was an element of having to make an effort to keep some conversation going where really I would rather not have had to. On leaving I knew that my need for human connection on some semi-meaningful level at least had not been met and I realised I felt a real desperation in making some such connection. I quickly scrolled through events on the Meetup app and came across a social night meetup which boiled down to having a drink and dinner at Wetherspoons. The number eight bus would get me there.

The knock on effects of the earlier demonstration meant buses were not running normally and, again, I arrived to find that everyone was already half way through their meals; in fact I noticed the lady at the end of the table was just forking the last chip from her plate! It was a bigger group than the one at the earlier meetup; I counted twenty-two, several times, as I stood at the foot of the row of tables like a prized yucca plant. There wasn't a single spare chair. Everyone seemed busy with their food and the conversations they each seemed to be engaged in with their immediate neighbours or the person opposite them to notice me, not even the host. I announced that I was leaving, wishing everyone a pleasant evening, although my social anxiety may have prevented my voice of reaching the required number of decibels required for human auditory detection. 

As I started to make my way towards the exit a woman exclaimed I should bring a chair and sit at the corner of the table. Just as I was contemplating this possibility someone else arrived; this was confirmed as I counted everyone again and arrived at a figure of twenty-three. Their arrival resulted in a revised table arrangement where the end table was split off from the rest, a bit like the small part of a rocket that detaches itself and falls away from the rest of it after launch, leaving the main rocket to fly on. I ended up sitting at the small separate table with another chap and the new woman! After a few moments she got up and somehow found a way to join the main rocket, leaving me with the chap at the fuel booster that had fallen away. The conversation required more effort as it was now one-to-one action. I'd ordered fish and chips, the seed of choice having been planted by the woman and her forking of her last chip earlier. When a meetup involves having a meal the movement restrictions are greater than when just having a coffee; one really is lumbered. Having said that, everyone remained fixed in position long after they'd finished eating. Mingling is simply not a feature of some of these meetups.   

After some time a few people got up to leave and I glided through space towards the top end of the main rocket. I perched near a cluster of three, relieved that I'd been able to move. Physically moving in space induces a shift in thought and emotional state. I've noticed if I am particularly burdened by a continual stream of negative thought I can sometimes reduce its impact or shift it entirely simply by getting up and walking about for a few moments. Sometimes even just turning my head to look the other way can be enough to achieve this kind of result. The cluster of three was quite friendly and easy to talk to but, alas, they had to leave too. There was a couple to my left but the woman got up to leave and I started to chat to the man that remained. It became apparent very quickly that there was no rapport whatsoever here. I found this individual very difficult and he had quite an aggressive way about him.

Later on I reflected on why I stay in the company of people whose behaviour makes me feel uncomfortable or with whom I really don't want to engage, but make real efforts to do so anyway. I had sat with this person for at least half an hour but there wasn't a single moment where I hadn't wanted to part company. Ordinarily one might ask why I just didn't get up and leave. The reality is I was trapped in a prison in my own mind which made it impossible. I remember that I kept thinking that I really didn't want to sit with this individual for a single moment longer and that I kept trying to think of how to make an exit. The problem was that my attempts to formulate a plan to facilitate this were sabotaged by intrusive thoughts of dropping something if I were to get up and leave, and then not being able to check if I had dropped something. I was also concerned about leaving something behind on the table and was additionally preoccupied by the bottle of ketchup whose position I found I was continually fine-tuning.

Regular readers of this blog (which we have already established don't exist because of Google's refusal to index it) will be aware that I suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and, in times of anxiety, and indeed in times of relative calm, it kicks in, hijacking my thoughts and dictating my behaviours. I needed to get away from someone, within whose presence I felt very uneasy, and the extreme anxiety that was building up launched an ongoing internal full scale attack of obsessive-compulsive disorder from which there was no escape. The thoughts of dropping something if I were to get up to try and leave and the bottle of ketchup dragged me along a path away from the one that would allow me to break away from the psychological turmoil I was experiencing. The guy said he had to go, got up, put his coat on and, as he walked through the doorway I could feel the veins in my whole body surge with a coolness of rushing mountain spring water. If Van Gogh had created a painting to represent the look on my face at that point in time it would probably have ended up being little more than a blank canvas; everything had lifted away and the prison gates were wide open exposing a blank emptiness inside.

Authenticity has become a key value for me this year. My authentic self would have said to my fellow comrade that it didn't find the conversation engaging, would have acknowledged the lack of rapport, would have expressed the discomfort and, having opened up to the vulnerability of relaying such complete and unequivocal honesty, would have felt no guilt in severing the connection. At the same time, I can't help but wonder that sometimes we may not want to express such authenticity. We do not owe anything in particular other than a level of courteousness to a transient stranger through a fleeting encounter; authenticity is the goal to formulate and maintain positive relationships with people that you want to include in your life. The ketchup man situation really just needed me to feel confident enough to be assertive in saying goodbye. My OCD, and all the other anxieties I experienced, are indicators of just how much my confidence is lacking.

Sunday 3 December 2023

The Bag Lady

This weekend has felt pretty awful all the way through. It's been punctuated with several low points that have fuelled anxiety and anger, a feeling of numbness in between these, and a complete absence of any positive moments. The past forty-eight hours have left me frazzled.

Yesterday was supposed to be a good day. I had three things in my diary the first of which was the occasional baking class that I sometimes go to on a Saturday morning. I wrote about a situation that had arisen there in my recent post The Friend That Nearly Was. I talked about a problem that had developed with a particular individual, Jane, who also sometimes attends. She was also there again yesterday. This wasn't really a problem though as I think the way things came to a head a fortnight ago provided a closure to the relationship between us. Somehow though, her presence seemed to have the effect of inducing a feeling of necessity in adapting my behavioural interactions with everyone else that was present. There was something going on internally that moved me away from the real me. I found myself adding a layer of unnatural extraversion to my personality which caused me to shift away from my authentic self. It seems that, on some unconscious level, I needed try and ensure that I was liked by everyone else in the group or, at the very least, to mitigate the potential of being disliked by anyone else present. The emotional distress that would be caused by others not liking me would compound the effects of Jane's rejection already set in stone. Such an outcome would serve to reinforce her rejection, in effect adding validity to it, and risking my precariously fragile state even further. 

