Gratitude etc.

I was first introduced to gratitude as a practice thirty years ago when I joined a 12 step recovery fellowship. I was told to do six things every day to guarantee having a sober day. One of those items was the Gratitude List.

When I first began this practice I was amazed how good it made me feel. Nevertheless, as I remained sober, working the twelve step program, my emotional difficulties started to pile up and it wasn’t long before “write a gratitude list” started to feel like a punishment! Since that time I have always felt ambivalent about the gratitude list.

In recent times the ‘Gratitude List’ has also become rather fashionable. For example, Gillian Anderson (the glamorous actor) promotes it in her book We, co-authored by Jennifer Nadel. But I have also noted, in the media, that various scientific research has proved that acknowledging stuff to feel grateful for is proven to increase happiness and well being. I’m always, since university anyways, impressed by the ‘scientific research’ tag. Rightly, I feel.

But that hasn’t necessarily made me spring into action. Not that I have a policy of refusing to be grateful, on the contrary, I love feeling grateful, but in my experience gratitude doesn’t necessarily arise by writing a list. Up until today.

That said, recently I have been listening to Rupert Sheldrake on YouTube. You might say I have been binging on Rupert. I tend to do this with (usually male) ‘thinkers’. Maybe it’s my father complex shining through. I did this recently with Malcolm Gladwell and Gabor Mate, a while back. I’ve ordered a few Sheldrake tomes from the library and I’m currently working through the one about angels and physics.

Sheldrake advocates, not so much ‘believing in God’(although I think he does), choosing instead to focus on ‘spiritual practice’. This re-framing of spiritual practice away from religion, appeals to me. The practices he outlines make sense; from experience I know that many of them do make me feel more connected to wholesome experience.

In one of his talks he said he meditates in the morning and says his prayers at night. I thought: that sounds good, I’m going to give it a go. I’ve found it has increased my consciousness into a feeling of having a spiritual life. It feels new and beneficial.

One thing I have found useful in the past with gratitude — another ‘practice’ Sheldrake outlines — is to re-frame the gratitude list so it doesn’t feel like a school teacher telling me to eat my greens. Instead I write a list of things that make me happy. Or things I’m glad about. I do think language matters, and some of my personal associations to ‘gratitude’ are not necessarily positive. Like the reference to smelly over-cooked cabbage indicates.

Some things I feel happy about, or wouldn’t feel great without:

1. Rupert Sheldrake YouTube talks

2. My voluntary jobs

3. NA meetings online

4. Practicing spiritual principles

5. My flat

6. British and ‘World’ crime drama

7. living in Wales

8. My clothes

9. Apple juice and water

10. Hummus and avocado sandwiches

Well, I’ve written ten things there, as Gillian Anderson recommends.

On the negative side, I’ve been dealing with a lot of anger over the past weeks or so. I’ve been raging and metaphorically tearing out my hair. For the first four years of my recovery I never experienced anger. Not that it wasn’t there, I just didn’t connect to it. I don’t like feeling anger, but I accept it as a necesary communication from my psyche, or the angel sphere: things are seriously a miss. When I continually experience rage or anger in any situation, if it keeps coming up I have to change. That’s where taking inventory comes in. I may not have done something wrong, quite often I haven’t, not nowadays, but the problem is mine if I don’t address it. This is how I read the 10th step thing about ‘when something wrong, there is something wrong with me.’ Not ‘I have done something wrong’, which is how I used to hear it.

When I am actually doing something wrong, I tend to know pretty quick, and I don’t have any problem apologising, and hopefully changing. Too often though, I am not quick to recognise when someone else is taking the piss, or when something is not working. This is because of childhood conditioning of one sort or another (count the ways). For me, that is much more difficult to ascertain and change.

Anyway, that’s my inventory for today.

On Being Ignored

Did you know that emotional pain, such as romantic rejection, lights up the same parts of the brain associated with psychical injury (or something like that). So that when we’ve been rejected we feel pain like in a bodily way.

When I first heard this it made absolute sense to me. It’s hard to describe the pain of being dumped. If you stub a toe, it may hurt a lot, but you are unlikely feel as thought the world has ended. Indeed, some people take it upon themselves to end their lives under such conditions. Dramatic as that is, it isn’t at all uncommon.

When you loose, when I have lost, someone that I loved it feels like it will never pass. I felt isolated, and that nobody else could possibly understand the pain I am in. And I’m someone who talks with other people a lot about my emotional life. How hard it must be if you haven’t really connected with other people on that level, and feel utterly stranded in the pain of loss.

I’ve been coping with, not the pain of loosing a partner, but the pain of being ignored by people that I personally wouldn’t ignore myself. Even so, they have taken it upon themselves to shut me out, as though I am someone best avoided. I find this very hard, because mainly, expect in very extreme circumstances, it isn’t a tactic I’m inclined to practice.

I’ve got three cases of being ignored buzzing about in my brain, lighting up my pain centres. It’s fogging up my thinking so I feel stranded in the unsayable, unable to communicate with people who aren’t ignoring me. When reporting the facts about what has gone down, e.g. “L has ignored my important Messenger text”, I don’t feel that I can explain the gravity of the situation. Nobody can quite understand how much this hurts, and in what way. I feel like I have been stabbed in the brain, and how do you describe how that feels? It’s like language fails. This adds frustration to pain.

“You feel things very acutely, don’t you?” a psychotherapist once said to me. That is certainly true. “Yes,” I replied. “But doesn’t everyone?”

“Well,” he said, ignoring my minimising of the situation. “You do.”

I’m carrying this pain about with me at the moment — L ignoring me. L was a close friend of my mother, quite a ‘well-to-do’ type. A Buddhist, a psychotherapist, married with a kid, a nice woman. I always liked L. At the same time I always had the feeling L took me with a pinch of salt. She didn’t quite trust me.

When my mother died, leaving no will, her house went to her husband; someone she had been in the process of divorcing before she got ill. I thought about challenging this — my mother told me she wanted me to have the cottage. Not only that, my grandmother left her an enormous sum of money on the condition everything would go my way when my mothers time came.

