Why things aren’t so bad

If you read the last one, you could be forgiven for thinking that my life was a pretty big mess. Fortunately this isn’t truly the case. You see when I go, I’ve gone. If I am really having a bad time then that seeps into my thoughts and behaviours. If I feel bad, I think bad and I wrote those bad thoughts down. What I should endeavour to do is write the good ones, or continually detract and chisel away at the bad ones in order to make them into good. It is not uncommon for me to need other people to do this for me. I had a meeting with my supervisors yesterday after not producing work for the last week. I dreaded it a lot, and it went really well (of course). One of my supervisors has incredible perception into thoughts and feelings. He managed to point out that one of the things I was feeling so bad about (fixing somebody else’s very old code for a colleague of ours) is not my own responsibility, and I am assigning too much accountability to myself. The reality is that this task was always going to be difficult, and one of the major problems with it is that it is so old, and the architecture has moved on from over a decade ago, so I have to drag it into the modern age. I assigned so much responsibility to me, that I felt like a total failure because it still isn’t quite fixed. I am a very sensitive person, so I take things like this incredibly personally, even when they perhaps should not be taken personally at all.

On a separate but somewhat related note I said, off the cuff, to my supervisor that I had begun to find the coding work I was doing for a prestigous research group within the University up until recently, boring, and consumed too much time away from my PhD. He said it was interesting that I had described it as boring, and said it spoke volumes about me as a person. He said to me that he has always known me to never shy away from complex problems, and that seeing something like this as boring, shows him that I want to climb even higher, and then I remembered that I do. The meeting yesterday helped me a lot because I was too deep in the hole that I couldn’t see a way out, and I needed him to convince me of what is true and good.

Yesterday was my Birthday, and I have a habit of spending it alone and very miserable. Last year I spent several hours in A&E because I cut my hand open on a glass, which may or may not have been broken due to anger and sadness. This year, that tradition was broken by two of my amazing friends. They bought me wine, a cake and a new flavour tea, and told me how much they love me. We listened to the new Ghostface Killah and drank the wine and ate the cake, and it was just really nice. Just having good company is enough for me a lot of the time, I am very easily pleased. Last time when I wrote, there was somebody else in the driver’s seat, and that person should not be driving. If I can focus so much on the bad, and make that self-fulfilling prophecy come true, the reverse is true as well. I know that I can focus on the good and have it come true, and I know where my answers are.

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Three Questions

I don’t feel good and I haven’t been feeling good for a few days now. I haven’t really done any work in the past 5 days or so, and so I feel pretty much in the pits. I always get this way, I ease up on the work and then start self-hating. Today I started feeling that explosive hatred again, the kind where I get annoyed at something and then jump straight to angry, but the anger is directed only at me. I’ve tried talking to several people about it today, and perhaps felt momentarily better about everything, but it didn’t really make a difference. I fixed a laptop for a friend and he insisted on giving me some money for it, but I insisted he should not. I felt good for doing it, but it didn’t last; nothing does. Why are the standards I set for myself still so high? How can I not go a few days without working and feel fine? Who do I serve by bringing this hatred down on me? Right now, not doing work doesn’t affect anyone around me, it doesn’t hurt anyone. I have my own deadline, I want to submit my PhD in May 2019, my deadline is some ways after that. I have a comprehensive timeplan in place for the work I have to do. It’s not ultra strict, there is plenty of slack in there to allow for things taking longer. So once again, who do I serve by bringing this hatred down upon me? It doesn’t make my PhD any smoother, it doesn’t help anyone else; it just makes me feel worthless. Who else holds themselves to this standard? A standard where you can’t even enjoy the weekend because you feel like you should be working. A standard where nothing is ever good enough. A standard that keeps me imprisoned in my own mind. I really think I need help, because I just can’t work my way out of this well enough, everything already feels completely out of control and I can’t see a way out.