The masking of my true self, however, causes an internal conflict, which actually creates distance rather than fostering human connection. I have talked about this previously in my blog and yet, despite being aware of the damage done by appearing through a psychological veil, this kicked in automatically by default without any ability to disable it. It acted as a defence mechanism in preserving the integrity of my sense of self at the expense of eroding the fostering of authentic new connections. Furthermore, the maintenance of defence mechanisms expends relatively more substantial amounts of mental energy; the greater the distance from my authentic self I try to maintain the greater the conscious effort I need to make. I already use up more energy than neurotypical, non-introspective, non-analytical types; I am forever continually analysing everything that's going on which in itself uses up a lot more energy than the average person who is able to just sit back and enjoy life effortlessly. This, combined with being on constant guard to maintain the detachment from authenticity as a defence mechanism, was just too much. No wonder I felt exhausted by the end of the baking class!

Frazzled, but not fazed, I made my way to my second engagement of the day: Talk & Listen, the emotional peer support group that I currently run every other Saturday. I discovered the usual venue to be especially noisy when I arrived which created some anxiety but I didn't have any option but to persevere. People started turning up for the meeting and started to take the seats I'd laid out in a circle. One sat down next to me; she had a shopping bag which she placed in between her chair and mine. I haven't talked about this much before, but I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD); it's an incredibly debilitating psychological condition that stops me from living a normal life. It is so bad that I am often completely unable to function in any shape or form. I can't even leave my flat, let alone go out and do something I need to do or something remotely useful; even shopping for milk and bread is a task beyond reach.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder comprises obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours that are inextricably linked. The particular symptomatic manifestations are very individual. People with OCD are often portrayed as people who are obsessed with cleanliness or have to continually wash their hands due to fear of some form of contamination. However, that's just one way that OCD may present itself for some individuals. I met someone whose OCD stopped him from being able to touch or even go near wooden objects. In my case, I become incredibly anxious and literally just freeze whenever I find myself near a bag or a bin. Sometimes, if I am unable to deal with the situation, I suffer a panic attack; it becomes a panic attack when the symptoms of the anxiety turn the freezing-up syndrome into a complete loss of agency: no perceived prospect of having any control over the situation. Increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, significant perspiration where I can just feel water dripping from my forehead, and a tensing up of muscles are some of the physiological aspects of the panic. I've had this many times in places like Sainsbury's where OCD has set in over a tin of baked beans and its particular placement on the shelf.

So there I was, at my peer support group, yesterday afternoon, where I suddenly found myself next to someone's bag. The anxiety was immediate; I felt trapped; I literally just froze and was unable to move. I could feel the sweat building up and my heart beginning to pound as if it was going to burst through my chest like the creature in Alien. I followed a certain ritualistic movement that saw me gliding away from the bag in a meticulously calculated fashion, small step by small step, all the while whilst keeping my gaze firmly on the bag; if I were to let it out of my sight I'd be doomed. After a while I was able to sit down in the circle directly opposite. I had to take a few moments for my breathing to be restored to a more sustainable pattern. My peculiar behaviour did not go unnoticed, to say the least!

We started the session with me sharing my affliction with OCD. I explained that I've had the condition since I was very young and that it is one that I live with every single day. It has an element of unpredictability as I never know exactly when it's going to strike or how badly. Whilst I was talking about my OCD I was also acutely aware that my focus was still on the bag. This did not change for at least an hour! Even when others in the group were sharing their difficulties I was still focussed on the bag whilst doing my best to listen to them. In my case, the obsessive thoughts I was experiencing were whether I'd dropped something in the bag when it had been placed next to where I'd originally been sitting, and my compulsive behaviour was a continual fixation on the bag from where I was sitting opposite, visually scanning the opening at the top to see if I had dropped something. These obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviour were a continual source of heightened anxiety for most of the meeting. Whilst the OCD started to dissipate after an hour or so, it continued right through to the end of the two hour session, albeit a little diluted by then. Remnants of the OCD episode persisted for a while even after leaving the venue. 

There was a third event to attend yesterday but, as I made my way to the venue, the effects of the day so far had already taken their toll; I felt completely worn out through the mental anguish of the day, from the energy that went into this during the morning's baking class to the anxiety and dysfunction of the OCD at my peer support group. There had also been several other instances of OCD throughout the day that I haven't even mentioned: at the baking class, for example, I had obsessive thoughts about having dropped something where I'd been sitting which were followed by extensive compulsive checking rituals under and around my chair several times and even more so when I was trying to get up and leave. I also felt I'd dropped something on the bus and had to endure the ongoing accompanying thoughts and behaviours associated with that. It was all too much. The physical and mental exhaustion had completely wiped out any ability or inclination to attend the third event I'd diarised for the day. This was a shame, really, as it was a philosophy and psychology discussion group that I'd been looking forward to.

During the bus journey on the way home I felt completely numb. My mind had turned into mushy peas and my body into jelly. I'm pretty sure that if you'd seen me you would have seen a completely vacant look; I was just a vegetable. A man with a dog got on the bus and I just spent the rest of the journey extending virtual love to the dog; it was so beautiful and lovable. I wanted to get up and go and hug it tightly and my mind drifted into a daydream where I imagined all this happening. I got home, resorted to some food high in carbohydrates for comfort and then fell asleep in front of a BBC4 Nordic noire drama. Here I am now, twenty-four hours later, and I have yet to recoup my energy, despite sitting indoors all day. I think this goes to show just how much energy is sapped from a system through effort in maintaining defence mechanisms and through involuntary thoughts and rituals of continual obsessive-compulsive disorder. It also shows how long it takes to restore all this expended energy. If my mind and body were connected to an energy smart meter it would be off the dial.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

Just Another Manic Monday

When I write these posts I don't start off with any plan. I just start writing and see where it takes me. There's a cathartic and self-reflective element to this process as well as a touch of excitement; because I don't know what I'm going to end up writing about I can't wait to see what unfolds during the process and what the end result will be. I am just as much in the dark as you, the reader! Sometimes I find that insight and excitement can come from the most unexpected and mundane of places. So I'll just start writing about the day I've had and see how that pans out and what nuggets of awareness I might uncover!

