Just do it

“There may be some writers who contemplate a day’s work without dread, but I don’t know them. … It’s a bad business, this writing.” (Mary Gordon, American writer)

 

I am suffering (again) from what is usually called “writer’s block”. I have things I have to write and I just can’t settle to doing them.

Writer’s block is notorious; it’s a favourite subject for novelists, in a rather incestuous way. It’s a specific example of procrastination – putting off until later what you should be doing now. There are whole shop-loads of books on writer’s block specifically (which I find rather paradoxical) and procrastination generally. I have read them all very carefully and learned nothing whatsoever useful from them. Examples of the advice can be found here, here, and here. Enjoy.

Essentially they all come down to the advice “stop messing around and just do it; just make a start, no matter how small”. Well, if I could do that I wouldn’t be procrastinating. They are also keen on eliminating distractions, but when you’re severely proscratinating, after you have eliminated all the obvious ones, you will create new ones.

Now at this point I know what some of you are thinking. The kinder among you will say we know about procrastination; the only solution is indeed to make a start and just get on with it. He’s said he knows that, so why can’t he do it? Surely he could bring himself to write a word, even a little rubbish one? The less kind will say what is he talking about – he can write this blog, so why can’t he write his book? Shut up moaning. You will have no sympathy with me, you say, while you get on with writing your thirty-six volume autobiography.

On the other hand I have discovered in writing this blog that there are many people out there who are a little like me, but are too frightened to say so. Some of you, sadly for you, are even a lot like me, and are terrified to say so. Procrastination is very common. After many years teaching I know countless students who have left things to the last minute – they only start that essay or report the night before the deadline; sometimes well into the night. They know their behaviour is bad, just as I do, so I really do share their pain. They know that at best it will be a bit rushed and that they won’t have time to put it aside and think about it and check it, that they will make mistakes and miss sources, thereby most likely losing precious marks, and at worst they’ll miss the deadline altogether and get zero. So why do they do it? It’s not helpful to say that it’s because of bad planning and laziness when it happens so often; it’s not helpful to say we should just have done it.

As I have said before, we should also be wary of pathologising everything. Am I being slow because I’m ill, or is it something less sinister? Am I just very, very lazy, or is something more complicated going on? A very few people really just don’t care about what they’re doing, but most of us do, so I think when something happens repeatedly it is at least worthwhile considering possible deeper causes. Looking deep into myself I see:

 

Fear of a deadline. After twelve years of being head of the psychology department at Dundee and then dean, I am exhausted. I still have nightmares about writing reviews and reports and plans and strategies and completing financial spreadsheets, and being sent emails at 5.01 p.m. Friday asking for something FIRST THING Monday, before the 8.30 meeting. Burnout need not be restricted to middle-aged executives: the average undergraduate will now have undergone years of assessment, even before the GCSEs and GCES (or Higher equivalents in Scotland). It’s assessment after assessment – one damned thing after another, for years. Until you can’t take it more.

Milder versions of exhaustion abound. Many studies show that many of us are on the edge of exhaustion, or simply don’t get enough sleep. A period of prolonged rest might be best but not many can take it easy for more than a weekend. So I don’t know what the best way is to cope with deadline fear, and welcome suggestions. However I have resolved to try to deal with the exhaustion and the following might help. I hope that with more energy the fear will recede.

Sleep – I have vowed to sleep whenever possible. I have long thought too much sleep to be a waste of time (we know that some sleep is essential), but what is “too much”? What is the point of forcing yourself to get up 30 minutes earlier if you then only function at 75% efficiency?

Multi-tasking – doing two or more things at once is not effective. I found myself making tea this morning while trying to pack a bag. Not good. I need more mindfulness in my life.

Saying no – partly I commit to annoying little jobs that then have to be done, and which I like to get out of the way before the big jobs. I find it quite difficult to say no when I see the hurt on a person’s face, but I must learn to get over it.

Stop rushing around – leave plenty of time for things. The possibility of saving three minutes by leaving just a bit later for the gym is outweighed by the damage perpetrated by the additional stress of the journey.

Relaxation – I can distinguish between physical and mental exhaustion, although I find they are correlated. The brain uses a lot of energy, and many argue that glucose levels in the brain can be rapidly depleted – so that we have limited willpower, although controversy rages about this subject (see here and here, for example).

Doing if for myself – My fear of a deadline goes hand in hand with being evaluated afterwards. If you don’t hand something in, you can’t get a poor mark, or unpleasant feedback, can you? It’s bizarre reasoning I know but I am falling foul of it. I find that I become lost in things that I enjoy and that aren’t going to be evaluated, so one strategy is to try to turn evaluated things into things we’re really doing for ourselves. We’re doing it to learn, or to write our great life’s work (in my case), and the deadlines and feedback are things on the side – things that might even help us, by ensuring progress and making it a better work. We call this type of approach recasting our thinking. I don’t find it easy: to make it work we have to make ourselves believe it, deep down.

