Monday, 25 August 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 14

Of course everyone has regrets. Edith Piaf must have been a psychopath. We all, at a certain age look back on our lives and think of all the things we could have done and didn't. Maybe what I've been talking about is just normal. In that case, my thinking my regrets are unusually bad becomes a symptom of my deep feeling that how I am is always somehow unusually wrong. My life is wronger than most people's. But that still begs the question - why do I believe that? Whether it's true or not is sort of beside the point. It's the fact that I believe it so strongly, despite immense efforts to change it, that is the actual problem. Where does that come from?

I also know that being a disappointment to ones family is hardly novel. I don't know if it's going to be as much of a problem to current generations as it was for ours because modern parents just aren't that different to their kids. They don't have the same kind of rigid expectations (Tiger Moms notwithstanding) of their offspring. As I've explained at great length elsewhere, there was a kind of rift between the pre sixties and post sixties generations when I was growing up, when everything changed about what having children meant. What those post war fifties parents thought life was about (self-sacrifice, knowing your place, the importance of hard work for its own sake) was itself dismissed out of hand in the seventies and in some families at least, the rift is still visible. But at the same time, most of the people of around my age that I know seem to have got on ok without much trauma. I can't know what goes on in the privacy of their homes I know but I think I'd have picked up on at least some of it. There are those angry men I mentioned - I know them from the festivals we used to go to, the more alternative pubs in Brighton and Lewes. They were among the Crusties and the fire jugglers, djembe players and squatters of the 80s and 90s, semi employed, near homeless, in combats, tattoos and dreds. Am I one of them? I used to look a bit like one of them but I don't think I ever had that dangerous twinkle in the eye, probably because I never drank or smoked enough and I always had a nice place to live and frankly I was never that oblivious of how I looked to other people.
But the rest of my generation? The class of 1980? Mostly they seem pretty sane. I think if, like them, I'd have managed to hold down a job in banking or industry I'd have been a lot like them, with mortgages, insurance and pensions, divorces probably, but reasonably sane kids and workable second marriages. I might even be looking to retire now with enough in the bank to afford a place in France, or maybe to set up a small specialist nursery. In many ways in My Ideal Life I'd be somewhere very similar to where I am now, but via a different route - a route in which I'd actually done something with my life. This feels undeserved. As it was, despite my qualifications, holding down even a relatively responsible and moderately challenging job for any length of time is beyond me. I simply can't imagine how that would be. Why is that?

My basic feeling, as I've said, about how people feel about me is of them sooner or later realising they don't want me around. There maybe many reasons for this but in a way the reason doesn't matter. Something I'll do will turn them against me and once I begin to feel that wariness or suspicion I will become anxious and start to make mistakes. The idea of being locked in an office (or factory or shop) with these people five days a week, fifty weeks a year until I retire makes me feel sick. Once I start to make mistakes (or do things that could be seen as mistakes, or merely unusual) I will become defensive, or else too anxious to please. I'll try to explain or to apologise (depending on whether I really think I've done something wrong or not) but will almost always find that no one really wants to talk about it. Maybe it really is alright? Maybe they just want me to shut up about it. Anyway that's when I'll know I'm on probation. Now I know they'll be looking for some reason not to have me about and I'll become genuinely incompetent - unable to think straight. I'll lose my confidence. I'll become more solitary and defensive and my work really will deteriorate and the feeling of pressure will build up and all I'll want to do is go off somewhere and do my things, alone. Even if I have no money, it's worth it. Signing on every two weeks is no humiliation by comparison. I'd rather earn a living of course, but I can survive without it. In practice I've tended to work part time as a gardener, which means I got nothing from the DHSS (or whatever it's called now) except for a bit of housing benefit and my NI credited, so I didn't feel too bad. It was a safety net. Also they paid for me to resit my A levels so I could go back to uni in my 30s. In the grand scheme of dole fiddling it doesn't seem too bad but I'm far from proud of it. Mum and dad and my brother have helped me out and girlfriends have been amazingly tolerant but frankly I'm fairly ashamed of it.

This scenario has played out more times than I care to remember. One of my earliest employers told me I was 'unemployable'. Maybe he was just being nasty but it's turned out prophetic. I mean why couldn't I do that? I didn't even need to have a big impressive career. I could have just held down a job long enough to save the money I wanted to go travelling or whatever, but I couldn't even do that. Surely having a job is just something people do? People look at me like they just don't get it. Why would I have a problem with that? But I do, and I probably always will.

