“Only Connect”!

All I want is a rewarding and fruitful conversation that cements our companionship, just like you do. 

My mistake is thinking relationships are constructed solely out of words. Our consciousness is imprisoned in its own flesh. Sentience, beyond ourselves, is a wish-fulfilment fantasy[1]. Only words can free us, but the connection exists only for as long as the words do. A lapse into “awkward” silence would, again, leave us isolated and alone in company, like dive partners suspended, mutely, in clear waters. 

In conversation, I feel it is my responsibility to maintain contact through my unceasing chatter. Unfortunately, my only area of expertise is myself, so I’ll witter on about my own experience. I tell people the things I know. I tell people things I know they know already, or anecdotes I’ve told before. I’m fixated on completing and rounding off a thesis, exploring it to its full extent before moving on, drawing out its most significant conclusions. I lecture.

But I become more and more desperate to escape from my own interminable monologue, until, knowing (and wanting) to engage them, learn about them, with a sort of despairing lunge, I’ll bark an abrupt question at my dazed interlocutor, startling them out of the stupor my words have bludgeoned them into, and leaving them stuttering and unable to answer. Realizing, then, that I’ve aborted the whole conversation, I’ll swerve back into another anecdote, and I’m off and running again. Christ, I’m boring!

Even when I’m trying to listen carefully, when I’m at pains to let you know I care, I do it by adding my words to your story. You’ll say, “My dad just died.”

I’ll say, “Oh, god! I’m so sorry! My dad’s still alive, but he’s 82, now, and he keeps giving us scares. The other week…”

I’m so keen to engage that I can’t stop myself. Inside my head, I’ll be thinking, “SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP”, but I won’t. 

So, my long utterances are a sort of plea. They reach out and play over your increasingly grim, taut face, like the wavering sensory tentacles of some inhibited sea creature, fronds of electricity from a Van de Graf generator. Or they’re like the fingertips of a pleading blind man trying to identify who you are. 

This seems just a bit too intense, right? A bit over-thinky; a bit manic; displaying fixity if not outright fixation.

Footnotes:

[1] I think this may explain my promiscuity, or rather, my attempted promiscuity, as a young man. I wanted to connect. I’d meet a beautiful, interesting girl and she’d be so lovely that I’d yearn for a much more profound connection than the little light banter, the bit of gossip and mutual, rueful acknowledgement of how boring our jobs were. I wanted true intimacy. I wanted us to be special to each other. My sexual fantasies always involved being in a relationship with the object of my desire. And having my brains fucked out, of course. It never worked out like this, which threw me back on words as my sole means of being with another person. 

Chat Chat Chat Chat Chat Chat Chat

Then there’s my incessant talking! I loathe this about myself. I wish, I really wish, I would just SHUT UP! But no, in company, I have to talk and talk and talk. I make myself flustered and panicky, headachy and hoarse. I start to lose my voice, the interest and respect of my companions, my friendships, but still I plough on and on. 

On the Mongolian Steppe, where I lived for a while, women usually occupied the ger (yurt), the round nucleus of the household. Any visiting women would be absorbed into that community, given a baby to hold, and a part in a good old gossip.  Men would squat outside smoking and gazing into the distance in manly silence. They looked askance at my nervous, womanish attempts at conversation.

At work I can now squander whole hours nattering with my colleagues, constantly turning away from the same unfinished email, to add “another thing” to the general discussion, proving, once again, what a waste of a salary, of tax-payers money, I am[1]. If I had any integrity, I’d resign. At least when I was starving myself, I sat in morose silence staring at my computer screen, even if I didn’t get any more work done. It was such a heroic effort just to stay upright and conscious, to stagger in to work, that it felt like an achievement in its own right, and compensated for my complete inefficacy. 

Footnotes

[1] Luckily, it’s a very low salary. Don’t “hate on me”.

Why Disagreeing with me Would be Unkind

And I do seem temperamentally suited to mild obsession.

For example, my relationship with Lulu was all my fault. I was the instigator; she was merely reacting. I was the one who was persistently faithful to the idea of being in love. With Lulu. She was the one who tolerated me with saintly patience, most of the time, until she’d lapse into occasional, understandable outbursts of screaming, furious frustration. 

I can’t blame her. I must have been impossibly exasperating[1], which, I think, supports the idea of having a brain that’s too busy in all the wrong ways. A completely inefficient brain that squanders its resources in pointless repetitions, counting, verbal tics, mental fidgeting, agitating ant-mantras, listing(!): an ADHD brain.

