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.

Don’t Ask

One of my colleagues has been talking about me.

‘Kathleen’s going through a bit of a rough patch. Let her alone.’

‘But maybe I can do something -‘

‘No. Leave her alone.’

‘But I don’t want her thinking that she’s upset me…’

‘Doesn’t matter. Leave her alone.’

And so on. It is the best thing that anyone has ever done to help with my depression.

‘But I was just going to ask her if she was OK!’

‘Don’t. No, seriously, don’t ask.’

‘Are you OK?’ is a terrible question. At least, it is a terrible question to ask me, and people whose brains work like my brain does.

(There are probably people for whom it is not a terrible question. Depression works differently for different people. This is how it works for me, which is why I am writing this.)

‘Are you OK?’

There are various possible answers.

‘Yes, I’m fine.’ This is usually the easiest option. It is a lie. Lying is tiring, particularly when you have to keep doing it.

What I really mean is, ‘No, I’m not OK, but I do not want to talk about it.’ Or, possibly, ‘No, I’m not OK, but I do not want to talk to you about it.’

It can backfire, particularly if it’s obvious that you’re not OK. ‘Yes, I’m fine, I just happen to be crying. Onions. That’s what it is. Onions. Don’t worry.’

Some people will see through that. They will say things like, ‘Oh, but you’re clearly not OK. Tell me what the matter is!’

I dislike dealing with these people. I do not want to tell them what the matter is. I probably do not even want to tell my closest friends what the matter is. I don’t even know myself what the matter is. These people are not my closest friends. They only want to help. But they can’t help, and I would just like them to accept that and go away.

Some people will see through both layers. They will see that I am not OK, and they will also see that I do not want to talk about it. They will then drop the subject. I like these people. The only way they could improve upon this would be to have not asked the question in the first place.

Alternatively, there is the Typical British Understatement, gently implying that things aren’t very good, but no, you don’t really want to talk about it. ‘Oh, you know, mustn’t grumble.’ ‘Could be worse.’ ‘Surviving.’ ‘Don’t ask.’

This can work. In my family, for example, ‘X is a bit down’ is widely understood to mean ‘X is finding it difficult to get out of bed without crying, and this is why they haven’t phoned for weeks’. But it relies very much upon everybody knowing the code.

The trouble is, the people who only want to help interpret understatement as an invitation to delve deeper. ‘Don’t ask,’ you say, and you mean it, but they ask. ‘Surviving,’ you say. ‘Only surviving?’ And then you have to go into the whole bloody thing.

Or there’s the plain truth. ‘I am feeling absolutely rubbish. My mind is working at the speed that stalactites form, and I am convinced that everybody hates me.’

And people just don’t know what to say to that. Why should they? I don’t have anything particularly useful to say about it myself. They want to make things better. So do I. But they can’t. And it is a terrible truth to have to tell them.

I am an introvert. This does not necessarily mean that I’m shy (though sometimes I am) or that I’m anti-social (though sometimes I just can’t face it). All it means is that interactions cost me energy.

In the ordinary way, this isn’t a problem. I can keep talking to someone for twenty minutes or so and feel no ill-effects, the same way that I can keep cycling for twenty minutes or so. Depression knocks that out. Depression kills the auto-pilot. This morning, cycling to the station, I found I was getting slower and slower. I had forgotten to pedal. I have to think about every pedal stroke.

Same with talking. The automatic processes that go into a conversation, which usually happen without thinking, reveal themselves in all their complexity, and have to be done manually. Where in the ordinary way I might say ‘Good night – hope you enjoy your day off!’ without thinking, today I had to a) remind myself that the appropriate thing to do when one leaves the office is to wish one’s colleagues good night; b) remember that it is Thursday; c) deduce that tomorrow therefore must be Friday; d) guess that it’s therefore probably someone’s day off; e) remember who has Fridays off; f) say ‘Good night – enjoy your day off!’.

Extrapolate the corresponding effort required to answer the question ‘Are you OK?’

Talking is an effort. Talking about how broken my brain is can be impossible. And yet people will not stop asking.

This is why I hate well-intentioned mental health campaigns that encourage people to ask other people how they are. I have no desire to disclose the parlous state of my mind to a complete stranger or to someone else’s manager. Judging by the internet-wide reaction to the Samaritans Radar initiative, I don’t think I’m the only one.

Samaritans Radar wasn’t the only one, either. It was the most egregious, largely because of the way it tried to use the internet, but there are plenty of others. There are two posters pinned up in the staff kitchen at this very moment, encouraging people to ask colleagues how they are. I might vandalise them. The posters, not the colleagues. Probably.

And if colleagues are bad, then strangers are worse. I have a thing about loud or repetitive noises. On a good day they don’t bother me. On a bad day I want to kill people who use the hand dryers in public lavatories. I remember one day last year when things had got particularly bad, and the sound of footsteps on gravel was too much for me. I couldn’t deal with it at all. This was a problem, because you have to cross a lot of gravel to get to the bike racks at Cambridge station. And it was rush hour, so I wasn’t the only person going CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH across the gravel, there were lots of people doing it, and I had no control over it, and no control over the noise, and it made me cry. So there I was, hiding behind a tangled stack of other people’s bikes, howling into my scarf, and thinking, well, at least that godawful Time To Talk thing was yesterday, so nobody feels obliged to ask if I’m OK.

I dread it. It’s the worst thing about crying in public. I have given up caring what people think about me, but I really can’t deal with their talking to me. They want to hellllllp. Bully for them, but the thing is, it won’t actually help. It will actively make things worse for me, and I resent having to have things made worse for me just so some random can feel better about themselves. The story of the heroic intervention is widespread and, at least in my case, bullshit.

People want to be that one person whose action made a difference, and they don’t like accepting the fact that actually there isn’t a difference to make, or that they’re not the person to make it.

It is good to know that people care, yes. And it is true that a depressed brain will make up all sorts of ridiculous stories about how people don’t care. But people constantly going out of their way to show me that they care can be exhausting and guilt-inducing. Courtesy costs nothing, they say, but that’s not true. Courtesy is a currency in which I am currently bankrupt, and every thank you I have to say, every response to a Facebook u ok hun, pushes me deeper into the red.

When I come out the other side – and I will; I always have before – I will be thankful for my friends, and I will recognise the earnest enquiries for the acts of love that they represent. But at the moment the friends who are helping me the most are the ones who understand that actually what I need to do tonight is to stay in bed and reread Agatha Christie novels while they bring me a slice of cake home from the party I was too much of a state to go to, the ones who are gamely pretending that nothing is wrong, the ones who accept my laconic explanation ‘brain slugs’ without question, the ones who let me cry on them without trying to make it better.