Sunday 29 August 2021

My consciousness is both a divine free floating hippy, and an annoyingly open minded mum.

 Bognor Regis. Where all the deep stuff happens.
My mind is a wilful person in my head with no manners

I walked home from doing something or other last week through Bognor, my mind flitting here and there, thinking and chattering away to itself, as it does.  The day was beautifully sunny, the gardens bright with flowers all along the road back to my house.  I was wearing my favourite pink sundress of all time, since the last favourite one of all time, which had disintegrated and had to be thrown away.  This current favourite sundress of all time is showing signs of old age now too, it is only a matter of time before I will have to find yet another one.  Despite the warmth of the sun and the smell of the salty sea in the still air, I noticed that my mind kept taking me back to memories I would rather forget.  I should be enjoying every step of this walk home, I thought, how can I be thinking of these difficult things and not enjoying this peaceful summer loveliness?  And, I thought, I am wearing my pink summer dress.  Does that not count for something?

It made me think.  What is my mind doing, that it hones in on discomfort like this? Have I any choice?  It is true that I was thinking without thinking, so to speak.  I was not taking part in the physical walk, I was deep in the stuff going on in my head.  It was not all bad, much of my focus was on things I had to do that day which were very nice, but my mind would veer off at a tangent and become embroiled in things from my past, conversations I wish I had not had, bad judgements that led to bad outcomes, and without noticing the shift, I would be back in those things I don't want to think about.  But once aware I was able, also without thinking about it, to come back to my planning once more.  But I felt as if it had the upper hand, that I had to follow its lead, not the other way around.

I wondered about how single minded my mind is.  It does its own thing regardless of what is going on outside my head.  I mean, I can set up a lovely space in which to sit, for example, with smelly candles and red cushions, and think Yes, that will make me happy.  But if my mind doesn't want to engage, and be calm and happy, it won't.  Ungrateful wretch, I may say of my mind, but it is on a roll and doesn't care.  I have read of many strategies to tame the mind, to create awareness, to be mindful and come back to the moment, but I find them difficult to put in place when in the middle of a wilful and determined thinking experience.  There is therapy, at a deeper level, and professional help, but I wasn't quite that bad on my walk home in the sun in my pink dress. It was very curious, I thought, that despite not wanting it, despite having a nice day, and despite having real things to think about, my mind was walking off into the middle distance and fixating itself on problems.

My mind, I thought, is like a wilful person in my head that has no manners.  And then I thought, what is my mind?  This is where we can get lost in thousands of years of speculation and research, many books have been written, many wise people have tried to work this out, so rest easy.  I have no answers and we won't get heavy. But what I did come up with, is that perhaps my mind does not own me, I own it.  Do I have to go down these rabbit holes? Sometimes, yes, sometimes I have to mull over uncomfortable things and it doesn't do to evade them.  But who is in charge?  Wouldn't it be nice if it was me?  For myself, I mean.  I am not in charge of your mind.  You would hate that, I would paint things red and make you drink tea. The point is, I wondered, on this walk home, that perhaps once I know my mind has gone off on a tangent, can I exert some control over it?  Can I say to myself, No.  I am not going there, I see your game and I am busy thinking nice thoughts over here. And there are other things to think about, like the brain and consciousness. 

There is the question too of whether the mind is the brain, or is in the brain, or is something completely separate.  And what is consciousness? If I can step aside and see my mind as a wayward thing in its own right, how am I separating myself from my mind?  If all these thoughts are coming from my brain but now I am conscious of them, does that mean that I am operating independently of mind, body, brain and consciousness, and there is a me that is observing the whole process? 

What does it all mean, Batman?

Well, let's say that the thoughts that I have in my mind come from my brain.  And if I am aware of it, am conscious of it, then perhaps there are three things at play here, all of which are mine, so I will take ownership.  If I were to create characters for these three things, my mind, my brain and my consciousness, it could look like this. My mind is sometimes an unruly, undisciplined trouble maker. It can be really smart and on the ball, but it likes to do its own thing and thinks it owns the world.  My brain is a task orientated professor that has been running things for me since before I was born, has been in the job a while now and has no time for slacking.  My consciousness is both a divine free floating hippy, and an annoyingly open minded mum.  Never bats an eyelid at the weirdness of life, but wants me to keep it real because it knows me so well.  Often waits for me to catch up with it, and is never surprised at anything.

And then of course there is the Me that is observing the whole process.   

With this trio now playing in my head, and as the observer that is outside the whole darn thing, (possibly,) I decided to get to know the one that started all this questioning, my mind.  I decided to have a date with my mind and get to know it.  

The date with my mind.

