December Days 19: tasty


Terrible photo; very tasty chocolates. It’s the time of year for very tasty chocolates.

I always find this time of year a little difficult: how to balance my need for sleep with my desire to get involved with things and have fun? How to avoid getting burned out and cynical about the whole Christmas thing before we’ve even got to December? How to honour my need for solitude without being a miserable cow? How to acknowledge the fact that the short days and the long to-do list make it very difficult to be cheerful? How to keep a holy Advent without becoming sanctimonious?

There are some things that I always do. I take the first week of Advent off work, to catch up on sleep. I do some kind of observance: I have an Advent calendar and I read an Advent book. And I don’t sing with any group that requires me to start rehearsing Christmas music before mid-November.

(I really do like Advent. It acknowledges the fear and despair that annoyingly seem to be longstanding guests in my head, while refusing to let me stop with them.)

There are some things that I experiment with. This year I’ve given up alcohol, except for a couple of glasses of prosecco before the work disco, because in that moment refusing it would have felt sanctimonious, and declined to participate in Secret Santa (too bloody awkward). But I’ve also sung carols at a Christmas lights switch-on and ridden on gallopers while the organ was playing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (in mid-November, at that), and danced until my knees hurt at the aforementioned disco.

I haven’t got it right yet. I was reluctant to get out of bed this morning. But I have had fun today. I drank lemonade and jumped around with a tambourine and sung along with Wombling Merry Christmas. And I ate a very tasty lunch.

100 untimed books: lighting

63. lighting

63. lighting

The nights are drawing in. I’ve been using my daylight lamp every day since the beginning of August, and I have to say it’s helped. I’ve been very tired, but on the whole I haven’t been experiencing the low moods that I usually get in these early autumn months.

So here we go. Five stories of music and nightfall.

100 untimed books

Giving up, and giving up on giving up

This year I’ve been doing Lent differently; by which I mean that I’ve not been doing very much differently at all. I haven’t given up anything, partly in an attempt to disconnect the idea of virtue from that of self-deprivation, and partly to see if there’s any correlation between Lenten discipline and the seasonal depression that tends to land early in March and lift around Easter.

It turns out that not giving up meat, not giving up alcohol, not giving up coffee, not giving up tea, not giving up biscuits, and not giving up anything else, has made precisely zero difference, and March has been as much of a slog as it always is. This has, oddly enough, made me feel rather optimistic. It would have been annoying to discover that I’d brought all my misery on myself by trying too hard to be ‘good’. Next year I can do what I feel like doing and not worry about it. And I also know for next year not to schedule any social events during March, because I’ll either flake out and disappoint people, or turn up and then cry and embarrass them.

I keep meaning to write about the structure of the Church year, and how useful I find it. Firstly, there’s the way that it keeps turning on and on with or without my involvement. I can fail to get out of bed three Sundays running, work a weekend away, and then go on holiday, and when I come back I can still reorient myself by the colour of the altar frontal, the readings, and the anthem. And then there’s the fact that there is actually an officially sanctioned time for feeling dreadful, followed by a time of feeling a huge amount better and being thankful for that. That bit’s coming up soon. I’m looking forward to it.

December Reflections 8: on the ground


On the ground. Grounded. Down to earth with a bump.

This is new ground, or, rather, what is on top of the ground hasn’t been there long. Pavement and fallen leaves; much of the ground in London looks like this at the moment. It all feels a bit artificial: neat, and new, and even the trees have been put there by somebody.

It’s Thursday, and things are difficult again. It’s dark when I get up now, and it’s dark when I leave work, and in between it’s grey. I pour music into my ears and light into my eyes, and it helps a little bit, but not enough, and I’ve got to do it all again tomorrow. I’m taking comfort in the fact that, for the moment at least, I retain enough of a sense of humour to appreciate ‘Greenleaf 1’.

Morning people, morning pages (I’m not one and I don’t do them)

Season of bike lights

Season of bike lights

Last week I bought two things – well, I bought several things, but among them were:

I’d flicked through the book in the shop, as you do, but it was only when I’d brought it home and started at the beginning that the irony struck me.

I remembered the problem – my problem, I should say – with Julia Cameron.

Morning pages. Or, rather, her insistence that morning pages are essential, that, before you do anything else, you should dump the contents of your head into a notebook, and that if you have to get up early to do it, then that’s what you should do.

I understand the theory, and I am perfectly willing to admit that dumping the contents of my head into a notebook has been very useful to me on more than one occasion. I just can’t do it every day, and I definitely can’t do it first thing in the morning.

I am not a morning person. I am particularly not a morning person when it’s dark when I have to get up. And I have to get up at six thirty as it is. September hits me like a steamroller, every year, when the morning retreats that little bit further and whatever it is in my head that gets me out of bed stops working. If I were to set the alarm for 6.10am, I would spend the twenty minutes between it going off and my having to start getting ready for work lying in bed hating myself. I’ve tried it.