What else is there?

The job is too difficult. I missed this out of the “first edition” of the post, but I don’t know why: the more I think about it, the more important it is. It’s easy to get going on small jobs where you know what you have to do, but much of good writing isn’t like that. Writing a whole book on the science of consciousness, in my case, isn’t easy; the material is complex, difficult to understand in places, and even more difficult to synthesise and evaluate for a reader who hasn’t spent more than thirty years in the area. Sometimes I start work, look at my screen, and I don’t know what to say. Students might start writing a lab report and realise they don’t have a clue about the statistic used or the design of the experiment. No wonder we put our laptops aside and make a nice cup of tea.

Somehow we have to make difficult tasks easier. It’s difficult to do the research and thinking while looking at the screen trying to write the final document, I find, so that means it has to be done before. That means reading multiple sources about a topic, and perhaps making notes, drawing diagrans, even mind maps if that’s your thing; and thinking and organising. All that takes time. I can write a thousand words in an hour, easily, if I know exactly what I’m talking about, am enjoying myself, and have a modicum of focus. If I don’t know (as is usually the case), or have to remind myself, that rate plummets. If you leave your writing to the last minute, so you’re up against the deadline, there often just isn’t enough time. No wonder we procrastinate when facing the impossible!

If you’re doing something difficult and you’re up against a real deadline, you’re a bit screwed. You just have to learn the lesson and resolve to leave research time for the next deadline – plenty of it. Fortunately (although it might be a curse) many writing deadlines are in fact a bit flexible, so if you’re a little late it’s not the end of the world. It’s not good form though so again lessons have to be learned.

Doing research with plenty of time left seems less intimidating to me; all I have to do is convince myself that the pleasant reading in the conservatory really is work. You do though need to be clear about you’re researching and why, which means planning what you have to do and finding out what you don’t know first. You need to read for a purpose, trying to answer a question, and to do that you need to be clear about what the question is first.

The job is unpleasant. Then one has to ask why are you doing it? Let’s think about what “unpleasant” really means. You might be doing a psychology agree, and enjoy it all apart from statistics. In that case if you think the overall aim is worthwhile you have to contextualise the problem – relate the subtask to the whole. You can’t understand behaviour without understanding how we should study behaviour. I think mostly though we confound the unpleasantess of jobs with their difficulty – I don’t really think that writing a book on consciousness is an unpleasant task, I’m just finding passages of it difficult at the moment. Students would enjoy statistics if they found it relatively easy. In which case see above.

Perfectionism. I can’t bear the thought of seeing something with my name on it that isn’t perfect. But the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect; in fact unless you are peculiarly gifted the first draft will be far from perfect. You are more likely to produce something imperfect by leaving it late and little time for checking and revision. And the first draft might be rubbish, but it’s easier to turn a thousand words of rubbish into something better than start with no words at all.

Too big a task. This is an important factor in my fear, and of course is easily solved by splitting it up into smaller tasks – as small as it takes to stop being daunting. Splitting large jobs up and listing the components takes time, and there’s always a concern that you’re wasting useful time carrying out useless tasks – that you’re just engaging in just another distraction activity. But spending time working out how you’re going to do a big unpleasant job and then doing these small chunks is much better than doing nothing at all related to your most important job.

Something immediately at hand is more immediately satisfying. Note I’ve said immediately twice: it has to be instant and easy gratification relative to the big job. If you’ve split a big job into lots of little jobs then you can have the instant gratification of ticking them off your list as you complete them. Some people suggest turning off your internet connection, using special software and apps to cut off temporary access to distraction, or smashing your router on the floor, but I will still manage to find something else to do. That washing is piling up, or perhaps needs sorting. Better to deal with the root cause than use gimmicks. (Believe me, I’ve tried them all.)

 

I will try my own medicine and report back. Meanwhile I hope this help ssomeone else. Please feel free to comment or contact me.

 

(Note to readers: I’ve revised this blog a few times as things occur to me. No more. This version is final.)

 

UPDATE

Getting the words out

I’ve been silent because I’ve been busy. I have found that writing my “great work”, The Science of Consciousness, is good for my mental health – although whether I’d be able to write at all without a certain level of mental health is a moot point. Writing gives my life direction and purpose, and structures my day. The amount of work involved makes a mockery of any notion of being “retired”; writing is fulltime job. Consciousness is the most difficult subject I’ve ever written about: to paraphrase the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland “an awful lot has been written on consciousness, mot of it rubbish”; why do I think what I’m writing isn’t rubbish too? I suppose you can only do your best and then just hope. I’m not going to fall into the trap that many psychologists fall into, of equating consciousness with attention, or even just visual attention. I recognise it’s a big, difficult topic.

