“I’m really suffering right now, and I need help.”
Hard words, I suspect, for most humans to say out loud. A vulnerable Rubicon to cross if you’re a man. And a mortal sin if ever you went to boarding school.
I need help.
I only properly realised this at the weekend, and I’m only just beginning to let that confession sink in. The first half of this year went pretty well, and I really felt that I was on the mend, but this autumn and winter have been devoid of ladders and scattered with snakes. I still feel an age-old male resistance to admitting that I need help – as if it’s the most humiliating of human activities – but I can also sense a great relief in my system too. I suspect a deeper part of me has been wanting to utter those words for ages. I somehow thought I could disappear into the hills, have a breakdown, lick my wounds, put myself back together, and then reappear in a more impressive form. I’m laughing as I write – at the lonely, self-isolating, vain insanity of the project. “No man is an island” – apart from me.
Ah, I can’t do this by myself any more. I never could, I was just kidding myself – seeing how far I could get on my own. Self-isolation runs through me like Skegness runs through a stick of sticky seaside rock – both equally nutritious.
I’ve had to wade through so much shame to get to this point. And I still feel shame’s clammy, heavy presence. A childish shame at not being able to cope back then. And a manly shame at not being able to cope right now. I am meant to be able to cope. By myself. Ten-year-old me. And fifty-three-year-old me. But neither of us can cope.
I’m a proper loon right now. Last week I had two retraumatisation attacks, one hypo and one hyper, but didn’t dare tell anyone - even though I usually activate a friend to keep an eye on me until my system settled. Instead, I suffered in silence, hid myself away. I still fear friends’ impatience and judgment and suggestions. I still project my own impatience and self-judgment and discomfort onto them - and occasionally they give me coat-hangers on which to hang my projections. It can be a very messy business, this post-traumatic stress malarkey - for everyone affected and involved.
Last week I also went and sat up my favourite yew tree and told her my woes, and she blessed me with a couple of hours’ kindness. And in those precious, self-kind hours I really saw how much I am suffering right now, most of the time, and how unkind I can be, and how unconfident I am. It was hard – and beautiful – to see myself through my own kind and compassionate eyes.
Oh, my self-sense fluctuates like a drunken dodo. I literally do not know who I am any more. Sometimes I feel like a ghost without a clear job description. Sometimes I feel like an old version of myself, but more skewiff and far less optimistic. Sometimes I am so full of anxiety and dread that I could explode – or implode. Sometimes I feel entrapped by an ancient curse that will never let me go. Sometimes I feel shockingly numb and vacant – as if the essential me has fled and I’m living in and as what remains. Occasionally I even feel like a slightly new version of myself, emergent, raw, unsure, yet cradling an optimistic flame. Sometimes I find myself watching the whole show, and whispering, “This is weird – this is very weird – it’s really weird being me right now.”
I’ve been finding it increasingly hard to relate to people. I’ll be talking to a friend and then I’ll find myself watching and questioning the whole scene, and wondering if I should tell them what’s actually going on – “I’m disappearing right now, I’m losing contact...” I realise that I am very good at pretending one thing whilst something totally different is going on.
I pick up a newspaper and the world seems completely mad too, and yet I don’t really feel it – the world feels a thousand miles away, like a bad dream contained behind a wall of thick glass.
Am I in denial? Is this a form of depression? Or just another layer of my post-traumatic stress? Am I just flying through a lot of dissociative turbulence right now? Is there a slightly more heroic existential crisis underneath all of this? Am I emerging from my breakdown – as I thought I was – or am I being broken down some more? Is some of this just my portion of the collective madness of the times? What can I write on my press release?
I don’t know. And I suspect I’m not a competent judge right now.
But I’ve made a decision to write about this process, from within this process. I’m going to share this with people I know, and people I don’t know. It feels a bit risky, and yet exciting too. I have this vague hope that it might aid my sanity (haha), but also this more noble hope that... I don’t know: maybe you’re a loon too, or know a loon or two, and some of my ranting and raving might help you feel so not alone? Maybe we can even share a little kindness together along the way?
