Saturday, 20 September 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 20

'What would be the point of an apology?' you may ask. It won't change anything. Does an apology ever help? And yet I can't think of another situation where somebody has done something wrong where an apology would not be expected. I don't see why parents and children should be different, and children are expected to apologise for what they do regularly. I apologised to Emma's kids a few times because I know I got it wrong. We all get it wrong sometimes. Parenting is an incredibly difficult job (if you're doing it properly). Most of us I guess mean well and do what we can, but that doesn't mean we don't have things to apologise for. There were times when I was self-centred and bad -tempered and I am sorry for that, and I have said so, and I think the kids respected me more for that rather than less, and it maybe taught them that to be wrong is not a total condemnation. It is part of life. But I know my mum will never accept any responsibility for how I am, far less say sorry because as I said, she can't tolerate anything that might be construed as criticism and in her world, the parent must always maintain a position of authority, or at least, its appearance. Like I said, my parents were scared of what might happen if they ever let children have their way.
To be fair, over the last few years mum has gone out of her way to show concern and to support what I am doing now and I know she has regrets. I appreciate this and I think it will probably have to do.

So it's up to me to change things - to make the best of the situation, and I don't think I can be accused of not trying.
The first and most obvious thing I've tried is thinking and talking about it. I don't want to defend this approach any more here - it seems an obvious thing to try and I think it has produced results, as I'll explain later. What is odd is that I don't really know anybody else that really does this. Where do I get this from? Certainly not from any of my family that I can think of, and nobody I met along the way springs to mind. I started going through it in my mind as early as thirteen and was asking other people for their input by the time I was sixteen. The latter I've tried repeatedly despite mostly negative reactions. Like Danuta in the previous entry, most people seem to regard people who ask for help with this sort of thing with a mixture of bafflement and contempt. There is a long tradition of course of men not talking about their feelings or asking for advice. Maybe I'd have been happier as a woman. Looking confused and asking for help is still socially acceptable for them, and far from being a sign of weakness - given the reality - that we are all confused a lot of the time - it seems a sensible survival strategy, but no, apparently men (and maybe women in the future) aren't allowed to do that. They have to blunder on manfully and pretend they know exactly what's going on at all times. This is one of those things that never made any sense to me and which I refused to go along with but I can't say it's won me any admirers.

The logical corollary of this is counselling and therapy, which I have undertaken, on and off, since I was about 24, studying at Brighton Poly back in the '80s where I got it for free. Most of it I can honestly say has done me no good at all. A lot of it was the sort of 'person centred' approach that just lets you ramble on for hours and hours for weeks and weeks, the counsellor occasionally asking 'And how does that make you feel?' I think it is a product of the post sixties relativism who's first question is 'Who am I to tell anyone what to do?' so they have no opinions, or at least, can't express them and you are stuck, effectively talking to yourself for 50 minutes, which I could do just as well at home. On top of which I never had any real sense that they really knew what I was going on about. A couple tried to hypnotise me but apparently I am not very suggestible...

Insights there were though, over the years - some profound and far-reaching, others very specific.
In my first year at poly, faced with assignment deadlines I kept myself awake nights worrying about whether I'd complete the work in time but I remember one night the simple phrase 'You'll manage' popping into my head and, more importantly, feeling true. I did always manage and, considering my lamentable record with appointments hitherto, I can proudly say I always did manage to get my assignments in on time throughout my lengthy academic career and without much hassle, and I got good marks. If this is an example of the work of the 'higher power' I'm all for it. More on that later.

Another epiphany happened when I was thinking about going back to uni to pursue the thing I'd always wanted to do - marine biology (I had applied when I was 18, and was accepted both at Plymouth and Portsmouth, with nothing more than two passes at A level because, I assume, of my obvious enthusiasm for the subject. I didn't even pass of course, so that was that.) I remember I was about 29, on the phone to admissions at Bangor and it was all sounding a bit intimidating, but I remember thinking so clearly - 'Well other people do it. Why not me?' and I did. I got in, and I did well.

The power of those two epiphanies has not been lost on me and I have tried to find others to get me through the other things I've been up against but without success. They don't turn up to order. The exact form of words is crucial I think - the phrase has to chime with what I already know or it's just a platitude, and I suspect the phrase has to be tailored to the individual. This is why those positive thinking mantras - 'I am capable... I am beautiful... I am loved...' don't often work. They don't ring true. Also, my phrases were quite humble. I wasn't saying I was brilliant or better than other people - only that I was at least as good as other people, which, deep down, I do believe. This is why competition doesn't motivate me (or not in a good way). I'm more than happy just to put in a reasonable show and if I am especially good at something, setting myself against someone else won't make me better - quite the opposite usually as anxieties get in the way. I hear people lamenting that their team was beaten in the final and I think 'But they're second best (or third, or fourth even) - in all the world, out of how many contenders? Surely that's something to be proud of?' But no - I guess I've missed the point.

A weirder revelation concerned social events where everybody is sat around a table (at a dinner party or at a pub for example). Previously I had always felt that the conversation tended to split apart either side of me, leaving me out, sitting in the middle, unable to join in with either. On that day though, also in Bangor, the image came to me of a rocky headland with the waves swirling around. The conversation I saw eddied and flowed around the people, heaving in and out, and I had the image of myself waiting almost passively for the conversation to return and flow in my direction, as it inevitably would if I relaxed and let it happen. I can't say I have never felt left out in a social situation since but on those occasions either someone has been monopolising the conversation, or I've had to go up and introduce myself to strangers - something I still can't do, or there has been a lot of background noise or music and I've not been able to hear what's being said. I've only discovered quite recently I have quite a lot of trouble with my hearing, which is a problem but good to know. Now I know I'm isolated partly because I can't hear well, rather than because people don't want me around.

On a more prosaic level my life was completely changed during my early twenties by my girlfriend buying me a canvas shoulder bag. Hitherto I was forever forgetting my keys, my money and any number of other things I needed. After that I always had them on me, along with a phone book, a note book, a pen and a diary and I've been at least as reliable as the other people I know ever since. Its latest incarnation now also contains my phone, my glasses, some tissues, Solpadol and a shopping bag. It sounds silly but without it I'd be lost. But of course a hand bag is another thing blokes aren't supposed to carry. Why?