I feel like I placed too much expectation on things I thought would make my life better. I see more people now, which is good, but the gratification is fleeting. I started baking and giving it away to people, and they have been very thankful, but it only cheers me up in passing. I have been volunteering in some way for over a year now; this too leaves me empty. I don’t know what else I can do, nothing is different, not really. I do all these things for other people, because I feel that deep down I have no value, so maybe if I prove my value to other people, I will prove it to myself. How sad is that? That’s the logic of a child. I have this thing where when I look at a picture of me as a young kid, I start to tear up. When I think of that defenseless kid who was bullied relentlessly for being overweight, I feel so sad for him. The thing is though, when I think about my inner self, that voice that has been there all along, through the good and the bad, it is him. The inner me is that kid, who learned to always be polite and nice to people, so that then they would have no reason to be mean to him. The one who bends over backwards to help and please other people. The one who learned that he will never ever be good enough. I learned all of this at primary school age, and now it’s destroying my life. Ultimately the things that turned me into this, are no longer factors in my life. I’m an adult and I have good people around me, and the cycle has long since been self-perpetuating. I don’t know how to break the wheel in any meaningful way. There are times where I can challenge thoughts and feel better, but what’s the long game? Where is this all going? Is there some time down the road that I can plan to be free of all this?

After a while, ask yourself, the inner voice, the part of you that has always been there when you were a kid, when your heart was broken, every time you’ve ever felt unloved, alone or lost; this voice, this continuing perspective, that is in fact the thing that lets you know that you are you and not just some bundle of organs and limbs; the thing with which your memories are threaded together. The bulb which shines your aspirations onto the screen of knowing, ask this thing, am I serving you? Am I happy? Do I have a problem?

These are the three questions I think about. I like to think that I can serve this vulnerable inner me, but I don’t think I am doing this right now. I know I’m not happy, and I know I have a problem. Not really sure why I keep asking myself these questions really, perhaps they are grounding, like a mantra or something. That’s it.

On something missing

There is something missing. I made a big decision recently to radically reorganize my situation. I decided that I had to accelerate my timeline with respect to my PhD. The balancing of heavily invested part time work was taking too much mental capacity, and I wasn’t making forward progress on my PhD. I decided to quit that, and quit some volunteering, and just try and spend a few months really getting the ball rolling with the final push. So far so good. Not every day is perfect (nor should it be) but there are days where I feel like I am making some huge steps forward. I am getting my old lab set up for some final experiments and doing the rest of the planning. And yet it isn’t enough.

I went from making no progress, to radically restructuring, removing obstacles and allowing myself to focus. I was getting far too stressed about the part time work, I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere with that, I was slowing down and I couldn’t see a way out. Until there was one. Step 3 talks about turning yourself over to a power greater than yourself and allowing it to restore you to sanity. For me, people restore me to sanity, people who I admire and/or respect. This time it was a talk with my friend, a professor I greatly admire, and we talked about my situation and agreed that it would be best for me to stop the part time work and move on with my PhD. I needed that, because it felt like a big weight was lifted, but also that something was left behind. Guilt? I think about this a lot, because there is something I just can’t shake about giving up that job. I also feel guilt about stopping my volunteering in Beeston. The reason I gave these things up is because I had been using them as excuses to not do my PhD. Volunteering from 1:30 to 3:30 would mean that oh I cannot possibly do any work after then, let’s have an early finish. I can’t make excuses anymore; this is it.

I was applying for an extension to my Phd, which entailed gathering medical evidence etc, but that is no longer needed. My end date was recalculated to early 2020 (which I had argued previously due to my unique circumstances). This too should feel like a great relief, because I can stick to my own timeplan and my deadline, not theirs.

I am clearing my plate of things that no longer serve me, a job, a voluntary role; but it’s as if I am only getting a diminishing return from this. I should feel huge relief for having so much free time to finish. I should feel less occuppied and more able to focus, which to an extent I do, but not as much as I should. Where I removed mental obstacles, there now lies a lingering self-doubt, instead of empty space to think. Why do I feel this way? Why can’t I just let these things go?