I am in unknown territory right now – I’m just opening my typing gob and seeing what comes out. I’m sure there are maps out there, but I haven’t got one at the moment. Sure, I have an amateur understanding of trauma and post-traumatic stress and “boarding school survivor syndrome,” but I don’t know how to get through this particular part of terrain. Understanding and insight are very important to me, but right now I feel like I have precious little of either.
It’s just before sunrise. I’ve resurrected the fire from last night’s embers, and the wood burner is now beginning to emanate a welcome morning warmth. I’m now back in bed. Outside, armies of bruised yet luminous clouds are rolling in from the sea, dragging a smoky mist across the distant hills. It’s going to be a wet and moody Tuesday. Fair enough.
There’s a certain peace in the room right now. There’s even peace within my mind and within my voice as I read back what I’ve written so far. Wow, I hadn’t been expecting this. I woke up this morning right inside the pit of despair, but, an hour later, I’m no longer down there. What happened? Why is life so perplexing? Why can’t I control things any more?
We have the place surrounded. Come on out with your hands in the air.
Time for breakfast, and time to check all available escape routes.
Well, the hazy sky above has now merged with the hazy sea below, the distant hills are just a leviathan swell of a shadow, and I suspect the drizzle has settled in for the day, as is drizzle’s wont and right.
Over breakfast I was wondering about this morning’s rapid change in mood – and change in self-sense too. That’s part of my current lunacy – the spin of my moods, and the spinning of my character. One thing I realised was that part of me is really happy to be writing again. That’s a fucking welcome realisation.
Last year I spent the summer on a hitch-hiking pilgrimage around Britain, and this year I began writing up the adventure but, probably a third in, the self-questioning and self-doubt set in, and then I began to feel strangely soul-less, and it all became a self-fulfilling wagon crash, wheels hurtling into ditches both sides of the inky pilgrim way.
I have become reluctantly accustomed to writing with a closed heart – and hence haven’t written much poetry recently – but when I feel my sense of soul disappear, then writing feels like a shockingly empty pastime. But without creativity and work and purpose and ink – well, the cycles rapidly become quite vicious. No wonder I’m finishing the year feeling unsure and unwell.
But to write about this post-traumatic stuff, and to write whilst it’s happening – I don’t need to have an open heart and I don’t need my soul to be fully present. Because I’m writing about a time in my life in which, more often than not, I do feel weirdly soul-less and heartless. No, heartless is the wrong word. Rather: I am aware that, for reasons I don’t quite understand, my heart is not open right now. It’s been in a self-protective holding pattern for quite a while now, ever since my mum died - over six years ago now. But who knows – maybe this writing is part of the medicine that my heart and soul both require? We’ll see.
What’s that Thomas Merton quote?
“Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and the heart has turned to stone.”
When I first came across those words a few years back, I didn’t really know what he was talking about. But I do now. At the weekend I even found myself praying out loud to the sort of God I no longer believe in, challenging him for his cruelty, simultaneously beseeching him for mercy, snot and tears dribbling out of my eyes and nose. It was more of a do-or-die boxing match than a prayer session, but I figured he was old and ugly enough to take it. “You created me!” As if he hasn’t heard that line a million times.
So, thinking out loud: I will endeavour to write a weekly entry, even if it’s on-the-hoof and short and sweet. And the main focus will be on living with – and hopefully integrating and healing – unresolved trauma in my system. I suspect most of my trauma is from boarding school, so quite a bit of this blog is going to be about boarding school too, but there are earlier knocks and traumas too, and definitely some inter-generational and collective trauma to boot. I’m sure I’ll throw in occasional psycho-political ponderings too – I can’t help myself.
On which subject: in two days’ time Britain goes to the polls, and there seems a strong chance that another fucked-up boarding school survivor will cement his position as the nation’s leader. My mind boggles. There was a Boris Johnson in every year at my school.
I just deleted a whole psycho-political rant and put away my soap box for a sunnier day.
Enough to say: I was given the poison that the ruling classes give to their children, and it very nearly killed me. Wounded leaders rarely bring health to a nation – and you can be pretty sure that somewhere down the line the most vulnerable in society are going to suffer on their behalf.
