The Unexamined Life… and All That Jazz

It’s odd I’d never thought about my own thought processes before. My thoughts, though I knew they were fallible, were just statements about the world. They lay dormant until some stimulus made them leap into being, as if in alarm, the way a harsh light sweeping through a room casts shadow-patterns on a wall. I made no attempt to be aware of why I thought, so these pedestrian and obvious conclusions were a revelation to me, or a Pandora’s box, depending on how you looked at it.

For example, low self-esteem could explain my tendency to cringe away from my own memories. My short term memory is rubbish but I like it like that. As each moment becomes memory I hurriedly ditch it and rush on to the present, like a student dealer dropping is stash as he runs from the police. Like most men, I’m a creature of the eternal present, and that suits me fine.

Remembering anything from my past makes me feel ashamed: all my memories contain me, not necessarily doing anything wrong – just being an asshole. I hadn’t been aware I even felt like this, let alone thought why.

At Ascot House, they give you a workbook to fill in when you don’t have workshops. I guess it’s supposed to stimulate self-analysis, because pages have titles such as Who am I? “What sort of a question is that?” I asked myself, with rhetorical derision, before dismissively dashing off a list of the most negative accusations I could think of. I quite enjoyed it.

Why, though, did I choose insulting myself as my mode of dismissal? Was I trying to prove that self-analysis only led to self-harm?

Then again, these were all characteristics I fear could be attributed to me. Maybe I hoped, by setting them all down, in a self-hating frenzy, and seeing them in the smallness of their written form, I’d convince myself of how unnecessary, indulgent and self-absorbed such perceptions were, as a friend might do, if you confided in them. (I’m sure you’ve spotted the flaw in this project, though – why it contains the seeds of its own destruction: “indulgent”? “self-absorbed”?)

Me Me Me! Oh Pity Poor Pitiable Me!

But I was telling you about our workshops at Ascot house. I got distracted. Sorry.

One was called “self-esteem” and addressed our lack of it. We’d trail in and adopt the standard body-language of this state, sitting with legs twisted around each other, shoulders hunched winsomely, one slightly higher than the other, sleeves pulled down over hands blighted by eczema and purple with cold, cupped together loosely in the lap as if awaiting the communion wafer, waiting, hopelessly, for absolution, heads bowed but coyly cocked, eyes fixed humbly on the floor; expressive of feminine fragility, a twisted parody of the way models sit on sofas, dreamily nursing mugs of coffee in ads for new-build homes.

These sessions were usually run by Jane, the impressive therapist I’ve mentioned before, and a therapy assistant called Eve, who I absolutely loved, probably because she resembled my own friends (or the sort of person I used to be friends with, when I had friends.)

I thought, at first these workshops would be typical “because you’re worth it” exercises in being told to value yourself, so characteristic of the modern, millennial sense of entitlement. However, such straight talkers as Jane and Eve were never going to allow that. This was where we were first introduced to the very plausible model of negative thinking that I employ all the time to explain my silly behaviour. You’ll recognise it from other posts in this blog:
a. Past experiences are processed into
b. Negative assumptions about yourself which, in turn lead to
c. Unhelpful defeatist decisions and paranoid and destructive behaviours, designed to hasten the inevitable humiliations, which form
d. Negative experiences, which provide evidence to support
e. Negative assumptions about ourselves
Etc. etc. You’ll remember I talked about how the students I worked with conformed exactly to this pattern in their attitude to exams.

Jane and Eve used old-style flip charts and whiteboards and pens, talking with assurance, and rapidly sketching great curving arrows to describe the self-fuelling cycles. They asked us for experiences to fit into the model. We were happy to volunteer, with an odd combination of actual and feigned reluctance, eagerness to talk about ourselves, and a genuine desire to do our duty by each other, and to the process, by offering ourselves up to humiliating scrutiny.

I remained sceptical of all this, until it dawned on me that the model was applicable to many aspects of the way I function, for example, my tendency to argue petulantly with Jo, become childishly stubborn and difficult, and then give in and apologise, thus:
1. I make negative assumptions about myself based on past experiences – I’m a bit of a twat, immature, thoughtless, not particularly bright, self-indulgent.
2. If contradicted, I assume I’m going to turn out to be in the wrong, will deal with it badly, and will, eventually, have to surrender and apologise.
3. This thought makes me feel inferior and defeated. I become sullen, stubborn and nasty.
4. This confirms my suspicions about myself, and makes my opponent annoyed,
5. So I surrender completely, apologise abjectly, and make the relationship even more unequal.

This model could also explain why I’m so subordinate and un-empowered and why I make Jo make all the decisions: I’m an idiot, so the decisions I make will always be the wrong ones. This makes me deeply indecisive, proving I’m an idiot. Or why I give in to temptations: I assume I’m weak, so don’t bother resisting, proving that I’m weak…

Abi says…

So, anyway, Abi wrote me a meal plan, all full-fat yogurt and cheese. I was hull down, enduring the harangue, when she suddenly started insisting on seeing me only four days later, to make sure I’d started to put on weight. This was a bitch. Lip service wasn’t enough, anymore. Now she was actually demanding action! It felt like a sort of punishment for bad behaviour – a detention.

