Friday, 12 December 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ epilogue

A great deal has happened over the last few months. The most striking thing is that for the first time for as long as I can remember I have stopped going over things in my mind, trying to get straight how my life has been and how I've come to be this way (as described in the previous 20 instalments of This Time it's Personal). Quite suddenly it seems I have nothing more to add. Perhaps this is in itself a sign of mental health - that I have become like other people - that I have stopped obsessing and trying to work things out and accepted that it's pointless. On the other hand, perhaps it's because I have in fact finally worked things out. Imagine that! I tend (of course) to the latter. I really do feel that I know, as much as anyone can, how my head works now, and where it all comes from.
I have to pause here and take in what a remarkable thing that is...

But that's not the only thing that's happened. In the last few months, as I have mentioned before, my wife moved to Canada to be an Independent Midwife. She sold the house in Henfield (jointly owned by her and her ex). The kids, O and Z (15 and 17 respectively) are with their dad and his partner in Rottingdean and I am now living in a flat about four miles down the road in Small Dole. She seems to have thought, when she decided to go, that I would simply up sticks and go with her, but I have no wish emigrate to Canada (I emigrated before to Australia so I do know a bit about these things) and I've only just got my business going.
Anyway. The fact is we'd been drifting apart for a while. I was dealing with my depression, anger and anxiety and she was exhausted and frustrated with the British system of midwifery and when I was beginning to get my head together she was planning her big move. It's a cliché for the left-behind spouse to complain that their partner has 'changed' so I can't claim any kind of exceptional circumstances. These things happen. The person you are with now is not the person you married. I think she'd have said the same about the way I was when I was going through my bad times. Probably she'll never see me the way she did when we were first together and I find that terribly sad - like I've permanently and irrevocably spoiled something lovely, and now she has moved on.

With that understood I want to surprise you by telling you I am as happy now as I have ever been in my life I think. Yes, you read that right. I am actually happy. The situation saddens me but it's not like being depressed. I went through a phase a couple of months ago just after she left when I was horribly low - much worse than I can remember probably since I was 18. I wasn't actually suicidal but I had the very strong feeling that if death came - through accident or illness, that I wouldn't feel much like fighting it. Of course all sorts of atavistic instincts might kick in if it really did happen, and I still fear pain and incapacity, but as far as I could tell, at the time, I felt that if life was suddenly over that I wouldn't miss it much. There was nothing more I felt I could do about it. The future (possibly as much future as I have had past) seemed to stretch on pointlessly. I've done what I can. I really wouldn't mind just stopping now, rather just hanging on for the sake of it.
That mood lasted I think about two weeks? Maybe a little more? Maybe it was because of the separation, maybe not. I also got very sick with an inner ear problem - taken into hospital in an ambulance with it even. Coincidence? I don't know. Probably.
But it passed. Now, here I am in the flat - a small flat with no garden - modern but quite cosy and with a view of the fields. I am officially below the poverty line but I live well, I eat well, I'm not in debt, I have everything I need, I keep the place neat and clean. The nursery is just up the road and is immensely satisfying and I go to Pool Meadow to do the gardening three days a week, as I have for the last ten years and that's more than enough plants for me to cope with. In truth the garden at Badger Copse was becoming a bit of a burden.
Ten years. That's as long as I've known my wife too. What an eventful decade. I see the kids every couple of weeks and now they are teenagers we get on pretty well, and their dad and his husband are good friends. Tonight I am going out with them and the Bro and his wife, and a chap called Andy who I met through the nursery to a Thai restaurant in Brighton, as an extended Christmas/birthday/solstice party. Last week I went to Boldre in The New Forest to meet another guy I met on Flickr who has some rare ferns for me. Another Flickr friend just sent me seed of some very rare Russian Aristolochias. I get seed from friends in Canada, Spain and California. I'll be running seed-sowing workshops via Plant Heritage in the new year. In short, I'm making friends - mainly as a result of the nursery.
I have a strong suspicion that one of the reasons I'm as content as I am now is that I am living alone. That thought makes me sad. It's possible that a large part of the reason I was so depressed/angry/anxious was that I was living with my wife and her family. This is not because they were especially hard to live with, but because I am especially sensitive to the people around me. I don't think I was aware of it before but now I know that perhaps simply the presence of another person in my living space (or work space) makes me tense - conscious of what they might be thinking - what criticisms or frustrations with how and when I do things are hanging in the air, waiting for it to come to a head - their disappointment or exasperation with me - their judgement on how I live. The fact that although she was always keen for me to be a part of family life, I couldn't escape the fact that I was living in her house didn't help. It made her the more adult partner - the grown up, with me the dependent, the child. It made me feel immature and guilty. Maybe that's why I'm so relaxed now, in my own place (albeit rented). This is sad because I always wanted to curl up with someone I loved in our place together, but maybe I'm not capable of that, or not without some chronic psychological strain. Looking back, my worst times have been when I was living with a woman. Other times were difficult mainly because I was unhappy about not having a woman but that's not an issue now.