My behaviour still displays signs of rigidity, if not fixation, in other ways. There’s an obsessionality in discussions and arguments[2]. I just won’t let things drop, apparently. In arguments, I get accused of always wanting the last word, presumably because that final riposte isn’t dismissed, and so appears to have clinched and won the argument. 

But I don’t feel the need to win. It’s more that I don’t like to leave things unresolved and incomplete. I need it to be properly concluded, for all to be said that needs to be said. Otherwise I’m left with an anxiety, a sense that something’s wrong, something bad will happen unless I tie up the loose ends. 

(You can see the same obsessiveness, in this blog, when I say the same thing over and over again with slightly different words, to ensure I’ve said it correctly. Look at the previous paragraph, for example.)

I think this, also, is a continuation of that childish belief that all minds are identical to mine, although independent of it. if I could just explain myself, you would share my conception and agree with me. We would be “of one mind.” It’s not that I want to win, or dominate. It’s not that I enjoy argument or conflict. I want us to commune in happy agreement. I want us to connect and I’m frustrated by the obstacle that your disagreement represents. 

I’m also threatened by your refusal not just to agree, but to understand. If we are all of one mind, that suggests there is one objective reality. But if you don’t see things as I do, if you don’t share my conception or my moral system, then perhaps I’m the one who doesn’t have access to this objective reality. Isn’t that a definition of insanity? Perhaps I’m insane. Perhaps I can’t trust anything, anything I know, to be real: the whole world upended, fluid, changing, all senses unreliable. That’s worth resisting. 

Normally, you’d suppress these ideas before they reached such extremity. In the grip of anorexia’s starvation-fever, where everything is alarming, however, the stakes really do appear that high. I know, rationally, that reality itself doesn’t rely on you agreeing with me over how much time you’ve spent on the Nintendo Switch, but it feels that important, at the time.

Is this Hyper-focus? Hyper-fixation? 

Footnotes

Or so I’m told…

[1] And also kind of creepy, a thought that makes me sad…

All You Need is Love (Rumpa-pumpa-pa…)

I am more interested, now, in why I persisted for so long with something so upsetting and demeaning. Why did I allow myself to behave so badly and thus to be so crushed? This thing occupied me, almost exclusively, for almost a decade. What did I gain from it? Because I must have gained something 

That question seems to be its own answer. Of course, once your self-image has been wrecked, along with the relationships it’s bound up in, you lack the confidence to forge out on your own. You cling to the wreckage, because you fear you’ll drown in the open sea: you now know how tempest-tossed it can be, how flawed you are.

But the problem also pre-occupied me. It passed the time. It gave me purpose, something to think about. Lulu was excellent company (sympatico) and for ten years I was never at a loss, as I had been when I got together with Alice; I was never bored. Not really. Not like it had afflicted me when I was 14, growing up in semi-rural Ireland with NOTHING TO DO! I always had a target to strive for, a strategy to devise, something to dream about. 

Maybe that’s all anyone ever does, beyond the immediate struggle for survival. All hobbies, obsessions, ambitions, all daydreams – they all just pass the time. 

After puberty, the pursuit of love, sexually defined and demonstrated, but still romantic, monogamous, offered some sense of purpose. Then there was the early discovery (it didn’t feel like a decision) that I was going to be a poet. This was incredibly useful in my ongoing struggle against oppressive pointlessness, because at any moment, I could name my formless dissatisfaction and pursue a solution to it: I ought to be writing; I ought to be writing more; I ought to be writing better. 

The more unproductive I was, the more unrequited my crushes, the more relief I gained from the ennui. 

Because I sensed it, in the back of my mind, the infinite space beneath all things. And, if I didn’t fear it, exactly, I disliked it. I wanted to move away from it. 

Perhaps, then, when I’d achieved a stable relationship, children, a putatively rewarding job, when I could stop and take stock, had moved out of Lulu’s sphere, admitted that I was never going to be a poet, then the endless depth threatened, once again, to open before me. And I took to exercise and restricted eating to close myself away from it: something to busy myself with.

I’m only speculating. It’s a theory, but hunger and exhaustion do grant you the most absorbing, all consuming, proximal goals: the next meal, the next doze. I still haven’t felt bored for years. So ingrained has my boredom-avoidance become, that I’d completely forgotten that was what I was doing, until I was confronted by the ghastly prospect of recovery, and its subsequent return. 

Love as Total War

Lulu. 

If my earlier romantic encounters were skirmishes in the universal war of conflicting needs, my friendship with Lulu was its brutal trench warfare, lasting years and leaving between us a twisted landscape of anguish and resentment where nothing grew. 