Then she said, “The NHS is spending a lot of money trying to make you better. Remember that. But we think it’s money worth spending, both on you as an individual and on principle, and we’re experienced professionals who know what we’re doing. Trust us. Believe that we’re right. Allow us to help you get better.”

I think that was the gist of it… I hope I haven’t just made that up, because it struck me as a comforting way of looking at things. You help people to live up to their principles by needing their help. You enact your value by justifying their belief in the value of all people, by allowing them to prove their value. Value comes from simply being a member of a community. As the relationship counsellor at Ascot House was always saying, you are worthwhile just by being present.

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…

Before I was admitted to Ascot House, when I was very ill, Jo was my main source of comfort. She was the only person I could eat with or spend time with. In the evenings, when I finally let myself eat properly, I curled up in a cosy nest of Jo and Masterchef and my permitted food.

But on my first evening in Ascot house, on the phone, Jo revealed to me how angry and distressed my illness had made her. She’d held everything together (and in) until she’d got me into the care of professionals, then she could collapse and express what she really felt.

Jo’s already hectic and stressful life became much more so as she became a single parent and had to fit in her monstrous workload and responsibility with parenting, chores, cooking, running the children to clubs and visiting me, all on her own. On Saturdays, she’d drop the children at their drama club then drive an hour to see me. She could only spend 45 minutes with me before she had to drive home to pick up the kids.

Visits were rushed and impatient, and then infrequent. The phone connection was terrible, too. It cut out every couple of minutes. Calls became increasingly frustrating. We couldn’t explore our thoughts and feelings, letting the conversation go where it needed to. Instead we had to compose what we wanted to say in advance, then try to get it all across before the line went dead. We were trying to keep a relationship alive in brief, truncated telegrams of reproach. Luckily, we didn’t need to inform each other of much – our lives were both too monotonous and too internally dissimilar – but we needed to nourish our relationship by spending time just talking, and this was exactly what we couldn’t do.

I began to feel increasingly isolated and cut off from home. I’d realised from that first furious phone call that, after relying so heavily (and so unfairly) on Jo for so long, I’d have to do this recovery business on my own, something that the therapy at Ascot House kept emphasising. The problem is that the post-anorexia self you construct is kind of solitary. Your whole mind-set is different, the structure of your identity – how you view yourself, what you want and need, what you find threatening, stressful and undesirable.

When I was discharged, Jo came to pick me up. She was very apprehensive about my return. On the way back, she unburdened herself. She cried; she explained that one morning she had decided not to care what happened to me. That was the only way she could carry out all the obligation placed on her in an incredibly demanding life. She’d had to dedicate herself to it, and abandon me to my fate.

It may surprise you to know that I had (and have) no problem with Jo’s decision: it’s what I deserved and it’s what she needed to do. When you’re ill, you let all things pass you by with a shrug, but even now I realise something had to give if Jo was to survive and continue to function as the sole parent and provider for our children. I’m an adult and can look after myself.

What horrified me, though, was being shown the impact of my behaviour on other people and realising quite how selfish I was when I was ill. I’d been hoping for a ticker-tape parade, celebrations, congratulations on my strength in overcoming a vicious disease for the sake of my family. I now saw how inappropriate those expectations were: Jo was bloody angry. Justly so.

But it shook my confidence and I’ve felt vulnerable to her fury, ever since. Well, I always have, a little, but now I don’t have a leg to stand on. Forgiveness is a poisoned chalice, especially when the stakes are as high as the survival of a relationship. Every time we argue, I get this vertiginous anxiety in my stomach, as if the ground is dropping away beneath my feet, and I ask myself, “where is this going to end?” Afterwards there’s a sort of anxious, listless calm while I wait to see how Jo will feel later. It’s similar, I believe, to the atmosphere that descends on courtrooms when the jury retire to begin their deliberations.

So, when Jo is storming at me, I’m waiting for a resolution and I think that if she threw me out, I could find a calm and solitary harbour to comfort myself, and I wonder, then, if I will ever experience peace or psychological ease, except in the rare moments when I can be alone, asleep, or in the kitchen in the early morning. And I can’t ever talk to Jo about this because she would see it (understandably, though wrongly) as a rejection, and she’d be furious.

I think you can have two contradictory drives simultaneously. The fox in the hen-house may be horrified by what he’s compelled to do. It’s natural to be conflicted. If I was alone in a bedsit. I’d be unfulfilled and miserable. I’d miss Jo and Meggie and Daniel terribly. I’d feel worthless and hopelessly guilty.

But, sometimes, I still hanker for a calm, solitary simplicity.

