My Mother the Comforter

I’m still watching the Walter Presents TV program Rider in the Storm. It’s a pretty intense series. Last night it was very sad, as one of the main characters took his own life. He walked in front of a lorry as he was depressed and psychotic. His death cast a very large shadow over the drama. It made me reflect on grief and mental illness. It made me feel sad to see the devastation of loss on his family. It made me think about loosing my mum in 2012.

I’ve had a very painful couple of weeks. This situation relates to how I’m feeling as a member of a particular community I depend on to stay alive. I feel excluded, pushed out, sidelined and unhappy about this community at the moment. The feelings of anger, despair and confusion have been quite hard to cope with. I’ve needed to start attending an online 12th Step meeting daily to cope.

Last night, after watching Rider in the Storm, I had a flash of insight. A bit like within the group I’m currently at odds with, I have not been able to connect to the love I felt for my mum, especially since she died. Nor have I been able to feel that she loved me. Part of the reason for this, if not the main reason, has been the attitudes toward me of a community of people that knew her and me for a very long time. The way I have felt in relation to these friends of my mother, as well as the immediate family she made for herself outside of our family unit, is exactly the way I am feeling in this community that has been causing me pain and grief for the last couple of weeks.

Last night, in re-connecting with the image of my mother as someone that I loved (after years), I found that the pain I’m feeling in relation to the difficulty, it went away. Then I realised that the local group creating tension in my psyche is so loaded because it’s triggering all this historical family and community strife. Once I realised it, I felt largely freed from the agony I’ve been in. The feeling of not being valued is exactly the same. Of being unwanted, not valued and bullied is the same.

It’s great to get some insight. It’s liberating. I realise that I need to use my therapy sessions to work through some of these feelings in relation to my mother and her community of friends. People I have found myself at loggerheads with. But most of all I need to reclaim my mother because all this disharmony and strife around her death cut me off from grieving her loss. In the feeling that she was, after all, my mother. I had something very valuable, and I lost her. And I miss her.

I had to laugh when the thought occurred to me that my mother would have really not liked these people I’m struggling with. Or some of them, at least. They would not have been her sort of people at all. She would have thoroughly disapproved, rightly or wrongly. They are just too straight, too ordinary and not exceptional enough for my mum, who was something of a blazing spirit. A trial blazer.

I felt her presence last night, wagging her finger and casting down her disapproval on these people that are upsetting me. I realised it isn’t me that dislikes them, it’s her! I felt her presence a bit like an angel swooping down by my side and telling me not to worry. That their opinion of me is really of no consequence. She sat beside me and comforted me like the mother I always wanted her to be.

ANGRY WOMAN

Last night I was watching Riders Upon the Storm: Walter Presents, Channel Four (in UK). It’s a spiritual themed drama about a religious family and community set in Sweden.

So one of the sons goes off to the Himalayas and ends up in a Buddhist monastery after getting his stuff nicked and falling down a hill. The youngish monk he hangs out with, who nurses him back to health, calls him “Angry Man”. The monk tells him to breathe and chop firewood.

The monk tells “Angry Man” he needs to forgive his father, amongst other people (like his ex). He needs to forgive so he can move on and be free. So, his time in the monastery is transformative and then he goes back to his life in Sweden a changed man. He starts giving lectures and writes a book, but this is all done in a humble and small way, which I liked.

This theme in the show, which I was anyway enjoying, got me thinking about forgiveness and anger again.

For years, as part of my 12 step recovery work I have been told that resentments are the “number one offender”. Anger and resentment (which I think is like old anger, returning again and again) leads to relapse. I’ve also been tutored along the lines of: If you’re angry with someone it’s probably you who’s at fault. I’ve always found this a bit confusing. To me it seems to mean one of three possibilities:

Firstly, I am at fault because I’m rather unconscious in some way. Like if I’m angry about not feeling valued, perhaps it is in fact me who’s not doing the valuing. So my rage is like a mirror. I’m PROJECTING the fault that is mine onto other people and probably owe amends in some form. This is obviously a bit of a head trip. Like, where do I begin and ‘they’ end?