Got my tray of tea, getting ready to go inside for a date with the unruly rebel within.
 I made myself comfortable, sat down with a good half hour to spare and scrunched up my eyes in an effort to go within.  I was having a date with my mind but did not know where or what my mind actually was, except that it had to be inside me somewhere.  This will be fun, I thought.  What it boiled down to was me watching what I was thinking, and observing where it all went.  That means the free floating divine hippy mum followed the undisciplined trouble maker with a view to understanding what it was doing, so it could be reined in a bit.  The professor would then put a plan in place to cement the understanding. 

I do realise that this is a very simplistic approach.  There are more things going on in my head than just my mind, brain and consciousness.  There is my life experience, my personality, my will and for some, but not for me, there are illnesses and conditions that affects the mind too.  But for the purposes of this little exercise, I was curious to know why my mind was so intent on doing its own thing and what on earth was its agenda.

I came up with a few observations.

  • I quite enjoyed seeing my mind as a character, and felt as if it were a bit of a wild animal, in that I did not really know how to approach it or what it would do.
  • My mind, that unruly and undisciplined troublemaker, can insist on following its own mind, so to speak.  If I am not paying attention, it can cover a lot of ground and make me feel very uncomfortable.  It can get stuck on tracks I do not want to deal with and is very wilful.
  • If I am outside it all, then I am the observer.  And in control. Once I follow my thoughts, I can choose to stop thinking them.
  • Ha ha ha. Rubbish. 
  • While I am feeling thoughtful and unstressed, this all makes sense.  
  • When I am feeling anxious and burdened, the divine hippy, the silent professor and and the unruly troublemaker (consciousness, brain and mind) are having a drunken party somewhere and can't even stand up straight.  I have to be very tough and bossy in order to make myself feel better, and it can be hard work if they are all out for the count.

The conclusion.

I started this blog wanting to know why my thoughts do their own thing and lead me into uncomfortable places.  Why, even if everything is nice outside do I get stuck in loops of tricky thinking?  Being creative, I decided to give my mind, brain and consciousness personalities to explain to myself why this happens.  I love the quirky, I love thinking outside the box, and this little idea of having a date with my mind really appealed to me.  It also made me laugh.

It is just another way of getting to know myself.  Every time we think we know who we are everything changes and we start again.  I spend much time trying to live a good life, to understand how to be a better person so that I can offer more to the people I meet.  But everything we do, investigate and long for comes back to the question Who Am I. 

The conclusion is that the mind, brain, body, spirit, consciousness that I am writing about here, is me.  It is all me.  I am all of it.  Especially the me that is observing the whole process, and that is where, I think, the real power lies. Who am I?  Does my mind rule me, or do I rule it?  Now that I am a bit more aware and have had a date with it, perhaps I can decide to rule my mind and see how that goes. And if my thoughts rule me in a way I wish they would not, I love the idea of thinking of them personified as a wild, unruly house guest that needs to be pulled up short. 

If you had to think of your mind, your brain and your consciousness as personalities, what would they be?  And who is the person observing it all in your case? Interesting way to spend a bit of down time.  

Still trying to work it out.

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Sunday 15 August 2021

Who are these blinking drug addicts

Hand of an addict. Charcole on paper.

One of the most difficult parts of being alongside addiction for me, is remembering that these crazy addicts are also people.  Dealing with someone who is intoxicated can be very challenging.  If you don't need to engage, that is fine.  If you do, then anything can happen and it is frustrating, chaotic and sometimes frightening.  If someone kicks off in your presence while having taken something (or many things) and you are faced with an irrational, disinhibited, paranoid and angry melt down, it is unlikely that you will say, "Oh, that is just the drugs.  The person themselves is actually very nice."  If you are sensible, you get the hell out of the way or if you are feeling threatened, call the police. 

Many of us have tried to reason with someone who has drunk too much at one time or another.  Many of us have experienced how quickly they can become angry, unreasonable and aggressive. When they are sober, they have no recollection of how badly they behaved. How about someone acting out on crystal meth?  Or cocaine?  Or someone causing enormous chaos while coming down from something or at a critical point because of needing another fix?  These are not people we can chat to or reason with or discuss how their behaviour is making us feel.  How, we ask ourselves, can they possibly allow themselves to get so bad? Where is their sense of shame, where is their self control?  We cannot understand why they do not get help.

Yes to all that.  And also, addiction is not rational.  An addict may defend their addiction to the death, literally, and blame you, me, everyone else, especially loved ones, all the way down. Addiction, to an addict, is reality.  The need (and it really is a need, an absolute catastrophic need the like of which we who are not addicted can have no idea) to keep using makes them manipulative, amoral, paranoid, psychotic, clever, dangerous and without conscience, boundaries or responsibility. And yet.  It is not always like that. There is always someone in there.  There are times when the person lost inside is visible, often it is very poignant.  Sometimes it is astonishing - how can that person who ranted and raved at the bus stop all last night be so interested in and interesting about music?  Or politics? Or whatever?  I have seen someone very addicted to alcohol and opiods sit with a frightened young addict who was hearing terrible voices, talking gently to calm him down and help him feel safe.