In light of these doubts I’ve been feeling a creeping desperation. My eating habits have worsened, my sleeping pattern is even worse (if that’s possible). I’m trying to spend time with friends but it doesn’t help. I bake for my friends and housemates but that is only a passing satisfaction. I am at the mercy of a voice that says “not enough”. Not enough food, not enough attention, not enough work done; not enough. I can’t feel better unless I challenge this. Enough of what exactly? Everything? How can I feel like I want to hoard everything, be it food or affection, these things are completely different? Why am I still setting impossible standards for myself? Why do I keep saying “I should” about everything I perceive to be not enough? I think that maybe there isn’t anything missing, but instead it is this greed within me that always wants more, that is the problem. If I feel desperate enough, of course it will feel like something is missing, something will always be missing.

One year

I don’t always know what form I want one of these posts to take. I like the idea that there’s a style to them or a them, but really it is best if this just remains my own musings on recent events. Sometimes I get halfway through something and decide its rubbish and delete it. It has to come from the heart or else it doesn’t matter at all. I know when it comes from the heart because it is easy to write, because I don’t have to think of what to say, I just know. I wanted to write something because today was kind of a rollercoaster. I woke up anxious after not much sleep and reluctantly dug into some work that has been getting to me for some time (a favour for a colleague) and I really want to just solve it and move on. I felt worried because this has been difficult for some time. I then flipped the script by thinking of it as an opportunity to clear something off my docket. I felt anxious about needing to go into the lab and start rebuilding my rig again, but I did it because I knew I had to. I had a meeting with my supervisors in the afternoon, and we will have these every week going forward. I always enter these a bit nervous because I never feel I have done enough. I arrived late and sweating a lot, which made me quite self conscious. The meeting was good however, I gave my findings and they gave me guidance, so I have some much appreciated feedback on my tasks. This kind of feedback is critical to me right now, as I am always so unsure if I am doing the right thing. It will be good to get feedback on it as I get back on my feet.

I felt better after the meeting, vindicated almost. I went home and relaxed for a bit and a friend came over and we chatted and ate some of my caramel peach tart. I like just chilling and drinking tea, I think even as a teenager when I felt uneasy about going out drinking, I could feel like this is the kind of thing I really wanted to do. After that I started to feel anxious again. I actually talked about anxiety with my friend because I felt like talking about it and how/when it happens would help to calm me down. It did and it didn’t. I then spoke to mum on the phone and just caught up on what she has been doing, as she has this week off. I speak to her quite regularly and at the moment I really need that. After I got off the phone I was overcome with emotion, and I called her back, crying, just to say I really appreciate everything she has done for me, and for always believing in me. I told her I love her, which for me is big because I am really shy about expressing myself. I love a good cry, this is something I say jokingly sometimes, but I really do. Sometimes you just need to get some emotions out, and crying is incredibly cleansing.

So this was my day, lots of anxiety, but more importantly lots of concerted efforts to flip the script. Anxiety that goes unchallenged will either remain that way or get worse. It has to be challenged somehow. Only with this kind of practise can the cycle time be brought way down. The cycle is that a negative thought arises, this triggers an emotional response, high anxiety ensues, gradually the anxiety passes. The intervention in negative thinking means that the intensity of the anxiety is brought down, and it passes quicker, and eventually you can circumvent the emotional response all together. The main thing for me going forward is that I keep on top of things, resume a regular working week and just start working on things. I don’t have to submit my thesis tomorrow, I will get there with baby steps.

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On recommitting

It has been stressful the past week or so. I’ve been doing some contracting work two days a week for a while now, and it has been weighing on me pretty heavily. My approach for a while now has been to work on my thesis while also working 2 days a week to keep myself afloat. The people around me have, I suspect, known for some time that this is not working for me. I have had to reluctantly, then somewhat forcefully had to face up to this in the past week. I had been slowing down in my non-thesis work and had been opting to work remotely rather than in the office (another area of my life that I now realise has become consumed by cognitive avoidance). I become worried that people would begin to notice and ask questions, so I used worry to perpetuate my cycle of avoidance, and then naturally people did ask questions et cetera. Anyway, it has all been sorted and I have wrapped up my work there. I had a nice chat to the man responsible for offering me this work, I consider this man a friend/mentor. I have known him for 7 years or so now, and I have always been a big admirer of his work. I trust his advice above almost anyone elses, and it made my decision to stop, bearable, because he (like others who have come before him) instilled in me once again the self-belief which I am always lacking. Going forward I have decided to somewhat accelerate my timeline, by foregoing commitments such as volunteering, part time work and work favours, in favour of borrowing some money and putting the thesis to bed once and for all. I have been cruising for too long, without making any real progress on my thesis or professionally. I am nearly 29 now and there is just too much left to do to be squandering time barely scraping by.