Woke up having once again been put through the mill of insomnia. This is a long-standing and ongoing affliction for which I have yet to find a remedy. I've just finished thirty days' worth of 5-HTP (hydroxytryptophan), a herbal remedy that induces the body to create serotonin which then gets converted to melatonin which should better regulate the body clock's sleep cycle mechanisms. That was the promise at the time of purchase but one that this particular herb failed to live up to. I might as well have been swallowing pills of powdered cabbage (if anything, they might even have been better as they would have at least provided some vitamin K).

The lack of sleep results in fatigue throughout the day and general irritability. Compounding this, I was acutely aware first thing this morning of an onset of temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ or TMD), the symptoms of which include pain around the teeth affected, an onset of tinnitus, a feeling of stuffed ear as if it's blocked up with gunge or submerged underwater at five-hundred metres, probably, intermittent sharp shooting pain in the ear and a particularly debilitating very loud popping, grinding and cracking which happens almost randomly leaving me too scared to open my mouth (some might argue that's not a bad thing!). This is a real discouragement to eating, which funnily enough is a bit of a problem, and because of the fear of the loud cracks and pops I try and stop myself yawning, which I do a lot of due to lack of sleep and, worse still, sneezing, which often somehow encorporates both the element of surprise and inability to suppress and is thus accompanied by a pop that sounds like a firework going off in my ear. It's rather disconcerting to say the least.

The TMJ is the result of a bit of dental work on a molar that probably didn't go as it should; it created a malocclusion (dental speak for misalignment of teeth) which then led to an accumulation of problems, TMJ being the latest iteration. On the plus side though, at least I'm learning new words that people might be impressed with if I casually slip them into the conversation; if someone ever mentions toothache in future, such as on the bus, in Cafe Nero or at a party for example, I might respond with "Ah yes, it sounds like that may be the result of a temporomandibular dysfunction arising from a malocclusion; oh and by the way, have you ever tried hydroxytryptophan complex?". So anyway, I digress. I called my dentist in the morning and explained that I just wasn't coping. It seems to me that I really need to get help beyond my dentist as I am suffering with this whole issue; it is spilling over into other aspects of my life. I asked for a referral to the orthodontic unit of a hospital as I thought they'd be a good place from which I could get the right sort of help. (That's what the AI chatbot advised, and who am I to argue?). I was told my issue didn't qualify me for a referral. The knockback set in motion the mood colour that would unfold.

On checking my emails, one that immediately stuck out was in relation to a financial loss for which I'd brought a complaint to the ombudsman. I know I have a watertight case and that I provided all the evidence to prove it. I believed my complaint would be upheld; it felt like it was just a formality to wait for the decision to confirm this. The news in the email was not at all what I had expected. I tried to call but was told that the decision was final and no further communication would be entered into. This was the second setback of the morning and did little to lift my mood. I needed to find a source of happiness somewhere, and soon, to get some good news about something or reach spiritual enlightenment! Anything positive would do; I just needed a psychological lift from the downward spiral I was slipping on. I would call a college I'd earmarked and enrol on a course I wanted; that would be a very positive step. I was told I didn't qualify for funding. Despite highlighting that I met the criteria stipulated on their website they presented another requirement that wasn't listed. No matter how much I tried they wouldn't budge.

It's not clear exactly what happened for a short while but it's as if I didn't physically exist in any normal state. My sensations seemed to go into overdrive. The hissing in my ear became very pronounced, my jaw was aching with a vengeance, my body felt as if I'd just come out of a freezer and shoved into an oven, and then back into the freezer. My head felt like it was the size of a Fiat Panda. The vision in my eye became congested with an array of floaters and some lightning flashes. I felt a bit dazed. I don't really know what any of this was. I do get anxiety attacks and sometimes these lead to panic attacks; I had one in Tesco a few days ago which was the result of a particularly debilitating episode of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) which lasted for almost half an hour. But the symptoms I experienced this morning were not the usual ones of anxiety or panic; those attacks have an altogether different set of symptoms. No, today was something else. My best guess is that, whatever it was, it was a culmination of the mental anguish from a relentless sequence of setbacks underscored by pre-existing and newly acquired physical stresses: psychological challenges wrapped in physical pain, discomfort and fatigue.

Early trauma and other emotional challenges set the stage for the development of coping mechanisms throughout life. Traumatic and neglectful events sensitise our reactionary triggers so that our ability to cope is undermined. Inability to cope due to loss of control over a situation leads to more trigger-happy responses that are usually those that work to our greatest disadvantage. Reacting to challenges where behaviour is triggered by the limbic system (the emotional response) without pause for thought (a slower, more meticulous cognitive process of the frontal lobes that came later in the evolutionary timeline) leads to greater anxiety and poor outcomes. The sequence of setbacks I experienced earlier today, on top of the pain and anxiety resulting from TMJ and the heavy fatigue from insomnia, were not within my power to change and the resulting lack of control gave rise to a raft of physiological changes that essentially made me collapse. In layperson's parlance I believe "nervous breakdown" may be a term often used.

My dentist may have felt I don't qualify for a referral, but I know I am really suffering from the dental-related condition and believe I am right in asking for help; I know I provided evidence to the ombudsman that proves the issues of the complaint I brought to them to investigate and so I know they are wrong to disagree in their assessment; I know I meet the funding criteria for the course because I thoroughly checked these before, during and after the call, so I know the adviser was wrong to refuse my enrolment. I just know I am right about all of these things but I cannot come to terms with also knowing that I can't do anything to change anyone's mind on any of them. The lack of control sets in motion a rush of adrenalin and releases other reactionary hormones which fuel feelings of anger and helplessness; there's just no time in the heat of each moment for the cognitive part of the brain to meticulously consider options, outcomes and behaviours: they are already being driven at warp speed by the emotional explosions taking place.

