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In Focus

I took my bicycle out today, for the first time in a long time. Usually I use it as a means to an end; a conveyance from point a to point b. This evening, I just cycled. Until recently, I would have said one of my favourite sounds was the noise of horses’ shod hooves clip clopping down the road – as a child I would have literally run out to see the horses pass by if there had ever been any down my road, which there weren’t.

Ever the thrill seeker, I rode horses, in part for that sound. Time passes, things change. As I rode my iron horse out, wheels turning, I reflected that perhaps now, my favourite sound might be that of my thin road tyres spinning round on tarmac. There’s not a word to describe that noise exactly; it’s not a hum, but like hooves it has its own music.

How little we know ourselves, as we change, almost impercetibly.

Earlier today, I had to fill out a form. It caused me to ask questions of people who know me.

Do I do this? I said.

Do I do that?

Yes, they said.

I thought about it. When I work with people who have bipolar disorder I think, to myself, sometimes I ask them directly, Do you know your bipolar cycle? (Keep up at the back, I’ve moved on from penny farthings.)

Today, for the first time in a long time, I directed the question to myself. Do you know your bipolar cycle I said.

In my late twenties, my psychiatrist (and I was lucky really to have had that one and not another who I had post-natally and who liked me to hope for the best and prepare for worst) asked me to keep a mood diary for some months. He made it as easy as possible for me, I only had to rate my mood with a number on a daily basis; it didn’t take long to complete every day. I think it was when the diary was eventually reviewed during a consultation that he mentioned the phrase rapid cycling bipolar to me. It was the first time I had heard it, and it was of only passing interest. My up and down life continued on its rollercoaster ride.

Before my diagnosis my moods followed what might have been considered typical bipolar, weeks if not months of lows, followed by the same period of highs. My behaviour was classic for both sides of the pendulum, although I never was psychotic – although some on the receiving end of me at that time might disagree.

I am now approaching twenty years of diagnosis. I now accept, as my doctor told me a long time ago, that I fall into the category of ultradian bipolar (where the cycle is broadband speed, hours rather than days even). I’ve also nearly accepted that this is it: mercurial moods are never going to leave me.

Yet after twenty years of managing moods, and where did that time go to for goodness sake, the strangest thing has happened – strange to me anyway. Firstly, the more I have become alert to the mood upswings and downswings, the shorter the periods of the highs and lows. That’s not the strange part – when I know where I am with it, I can do things to counteract the pendulum, and get myself back onto an even keel more quickly. No, the strange thing is that the more I have noticed my moods and managed my moods, the more I have crystallised the very moment of the sudden slip down – I am not quite as sensitised to the rapid ascent up, although talking loudly and quickly is a sure sign that others are quick to point out and take refuge from…

The slipslide downwards is an extraordinary feeling. And it is just that, a feeling. One moment I can be ok, and then suddenly the old unpleasantly familiar feeling creeps into my bones, its bulk pressed in my chest, its hands round my throat. I am reminded then of Philip Larkin’s poem Toads.

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

However, as slimy yuck and toadlike as the feeling is, it is the rapidity of the change in internal weather that throws me off. It’s like crashing your mood car straight into a brick wall, on a fine day, on a good road. Of course, with depressive feelings I know mainly know what to do, and I do it. Hence the bike.

Maybe in another twenty years I will have worked out my triggers. I am often heard to say that I am a very slow learner, but maybe it is more that we really are, in larger parts, often a mystery to ourselves.

dandelion clock

My daughter took this shot, and I love it. The mood and subject speaks of time and focus – like how we drift in and out of focus to ourselves. I have wanted a DSLR camera myself for years, but because of all of the above, I have become wary of purchasing big ticket items, particularly for myself, in case it is feeding a small mania. My daughter recently became a teen, and even as a proud parent, I would say she has an eye and a feel for things. I bought her the camera for her birthday and she’s doing an interesting job with it.

‘This is Water’

This was the title of David Foster Wallace’s commencement address given nearly a decade ago, on May 21st at Kenyon College in Ohio. I have not yet been able to read Foster Wallace in long form, but I have read some essays and articles, which I admired.

This is Water threw me. It is so true, and that is what scares me. In the speech Foster Wallace speaks about our reality, how we all choose the meaning we construct in each everyday moment and how, without self-awareness, the meaning that is often automatically constructed is a negative, solipsistic one.

He knew what I know. He, like me, probably happened upon it the hard way. He called it the Capital T Truth of Life Before Death. He knew that it is easy to star in one’s own show; easy when you are young, beautiful, witty and so on. Of course it does not mean that you are any of those things, rather than as the star of your own show, that’s the role one is apt to cast oneself in, at first.

