44 Pages Of Therapy Gold

I’ve only read a quarter of When Things Fall Apart, but it’s changed my life already

It’s a bit of a swizz, this post, because it’s based on a book I’ve only read a quarter of – and probably understood even less.

But I’m so excited by the ideas I’ve found in it already, I couldn’t wait to talk about them.

The book I’m taking about is When Things Fall Apart (Heart Advice For Difficult Times) by the American Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, which was recommended recently by Matt Haig in The Guardian.

Haig – whose own writing on mental health has helped me gather my shit together many times over the years – described it as a guide to building resilience, through embracing suffering as an integral part of life.

“Only by accepting an uncertain world can we ever experience joy,” Haig wrote, which I thought sounded a bit heavy…

But, Hell, I really could do with more resilience, and I’m always looking for a mental health tip or two.

Besides, the detective novel I was reading was pretty thin stuff, and I needed something a bit more satisfying.

So far, I’ve read precisely 44 of the 189 pages in When Things Fall Apart, but some of Chodron’s ideas have already convinced me she’s onto something special.

Disappointment and embarrassment are a sort of death”

“Basically, disappointment, embarrassment and all those places where we just cannot feel good are a sort of death,” Chodron says. “We’ve lost our ground completely; we are unable to hold it together and feel that we’re on top of things.”

As someone who suffers from feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy, there’s something liberating about this acknowledgement of how self-annihilating and hurtful they can be.

And it’s even better that, as the book goes on, Chodron tells how we can learn to co-exist more happily with difficult emotions, using meditation and mindfulness techniques.

We use all kinds of ways to escape”

Another passage that made me sit up and think was Chodron’s description of the isolated monastery in Nova Scotia where she teaches: “there are very few means of escape – no lying, no stealing, no alcohol, no sex, no exit.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve indulged heavily in at least two of those activities, and – maybe drinking aside – they never really struck me as escapes from mental pain.

Right after reading that sentence, however, I felt that Chodron had some sort of key to my psyche, and that I already understood myself better.

She expands on her theme later, saying “We use all kinds of ways to escape – all addictions stem from (a) moment where we reach our edge and we just can’t stand it.

“We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.”

Fittingly, for a book that stresses the importance of maitri – the Nepalese word for loving kindness towards oneself – reading that my questionable behaviours could in fact be attempts to escape from negative emotions has already given me greater self-acceptance and compassion.  

The truth is, things don’t really get solved.”

Another thing I hate about myself is that my worst problems never seem to get solved – it makes me think of myself as some kind of loser, unable to get ‘over’ them.

And thinking like this is quite prevalent in Western society – where we’re sold on the idea of being masters of our own destinies; of being able to do anything if we want it badly enough.

Think of a Hollywood film, where the climax is usually to do with the hero achieving his – sometimes her – goal, and triumphing over their demons.

Conversely, those of us who don’t achieve a perfect life are seen as somehow weak or lacking, and made of inferior clay. 

But according to Chodron, none of us ever really gets a grip on our problems: it’s part of being human that difficulties flare up for a while, get better, and then get worse again.

“We think the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is things don’t really get solved,” she writes – a statement that matches my own experience of life perfectly.

“They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together and they fall apart again. It’s just like that.”

For Chodron, “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing” and, if we can accept difficult and painful feelings as part of life, it can help us feel better.

“The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy”, she writes, adding that we can learn to live with our feelings in a neutral, instead of a self-blaming, way. 

Have you seen that before in the gift shop?

Speaking of Hollywood films, buying and reading a self-help book based on Buddhist principles reminded me of the scene in Doctor Strange, when Strange dismisses the oriental philosophy of monk Tilda Swinton as a “gift shop” con.

She responds by sending him on a mind-bending, unnerving tour of the multiverse and – when he returns via the monastery roof and falls at her feet – quips: “Have you seen that before in the gift shop?”

I’ve long been lazily attracted to some aspects of Buddhism – the ‘do no harm’ aspect, in particular – but I was Strangely sceptical about buying this book, even with Haig’s recommendation.

I worried that When Things Fall Apart might be full of the useless, fluffy thinking I’ve found in far too many self-help books – but, so far, it’s been quite the opposite.

In fact, its accent on acceptance chimes in well with the work of Western therapists I like, such as the podcaster Richard Nicholls.

And although it contains sections and statements that I don’t completely understand yet, it already feels like a valuable life guide for many years to come.

* Having looked at a few reviews of When Things Fall Apart on Goodreads, I read one comment arguing that some therapists consider it a “victim-blaming book”, and “unsuitable reading for victims of rape and other traumas.” I’ve found the book gentle and soothing thus far, but I’m not a victim of traumas like these, and so thought I should include this caveat for anyone affected by them.

When Times Get Tough, I Buy Shoes: Running Shoes.

I’m depressed again, but I don’t need happy pills. I just need to run more.

Original images: Mizianitka/Pixabay and doc Price/Unsplash

I’ve been feeling depressed again recently, for the first time in a long while.

I had a knockback at work which – as is my wont – I took quite badly.

