The past 48 hours for one reason or another have crystallised some important thinking I’ve been doing over the past few months. These events (not ones that need to be described here) provide an opportunity to bring about some change, specifically to provide an opportunity to reset personal and professional priorities.
Here’s the top line. For the next few months I’m going to pause Thoroughly Good activities. I want to use the time to focus more on my professional work, and a lifelong challenge that I need to get my head around. There are two more engagements I’ll cover over on the blog over the next six weeks, and then I’m hoping to pause.
I’m using this blog post to explain the full context so that anyone looking to get in touch will understand what’s going on.
Where to begin? Well, the admission that I am an angry person. I’ve been angry for years but never really realised it, ever since I was a kid. The only problem has been (maybe up until 2003) that I haven’t felt able or allowed to express that anger. I have turned it in on myself. For most of my life (I’m talking way back to when I was ten or eleven years old) turning it in on myself has been incredibly self-destructive. You may not have seen it externally, but it has been ever-present.
There was one time I hurt someone. It was at school. I was ten years old. I was bullied (or teased – I’m still not really clear where the line is between the two). Aware of the advice I was receiving at home about stopping being ‘a cissy’, stopping crying, and generally ‘toughening up’, I responded in the way I thought might once and for all bring the bullying to an end.
The focus of my attention was a chap in my class who on that particular day the source of never-ending snidey remarks that as far as I was concerned were intended to whip up the rest of the class into a bit of a frenzy. I remember grabbing him by the collar and pushed him against the wall, and I knee-d him in the groin. Repeatedly.
It is a distinct memory. I remember the colour of the walls. The view out of the window towards the lunch hall. The floor was dusty. We were wearing blue airtext shirts (so it must have been the summer term). All the class surrounded me and him and yet I don’t recall anyone stopping us, nor do I recall any teacher subsequently stopping me or holding either of us to account.
I only stopped when I noticed his lips had started turning blue. I remember thinking then how odd it was that his lips were blue, and how the corrective action I needed to take was so instinctive and immediate. We both of dusted ourselves down and got on with the rest of the day. Nobody said anything at all. It seemed utterly bizarre, and yet also utterly normal. I’ll come back to this anecdote later on.
Nowadays I get incredibly angry with my own actions when they don’t go the way I want them to go. I am phenomenally impatient. I get irritated very quickly. And I voice that irritation. They are reactions to fairly insignificant things, but the reaction – away from everyone else – has nearly always been disproportionate to the trigger itself. I will generally experience internal rage at injustice, boundaries being crossed, people saying no, etc.
This ‘angry reaction’ has always been there, and because it has so I’ve never really confronted it. There is a paradox to the way I have seen it though:
‘This can’t be proper anger of the kind I read about in my studies, because this is so every day that everyone must experience it. Everyone clenches their fist and roars when their PC doesn’t perform quickly enough, or when they bite into their bottom lip or tongue, or when they mess up winding up the cable to the Dyson, don’t they? So this isn’t proper anger.’
This assessment – a sort of denial I experience ‘proper anger’ – is as I have come to understand a form of disassociation – a habit the brain forms to distance itself from trauma early on in life. A method of protecting itself. The flip side, as I understand it, is that the brain can distance itself from feelings like anger, fear, loss, or presumably love.
Disassociation has its useful side. In journalism the ability to distance yourself from the subject you’re writing about is handy. Not getting emotionally attached to a story makes it possible to write about it. I know of doctors and nurses whose ability to disassociate from their patients makes them more resilient in the workplace. For me, disassociation has helped me write. It makes me fearless. It helps me see the bigger picture in a lot of situations. Disassociation helps writing about oneself to a certain extent. But there is a pay-off when it’s called out and that which lurks below is finally confronted.
This was something which emerged during conversations with a therapist a year or so ago. I’d started exploring grief in conversations with the therapist following a catastrophic stroke suffered by my mother (she’s now in a nursing home). I was experiencing levels of rage that were unfamiliar to me – almost overwhelming. This was not like the examples I’d explained at the top of this post but something far rawer. It was as though something was boiling up inside.
In our conversations, I was able to understand how events in our family history which I had experienced as a kid (one of which was the hospitalisation of my father following a serious accident) had resulted in me ‘disassociating’ – essentially seeing what was going on around me but not actually ‘feeling’ it. This was a way of protecting oneself and the habit had stuck around for years – meaning experiencing what most other people do in a reasonably healthy normal way wasn’t something I’d been able to do.
It was as though I observed and reported traumatic events to others but wasn’t able to articulate what it felt like (even though I could recall endless specific details about it) It was just like the view on anger I explained earlier on. ‘Yes these events occurred because I was present at them but they’re not really anything to do with me. So I can’t claim them as mine. It’s not my story.’
But here’s the thing that surprised me. When disassociation is identified as it was in therapy it has the effect of opening a door to feelings which had previously been hidden away or suppressed. Experiencing feelings of pain, love, anger, frustration or even joy, can as a result feel all-consuming and overwhelming.
Revisiting classroom incident I mentioned earlier, I now experience something entirely different. It’s no longer just reporting it but feeling it. I experience fear, panic, and inordinate amounts of shame. I see that event in my mind’s eye and crumble at the way in which my emotions took over in a split second. I am thankful that something else kicked in that prompted me to stop. But what I’m left with is the horror realising now forty years on what exactly was going on there. Our emotions can if unchecked have devastating consequences.
One of the most startling effects of this incredible six-week period of sessions was how in a very short space of time ten years’ worth of milestone events that shaped my period at school were suddenly reframed. For thirty years I had assumed for example that my mental health struggles throughout the nineties were solely the result of a sexual assault in 1991. This would have been a reasonable conclusion to arrive at. But what if it was the conclusion of a series of events which I had responded to in a dissociated state over the previous ten years. I recall learning last year how nervous breakdowns (perhaps wrongly labelled as such) are the brain’s way of saying ‘I need a reboot – give me time to reboot’.
So two things occurred during those six weeks of sessions, the door was opened to feelings I’ve not viscerally experienced before and a significant period of my formative years had been reframed in an instant. A great many things slotted into place and a greater sense of self-confidence followed.
All well and good. But why the need to pause now?
By feeling things more readily now, I also see the extent to which I sometimes act on my feelings. I see it most in my writing. More often than not I am either able to channel those feelings into good writing, or as in the case of recent events I see how angry, impassioned, or misdirected outbursts have the potential to damage not just myself but others.
“Don’t throw the baby out with the bath-water,” is some sage advice just this morning offered to me. True, but there is an opportunity here to reset priorities, focus solely on revenue-generating activities, allowing me a little more time to read the manual a little more closely on how to respond to feelings in a non-dissociative state. (It feels a little like being a teenager again, and I have to admit. I hated being a teenager, truth be told.)
So, aside from two classical music engagements this week and at the beginning of the next month, Thoroughly Good is on a hiatus for a few months. I’ll still be engaged in my professional work, of course. But I’m going to give it all a test run to see what positive impact I can have. If its professional engagement – ie paid writing – then all to the good. But I think, for the time being at least, a pause is best.