There was another very powerful realisation quite recently that occurred when I was trying to put my polytunnel together. It's a big commercial job - 9m x 28m - and I was struggling alone with one of the enormous galvanised steel curved frames, trying to fit it together, making myself miserable, thinking 'If this is how bad it is with the first one, think how many more I have to do. I'll never get it done. It'll take forever.' As it was my brother came and helped and it turned out that the one I had tried was a bit bent so it wouldn't go together - the others weren't, and went together fairly easily. (That one I tried to put together first is still lying about unused.) My brother and I worked on getting the frame up. It was awkward but far from impossible and of course it got easier as we went on and got more experience. That last phrase sounds obvious but it had honestly never occurred to me before. Previously I had attempted things and if they did not go right pretty quickly I gave up, frustrated and humiliated. This was not due to any laziness on my part - I think it was because when I had tried to learn things with my dad as a child he quickly got impatient with my kak-handed efforts. He believed if I simply followed his instructions I should get it right more or less immediately, but of course, learning is not like that. People have to work things out for themselves, in their own way. The first one always goes slow. I can't believe I didn't know that before, but it does show how powerful the ways of doing things we are brought up with can be and how they can curtail more intelligent ways of approaching things. It was big lesson for me and did wonders for my self-esteem.

There have been other sillier realisations - like you're not allowed to go to bed in the afternoon, or spending all day at home is wrong. The former I overturned one day at Bangor. I used to get in from uni knackered, and force myself to go out again and socialise, or more often, berating myself for not having anything planned for the evening - giving myself a hard time for all the things I wanted to do but wasn't getting on with. Then one day I stripped to my underwear and lay down in bed and concentrated on my breathing. Just like that. The sky did not fall in. I was not zapped by a thunderbolt, and I did it again, regularly. I got up refreshed, usually after about 15 minutes (or sometimes I fell asleep, but that was ok - obviously I needed it) and carried on. I don't know where that prohibition on going to bed in the afternoon came from - maybe my mum's depression when I was little. It's the kind of thing my relations would have forbidden her back then. But it's not the beginning of the end, as they feared. I still don't do it often enough - I still thrash myself to 'get on' but when I do, it's such a relief.

A similar thing is hunger. I've only realised quite recently how much hunger affects my mood, and that probably only because for the first time in my life I've had a fairly predictable routine so I can identify the patterns. I used to come home from work absolutely furious with something, or nothing - making up arguments in my head, out of nowhere. And at other times too - when I'm at work doing something strenuous and pushing myself to get something finished. I could end up absolutely spitting chips (as the Aussies say) and I'd often hurt myself and break something in the process. Then I realised I was just hungry. I wasn't stopping for lunch or packing myself enough to eat. I didn't experience it as hunger in the normal sense - that rather pleasant feeling of the anticipation of a good meal - but as pure unreasoning fury. I wonder how common this is? Quite, I suspect. I noticed it in the kids if I was late with the dinner - the mindless bickering and tantrums just before they sat down to eat, then just as quickly gone once they'd filled their bellies. Of course, saying to them (or me before I realised) 'It's not a real problem - you're just hungry' makes it worse because you feel your genuine grievances are being dismissed, but it's true nonetheless and I wonder how common a problem it is - in these days of  the perpetual diet - how much people are unreasonable and impatient just because they never eat enough? Plus how much it affects the ability to look after themselves of people in poor countries?
Tiredness and hunger - I know now that these affect my mood. Also drinking the night before, which makes me depressed sometimes for 48 hours after. I don't have to get drunk (I'm a real lightweight) and it's not a real hangover (I know what they're like) I just know, if I push myself on when I am tired or don't stop to eat, or have had a few drinks the previous day I'll be clumsy and irritable. And I didn't see the pattern 'til I hit my mid 40s.


About three years ago, I think it is now, I was handling life with Emma and her family so badly that I went and got some serious help. I started taking anti-depressants and went to have CBT (on the NHS)
The former I had resisted for years. I even filled a prescription back in Southampton when my Phd was falling apart but I never took them. This time I did, and, like the going to bed in the afternoon, the sky did not fall on my head - life went on, and it was ok. More than ok. Nothing much changed except that feeling I had most days, that I might start crying at any moment, went away, and one way or another I am handling things better. I don't know how much it's placebo effect and how much it was just about making the decision to be better, or how much it was the CBT, but I am better. I think I may have lost a bit of sex drive, but then, I am 52 this year. Maybe it's that.

The CBT was a big thing though and although it's not by any means solved everything I think it's been a good start. It started actually when Emma bought me a self-help book - a form of literature I'm generally highly sceptical of but I read this one. It's called Overcoming Low Self-Esteem by Melanie Fennell and I thoroughly recommend it. It uses CBT methods and I knew it was on the right track when it described low self-esteem thus - Most of us - people without low self-esteem - see their successes and failures as individual, more or less isolated events, in a sea of normal life. People with low self esteem though see their failures as somehow typical of them - as if those isolated events are all part of a continuous sea floor of inadequacy, hidden under the surface.
I've never been sure about my self esteem. On the one hand, as I've said I feel pretty good about myself - my abilities and my motives. It's only when I have to face the world I feel inadequate. On the other hand, when I am giving myself a hard time for some over-sight I do genuinely see myself as a useless waste of space, as my parents and teachers no doubt did in similar situations, and at the same time I feel utterly wretched - an irredeemable failure. I'm not sure which is the more basic state. I have a sense of them both coexisting in my mind somehow. Perhaps this is the 'damaged sense of self' of which you speak, Vincent?
I should insert here a word about another book I read in my 20s called I'm Ok, You're OK, by Thomas A. Harris which didn't really change me but which gave me the image of the Child/Parent/Adult which I've found such a useful way of visualising my mind ever since. It's a basic text of a therapeutic system called Transactional Analysis (ie thinking about the transactions between the three persons in this unholy trinity). Even the title I find encouraging - not 'I'm Great, You're Great' (or even 'I'm Great, You're Rubbish') as you might expect from other self-help/motivational publications. No, we're all just more or less ok, and that's fine. It seems a more achievable, even-handed sort of way of looking at life. Most people with real depression or self-esteem issues would give anything just to feel ok.

