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Posts Tagged ‘mens mental health’

Beardy manWe must be careful not to misunderstand the word “spiritual”, nor think we can only come to it through religion. The spiritual dimension existed before there were ever religions to give it a name. Many people, both religious and otherwise, have experienced it and they use words like timelessness, boundlessness, oneness, and love to describe it. This is the mystical core at the heart of all religion, yet many who would not consider themselves religious at all tumble into it by accident. They do not see angels, or saints, or witness terrifying revelations , but describe a more abstract experience, marvellous and expansive. It leaves them altered. They no longer need to seek or indeed reject “belief”. They simply know that it is so.

Of course not all who invite such an experience will find it, yet all who do seek it discover that the search alone shifts the focus of their lives away from inner pain and more towards a mindful awareness of life itself. In eastern philosophies there is no separation between the mental life and the spiritual. In addressing one we are always addressing the other. I wrote earlier about the three vessels – the physical, the mental and the spiritual. They are the three legs upon which we stand. Kick one away, or deny its existence altogether, and we are sure to lose our balance.

In secular society, there is a problem with religion; at the state level it is, on the one hand, irrelevant since society is now entirely market driven. On the other, religiously motivated violence is sadly nowadays such a threat to life and limb, religion is only tolerated so long as it does not get out of hand. At the personal level too religion can be seen as lacking any real goodness, that indeed it works contrary to its stated purpose – dividing and persecuting, instead of uniting and embracing our diversity. If the spiritual vessel exists at all nowadays it has been upturned and its contents tipped out. Sadly, this is to deny our true nature, and what we suppress will always come back to haunt us ten fold.

Buried deep in the psyche there is a spiritual function. It is the generator of a current that urges us all towards change, towards transformation and transcendence through the assimilation of energies that rise from both the personal and the collective unconscious. We have no choice in this, it is a part of what we are, a part of what moves us. Through us, nature is evolving psychically. There is nothing supernatural about this; it is an aspiration, a movement towards what is intrinsically good, a goodness that is not written down anywhere but simply known.

The early churches were formed to bring us to this enlightened state, but somewhere along the way they became hung up on ritual and power. Non-affiliated mystics continue to seek the core experience, yet cautioned all the while by the orthodox priesthood, also by the robustly irreligious and the scientistic, that when we stop believing in God, we start believing in anything. But this is not true. We set aside belief and seek instead our own direct experience of the transcendent dimension, the soul life. In a mental health context, the quest for healing, for happiness, for wholeness, is always, in part, a spiritual quest – it’s just that our search is more desperate.

The spiritual vessel is the one most easily damaged by the turbulence of our collective existential angst and it is existential matters that are central to feelings of wholeness, and by implication also their antithesis: depression and anxiety. Topping that vessel up will restore us to ourselves like no other medicine, but first we must divine the shape of the vessel within us, then set it upright. Many succeed in this through the prodigals’ return to the churches they rejected in the long ago, but to the isolated, the disconnected and the lonely in spirit, traditional congregations can be sources of stress, the liturgies triggers for uncomprehending anxiety.

Yet the spiritual function demands its fill whether we are religious or not. It contains the unwritten codex, the contract of our time on earth, and we are obliged to make our peace with it, to move in the direction it is suggesting, both as individuals, and collectively as a species. It would be a lot simpler if all of this was written down for us at birth, perhaps tattooed on our palms, but it isn’t. We have to divine the meaning for ourselves – that is our purpose and we do it by developing a personal relationship with “God”, or whatever label you want to attach to this sense of something “other”.

It sounds arrogant, putting oneself above two thousand years of religious teaching, but we have no choice in it. Just because one finds no connection through conventional worship, it does not stop the stirrings of the spiritual function, so we turn instead to the incoming tide of personal-development literature. This is as eclectic as the varieties of spiritual experience, but it is not easily dismissed. Broadly it suggests we work towards mindful self analysis, seek the stillness within us, and if we need a story to describe it, then a personal mythology will suffice – it does not need to be true for anyone else so long as it sits comfortably with us.

Over the course of a couple of million words, and several strange novels, this is the direction I am moving in. Other researches, online musings, and occasional dialogues with a book from China’s mythic past, enable me to keep my own vessel pointing the right way up, and the water in it just warm enough to relax into now and then. You can do this too. I don’t know how, and hesitate to suggest anything other than that by finding the vessel inside of you, the spiritual function will begin to work its way through you too of its own accord. Then you simply follow wherever it leads.