I had no idea what I was going to say as I started writing this blog post. Somehow, though, something has come out of the process of writing it. I've made some sense of what effect today's sequence of events had on me and why. I've also observed that thoughts, feelings and behaviours are mostly shaped by early experiences. They're not already embedded in our deoxyribonucleic acid!

Sunday 26 November 2023

The Friend That Nearly Was

Those who are constantly accusing others are often the ones doing exactly what they're accusing others of doing.

~ Unknown

My blog is like the buses: no posts for ages and then three materialise all at once! Not that anyone reads it, of course, as, despite starting it four months ago it has yet to be considered worthy of inclusion by the almighty and omnipresent Google in their search results. I will persevere, however, as, one day, Google might decide that I am not a total insignificance in which the users of its search would have no interest and decide to start including my blog in its results. That's when you'll find me!

As regular readers of my blog will know (and, as we've just established, there aren't any!) I often write about my social adventures (read: disappointments), experiences of trying to meet new people, and endeavours to improve my human interactions, all underpinned by a real need to make meaningful and long-lasting connections. I've got to a point in my life, albeit very late, where I am dysfunctional and crave connection with others to feel worthy and human. I also feel the need to do as much as I can for others and that is one of the reasons I set up Talk & Listen and did a course in counselling. My motivation for these choices was that, by genuinely helping others, I too would benefit by feeling better as a result. This is something I had not appreciated earlier in life but, as I have practiced extending empathy and compassion to others, I have noticed I feel better for it.

My social activities result from searching for things to do on Meetup and Eventbrite. I've mentioned this in a previous post on my blog so won't go into detail again here, suffice to say that that is virtually my only source of finding things to do that involve meeting other people. Occasionally I might do something outside of these two websites but not often. The social stuff I've been doing over the year, through Meetup and Eventbrite, is a bit random and a bit hit and miss. I've been to some meetups and events where I've been able to talk to some people and others that have been quite a disaster. It's a mixed bag and depends on the crowd, the ambience, the environment and the type of event itself. A pub social night on a Friday feels different to a Saturday afternoon coffee shop meetup, but neither is better than the other necessarily; it depends who turns up, what the mood is and a whole host of other, often unpredictable, factors. Even the rain can put a bit of a dampener on things!

One of the social activities I started going to early on, at the start of the year, was a baking class. It was great! We made some cakes! It was fun; it was a small crowd of around ten people, more women than men, perhaps unsurprisingly, mostly youngish, all in positive mood and there to have fun, meet new people and make new friends. I did enjoy the experience and made it a semi-regular feature of my weekly social calendar. During some of the weeks that I went along, a woman who was also a regular attendee and I became quite good friends. We shared a sense of humour on a level that appeared as if it was one that only we could understand; we got each other's jokes where nobody else did. There was something very connected about that and, whilst we hadn't known each other that long or knew all that much about each other, we got on very well and I felt there was a definite beginning to what felt like a genuine friendship.

We probably met around six or seven times at the baking class and, in addition, another couple of times on another event run by the same organisers at the same venue. During our very last encounter, which was around five months ago, I wasn't feeling very well. I had been in two minds about going along to the social event on that particular day but somehow I decided to go nevertheless. I didn't have a great time but did my best to conceal it while I was there and I probably gave the impression mostly that I was ok and that everything was fine; but I was in fact feeling mentally very unwell throughout the evening. I did share some banter with people and with the woman who I'd go to know a bit from the baking class (I'll call her "Jane"), so on the face of it I may have seemed almost my "normal" self, although I know there were incidents that would have given an impression of indicating otherwise.

The next day I had some anxiety as to whether I may have come across as a bit off with anyone. This worried me and I texted Jane to explain that I hadn't been feeling very well and didn't enjoy the socialising as much as I would have liked. She replied to say that she was sorry to hear that but that she hadn't noticed anything to indicate I wasn't interacting as normal. We were now in June and the events venue was closed for the Summer. A few weeks later I was going to go to an art trail event which I felt would be a nice event to go to and thought to ask Jane if she might like to come. She replied to say that I was rude because I didn't reply to her messages; her response shocked me. I replied to ask what she meant. Days went by and, when I didn't hear back from her, felt very dejected. After a while I concluded she just didn't want to talk to me anymore for reasons that seemed a mystery. As time went on the memory of that friendship gradually faded.

Six weeks later I received a message which seemed to suggest that she might be looking forward to seeing me at the baking class! I felt quite perplexed and emotionally all over the place. I just couldn't reply. Two weeks later I received a similar message to which again I didn't reply. A week later I received a third, this time a very aggressive message accusing me of being offensive for ignoring her two previous messages. This time I wrote a very lengthy message explaining how I felt about the whole situation and what I had gone through as a result of everything that had happened. I'm not sure what sort of response I expected in return but it wasn't what I received: Jane did not want to have any further interaction with me ever again. Once again, I felt awful. I replied simply to say that I held no animosity towards her, respected her decision and wishing her well. I didn't hear from her after that.

Until three weeks later. Jane sent me a message to say that she expected that we would bump into each other at the baking class and suggested that we should try and get on with each other. I replied to say that she'd already told me she didn't want to have anything to do with me. I received a somewhat miffed but non-committed reply. Our paths crossed at the baking class a couple of weeks ago and there was certainly an awkwardness between us. After the class had ended, Jane wanted to speak to me. What I then experienced from Jane was a lot of pent-up animosity but I remained calm throughout. During what felt like a barrage of her points of view I could not get a word in edgeways. I asked her if we could just talk through everything calmly and properly but she said she didn't have time. She had said she wanted to speak to me but it was clear to me she had no intention to listen in return; she turned and started to walk away, angrily shaking her head as she did so indicating what I perceived to be her disapproval and contempt towards me.

Projection is a psychological phenomenon that acts as a defence mechanism. When someone has issues that are too painful to deal with the path of least resistance is to project them onto someone else and to then perceive them as having those issues. If someone has a fragile sense of self then they will do whatever they can to protect the integrity of their self image. If they perceive a threat to the way that they see themselves, they will seek to deflect that threat back onto its source. My guess is that Jane has had some past experience which resulted in destabilising the way she needs to be perceived. When faced with a danger that threatens to expose any gaps in the integrity of her self-image, which in turn might damage the illusion of her sense of self, she will deflect the threat by projecting it onto someone else. This is an attempt to avoid the emotional pain that she would experience by acknowledging the flaws in her character.