Anyway, I don't know that either book solved anything in themselves but they laid a sort of groundwork for a way of thinking about life. I don't want to try to describe all the minutiae here but I think the biggest thing for me was the reinstatement of the Adult in my thinking.
That term 'The Adult' needs to be stripped of all connotations of authoritarianism or egotism here. In this context it simply means a more detached but interested persona, compassionate but not caught up in the moment. It has a wider perspective on life than the other two, and can see things a little more clearly. Previously my life had been a battle between the Child that simply wants to do things and the Parent that says it can't - exactly as I've described in the previous instalments. My Adult, as I have been aware of it before, was usually a woman, interestingly, because I guess I don't feel comfortable in the masculine world, but her voice, though I knew it to be right generally, was drowned out by the other two. She had no power. This is what I mean when I say I in many ways feel good about myself, but that that is irrelevant when it comes to putting myself out there in the world. My opinion has no power when everyone else can just say whatever they feel like and don't have to even make sense if it doesn't suit their purposes.
What the CBT did more than anything was to bring my Adult forward. First up it turned into a man, but not an ugly, smelly, piss-taking, traditional man, but a man like me - sensitive, reasonable, well-meaning, hopeful, flawed, certainly, but not a bastard. Secondly it rehabilitated my Child, which I had hitherto always seen through my Parent's eyes as a weak clumsy gormless misfit - in other words with contempt and dismissal. Now I revisited my child. I looked at old photos and I thought about the things I'd been into when I was young - that optimistic, creative, original, compassionate person I was from the start and I saw the story of my life as this attempt to put that into practice - though in many ways I had failed - it had been a brave effort. It had got twisted and bent into all sorts of odd shapes but it had always been about trying to do something good, and not in an egotistical self-aggrandising way, but in a way that dearly wants to share something and make things better. If this sounds like boasting - if you're cringing there, please don't. This doesn't mean I am unaware of how I have fucked up over the years, but one of the most important things I learned in those sessions with the CBT guy - the most important thing probably - was the importance of compassion, and how it is often those who have fucked up the most that deserve the most compassion. That sentence still has the power to make me tearful here and now. The power of my Adult is in compassion. (Pass me a tissue someone.)

I know I still have a problem with compassion for my Parent. I know they struggled, my actual parents, and no doubt did what they thought best. And they were not monsters by any stretch of the imagination. I know they had their own problems - probably very similar ones to mine, though they'd never admit it. But they did some bloody stupid things - things they should have noticed - leaving a child alone with his depressed mother for the first five years of his life and then not understanding when he did not turn out 'normal'. And then, when others looked down upon him for being strange, not being on his side against them but tacitly joining in the tirade. And then, when I really started to screw up, half way through my A levels, the only remedy anyone ever tried on me was anger. Surely, if you love your children, if you care about your students, you'll try anything to help them out? But they never tried to find out what was going on - just assumed I just couldn't be bothered. I still find all that very hard to forgive.

I don't know what's to be done about it. I feel an apology would help, but dad is dead and mum will probably never let her guard down enough. My mum and I are closer now and I know she has regrets. She tries. She has supported me all the way with the nursery - something they never did with my academic career (they didn't even ask about it). I guess running a business - even a loss-making one - makes sense to her in a way academia never did.
I'm fairly sure that finding compassion for my parents and those other members of my family and friends, teachers and bosses, would put the voice of my Parent in its place and might finally solve this problem, but I still don't know how to do that.

Finally, there is this writing, which I seriously think might already be helping me - getting it all down in one place, where others might look at it - finding the best form of words to describe things as accurately as possible. It already feels like it might have been a good thing to do.

Twenty sessions - coincidentally the number of CBT sessions normally provided for free by the NHS. Seems about right...

Friday, 19 September 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 19

So - nearly done here. I've been mulling over this entry because I want to tie up all the loose ends as much as possible - not have to slink back and add things later.

The first thing that has to arise is the question - why me? Lots of people experience less than great parenting and manage to hold down a job, a social life and generally function in the world. Most teenagers rebel. Most people try to be different to their parents in some way. Many people are pissed off at the world. What makes me different?

First up, as I said at the beginning, I certainly don't think I'm unique, and my situation might actually be far more common than anyone imagines. Mostly though, we just don't talk about it. Why? Well that's a topic for the final instalment.

I think the explanation is around the idea that my upbringing was unusually consistent and uncompromising. It had no dilution, counterbalance or contradiction.  There was just this one pure message from my family. I got used to being isolated as a small child and when the opportunity to stretch out and meet other people came (at five) I didn't know what to do with it. So I carried on being isolated because it was what I knew, and it is still the state I feel most comfortable with (though not most happy).

What was that consistent and uncompromising message? Initially I think it must have been simply that I was smaller, weaker, more ignorant than other people because I was a child among adults and I had no idea there was any other way to be. On top of that, I was a problem because I was unplanned and came along at a time when life was already difficult for my parents and my mum in particular. At that time also adults did not go out of their way to let a child know it was cherished and very often they were treated as a bit of a nuisance. That's how it was - and I knew no different.
Later when I went to school and our friends and relatives began to procreate, other children seemed amoral, unpredictable and spiteful. I was told my cousins were spoilt, and I didn't fit in with them either.

I think above all my parents had a deep fear of children getting out of hand. I'm not sure where that comes from but I've had it myself (when I tried to train as a teacher most obviously. What a stupid idea!) There was this idea that if children sense they have the upper hand at all they will become uncontrollable and just take over everything in an amoral unreasoning self-centred rampage. (Dad cited Lord of the Flies). For them children must always be kept in their place. Anything that smacks even remotely of cheekiness must be quashed, and certainly absolutely no argument or criticism can be tolerated. The parents authority is paramount (even when what they say is plainly wrong) and has to be maintained all the time. There was a 'zero tolerance' attitude to anything that even implied that children and their parents were on any sort of level. A child could not have its say about what happened. It's views if they were at all different to the adults were ignored. My opinions and ideas were dismissed. You could ask nicely but not argue. The things I liked to do and the interests I had were trivialised. Self-confidence was seen as cockiness and bound for a fall. Wanting to do things your own way was like my dad said - like deciding one day to drive down the wrong side of the road - stupid, dangerous and ultimately pointless. Wanting to do things differently is simply incomprehensible. My mother's catch phrase was 'I just don't understand you' but I don't ever remember her asking for clarification. She didn't want to know - possibly for fear of what she might find out. Dad simply didn't listen. Things my mum has said recently (concerning the TV programme Outnumbered) tell me that she still sees children's insubordination as a threat, a humiliation and a potential disgrace. Also - not only must a child's impertinence be crushed, but its achievements must be passed over for fear it will become big-headed. They've actually told me this was what they believed. Everything therefore - all that is left - is to fit in, know your place, do as you're told.
At the same time there was a powerful urge to inculcate the child into the ways of the world as the adult saw them - to prepare the child for what the adult expected - a normal man's life in my case, with a normal job, marriage etc etc and normal concerns and worries. Nothing else was admissible (or was put away as childish things). If I'd had other inputs - friends and their families and a wider world of experiences no doubt this rigidity would have simply been one influence among many. By the time I was old enough to begin asserting myself in the world I had no idea how to do it. My way of being was completely unlike anyone else we knew and my family added contempt and shame to the situation.

The fact that I never experienced anything like affection, warmth or understanding is not a surprise then. Nobody listened, or only so they could put me right. Nobody took an interest, except for a kind of baffled amazement at all the pointless things I was 'mad on'. When I started to fuck up nobody asked or listened to what I thought in a genuine attempt to understand what was going on in my life - no teacher, no relative, no family friend. I say this not in a mood of self-pity but as a simple statement of fact (and I don't think this was unusual back then). Life was about worry, and the only way to motivate a person who wasn't doing as they should was to go on at them, to tut, shrug and roll the eyes. The only explanation for my failings had to be laziness or deliberate contrariness. He just can't be bothered.