I hesitate to tell you that, if my own history is anything to go by, none of this will stop that black dog from settling in from time to time. That’s just its nature. Mental illness will always cast a shadow over the lives of those who have even once suffered from it. But through an awareness of simple self-healing – physical, mental and spiritual – we need not feel quite so helpless as we were before. We know we can always beat a path back to the light of life whenever we find ourselves benighted.

I’ll leave the subject of men’s mental health there.

Thanks for listening.

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Manet

Back in 1977, when I was training in an engineering workshop, my mate ran his finger up a bandsaw blade. He swore and I fainted. I told everyone I’d had no breakfast and maybe that was why I’d fainted -only admitting the truth to the work’s doc. He was an old guy, long steely grey hair, an incongruous hippy type – a real-life Gandalf. He said I’d be okay, told me to get back on that bandsaw right away, and that I’d probably benefit from learning how to meditate.

The advice about the bandsaw made sense, but I ignored the bit about meditation because I had a fairly rational head in those days. When I think back it was probably the most sage piece of advice I’ve ever had from a medical professional. It was to be years later though, dropping a bottle of Prozac into the bin and wondering what the hell I was going to do next, that I finally took his advice.

By then I was struggling with panic attacks. You sit in a cinema, a theatre, a lecture at college, a presentation at work, and you sweat, you shake inside, you fear losing yourself, you fear drawing attention to yourself. You also fear getting cornered by the consummate bore and being too polite to tell him you’re busy, so you sit there, quietly tearing yourself apart while his interminable tale drones on, when what you really want to do is stick your finger in his eye and run away screaming – all of this behind a serene smile.

Scary, isn’t it?

I lasted a couple of weeks on the Prozac. Its effects were dramatic. They calmed me for a while, helped me to keep working, but I was not myself, and this intruder who was not myself took over my self, decided it no longer needed to sleep, that it was okay to do pushups in the small-hours of a workday morning, then decided it was in the mother of all panics and hanging on by its fingernails, needed a doctor more urgently than it had ever done before. This was definitely not me, so the Prozac went in the bin. (don’t do this without talking to your doctor)

So I talked to my doctor, but found him time-pressed and unsympathetic. He told me the medication would either help or it wouldn’t. Well, it wouldn’t. The message was clear: I was on my own; mental health issues may be ruining your life, but unless you’re thinking of taking your life, the amount of support you can expect is patchy. This was 1992. The only difference now is demand is even greater for fewer resources, and we are better at pretending they are not.

Gandalf’s advice finally broke through: I bought a book on Yoga, which introduced me to meditation. Meditation looks complicated, sounds mysterious, and seems bound up with a lot of transcendental, spiritual stuff. But the physical practice itself is straight forward, and it worked. I’ll probably still faint at the sight of a bloody injury, so don’t come looking to me for first aid, but the panic attacks are a thing of the past. I lead a fairly normal life, most of the time.

You don’t need a guru to learn meditation. Even self taught from books, meditation has an immediate effect on the mind, but without “messing” with your mind in the way anti-depressant medication does. In meditation we try not to think , or we try at least to separate ourselves from our thoughts, and to realise we are not our thoughts.

With a panic attack, we think we’re going to faint, when there’s no physical reason why we should – the pulse rate goes up, we hyperventilate, we experience dizziness; with obsessive hypochondria we think we have a fatal illness which we assemble from otherwise innocuous symptoms and we convince ourselves we are going to die; with obsessive behaviours we think we must carry out an action in a particular way or a set number of times and we think that failure to do so will cause something bad to happen. Thinking, especially faulty thinking, has lot to answer for. It can make us really ill. It can ruin our lives.

Meditation was developed to correct faulty thinking, admittedly more on the transcendental, spiritual level, and therein lies the problem for many in the west, and for two reasons: in the west most of us have either cut the spiritual dimension entirely from our lives, drained the vessel dry so to speak, or we have adopted a narrow, entrenched religious view that does not encompass spiritual philosophies borrowed from other cultures; we have filled the vessel instead with concrete, one that does not permit the natural convective dynamics of exploration and change.