Then another take on the anger about not feeling valued is that I am not being valued: the anger is pointing to an infringement of my boundaries, integrity, self esteem. I’m being shat on, so why would I not feel angry? In this scenario the anger is my friend, wanting better things for me.

Then, and I think perhaps this is the true 12 step position, there’s this: I realise I’m angry and then I have to work out exactly why I’m angry. In this case I’m angry because I feel that my contribution, experiences, recovery, and voice are not being heard. I’m being dismissed. All of this is happening because I am not being valued. And whether or not this is exactly the truth about how others are weighing me up, it’s certainly how I feel. It might take a while to even get to this point and work out what is going on. Why am I angry? It may not be self evident. So that’s the inventory process.

Once I have accomplished that bit I need to ask myself what my part in this state of affairs is. I may not be able to really work this out, but I can at least try. So, what have I done, either to lead to not being valued, or to feeling worthless?

The answer is that I don’t feel I’ve done anything. I’m simply not part of the ‘crew’. Well, how has that come about? It’s come about because I don’t especially want to be part of the crew. I find them dogmatic, competitive, bitchy, and superior. I do see that they have some good things too, but I don’t want to be a part of the gang. Perhaps they have twigged that I’m not especially keen on them? Well, yes. That would make a lot of sense. So why would I expect them to be nice to me? This is where I am at fault. I’m expecting people who are controlling and judgemental to be kind and accepting. I’m expecting people who are ill to be healthy. I’m expecting people to be other than they are. That is my insanity and my ‘defect of character’. So what do I do?

I can pray for them, as a spiritual practice. I’ve been doing this and I must admit, it hasn’t shifted my anger. I can take inventory — which is what I have just done. Actually this has helped, because it’s helped me to understand. Gain clarity. So rather than pray for them, I can pray for myself: pray to accept other people as I find them. I can stand back. “Don’t go into battle” an ex sponsor of mine used to say. “Avoid them” she told me.

In this instance I actually can’t avoid them. But I can adopt strategies that are like avoiding them, within the arena I find myself in, with them. Take a back seat. Protect myself. Lay low. Taking a back seat, protecting myself and laying low are not really my forte to be quite honest. So, I can pray for help with these tactics. Pray for strength not ordinarily available to me.

I wonder why I tend to put myself on the firing line and make life more difficult than it needs to be. I don’t know the answer to that right now. If I stay clean, then maybe I will find out. Maybe I won’t find out, but one thing is certain. One thing I do know is that THIS TOO SHALL PASS. Maybe I will look back on this difficulty in a few months and it will all make sense.

FURTHER THOUGHTS ON HAVING FUN

It was good to write about my comedic experience on Thursday night. To think about the absence of fun in my recovery. But, since I wrote what I wrote, I have realised that actually I have had other experiences of fun in sobriety, not just during David Byrne’s Meltdown back in the day.

David Byrne’s (of Talking Heads Fame) Meltdown was really good fun. But it wasn’t without it’s difficult moments. I sang in the choir, which had required rehearsals at the Southbank Centre, over the course of a few sessions. We had to learn a few songs by William Onyearbor — a cult Nigerian musician who “produced some of the most forward-thinking music of the Seventies involving synthesisers on an epic scale” according to the Independent.

I rehearsed with David Byrne! A regular hero of mine. The gig was called Atomic Bomb and had all these amazing musicians brought together for the night, like a tribute collaboration to celebrate Onyearbor. I think he even turned up!

It was so exhilarating! It turned out that one of my childhood best friends was in the choir as well. I didn’t know she would be there as we had lost touch. Seeing her again was hard. I had a very troubled childhood, as did she, both of us got mixed up in each others troubles and such stuff always hangs in the air. Seeing her again brought it all back and a lot of sadness and pain with it. So, as I was saying, my fun at Meltdown was not exactly pure unadulterated joy.