As time went I went from simple obliviousness to self-consciousness, over sensitivity (no matter that they couldn't take anything approaching criticism), defensiveness, and finally absence. Attempting to join in simply meant defeat and humiliation. I was a bad loser because defeat was not just a moment of self deprecation among friends but yet another public confirmation of how generally useless I was. Nobody was on my side. Nobody thought the best of me. Nobody believed in me. Nobody trusted me. Nobody liked me. I can't emphasise this enough - living a life with people who don't like you, or who at least, are continuously wishing you were different is a miserable existence. It's bad enough having a job where you don't fit in and can't easily leave. People who don't like you don't necessarily bully or victimise you. They may even be polite to your face, but they don't spend any more time with you that they have to. They find fault with you. They are impatient with you. They won't try to explain to you. What attention they do give you is dutiful and as brief as possible. And if something does start to go wrong they will not give you the benefit of the doubt. They give you 'the silent treatment' and hope you get the idea. My suspicion is that parents not liking their children is actually quite common and I can't help feeling that unless the child has other, warmer, more understanding people to go to it has to be hugely damaging. Nobody will admit this of course. We all love our children, don't we? But do you like them? Aye, there's the rub.

As time has gone on I have had to get through life assuming that people don't really want me around and that the way I go about things, if not necessarily wrong, is certainly not really acceptable. I remember in my mid thirties having a conversation with a house mate, Danuta, about all the things she'd done - all the places she'd travelled and I remember the look of contempt on her face when I asked her, astonished, how she'd managed to do all these things. I heard Chrissie Hynde on the radio the other day talking about how she didn't feel she had any particular talent, musically, but how she "came from a background where people just got on with it", as if it's as simple as that - no excuses - just do it. This is just something they take for granted - not just the powerful urge to do things, which I'd say I have in bucket loads. If getting on in life was just about doing the thing I'd be as accomplished as anyone. But I lack the simple mundane ability to hold down a job to raise the funds, or to get on well enough with people to make things feasible. It feels like a cruel trick - this thing that everybody else seems to take for granted - Right as much as Left wing, conformist or radical, whether it be about setting up a business or some sort of collective activity, that I don't seem to be able to do - that I don't even really understand. Again, I'm sure I'm far from alone in this but most people won't talk about it.


Finally I want to talk again about evidence - what makes this account more than just a story?
People's accounts of their lives have been said by many thinkers to be nothing but a convenient fiction - a more or less coherent narrative come up with post hoc. My feeling is that this has to be at least partly true, and what's worse, there is almost no independent corroboration that does not have its own agenda.
The fact that we can't know the whole objective truth though doesn't mean we can't know anything, or even that we can't know much. The really big question here is how honest am I with myself? We can all point to people who seem completely deluded about themselves, but even then, it may be that they are simply not conforming to what we happen to think is realistic. I don't want to get into a whole long philosophical debate right now - I just want to say that I do think it is possible for people to have a truer image of what's happened if a) they have made an effort to understand the problems involved in knowing anything and b) they believe that accepting half truths will not make things genuinely better (and they really want things to be better) and I think I fit these criteria as well as anyone. I don't want to take up space here defending either of these positions - I'm just going to assume them until I am proved wrong.
A couple of other things - I freely admit that I remember few individual incidents directly that could constitute evidence, but then, I don't think it was like that. It was a slow, heavy atmosphere rather than a series of clearly discernible events. It was never brutal or relentless. Indeed, most of my early life was uneventful and benign. The atmosphere at home was mostly neutral, but unpredictable and I was always on edge - atmospheres and silences - pent up fear - waiting to be found out, only balanced by solitude. Represented like the read-out on an oscilloscope my early life is mostly a flat line with an increasing number troughs as I enter adolescence, but there are never any peaks. The trouble is, even on the flat, the fear of going into a trough is always there at any time and is never balanced by a peak. My adolescence and early twenties were just one long worry.

The other piece of evidence is the mere fact that I experience so many of these terrible feelings - both of the Parent and the Child - derision and contempt, humiliation and shame and dismissal and all the furious and hurtful verbal abuse that goes with them - when I am dealing with myself when things don't go according to plan and also when I used to have to deal with O. These feelings, as I have said over and over again here, must have come from somewhere. The simple fact of their power over me, I think, makes them a powerful kind of evidence. They came from somewhere, or someone. Someone did that to me. 
Nor is this, I think, a far-fetched hypothesis. It is a simple, plausible and parsimonious explanation. It conforms to the known facts (however few), and does not call into play any unknown factors.
The other alternative - that this is just a random confluence of chaotic events that happen to have expressed themselves in this way, without being anybody's doing in particular, explains nothing, and I can't help suspecting that it has more to do with a need to asset the Parents' authority again, even if that means dismissing out of hand the Child's misery. Whatever else happens, the Parent cannot admit to being at fault to the Child, and unlike everyone else the Parent encounters in life, the Child can never be due an apology, because where would it all end?

But then I would say that, wouldn't I...

The next and final part(s) will be about some of the answers and remedies I have come up with over the years.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 18

These are not straight-forward questions to put answers to for one simple reason - rebellion. What has confused my thinking most over the years has been untangling all the feed-back loops and self-fulfilling prophesies that coil out whenever I try to work out what's going on.

Whenever we're trying to work out how a child is influenced by its parents we have to accept that it might simply take after them or it might go in the opposite direction. One thing I've learned from being a dad is that the best way to get a child to do something is to go on at it to do the opposite. I'm not sure that rebellion or conformity can be predicted so easily (ie as a response to learning by lecture or experience respectively) but it seems plausible. If a child simply grows up with an unquestioned way of doing things it will very likely follow suit. If you have to go on about a thing endlessly trying to put the child right, it will very likely go the other way.

I have a mixture of the two, as we all do. I've taken on especially my dad's belief in social justice, love of nature and abhorrence of waste and bad design. Dad got me into music and books and gardening. He also tried very hard, as I've said, to get me into ball games, engines, clubs and maths. He tried too hard and I simply couldn't do it, and the more he pushed the worse it got and on top of just feeling muddled and anxious about it, I got to the point where I didn't even want to try, partly to avoid the humiliation, but also on principal, because trying became more about making him feel better and I didn't think he deserved that. None of this was conscious of course but I think this is a reasonable verbal description of what was going on in my head.
As time went on, the more I failed to act like a normal boy, the more not only he but other members of my family, in particular my uncles but others too, began to get in on the act. It was not necessarily open or verbal but I had become adept at reading peoples' expressions and tones of voice and I knew what they thought - that I was not a proper boy. I was a bit effeminate, too sensitive, too arty, too soft, too different. I didn't want to join in. They didn't know what to talk to me about. I had weird interests. Sometimes I think they thought I was a bit stupid - being oblivious of what was going on - talking to myself - a bit gormless (breathing through my mouth) and slow - not really paying attention - going off on my own so people had to go looking for me. Other times though they thought I was a bit too clever - precociously coming out with abstruse facts and strange ideas, being a bit too articulate and not really like a child at all. I know some of them thought I was trying to show them up, to be better than them - too clever by half.