I was considering challenging the will with a solicitor who had agreed to take it on in a ‘No Win No Fee” arrangement; I was planning on getting the cottage sold and divided up three ways: my mums ex, my step brother and me. When L got wind of this, she let me know — in no uncertain terms — that she would be challenging this course of action, as fast and as far as she could. She said, “Well, you mother may have said that to you, but she said different things to different people and she wrote down on a piece of paper, when she was dying, that she wanted your step brother to have the cottage.” She was also pretty aggressive in relaying this information, which shocked me.

Other things have happened to, quite apart from the underlying hostility I have always sensed emanating from her to me. An outcome that can really only have had my mother as source. They were very close. It made me realise my mother did not have good things to say about me when I wasn’t around. Considering the way she treated me, I ought to have guessed that she had not much that was good to say about me behind my back, but it was something I always denied to myself.

If I had had any sense I might have divorced myself from her years before her death, but I couldn’t do it. Not only because my AA sponsors were always telling me I had to try and to make amends, but also because she was my mother. The attachment ran very deep, and like I say, I don’t easily turn my back on people.

A while back I had to get away from my step brother — a year and a half ago. I also had to stop talking to him. His attitude to me was, intermittently, becoming increasingly hostile, aggressive and abusive. In the end the negativity from my mother clan was effecting me with such force I completely lost my mind and tried to kill myself. Also, I am Bipolar and wasn’t taking my meds. This didn’t help. So anyway, the upshot of all this was I stopped talking to my step brother; who I happened to also love a great deal, but I had no choice. I was too ill to cope with the situation.

After taking this action (stopping communications with my brother) I happened to see L in a cafe in town. I couldn’t be sure she had seen me, but I had looked over at her expecting an acknowledgment, at least. But she had such a stony look on her face I realised, all the time wondering if I had actually imagined it, that she really hated my guts. But like I said, it wasn’t the first time I had felt this. But as is my usual tendency at such times, I tried to convince myself it wasn’t true.

When recently I heard new that my step brothers mental health had deteriorated to a quite abysmal degree, and I couldn’t get hold of him, I sent L the Messenger text I mentioned earlier. I really was in two minds about this course of action, but I didn’t really know who else to contact. My mother’s ex had told me the bad news, and that my brother had disappeared. The only person I could think of who might know something was L. She had become something of a surrogate mother since my mother passed. Perhaps she would let me know if my brother was at least alive.

It really hurts to be ignored in such dire circumstances. She really must hate me. It’s really not a nice feeling at all. It hurts in a physical way. Like being stabbed in the brain. But she obviously believes it’s what I deserve.

This too shall pass.

I have to do what Philipa Perry advised — think of one example of something positive from my experience. I recently asked her on Twitter how to deal with rejection. That was her advice. She said that we naturally focus on the negative as it helps us feel safe.

Like I said, this isn’t the only rejection wound I’m nursing at the moment. I saw my ex on the street earlier today and I’m fairly sure he pretended not to see me so as to avoid having to interact with me. Then there was the guy in the local bakery that didn’t bother to reply after I sent in my CV for a job I was interested in. I had actually met this man and talked with him about sending in my CV and was thoroughly gutted when he didn’t even bother to acknowledge the work I had put into applying for a job in his cafe. A cafe that is very popular and cool in these parts.

The three positives I choose are:

1. I have a lovely friend who recently sent me an email saying that our friendship means a lot to him.

2. I am enjoying life quite a bit at the moment. Not because of any achievement or relationship, but because I can occupy myself with activities I find satisfying: Reading the Guardian, watching TV, reading books, writing my blog and listening to podcasts.

3. I have managed to save a good chunk of cash for the first time in my adult life.

4. I’m also developing a spiritual practice of prayer and meditation, service, gratitude, and taking inventory — this blog is my inventory.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as Nietzsche says.

Dogs

Dogs

I am utterly besotted — with a Labrador and a Corgi called Archibald and Augustine. The couple take pride of place on the screensaver of my iPhone and every time I look at their expectant faces and coats of ginger and cream fluff my heart soars with happiness. I smile into my phone like a grandparent cooing over their baby ancestor.

The other day, at an AA meeting, I showed my screen saver to a fellow in recovery. When they didn’t fawn in the appropriate manner, exuding joy and admiration, I felt severely put out. As though my new born baby had been dismissively shrugged off.

I am one of those people I never used to understand — and they aren’t even my dogs!

I’ve known some other ‘dog people’ on my travels. My grandmother was a dog person, although unlike some other people, she wasn’t too worried what anyone else thought about her babies. There was no doubt in my mind my grandmother loved those dogs more than her daughters and me. And when my mother inherited a large fortune from her, but she left me a measly £2,000 (I was expecting to be able to buy myself a home), my mother was quick to point out £2,000 was the same amount my Nan had bequeathed to Battersea Dogs Home (by coincidence I lived near Battersea Dogs Home at that time).

My mother told me this to spite me, no doubt about it. She never relayed how she had faired, but I knew it was a lot better than I had.

Asking about money in my family was forbidden, like enquiring about the sex life of an acquaintance (or even a friend). You just didn’t do it. All financial matters were strictly secret, like with the Royal Family. Apart from when the granddaughter gets the same lump sum as a dogs home.

I was severely hurt when my mother imparted where I stood on the ladder of matriarchal responsibility. And her spite. But then, when I thought about it, if my grandmother viewed me with the same affection as dogs, I wasn’t drawing the short straw at all. But it was a small consolation nonetheless.

In the family photo album at my nan’s, past dogs were there to be admired. A couple of boxers, one of those dogs with the ponytail fridges (that I remember) and the Boston Terriers. One of them was called Lucy and it used to yap away in a very annoying manner and race about in my grans huge open plan living area; it’s little back legs spinning ferociously and yet strangely out of synch with its front half. When she took a rest on the carpet her back legs were strangely contorted behind like frogs legs. She was a curious little creature, walked every day, in all weathers, in Richmond Park, which was behind my gran’s back garden.

The other dogs person who stands out in my mind is A, who lived up the road from me in my last London residence. A’s beloved hounds were an old black Labrador and a similarly elderly Pitbull Terrier. They were named after a Frank Zappa song and a literary Wizard. A was ‘in recovery’ and a true believer in the theology of John Cooper Clark — “Dog spelt backwards is God,” which she could often be heard quoting. A definitely loved her dogs more than people and would no qualms in saying so.

