The Third Degree

The Third Degree

Believe me, being in a non-verbal state is as frustrating for me as it must be for anybody trying to communicate with me. It is usually a symptom of stress, of emotional overload, so the worst way to react is in any fashion that increases my stress – becoming emotional, speaking louder or more insistently, coming too close and encroaching on my personal space. If you must try to interact with me at least speak quietly, unemotionally and without approaching too closely or making sudden movements.

Any hint of threat, whether it is a raised voice or unexpected proximity, only makes me feel more anxious and ensures that the episode will last longer. If I do manage to force some words out then don’t assume I’ve come out of it – this can be a delicate moment as I start to regain some control and pushing me – giving me the third degree – will only send me deep back down into my uncommunicative state.

Above all, don’t take my lack of responsiveness as a sign of indifference, ignorance or antipathy towards you: it is not. It is simply that my faculties are fully occupied dealing with my own mental turmoil and there is no spare capacity to handle interacting with people. I don’t enjoy being non-verbal: because of the continual commotion inside my head it is mentally exhausting, and the muscular tension that results also causes physical tiredness. It is absolutely draining and leaves me in need of peace and quiet to relax. The fact that I might have been sat there, hardly moving or uttering a word, for hours does mean that I am ready to jump back into “normal” activities from the get go. Without some down time to recuperate it is very likely that even a small trigger will push me back over the edge.

Recognition of the causes and effects involved coupled with a little understanding makes it quicker and easier for me to work through the effects of the stress overload, and that has to be a good thing all round, doesn’t it?

Duty and Responsibility

Duty and Responsibility

Sometimes I think about leaving this life with its burdens and responsibilities. No goodbyes; just go ahead and do it. There is no respite, no rest from labors. To even suggest it meets with accusations of selfishness and failure to care. Or worse. Threats, emotional blackmail or even violence.

I sometimes feel as if I am in thrall to a tyrannical master, whose every demand I must satisfy. I drive myself hard to meet the standards to which I hold myself. This infernal sense of duty – it compels me to carry on and on, grinding myself down, exhausting myself in the process.

I feel so tired. My defences are weak. The darkness inside finds its way to the surface, coloring my thoughts. Did you know it can take as little as 15 minutes to lose consciousness after slitting your wrists? If you hit the artery that is. Otherwise it could be hours. I looked it up – I wanted to know. Don’t ask why.

Change. Don’t like it at all. For somebody who has such difficulty relating to people I don’t half have a hard time when I am apart from them. I’m a walking contradiction. I like my own company and I cannot bear to be apart from people. I abhor loneliness. And I am feeling lonely of late.

I try to keep my feelings hidden, even from myself I suspect sometimes. Must be strong, never show any weakness. So I must be alone, so nobody can see my vulnerabilities. I must be alone to cry in the night. I must be alone to open my heart and reveal my feelings. So much pent-up emotion that is held in, bottled up, because I do not dare let it show.

Anger, the rage inside, flares occasionally but never lasts. Unlike the hurt that never really leaves me. Oh, I can push it into the background but it still lies there waiting for its opportunity to raise its head and reenter my consciousness. There is no release, no respite. No rest.

I am a caged bird, looking out through the bars and imagining how it might feel to fly free. The bars are of my own making, stronger than steel. Forged of duty and responsibility. I have no option other than to remain here – suffer the constraints on my existence. The constraints I accepted so long ago now. The burden weighs heavy on me but I said I would bear it, so bear it I must. Choice was abrogated all those years ago. However I might wish otherwise that remains true.

But the caged bird can still dream of open skies. The slave can dream of the day the fetters are broken. And I can dream of release.

Kindred Spirit

Kindred Spirit

Come sit with me and we can watch the world go by;
That’s all I ask. I won’t mind if you want to try
Some light discourse, then later we might take a stroll
And pass some time there by the river as it rolls
Beneath the trees and winds its way down to the sea:
A quiet time. And if in turn you ask of me
Just company, why then I should feel truly blessed
For I’ll have found a soul to share my time of rest.

Waving or Drowning?

Waving or Drowning?

I drifted far out from the shore
Without a thought nor any care
For where the wind and tide might draw
My broken heart: I turn to stare
Back on that place I left behind
With few regrets. What is there now
To hold me and where can I find
The peace I crave? I wonder how
To send my signal straight to you:
A cry for help, I’m sinking fast.
No longer knowing what to do,
I raise my arms and hope at last
That you will understand my plight
And reach out, offer me a hand
Before I drift beyond your sight,
A castaway from love and land.

The Great Escape

The Great Escape

My wife doesn’t understand me! Well that’s not an unusual thing for a husband to say. But in this case I am referring to something quite specific:  my love of science fiction and fantasy.