When she spoke to me at the end of the baking class she said I was angry; I was actually calm but she projected her anger onto me by denying it for herself; she said I accused her of something; I hadn't, but she was accusing me (of accusing her); she said she was making the effort to talk; perhaps, but she wasn't really talking, not if that should also include allowing me to speak and to listen to what I also felt I needed to say. I experienced projection as a defence mechanism unravelling right before me. I was amenable to making amends but that brief encounter felt laced with a toxin that brought what had started off as a promising start to a potential friendship to a fatal end. I really liked Jane, while it lasted, and I really wanted us to be friends. I felt we could both have potentially benefited hugely form each other's friendship; we've both lost out. I am very saddened by the whole affair.

It usually takes two to tango and I need to own up to my flaws too. Jane is not the only guilty party in this conundrum of behaviours and events. When I reflect back on how everything unfolded, I can see that Jane did send me a follow up message to the one that she'd sent me after a six week gap. I could, and in hindsight, should have responded to that. If I had been consistent in one of my own key values, that of authenticity, I should have taken that opportunity to explain that I'd felt dejected when she hadn't originally replied to my message where I had asked what she meant when she said I had been rude. I could backtrack further, again, easy to say in hindsight, and possibly even suggest that I could have followed up my message asking about the rudeness accusation with a second message. That's not so clear cut but could have been a possibility at the time. The trouble is I'm not very good at following up on things; if I ask something once and don't get a response I then usually suffer in perpetuity until the issue dissipates from my system, only to leave behind remnants to come back to haunt me in the future.

If we were to apportion blame then Jane and I would both be guilty parties. Jane's projection of her anger and insecurities onto me was probably the final blow to the friendship that nearly was.

The Metaphysics of Social Interaction

I was just glancing at my calendar of the past four weeks or so. There's not much in it but there are one or two social entries per week on average which sum up the extent of my social life. At the start of the year I made a conscientious decision to make efforts to step outside of my comfort zone of a hermit's cocoon and attempt to connect with fellow human beings. For the average person this may seem a relatively trivial and insignificant step, but for someone with social anxiety, deep-rooted insecurities and other mental health challenges it can seem like a bridge too far. Nevertheless, I've persevered and continue to try and indulge in a couple of social events pretty much weekly. This is in an effort to satisfy a real need for human connection, something which has always been difficult and elusive due to personal awkwardness, anxiety and uncertainty. These are qualities which I've always been afflicted with but which I am trying to address at this stage of my life through means of personal growth and pushing some personal boundaries towards experiences that may challenge my personality complexes. My theory is, that if I can gain new experiences in trying to connect with others, then I can learn from this and develop into a more balanced individual that people might actually want to spend time with. The practice is yielding mixed results for which I shall provide some examples from the aforementioned diary!

Kicking off with the start of the month, the first entry in my diary was a lecture on the philosophy of medicine! I know, random, but it was the indication of a drinks reception that was to follow that clinched the deal! I won't go into the details of the lecture now, because I don't remember any of it, apart from the fact that a medical outcome is predicated by factors which, if altered, would not necessarily revert the outcome to an expected value, as all factors are variables whose contributory effects cannot be predicted with certainty. Basically, everything is down to a best guess: your medical treatment might work as expected; or it might not. Anyway, I digress. Following on from an hour's worth of enlightenment, accompanied throughout by pretty pictures and formulas with lots of squiggly symbols projected onto a big screen, I found myself at the greatly anticipated drinks reception. I scooped up the glass of red wine that appeared the most full from those on the table and proceeded to look around as people gathered. There was a throb of voices filling the room and I realised that people were quickly mingling and talking whilst I was still finding myself alone with a steady and unfaltering build up of social anxiety to keep me company.

At some point I realised I was on my second glass of red wine and still hadn't interacted with anyone. There was a woman standing very close by. Before I knew it, "Good evening! How did you find the lecture?" I exclaimed, trying to look and sound natural, concealing my anxiety as best as I could. It seemed to work. Yeap, I'm pretty sure I got away with it! We got a conversation going about philosophy and medicine. I imparted the extent of my knowledge about the subject in sixty seconds, which was about outcomes not being predictable with certainty because of factors which are random variables, or something along those lines, and she reciprocated in kind with her knowledge on the subject based on the Ph.D. she'd just completed on the subject. Not long after, she parted company with, "I just need to go and talk to my friend!". I put that down to a success, relatively speaking. With a somewhat newfound confidence, of sorts, no doubt fuelled by one point seven five glasses of red wine, and counting, I scanned the room in some sort of three hundred and sixty degree fashion. On spotting a group with what I perceived as open body language I rocked right up and said "Hi. How is everyone?". Silence, cursory glances from two of the four in the group, the other two stepping back from me, and a continuing silence. Yes, the tumbleweed effect. Then the four continuing their deliberations as if I was not present, visible or audible. 

That, for me, was enough of a confidence-shattering knockback to elicit a beeline for the exit. It doesn't take much to shatter an already fragile state; fragility does dot harbour resilience. I feel content that I am at least stepping out into territory that remains a personal challenge, never knowing what perils may be lurking in the nooks and crannies of the complex social fabric of human connectedness. I knew the woman didn't necessarily need to go and talk to her friend; the politeness of etiquette masks the true meaning, which translates to "I'm now bored with you and uninterested in what you have to say, so I am going to go and find someone else to talk to with whom I may feel a little bit more excited about". There is no problem, of course, with wanting to do exactly that, but the result of getting such reactions continually serves as a reinforcement of social inadequacy and degraded self-image. At least though, she adhered to the accepted rules of social grace. Contrast this with the tumbleweed encounter, the rebuttal of which, with the complete absence of social etiquette, left me frazzled to the point of requiring immediate departure from the proceedings of the evening.