No stranger to depression, did Foster Wallace, like me, kick that persona to one side on a regular basis when the shadow self strutted centre stage. Did he, like me, shrink to the sidelines to watch the world float by, the water, whilst he gulped for air and clung to some mental piece of driftwood each minute, hour, day…

What scares me is that Foster Wallace knew well that there was always more than one way to see the world, and a myriad of interpretations for the self in it. He described in This is Water how to do those cerebral backflips that I do every day: the rigorous workout of the pre-frontal cortex, endlessly seeking alternatives as the meaning of any and every particular reality that will not suck my marrow. What he could not do, it seems, is survive the great weight of feelings that eventually dragged him down. All those headfuck acrobatics could not ultimately escape the gravity of mental pain, which is actually physical, and beyond all other things immeasurably tedious.

So my own prescription is this: choose your thoughts wisely, but feel the pain at least a little every day – and, sadly, some days a lot. There is no real escape. The ultimate avoidance of what seems infinite pain is allowing the shadow self centre stage just a moment long enough to enact a brutal amplification and a passing on to others. It is, as Karen Green, David Foster Wallace’s widow said, always a mistake.

Let the feelings drip, drip, drip. Take the antidotes where one can. For what else can we do? After all, This Truly is Water and This is all there is.

Boat: Starry Night

Boat: Starry Night

‘Now spit!’

Got to go see this guy later; I’ll be the patient who’s stuck to the ceiling…

Still find this song highly amusing – the raising of a smile as a therapeutic approach to crippling anxiety and panic? We’ll see…

My worst nightmare would be a dentist, on a transatlantic night flight, with snakes *shudders*

Measure for Measure II

What I would say to yer man (that’s my polite term for the PM) is this: why don’t you visit a drive-through McDonalds and talk to the talking post there; measure the post’s wellbeing. Then you can go to the first window where the person takes your money. They can’t actually interact with you when they are conducting the financial transaction because they are the disembodied voice in the post and they are now “talking” to the person behind you. They won’t really be able to look at you and you won’t really look at them. So you have one person, employed, hopefully healthy and with friends and family who might go home and volunteer and care and read Kafka for all I know (ticking yer boxes Dave), but in this role they talk to you through a post, and avoid all eye-contact. How is impersonating a talking post and not acknowledging each other’s humanity a measure of happiness?

Is it quicker for me to talk to the post and then hand over my money silently through the window as the employee talks to the car behind? No, it is not. There is not less talk or speedier talk, in fact, if anything, it is slower because I am deaf and can’t lip read the frickin post. What it does do is dehumanises us all. Just like the self-service checkouts at supermarkets, the petrol station cashiers who have to ask me every day if I want random doughnuts or coffee with that? I don’t, I never do, I never will. Caffeine is just so never an impulse buy when I am in here nearly every day of the week and live one minute away. Just like the banks that don’t want to talk to you or help you, or the teachers that are forced to invest as much time in the paperwork as their learners. Just like the parents that have to leave their children with low-paid childcare workers for 10 hours every day just to not afford a holiday and hardly ever see their children.

Measure the effects of all that Mr Cameron and you will know why modern society is an unhealthy and unhappy place for many people to live in. But those people who really aren’t very “happy” probably won’t ever answer your damn survey and so you’ll never know. So wouldn’t it be far better to spend your rabbit out of hat £2 million on finding ways to reduce the mental unwellbeing in the UK? We are, according to Oliver James, twice as likely to have a mental illness as our European neighbours, a statistic he puts down to “our materialistic values, heavily stimulated by the fact that for 50 years, we have spent twice as much on advertising to our population.”

Twice as much advertising = twice as much mental illness? Well it’s possible and looking at that would be a much better activity than asking the fucking obvious.

That is so obviously the last word isn’t it? But by way of a postscript I will share the parting shot of the ONS consultation questionnaire. It’s this gem:

Which of the following ways would be best to give a picture of national well-being?

Please choose one option only.
Economic measures
Single measure of overall life satisfaction/happiness
Small selection of indicators
Large set of indicators
Single index of national well-being (lot of information combined into a single number)


Thinking about jobs I have had (and there are many) this was one of the better ones; one I stuck with for a record amount of time in my mid-twenties.

Leaving aside the day that I had to take someone to the police station for stabbing someone in his kitchen, and the afternoon trapped in the office with someone in psychosis shouting about that nose, and perhaps drawing a veil over the flying chairs and drunks, I really enjoyed working in a St Mungo’s mental health project on Camden Road.