I’d always felt this preference for furry friends over human beings to be something of a cop-out. How easy it must be to love a being that is so loyal and devoted, no matter how you treat it. Like children that never grow up and become unruly and demanding. But perhaps I was simply projecting one of my childhood traumas, and resentments, onto the (good) dog owner. When I had taken that fateful turn into adulthood from being a child, by narcissistic mother could not take the challenge, and promptly ran away from home leaving me in the ‘care’ of a string of very avant garde (drug addicted alcoholic) nannies. Not that she was exactly motherly before that! Had I remained like a furry person, I’m sure my mother would have partially loved me until the end of time.

But with Augustine and Archibald it’s different.

I was watching Rupert Sheldrake describe the spiritual life on YouTube yesterday. He had about 14 practices, one of which was spending time with animals. Part of his reasoning was that an animal will bring your attention into the present moment. When you are throwing a stick or ball, he pointed out, it’s hard not to be fully present for your pet. I thought of A & A racing across Newport Beach last year, how lively Augustine became (the Corgi). He would simply race off into the sunset like he was starving hungry and after a rabbit. This was quite in contrast to his usual relaxed demeanour and lovely to behold. Like Sheldrake said, dogs really live in the moment, and spending time with them helps to open ones eyes.

Over the first lockdown I spent quite a bit of time with A & A, going on various walks in local beauty spots with their dad (I am delightfully known as ‘Auntie Ruth’). It was lovely to spend time with them all on these much needed reprieves from indoor constraints imposed by Covid, and a deep affection for these pooches was nurtured and established.

My dear friend thoroughly loves his dogs, and treats them accordingly. Actually, as I pointed out to him one day, his doglets are definelty looked after better than my mum looked after me: regular meals, two walks a day, clean fur, respect, conversation, playtime and affection.

One of the nice aspects of knowing A & A for me is that I am able to access an uncomplicated reserve of affection and adoration for another being, in this case dogs. How nice it is to have something to love, even though I don’t spend much time with them; though S sends me pictures and tells me about their welfare. That feeling of happiness such feelings generates is welcome and uncommon for me, never having given birth or had animals myself. Although I did have some animals in childhood — a rabbit, tortoises, hampster and a cat. I did love these animals as well, especially my cat Rueben, who kept me company in the lonely hours of my childhood.

My mother left me alone a lot when I was a kid, after she parted ways with her theatre company — Cunning Stunts — and started teaching music in the evenings. From the ages of eight till I was about eleven. I used to get very frightened, alone in our south London flat, and would sometimes take refuge in the airing company, when the solace of television had worn thin. I remember Reuben standing outside the cupboard meowing for me to open the door, which was slightly ajar. I was worried that if an intruder broke in, and I was seriously afraid it was going to happen, then Reuben would alert them to my hiding place. And so I used to open the door and let him jump in and sit purring beside me. The two of us sitting in the dark waiting for my mother to come back.

I recently read somewhere that animals can pick up on, and react to, the moods of its owner. I thought of Reuben, how terrified I was when I was little, and how he provided comfort in my distress. I also thought of A & A, although they have come to know a happier, older version of myself, which, like them, is a blessing.

Pretty Cotton Tops and Designer Jeans

Starting on the non spiritual basis of materialism: I desire to spend coming on and I’m not quite sure why.

I’ve been scrolling Hiut Denim’s website (£200 for a pair of jeans) and Toast: ‘Tops and Tees”. I am fantasising about blasting my meagre savings in one fell swoop. This would be a terrible thing to do.

I found myself putting together outfits in my head to wear for my new volunteer job in a local mental health drop-in centre. So perhaps it has something to do with that and feeling anxious about a new round of commitments on the horizon. I calmed myself down with a promise to buy myself some new clothes when my spending target has been met in roughly eleven months. After that I can be as irresponsible as I want.

I did have some Hiut related experiences today. Firstly, I had to go to a new cafe today, horror of horrors. My usual venue has discovered some potentially unsafe wonky flooring since yesterday and is closed until further notice. This really threw me off course. My usual cafe is very spacious and quite ordinary, the staff are friendly, and I can get a bowl sized filter coffee for about £2.30. But because this option was not available, and I had to be out because I was having some property management visitors at home, I was forced to branch out to the local middle-class arty place.

So anyway, the very fresh-faced late middle-aged proprietor of arty venue was wearing Hiut denim. Actually, she was a model on the website until recently, which is how I knew she was sporting designer jeans. This is because she is a local entrepreneur, and the managing director of Hiut is very into trendy locals. My ex yoga teacher also models for them.

I would say that they have a pretty effective marketing strategy. Take a look at their website. I also happened to see the owner of the company on the high street, by Barclays’ cash machine, before I went to the arty cafe. This guy was featured as one of Apple’s revered ‘creatives’ of the year, a while back, along with people like Michaela Coen.

Sometimes I just like to take a look at Toast and Hiut for something to do — relaxation. I like nice designs. This doesn’t always precipitate a desire to spend money. But today I noticed that they have larger female models now, and larger sizes, and I think it was this that made me want to buy a new pair of jeans. The jeans on the larger women looked equally nice. I do actually have a pair already, but they are too small since my lockdown + anti-psychotic spread developed.

Once I had found the suitable pair of jeans (£185) then of course I needed some new tops to complete my look. By which time my spending spree, with an extra pair of jeans thrown in for good measure, was the new hole money had burned into my pocket. I’m hoping that by writing about this I can figure out what’s going on, and not going on a spending spree. I’m ‘taking inventory’.

When I saw my therapist yesterday she was very impressed that I have managed to save some money. “That’s a real change,” she said. I really wanted to go on and on about what a big deal this was, but she got it. Maybe, because things are looking up: I’m back in therapy, doing a couple of new voluntary jobs, and applying for another one; as well as writing this blog and enjoying being lazy watching TV every night (no partner to worry about), maybe I want to sabotage. Create some problems for myself and feel bad about. Feeling bad is very familiar territory.