One other thing that got me down was the feeling that I was wasting my life. I think many of us, to some extent nowadays live with the idea that to make life worthwhile we must 'make a difference' or 'gain recognition'. Others still see owning their own home or having a family as their goal in life. I stand no chance of earning enough to afford a house, and never wanted a family but if I'd got my Phd and gone on to be an ecologist I'd have fulfilled the former. Now I have neither and have run out of energy or time to make them happen. I think perhaps that's what my death-wish phase a few weeks back was about - what am I going to do with the rest of my life now? When I came out of that phase I was thinking about the possibility of just living for the day - not expecting to be doing anything big. I'm under no illusions about the nursery. I'm a purveyor of luxury goods, supplying other people's enthusiasms, but it is very satisfying. Writing is satisfying too, and I like cooking and music. Maybe now that's what my life's about. Maybe it is that inconsequential. It seems odd to reach that conclusion when I am only 52 next week but I can already feel myself losing power in all sorts of ways. The thought of now starting a new life, for example, in Canada, does not fill me with glee. So other people embrace old age with verve and vigour but then maybe they can afford to because they spent their prime doing a 9-5 job they could barely tolerate. I've spent my life doing a whole lot of things - much of it frustrating and disappointing but none of it routine or dreary and I'm ready to stop. This is something my wife did not understand when she put the idea of emigrating to me. She thought I was giving up on life because I did not want to move any more. The fact is though, that besides her being 8 years younger than me, we've lived life in different directions. She's spent her younger life bringing up kids, paying for the mortgage, holding down a steady job, and now they're old enough she's ready to go, and I totally respect that. But I've had enough of moving around. I can't do what I want to do (the nursery) unless I stay in one place for at least a decade. And in any case, I like it here.

So is my present contented state a result of the changes in my material circumstances or of my voyage of self-discovery? I honestly don't know. I gradually ceased thinking a few months before my wife left, when things were at their worst, so it's not a result of her leaving. The fact that I was able to write This Time it's Personal is probably as much a result as a cause. To be able to get it all down in one place like that is the result of all those years of introspection, but at the same time, once written and put out there for all the world to see and the sky not coming crashing down on me perhaps meant I could leave it behind.