I worked with some cracking people, none more so than Sean. Whenever there was a breach, he would step into it. Crap and vomit in the toilets: no problem. Incontinent alcoholics: fine. Whatever my sensibility, he would ride through the shit to my rescue. The best craic was when we took people on a weekend work trip away to Brighton. This involved driving a minibus each, stuffed with mental health service users. Sean, being a true gent, offered to drive the “smoking” van which travelled the highyways and byways in a fug of smoke, leaving me free to drive the uptight, but with clear visibility “non-smoking” van. Hurray \o/

In retrospect I think the smoking van was having more fun (I bet *Ron was drinking Super Sickly Lager). My own van’s rear-view mirror was filled with miserable little Easter Island faces for the duration. The only hint of excitement was when I clipped a roundabout somewhere in Sussex, threatening to flip the transit van, which caused a minor ripple of consternation in the non-smokers.

We tried our best to show them a good time, but the weather and sandwiches conspired against us. We had to have a meeting to risk assess a proposed trip to the pub on the Saturday evening. I think I was left behind at the youth hostel, nominally “in charge”. Of course, I am still fairly incapable of doing “in charge” so when Sean arrived back to cope with another person who had had some kind of turn and was wandering around the public landing in an aggressive manner in his underpants I was eternally grateful to see him.

It was 1995 and when we got back to N7 on the Sunday (driving against the stream of London-Brighton charity cyclists) Sean and I fell into the pub to watch the Rugby World Cup and process the weekend’s madness and in so doing got completely lagging, laughed about everything until we fell off the stools and had to be forced out the door at the end of the night. Well, you had to unwind.

Of course, you can’t work at the sharp end of chaos indefinitely. Sean had come to Camden Road from working in homeless hostels and pretty much burned out in front of my eyes. I staggered on to another project in South London and then another in Brent where being stalked across London by someone one night to my flat burned me out too. I went to work in investment banks (a rest cure compared to mental health), Sean became a children’s entertainer and carried on with his acting and writing. They were the best of times.

A weekend in Brighton

*Ron was an old street-drinker who warrants an entire post of his own sometime.

Nostalgia meets Amnesia

Yesterday I felt all 1990s and posted a link to The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony, which was on constantly in late ’97 and ’98 – a period in my life I feel a bit wistful over (for no particular reason other than it being the fun you have in your twenties).

Then I went off to work which required me to go to a consultation thing for MIND (our local branch). They kicked off with speeches from the chair, Sir Teddy Taylor (resplendent in House of Commons braces – he was the baby there a long time ago you know) and an address from the MIND Director of Network Services, Lee Smith.

The whole time Mr Smith was talking, I was wondering where I knew him from. Not many clues in the name. He talked for about 10 minutes and by the end I had narrowed it down to London, more than ten years ago, probably working in a mental health setting in the voluntary sector. But I was still a bit baffled. Knowing it would probably drive me nuts I decided to nobble him as he left the stage and ask the random and potentially humiliating question – do I know you?

I have form for this kind of thing and it is embarrassing. So this time I ran through a checklist first based on the following experiences. Once I asked a man at the OXO Tower (who was evidently out with a beautiful girl he wanted to impress) if I had done a course with him at the City Lit. He had not. In fact he was an actor. From the television. So I did a check – did I see Lee Smith on the television ever and had never actually met him in real life? Maybe talking about the Mental Health Act or something. On balance I thought not.

Then I did the – have I confused him with someone else entirely check. I did this recently. I had a conversation with a woman in the supermarket called Vicky who was with her daughter Isabel. When she mentioned her young baby I declared shock and surprise as I hadn’t known she was pregnant when I thought I had last seen her. Eventually, my clanger became clear. She wasn’t the Vicky I thought she was, she was another one, with a daughter called Isabel. And then in my complete confusion I had to ask if I even knew her at all. Thankfully I did, we had been on the same course (for 6 months!) a couple of years ago. So she knew me. She must now know I am very absent-minded too.

Lee Smith seemed to pass that check, so I just asked if I knew him (which is a stupid question as it should be – do you know me? – but that is a tad egocentric) and mooted working in Brent as an opening gambit. Thankfully, he was not an actor or a doppelganger and he did recognise me and filled in my missing gaps. Working for MIND is obviously good for you. We were colleagues at St Mungo’s (in London but nowhere near Brent) in the mid to late 90s, working at different projects but with our paths crossing from time to time. I still can’t exactly remember the paths or the crossing details but you can’t indefinitely quiz a director of a national charity, at a formal do, for the missing bits of your memory jigsaw. Actually, I seem to have lost the lid too, so if anyone has that it would be helpful to have it back…

We had a nice chat. It was nice to see him. But it was disconcerting to have a malfunctioning memory. It felt like being in a car when the battery is turning over, just. I think I am going to stop harking back for a while and live in the moment as the short term memory seems ok for now.

Now, my mother doesn’t like this sort of talk so don’t read it mum / don’t tell her if you read it yourself: I txted the other half and asked him to smother me with a pillow if I ever really lose my mind.