Yesterday I put foundation on for the first time in weeks. I have been happy being make-up free and not really worrying about how I look. I’m not sure I don’t look better without make-up and yet, since I was fourteen or so, I have very rarely gone more than a day or so without any make-up.

There is less pressure in Wales to present an image. There are more fashionable folk around here than used to be the case. But it’s nothing like living in London, for me anyway. I always felt like I was on display. Having to match up to some impossible standard. But being older now as well, and not worried about finding love, I don’t really care that much how I look or what clothes I wear. That said, I do have quite a few nice things hanging in my wardrobe. I’m not walking about in rags from The Salvation Army shop.

For the past two days I started wearing make-up again. Yesterday my therapist and I decided I’m not really depressed now. As I was a couple of weeks earlier. So perhaps I’ve just been too depressed to wear make-up. And perhaps that’s why I want some new clothes, because I’m no longer depressed and have regained in interest in my appearance. Or maybe I’m more on the manic side.

I’m also withdrawing from nicotine nasal spray, which is quite intense and my feeling are crashing about like waves.

I could ask myself the somewhat embarrassing psychoanalytic question: What would the new jeans and tops allow me to do that I can’t do at the moment? A: I’d feel complete like there was nothing else to be achieved. I’d be me. I’d have a sort of uniform of pretty tops and smart designer jeans and would be free to concentrate on other stuff. I’d look nice.

Hmmmmm. So there it is, my analysis of the situation. Let’s see if I go on a spending spree between now and tomorrow. I somehow doubt it, noting my ludicrous rationale. Is it greed? Is it envy of the successful entrepreneurs dotted about where I live? The ‘well to do’?

I am usually protected from the well-to-do in my go-to cafe. Now that I am taking on these humble voluntary roles am I being faced with the spectre of the lack of my status as a well-to-do person? So do I want to compensate for my lack of status in the world with expensive clothing; as though I really were well-to-do rather than not an involuntary and humble pauper? I think that’s it. I am a wannabe well-to-doer that isn’t.

One of the reasons I got sober in my twenties, and went to art college, was because I wanted to be well-to-do. A successful X. Maybe artist. It never occurred to me I might fail to achieve status. I mean, I didn’t fail to become an artist, but I can’t earn a living from painting or writing. I never worried about that at all. Earning a living was no concern of mine. My mother was like this — above worldly concerns, or else not overly concerned with them. But my mother grew up with multi-millionaires and inherited a small fortune. I don’t have a familial cushion to fall back on, thanks to my mother.

It’s hard to know where to go after that thought — am I still so angry with mum that I am refusing to take responsibility for myself? To grow up finally? Maybe.

I really should be over this childish obsession with presenting an image rather than trying to work on building character. Haven’t I learnt anything from all that TV I watch! Drama is all about the building of character, about character’s that fail to live well e.g. become murderers or the like. The pitfalls of living. Of being human. Life beyond the superficialities consumerism forces upon us.

The truth is that I rather enjoy being a bit scruffy. Being beyond the ability to present a perfect image. There’s a certain amount of freedom in it. Facing the fact of ones own personal powerlessness when it comes to the option of others and what they are going to do and to not do. One can’t, for example, make someone fall in love with you by looking good, or trying to present some kind of alluring image; contrary to what the adverts tell us. The flashy marketing strategies.

I recently (a few days ago) returned to Twitter, after swearing off for at least six months and failing. And I have been viewing the adverts of Hiut. So maybe that’s it. My behaviour is attempting to be modified by one of the social media giants. My thwarted needs and desires are being accessed by businesses attempting to extract my funds. I am engaged in a battle for my soul. And who knows, thanks to step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it, the spiritual life is winning — just for today.

On Having Some Readers

After writing yesterdays post and reflecting on my early-days-in-recovery higher power, I’ve realised that my homely made-up source was quite appropriate. Writing my letters to ‘Invisible’ was also very similar to telling my story in a 12 step meeting. And there was that air of mystery; was someone there? Did I have a reader? It’s rather the like the question: Does God exist? A mystery.

The aim was to write, to make a commitment to writing. The aim was readers, at some point in time. It was a commitment that wasn’t too hard to fulfil because it was based on desire. A desire to write stories that may one day be published. And it was dependent on my sobriety because my topic was recovery and alcoholism, as well as art and culture. Also, I never got much writing done when I was drinking. Even on my relapse, I had to abstain when I was required to produce essays or my dissertation. I recognised that booze clouded my thinking in an unhelpful way.

Why was I so judgemental about my own higher power? Why did I think that something that was working for me wasn’t good enough?

Some of it did have to do with peer pressure. I had two sponsors who said I should believe in God. That my higher power was not a proper one. So then it isn’t hard to work out the source of that judgment. I looked up to these women, they had more sobriety time than I did, and so I jettisoned my own authentic beliefs that worked for me in favour of other people’s version of ‘God’ that did not work for me. This was obviously the ‘old behaviour’ that we are advised to avoid in recovery, but I was afraid of loosing these relationships if I didn’t conform.

When I was twenty I was assessed by a treatment centre after I relapsed on booze the first time. I remember the woman there, I think she ran the treatment centre, she told me that recovery was all about boundaries. I’d never heard that before, and it shocked me. But when she said that I could recognise that I was severely lacking in healthy boundaries.

If I had had healthy boundaries, I would not have judged myself for my beliefs, I would have stuck to my guns. But, not having those healthy boundaries that I needed, I caved.

Boundaries are still, thirty years later, an issue for me. I get overwhelmed by the strong feelings of other people. When something doesn’t feel right for me I sometimes ignore these feelings; like someone else ignoring my feelings. That said, I am better than I was. And in many ways I do feel the extent of my recovery is dependant on having these boundaries. The woman in the treatment centre seems right to me, I believe what she had to say about recovery. What she said has stayed with me, even after thirty years.

So what does having readers symbolise? It’s about reaching out to others. It’s about being strong enough to be vulnerable, but not too vulnerable. It’s about having a certain amount of confidence and belief in the value of my own perspective; not as more valuable that another’s point of view. Of equal value. You might disagree with what I have to say, but I don’t necessarily have to change my beliefs because of that. At the same time, a fair amount of challenge is OK.