The thing is, at some point that person was not an addict.  When they first took something to make the pain go away, or perhaps because it was just what their family or peers did, it seemed a magical answer. It really worked.  It allowed them to self medicate and forget how bad life was, it allowed them to feel in control, it gave them confidence and helped them fit in when they felt isolated and alone, when dealing with abuse and violence at home and around them, when frightened by an undiagnosed mental health condition, when living itself was intolerable.  Checking out of pain and abandonment through substances is a powerful relief.  The person entering addiction feels as if they are in control.  Even when it is patently obvious further down the line that they are not in control, they can insist that they are.  This is denial, and addicts can be great at denial.  

I spoke to an addict recently who dismisses the idea that he is addicted.  Let's call him Bob.  I have a dependency, Bob said, I am not an addict.  Everything about Bob's life and choices points to a deep and long lasting addiction.  No! He said, I am able to stop at any time and I have a dependency.  It seems obvious that Bob cannot stop, regulate nor manage his substances.  How can he not see it?  I thought.  One of the reasons for dependency not addiction, I learned, was that once his medical records had Addict on them he was, according to Bob, discriminated against by the medical profession.  He would not receive proper treatment and would always be seen as a problem.  I do not know if this is true, but I have seen how badly addiction is treated by many (not all) medical professionals.  I must add here that I do not blame them, they are acting in accordance with what they have been told.  I think that addiction is vastly misunderstood, judged, untreated and dismissed.  It is at present, almost impossible to find reasonably effective treatment that is not private. Addicts are the modern day lepers with knobs on.

As we talked, Bob explained how wonderful the drugs are that he takes.  How good they make him feel, how so much of his time is spent looking forward to preparing and taking them.  Bob could describe how all the different drugs he takes affects him, how to inject certain ones to increase the effect, and how to experiment with mixing them all up.  "I love my life," Bob says.  He drinks heavily too, but mostly will not admit to it.  "I used to drink," he says, "but not recently."  I see empty spirits bottles all over the flat, under the bed, in the bins, and some by the bed still half full.  That is not true, and I think, denial.  More denial.  

I have seen Bob in powerful rages in public places because he could not get what he needed.  I have seen Bob in pain in between using, longing to feel a part of the world and to get better, I have heard him talk about loneliness and self hatred.  I have seen how he rejects help, sabotages kindness, chooses chaos and danger time and time again, and I think - are you in denial about all this too?  When you say you love your life?  But I see that whatever substances he is taking are succeeding in obliterating the terrible pain of real life.  It is a vicious circle and it feels like an insurmountable problem.

It is a problem.  I will never forget an addiction counsellor once telling an angry, distressed wife at the end of her tether, that she did not have to rescue her husband but that she could still be kind.  When her drunken husband fell out of bed onto the cold stone floor, she wanted to leave him there all night and make him suffer.  The counsellor understood her anger, understood her feelings of powerlessness and the fact that she had tried everything to help him.  "You cannot help him," the counsellor said, "but you can be kind.  You can put a blanket on him and leave him there."  

When dealing with addiction we try not to rescue, we try not to enter into the madness and we know we have to establish very firm boundaries to keep ourselves safe.  But, we can be very judgemental and unkind to both our addicts and ourselves.  We can want to punish our addicts for their awfulness and madness, and we cannot rid ourselves of that fear that perhaps the addict is right, it is our fault.  Kindness does not mean weakness, compassion does not mean we condone addiction.  We know we have to keep ourselves safe with firm boundaries which can feel counter intuitive at the beginning but are not.  We practice detachment with love and, at least for me, keep hoping for that miracle. And most important of all, if we cannot change our addict or deal with the fall out, we can try, really try, to be absolutely loving and forgiving of ourselves.  A wise man once said that when all else does not work, all we can be is a good example.

I have had to call for help many times.

Who are these blinking drug addicts then?  Without being sentimental or foolish because addiction is an absolute bugger, they are our children, our parents, our partners, our friends, our family.  They are Everyman and Everywoman. And, they could be us too. 

I have just been a guest on the Zestful Aging podcast hosted by Nicole Christina in New York.  We talk about addiction in my family, and how as a mother and of the hope, despair, troubleshooting and lessons I have to keep learning.  We touch on the Addicts and Those Who Love Them exhibition too.  Nicole is a wonderful interviewer.  She is a practicing psychotherapist as well as a successful podcaster.  You can listen to it here.  

Young addict, detail, oil on wood.

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