In fact, I was very happy to realise this morning that it’s now October and therefore not too depressing to look forward to the clocks going back.

And so morning pages are not an option for me. I am not even tempted. At this time of year, any sort of ritual that asks me to get up earlier than strictly necessary is not an option for me. So I’m not doing them.

I will, however, read the rest of the book with interest and an open mind.

It is not exactly news to me that some techniques work for some people and don’t work for others. What’s changed is my reaction to discovering that this is one that didn’t work for me. In past years I’d have given up on the whole thing in disgust. Now I’m prepared to pick and mix.

What I am working on at the moment is retaining the baby – in this case, Julia Cameron’s otherwise humane, compassionate and patient approach to the artistic process – while ditching the bathwater. She runs the bath too hot for me.


Déjà vu

Massive progress

Massive progress

Major existential crisis vs minor annoyance

A friend asked me the other day how things were going with the current book. This was my reply:

I’ve dragged it kicking and screaming to 16K and have hit the stage where I think it’s all terrible and the characters are cardboard and I haven’t done enough research and it shows and I’ve got everything wrong and should just dump the entire project.

Interestingly, this state of affairs didn’t particularly bother me. Because, as I went on to say, I remember this happening last time round. In fact, I officially gave up on Speak Its Name at least twice because I thought it was all terrible and the characters were cardboard and I hadn’t done enough research and it showed and I’d got everything wrong. So I just dumped the entire project.

Except I didn’t, obviously, because twice – or more – I came back to it, dug in again, and sorted out what was wrong.

This time round, I see exactly what’s going on. I recognise the stuckness as a minor annoyance rather than a major existential crisis. I also see why it’s feeling stuck.

Massive mess vs massive progress

The picture at the top of the page shows the sitting room of the flat we rented in Woking, during the process of packing up almost everything to move it to Cambridge. For tedious work-related reasons, I did most of the packing while my partner started his job out east (he did all of the driving, so it worked out more or less even).

I hate moving house. It’s commonly said to be one of the most stressful experiences of modern life, and I’ve done it far more times than I ever wanted to. What that means is, I’m getting better at it.

Here, an extract from our chatlogs:

K: the packing is getting me down
I think it gets worse before it gets better

T: yeah

K: I am hoping that you will come back and see Massive Progress
I am just seeing Massive Mess

T: That is what progress usually looks like

K: heh

T: One hundred percent of them

K: yes
and they all need to be in boxes
or somewhere else that is not in the flat

The more often it comes, the easier it is to recognise it

The first time I got depression, I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know there was an ‘it’ to know: it works by erasing all your previous frame of reference, so you start believing that this grey expanse of meh is all there ever was and all there ever will be.

The first time it went away was because of a change of scenery and Bruckner’s fourth symphony. It was as if someone had switched the lights on; and that was when I learned not to mistake a low mood for a loss of faith. I can forgive myself for having been mistaken, though: it was a very, very ongoing low mood.

The next time was when several awful things (two bereavements, a bedsit with leaks and mice, a temp job in a cellar) all showed up in a bandwagon and depression jumped on.

The time after that I went to see the doctor about it and he said, yes, depression. My brain lying to me about the way things are, not the way things actually are.

A while after that, I started recognising the feeling that I should break up with my partner for his own good as not just a very bad idea, but a symptom of the returning visitor.

These days, it comes and goes, and I get better and better at recognising it. I’ve got to know its little ways so well that I could almost mark it on the calendar, and when it turns up say, ‘oh, yes, August’.

Twenty-four per cent

The current wordcount for Wheels (I thought briefly about changing the title to Bonk this morning, but I fear I’d disappoint a lot of Jilly Cooper fans) is 19,354. Assuming I’m aiming for eighty thousand words, that puts me just under a quarter of the way there.

Actually, it puts me nowhere near a quarter of the way there. I’m not expert enough yet to guess how much editing and reading and re-editing and re-reading I’m going to need to do once I’ve got the first draft down, but I know it’s going to be a lot. I can tell that from looking at what there is of the first draft.

That’s why I’m thinking it’s all terrible and the characters are cardboard and I haven’t done enough research and it shows and I’ve got everything wrong.

You don’t realise how much stuff you have until you try to put it all into boxes, and then you have boxes everywhere and also stuff everywhere. Moving is always horrible. Depression is always horrible. The more often you have to deal with either, the better tools you pick up and the quicker you are to recognise what’s wrong, but at no stage does this make them fun.

At twenty-four per cent, the book is terrible and the characters are a bit thin, and I do need to do more research, and I probably have got some stuff wrong. And, yes it does show.

The vital information that I was missing at this point in the last book is that this is all true, but nothing is wrong. This is just the way that things look at sixteen thousand or nineteen thousand words into the first draft. Massive progress looks like massive mess. It can’t possibly look like anything else, not until I get a long way further in.

I’ve been here before, and it’s much less scary this time around.