The schema of this writing practice obviously applies to living life. I write about life. This may seem obvious enough, but sometimes stating the obvious is worthwhile. Writing is celebrating. It’s according one’s life experiences, fantasies, dreams, thoughts, beliefs and relationships value. A piece of paper is a box for treasure.

Scrolling through blogs on the WordPress site, I notice a lot of people stating that they write about mental health and what not to help other people. This seems to me to be a worthwhile enterprise, but I don’t write to help other people. I write this blog because I need help! I need to be seen and heard and to not feel so alone. And I need readers. At this point in time. After a good couple of decades or so, I need you. Writing to myself isn’t enough. It’s one of my powers greater than my own. But not the only one.

I also need AA meetings. I don’t think I need therapy, but I think I get along better if I do have therapy. I need medication. I need other people. I need to write. I need to not drink alcohol. I need to be involved in AA. I need to talk with other recovering alcoholics. Today, these are my boundaries. These are the things I need to feel happy, or content and fulfilled. I think that’s right, but tomorrow I may change my mind.

Truth is only what is true at the time of writing. Sometimes I look back on things that really felt true to me when I wrote them, I re-read what I have written and think: Oh my god! What was I thinking! But some things do stand the test of time. So perhaps, some things are only true with the benefit of hindsight; that wonderfully clear-eyed vision existence on planet earth affords. Life as it is lived is so much a case of grappling about in the dark, in my experience.

Not sure quite how to end today’s speculations, so I think I’ll just stop.

The Invisible Man

I was thinking today, as I sat down to write, that I’ve undertaken a creative project in the past that was quite good practice for writing a blog. I called it: Love Letters to the Invisible Man.

When I got sober in 2003 I was pretty lonely. My marriage had fallen apart (I married on a big — six year — alcoholic relapse), I was up to my eyeballs in debt and had flunked my PhD due to my outlandish behaviour when drinking (and being bipolar). The outlandish behaviour is another story, so I won’t delve into that today, if ever. I was more thinking about the writing practice I developed in the lonely days of my early sobriety.

This was a serious sobriety that lasted 14 years until I attempted to take my own life and drank a good part of a bottle of vodka — one of the worst experiences of my life — if not the worst. But in a way it was no worse that the four months leading up to that event.

So it was 2003 and I decided that I wanted to be a creative writer. As I said, I’d flunked my doctorate. Just in passing, it’s funny to think I tried to be an academic these days. I’m really not academic material at all. It wasn’t only my alcoholism that lead me to flunk my studies. I was no good whatsoever at being academic. No wonder I was so miserable as a student. Maybe that was why I started drinking again.

So there I was, living in south London with my job as a Healthcare Assistant at the Maudsley with writerly aspirations on the side. I’d been inspired by the work of Paul Auster, especially his collection of short true stories The Red Notebook.

I didn’t take any courses then. Over the years I learnt that not taking courses was a bit of a mistake. Just because I’d been writing forever didn’t mean I could write for publication. But I was so sick of studying. So fed up with being told what to read. So my life as a serious creative writer began with this project I titled Love Letters to the Invisible Man.

So what I did was write letters to a man I couldn’t see. I didn’t know who he was, but I was convinced he was out there somewhere. It was a practice that had begun a little before my sobriety started in 2003 inasmuch as I had felt the existence of someone out there I was imagining. This came about because I had received a number of communications anonymously that made me feel like I was being spied on. Quite an intense experience.

One day I got an idea. I thought, if he’s reading my emails — which I suspected he was, I decided: let’s write to him! A hilarious idea, I thought. Plus, it gave me someone to talk to, in the lonely hours and, as it turned out, years of sobriety.

In one form or another I kept up this activity for fourteen years! Who could believe it? I was completely and utterly addicted.

First of all I decided — I’ll keep this up for a year. Like a mandala. It was something to believe in. I imagined that it would generate material for an epistolary book that I could call Love Letters to the Invisible Man. I wrote about all my daily business, jokes, thoughts, ideas. I told him my life story and I really didn’t hold back. Here was a place that I could finally be myself and tell the truth about my life; a heady experience. There was nothing that I couldn’t tell Invisible.

I had various theories about who Invisible was and what he symbolised. I reasoned he was a real person inasmuch as someone was literally spying on me. One day one of my letters was edited! And of course, I had been sent all this stuff that had really fired my imagination into believing I had this secret admirer who wanted me to find him. And whilst I could accept that I had perhaps made up the entire scenario for something to do, something I found interesting, I also thought that, well, it could be true. So it was kind of confusing as well as thrilling.

Maybe my soul mate existed? Maybe he was this character I fashioned out of the various notes and gifts I had been sent anonymously. Maybe I’d merely invented him, but in that case he could stand in for a reader, or some kind of higher power. Like a god. Someone hiding out up there in the cyber heavens.

I had real suspects for this role, even though the anonymous gifts stopped when I got sober in 2003. For a long time I placed this character D, who was a real man I met in AA in central London, in the boots of Invisible. I so wanted my story to be true. I so wanted D to be Invisible.

In this rooms of AA this whole shenanigan would have been written off as a fatal error. I had made Invisible, AKA D, into my higher power. But I reasoned that I knew Invisible could be a fantasy of my own invention. So why not have Invisible, my invisible friend, as a higher power? Seemed perfectly reasonable to me.

Not that I shared very much about this ‘relationship’ with other AA’s. I only divulged that I had this higher power of my own invention, I didn’t mention who or what it was. In a way this secret world I had invented for myself that resulted in my letter writing activity isolated me from my fellow AA’s. I mean it was really important to me. A relationship of far greater importance to me than any real friend I happened to make in the fellowship.

I didn’t only write to Invisible. I drew him pictures, made collages, took photo’s. So my book was something of a multi-media affair. An ‘Artists Book’.

So that was that. But whenever I sat down to write to Invisible, I rarely had in mind what I was going to say. I just had this commitment to write every single day.

How good it would have been had it occurred to me to write a blog! I would have had the reader, or readers, I craved. I mean, one reader isn’t much to ask, is it? And having one reader was enough for me for years. He didn’t even have to be real — I was perfectly happy with his being a fantasy reader. Not very ambitious, is it? It makes me a bit sad to reflect upon the little I was happy with. Crumbs.