I haven’t foregone everything for the moment though. I am still going to volunteer for First Steps. This is too important to me and can fit around my studies. I am also going to do some teaching assistant work as well, this too fits around the thesis neatly as it will just be an hour or two here and there during the week. I am not giving up tutoring either, that too fits, but also I just enjoy it. The thing about these exceptions is I have earnestly asked myself the question “Does this serve me?” and to each the answer is yes. I know that I get an enormous amount from First Steps, and volunteering is a way for me to help other people too, I want to do this with all of my heart. Tutoring is very enjoyable, I have grown quite fond of my tutees and I I think I found the stress and cognitive investment in the part time work too consuming, I need something where I can (if possible) still keep my thoughts on the thesis while doing it, and certainly not have to take it home with me.

I suppose one of the main problems recently is that on some level I had lost a lot of hope. I couldn’t see a way out. I couldn’t see myself making progress with the thesis and I was barely making enough money to get by. I felt so panicked this week because I basically gave up what money I was making to just go yolo with the thesis, how can that possible work? But it will work, I have support and I will get it finished, maybe even before the new year. At this time it could be easy to fall into a spiral of “if only I had done this sooner…” but that really wouldn’t serve me because I had to do all of this and experience all of this to get me to this place. The truth is that for a long time, doing this part time work was the only thing that I could stand doing, and it helped to keep my mind stimulated at a time when things could have gone really badly. But they didn’t. I have to give myself some credit for making a decision, even if it is a decision for things to be difficult for a while. I have to look at the strength behind making this decision and pushing ahead with it, as the success, rather than focus on the difficulty ahead as some kind of failure. This PhD is a one time thing, it will end, and life will go on afterwards. I had forgotten about the afterwards part for a long time, but I feel like I can see it now. My supervisors have set up a weekly meeting for the three of us, which I am really happy about. I think this will help immensely to keep me on track and moving forward. Nothing quite gets me working like knowing I have to present what I have done on a weekly basis. I have a thesis plan, a timeplan, a weekly meeting. Together this is a framework for getting me across the finish line. I needed to get this out I think, I feel like if I don’t write something that often then I don’t resolve things. Half of resolving my feelings is actually just writing them out and figuring out how I feel about it as I write them. This revelation taught me not to fear the great unknown that is my thesis, that writing it all out and figuring out how it fits is a part of the research process. Onwards and upwards hey.

Sickness

I need to be careful here, because there’s a mist that is obscuring things, I was really angry not long ago, and so I need to make sure that I don’t feed it. I lost two friends today and the fault is entirely mine, but I have to be careful not to punish myself over that. I play this competitive computer game and I have really enjoyed it for several years. However I used to be prone to becoming really angry as a result of it, at least I thought it was past tense. I played it earlier with my two friends in Poland, who I met through the game and have known for some time. We make a pretty good team. I felt at times like I was disappointed in them, like I thought they should be playing better or something. But what am I, a professional? Hell no. I am far from perfect, I often make mistakes and I try to notice them and accept them, but clearly today I did not accept them. I got annoyed because I perceived my teammates to be lazy and not focussing on the objective, so I chose to get annoyed at them and the situation. This escalated and the 2 random people we were teamed with started flaming me, and by the end I was furious. We lost badly because me and these two other people were just trading insults instead of focussing on trying to turn things around. Note here that my two friends had not done anything to anger me, they had not insulted me or anything. And yet when the match ended I rage quit the game and removed them from my friends list. I got a message from one of them on facebook saying “as u wish!” before they removed me on there. And that is that, a friendship obliterated, and for what reason? My anger.

This anger has shown its face before, and it is entwined with a seething hatred for myself. This anger has lead to self-harm before, but not for a very long time (not even now). I think back to when I was a child, I had a very short fuse. I used to break many things as a result of anger. When I was 5 I slammed my hands (palms open) into the front door of the house and shattered the glass. I had to go to hospital for stitches on my hand. Only the other day I showed my friend the scars I have from that injury. What makes a child aged 5 so angry? How is that possible? That fury resonates even now, and maybe I am starting to feel more afraid of it.