Early on I just lived with all this - put up with it or stayed out of the way but by the time I was 12 I was telling them (if it came up - I didn't pursue them over it) my views on marriage, money, work and having children and they didn't like what they heard. They always tried to put me right but it never worked. I was squashed and humiliated but it didn't change my mind. Eventually I came to despise almost everything about the way they lived - their preoccupations with such trivial things - matching crockery and table manners, rigid punctuality and school ties. Later, after I left home, I tried to argue with them but it never worked. My dad would simply lecture me, completely dismissing my ideas as naive or he would simply seem preoccupied and inattentive. Mum would burst into tears and run from the room if challenged on pretty much anything. At some point there came a time when almost everything they did seemed petty and pointless and not worth joining in with. Dad seemed too keen to please the bosses at work and too oppressed by all the things he had to do, and he wouldn't stand up to mum no matter what stupid things she came out with. I lost my respect for him and any wish to take after him in any way, or to take after any of them. Everything they believed - all their common sense convictions about how life should be, seemed riddled with holes and inconsistencies. It was so clear to me - parents don't necessarily know what's best for their children. Uniforms and punctuality say nothing about how good you are at your job. Marriage is a trap that kills love. Tidiness is not something to make yourself miserable about. Worrying doesn't help. Women are at least as capable as men. Who cares if a person is black or white, gay or straight? (To be fair my dad would have agreed whole-heartedly with that one.) The environment and wildlife are important even if they don't make economic sense. Much of what they enjoyed was predictable and uninspired. Money is not a good thing to base your life around. Competition doesn't necessarily tell you anything about how talented a person is. Technology is more of a problem than a solution. Most of all it seemed obvious to me that the life most of them had accepted was not really worth living and there had to be another way. Many of these things I suspect were also things they believed, but would never admit to, and looking at the list, far from having grown out of them, I find I still broadly agree with my younger self. I have not 'grown up'. I have not accepted that 'life's not fair'. I will not give in to 'reality'.

This has become a habit of mind - a reaction to the feeling of very likely being dismissed or ignored by the people I meet - I tend to distance myself from the things that most people enjoy or take for granted. Even when I started going to gigs and clubs and parties, and much as I might love the music, I could not bring myself to get caught up in the collective worship of those on stage, but watched from the side. I could not simply give in to the laddish 'fun' - the idiotic antics and blokey showing off. I didn't want to dress like anyone else - not even the punks and goths and other alternative sub cultures of the early 80s who were supposedly the rebels. It would have felt like subsuming myself under a uniform and I couldn't/wouldn't conform even to that. I wouldn't join the gang. I didn't take drugs. I didn't drink much. At work I couldn't bring myself to jump through the hoops that are expected of employees - making my 'superiors' feel that they were in charge. I couldn't simply regurgitate the expected answers when I came to write essays at uni (something my tutors almost invariably appreciated actually). I wouldn't give into any kind of power play, pulling rank, emotional blackmail, arrogance, manipulation or patronisation. The more a person pushes me to be what they want the less likely they are to get what they want. I just can't/won't do it their way just because they say so. I can get defensive, patronising, arrogant, dismissive, contemptuous or derisive or pointedly silent, just like my parents were to me.

The problem with all this is that hypervigilence I mentioned in the last instalment. I am perfectly willing to admit that I see arrogance, manipulation and patronisation probably more often than they actually exist. People probably often come over as arrogant, manipulative or patronising when they don't mean to be - it is just their manner, or maybe they're having a bad day. And even when it is actually present, as CBT guy said 'Why did you feel the need to say something?' He wasn't arguing that the person I was talking about was not being an arrogant arse (CBT guy's word for him was 'hostile'). He wanted to know what it was that made me need to try to redress the balance. (This is question 2a in the previous entry.) What did I care what he thought? He was just some guy on a web site. On the other hand, surely it's good to stick up for yourself?
In any case, my reaction can turn them against me so that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The situation escalates into a positive feedback loop. I can make people distrust me - I can make them wary and sceptical, aggressive or dismissive.

The fact though is that some people genuinely are arrogant, manipulative and/or patronising and when they are they do not make good friends or bosses or colleagues or wives. It is also a fact that some of the time it is right to stick up for yourself. I have to admit that I am hypersensitive to these slights and perhaps too likely to challenge people over them and of course a lot of the time people won't admit there's a problem and often don't want to talk about it at all, which only makes it worse for me, trying to find out what's going on, or if there's anything going on, and this has lost me friends and jobs, or at least, made them too difficult so that eventually I end up leaving to get away from the anxiety.

The simple fact is I just don't know how to tell the difference. In short I would rather lose a friend/job than feel or appear weak and malleable.
My question here is 'Is there a third way?'

So - to attempt to answer the questions in the previous entry.
1. Do I have all these faults? I'm disorganised, or I don't try hard enough to fit in, or I try too hard etc etc...
My intuition is that they are mostly just personality characteristics that can be seen in a positive or negative way. Most people I suspect would just more or less accept that this is how they are. It may be inconvenient or even downright disastrous at times but that, they would say, is how they are. They might even attempt to temper some of the worse parts and bring out some of the better but they wouldn't see their whole personality in such an extreme way. Actually, looking at the list, I quite like most of it and am not sure how much I'd want to change anyway. As I said before I'm actually pretty positive about who I am. The problem comes when who I am comes up against the rest of the world.
My problem is my reaction to my perception of how others view my character, and how they react, or seem to react, or would react if they were there to see me, and how I in turn react to that.
(Interestingly I do also have real faults - things I know I have done wrong and which to be honest, I won't be telling you about here. They feel quite different - I know they are wrong and I deserve judgement for them. In that respect they are unproblematic. I regret them and I will try my hardest not to do them again, but in a paradoxical way they don't make me feel anywhere near as bad as these other 'faults' I've been on about.)

2. Do people have these opinions and reactions or not?
2a. If so should I care? Should I stand up for myself?
2b. Or am I just being hypervigilant (ie over-sensitive)?
I still don't know.

to be continued...

