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Talk & Listen Sessions

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