Deep breath. Hold. Gently exhale.
What’s that Thich Nhat Hanh breathing meditation?
Breathing in I calm my body
Breathing out I smile
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a precious moment
That’s the one.
One of the drawbacks of cloudy cabin days in mid-December is that the solar panel don’t pick up much sunlight, and consequently there isn’t really enough solar electrickery available to recharge my computer right now. So, through the muddy fields and seaside drizzle and down into the village for mid-morning coffee I must go, armed with all my rechargeable devices. I’m a sort of digital-analogue hobo-hermit.
I’m now down in one of the village pubs, and have spent the last couple of hours writing a letter to close friends, filling them in on what’s been going on, and asking for help. In particular, I need to change my current living situation.
Three years ago now, when I finally realised that I was suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress, I installed myself in a cabin in a field on the south coast, largely hid from the world, and resisted a break-down until I could resist it no more. Every now and then I go back to Oxford – where I lived for twenty years – for some social time. It’s a bit of a bi-polar existence – extreme aloneness punctuated by bursts of sometimes overwhelming sociability. Probably not the best combination. But one thing I’m realising about being unwell, is that unwell people quite often don’t know how to get well. I suspect that quite a few of us flounder around in the whirlpools of self-isolation and chaos and self-sabotage and shame – and all that "unattractive" human jazz – far more than the self-help books and online programmes acknowledge. I know that I can be profoundly ambivalent about getting well, and putting in the effort required, and letting go of fantasies of rescue and dramatic breakthrough. And there is definitely a strong part of me that does not want to take full responsibility for my life. Anyway, I realise that I need to settle somewhere within cycling distance of friends, and I need some paid work to cover my living costs, and I need to be in or near some nature that charms my soul, and I need to find ongoing professional support.
But the prospect of finding a new home and paid employment and settling into a new community really stresses out my system. So I’ve asked friends for support for that, as well as for healing modality advice and friendly love in general. It’s a big thing admitting how lost I am – although it’s not the first time – and it’s a massive thing asking for help, but I’m glad my resistance has been worn down. As they sometimes say, the difference between pain and suffering is often in the resistance. And I’ve resisted my disintegration lock, stock, barrel and sinker almost every step of the way – if only I’d channelled such focussed resistance into politics, I could have brought down whole governments...
So, today is a day of finally asking for help. And somehow writing this blog has helped. Like there’s already some loop of expression and witnessing and concern and encouragement going on... between you and me, whoever you are. Thanks. And hello.
Ah, it’s nearing three o'clock now and already the soggy light outside is beginning to dim. I’m looking out of the pub window at foam-tipped muddy-grey-brown waves breaking against the pebble-banked shore. There is still no discernible horizon, just an upwards cross-fade from that muddy-grey-brown into a slightly brighter and muddy-grey-blue.
However, what I’ve realised about living by the coast and in view of the sea is that, whatever my internal weather, the external weather is never dull. Even apparently dull days are endlessly entertaining and constantly shifting shape. Nature has held me so profoundly in her generous arms these last few years. From the impatient robin on the empty breakfast table to Maggie the mare reminding me that the grass is actually greener on my side of the fence; from the ever-crumbling cliffs to the reassuringly indifferent sea – they’ve been my main companions these breakdown years and have somehow helped some deeper part of me to somehow keep the faith.
Right, I suddenly feel really tired. I’ve written a lot today and been quite vulnerable and courageous – especially in writing to my friends. I think I need a good blast of sea breeze and sea spittle, and then back to the cabin, devices all charged, for a night of semi-monastic debauchery. Or Netflix. I’ll post this in the morning. Can’t be arsed right now trying to work out how to add a blog to my website.
I’ve never done a blog before. I’m not too sure how these things work, who reads them or what or why. I’m used to writing to and for my friends, but it’s a while since I ventured further afield. This is a bit of a message in a digital bottle, flung into a digital sea.
Wishing you love and kindness,
Tuesday 10th December