I practically went to the whole festival and saw some amazing performers. Being involved myself gave it a really powerful aspect though. I loved being backstage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The whole gig is online still: Atomic Bomb, David Byrne’s Meltdown (2015). I’ve watched it a few times, and it always gives me a great feeling of happiness — especially the end where we appear, as does Byrne — although I am not visible in the film.

I think it goes back to, or taps into, one of the spiritual practices that Rupert Sheldrake outlines in his list of 12: Singing. Well, being in a choir is obviously singing! But even Byrne could not stop going in about how brilliant Choirs are: greater than the sum of their parts. It’s like a power greater than oneself. And singing is uplifting, or can be.

There’s another collective called: Choir! Choir! Choir! Lots of songs online. It’s two guys from Canada. They turn up someplace in North America and for a day they teach a choir of volunteers (ordinary folk) a song in a day. A famous pop song. And then perform it in the night. It’s really wonderful watching their vids on YouTube — uplifting.

I’ve also had a lot of fun with my friend S and his dogs. When the lockdown kicked in last year, we went on a whole bunch of walks together in a little group. As with singing, hanging out with animals is viewed as ‘Spiritual Practice’, according to Sheldrake. But we know about dogs and mental health from all the latest research anyway.

I suppose that what I’m saying is that spiritual practices crosses over with fun, or can anyways. I didn’t know that until I sat down to write this! Finding out new things is a good reason to write.

I had some fun with my ex, although not a lot, it has to be said. Perhaps that was part of the wish.

I didn’t have a lot of fun on my last alcoholic relapse either. I was having a short affair with a retired professor in London (my ex doctoral supervisor). I went to Claridges and drank a Moscow Mule — rather quickly, as my date pointed out. He ordered a Pini colada. I tasted some of his drink and wished I had ordered one myself. But I can’t say I really had any fun, although it was social. Social-ish.

I guess that’s one of the other lacks that I was discussing last time — having a social life. Social life and fun are supposed to partner up, aren’t they? If you have any thoughts about social life or fun, I’d be grateful to hear them in the ‘Comments’.

Laughter is another signature of fun. When I’m with S, I laugh a lot. S is very good fun, not just his pooches. He’s good fun because he’s playful and funny. Funny people are very often fun, are they not?

S is a poet, and I have to say that I’ve met a few very funny poets: Roger Robinson and Michael Donaghy. Don Paterson is also extremely funny, although I have not met him. Ditto Hugo Williams. If you want to have a really good laugh I recommend Don Paterson’s Shakespeares Sonnets, although this is obviously pretty high brow.

I don’t often watch Comedy on TV, although I loved it as a child. I guess I wanted to feel happy. But I have watched a couple of comedies recently: The Cleaner. I did laugh but I wasn’t ‘killing myself laughing’. Back to Life was very good, also comedy. Both of these programs are on BBCiPlayer, and Back to Life is also on Netflix.

I guess that when I was using I had a social life but I wasn’t necessarily having fun. Not usually. Now that I’m sober I don’t have much social life or much fun either. But I don’t have no fun whatsoever. What fun I do have is probably more fun than what was available as a practicing drunk. But, I’m starting to realise that perhaps that is what I was trying to have. Laughter is associated with self forgetting and happiness. With connection.

Sometimes recovery meetings can be great fun. The rooms are full of laughter, sometimes. They are also brimming with tears. Angst. Discord and strife. Nothing is ever straight forward is it? My therapist is great fun. We often do have a great laugh, not exactly what you expect from seeing a shrink.

Maybe that’s enough for today, but I think there is a lot to mine with this topic.

HAVING FUN

I live next door to a high end venue that holds comedy nights every couple of months or so. This ‘Studio’ also doubles up as an expensive air B & B.

At the moment I’m trying to make an effort to connect with things happening in my community, so when I was invited to attend to last night’s gig gratis I went despite the fact that I didn’t want to. What I wanted to do was lie in bed and watch the concluding episode of The Night Stalker starring Martin Clunes on ITV.

