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...


Vincent said...

Well I can certainly relate to some of these things. My canvas shoulder bag for example helps me go out with all the things I need, but still it takes me a long time to get ready and sometimes I have to come back for something.

And not realizing I'm hungry & getting mysteriously irritable. That's another thing.

As for the rest, it's not entirely alien to me at all. I just want to say there is hope. I cannot substantiate that, only attest by my own faith in you that you'll get beyond any impasse by means you will discover, and by benevolent fate, which will send you a series of epiphanies , which will feel like doors opening into a new and favourable world, with little effort on your part but stepping through and appreciating what you find.

Steve Law said...

I've actually discovered that if I collect all the things I need to take in one place and then pack them up, rather than going around packing as I go, it helps. I can look at the collection and try to think what's missing. But yes - I still have to come back sometimes. There is no fool-proof method because fools are so ingenious, but one can improve. Coming back to check the stove is off is another one...

Hunger management. I'm sure many of us have problems with this but it's not something you hear about is it? And snacking on sweet things makes it worse. I need proper food - starch and protein, not sugar. Having a proper breakfast (eggs - boiled or scrambled, and/or beanz on seedy bread. Fried eggs don't work for some reason) makes a huge difference too. Porridge doesn't keep me going more than an hour, contrary to popular opinion.

Thanks - I agree - I've always been hopeful - despite all the pessimism, and strong I think, despite the vulnerability, or because of it. Paradox or oxymoron?

I hope one day there will be a part 21 when I'll be able to report that I've come to some sort of terms with my Parent, and how I did it. Is being angry with someone incompatible with forgiveness? I hope not.

And thanks Vincent for your continuing support. I do appreciate it.