If I could have our time over again, I would change almost every decision I made and every word I uttered, at this time, but I wouldn’t change Lulu. I wouldn’t wish never to have met her. She was worth the destruction[1]. She was amazing. Still is. 

We just weren’t very good for each other, Lulu and I. Sympatico but not temperamentally compatible, for the age-old reason that I liked her more than she liked me. 

And the friendship wasn’t corrupting or degrading. Instead, it revealed to me, in the harshest light, my own flaws. I was simply ill-prepared for that, so it wounded me deeply. Lacking a more robust sense of identity, I found value and substance in myself only as a bundle of virtues. When it was pointed out that neither my desires nor my behaviours were virtuous, it precipitated an existential crisis. What was I good for?  What was the point in me? Was I just a tube for turning good food into shite?

We each brought our own idiocies and idiosyncrasies and tangled them up in that relationship, so it’s too large and too complicated to talk about here. Leave it hanging in the air, ill-defined but influential: a dark cloud covering the sky, dimming the daylight. 

Footnotes

[1] I’m not sure she would agree. She suffered at least as much as she inflicted. 

infatuations

My romantic attachments were all unrequited and for inaccessible girls. At primary school, my best friend was Eloise. Her parents were exotic bohemian artists. A bright, creative, wayward kid, I adored her. She liked me, but I suspect the friendship was lopsided.

At secondary I became besotted with a girl two years above me. Jennifer McLean was destined to become a professional dancer. She was attractive and graceful and I used to hang around outside the lunch room, waiting for her to come out, just so I could look at her and sigh. I thought she was completely unaware of me, until she sent me a secret message via the older brother of a friend of mine. I was so beneath his notice that he forgot to give it to me for weeks. The message was, “Fuck Off”.

Next, I fell for Alice, the most brilliant of my friends. She was the child of English university professors, and was vivacious, effortlessly academic, musically talented[1], politically engaged[2], adventurous. She was the first of my friends to have sex, smoke weed, run away on tour with a famous band. She went on to study music and theatre at university, a course she was massively overqualified for, and gave her little prospect of secure work[3]. Alice, of course, didn’t let that stop her. She is now a highly sought-after production designer on Broadway, and lectures in the Drama department of perhaps the most prestigious university in the USA. 

I was increasingly comfortable with unfulfilled yearning, and I was happy to play the part of the love-struck swain, the stalwart but disapproving friend who helped to pick up the pieces after the theatrics were finished, a sort of Mr Knightley to her Emma, but without the good sense or the condescension. Although I didn’t realise I was happy. 

Surprisingly, Alice and I did have a sort of fling-thing, a flingette, a dalliance. We were (how can I put this?) … briefly smoochy. Significantly, though, I wasn’t sure what to do with her, once I’d got her (or she me, I think). What should we have done, alone together, that we couldn’t do in our gang, other than sex, or after it? What opportunity was missed, lying together in a summer wheat field, above my house, in the Wicklow hills? Because something was missed…

I think…

Alice moved on very soon, solving the problem with typical decisiveness and genial drama, by dumping me for a hard-drinking, celebrated classical musician with mad hair. I think I was relieved. 

And that brings me to university, and the awful dawning, the smoking red dawn, of the era of Lulu. 

I never understood what they saw in me, these few women who gave me a chance. I’m not (just) being self-pitying or humble. As a teenager, I didn’t have such a low opinion of myself, (although I was vulnerable to it), but I lacked the empathy to imagine what it might be like being someone else seeing me. So, while I was horribly solipsistic, and thus emotionally selfish, I barely had an opinion of myself at all. And I think, I think, this possibly might stem from having an under-powered or under-developed sense of self or identity. 

That would also account for a lifetime spent pretending to be what I felt I was not, years and years of masquerading, of making outrageous claims about myself.

Some of which may have been true. 

Footnotes

[1] Piano, flute, guitar, etc…

[2] Socialist

[3] Only now, as a father myself, do I realise how dismayed her poor parents must have been. 

Education, Education, Education

My attitude to studying certainly exhibited my lack of focus, but then, I don’t think I ever considered the reasons for, or the purpose of, education, throughout my schooling. At the age of 4, we were all bundled into the institution and abandoned there for the next 12 years[1] [2]. We had to make our own entertainment. 

So, that’s what I did. I’m sure the more thoughtful and perceptive children started asking themselves, “what am I doing here? What is all this education for?”[3], and started to knuckle down to getting good grades, empowering and emancipating themselves through knowledge, but not me. I just continued trying to get through the days – pootling about, making my friends laugh, daydreaming. 