In any case, there is always the certainty of life’s pointless finitude. Soon enough, all – all betrayals, all defeats, all insults given or received – will be forgiven by an endless silence.

To take arms against a sea of troubles…

Actually, there is one thing that disturbs me: Abi’s suggestion that I might be forcing Jo to eject me from the relationship. I know this isn’t true, but I know that I often feel most comfortable on my own. I can find other people overwhelming. Their noise and their needs can hammer on my brain. I can feel troubled, and beset by them, and thus isolated, because they don’t seem to feel the same. Just the possibility of their scrutiny can make me ashamed of myself. I’m not capable of offering them what they need and deserve to be given. At work, chatting to people can make me feel giddy and faintly hysterical, embarrassed by the way I’m pushing myself forwards, too eager to say my piece, talk over people, not listen carefully and appreciatively.

These feelings can be particularly acute with my immediate family who mean the most to me and demand the most from me. What if I’m incapable of loving them as they deserve to be loved by a husband or a father or a brother or a son? I feel inadequate to the task, and this may be revealed at any minute. Then the shit will hit the fan. This can leave me guarded and overly cautious with my own wife and children, and brusque, rudely blunt and objectionable with my parents. And always anxious in any company. I want to tell them that I’m not really like that. These are just the transactional behaviours that I need to use at the moment. It’s such a headache. It’s a headache well worth enduring for my family, but it’s one I don’t experience if I’m sitting quietly on my own.

The square root of Ouch! squared

I usually get my tongue lashing from people I’m close to. Then I can abase myself, apologise with dignity, be difficult, beg for forgiveness, brood, condemn myself, cry, find excuses, impatiently dismiss it, laugh it off, look pathetic, maturely take responsibility, plan revenge, promise to change, storm off, sulk, tell them to fuck off, wallow in self-pity. I can, in other words, react appropriately.

But there’s supposed to be a professional distance between me and Abi so it’s much more embarrassing when she tells me a few home truths. She has invaded our de-militarized zone, and thus my personal space, and this makes everything far too intimate: raw and intense. She does this intentionally and it isn’t the first time. It’s a calculated intervention designed to give me a kick up the arse and set me back on the right track.

The silences are excruciating. Abi waits for me to respond, to reveal myself with honesty and openness, to confront myself, but I don’t know what I think and I don’t seem to own the thoughts I’m supposed to have. It’s as if I’m performing to please her. I’m divorced from the emotions I should be evincing, because inside me there is only an alert, uneasy quiet.

I need to demonstrate my commitment to recovery by articulating these false feelings with passion and conviction, but I can only just about manage an attitude of shamed humility. To have to speak out would be awful. I’m not sure why. I’d feel like an empty harlequin costume, shabby, masked, clowning across a derelict stage, and I worry I might somehow lose control of the dance. It might degenerate into some sort of frantic, antic hysteria.

This sounds like a typical fear of losing self-control and revealing my grubby secrets: if I rouse myself to action, I’ll blurt out something dreadful, either a terrible secret or just some vile, unwarranted obscenity, an upwelling of abhorrent thoughts and feelings and words.

But it seems to threaten something much worse than that, something indescribably awful, wholly destructive – an irreversible, fatal decision.

If I can carry on as normal everything seems to be fine, I seem to have emotional stability, even a relatively sunny disposition, but when faced by a falling weight and challenged to explain it, when asked, “why don’t you just keep to the meal plan?”, I need to be terribly guarded, to adopt a passive, defensive crouch. There seems to be something unsaid, unsayable, that needs to be said to clear the way to full recovery but I don’t know what it is, and if I did, and I said it, it would open a trapdoor to something catastrophic.

Perhaps I’d go into total mental shut-down. I’d fall to my knees and start dribbling. I’d piss myself as my wildly buffering brain tried to reboot. I’d be left naked and writhing, abject, supine, covered in my own faeces. I’d be revealed.

On the surface, I don’t feel that I feel disturbed by any of this, just very uncomfortable. I’m out of touch with any sense of being disturbed. Is this just numbness? Is this being habituated to people being unhappy with me? Do other people incur displeasure as frequently as I do? Is this usual? (Imagine my pathetic whine.) Because some of me is thinking, I don’t do anything majorly wrong – I eat; I don’t exercise excessively…

Talking of the creature cannibalising your faculties to form itself…

Rabbi Loew

When Rabbi Loew recognised the threat
he took some clay from Vlatava
and he made himself a thing, – a golem, a bodyguard.

But clay is barren stuff and hard to work and so,
to give it life, he built it up from pieces of himself –
his guts, his heart, his sinews and his thews

to give it musculature; to see, the lenses of his eyes,
and so that it could sense,
he looped it with his nerves, although

he knew he’d feel each blow and wound
as if it was his own. He fed it on his fat and marrow.
He clothed it in his skin

and it was fierce and strong and fearless
but he was blind and thin and weak
and bled easily.