So let me defend meditation by saying it acts upon the mental life, and we need not attach any spiritual significance to it at all. It’s just that in eastern cultures there is less separation between the mental and the spiritual realms. Meditation also acts upon the physical body by freeing up energy consumed in vast quantities by a frantically thinking brain. This is why, when we meditate regularly, we feel less drained by life.

You can find “how to” material on meditation just about anywhere online for free, including my own notes, here. We must meditate every day for it to have any meaningful effect, and we’ll most likely feel resistance to this notion when the pain inside us realises what we’re up to, but persistence pays. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of encountering what was once a sure-fire trigger-situation, and realising we’re looking it calmly and squarely in the eye, unshaken.

And just in case you’re a tough guy who thinks meditation is for girls, remember Kung Fu fighters meditate. It gives them an edge. It’ll give you an edge too.

Think about it. Or rather don’t think!

Meditate!

Thanks Gandalf.

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Burne Jones and WIlliam Morris 1874Eckhart Tolle is a spiritual teacher, and a successful author. His books “The Power of Now” and “A New Earth” have been devoured by a worldwide audience in search of that intangible “something” that is missing from our lives. Tolle brings together insights from all the world’s religious traditions and, for me at least, his success lies in his non-religious, transcendental approach to matters of mind, body and spirit, also to his humility and his engaging sense of humour. It’s no secret that Tolle has suffered from depression and anxiety, no secret either that his success is due also in part to the way he has dealt with his own mental illness.

In a society built on rationalism, determinism, and materialism, people who are mentally ill are not seen as reliable witnesses to the facts of life, at least not usually by those who control the gateways to employment, and financial remuneration. But if we think about it for a moment, the statistics suggest one in five of us have or will suffer from a mental illness. Then, since 80% of mental illness goes undiagnosed, this suggests very nearly one in five of us doing valuable work right now is already mentally ill, yet managing to hold the place together somehow – so we can’t be that unreliable either, can we? What’s even more interesting is that by implication, statistically, probably one in five of those people who hold mental illness low regard, are themselves mentally ill.

As a student in England, Tolle, suffered terribly from feelings of anxiety and depression. One night he lay down so overcome, he told himself he could not live with himself any longer. Sadly, this is the fate of many – an illness held in secret, ending suddenly with a tragedy that leaves others shocked by its unexpectedness. But what happened to Tolle was not what usually happens. He experienced an inner separation and an insight that was to be the catalyst of his life’s work. I’m paraphrasing here but he asked himself something to the effect of: who is the self that cannot live with my self any longer? The self he could not live with, he concluded, was the bit he associated with the pain, the egoic self. And he reasoned that the essential part of “Tolle”, indeed of all of us, was something else, something above, and not part of the pain.

He went on from this potentially fatal moment to become a teacher, counsellor, and an engaging life coach to millions. His teachings are all over the place – on Youtube, in books, DVD’s, lecture tours. I find in them much that explains the highs and lows of the lives of human beings, but the story of Tolle is itself an inspiration, demonstrating that mental illness does not invalidate anyone from playing a constructive or even a leading role in society.

Yes, we’ll sometimes have a hard time from ignorants and materialists who think the brain is a computer made of meat, and that a part of our brains have gone rotten. But our brains are not rotten. You cannot diagnose mental illness from a brain scan. Our brains are like everyone else’s. There are no bits missing. What mental illness does, however, is it puts us on the edge of something, thrusts us into the depths of an unknown, even at times a frightening inner realm, but the stories we bring back from that place are important – not only for our own healing, but the healing of others like us. So tell the Internet your stories. Use your creative faculties.Get a blog, get a Flikr account, and get busy.

I spoke last time about the three vessels of being – the physical, the mental and the spiritual – and how attention to any one of them can help maintain the others and restore us to ourselves. Creative expression is very much concerned with the mental life, and is the most natural channel for the otherwise jagged and ferocious energies of mental illness. So many artists and larger than life celebrities are mentally ill, yet they are also possessed of the most remarkable abilities. So, write it, journal it, paint it, doodle it, tell it in poetry, sculpt it, and learn by it. Through creative expression we turn something negative into something positive and, as we give external shape to what has up ’till now been only an internal, mental thought form, we realise it is not who we really are at all, that pain. It dwells within us, yes, and it looks like that, but it is not who we are.