Then came girls and sex. The unsuccessful pursuit of both preoccupied me well into my twenties. 

Footnotes

1] You’d do less time for murder, with good behaviour.

[2] I’ve just recovered one of my earliest memories (I think): I’m in a seat bolted loosely to the back-carrier of my mother’s bicycle and we’re bowling down the hill into the village, through the shady tunnel formed by the great trees on either side, to deliver me to my National School. The seat is made of black metal slats, like Meccano, with a red plastic seat covering, and it rattles and sways alarmingly. I am halfway between exhilarated and fearful. In front of me my mother pedals steadily, her smooth straight hair, blown back, seems to shine with her serenity, in this dangerous situation. She is the most beautiful person in the world.

[3] Answer: “Shut up and get on with your colouring.”

School Work

Armed with Rick Green’s two concepts of Hyper-focus and hyper-fixation, I can review my own past bad behaviours, pre-anorexia, searching for exculpatory evidence that I’m naturally made of sub-standard material. Then I can plead insanity. 

For a start, there’s the homework. I didn’t do a stroke of work at home after about year 7 (1st year of secondary). I wasn’t rebellious or rude. I just took the detentions with good humour. I’ve always assumed I was just a thoughtless and weak-willed little oaf whose parents didn’t push him very hard. However, my own children seem far more able to apply themselves than I ever was, although the external drivers are no greater for them. 

I always assume that the quality of human experience in others, it’s essence, is identical to my own. That’s the definition of empathy, right? – acknowledging the self-hood of others. That leads me, though, to think others have the same conceptions, the same values and the same limitations as I do, that they see the world in similar terms. I’ve only ever got as far as the first and most primitive stage of concept of mind. Everyone else has gone on to develop highly sophisticated understandings of the intense, varied and vivid life of other minds, while I’m still congratulating myself for working out that they aren’t automata.

At school, I viewed any work-activity that demanded self-motivation with absolute horror –  homework, revision, research: any unsupervised work – I felt like I was suffocating. It was intolerable and I was frantic to escape it, twisting and squirming, trying to claw my way free, like a ferret drowning in a sack. 

I still feel that way, to this day, so you can imagine my astonishment when my own children march into the kitchen and say, “Right. I’m going to do my French homework now – get it done.” I think, “Whose child is this!? How could I have sired such a one?”

A Very Boring Topic

Behind this there’s the bigger question of what causes anorexia. Are my (and possibly Dylan’s) eating disorders singular obsessions, triggered by trauma or stress or societal expectations of body image? Are they fostered by self-indulgence and lack of moral character? Or are they the most damaging manifestations of fundamental systems of thought, genetically programmed biochemical dispositions? That’s why the idea that we might have ADHD is so intriguing. It suggests a mind-set or a mental structure that underpins both conditions – a tendency to become a little too intense and obsessive in our pursuits, perhaps. 

This idea is a relief because you feel like such a fool.  It is so shaming to have got yourself into this position and be pathetically unable to get a grip and just stop it. It ought to be so easy. Your whole being shudders with the intensity of the mortification. 

There’s a wonderful guy on YouTube called Rick Green. He posts videos where he explains and discusses aspects of ADHD (which he has). On one, he describes the condition as “uneven attention”. He says, 

“ADHD is a problem managing attention, managing focus and ideas, forgetfulness, regulating what we focus on and what we don’t, what’s important and what’s not important, sometimes lost in thought, tuning out, distracted, and other times we are super-focused. It’s a matter of degree, which is why it’s called a spectrum disorder.”

This sounds very much like my thinking, except mine is a much paler and watered down version. I’m not hopping around madly like this, and I’m never “super-focused”. I’m just not very good at concentrating, especially on subjects I’m not very interested in. But doesn’t that describe everybody? At school, I found it impossible to do any homework. Along with every other student who’s ever lived.

Rick Green is explaining the difference between hyper-focus and hyper-fixation in this video. He claims that people with ADHD can become totally absorbed, for hours, in tasks they like. This he calls “Hyper-focus” and it sounds like my idea of busy-brain thinking, worrying at, burrowing into, a subject. It confuses people because they think if someone can focus, they can’t have the condition and so, their off-task behaviour is just wilful naughtiness, or evidence that they are spoilt. 

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced hyper-focus, except that Jo says I often find it difficult to drop a subject until I’ve fully developed my point. It seems to cause me actual distress. Apparently, it makes me “difficult to argue with”. That’s just being a bore, though.

I’m more interested in Mr Green’s definition of “hyper-fixation”. This is an ongoing obsession with a particular subject or hobby or grievance or conspiracy theory, or whatever. It can last months or years. 