Talk of the Town


Further notes

A summary of what I was trying to say yesterday (hat tip to The Fluent Self for the vocabulary):

My stuff is my responsibility

Their stuff is their responsibility

Depression = my stuff

My distress caused by my depression = my stuff

Their distress upon perceiving my distress = their stuff

Their desire that I not be in distress = their stuff

Their feeling that they should help me = their stuff

Their distress about not being able to help me = their stuff

Their distress that I don’t trust them to help me = hell of a lot of their stuff

And I resent having to deal with their stuff on top of my own stuff.

Don’t get me wrong: I know all about what that feels like. There is nothing like feeling that you’re not helping to make you feel like you’re a terrible person. But at the same time, dumping one’s own distress onto a person who already has plenty of distress is not a helpful thing to do.

That said,

My feeling guilty about their distress about not being able to help me = my stuff

It just seems like a pity that we have to get that far, you know?

Switching internet dialects for a moment, I’m not being depressed at people. I’m not asking for help. If I do need help, I will ask for it explicitly, and I will ask the person I deem most able and trustworthy to supply that particular help at that particular time. For example, earlier this week I was at a restaurant and I could not voice a preference as to what I wanted to eat. I asked my husband to order for me. This worked because a) he knows what I like and don’t like; and b) he didn’t pre-empt me.

Admittedly, it wouldn’t have worked a year ago, because I wouldn’t have had the gumption to admit that I was having trouble with the choice before me, wouldn’t have let myself have a preference (apart, perhaps, from ‘cheapest thing on the menu’), and, left to myself, would have gone hungry. But that’s my stuff, and I’ve been working on it.

‘How can I help?’ people ask, and there isn’t necessarily an answer they’ll like. However, there have been things that helped (me, specifically me, at specific times and places), and I find myself wanting to list them, with the extremely firmly stated caveat that they may not work for any given person, and they couldn’t possibly work for everybody. Some of them won’t even work for me any more, because I’m not the same person I was a year ago.

What helped? What helped me?

1. Knowing that I was not the only one. And I mean really knowing – not in the abstract sense. This is why, even if I didn’t know it was helpful for me, I would fight for the right to meltdown in public. It’s all very well knowing that one in three has some sort of mental health problem, but there’s nothing like seeing your bright, competent, cheerful friend in tears over a perfectly simple pizza menu* to make you realise that other people don’t have it together, either.

Everybody going round pretending that everything is peachy doesn’t help anyone. I can’t keep the mask up all the time and I don’t see why I should bloody well have to.

And the other thing about knowing that you’re not the only one is that you also know that there is someone who will get it, to whom you don’t have to explain in words of one syllable that yes, usually you can cope just fine with ordering pizza but at the moment the choice between anchovies and peppers has turned into a philosophical quandary and whatever you choose will be WRONG and you’re a terrible person and what if the peppers were air-freighted and are anchovies sustainable and who the hell do you think you are being in this restaurant in the first place did you know you could feed a family of four for a week on what you’re about to spend in here? And they will understand this because their brain wouldn’t let them brush their hair this morning, but they will also be capable of getting the pizza.

2. Relatedly, knowing that it is normal to not be OK all the time. And that it is OK to let yourself not be OK. This actually is one that I wish everybody knew. Sometimes, just admitting that things actually are horrible is enough to make them not horrible again. Sometimes they keep being horrible, but at least I don’t have to waste all that energy pretending they’re not.

3. Forming a contingency plan. If it should so happen that I should walk into a pizza restaurant and find myself in such a state that I cannot express a preference, then I will order a Hawaiian pizza, because it is more interesting than Margherita and it contains nothing I actively dislike. (For example. And low blood sugar really doesn’t help.)

4. [content note: discussion of suicide – in the abstract, which is rather the point]

I’d like to have known, six or seven years ago, that wondering idly which of these buildings were tall enough to kill someone if they jumped off, or how long it would take to drown in this particular river, was a sign of my brain not being right. I ignored this at the time because I knew that I had no intention of doing anything about it, but subsequent experience teaches me that this is not something I think about much when my head is in a good place. And of course I never mentioned it to anyone, because I didn’t want them worrying over something that wasn’t actually going to happen.

[end content note]

5. A code. Some shorthand that conveys to my nearest and dearest that I’m feeling awful, without my having to go into detail about how and why I am feeling awful. ‘Brain slug infestation’. ‘A bit down’. ‘Gone mad again’. And knowing they’ll accept that and leave it.

6. Having someone around who’ll tell the well-intentioned and infuriating to back the hell off.

7. Walking. Gets me out of my head and into my body.

8. The internet. I am much more articulate in writing than I am in speech, and I can work things through much better that way. (Sometimes I’ll write a post and direct my husband to go and read it, either as a precursor to our discussing the issue, or in place of it.) And since the internet is full of people who also seem to work that way, many of whom also get it, it is an excellent source of support. Even if most of the time we just talk about Doctor Who.

* it wasn’t actually pizza. And I am mixing up me and everyone else here. But I am not wanting to tell the real story at this point, so.