My project was obviously a bit Bipolar, pretty nuts, and yet, it did give me a lot of practice writing. Mainly I think it was just that I made myself do it every single day and didn’t much worry about the results. The thing was to stick to my guns. To write. And that’s why it was good practice for writing a blog.

Sitting down to write my thoughts in this form reminds me a little bit of that practice that I engaged in: informal, spontaneous, about mental health issues. True stories. Life experience. Bits and bobs about reading. Definelty not academic.

And now I’m happier because I do have some readers. So thank you for being there and reading my ‘letters’, my posts. Whatever gender you happen to be.

On Being Valued

As I said to a friend earlier today, in an email, “I’ve had a very trying weekend.” I couldn’t even really write about it, except in an elliptical way — I used the analogy of escaping my family being like escaping 9/11. Probably, to someone who has escaped 9/11, my comparison would be an affront.

The reason I made my comparison was due to The Examined Life, by Stephen Grosz. Grosz draws on 9/11 as an example of how people resist change. During the bombing of the twin towers, a fire alarm was sounding, but some of the people in their offices carried on like there was no emergency. A bit like we do sometimes if a fire alarm sounds — I know I have. People went into meetings, they died. One woman left, but returned for her baby photos. She died as well.

Anyway, in my own life the emergency has passed. I didn’t die. But now I’m well, so perhaps I’m in a new place and can ‘be there’ for my little brother who, without my knowledge, has been struggling — seriously struggling — with his mental health.

I’ve been in a terrible panic all weekend. I love my little brother inordinately. I missed him in the past year and a half that I blocked him out of my life. He’s a sweetie, and the bad that went down between us, I never blamed him for it. Even though I considered him to be very seriously in the wrong.

I had actually contacted him before all this trouble, to ask how he was, but received no reply. I hadn’t really worried too much over his silence. I didn’t draw any conclusions, least of all that he was in trouble. I’ve always considered him to be someone that was coping and functioning well. I thought he was fine. But on Friday I heard some very troubling news from my late mother’s ex.

Today I got further news — I’m not to worry. I have a Care Co-Ordinator, and she has some information on the situation. Obviously, she couldn’t tell me anything, but she said, “I’ll say the same thing that I told Lucky — no news is good news.” I said, “Oh that’s good to know. I won’t have to worry so much now.” She said, “You don’t have to worry at all.” What a relief that was. Someone who actually knows what she is talking about (Samba is under the care of the community team). I had been feeling so helpless, so shut out and guilty.

It’s very hard for me to write about my family. There’s an element of feeling protective over their private lives, I think. It would feel wrong to publish details about Samba’s situation. (Samba is my step-brother and Lucky is my father in law). But I think it’s more than that; it’s just material I resist. I think that, for someone that has always used writing to cope, this is a little bit strange.

When I was in London, studying novel writing at City Lit, I had a teacher called Stephen Thompson — a black British man. I really enjoyed his classes, far more so than any other class I did there. He structured the teaching very well. I was able to express myself and experiment. He was encouraging, but measured. He said what he thought. He was one of the few, if any, people I ever got on with at that institution. We follow each other on Twitter and pass the time of day occasionally. Not too long ago he got a BAFTA for his first film about his brother’s experiences with the British government — the Windrush scandal. The drama is called Sitting in Limbo.

The reason I am bringing all this up is that Stephen actually told me I should try alternative material to that which I had been pursuing. He said I should write about my family life. Something I had really never considered, except to mention when I was covering other, more important material. Stephen knew that my family was a multi-cultural one. In the years since I met him I have mulled over this suggestion of his. It’s a challenging, unexpected, idea. I don’t think I would know what to say about it.

I’m a Londoner, and I grew up in multi-cultural south London. Recently, watching the Steve McQueen series Small Axe, I realised that the whole thing reminded me of home. Of course, south London is home for me. But it was everything about it; the Black British accents, the clothes, the stories, the music, the landscape: black culture was home. This was especially true of ‘Alex Wheatle’. In fact I had followed Alex Wheatle AKA ‘Brixton Bard’ on Twitter before the film came out. I followed him because I recognised him from when Brixton was my manor.

One of the things I miss about living in London is it’s multi-culture, specifically black British culture. The black British feel like home. Maybe they are, inasmuch as my family, some of them, are black British (or Welsh).

I think this crisis of my brother’s that has been affecting me, hopefully it will turn into and opportunity. An opportunity for him to get support beyond the family and community circle here. It’s one of the things that has helped me the most. People that have nothing to do with my mother and all of her life that has been handed down both to Samba and me. I hope that we can repair our relationship and I can be there for him in future. That he will give me a chance to make amends for not being there for him when I was unwell. I don’t know what will happen, but I would like to be there for him.

One of the things I felt about Sitting in Limbo, Stephen’s story about the horrific ordeal his family had to endure, especially his brother, was that it showed the towering strength of a loving family. That is what had kept his brother from, probably dying. The spectre of structural racism in Britain is truly despicable. It makes me sick to my bones. Being anti racist is something I feel really passionate about. I think that is why Stephen and I got on, he saw that in me. That makes me feel grateful. Like I have something going for myself —I am an anti-racist (a self-diagnosis).

I’m glad that Lucky shared his worries with me. I’m glad I broke the silence I had imposed on Lucky and Samba. I think Lucky understands that I love my brother. I was seen, by Lucky, and I really value that. Isn’t that what we all want? To be and feel valued? To be seen for who we are, needed and appreciated? These things are the true riches.

So now I have written about my family.

Escaping the War Zone?

I’ve been struggling to put pen to paper the past couple of days because I feel so overwhelmed. Of course, like calling a friend when distressed, this is exactly when I should write.

I had the most thrilling time on Friday morning. A friend had a spare ticket for a boat trip around the shores of a local bay. It’s something I had been wanting to do for an age, but had put it off because it’s quite a pricey adventure. We saw seals poking their curious heads out of the water, as our boat turned off its engine amidst some mighty cliff edges. We didn’t see any dolphin’s but it really was a magical experience. We also sat right at the front of the boat, which we had been told would be the most like being on a rollercoaster. It was the most fun I have had in ages.