On leaving, my mind entered a deep and complex analytical phase that is customary for someone with heavily introspective inclinations and a continual compulsion to seek insight and understanding. I went through, in my mind, the sequence of events at the gathering, from how I stood, how I looked, what I said, how I said it, how people were affected by me, how they reacted to me, what they said, how they said it, how they moved, where they looked and what they did and did not do. Every piece of information went through an internal interrogation system through the filter of my own experience, conscious, unconscious and outworldly. If the factors that dictated events during the evening had been different, how would possible outcomes have been altered, and could any of these have been predicted with any level of certainty? Or is the entirity of life just one big metaphysical melting pot of variables in a continual state of flux? 

PS. The Ph.D. woman might be able to offer some clues, unless she's still talking to "her friend", in which case she might be too intoxicated to be able to do so by now; she too was on the wine.

Notes And Reflections From Talk & Listen

As you will by now likely be aware, I set up and voluntarily run a peer support group (Talk & Listen) where people experiencing emotional difficulties can come to meet others in similar situations, talk through their issues and receive support in the form of feedback, reflection and empathic understanding through the others in the group and from myself. There are a few people that come regularly and there are always also some new people at every meeting. I usually have around ten people attending in total and they are generally different personalities, from different backgrounds and in fact the group is always very diverse drawing from all aspects of the protected characteristics of the Equalities Act 2010!

Everybody is welcome without any hesitation and I always try and ensure everyone feels safe and comfortable due to the nature of the group. It's a fairly fluid set up, apart from my introduction where I briefly outline some basic requirements and expectations in that the group works non-judgementally, that all personal aspects of the group remain confidential, that we are mindful and sensitive and that we try as much as possible to refrain from giving advice. I suggest that feedback can take the form of empathic reflection to make speakers who share their stories feel heard and understood or that it can be in the form of thoughts that can help the speaker with self-awareness and insight.

On the positive side, it mostly works well. Some people who share their feelings do get some good support and seem to really appreciate this although not everybody shares their issues at every meeting. I leave it optional for people depending on how they feel. On a less positive note, however, I have noticed that, occasionally, if someone is speaking I may switch off for a few seconds and my mind can wonder. I am not sure why this happens but I think in the main it's because I have so many anxieties of my own that my thoughts sporadically flick to them. Clearly this would be unacceptable in a one-to-one therapeutic relationship but even in a group it is not good. Somehow though, when I do find that I lose my concentration for a brief moment, I rely on most of the other people in the group to be listening and this takes a bit of the pressure off. It doesn't happen much though, but it is something I need to work towards reducing as much as possible.

I've reflected on the core counselling skills from a counselling course I've recently finished and have found that these are seeping into my peer support group. I am more aware of reflection, paraphrasing and challenging, for example, and this adds an additional, therapeutic angle to the group albeit not in any formal or advanced way, but at least it does sometimes help to generate greater insight for someone who may be sharing their story. Last week's meeting seemed particularly impactful on most of those that came along. On that day, three people shared some particularly distressing issues that were life-changing for them. One talked about his lack of connection with another group of people and explained that two people from that group had turned against him. He explained that he felt hurt and betrayed and lost as to what to do. His emotional pain was recognisable and, whilst he did not display any strong emotion during his sharing of his story, he did describe that he had been detrimentally affected by the experience.

A second person in the group described how his wife had become narcissistic and had "tried" to "destroy" him and their marriage. His love for their two young daughters is the only thing that stopped him from self-harm and potential suicide. He became visibly emotional during the recounting of his story and, as I write, I am finding that I am right now becoming emotional and tearful myself. I am finding it interesting to observe my own emotional reaction to that of someone else at a different place and time; it feels like I am experiencing his emotional pain in the here and now. It seems to me that human emotion is incredibly contagious (as it is for most animals, too), even when separated by space and time, unless one is detached from it through psychopathy or sociopathy.

The third person in the group who described another life-changing issue talked about her partner cheating on her, then making her feel like the guilty party as if it was because of her that he had been unfaithful, and the continual gaslighting that she had always endured but did not realise at the time. Despite this she was still with her partner and seemed to have a desire to try and make the relationship work. She too was visibly distressed. I tried to use my own abilities of empathic understanding to acknowledge how she felt but then attempted to make some use of techniques I picked up from when I was in counselling as well as techniques and skills picked up from my course, to question and challenge her values and beliefs. I really wanted her to see that she may have options that she had not considered or that she was too scared to face.

I desperately felt the need for her to be able to leave the peer support group at the end of the meeting with some tangible thoughts that would allow her some insight and self-reflection; I wanted her to be in a stronger position to make the right choices for herself. I did find myself building up some virtual hatred for her abusive husband, even though I'd never met him or heard his side of the story. I find this too an interesting observation, in that it does not seem humanly possible to remain detached from personal feelings that come up. I wonder whether this indicates internal congruence and authenticity in which case such a lack of detachment is perhaps not to be considered a bad thing. There may be a downside, however, in that persistent lack of detachment from big and strong emotions may lead to a build up of internal conflict, stress and anxiety.

Once we become aware of our internalised feelings, those that cause us distress in our current lives, we no longer need to act them out (in destructive, unhealthy ways). This is a concept that is dealt with and used extensively in psychodynamic therapy1. It makes me wonder whether bringing the stories of the beholders at my peer group into their conscious awareness allows them to acknowledge their feelings and integrate them into the present, thereby achieving some level of catharsis of which the strong emotional response observed is a symptom.

1 Counselling Directory, How is Psychodynamic Counselling Different to Psychoanalysis?, available at:; accessed on 21/11/2023

Monday 30 October 2023

Past Entanglements And Dodgy Vibes

So it turns out that we are not just individual human beings freely weaving our meandering path through life. Individually, we are the sum of infinitely many parts and, in turn, are a part of something infinitely bigger than ourselves. Absolutely everything is connected and influences everything else; nobody exists in isolation. Even the tiniest sub-atomic particle is entwined with another, even if separated in distance by the entire expanse of the universe. When it moves, the particle with which it is entwined is compelled to move in a corresponding way. The two particles are entangled; one cannot exist without the other and each influences the other continually at the exact same time. 