I have been reflecting about why I have found this writing so enjoyable and so therapeutic. Perhaps it’s obvious, but it’s because I really want to do it. I would probably write it even if I didn’t have a publisher and a contract. The only downside of a contract is often a fairly tough deadline – but if I didn’t have a deadline I almost certainly would work more casually, so it’s an advantage as well as a curse. (And usually the deadline wouldn’t be so bad if only I had started earlier.)

In the odd spare moment that I have, I wonder if my mood would be as good without this purpose. As ever there is circularity: doing stuff makes your mood better, but you have to be well enough to be able to do any stuff in the first place.

Of course in the end I will die (unless I decide to have my head frozen, and even then I expect eventually to die regardless) and eventually my books will go out of print, and I will be forgotten. At this point I envy people with children; they will live on through their genes. As others have observed, our lives are like stones thrown into a pool, causing ripples to spread out. Eventually the ripples fade and it is, for most of us, as though our stone was never thrown into the pool.

When writing a book I try not to think about it too much. I have 150,000 words to deliver before the summer. If I think of it in that way, the task is an enormous one. So I break the task down into 1000 words a day (number of words left divided by number of days left, allowing Sunday off – or rather do those jobs that have accumulated in the week) come what may. I think deciding to miss one day is a slippery slope; of course choosing to miss one day wouldn’t make much difference, but it’s easy for that one day to become two, and before I knew it, a month would have gone, and a 1000 words a day has become 1250. And then there’s reading, researching, and checking. You have to treat it like a job, or any other job I suppose, and just get on with it. I know there’s no point putting off starting to write every day because I know that it has to be done regardless, and starting at 5 pm is much more miserable and difficult than starting at 9 am. I still procrastinate a bit first thing, but I gather many writers do. I think it was Derren Brown who said something like “all self-help books just boil down to – just do it”. If you’re writing a book, writing an essay, or just have to mow the lawn – get on with it now.

Also on the positive side, I have had three outputs this week, and nothing lifts my heart more than seeing my name somewhere.

First, the second edition of my book, Talking the talk: Language, psychology, and science has just been published by Psychology Press. See:

 

 

This book is a gentle introduction to psycholinguistics, the science of how we produce and understand language. I still think the first edition was the best thing I have ever written (so far).

Second, I had a letter in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday about futurology, robots, AI, and the implications for the economy. I’m a pessimist about these things:

 

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Rather to my surprise, it generated a great deal of interest. There were letters in reply (none of which really addressed the problem, I thought) and offers to write about the subject elsewhere. I think the future is a pretty scary place, and although I would have loved a laptop with fast internet connection when growing up, it could be that I have lived in the best of times – a rather optimistic conclusion for someone as usually as negative as me.

And third, finally, I gave a talk at Durham University on How to be successful in academia, particularly if you’re suffering from mental illness. I’m told it was very successful.

So a good few weeks. Success and achievements lift the spirits – just as you would expect. If you can, do something. But there will be times when you are too depressed to do anything. My advice, based on my experience, is to sit it out. Things will get better eventually, because they always have in the past. I promise.

 

Emptying the mind

It’s been a while since my last blog. Who would have thought that being self-employed would mean being so busy? I have been trying to focus on what’s important: my goals in taking early “retirement” from the full-time job have always been to increase my reading, thinking, and writing time.

But we live in a world of distraction. Distraction makes procrastination very easy. I even know of academics who have been encouraged by their “line managers” (what a repellent phrase) to “multi-task” their administration and research. I’m not sure at what level they’re supposed to multi-task – reading a paper while giving a lecture perhaps? – but we know that multi-tasking reduces efficiency: it just doesn’t work. Doing two things at once has a cost (which is why even speaking on the phone while driving increases the chance of an accident, let alone texting and driving). It also increases stress. And we know that doing important, creative work requires focus – you can’t carry out great research while students back their essays. I even have my doubts about one of those great sacrosanct beliefs in academic life that great teaching and research must go together: good teaching requires time, and research requires time, and you can’t be doing two things at once (see above).

I have tried to simplify my life, for peace of mind both for being mentally ill, and in order to be able to think more clearly. I have just been reading Timothy Ferriss’s excellent (if lengthy) Tools for Titans, and it is obvious that I am not alone in pursuing this strategy. Physical clutter is distracting – some of us even find it distressing. Mental clutter is just as bad, perhaps worse.

And how much mental clutter we all must have! How can you live in the moment when you are worrying about what you did wrong this morning and what you have to do this evening? How can you write well when your mind is on the telephone bill?

So here are some of the things that I’ve done to reduce mental clutter.