And then, there was the end of summer. After the heatwave in mid-August, there were weeks of unseasonal, autumnal storms and heavy rain. I started to sense the short dark days and the long black nights a-coming. And I didn’t like it.

I’ve never been the type of person who takes adversity in his stride and just ploughs on.

Instead, I’ve been having unwanted, and exhausting, automatic thoughts again. Stuff I haven’t heard for a while, like: I should just kill myself.

My mind is like a stuck record I can’t lift the stylus off”

This doesn’t actually mean that I’m suicidal, but it does show that my thinking has slipped back into a familiar, negative groove that I’d managed to escape until recently. Now, my mind is a bit like a stuck record I can’t lift the stylus off.

But even if I’m not suicidal, I’m not very happy with my life, either. I’m angry at a lot of the decisions I’ve made and I don’t currently see a lot of point in me, or what I’m doing here on this Earth.

If I’d been filling in one of those mood checklists for a GP or psychologist – “How Often Did You Feel Hopeless?”; “How Often Did You Feel Worthless? – they’d be reaching for a prescription pad and writing Sertraline! or something similar, in large, clear letters.

But, having been off happy pills for almost four years now, going back on them would seem like a real defeat.

Besides, I don’t think I’m in enough trouble to need pills yet: I know from experience what I need to do to get back on track, even though it’s so boring, having to go through the whole recovery rigmarole yet again…

First, I tell my wife and kids about how I’m feeling, so they didn’t think I’m just being an arsehole for no reason. Then I sign myself off sick for a week and sit very quietly.

Last week, I read crime and fantasy novels for hours on end, which helped distract me from thinking about all the things I sucked at.

Then, when I felt stronger, I listened to some psychology podcasts. I Googled ‘overcoming rejection’ and eventually came up with a plan.

What the podcasts and the Googling told me was that I needed more things to look forward to in my life.

Planning future treats isn’t so easy due to Covid-19, and it’s not really the time to start splurging”

But planning future treats isn’t so easy in the age of Coronavirus, especially given the way that the Government is merrily blowing up holiday air bridges between here and the rest of the world. Then there’s the fact that most sport, leisure, and entertainment is still risky or off-limits, due to Covid-19.

This week, my wife and I should have been at a rescheduled Lloyd Cole show, but it’s been cancelled again and pushed back until April. Anyway, what with mass employment (possibly including mine) looming, it’s not really the time to start splurging.

The only thing I can imagine looking forward to this winter is running by the river”

And so, I decided that I would go running. Or, to be accurate, go running more.

Call it a failure of imagination or ambition if you will, but the only thing I can imagine looking forward to this winter is running by the river, alone and free.

Because the longer and further I run, and the stronger my body gets, the easier it will be to pick my sense of self-worth off the floor.

“The shoes are just the first step… before I know it, maybe I’ll have a life again”

This week, then, I went out and bought new running shoes – splurging £75 on a fresh pair of New Balance that will see me safely into the spring.

I am so skint right now that £75 is a serious outlay. But I know that the happiness and endorphin boost the shoes will guarantee me – two or three times a week for the next six months – actually makes them a steal.  

And maybe the shoes are just the first step. If I’m running seriously, and feeling happier about meeting people, I might get back into yoga again – because a strong core and flexibility are good for my running, while thinking that I’m worth the investment in classes will be good for my mind.

Gradually, I’ll build up a new routine – another thing that helps us out of a rut, apparently – and then, before I know it, maybe I’ll have a life again. 

Just My Inbetweeners

I’m done with books that are just OK, now that my longed-for novel has arrived

A book with flowers

I’M STOKED this morning – just because I’m getting a new book.

I’m having to ram my arse down deep into my seat to make myself work, instead of doing what I desperately want to do: leap on my bike and point the wheels towards Waterstones, so I can finally pick up my longed-for new reading matter. 

I’ve been stalking this particular historical detective story– Execution, by SJ Parris – for almost a year now. As its publication date shifted, agonisingly, from early spring to mid-summer, I tracked it like Shere Khan followed Mowgli through the tall grass.

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So, Have I Got Coronavirus, Or Not?

It’s time to recognise that there might be more Covid-19 symptoms than we think

When Matt Hancock returned to work after recovering from Covid-19, he told the BBC about the “Incredibly painful throat” that had been one of his main symptoms.

“It was like having glass in (there),” said the Health Secretary.

But when I got a sore throat just over a week ago, I didn’t immediately think: Coronavirus.

I thought it was just a passing thing, possibly hay fever. It was fine the next day, but then came back much worse – accompanied now by an aching in my limbs that reached to my fingertips.

I tried to watch telly with the family, but I was grumpy, and my wife ended up sending me to bed.

And, just in case, she told me to sleep in the top room on my own.

Continue reading “So, Have I Got Coronavirus, Or Not?”

How Coronavirus Can Lead To A Better World

Things can change – and yes, walls can come tumbling down!

The coronavirus as a wrecking ball
Original images: Sylvain Acher/Pixabay; Pete Linforth/Pixabay

THERE IS, literally, something in the air at the moment.

It may just be coincidence but, when I switched on the radio this morning, they were playing Walls Come Tumbling Down.