Just a brief digression: as a young girl Martin Clunes was my first crush. He used to act in a TV series called Butterflies. I wrote him a fan letter, I think I wanted to meet him, but I never got a reply.

But instead of my usual program of crime TV I went to the comedy evening next door.

I had never seen the full extent of next door’s garden, and it was lovely. Lots of trees overhanging with small white bulbs, canopies (it didn’t rain), large umbrellas and a small bar in a shed. I sat on a cushion on a wall.

I thought the gig started at 7.30, which is the time my neighbour told me to show up. But in fact it didn’t get going until 8.00, so I had to sit on my own for half an hour without anything to do or someone to talk to. It wasn’t especially easy to not feel self conscious, or aware that I was one of the very few people there who wasn’t drinking. But I’ve had a good 25 years of not drinking (though not continuous sobriety) so I felt OK, just a bit awkward. It was easy to tell myself that This Too Shall Pass. Eventually things got going.

It was nice to be out in the evening where people were dressed up (or not) and ostensibly ‘having fun’. It made me feel rather sad at first that this is such a rare experience for me nowadays. Especially since I have been single. Even going out in the evenings is really out of the ordinary. I was not expecting to feel like that, even though sometimes, even often, I do feel that things in my life are a bit sad.

For so much of my adult life mostly I have just gone to meetings. Not to say I never went out, but it was rather unusual for me. Poetry readings, writers talks, films, gigs. I think the last time I really had fun was David Byrne’s Meltdown Festival about four or so years ago.

When I was younger, and drinking, I was always going out. Parties, pubs, bars, restaurants, sometimes gallery openings, dinner parties, marches, gigs. I rarely stayed in and watched TV. When I first joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and for many years, I just went to meetings and out for coffee, so I didn’t drink. When I relapsed I went out at night again.

For the last (nearly) 20 years I really haven’t had any kind of social life.

Listening to these comics performers I was slightly in awe of their lifetsyles, which they talked about: driving around the country (for not a lot of money) telling their jokes. Dressing up. Standing around socialising. They did drink, maybe they had problems with it, maybe not, but they were living in a way that is so different to me that I was really quite taken aback.

It’s good to do new things, be up for new experiences, as it takes you out of yourself. It was not expecting to realise I have very little fun in my life to that extent. I am very much focussed on Self Improvement, and have been for most of my adult life. And I’m a bit sick of it I realised, sitting there under the trees decorated with lightbulbs.

I had to wonder if my sobriety has really been worth it. I didn’t have any strong urge to drink, but I couldn’t help feeling that my life has been, in many ways, a bit sterile. Very little going out, getting dressed up, meeting new people and having fun. I doubt I would have been having a good time had I not ‘got sober’, but still, I have missed out on certain aspects of life that make a life full.

I know that this is not the case for every sober alcoholic. For years I had a crush on this guy who had a very full social life. Of course, he didn’t have it all sorted, he would not have been in recovery if he had, but he was very different to me. Extroverted, glamorous, successful, popular and really good fun. I hadn’t really put 2 and 2 together on that score before, not to the extent I realised last night. I wanted a relationship with him because I wanted to share his fun sense of being alive. I wanted to have fun myself.

One of the comics last night made a joke about Hiut jeans. She had previously been a journalist and gone to the factory to interview them. She simply couldn’t believe how expensive they were. She talked about the awful prospect of gaining weight after spending two hundred pounds on a pair of jeans — exactly what has happened to me. Recently I wrote a blog and went on and on about my addiction to buying expensive clothes that are way out of my league.

I felt so embarrassed about this, during her set. I thought: what kind of life do I live that I obsess over something so meaningless as having designer jeans? I felt shallow, empty and pathetic. I felt stupid. I felt like a mug.

Eventually I got home, to watch the final instalment of The Night Stalker — a very grim true story. A horrifying story. And I had plenty of food for thought.

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.