Saturday, 13 September 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 17

I think most people I know now would echo Vincent's advice that 'there is no need to judge ourselves by anyone else's standards, let alone "official targets"' (comments ~ part 15) It's something we've come to live by, especially since the sixties - to be yourself - not worry what anybody else thinks or says. Authenticity, naturalness, truth to one's self. We admire the creative, the original, the individual, and despise the toady, the yes man, the sell-out. Almost more than anything, we find people who try too hard to be popular almost repulsive - too needy, too desperate. We are contemptuous of attention seeking behaviour.
And yet often those exact same people will turn around and tell me I'm being too intense, too serious, too sensitive, too angry - that I should just accept things the way they are, be more socially acceptable, be more normal, fit in more. In short - to not be myself.
Which is it to be guys?

Of course like most things it depends on the circumstances. Sometimes being ourselves makes us more socially acceptable, sometimes not. What the Be Yourself advocates forget is that some individuals are more socially acceptable than others. When we think of the people who are admired for being themselves we think of artists and wits, geniuses and national treasures, glamorous and enigmatic, not the embarrassing guy at the party who always ends up saying something inappropriate or the woman who invariably gets into arguments and brow-beats everyone with her opinions. We love the witty and sexy individualist but loathe the quiet and awkward misfit.
When you think about it, none of this should come as a surprise. It's inevitable as a social species that some things will be socially acceptable and some won't and those things change over time and from place to place and even from one social situation to another and can be quite arbitrary. Some people seem very adept at adapting to these different situations, others - not so much. Ultimately, you can be yourself as much as you like, as long as you don't mind having no job, no friends, and possibly getting arrested. Most of us I expect would like to be ourselves and yet also have friends, have a job and stay out of jail. 
The other end of the spectrum is to try always to be as normal as possible - to never do anything that might conceivably offend someone, or appear like you're showing off or trying to be better than everyone else. The change over from the Know Your Place society to the You Can Be Anything If You Want it Badly Enough society happened during my childhood. 

I bring all this up because I've always had terrible difficulties with fitting in. My dad, after becoming aware of what autism was, put it to me that perhaps I was autistic. I was offended partly because I knew well what autism was (I did care work for many years) and apart from being socially awkward I had none of the characteristics. I was also offended because his suggestion showed he had so completely failed to understand me. Mainly though I was offended because it neatly let him off the hook parenting wise. I'm sure he thought I objected because I didn't want to know the truth. Something about my dad made him hard to argue with. 

I don't think I was particularly inhibited as a small child and would have been singing and dancing and talking to myself incessantly wherever we were, or making up a little game - pretending to be an animal most likely. But at some point quite early on - certainly by the age of eight, I became incredibly self-conscious and wouldn't do anything that might draw attention to me. Anything that involved any kind of public performance (PE for example, or learning tricks or games) made me sick with worry. I didn't want to join in with the singing and dancing at family parties and would never in any way 'show off'' for fear of being shown up. I didn't start conversations or tell jokes. I didn't feel I could go up to other children and make friends, because why would they want me hanging around? I expected to be seen as a nuisance and an embarrassment. I did weird things. I didn't talk about normal things. I didn't do things the way everybody else did them. I don't remember anything in particular that might have caused this change but I do know how it felt - it felt as if people would shake their heads and roll their eyes and tut at me, that they would give up on me, pretend I wasn't anything to do with them, and make little jokes perhaps among themselves. Even if they tried to involve me there was something so laboured, so dutiful, so exasperatedly patient about it. I knew they didn't really want to - just felt they ought to, and honestly it was better to just stay out of it - to go somewhere away and do things on my own. I didn't ever try to work out what exactly it was I was doing wrong. There didn't seem to be much point because there didn't seem to be any pattern to it.

As my life has gone on, when things get difficult I find there is always some way in which how I am is somehow at fault, and it can never be blamed on anybody else in any way, because that is just making excuses. Even when the problem is unequivocally because of something someone else has done, it is still my fault for not having allowed for it. For example, since I've been ill I've had to go to the doctor about my ears. I was talking to my mum about it and she was going on at me about hassling them to give me an earlier appointment. I actually think there's nothing much more I can do about it but I quickly came to feel it was my fault for not hassling, rather than the NHS's fault for not getting its act together. When I was bullied at school (hardly at all really, but I was always very afraid of tough boys) it was my fault for not standing up to them. In every situation, under any circumstances, there is this voice telling me how my way is at fault, because I'm disorganised, or I don't try hard enough to fit in, or I try too hard. My ideas are weird and unrealistic. I say inappropriate things. I come over as too intense and serious. I am arrogant and opinionated. I am paranoid and over-sensitive. I think too much. I don't fit in. I am defensive. I am naive. I get angry about things I can't change. On and on... it is how I am that the problem - no one else. It's just me. 

At this point I have to ask (1) Do I actually have all these faults or (2) am I just incredibly sensitive to others' opinions?
If (1) then are they really faults or just personal characteristics? Could they equally well be turned slightly in the light to a more positive view? (I am self-sufficient and independent. I am individual and original. I am spontaneous, creative and open-minded (not a characteristic of autism). I am good at reasoning things out. I am in touch with my feelings and those of others (also not a characteristic of autism). I am right to be angry about some things. I am idealistic. I have a strong morality.)
If (2) then to what extent do people really have these opinions of me (2a) and to what extent is it just what I've come to expect from past experience (2b)?
And if it is their opinions (2a), why should I care what they think?

This needs laying out as a diagram. I don't know how to do that so you'll have to bear with me.

According to some I'm really not that different to other people and nowhere near as bad as some (comments ~ part 14). We all have our foibles. In that case the problem would be 2b - my perception of the nature and power of others' opinions of me. This is not a trivial problem. Others' opinions are enormously powerful to me - even when I think (or know) they're wrong. They have a power mine don't, even when I am convinced I'm right and I am horribly susceptible to them. It's what my CBT guy called hypervigilance. I see potential bad reactions everywhere and they really worry me. I don't really trust anyone. Children who grow up in homes where things can go bad at any time become hypervigilant - so they know to get out of the way in time, but ex military and victims of violent crime also become hypervigilant. Some call it paranoia (which I have also been accused of) but I think that's slightly different. I think paranoia is more of a delusional state but I'm sure the two grey into each other. 

2a. The idea that a person can go through life cheerfully oblivious of others' opinions is insane. As I keep saying - we are social beings. Almost all of us want to be among friends. We want to be accepted. Irrespective of whether the way I am is actually objectively wrong, it is hard to go through life alone - not able to rely on the help or support of others - material or emotional. Compromises and negotiations have to be made all the time. The problem is if your whole view of life is somehow at odds with almost everyone else, or at least, too at odds to work out long term. This is where the question of acceptance comes in - how much should a person just accept of the way the world is and how much should one be prepared to change, simply in order to fit in, even when one thinks the world is wrong?
How much can a person change? More profoundly, if so much of how a person is is wrong, should they try to be a different person? Is that even possible? 
If not, how much can a person pretend to be someone else? I'm rubbish at it, I know that.  