  1. Write down as much as possible. First I carried out a brain dump of everything I had to do, everything I was worried about, and everything on my mind. This task took a while, and I kept adding to the dump over a few days.
  2. Make structured lists. Over the years I have experimented with several types of list and time management systems. Now someone with an obsessional personality has to be careful of lists – they can easily take over and become an obsession and a distraction in themselves. I recently tried a complex system of email folders with tasks for doing today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, this week, waiting for, and so on … (I am familiar with Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done system and implement a simplified version of it. I have tried dedicated software but am aiming for a simple solution.)
  3. To do. Currently I am using Apple’s Reminders, with several types of list organised by location and time. I am trying to keep it simple. I have tried complicated systems and apps and remain to be convinced that a to do list can be bettered. The important thing is that nothing gets lost, and that I know everything will be dealt with by the deadline. I don’t want to have to think about peripheral things.
  4. Removing distractions. Social media distracts us and increases mental clutter. I can’t go as far as some and remove myself completely from Facebook and Twitter, and I don’t want to delete all my email accounts (and I don’t think it would be a good idea for future employment possibilities). But I don’t need to check my email every hour. Emails generate emails. I have reached the fabled “Inbox zero”, partly by moving things I can’t do now to an appropriate folder. (Actually as I write it is Inbox 1.) There are some emails I can’t do anything about just now, either because they refer to future events or because I need to do something to be able to answer them – they are moved to a “Waiting” folder. I do feel bad about several emails in my “Weather” folder that I plan to get round to when I have time. These are questions about or suggestions for or things to add to my British weather pages (http://www.trevorharley.com/trevorharley/weather_web_pages/britweather.htm). I do feel a bit bad that people have gone to the trouble of writing to me, and I always thank them, but it’s not my day job, and my time is very limited, so I can’t process them all at once. Recognising that we have limited time is a big part of the fight. WE CAN’T DO EVERYTHING. And that means MAKING CHOICES. (Apologies for shouting these statements.)
  5. Meditation. Everyone says meditation is good for clearing the mind and improving mental focus and clarity. I though with my monkey mind find the process very difficult, and probably as a result find the benefits – so far – limited. I will persevere though. I am using Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace site; I like the structure it provides and the implicit coercion. My jury is still out on meditation.
  6. Mindfulness. At all other times I am trying to be mindful of what I am doing now. If a distracting thought arises I try to push it away or if it is something I need to pay attention to add it to my list. It is easy though for obsessive people to get obsessed with clearing our minds, so we are for ever writing down minor thoughts. We all also occasionally at least need to plan what we’re going to do: living in the present doesn’t imply drifting.

Interestingly, as I was half way through writing this blog, the following landed in my inbox and caught my eye (I know, I know):

http://calnewport.com/blog/2016/12/18/on-digital-minimalism/

Finally, we should think about whether it’s even a good idea to strive for an empty mind. Life isn’t that simple. Things are always cropping up, and surprises are always happening. Rather than avoiding shit we must learn to respond to shit in the right way. The more I think about it, the more important I think this point is: we will never achieve a perfectly empty mind. It’s our responses we need to change.

Have a good Christmas and New Year everyone. It’s a difficult time of year for people with mental health problems – if nothing else it’s so dark in the northern northern hemisphere. So just hang on in there.

Commitment and commitments

Some people seem to have more time than others. There are only 24 hours, only 1440 minutes, only 86,400 seconds available for all of us each day. Yet some make more of those minutes than others; they make their minutes count more than the rest of us.

Such a perfect day – how often can we say that, even on those rare days when we are fit, well, and happy? I usually finish the day with a profound sense of disappointment, feeling that I could and should have done more that day, which means that I should have done things differently.

I have just finished reading Mark Forster’s Secrets of Productive People: 50 Techniques To Get Things Done. I enjoyed it a great deal, and there were several thought-provoking points that stuck with me. I must admit it wasn’t quite what I expected from the title; I was hoping for an analysis of how really productive people actually spend their time (see below). Nevertheless Forster’s books are ones I would recommend to anyone interested in time management, productivity, writing, creativity, or generally living a better life.

I was particularly struck by this quote:

“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”- H. Jackson Brown Jr.

I must admit I thought I hadn’t heard of H. Jackson Brown Jr. before (it turns out that he is author of Life’s Little Instruction Book, which was a bestseller in the early 90s), but I am now sure that I have seen some of his homilies on calendars and tea towels (“Drink champagne for no reason at all” strikes a particular chord with me). Of course the meaning of the quote is obvious and indisputable, but it really brings home how some people seem to have more time than others. There are only 24 hours, only 1440 minutes, only 86,400 seconds available for all of us each day. Yet some make more of those minutes than others; they make their minutes count more than the rest of us. I accept a few people appear to need less sleep than others, but most of us need around seven to eight. Currently I seem to need seven; any less and I notice I really don’t function at all well. Saving on sleep is a false economy (sadly).