But what I've written about in those essays is not just a description of a state of mind. Implicit in them, I think, is a new way of living. I'm not completely sure of how to describe the change (and of course I could back-slide at any time) but the strongest new thought that comes unbidden at those times when I would have felt bad before is that I am just the way I am. It seems obvious (and how many people have advised me to believe it?) but only now do I really seem to feel that that is a good enough reason to do what I do. Previously I would have dismissed the idea because of all those people who most certainly shouldn't just be who they are - bigots, rapists and torturers, and even those who simply don't care, who are contemptuous and cynical, or just lazy. Accepting yourself does not mean treating other people any old how. That would have been my dad's fear - 'What kind of hell would we live in if we all just went along with how we are?' Some people should change because they're obnoxious, but I don't think I'm one of those people. I have my faults and I regret them and will apologise for them and will try hard not to repeat them. But then there's all the other stuff I am, stuff that I've come to appreciate and understand and, yes, even love over the last couple of years. How I actually am, and how I have been, is not worthy of my dad's fears. I'm actually ok, on balance. A corollary of this is that I don't have the constant nagging feeling that I maybe should be the way other people think I should be. And feeling that I'm more or less ok as I am means that if they do disapprove, it doesn't matter too much. I don't need to explain. I don't need to try to make them understand.
All this must seem obvious to many of you. I suspect it is one of those things that most of us take for granted. They aren't aware that others don't have it, and they don't understand how those people behave as a result. It's like not understanding that some people are blind and wondering why those stupid people are bumping into things all the time. I hear successful people on the radio talking about 'just getting on with things' and 'not caring about what anybody else says' as if it's the most obvious thing in the world and all that is lacking is a little gumption. Vincent - I think this is maybe what you meant by 'A fractured sense of self' - when a person always feels that they are not right, that they should be something else, and that they can't rely on who they are to give them any confidence. This is perhaps what I'm doing here - coming to trust myself.
The phrase 'that's how I am' and that not being a bad thing has come to mind unexpectedly on a number of occasions lately. The fact that I don't have to consciously make myself say it is always a good sign in my experience. Maybe living alone again has given me the space to discover this but I doubt it would be there for me to discover if I hadn't had the chance to acquaint myself with the more objective and compassionate side of my nature I've called my Adult and his positive opinion of my Child. That was made possible by my period in CBT and it's based on a book I read 25 years ago about transactional analysis.

Finally, what of my Parent/parents? I ended part 20 talking about having more compassion for him/them too. I confess I tried that for a while and I really do understand how hard it was for them and the constraints on them being parents at a certain time in a certain place. I really do get all that, but I must say I still think they did some bloody stupid things, and it's hard to forgive.
The fact is, they just didn't think.
I caught a story on Radio 4 a few weeks back - a man talking about his father. It was one of those classic English circum-war childhoods where the father is distant and gruff and the boy always feels like a failure and a disappointment. The father had driven his son and his friends out onto the heath to look for snakes. They'd not had much luck but at the end the father was there when the son found an adder. The punch line was that, after the father died, it transpired that that day had been a wonderful and memorable day for the father. He had in fact found the adder and stood by it all afternoon so that his son would see it. The aim of the story, I guess, was the heart-warming homily that parents can really love their children even if they don't show it. What I got out of it was the stupidity of it, and the waste - that the father - for all his 'love' could not express it when it mattered - could let his child stutter and fret, believing that his father did nothing but look down on him, until it was too late and the father was gone (and the son was middle-aged and old enough to have grown-up children of his own.) What's the point of that? - not having the balls to overcome some discomfort and awkwardness in order to let your child know that you don't think he's a loser? What kind of love is that? Putting your own comfort before your son's well-being?
But my dad is gone now and it's too late to do anything about it. My mum will never be able to talk about any of this, far less apologise. Nevertheless she is by any standard making up for lost time. She has told me she is proud of me and the nursery and she does what she can to support it. She sympathises too with what has happened between me and my wife. She would have been in my position with dad, had he chosen to go and fulfil his dreams.

So I find myself, with relief, increasingly empty-headed. Finally I am ok with how I am - happy with some things and willing to let bygones be bygones with others. I don't know how the next part (half?!) of my life will go but I'm sort of ok with that too.

Since I wrote this my wife and I have properly separated, emotionally as well as geographically. It's been a sad time but perhaps because I had so much time to get used to the idea of being alone again, it's not come as a huge trauma. I think I went through that a while back when she first told me what she wanted to do, and then again after she left back in August. Now, despite some sadness, and a little anger, I find I am still feeling the same - self-sufficient and even positive. The periods of depression are brief and manageable and I'm pleased to find I still don't seem to feel that old need to explain myself. I'm probably still going to write some opinion pieces here (although the urge to do that doesn't seem as strong either) but as far as explaining myself goes, I think I'm done.