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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.