My friend dropped me off in town, and as I walked home, still in the throes of my endorphin high, I ran into my late mother’s ex. Here is where narrating the story gets tricky. It’s so long-winded, so Labyrinthine. But it’s about as relevant to the subject of my mental health as it’s possible to imagine.

I haven’t spoken with my late mother’s ex in a year and a half. Nor have I spoken to my step brother. A while ago I read a book by a therapist. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was called, but it was brilliant. It was a bestseller. You might have read it.

Basically the therapist, (I think he’s American and Jewish), tells a number of stories, stories that may be loosely based on clients he has seen, or may not be (I can’t remember), but each story is there to illustrate a psychological, or psychoanalytic truth. Susie Orbach has also written a book in this genre called The Impossibility of Sex. But Orbach’s book wasn’t quite so much of a bestseller as this book I can’t recall the title of, but was brilliant as well. Perhaps not quite a brilliant though (much as I am a fan of Orbach).

Actually, as an aside, a professor I had an affair with this time last year, who is pretty famous himself and friends with Orbach, he told me that both himself and Orbach were rather jealous of this author I’m taking about, and his book. Because it is quite simply so good, and so popular as well. Anyway, I digress.

One of the stories is about what happened to some of the people who found themselves in the devastating position of being in the Twin Towers on 9/11. It was a story about survival, that I never forgot.

The people that survived the demolition of the buildings versus those that did not. Obviously, some of the people were never included in this parable, because they simply had no chance of survival. But there were a lot of people, that had the option (apparently, I have not read anything else about this topic) of leaving the building (maybe they didn’t really realise what was going on) or not leaving the building and of waiting around to see what happened.

Some people looked to see what their colleagues were doing, and not seeing them running for their lives, they too hung about. Maybe they called the fire services. Maybe they waited for fire marshals. I mean, it was an entirely unprecedented situation. They didn’t know what had happen on the floors above — how could they? It was hard to compute watching the horror unfold on the news: what on earth was going on?

Of course, it being that time of year again, one is reminded again of the horror of that day.

So, our mysterious author, said that the survival of the survivable people stuck in that building depended on their ability to recognise that they were faced with a life and death emergency, and had to get out of the burning building fast. The people who didn’t respond with their own instincts, were looking around and copying their colleagues. And they died.

That’s the gist of the parable as I recall it. It was about listening to the emergency warning flashing lights, the invisible ones, as they happen. If something inside you is saying — run. Listen. Run. Even if you are unsure you have it quite right.

This is what happened with me and my family. I realised that if I didn’t run away from them, leave my mother’s house in both the literal and the metaphorical sense, I was going to pay with my life. There was no map in front of me, nor any signpost. — the grim reaper is down there — but I knew. It would have been so easy to rationalise my way out of the corner I found myself in. I had been doing that my whole life. But I didn’t, and I survived.

On Friday afternoon one of the actors in this drama approached me in the street. Someone I haven’t had anything to do with in the year and a half since I escaped the burning building of my family. When I walked away from that conversation, and since, I felt like I had been bombed. My head has been spinning all weekend. It’s been truly terrible.

I could recount the conversation. I could recite the drama of it all; the people being hurt and hurting themselves. But I honestly don’t have the energy. In a way, I wish I hadn’t walked back into the war zone. In another way I see I wasn’t really given too much choice, and I didn’t realise the information that was about to be relayed to me. The story I have been told by my late mother’s ex has thrust me back into the epicentre of the fiery furnace .

It’s amazing what can happen when you let down your guard — even for a few seconds, or minutes. That’s all it can take for a sense of your own world, your own reality, to come crashing down around you.

It makes me wonder how I ever survived my family. How I was lucky enough to escape the burning building others were not, are not, lucky enough to escape. Maybe it’s because I read those psychological books. Searching for a map. Trying to escape.

Exercise

I’ve been getting into Malcolm Gladwell talks on YouTube. I’ve tried reading his books in the past, but always lost interest after the first few pages. He’s got a great mind, displays curiosity and humour and comes across as a nice person. And hasn’t he got lovely eyes!

I think one of the aspects of Gladwell that draws me in is that he’s a sporty thinker. It’s surprises me that I find that interesting, but I do. I’ve never been exactly sporty, but I’ve always been into some kind of exercise: Swimming mainly. But I always felt that exercise wasn’t really cool or interesting. I wasn’t supposed to be into physical stuff. No prizes for guessing that this was due to the environmental influence of my care-givers.

It was when my depression and OCD and alcoholism had really brought me to my knees, when I was nineteen, that I turned to swimming as a form of release. It made me feel better when my self medications had stopped working (booze and cigarettes). But then I got into recovery of various sorts — therapy and AA — and again I heard that exercise was somehow a bit risky. That, for example, one (I) shouldn’t ‘look’ to anything apart from the twelve steps for ‘the solution’. It wouldn’t ‘work’.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this was exactly what was being promoted because at least two of my sponsors recommended exercise. But somehow or other this is what I took on, as an attitude. It’s what I heard. I was thinking today, listening to Malcom Gladwell’s podcast: Revisionist History, that I really regret not taking up some form of exercise as a central feature of my life. Yoga, for example. I think I would have been a lot happier if I had. But I burned with a desire to write or make art, and that didn’t really leave room for other considerations.

Obviously, it’s not too late; I’m not dead, or in a wheelchair, but I don’t think I could muster up a vocation as a yoga teacher at this point. To me, that does seem unrealistic. Then again, maybe I’m just at that time in life where a person is prone, with the important benefit of hindsight (we never have at the time) to regretting the paths not taken.

Noise + A Life Beyond My Wildest Dreams?

I was reading a Bipolar blog on the WordPress site the other day. It had a list of issues to be aware of that can trigger people with Bipolar. Top of the list, I was somewhat surprised to see, was ‘Noise’.

This rang a bell with me. Lately I seem to be more sensitive to the ambient noise of my surroundings and it’s been really driving me nuts. I was trying to work out why this suddenly seems to be an issue. The only thing I could come up with is that I’ve been spending more time in my flat.