So that means I have 17 hours left after subtracting my sleep hours left every day, and let’s assume that a very successful person has about the same. But even the hardest working person must eat, exercise, shower (occasionally), dress, travel, perhaps shop occasionally, keep the house maintained, clean, pay bills, maintain social and family contacts, and so on. I outsource as many of these as possible, and try and cut back on non-essential activities, but there are limits on what you can do. You might be able to prepare two meals at once, but try going out without dressing. Please, yes try it. And maybe you can multitask a bit (although being mindful means to me that when you shower you focus on the shower and enjoying the water, not thinking about something else). So you end up with considerably fewer than 17 hours a day. I also find hard work, including writing and reading tiring, and there’s a limit on what I can that pushes the limit even lower.

Ah, but some will say, the people named in the quote were geniuses: they need less time to get big things done. Maybe. But what makes a genius? Thomas Edison observed that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”, and the latest psychological research shows that he wasn’t far wrong. Success in anything takes real commitment. We now know that although native talent has a role to play in success, above a certain level of intelligence and ability, sheer hard work and the number of hours put in matters much more than most people think. Where do these hours come from?

Are you happy with what you get done? If not, then the key point that struck me after reading Forster’s book is if you want to do more of something else, you have to do less of something you’re doing now. What are you not going to do that you’re doing? I know it seems obvious, but on reflection it struck me as profound point: if I want to do more reading, writing, and thinking, I need to stop doing something else. What?

I probably do less “inessential” stuff than many people. I don’t watch much television; I don’t go shopping; I don’t play computer games; I am fortunate enough not to have to mow my own lawn; and I count writing this blog as work. I’m not addicted (I think) to email and social media, and although I enjoy food and cooking, I don’t spend too long on it, particularly since I’ve gone on my new “diet”, and I don’t spend as much time napping as I used after making substantial lifestyle changes to fight depression. What else can I give up? Perhaps it’s time for a time audit, but they’re quite a lot of effort and I doubt it will show I waste much time. My vices are reading the opinion columns of two newspaper, but that doesn’t take long, and keeps me informed, and occasional shopping on Amazon and iTunes.

In spite of all those I still feel I have too much to do and not enough time to do it all in. I am not alone: most of us feel overloaded all the time. You might be one of lucky few who think they haven’t got enough activities to fill their days, but if so you’re probably not reading this article. We should be trying to drop things from our lives, but often we take on new stuff. We say yes to things that interest us, or yes to our managers (perhaps we have no choice), or we want to write another book or take up a new hobby. These are new commitments. But we start off already over-committed! So every time we take on a new commitment, we have to ask which of our current commitments are we going to drop (or reduce) to make room for the new one? I want to get back to playing the piano. So what should I drop that I’m currently doing, when I already feel under tremendous time pressure?

So if you want to take on something new, or find more time, you first have to choose something to drop something you’re currently doing. Obvious perhaps, and easy to say, but much less easy to do.

Over-loading creates other pressures. Most people I know say they’re drowning in a sea of email. Many have hundreds (at least one chap I know is almost proud to say that he has thousands) of emails in their inbox. That’s obviously inefficient – I bet if you’re one of these people you’re wading through the same emails day after day, and often miss important, job-critical commitments. It involves handling the same piece of virtual paper more than once, often many times. And exactly when are you going to deal with the backlog? Most people say “one day”, but one day rarely if ever comes. (My favourite email tip is one I learned about some time ago – perhaps from a previous book of Forster: never answer an email the same day that you get it, unless the consequences will be really terrible – or, I suppose, unless you’re conducting a romance by email.)

Every successful person I have read about swears by their routine. I’ve talked about creativity and routine before. It’s a little tedious, perhaps, doing the same thing at the day after day, year after year, but successful people make time for their perspiration by sweating it out at the same time, every day.

Managing time is even more difficult for people with mental illness. Illness steals time. The unfairness of it all burns, but I think it has just to be accepted. We will never get as much done as “normal” people.

Finally, I am still very interested in my original idea of how some people to get so much done in a day. I would really love to interview an assortment of politicians, Nobel prize winners, Silicon Valley success stories, and business magnates, to find out what they do differently from me. Publishers and agents: if you want to commission such a book, please contact me! If you think you are particularly successful in life and have tips to share, please post a comment below or email me at trevor.harley@mac.com.

Big baby: Taking responsibility for our lives

It’s not my fault my blood pressure is too high, manufacturers put too much salt in processed food. Let’s sue the food multinationals! It’s not my fault I tripped up, the council should have put more effort into levelling the pavement. Let’s sue the council! It’s not my fault that I’m fat because I stuff my face with chips, it’s the shops for selling them. Let’s sue the shops! Let’s appoint a government chip tsar to tell me to eat fewer chips! And a salt tsar, and a council tsar, and chip tsar, and a tsar tsar to look after them! And when anything goes wrong, let’s sue the tsar tsar!