The search for who we are is the same as the search for our life’s meaning, whether we are suffering from a mental illness or not. But that you suffer can be interpreted as a sign you sense there is something vital missing from the world, that your inability to fit in with it is more a reluctance to dance with a partner who is not of your choosing. Again, one in five of us will at some point suffer from a mental illness. It is not our fault if society has difficulty in accommodating that fact, or in facing up to the question it begs regarding the nature of society, and the direction it is moving in. But neither can we blame society for its ignorance if we do not tell it how we feel.

Do not say how can I live with myself? but say instead who is the self that cannot live with my self. And in separating yourself from the pain, go seek instead the self you want to be.

I leave the last word on this to Eckhart Tolle:

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van goughReactions to suicide say much about society’s attitudes to mental health. In Victorian times, suicides were often explained away in order to avoid a social stain on the family. There was also the unhelpful religious belief that those who died by their own hand went straight to hell. So we got things like: he accidentally fell into the pond and drowned, or he accidentally shot himself while cleaning his gun.

There’s still an air of evasiveness when discussing mental illness, but there is at least a recognition now that it is a real illness rather than a weakness of character. When someone known to us takes their life, the reaction is one of shock that anyone so well liked/loved/respected could ever feel that way and we be unaware of it. But there’s guilt too that we did not see it coming, that we did not do more to help. We feel complicit, guilty in our silence at holding to the secret of others’ despair. But what can one do? Not everyone suffering from mental illness wants to talk about it. And when you realise how little others understand your feelings, you can hardly be blamed for not wanting to share them.

There are no easy answers.

It’s an unfortunate fact that high-profile celebrity suicides raise awareness more than any well meaning mental health campaign. They launch tragedy squarely onto the front pages, but even here amid the collective shock, “normal” people can still be dismissive, telling us celebrities are notorious libertines, usually off their heads on drugs and it should be no surprise they kill themselves now and then. But this is to ignore the despair and the sheer existential emptiness that underlies mental illness, an illness bullet-pointed with unshakable, negative self beliefs:

* My life is a mess;
* I am ill adjusted to the place I find myself in, yet cannot escape it;
* I am unequal to my responsibilities;
* People expect more from me than I am capable of delivering;
*I am letting everyone down;
*It’s all out of control;
*I cannot move another step;
*I am useless;
*I am a bad person;
*My life has no meaning;

Do any of the above ring true for you?

Of course people in the forefront of public life are no more likely to suffer mental illness than the ordinary and the poor. Indeed being poor, being unable to make ends meet is a very dangerous place to be in the mental health stakes, more so as you are less likely to have the money to access competent people who can help you. But we all worry, and even when we have nothing to worry about, like having no money and no job, we invent other worries – seemingly trivial things – and inflate them to apocalyptic proportions. If we are susceptible, these worries will plant the seeds that blossom into hideous mental blooms of distorted self image.

We need to talk about it. Even just sharing the secret with someone can help. I spoke of mental health services last time – admittedly in less than glowing terms. Lack of funding means the gap between aspiration and reality is now unbridgeable, at least for 90% of the population, but the important thing here is that we make the effort. We admit our fears by sharing them with as many healthcare professionals who will listen. Even if the person we’re sharing them with has one eye on the clock, and can never get our name right, the process of sharing can be helpful. But there are other things we can do too, things that are even more effective in returning control of our selves back to our selves.

With a little imagination we can think of the human being, metaphysically, as comprising three vessels – the physical, the mental and the spiritual. We need to keep all three topped up. If one of those vessels is leaking, it can be replenished by the others. If all the others are leaking too, then we’re in trouble, but the good news is paying attention to any one of them can help the entire system to restore its balance.

The easiest to fix is the physical.

Among my memories of the darkest of my hours there shine radiant beacons of days simply walking in the Lake District Mountains. I have never felt ill on a mountain. It was when I came back down to earth the problems recurred. Physical exercise of any kind is good for us, good for circulation of the blood and the lymphatic system – getting the good stuff in and the bad stuff out, and you don’t need to do it on a mountain; a walk in the park is good too, or take up dancing, jogging, tennis, Tai Chi,… whatever interests you and suits your abilities. The after-effects of even gentle physical exercise dribble through into the mental vessel, surprising the most depressed of moods with little revelations of relaxation and calm.