My anger is always accompanied by hatred. It doesn’t matter what I am feeling in that moment, the hatred is only ever really for me. I wouldn’t wish hatred on anyone really, nobody deserves that (then again, why do I?). When my mind is clear I don’t tend to feel any ill will to anyone. When my anger reached its peak just now, I could feel my temples throbbing and my face start to feel hot. I slammed my fists on my desk several times and spilled a drink. I deleted my friends from my list, I deleted a plan I had to invite friends to my house; the veil lifted and the regret nestled in. So here we are.

I am writing immediately afterwards, because if I don’t make sense of all of this, then I will have lost. I am making sense of the anger. My perfectionism underpinned my thoughts about my teammates doing worse, which made me do worse, which made me angry, which made me take that anger out on someone, which made me destroy two friendships. Perfectionism. Again. I uninstalled the game now because I see now more than ever how susceptible I am to perfectionism, and so I don’t need it anymore. I deleted another game recently, one I played on my phone daily for three years. It too played into my perfectionism, and I saw that too. If I can use painful experiences to make positive changes then that is something that I will have to accept. I have leaned on computer games for most of my life as an escape from being alone with my thoughts. I am making sense of my feelings, and this is the most important thing I can do now. If I understand what I feel and why, I can overcome it and/or prevent unnecessary feelings from arising. I am always amazed at how it is possible to intervene with a negative thought or feeling as it arises and choose to reject it. I have experienced this by being in situations where I know that I would feel anxious, but instead choose to focus and rationalise it. An older version of me would have hung onto this anger, compounded it with thinking that “I have had a bad day with eating, I am worthless, how can I possibly help other people who suffer from eating disorders?” but this version of me rejects that narrative. I have made myself lighter by removing something that I feel as if I need in my day. I often stay up late because perhaps I haven’t played enough computer games. If I go out with friends, I have to “make up” the time I could have been escaping? This doesn’t make sense, and I don’t need to do it. I need to focus on what is really important; finishing the thesis and getting on with what is next. Perfectionism is a sickness, vigilance is the cure.

On thinking good thoughts

I haven’t really felt like writing lately, I do and don’t know why that is. Sometimes when I feel quite bad, writing can be a way for me to unburden myself. When I feel ok, or even good, I feel like perhaps there isn’t a place for it. Years ago I used to spend a lot of time writing thoughts down, but I stopped because it stopped being honest, and it was full of clichés and it was forced and so ultimately pointless. I started writing something in this post but became exasperated because it didn’t feel honest. This is honest, because this is raw catalogueing of thoughts, and it doesn’t feel forced. I was going to write about some metaphor for recovery, but I lost interest very quickly. Now that my confession is out of the way, we can begin.

Recently I had an introductory talk from a woman who I met this year at First Steps. I first met her when I started going to the weekly drop in sessions that support people with eating disorders. In around 10 months I have somehow graduated from service user to volunter. It feels strange to say that, because volunteering at a charity that supports people through incredible suffering, must imply that I somehow have the capacity to do that. I do have this capacity, but not because I am fully recovered (I don’t believe in full recoveries). I have it, because I have learned a lot and grown from the time I have spent with people from First Steps. They have taught me a lot about my own suffering, and how I can use this to extend a hand to somebody else. In 12 step circles, people in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction sometimes have a mentor. Often that mentor has just had more experience of relapsing or being in recovery, they know the darkness and they have several years more experience. Despite eating disorders being very varied, and having vastly different causes, like all things there is some universality. What is common across them is that somehow for some reason, we came to feel that we were not enough. This is what I will tell them this year; you are enough.