One of the things that sets me apart probably is that simple fact that I can just go off and be on my own, and when I do that the stuff going on in my head is simply infinitely more interesting than anything I can easily do in real life. I just don't need things and people and experiences the way other people seem to do. I think a lot of people would very quickly become bored or slobs. Even if they could think of things to do with the time they'd need the money to buy the things they'd need to enjoy them. I don't, and I suspect it's that first five years solitude that made me that way. I'd love to feel I could do these things (make friends, hold down a job, save some money) if I wanted to, but I don't absolutely need to - not the way other people do. I can do without. So that takes the pressure off. I suspect a lot of people hold down jobs because they very definitely need to. They have a mortgage and kids and a certain lifestyle to support. They don't like work but they accept it. But of course all those things are choices. You don't have to do any of them if you don't want to. It's a point I've been arguing at least since I was 12. When everyone was talking about these things as if they were just cosmic inevitabilities that everybody must face, I was saying 'But I don't want a car.' 'I don't want kids.' I wanted a woman in my life but surely she didn't have to be that costly? I didn't want to get married anyway - that way certainly seemed to lead to no good.
These are the sorts of arguments The Child still uses when The Parent comes down hard on him for making a mistake (being a bit late, having left something behind, not having got something done). 'But none of these things really matters' says The Child, 'or not that much. I don't need to work all the hours. I don't need that much money, so it's not crucial that it be done right now, today. What's five minutes? I'll make it up at the end of the day. Nobody's depending on me. It doesn't have to be perfect.' but The Parent won't listen. It's just excuses and The Child knows deep down it could have done it right, in theory, it could have allowed more time, thought it through more, made better preparations. 'But why should I?' says The Child. 'Why should I have to be constantly thinking that way, taking up all my time worrying about all the things that could conceivably go wrong (like mum does - constantly stressed and bad tempered, no time for anything good) I don't want to think that way. I don't even want to begin to start thinking that way because it sucks you in. You get lost and you never get out again, and sooner or later all your days are gone and it never makes any difference. You work longer to make more money and it just goes. You try to plan for every eventuality and there's always something else...' But The Parent still won't listen. 'No excuses' they say. 'Be prepared. A stitch in time. Never put off until tomorrow...' It's not about whether it works or makes you happy. It's just what you have to do. Everybody else does. What's wrong with you?

Behind all this I suspect is that deep nagging feeling that there's nothing you can do to make things better. Trying harder does not help, it just takes up more time and possibly just makes things worse. Above all there was (and is) this fear of getting so lost in all this that it'll take up your entire life and you'll never find your way out. Better to keep things simple. Have as few things demanding your attention as possible - just rely on simple things - the countryside, the sea, paper and pen, customers you can take or leave, Christmas and birthdays for the more expensive things. Music is cheap. Decent food is cheap. Plants are cheap. A room in a shared house is cheap. Back-packing is cheap. A radio is cheap. Second hand. Make do and mend, reuse, repair, recycle. No debts, no contracts. Living with Emma has got me a lot more Things than I'm used to but they're all paid for now and I am free again. There is even something enviable about all this - something Zen, something Environmentally Sound, something virtuous, but some part of me knows it is a cop-out - making a virtue of a necessity. Is there virtue in doing what you have no choice about? I wouldn't be a cynical greedy materialistic person even if I could (I think) but perhaps it's about having the choice.

to be continued...

This Time it's Personal ~ part 13

The thing is - I think I've spent pretty much my entire life feeling that I shouldn't be the way I am. I shouldn't do things the way I do, think the things I think, want the things I want. I should be different somehow. I should be a different person. I am not good enough.

All the things I've tried to describe here come to this. 
Whenever I sit down to do something I want to do (like now) there is this churning in my belly to get it over with, because I should be doing something else. 
Whenever things don't go according to plan it is always because of something about the way I am - some failing or misjudgement of mine. 
And, perhaps most importantly, when I am trying to get on with other people there is always the feeling that sooner or later they'll get sick of me and want me to go away - sooner or later I'll be too weird or embarrassing or irritating or difficult or needy or arrogant or assertive or insular or something. I might get away with it for a while, but inevitably, sooner or later, they'd prefer not to have me around any more. 
This last is most important because it is their opinions - real or imagined - that have the power to trash the things I try to do. It is their opinions that tell me I am not doing what I should be and that I am always to blame when things don't go according to plan.