Finally (1) if I really do have these 'faults', what can I do to come to terms with them? Can I find a way of habitually seeing their more positive perspective, or, if they genuinely are faults, again, how much can I change? Or can I in some way come to accept myself, faults and all?
A lot of questions there for next time.

to be continued...

Monday, 8 September 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 16

Not feeling too well today so forgive me if I'm less coherent than usual.

Where was I?
(What? Oh it's just some inner ear thing - a bit dizzy and queasy. I'm on the mend now, thanks for asking.)

Today I just have a couple of small items to clear up before I begin to draw the whole thing together (the end is in sight)

Firstly, as I mentioned I do have various odd health issues - nothing huge, but inconvenient. When I was a kid I had terrible allergies, as I mentioned before - horrible itchy blebs on my body and sneezing every morning until my nose bled. The sneezing was mainly an autumn thing so probably fungal spores. The itching was a food allergy and I went for tests in my teens but it was not til my thirties when I requested my medical records that I really identified the problems - salicylates and benzoates - both occurring naturally in fruit and especially fruit products but also added as preservatives to many processed foods. Salicylates are also the active ingredient in aspirin. I remember my mum attempting to tackle the issue when I was at home, but I don't think we really understood just how widespread the substances are (juices and soft drinks, sauces, jams, pie fillings, cider, Chinese and Indian take-aways, vinegar etc etc.) It wasn't until I was in my 30s I really got to grips with it and it's hardly troubled me since. I can now consume most things in small amounts from time to time, and a few (citrus products, good red wine) I can consume normally.
The sneezing petered out at some point - not sure when - when most houses weren't damp any more I expect, but the reason I'm telling you this is because autumn is still a peculiar time for me - still subtly debilitating. I have to shower before bed or I lie there, cold and sort of hypersensitive in my skin and can't sleep. My mum has a lot of allergies - I probably get them from her. Neither my dad nor my brother do.
More recently I've begun to get migraines. It was a while before I got them diagnosed because there's no light sensitivity, but they used to lay me out for the better part of a day, unable to move much except to go to the loo and dry heave my eyeballs out. They were exactly like my hangovers (I'm a total lightweight where alcohol is concerned) but since they turned up when I hadn't had a drink that theory was out. Eventually I realised they happen if I work too hard the day before - running on empty - pushing myself on to get things finished when I really should stop. These days I pace myself more and I have a lot less bad head days, but I still get them, and now I have this dizziness thing. I think I maybe get this 'head stuff' from my dad who used to get migraines and my bro gets cluster headaches which, if anything, sound much worse so I think maybe I get that from my dad's side of the family.

Thinking about these vague, chronic conditions - I think they've contributed to some of the mental problems I've described. I start a new job alert and eager to please. It's ok for a while then somehow I just feel so tired and irritable and I don't want to have to deal with people, I can't think clearly, I don't want to try to tackle anything new, and I just want to go off somewhere and be on my own. Sooner or later I simply lose energy and/or confidence and that's it. And nobody wants to employ someone like that in a demanding full-time role or even a repetitive job where you have to concentrate (like a friend of mine who was paid minimum wage to stare at a conveyor belt all day picking off misshapen vitamin pills - my idea of hell).
I don't know which comes first - my lack of confidence about getting things done or the physical tiredness. Presumably they feed off each other but either way, I can easily bring to mind many occasions when this problem has lost me a job. It can also affect your social life because people expect you to be more or less consistent and they get funny about it if you have an off day, let alone an off three months. A friend of mine is the same and he calls it a kind of bipolar condition. I guess there's a spectrum. We're all variable - some more than others. One thing I don't have is SAD - I can be just as miserable in summer as winter. My feeling is that it is my doubts and anxieties that cause the problem because if I have something to do that I feel good and confident about I have loads of energy and can be very creative and positive.


Speaking of which, the other thing I wanted to get out the way is my generally positive demeanour. Yes you read me correctly - positive and creative - that's me. I've never been short of ideas and plans and I've always been hugely ambitious and aspirational (before those words became tainted with greed and egomania). I don't really know where I get this from because as I said at the start, my family always thought I should keep my dreams small and unremarkable. Nevertheless I have always thought I could do great things. I always thought I could be... exceptional. I don't know where this comes from. I can't think of one relative, teacher, employer, family friend, who ever looked at what I did and said 'You know what - you've got a real talent for this. You could do something with this...'
And I don't want to boast here but I've always known I could do things - they just came naturally - like this - the writing, and I've always been able to draw and make things in clay, make up stories and characters and scenery, and learn about things in books and think things through and invent new things, more than most people I think. I've just sort of taken it for granted - not in a competitive way - it never occurred to me to think of myself as superior until people started insisting I was inferior - inferior for not being realistic, and not being interested in normal things like football and money. So I learned that I had to do my things on my own, in my own way, because however good I might feel about myself it didn't count for anything in The Real World. Everything I've learned to do I've learned to do on my own, away from critical deriding eyes, only coming out when I've got the hang of it. Obviously this means collaborating or working as a team is out, which I learned early on just means being side-lined. It has nothing to do with how good your ideas are - just with how willing you are to talk over people. This is also why I never developed the 'I'll show you' mentality so lauded by self-made people. I just knew there was no point. Even if I did prove them wrong there was no way they'd admit it. They'd find some way to dismiss my efforts or make something up about how I'd cheated or not done it the proper way. The only way to get any recognition was to just do it their way, and then they could congratulate themselves on their teaching skills.

So how I got this much self-esteem I don't know, but I have a hunch. It's why I'm writing this - because I believe things should be better, and that's something I get directly from my dad. He was quite aspirational himself, certainly compared to most of the family and was a pretty independent minded man, and I believe he had high hopes for me. Unfortunately, as I've said before, his hopes were quite conservative (a better job, more financial security etc) not self fulfilment, originality, individuality (another tainted word unfortunately) etc and certainly not in doing anything at all 'Way Out', so he didn't recognise anything of lasting value in what I did, which I think is an immense shame.

to be continued...

Thursday, 4 September 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 15

This time I want to talk about friends.

Since Emma left for Canada I've been pleased to discover how many I seem to have. I still find it hard to believe. I don't really trust anyone - or rather - I'm perhaps too trusting when I'm actually with making friends but always ready for things to turn sour somehow, as I described last time in connection with 'the workplace'. Sometimes I just think I'll say something inappropriate and people will be going 'What was that all about?' 'What do you think he meant by that?' and people will decide they've had enough, or sometimes I can get quite intense, talking about this sort of stuff - how I feel etc, or get into some sort of debate and things will start to go wrong. I feel I have two options - to stay quiet and out of the way or to be 'Me' and be outspoken. The former is unfulfilling - even pointless, the latter regularly makes me cringe. The third option - what most people seem to go for - is various sorts of small talk, chit chat, banter, and I've always wished I could do that, but like holding down a steady job, it seems beyond me. Maybe it is why I can't hold down a steady job. Most relationships, personal or professional are based on a certain amount of empty talk. I'm not putting it down - I think it has a very valuable function as a kind of social cement. Without it there is awkward silence or the Deep-and-Meaningfuls, or just no connection at all.