I have always loved reading – as a child I spent many hours lost in books, something that has never changed as I have aged. From my first sci-fi experience with the works of Arthur C. Clarke via Frank Herbert and Larry Niven to Iain M. Banks, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman I have found so much pleasure in their works. There is something about their writing that speaks to me.

Of all the authors I mentioned it is the last two that I have a particular affinity for. There is an appealing intelligence behind their words – they play games with language that I can only dream of emulating. They have a poet’s feeling of the sublime subtlety in choosing a particular word that conveys exactly the right nuanced meaning. Or even multiple meanings. It is this depth that I find so satisfying.

I have encountered some other authors whose works do not provide this sense of connection. One in particular was the Harry Potter books of J. K. Rowling. I persevered through two or three pages but found that the writing was too mechanical, too plain. I found it to be simplistic – lacking any flair in the use of language. The stories themselves might be very entertaining – they are certainly hugely popular and successful. But for me there must be something more.

What I believe my wife fails to understand is that for me the subject matter is almost secondary to the pleasure I derive from beautifully created words. To be sure I enjoy a good tale, but it must be told in a such a way that the journey is as engaging as the destination. It is largely an artistic appreciation – I enjoy the precision evident in the construction, the master craftsmanship on show.

The opposite I find to be off-putting. The visible flaws in the output of less skilled writers jar discordantly and I find myself repelled. It is like a musician hitting the wrong notes in a recital – I end up focusing just on the mistakes and that prevents me getting enjoyment from the piece.

For me reading a good piece of writing is an immersive experience. I am engaged on both an intellectual and emotional level – I can enter a state of flow and lose myself in the procession of words. It is addictive and seductive at once – a guiltless, hedonistic pursuit, and one from which I gain immense pleasure.

The Hollow Man

The Hollow Man

Ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? I did, several years ago. There was something about Phaedrus’  ever deepening search for the essence of meaning that resonated with me. Being in the grip of self-destructive  addiction, knowing the damage that was being incurred but driven by compulsion to return time and again. Like a gambler chasing the big win, to hazard greater and greater stakes, risking more with each attempt, striving to attain that beautiful truth. The feeling that next time all the pieces would fall into place and the perfect light of understanding would illuminate the dazzling simplicity of the universe. All it needs is just one more step; it is so close now.

It is a chimera, an illusion. Instead of gaining understanding the very act of chasing that goal results in a narrowing of focus, the exclusion of everything except the desire. Monomania. Yet the idea of reducing all of life’s complexity to its simplest essence is so seductive that it continues to exert a hold. I can fully understand what lured Phaedrus to abandon all the trappings of his “normal” life and devote his energies to the pursuit of knowledge.

I have been similarly tempted to step off the regular path and lose myself in the search for meaning. For understanding. Believing that if only I could fathom the principles underpinning the universe then I would achieve an enlightened serenity.  I just had to find that one last piece of the puzzle. Call it nirvana if you like.

Looking back now it seems to be a form of religious belief. I searched for meaning, feeling that there must be an underlying reason behind everything.

I no longer believe that. Life just happens. I have gone from an all-encompassing cause-and-effect view to one where individual choices and actions have little consequence beyond the immediate. And in adopting that view the immediate assumes paramount  importance – all that matters in life is to remain true to one’s principles, to act correctly in accordance with one’s sense of what is right.

Unfortunately this leads to conflict. I end up torn between courses of action where I have to decide between evils. To choose the least bad option. But because even the option I feel is the best has negative consequences I feel guilty that I have caused harm.

That is the essence of my belief. As in the Hippocratic Oath I believe that I first should do no harm. You may call me naive but I do not even feel that it is right to hurt those who have hurt me. I am not a Christian but the Christians among my audience might recognize the concept of turning the other cheek. Of forgiveness. Many people I know, encompassing several religions, see this as a weakness. But I do not. I see the ability to forgive as a great strength. As a healing force in the world. Because the alternative is an unceasing cycle of retribution. To break these circles of destruction it is necessary for somebody to stand up for the principle that two wrongs do not make a right.

Breakdown Timebomb

Breakdown Timebomb

Handling strong emotions is extraordinarily difficult. Trying to keep them under control – rein them in – is like trying to close a suitcase packed with so many clothes that they threaten to burst out from every side.

I am caught in the currents of my feelings, one minute floating calmly and the next being pulled under by the rip tide or whirled around in a maelstrom of despair before sinking down in darkness. The illusion of control lies shattered around me as I huddle fetus-like in the middle of an barren landscape, no feature to break the monotonous emptiness fading to the horizon in every direction. Out here there is only loneliness. No sound. No breeze. Nothing moves, not even me. Yet within my mind nothing is still: huge, demanding thoughts and emotions slug it out in a battle for my attention while I struggle to avoid being overwhelmed.

And then, as softly sudden as the bursting of a soap bubble, the turmoil subsides and I experience a period of relative calm.