Remember that? Paul Weller’s rabble rouser from 1985, the zenith of Thatcherism, when he tried bravely to convince us that things didn’t have to be this way.

“You don’t have to take this crap,” Weller sang, adding: “Are you gonna try and make this work, or spend your days down in the dirt?

Well, we all know how that went…. two years later, Maggie got voted in again, and then John Major succeeded her. It wasn’t until 1997 that we got another progressive government.

Today, of course, there’s yet another Tory just been installed at Number 10, and still no end in sight to their dominance of UK politics.

And yet… the sense that things can change is perhaps more tangible these days than at any time since the 1940s.

What’s made the difference is, in a word: Coronavirus.

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I’m Pretty Fucking Far From OK

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, so I’ll be honest: I’ve had it up to here with this m************ lockdown

Ving Rhames and Bruce Willis in a scene from Pulp Fiction

“ARE YOU OK? Are you all well?”

Have you noticed that, since the start of lockdown, people are asking questions like that and sounding as if they actually mean them, for once?

It’s one of the nicer aspects of being in the middle of a global pandemic – a sense that the person asking actually cares how you are, and isn’t just doing it out of politeness.

I reckon this comes from a tacit acceptance that we’re all vulnerable at the moment – so it’s all right to admit to a certain weakness.

Which is not the worst way to be in Mental Health Awareness Week.

But even now, when someone asks if I’m OK, I’m not laying my entire soul on the line.

I might say something guardedly revealing of certain susceptibilities – and then slap back on the stiff upper lip and add: “Of course we’re coping better than expected.”

So it’s not exactly full disclosure – but this is: today I feel pretty fucking far from OK.

Continue reading “I’m Pretty Fucking Far From OK”

How Putting On Weight In Lockdown Made Me More Humble

Coronavirus has helped me accept that it’s fine to be like everyone else

Man measuring his waist
Image: Michal Jarmoluk/Pixabay

I’ve been thinking a lot about over-indulging while we’ve been in lockdown – and I know I’m not the only one.

The other day, a friend sent a list of Coronavirus phrases trending on What’sApp, including “Covid-10” – meaning the extra 10lbs some of us have put on through comfort eating and drinking since March 23.

In the UK, alcohol sales jumped by 22 per cent in March, while the tendency to binge and put on weight – also known as “fattening the curve” – was likewise observed in countries that went into lockdown before us. 

When the UK followed Italy indoors, the novelist Francesca Melandri wrote from Rome to warn us of the changes that would take place in our lives, many of them involving food.

“First of all, you’ll eat,” Melandri warned. “Not just because it will be one of the few last things that you can still do… You’ll eat again. You will not sleep well… You will put on weight. You’ll look for online fitness training…You will eat again.”

Continue reading “How Putting On Weight In Lockdown Made Me More Humble”

Lockdown = Getting Weird Shit Done

Coronavirus is making us strangely productive – the allotment has never looked so good, we’re righting decades-old wrongs and… bleaching carrier bags

“Someone’s got too much time on their hands” Image: mrshit50s

Conventional wisdom says that it’s The Devil who makes work for idle hands to do.

But, if our family is anything to go by, the lockdown has actually unleashed the work ethic and creative juices that lurk – if you look hard enough – in the breast of every right-thinking Brit.

We’re still working from home but – as we don’t have to spend time on commuting, make-up or dressing properly – we have become wildly productive in some unexpected areas.

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Who’s Up For Homes Fit For Heroes II?

It’s all very well clapping them every Thursday night, but why not thank key workers properly when the Coronavirus storm blows over?

AT THE END of World War One, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George promised to build 500,000 new homes as a reward for the sacrifices ordinary people had made.

Only 200,000 of them were completed, but for many of those lucky enough to move into a new home, it was their first experience of electricity, running water, bathrooms, indoor toilets and gardens.

By 1939, more than a million council houses had been built across the UK, and in 1948 – three years after victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two – the Government again thanked people for their fortitude with the creation of the National Health Service (applause!).

The Coronavirus pandemic is perhaps the greatest challenge to face this country – and the world – since the 1940s, with ordinary people likes nurses, care home workers and bus drivers again at the forefront of the fight.

When all of this has blown over – and we look at ways of saying ‘Thank You’ to our key workers – we could do worse than building them somewhere decent to live again.

Continue reading “Who’s Up For Homes Fit For Heroes II?”

How I Gave My Kids The Beer-o-Virus

It isn’t just Covid-19 that’s catching in lockdown London

Original Images: Vektor Kunst and Clker Free Images/Pixabay

BACK WHEN the Coronavirus was just getting warmed up, I woke for a few days in a row with some worrying symptoms.

My throat was tender, my body was hot and sore, and I had a blinding headache.

I started to tell my wife, already imagining being isolated in the top room.

I pictured myself sweating and moaning on the lumpy sofa bed, constant bloody Netflix, meals left outside on trays…

Which was when I remembered the five beers I’d had the night before and realised that I didn’t have Coronavirus: it was just a hangover.

“You’ve got the Beer-o-Virus,” my Better Half declared.

Continue reading “How I Gave My Kids The Beer-o-Virus”