As I started to type this sentence, I had a conscious thought to do so. This thought was influenced by factors that are hidden from me and buried in my unconscious. My unconscious is a continually changing secret reservoir that has accumulated information over time from the moment of its conception. Everything I have seen, heard, tasted, experienced from the very beginning formed the basis of the neural pathways in the brain. These continually influence the messages being sent throughout my entire physical and psychological being. An experience of absolute fear at the age of one, an encounter of unbridled dread at two, a panic-stricken episode at three; all contribute to how the neural networks are constructed. Every experience adds to how the response to all future stimuli is determined, whether fight, flight or freeze. 

An experience of joy and happiness at age one, an encounter of warm and fuzzy human interaction at two, an exciting episode of smiles and laughter at three is equally influential to future development, but the end result contrasts sharply to that moulded by experiences that are polar opposites; we fight, flight or freeze in completely different ways. Whatever choices we make are based on what's already happened. If different things had happened to us, if we had experienced the world around us differently, particularly during our early formative years when our brains were a blank canvas and at their most malleable, then we would be making altogether different choices. I was recently reading about two brothers. One was a convicted serial murderer; the other a successful professional with a house and family leading a fulfilling life. The contrasting life path was well explained by their different upbringing. The one that had killed people had endured suffering and torment through neglect and abuse as a small child; the brother able to lead a happy life had been nurtured with love, care and attention.

We are the result of our development and everything that happens to us, physically and mentally, is the outcome of infinitely many moving parts all working together and influencing each other. We are the sum of the parts of our own internal and intricately-woven entanglement. The cause of many physical ailments that manifest themselves in the body are deeply rooted in the mind through an infinitely complex relationship that is in a continual state of flux. This is a product of the developmental experiences that we have encountered, whether fruitful or traumatic, particularly in early childhood. The body does not forget trauma. The blood blisters that turn into excruciatingly painful ulcers that I have in my mouth and on my tongue, which have been making it virtually impossible to drink or eat over the past few days, are not a random occurrence. They can be traced to psychological trauma from decades back.

In my blog post yesterday I wrote that my efforts for human connection are met with indifference. I knowingly suggested that my social skills may lie somewhere towards the dysfunctional end of the competency scale and that my vibe might not conjure up the desire in others to wish to get a little closer and find out more. I didn't develop these skills when I was young because opportunities to do so were tainted with toxicity. Throughout my early life the messages that I perceived from my experiences adversely affected the evolving image of myself and my place in the world and instilled a deep-rooted belief that I was inadequate. I simply wasn't worthy of enjoying happy moments. I grew up with an imbalanced view of the world, always on edge and filled with anxiety to the brim when faced with any potential human interaction. Loneliness is an affliction that gnaws at the soul. I don't want to be alone, weird or undesirable. Trying to do something about it takes a lot of effort and it's not something that comes naturally to me as it does for some people.

Thoughts, feelings and behaviours are critically and directly influenced by the past. So whilst there is such a thing as free will, it's pre-determined by the events that have gone before. I may want to go out and meet people, to connect and feel good, to make friends, and my free will means I can choose to try and live my life in this way. But my free will is steeped in its own experiential neuro-biological history which gives rise to the dodgy vibe that acts as an effective repellent. It hides in the unconscious but dynamically controls the conscious which is why it is not possible to become a fundamentally different human being to the one that we are. It doesn't mean there are no ways to make any changes though. Even if they might end up being relatively small they might still be enough. 

There is hope through trying to make the right choices, realigning our thoughts with where we want to be and seeking out approaches for self-development and well-being. I might be completely knotted up within my own entanglement; I just need to find the beginning of the thread.

Sunday 29 October 2023

The Existential Threat Posed By Social Events

Sometimes being surrounded by everyone is the loneliest, because you’ll realise you have no one to turn to.

~ Soraya, Astrologer & Reiki Practitioner

If you meet a loner, no matter what they tell you, it’s not because they enjoy solitude. It’s because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them.

~ Jodi Picoult, My Sister's Keeper, 2004

People think I’m odd, so I know how it feels to be different, and I know how lonely that can be.

~ Beauty and the Beast, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve

I'd not ventured beyond my front door for three days. I needed some real-life human contact. Over the past few months, at times like these, I have been going online to look for something to do to satisfy such needs. I don't have friends I can just call up to meet up with or even just to have a chat with. Occasionally, I might ring my bank's call centre pretending I want to check a transaction just to have some brief conversation! I might also ring an emotional support helpline if I am particularly troubled. I spent quite a long time on the telephone seeking some respite from Samaritans on Saturday night. To actually meet people, though, I've been using websites such as Meetup, Eventbrite and Facebook. And so it was that yesterday I found myself scrolling through "events" on Meetup and Eventbrite to find somewhere to go where I might encounter human beings who I could just talk to. I found an event which was described as a social evening to meet new people with whom to walk around Shoreditch looking at street art. This sounded like just what I needed!

My mood needed a pre-event shift somehow or another. I'd been cooped up alone in a sea of depression for three days and needed to move up a few notches on the sociability scale. I would need to present myself as a friendly, likeable and approachable character whilst sticking to my values of authenticity, the desire to just "be the real me". Despite an inner fragility I arrived at the scene in pleasant mood and, to the best of my knowledge, welcoming body language with energy to mingle and interact. This was the whole point of even turning up to this "social evening to meet new people"! There was quite a crowd already gathered when I arrived. I spotted someone on his own just looking at his mobile. I thought he might appreciate some company and so I didn't hesitate in just going up to him and saying hello. He looked up at me momentarily and, without speaking, just resumed looking at his mobile. I immediately felt my mood taking a shift in the wrong direction of the scale. This had such an effect on me that it set a scene of foreboding for the rest of the evening.

We all stood around waiting to get started on the walk. I managed to somehow pretend to myself that I felt absolutely fine and unfazed and that the evening would facilitate the anticipated social interactions. A quick hand wave from the organiser signalled we were now on the move. We set off on a journey that was to unfold over the next couple of hours with all the emotional complexities arising from social anxiety that it would entail. I quickly realised that I was not even noticing the surroundings as we walked along, a column of people moving along the streets of east London, with me lost in my own world somewhere within the final third of the procession. I looked up and around. It seemed everyone was in pairs or small groups of three or four and, amongst all these fellow walkers, I found that I was on my own, with just my own thoughts and insecurities for company. This wasn't the point of joining a group activity. I had to talk to someone! 