I’ve read a lot of life coaching sites and books, and there’s a strong belief that taking responsibility for your life, mistakes, and happiness is essential for personal growth and mental health. It certainly sounds plausible, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence, but I’ve found experimental data hard to come by. It’s the sort of idea that would be very difficult to test in practice. We do know from the work of Victor Frankl that the people who found purpose and meaning in their lives, who accepted their situation and who took responsibility for their lives, were those who were most likely to survive in concentration camps. So taking responsibility and accepting the situation can save our lives.

Then there is the well-known related result that when we are successful, we think that it is due to our efforts, and when we fail in some way, we have been unlucky; but when other people  are successful, they’re lucky, and when they fail, it’s because they didn’t try hard enough. [If you want to find out more, the original source is Jones and Nisbett’s (1971) work on the actor-observer bias. In terms of attribution theory we generally prefer external attribution to facing the possibility that we are at fault (that is, internal attribution); this work dates back to Fritz Heider in the late fifties. The fundamental attribution error is the name given to the cognitive bias that we overestimate internal factors in explaining the behaviour of others, while underestimating their role in our own behaviour.]

The other side of responsibility is blame. It is YOUR fault that I didn’t succeed at doing this or never even tried doing that in the first place. The UK is now starting to resemble the USA in being a blame culture, full of lawyers and ambulance chasers and people taking out insurance without reading the small print and then blaming the banks, and people eating too much and blaming the food manufacturers and supermarkets and advertisers. In researching this blog I came across the following, unattributed, quotation: “When you blame others, you give up your power to change”. That rings very true to me.

It’s not a healthy situation, either for society or for ourselves.

Self-employed creatives have it harder than most. Although being self-employed as a writer (or retired, depending on your perspective) is liberating, it is also frightening. Writers are wholly responsible for their own work. If anything goes wrong, they only have themselves to blame. Employees do as they’re told, however high-level their job: in the end they have tasks they have to do, and places they have to be – and if they don’t do them, or if they’re not there, ultimately they get fired. But if I don’t write my two thousand words today I can’t fire myself or sue the council. Being responsible for your own time is also dangerous because it’s so easy to misuse it. Procrastination must surely be the writer’s biggest enemy – why do today what can be put off until tomorrow? Writers must take responsibility for their time.

When however we apply the idea of responsibility to mental illness the issues are less clear. I’m not saying we should blame ourselves for our illness. Why am I mad? The reasons are complex; it’s not one’s person’s fault, it’s just the way it is. But there’s no point feeling sorry for ourselves either – in fact wallowing will just make things worse. If we can’t blame others for our predicament, we can at least take responsibility for our mental health and trying to get better. Yes, I know there are times when you’re unable to get out of bed, or move from the chair – I’ve been there. But most of us have some better days, and then we can make a plan to live by.

The first step, which surprisingly many don’t take, is to acknowledge to yourself that you’re ill. Or, if you’d rather, that you have a particular set of problems. Life isn’t going to be as easy for you as the cheery soul at the next desk who is never faced by self doubt, never wants to spend a week in bed in tears, and who has never thought about suicide. We are, I’m afraid, different. We have it harder.

The second step is to implement the plan. I’ve talked in another blog about what we can do to improve our mental health, and how physical health is an important part of mental health.

The final step, which even fewer take, is to come out; perhaps we don’t quite have to go so dare as  to say we’re glad to be mad, but we can at least announce that we’re mad.

How are we ever going to remove the stigma of mental illness if we ourselves are embarrassed about it, or if we try to hide our problems from others? Would you hide cancer or a heart attack? Are people ashamed about having arthritis? Of course not. Unless we decide there is no shame in being depressed, or obsessive-compulsive, or schizophrenic, how can we expect other people to think anydifferently?

 

References

Jones, E. & Nisbett, R. (1971). The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. New York: General Learning Press.

Note: The title of this blog is a nod to Michael Bywater’s excellent book Big babies, arguing that that is what we’ve all turned into.

Obsession

Depression alone is bad enough, but unfortunately it is rarely a pure affliction: people with mental health issues are usually doomed to suffer many versions of misery. Depression and anxiety go together, so much so that many researchers believe that there is a deep relationship between the two. Unsurprisingly then, both benefit from the same sorts of pharmaceutical treatment (SSRIs).

Anxiety comes in many forms, and many of us suffer from more than one. At different times I’ve had my share of social anxiety, generalised anxiety, panic attacks, agoraphobia, and other phobias. I have found that one of the most striking – I want to avoid the word distressing because all forms of anxiety are distressing to those who suffer from them – is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). When I was a young teenager my life was blighted by OCD, often in florid forms. In the night I would go down the stairs dozens of times to check that the front door was shut; I would get up multiple times throughout the night to check that my bus pass was still in my school jacket pocket; I would repeat things in multiples of three. I was afraid of contamination, the idea that germs and disease could spread by touching something that touched something that touched something, or even by having seen someone with a disease. I would then wash my hands several times (in multiples of three of course). I was afraid other people could read my thoughts, or would misinterpret an innocent gesture as an offensive one, so would apologise inwardly to them (in powers of three; twenty seven sorries is bad enough, but just try eighty one).