It starts in the morning with the woman upstairs getting up to go to work. Every morning I hear loud thudding and banging. It’s horrible being woken up by this sound first thing. It’s not nice to wake up angry every morning. Then, after she’s gone out, the woman in the shop below my flat starts playing cheery ‘Ratpack’ tunes. Sometimes the same songs over and over.

I’ve been repeatedly complaining to these two older middle-aged women about the disturbance, and how it’s effecting me. Even threatening to move out if there is no improvement. I figured that these women probably don’t like change; who knows who would move in if I leave. They seemed quite pleased when I moved in, “Ooh, good,” The woman in the shop said. “A woman!” But my strategy does not seem to have paid off. After issuing my complaints the volume lowers for a couple of days, and then they seem to forget, or not worry anymore, and we’re back to the same old blood-curdling tunes and herd of elephants above me. And I’m finding it increasingly difficult to deal with my anger and irritation.

I get angry because having to listen to someone else’s music is really horrible. I feel completely invaded and intruded upon, and then have to deal with the hatred I feel for my neighbour. Sometimes, after she leaves, either for lunch, or at the end of the day, I still have her tunes ringing in my head! I would really like to move out, but just can’t afford all that upheaval at the moment; both financially and emotionally.

FEELING LESS DEPRESSED

I went for a run along the nature reserve yesterday. I keep reading about the mental health benefits of exercise and being in nature. A constant reminder about what I’m failing to do in terms of self care. Yesterday, with the music from downstairs assailing my senses, I decided to get out the house and do a jog/walk.

To say I went “running” would be an exaggeration. I’m definetly a lot less fit than I was. I had to continually slow down to a walk, but by the end of my 30 minute stretch along the river, I was feeling quite pleased with myself. I’ve decided to try and aim for an every other day routine. Get those endorphins whirring round my system.

I try to write about stuff that’s on my mind here in my blog. This is the same principle I used to exercise when I kept a diary. This is another tool that I was reading about in Catherine Day’s The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober. Apparently there is research to support the claim that writing a journal is good for your health. I’ve always experienced this. I do get overwhelmed by my thoughts and feelings, and I find that having a space to air these, gives me a bit of clarity I wouldn’t have if I left my thoughts buzzing inside my head. But I never realised there was scientific research confirming the health benefits of journaling.

There was also a lot about the value of being grateful. But I knew about the studies that show how writing down things you’re grateful for improves mood. This strategy aims to harpoon the tendency I think a lot of people have; that of comparing our lives with people we think have it a lot better than us.

When I woke up today I found myself thinking about my last AA sponsor, over my morning tea. “A” had just the sort of life I wanted for myself: huge house, three kids, successful actor husband, she was a long time sober, my age, lots of friends and sponsee’s. This morning I was thinking about her beautiful life, comparing my lot with hers, and wondering — what went wrong?

I didn’t write a gratitude list, but thought: maybe I should write on it. Maybe I was thinking about her because I went to my weekly AA meeting last night and talked about the last time I went through the twelve steps. A sponsored me through this process. She was a nice woman, could be nice, but she could also be quite unkind and difficult. For example, she didn’t like it if I asked her questions. My feeling was she thought I was challenging her authority for the sake of being difficult. She was incredibly bossy; she was of the view that an AA sponsee should do exactly what their sponsor tells them to do, like hers a sort of adjunct brain. I guess we quite quickly came into conflict about her way of working.

Working through the twelve steps with A wasn’t always a good experience. It was a bit of an ordeal. Afterwards, I swore I would never get another sponsor, or work through the steps again. A promise to myself I’ve kept. I’ve had a lot of experiences my sponsor hadn’t. I never really felt understood by her. The main thing I felt, after completing the steps with her, was profound relief the ordeal was over. Probably she thought I was a pain in the arse; she often hinted that she thought I was “entitled”. But she could also be supportive and kind. I suppose that at the end of the day we were just too different for our relationship to weather the storms. Sometimes I feel sad about that.

I’d asked her for help after one of my cataclysmic Bipolar episodes. My third hospitalisation, which completely floored me and left me very unpopular. I ended up wrestling with a number of police in my flat after someone in AA called the police because the local AA crew had bandied together following my erratic behaviour. I hadn’t drank any booze, but ended up getting this sponsor because I felt so utterly wrecked. In a way, looking back on it, we worked through the steps on my Bipolar, not my alcoholism.

I often wonder if this was a good idea. Pretty soon I stopped taking my meds again — my relapse was obviously (I thought) a case of ‘dry drunkenness’ and I would be fine now that I was doing all the right AA things again. Had I just accepted I am not like other alcoholics because I have this medical diagnosis, I might have saved myself a lot of trouble. A few years later I ended up trying to take my own life, and nearly succeeded. But I just have to accept that I obviously wasn’t ready to accept my Bipolar, to believe I absolutely have to take meds.

When I go to an AA meeting and hear people share that they had this diagnosis, and that diagnosis, and the steps were enough for them, I find myself feeling like maybe I failed in some way. Maybe I just didn’t work the steps hard enough. Were I an obedient alcoholic I would have been okay. I feel conflicted. It’s hard for me to assert my experience as different, and equally valid. I guess I have a bit of an inferiority complex. That means going to an AA meeting is often a bit of an ordeal for me. I don’t particular enjoy it and am relieved when I can go home again and get away from all these grateful alcoholics going on about how the steps have changed their lives. Maybe one day it will get easier, but I’m not holding my breathe. I keep going because there is no way I want to start drinking again, that is definetly not the answer.

I’m not really sure how to round up today’s enquiry into my inner world. Am I still jealous of my ex sponsor? I guess I am if I’m really honest. I’m never going to have a life like hers. But I can be grateful for the things I do enjoy today: reading, writing, exercise, watching TV. That I have a stability now that I never had before, both in AA and because of the support I am lucky to get with my mental health problems. Here in Wales the resources for someone living with my condition are a lot better than in London. The AA community is also a nice group of people, in the main. If I suddenly stopped attending my local meeting I know I would be missed, and I think they do accept me as I am. Maybe everything is now how it should have been all along; I am in recovery finally, after years and years of failed attempts. I think that is something I can feel grateful for even though I don’t have that life beyond my wildest dreams, though working the steps we so often hear about. And I am grateful to be sober and stable.