Attempting to shift gear, mentally and physically, I made an effort to engage with some of those around me. I tried various permutations of conversation starter that sprung to mind, which ranged from a simple "hello", to comments about art, the streets of Shoreditch or what attracted people to the event. Response was short and superficial, if even there was a response at all. Some people seemed reluctant to venture out from within their mini social bubble or were too deep in their contemplation of art, life or the universe. Or maybe there were deficiencies in my social skills; maybe my vibe was being perceived as decidedly off kilter. At times of despair in social situations, as soon as I am faced with the notion that I have nothing left to lose, I resort to nuclear options within my social armoury. There would be no more lame "hellos" or "that's a nice shade of blue on that bit of graffiti" to get the party started.  

I made a beeline towards a woman who appeared to have momentarily separated from the pack. "Do you think Schrodinger's cat poses an existential threat to humanity?". Unfazed by her look of bewilderment I turned to a guy next to me and exclaimed that I'd had some taramosalata and pitta bread that afternoon and asked whether he'd had anything to eat before coming out that evening. I might as well have been speaking in Mandarin. I gate-crashed a party of four and introduced the concept that each electron has a twin spinning in the opposite direction billions of light years away. Nope, that didn't get much of a reaction either. I've noticed in many social situations when several "normal" attempts to start some sort of conversation fail I seem to resort to avant-garde all-or-nothing tactics. I think I do this in the belief that nothing works for me anyway. By the time I get to this turning point I think I've given up on connecting with anyone, so I think I act in a way more for my own personal amusement than anything else. It's a temporary respite from the underlying pain of rejection.  

The walk came to an end. I hadn't paid any attention to any street art, apart from some graffiti where I noticed a pleasing hue of blue, which I pointed out to someone only to be met with indifference at the time. The group started to disband, saying their goodbyes and heading off into the night in different directions whilst I looked on. I was a little bit lost, both in my thoughts and my location, and stood motionless looking around expecting answers to appear before me. Suddenly, it started to rain; I had no umbrella. The trouble with this situation, as a myopic bespectacled individual, is that everything just starts to feel really shit. So there I was, by now alone, somewhere in the dark, wet expanse of this part of the city. I hadn't even come close to any human connections; the "social" event had been an unmitigated disaster. I was too emotionally numb to discern whether I was alive or dead inside. I was Schrodinger's cat; isolated, lost, and soaked in an existential paradox. 

I just needed to find my way home; I still had some taramosalata left in the fridge. And that could be followed with tea and crumpet with Morello cherry jam. Maybe there was some point to life after all, albeit consolatory.

Sunday 20 August 2023

Lincoln's Inn Fields On Saturday Afternoon

Saturday afternoons have recently become a permanent fixture in my diary. This is when I run my weekly peer support group sessions in central London. I've been using a relatively quiet and comfortable space for the purpose at City Lit, an adult education college. When I arrived at the venue yesterday and walked up to the automatic glass doors they didn't open. City Lit was closed. My intended first port of call on arrival had been the desperate use of the loo. Compounding this urinary urgency was the immediate realisation that my cohort of peer group attendees would be arriving shortly with nowhere to be accommodated.

A newbie was the first to arrive. As it turns out she knew no English; our entire communication was conducted via Google translate on her mobile accompanied with a heavier-than-usual reliance on non-verbal communication. She shared some personal information for which I won't go into any detail to preserve confidentiality, suffice to simply say that she recently had to come to a foreign country, where she knew nobody, didn't speak the language and felt isolated. She had found my peer support group online and she was now standing right in front of me, her fixated gaze seeking solace.

One by one, the other attendees started to materialise, a mixture of regulars and first-timers. One such of the latter seemed hesitant and expressionless. I immediately sensed that they were not of the type who are naturally comfortable with new people or in groups. Whilst trying to welcome everybody as they arrived, I made several attempts to engage with my cautious newcomer. I wanted to make her feel included and to try and allay any social anxieties she may have had at least to some extent so that she would feel a little bit more comfortable within the group.

The warm and sunny weather helped Lincoln's Inn Fields, the local park, to quickly make its way onto the radar as a good enough alternative from which we could run the day's session. We neatly placed ourselves in a circle on the grass on arrival and commenced proceedings with a short introduction of the session, mainly for the benefit of newcomers, followed by briefly introducing ourselves to each other. At this point we would normally start to share our own personal stories for which we would find peer feedback useful in helping us with our thoughts and feelings. 

The session did not unfold quite as expected. The social anxiety may have been too much for our hesitant member; she got up and left, followed not long after by our non-English speaking friend. Following on from this, the sharing and feedback was superseded by a wider conversation, itself meaningful and engaging, but not quite the level of peer support intended. Perhaps the environment wasn't quite right; there were groups of people scattered around everywhere, noisily drinking and laughing; there were two barbeques on the go with smoke everywhere; children playing football and screaming, with joy I think; a woman throwing a big stick which her Golden Retriever would diligently run and fetch for her. 

We just went with the flow and had a pleasant afternoon! Our discussion was deep enough and fostered a connection through shared experience. There was a therapeutic element to the session. Maybe it can still count as peer support! But perhaps not so for the two participants that prematurely disbanded. I thought about them afterwards and puzzled as to what else I or anyone else could have done to help them feel more at ease. I was overshadowed by a feeling of guilt; a sense of failure. I questioned the very essence of my ability to even be running a peer support group. Perhaps there was nothing further that could have been done; maybe my peer support group just wasn't right for them. It must be of use to some people though as they do come back!

There's a fine line between lame attempts to console myself and true reality of a situation. I like to believe my intentions are worthy; I want to help as many other people as possible and perhaps must learn to accept that I just can't help everyone. It is not my responsibility to do so and equally I probably ought to be aware that I do have a responsibility to help myself, something which I often forget. There was a lot to reflect on but in the meantime I really needed to find a toilet.