It is a curious thing, how a deeply personal and at times incredibly destructive set of experiences, enable a person to take all of that and use it to help other people who are suffering. It is remarkable, and I feel some part of that within me too, and I want to understand it more. For a long time I felt so disconnected from people due to isolating myself for so long, but things are different now. I have a good support network around me, and it started with this charity. I made friends with other service users, and I became friends with a friend of one of these new friends, and through her I have made other friends, and here we are. I may have started a new tradition of sorts. I had three friends round to watch the first episode of the Great British Bake Off last week, and some days afterwards a stranger on twitter challenged me to bake something, and I did. I made some gingerbread sandwich biscuits, twice. It was nice, and I got to share them with my housemates and friends. This time I will make a cake. I haven’t done any baking for a long time, mostly because I have a lot of shame about preparing food when other people are around. It helps to have housemates I can just feed it all to as well. This is a way for me to challenge my own behaviours around preparing food, because once I see that it is ok, I can do it all more naturally.

The eating isn’t going so great at the moment, I am resorting to convenience rather than preparing food. I feel like at the moment that is more to do with my drive to get things moving with my thesis and other things. As a friend has said before “it’s ok to not be ok”, so sometimes I have to just accept that I won’t be able to focus a great deal on eating better. It is not afterall uncommon for people to dip into bad eating habits during times of stress and high workload, so I don’t need to burden myself with thoughts that I am failing somehow. Recovery is a slow process, and if it has to remain at the same level for a while, so be it. Then again I don’t really see recovery as just one area, because there are parts of my life which are invariably good right now, better perhaps than they have ever been. It would be typical of me to focus on one worse area and use that as the lens through which I see everything else.

In other news, the thesis is progressing, in part thanks to therapy, and in part thanks to my partner in crime (together we make up Asskickers United). Through therapy I learned about a model of generalised anxiety (the Dugas model, see below) and it shows how anxiety comes down to “intolerance of uncertainty” and within it, how cognitive avoidance behaviours develop. Avoidance explains my issue with the thesis. Ultimately I was just avoiding it, but not because I felt anxious necessarily, but because I had built the thesis up to be an anxious experience. I think that I subconsciously thought that thesis work would make me anxious, and therefore by avoiding the thesis I avoid anxiety and remain intact. My therapist reminded me that I enjoy my PhD work, she asked me to talk about it with her, and I explained some concepts, she asked how I felt, and I felt better. I must work hard to remember that I am interested in it. It must be really difficult for people who can’t lean on that. I’ve learned that I deserve help and I should ask for it, instead of just trying to help others and struggling myself. I am hoping to apply for an extension to my deadline, if I don’t get it then I will understand and will just have to do my best to finish when I can. I am gaining momentum at last.

I have found that I need to be around other people when I work, I cannot stand the thought of working from home, in my room. I also don’t much like the library, though I should try it more. At the moment I have found going to a friend’s house to be helpful, and also, surprisingly, working in public in cafés. My therapist just advised me to go with whatever seems to be working, and this does seem to be working, so I guess I can’t complain at that. I keep having these thoughts about what comes next, all the things I will be able to do once I don’t have thesis work taking up time that could be spent doing paid work. I hate skimping by on barely any money, and it is something that has underpinned my resolve to volunteer in my current role, helping people search for jobs and handle benefit issues etc. It just seems like nowadays there is never enough, you get paid and a huge chunk goes on rent (because you can’t afford to buy a house any time soon), and then your bills are high, and you have to buy food, and then somehow save something of what is left? Aha, nearly fell for it. Worries that could be really serious but are not yet serious, will try and creep into my mind and inflate themselves. It is a curious thing, how merely noticing a thought can be enough to stop it, at least for me. I hear these things take practise, so that eventually you notice the thoughts earlier and intervene before anything really happens. I like this idea of growing stronger mentally, because for me the only thing I have ever allowed myself to be proud of is something related to intelligence. I love to absorb new knowledge and learn new skills, and treating recovery as a mental skill makes it more interesting to me. I think about how my general problem solving skills have improved a lot compared to when I was younger, and it makes me look forward to the future because of all the things I could be capable of. There’s that word again, capable, the word that describes how I see recovery, capable of living.

I’ve been playing a survival game lately called “The Long Dark” and it is a post apocalyptic game where you have to survive the freezing cold. When you start a game, you are presented with a thematic quote on the loading screen. One that really stuck with me recently was this:

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.

This was written by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, 2000 or so years ago, in one of his many letters dealing with moral issues.