All classic stuff. I didn’t know what OCD was then, and I just suffered, alone, in misery. OCD is, to use a cliché, living hell, and it’s even worse if you think you are alone and have no idea what’s going on. In retrospect something should have been done about it, but I just grew out of it. Mostly – I still have a tendency to overcheck things, usually three times, but no more, and only occasionally, so it doesn’t bother me. We can live with some pathology. Being obsessive even has its advantages as an academic; there’s nothing wrong with checking your data a few times, or being careful about proof reading and checking your facts are right. Being a writer is sometimes obsessive; we often feel a pressure to write. I think you need to be a bit obsessive just to overcome all the negative feedback writers get. The boundary between OCD and having an obsessive personality isn’t always clear – as ever the problems start when what we do makes us unhappy, or interferes with our lives. We also have a problem if our behaviour doesn’t make us unhappy, but affects those around us.

As with all mental illness, the precise causes are unknown, but as with depression there is almost certainly there’s both a genetic and environmental component. The brains of people with OCD look different, but again whether that’s a result or cause of the illness, or whether both result from something else, is not know.

But not all obsessions involve an obvious compulsion other than one to keep the obsession going.  We all have things we worry about from time to time. Most of us are familiar with “ear worms”, tunes that get stuck in your head. I suffer very badly from these (I speculate it’s to do with my psychopathology). It can drive me mad – or more precisely even madder than I already am. They’re the strangest tunes too – I once endured a week of John Denver singing “Annie’s song” non-stop. Worst of all though are obsessive thoughts, the rumination on particular events, ideas, or people that takes over our minds. It is horrible. The compulsion, in as much as there is one, is to continue the obsession. The thoughts – bad thoughts – involve regret, guilt, and fear. When I was in my OCD phase as a teenager at the end of every school term I would struck by the idea that I had done something wrong, and the school holiday would then be ruined by the fear of punishment that would await me on my return at the start of the next term. Of course I never had done anything, and was never punished; it was all in my head. It’s impossible to reason yourself out of OCD.

I think obsessive thinking is verging on psychosis, because things really are out of control. We might refuse to accept that the obsession is irrational, and some people might even act upon their obsessions – I assume that is how people become stalkers. I just suffer though.

Obsessions without compulsion is called “primarily obsessional OCD”. I was encouraged to see that the Wikipedia entry on OCD says that “Primarily obsessional OCD has been called one of the most distressing and challenging forms of OCD”; it’s more than distressing, it’s mental agony. I almost envy people with OCD because at least enacting the compulsion provides a little relief, no matter how short.

However illogical and crazy the behaviour might seem to someone who has never experience OCD, it is impossible to reason your way out of the illness. You can’t tell yourself that it’s irrational to wash your hands so many times. First, the compulsion is stronger than our belief system. And second, there is always a grain of truth we can cling to – it is just possible that a disease might be passed on by touching something that was touched by someone who touched someone with a disease, for example. There is though a clear treatment plan for OCD that involves breaking the link between obsession and compulsion. One of the best books I have read on OCD is Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior, by Jeffrey M. Schwartz. He identifies four stages in treatment: relabel (you must recognise what is obsessive and clearly label it as such); reattribute (this thought is not me – it’s my OCD); refocus (the really hard bit, where you have to shift attention, at least for a while); and revalue (to take the whole cycle as something not to be taken as face value, and to adapt the view of a more impartial observer – being mindful). He suggests gradually building up a delay between having the compulsion and having to do it – you might only be able to manage a few seconds at first, but you increase it, perhaps very slowly.

Such treatments, while effective for dealing with the compulsive actions, don’t immediately help us in being able to stop the bad thoughts coming in the first place. In a recent bout, ruminating on a mistake I had made, I tried saying internal loudly and firmly, “It was my choice”, which I eventually simplified to a loud “STOP!” in my inner speech. This approach eventually worked – or the bout blew itself out. A friend told me that a common technique is to visualise a STOP road sign, and I have since tried combining visualising the sign with thinking STOP! It is exhausting work though; bloody exhausting. At least my obsessions appear to have a natural life span, and eventually, after much pain, they eventually peter out.

The intrusiveness of thoughts is one reason why I find meditation so difficult. My thoughts just won’t go away. Even when counting breaths the thoughts overwhelm my inner voice counting. There is a paradox here because if I could just be mindful and live in the present, I wouldn’t be so obsessed by Bad Thoughts, but the Bad Thoughts stop me being able to attend to the present. Coming back to the now and trying to be present does help me when I’m being obsessive, and I think it’s a skill at which one can get better with practice.