This is odd because at the same time I do have a strong sense of my own capabilities - I genuinely believe deep down that I have a lot to offer, but somehow that doesn't matter. Somehow, when what I do is exposed to the world of other people, somehow, suddenly, it doesn't count. My opinion doesn't count.
This is why I can be optimistic and idealistic, and hopelessly defeatist at the same time. This is why I can spew vitriol at myself for making a mistake and be furious at being so unfairly judged at exactly the same moment. I know who I am, warts and all, and I like myself, but a part of me thinks all that is pointless and contemptible and dismisses it out of hand, and the two are almost completely separate. They can't communicate at all. 

I try to explain this to Emma. I tried to explain it using the old Transactional Analysis (Child/Parent/Adult) model or Freud's Id/Superego/Ego model but she doesn't get it. Above all I don't think she gets this because she has quite a coherent way of looking at herself and her life. She can't relate to the feeling of having two such opposing forces in her head. She thinks my labelling them such has made them real when they weren't before but I argue that that's just another example of thinking that trying to work the problem out is causing the problem (like someone going over to a mechanic and telling him the reason the car won't go is because he's got the engine dismantled all over the shop.) Once again - the phenomenon (the pain, the conflict) exist whether I think about them or not. The names are just an attempt to describe the problem. For those of us not in my position it is incredibly hard to explain. It is not 'voices in the head' like you might experience in schizophrenia. It's just two completely different and irreconcilable ways of thinking (or three if you count the rational me, trying to reason with them). I guess we are all 'in two minds' from time to time but most people don't deal well with permanent contradictions in their thinking - most people like certainty and decisiveness and don't like doubt, but I have it all the time. It's just there. It's how I am. And they don't just agree to differ, my voices - they're constantly trying to get the other to give up - like a marriage based on the one hoping the other will change - it's not a happy scenario.
I assume most people don't have such a split, or maybe they ignore it, but really it doesn't matter what names you give it - you need to accept that that is what it's like in my head - two people battling it out - never listening, just sniping, insulting, crying, shouting. I suspect many people do have something of a split but the two halves get on ok. If not, for most people, I imagine, somehow there is some sort of victory for one half or the other. The child may have all sorts of hopes and dreams but it resigns itself to a more 'realistic' adulthood. Alternatively, the parent may come to accept that the child is who she is and wish the best for her. 
Probably for people to be reasonably content with life there has to be a kind of consonance between what is hoped for and what actually happens. A very energetic ambitious person will be fine if they move in a world where they can shine and get on. A very quiet unimaginative person will be content with a humble place in the world. But what happens to a person with big ideas and high hopes who is forced to keep their life small? (or a humble person thrust into the limelight for that matter?) I suspect there may be many of us. I've met many angry men in my life, many of them (if they weren't pissed or drug-addled) intelligent and keen, and yet bitter and frustrated. What had happened to them? Had they just been born that way? Was the anger to blame - or is that just confusing cause with effect? Many successful people have a kind of fury about them in any case. 
One might argue that maybe there's just not that much space for successful people in this world - not enough top-flight careers to go round but I'm not necessarily talking about great material success. Just having the space and the opportunity to fulfill some of one's potential might be enough. 
There is a lot of politics here about the deserving and undeserving poor and self-made men, as if it is all just a matter of will-power. There are no excuses - someone fucks up - they have only themselves to blame. They just didn't try hard enough. Lazy sods! 'If I can do it, anyone can do it.' In court we tend to assume that the criminal is fully responsible for his actions - that he acted out of free will, unless there are some fairly clear extenuating circumstances (mental illness, being below a certain age). This is the stuff of libertarianism, existentialism and free-market capitalism, not to mention hell fire and damnation.
The alternative view, more associated with left-wing politics, has become a parody - 'Society's to blame' they say, conditioning, the subconscious and genetics. 
The truth of course, as ever, is probably somewhere in between. In my own case I don't think I can be accused of not trying. I did make it to university, three times, to do a BA and an MSc and a Phd and I generally did pretty well. I have my own business, I've done a bit of travelling, had a fair few girlfriends, and generally managed to look after myself without abusing the aforementioned drugs and alcohol. 

Nevertheless, as I have tried to explain over the course of these postings, I think something is seriously wrong, and I believe it stems from what I described in those first two paragraphs above - to wit - it doesn't matter what I do, it will always be wrong, and I am all too aware that that list of 'achievements' covers a multitude of failures:-
I did not ultimately turn my university career into an actual career and am therefore unable to make the most of my talents. 
I have not been able to hold down a proper job - ever, and therefore I've had no spare cash for anything else I want to do. 
I still don't feel comfortable with other people and therefore don't have the kind of network of friends and contacts that make life so much easier in the absence of wealth.
I can't just settle down and enjoy my good fortune here, which would make my other shortcomings so much easier not to regret. 

to be continued...