I recognise this. It’s when your mind keeps coming back and back to something, touch and touch and touching on the same topic, thinking about it in the same manner, from the same perspective. It becomes one of your comforting habits, its manifestations more and more ritualistic. Even if it is a profoundly negative, you settle comfortably into your familiar brooding thought cycles.  Often you will start off thinking about something else, but quickly bring your thoughts back to the cosily familiar obsession. 

I think I indulge in a sort of thinking that bridges the gap between Hyper-focus and Hyper-fixation. If I have something on my mind – a plan, a pre-occupation, I’ll often embark on a thought-sentence, part of my internal dialogue with myself, but fail to reach the end of it before I break off. Then I’ll repeat and repeat that fragment of words over and over again. It’s often a conditional clause, and the consequences are too many or too complicated to dilate upon easily, so I’ll just abandon it and return to the beginning. So, if I’m planning to do a writing course, I’ll think, “If I do the course then I can…” Then, I’ll start again: “If I do the course then I can…” Soon, I’ll have made it into a chant: “If I do the course then I can…, if I do the course then I can…, if I do the course, If I do the course, If I do the course then I can…”

Of course, the more you starve your brain, the more difficult it becomes to complete your thoughts, so this behaviour is reinforced. Often the chant would degenerate further, into meaningless sounds in my head, especially when I was trying to run.

Awa-wa-wa-wa-wa, 

Awa-wa-wa-wa-wa, 

Awa-wa-wa, 

Awa-wa-wa, 

Awa-wa-wa-wa-wa. 

Obsessionality 101

Our therapists, Dylan and I, seemed to be linking the obsessive side of our eating disorders to a sort of mental hyperactivity or busyness of mind. This seems a reasonable suggestion. Overthinking is a famous symptom of anorexia, and, although we’d starved ourselves into lassitude, we both tended to worry feebly at things, growling, like aged terriers with a bone. Dylan’s thorough, almost obsessive, adoption of his diagnosis seemed to bear this out. 

Of course, the link between anorexia and OCD is well established. A fierce habit of restricting or purging or over-exercising is clearly obsessive-compulsive. Carrie Arnold[1] explores the relationship between eating disorders and “obsessionality”, which she defines as “a pattern of thinking, in which someone focuses a lot on a particular subject or detail”[2]

There’s also a lot of chatter, online, surrounding a correlation between OCD and ADHD. The NHS website suggests that OCD may occur alongside ADHD in adults, this is called “Comorbidity”, and can complicate the diagnosis of either condition. Writing for The International OCD Foundation, Dr Amitai Abramovitch points out that both conditions are “characterised by abnormal brain activity in the same neural circuit”, the frontal-striatal system, that is responsible for “higher order, motor, cognitive and behavioural functions”. However, people with OCD show increased activity in this area, while ADHD people have decreased activity. Many other reputable online publications also make this link. MDedge (mdedge.com) claims that ADHD can be an “epiphenomenon of OCD” because an obsessive person’s “continuous and excessive attempts to control behaviour and thoughts” can be so distracting. Conversely, verywellmind.com claims that “ADHD can result in OCD-type coping skills.”

There is less written on a link between ADHD and Anorexia, but it seems likely that a three point, mutually reinforcing nexus could be at play in us. It’s not a solid, rigorously tested, causal link, just a suggested correlation. Both Dylan and I could become a little intense and unusually habit- or ritual-forming in our behaviours, and this extended to our restriction of our eating and, in my case, to my running. Carrie Arnold quotes Steven Tsao, who claims, “with anorexia, this obsessionality could be something they think about a lot, but they don’t actually mind thinking a lot about…In fact, some patients are happy to focus on [their eating disorder] and think a lot about it. I have patients that say, ‘if I don’t spend my day thinking about food, what else do I do with myself?’”[3]

Arnold points how useful such obsessionality can be to somebody who is trying to control anxiety, as so many anorexics are. “Not only did anorexia mesh perfectly with my tendencies towards obsessionality (in fact my eating disorder probably enhanced my obsessionality), it also helped make me feel the world was simpler and easier to manage.”[4]

And, of course, hunger and exhaustion make you more anxious, more in need of reassurance, more rigid in your thinking, as your brain starves, so all these symptoms and behaviours, all these tendencies, become more pronounced as anorexia’s jaws tighten on you, its teeth begin to bite.

Footnotes:

[1] Decoding Anorexia, 2013, Routledge

[2] ibid, p65

[3] ibid

[4]ibid