I am grateful to and encouraged by everyone who has written to me about my blog. So many people suffer alone; it is time to stop the stigma of mental illness. For a long time I thought I was alone in suffering from obsessional thinking; if we all shared more we would be less isolated, less frightened, and maybe just a little better off. Please feel free to share this blog with whoever you might think would benefit from it.

 

 

Retiring and getting old

Mar 15 eclipse 6Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
– Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night”

I realise that at least part of my recent mental malaise is to do with “retiring” and getting old. There’s been a lot of personal stuff too, which is also related to ageing, being alone, contemplating death childless and alone. There has been an unfortunate conjunction of traumas coinciding with nearing the end of the day job. Heavy shit has been going down, as they say.
As of writing this sentence, today I have 40 days left in the wilderness as an employee. Unfortunately many people are insisting on calling it my retirement. It’s only a word, but it gets to you, after a while. Many people don’t want to retire; many do and then regret it; a few look forward to it and really enjoy it. I must admit to having doubts. Suppose I can’t cut the mustard on my own? Suppose instead of writing I drift and each day follows the preceding one in a (hopefully) long line before the grave? Suppose I write and it’s no good? Suppose I have only a life of grinding poverty to which to look forward? Suppose (particularly living in the country) I become socially isolated? Suppose I never find love? Suppose I become more and more inward looking? Suppose I starve? Suppose I trip over my teddy bear and break a leg; how long would I lie there before anyone notices? And because I’ve been so unwell recently I’ve written very little, and that makes me feel like a failure, which in turn makes me feel more depressed …
I’m pretty sure I’m doing the right thing but doubts about major transitions are perhaps only natural. I’m not enjoying my job any more, and so much of it seems pointless. I’ve recently been so mentally ill I don’t think I’ll be able to do the job properly much longer. I don’t think it’s fair on my colleagues to have to carry me. Already I feel like I don’t have the energy or enthusiasm to carry out really good novel research any more; I was out of it as a manager for too long. I tootled along with research for a while. but am now out of tootling. It’s time to let someone younger have a go. There are things I want to do and can do; I believe I can still make a contribution through writing. So my plan is to maximise time for how I think I can make a difference. But I am doubting the plan. I am doubting whether I can execute the plan.
Why do people not rage more about getting old? It’s horrible. Why do so many go against Dylan Thomas and go gentle into that good night? Most other people I know either accept the prospect of getting old and infirm and then dying, or don’t even see that there’s an issue. Why am I cursed to be so different? Why can’t I just accept getting it like everyone else?
Perhaps we all rage against the dark, but most people keep do so quietly. The highest suicide rate of all is among elderly men. Am I an elderly man yet? We’re lonely, we feel useless, we feel that we’re a burden, we look at young people around us enjoying themselves and feel envy and regret. Our bodies afflict us with increasing troubles and increasing pain. People expect us to be depressed in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated in other demographic groups. Those of us alone and without children are even worse off. Although as far as I can tell everyone who is severely depressed feels very alone, even if they surrounded by friends and family, so perhaps really being alone doesn’t matter as much as I think it does. I don’t know.
Leaving a job is one of the great transitions in life – particularly for academics, who tend to stay in the same career all their lives, and often at the same institution for decades. I know many people who have only worked at the same place from the beginning of their careers. We lose our focus, our purpose, our social setting, all one day. Overnight any meaning in our life has gone. It is sad to define meaning and purpose in terms of work, but for many work does much more than pay the bills.
On another note, I consider it possible that the relapse has been exacerbated by cutting back on my medication – particularly the quetiapine. I was boasting about this success only two blogs ago, but it could be that as the drugs fell beneath a critical level the depression and anxiety kicked in when life events conspired. My resilience has gone. So my healthcare professionals have urged me to increase the dose again, at least in the short term. I hate it. I hate the sedated feeling, the necessity to sleep so much, and I live in fear of starting to put on weight again after I’ve fought so hard to lose a little. And I particularly hate the fact I can’t concentrate on anything. No wonder I can’t write. I can’t even read much, and that makes me feel like a failure, which in turn makes me feel even more depressed …
Last year I experimented with reducing the dose of my anti-depressant, Duloxetine (Cymbalta), and that experiment was a disaster for my mood. Within five days of increasing the dose again I started to feel better. It could be that I will need this dose of both drugs for ever. And that makes me feel like a failure, which in turn makes me feel more depressed …
Once I have left the job perhaps my life will be defined by having to empty the dishwasher every day, or periodically buy a new tube of toothpaste. It’s these things that I find to be overwhelming, and that make me think most of that savage god, suicide. (I have been reading Andrew Solomon’s The noonday demon, and am relieved to find that he thinks exactly the same way.) I do the dishes today and fuck it, they need doing again tomorrow. It overwhelms me. What is the bloody point?