I feel the need to escape – a basic animal instinct to flee from threat. But there is no path to the place that draws me because it exists only in my memories, in the past. An illusory golden history, a carefree time of happiness. An amalgam of times and places synthesized into idyllic fantasy. Such a temptation!… to slip away into this perfect dream world.

A number of factors have likely contributed to my current state of mind but they all boil down to one thing: change. Too much has changed and is changing in too short a space of time and it all pushes me out of my comfortable routine existence into an unstable, unpredictable, disorientating state of uncertainty and confusion. I’ve not been sleeping well as a result, compounding the problem with tiredness – I feel tattered, ragged, frayed, worn out.

Please, somebody stop the world. I want to get off – I’ve had enough of this ride.

To My Friend

To My Friend

I’ve said before that I don’t form attachments easily; well, over the past year I have been fortunate enough to gain a new friend. There are very few people to whom I feel close enough that I would call them friends as opposed to acquaintances: I rarely feel comfortable enough to drop my guard with somebody – to take off the mask behind which I hide my vulnerabilities.

To me a friend is somebody for whom I would drop everything in an instant if they needed help. My best friend is my wife, and beyond her I can count my friends on the fingers of one hand. I accept that this is a very narrow definition of friendship – the word is much devalued these days by Facebook and overuse in popular culture. Our Antipodean cousins have the culture of mateship which most closely matches my meaning here, but the rest of the English-speaking world have to make do with the term “friendship”.

How did this newest friend of mine  move from being simply another person I talk to socially to being someone I care about very deeply?

To my friend: we first met at work; you were friendly from the start, you had been told about my condition and had taken the trouble to understand – that meant such a lot to me. You were explicitly approachable and made the effort to make me feel part of the team. I always felt that I had your support and after only a matter of weeks I came to trust you.

You have never given me cause to doubt that trust.

I don’t know if I appeared cold or aloof – I expect I did because that’s just my way. To illustrate: there have been a few occasions in my life when I have been confronted with somebody who was visibly upset and, although I wanted to just hug them and try to comfort them – to demonstrate my feelings, I was unable to do so. I was afraid that it would offend, that it would be perceived as inappropriate or over-familiar. And I feel ashamed that I perhaps was seen as unconcerned or uncaring. That I could have done something to help them feel better and did not.

I have trouble with physical contact. Apart from the sensory issues it is my difficulty reading non-verbal signals that causes me to err very much on the side of caution. My mother knew: I believe I shocked her the last time I saw her before her death by kissing her.

I so rarely tell people how I feel about them. Privacy. I have a deeply ingrained habit of secrecy where my feelings are concerned – if I don’t speak of how I feel then nobody can use that knowledge to attack me. Don’t get involved, remain on the edges: the outsider. Play my part. Stay in character. Keep the illusion of control. Smile! It’s like the saying about clowns: “laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.” I sometimes wonder if I’m fooling anybody as I carry on as if everything is all right. “Yes, I’m fine.” Even while I am hurting inside I can appear my “normal” self.

But back to my newest friend: we have had good times – so many enjoyable shared experiences. Although I had been drinking I can remember the night I said to you, “You are a friend.” A good friend indeed. Always a smile in greeting and a kind, understanding word. You have a good heart.

After a while I felt a bond between us: a degree of comfort where I could be myself without fear of censure. Cheeky at times I know – I can picture that look now. But that was an indication of how comfortable I feel around you – that I felt able to push the boundaries.

We no longer work together but I still hold a special place for you in my heart. Mere miles cannot stop me from caring about you as much as the day I last saw you. It was a lot of fun, as I said the other day. Perhaps it is only me that feels our friendship is something beyond the ordinary. That doesn’t matter to me – you made a lasting impression on me and I will be forever thankful for the twist of fate that caused our paths to cross. My life would have been poorer had I never met you.

All that remains is for me to again wish you the best of luck for the future, and to hope that you can find happiness and stability in your life. Know that I will always be here for you – you once offered an ear to me when I was in a bad place and I will not forget that. Many people have offered advice over the years; very few have offered just to be there when I needed it and, even though in the event I did not feel the need to take you up on your offer, I cannot thank you enough for the support it gave to me. That is the true measure of friendship.

I thought long and hard about what I would say to you before you left on your awfully big adventure, the next chapter in your life. In the event I either didn’t find the opportunity or the courage to speak my mind – I don’t know which. I was afraid I might upset you or else give the wrong impression: you appeared so close to tears a number of times and I could not bear to be the cause. So I have written this for two reasons: to express how I really feel and to try to assuage my own guilt at failing to speak my mind. This has been very difficult for me to write and I have found myself reduced to tears several times. I hope it is not too selfish of me to wish that you had not had to leave. I miss you and worry about you: you are never far from my thoughts, my friend. I give you my word that we will meet again, which is why I never said “goodbye”.