I think, being such a loner as a child I probably grew up with this unrealistic dream of what having friends would mean. I like that phrase - 'just hanging out'. I like the aimless comments, the dumb jokes, the light flirtation, the casual affection and companionable mickey-taking, but I don't think I've ever actually been able to do it for very long. I've always felt the need to talk about things, otherwise it can feel like a waste of time. After all - my head is so full of stuff - and not just hard heavy stuff - there are stories, images, dreams, fantasies, characters. Why can't people talk about that stuff instead of just this small talk? Why not talk about ideas and imaginings? Books and music and life and... But I've tried and people don't want to. People get intimidated or competitive. Witty banter is the best alternative but it can get boring if one person is holding forth, or uncomfortable if it gets spiteful. Good banter is far rarer in real life than on the box and I think I got a lot of my idea of what being with friends would be like from The Monkees, MASH and Happy Days than from any actual people I knew. I can imagine loners these days growing up thinking being friends would be like being in Friends and growing up feeling they were missing out on something. Life is elsewhere, as they say.
The best I've known, interestingly, has been sharing a house, where we just coexist, maybe do The Big Shop together, watch telly, or go to our rooms and spend time alone. Sometimes we even sat and talked about stuff, if we happened to be in the kitchen at the same time perhaps, but there was no pressure. It wasn't a social occasion. We didn't have to say anything. I had something that with Z and O until we all parted company a week or two back. No pressure. Silly jokes and household business, comments in passing. Nothing heavy. I miss that.
Women too, I've always found it easy to be friends with, and not because there was no sexual frisson. Looking back there probably was and maybe it was good because I tended to assume nothing was going to happen (when actually, looking back, that might have been my own low self-esteem. Actually quite often, something might have happened, I just didn't really believe it at the time.) Actually if I'm honest I suspect I benefited from the fact that feminism has not completely expunged women's deference to men and they were more willing to listen to a man, and less likely to get competitive. No doubt that will change, as it should. Anyway, being friends with a woman can change the power relation and that makes things easier.
Perhaps too easy. A recurring theme is that most of my long-term girlfriends, though excellent people - warm and generous and intelligent and funny - really should have been best friends because I did not really want them sexually. But I was too needy and I got too involved (and, initially at least, too sexually frustrated) and I allowed it to become a long term relationship. But you see at the time I feared no one else would have me, and the more passionate and sexual relationships I did find imploded pretty quickly (mostly due to my insecurity), and I fell back on settling for a warm and caring but sexless relationship (with a scattering of infidelity). This was unfair to them who should have been looking for someone to really love them, and to me who should have had more faith in his own desirability.
My feelings of undesirability didn't leave me until I was in my early forties when I suddenly realised two things - that I'd had quite a lot of sex with women who I did desire along the way and that those women I had had longer times with, who truly loved me and were perfectly desirable too - just not to me. Suddenly I realised I was as desirable as anyone and everything changed. Suddenly I realised I was ok on my own, and that's a good place to be when a real relationship comes along.

So at the moment, as I say, I feel pretty good about the way things are. The nursery actually has given me more of a sense of being a part of a wider scene than I think I've ever known at any other time in my life. It has to do with feeling competent and confident in what I do. I can go to some of the plant fairs (yes there are such things) around the country and people seem impressed with what I do, or I can go on line and find that what I do is of interest and my knowledge is respected and I can be friendly and confident in a way I don't remember being at any other time in my life. I've also found other, non-horticultural friends - old friends who know me well and still seem to want to spend time, and new friends I've met on line, and frankly I'm slightly amazed. And I have a wife who I genuinely (mostly) believe loves me, even though she's moved to Toronto and who I trust, as much as I trust anyone. And her kids and I are close and their dad and his partner are good friends too (It's all very Modern Family). And my brother is about as close to a best friend as I've ever had. And I call on my mum now when I'm in trouble, like this week, when I've been sick, and Sam, one of Emma's friends is doing some shopping for me and Richard who helps me with the nursery has gone to do the watering. Finally there's Miss Green who pays me well for my gardening expertise despite my not being the most punctual or biddable of employees and has also supported the nursery.

I've had so many 'friends' over the years that were frankly a struggle to relate to somehow - people more like me probably, who I shared a lot more tastes and interests with, but I've come away feeling always that I've done something wrong (me, not them), that I've been too intense or inappropriate in some way. Somehow I've always blamed myself, because although they have perhaps been sarcastic or competitive, judgemental or arrogant, I've always thought I deserved it, or I shouldn't be so sensitive. I've never, oddly, ever been a misanthropist or curmudgeon because I always give people the benefit of the doubt but never myself. Everyone else is somehow more grown-up than I am, more socially acceptable, more worldly, so even when they behave badly it is me that is at fault because I don't handle it well. I should know better. I shouldn't be so soft.
Very occasionally I come across someone who seems even more socially inept than I am and I am sad to say I have found myself treating them with the same disregard. This is the hard truth in all this - that the victim becomes the perpetrator and back again, Child and Parent, we inherit both sides. As I said before I was both the young boy cowed by his elders and the parent glowering at O, and when I have met men (and it is always men) who seem weaker than I am, I can be the patronising and overbearing one.
This doesn't make it alright - quite the opposite. I don't want to be dominant or submissive. I dearly want to be more or less equal, or at least comfortable. I'm not interested in competition, not because I have no competitive side to me but because it feels ugly. I never feel it makes a good basis for a relationship. Some do I know, but I think it throws up barriers. Even in good natured exchanges I don't like to be always thinking about how I can get one over on the other. It's not a good feeling. And yet I love the debate...

Always I fear things falling apart. At the moment I am marvelling at the number of people I seem to have as friends and I am ignoring that fear. I live optimistically. (I can't be accused of not enjoying the moment.) Maybe this time it won't happen - I won't feel myself getting further and further away from them as the inappropriate reactions and uncomfortable moments begin to pile up. I'm ignoring it for now. I don't want to think about it. I'm not letting it cross my amygdala and thus it remains a theoretical issue rather than a worry - what my mum would call sticking my head in the sand. Maybe that is the best way to cope with life, but as usual I can't seem to help wishing I could make it different next time. That's what I'm here for - writing this - trying to find a way to make it different next time.

to be continued...