It sounds too good to be true, that merely exercising the body can make a real difference the problem is, getting up off your arse when the black dog comes calling takes a monumental effort. We resist it, even though we know it’s good for us. This is another of the mysteries of mental illness; it is as if the pain is itself an intelligent entity dwelling within us and fears for its existence; it sees where we’re going with this and holds us back; it would much rather we vegetate in front of the telly, drink alcohol every night, and drop fatty treats into our mouths. I know, I’ve done it. But we must resist the resistance.

And keep moving.

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bearded man 2Men are not alone in suffering from mental illness, but the fact they do suffer is effectively suppressed by everyone in society, including the men who suffer. There is a stigma about it, the result being men deny the facts and are afraid to seek help. There are of course many forms and degree of mental illness, not all of which end in tragedy. But all mental illness, especially if borne in silence, will not only thwart the life chances others take for granted, but it will deny us even the basics of a happy life, one lived without the daily fear of some imagined calamity.

When we suffer from mental illness we become emotionally useless to those around us, also angry with ourselves for being “weak”. There is also a mysterious energy about it, and if we don’t take steps towards healing, it will form itself into a powerful vortex, sucking us down into an ever decreasing spiral, diminishing our chances of ever getting on with a normal life. We may begin to self medicate with alcohol or other drugs, self harm, manifest irrational, compulsive behaviours, and in the worst of cases begin to think suicidal thoughts.

It’s a remarkable fact that throughout all of this we will appear to be functioning well, turning up for work, doing a decent job, smiling, being nice, and bringing home the bacon. But it’s a mask. We are skilful at evasive tactics that get us through the day, avoiding the trigger situations we associate with our anxieties. All of this comes before we seek help, if we ever do – and 80% of us don’t. When we eventually stop functioning, we do so suddenly, catastrophically, and no one, including us, sees it coming. The really sobering fact here is that mental illness is not rare. It’s very common. One in five of us is suffering, right now. It’s just that nobody ever talks about it. How crazy is that?

So what do we do? Well, like all illnesses, much falls upon the sufferer to acknowledge the problem. Everyone experiences lows in life, but they pass. Mental illness is different. It settles in. If you’ve been feeling inconsolably down or on edge for months, let alone years it’s probably a good idea to talk to your doctor. That’s the litigiously-aware, super-sensible advice – go speak to your doctor, because what the hell do I know? But the reality of state primary healthcare services is that the time, sympathy and understanding one needs to sort things out properly will most likely be lacking. If you’re lucky you’ll get a hastily scrawled prescription for anti-depressants, and a referral to psychological counselling. The waiting time to your first session will be in inverse proportion to how much you managed to frighten the crap out of your doctor with what you told him, so don’t hold back because you need that referral, and you need it fast!

But sadly, again, the cash strapped reality of public mental healthcare is that it can backfire when you feel you’re not being given the necessary face-time with a competent or at least half way human counsellor, that you’re not being listened to, that indeed you never see the same counsellor twice in a row, that you feel you’re being fobbed off with drugs that aren’t right for you, that your regular sessions are broken up by spurious cancellations on their part, when, if you miss a session yourself, no matter what your excuse, you’ll be kicked into the long grass and left there to rot.

Then, those anti-depressants become your only hope, and are not to be sniffed at as they enable one to keep going without taking time off work, and more importantly having to explain why. Me? No, I’m fine! Just a touch of flu. But they don’t work in all cases, didn’t work for me, turned me into a zombie and robbed me of sleep for weeks on end. It also gave me pause how relaxed my GP was about putting me on them for life, careless of the risk of serious side effects and little or no supervision. But if you’re in a situation where you’re thinking of taking your life, they might just save your life and you’d be unwise to reject this option. It’s just that when we’re suffering from mental illness, we don’t always act wisely. We react instead to fear and to the isolation imposed on us by that illness.

Because of my  negative experience with mental health services, I’ve always been leery of the long term medication route, also guilty of labelling mental health care professionals (unfairly) as lacking empathy and being ruled by the same tick box culture as everyone else these days, merely there to fudge you off their books as a successful intervention with the minimum of time and effort, because time and effort costs money – and there isn’t any. Instead I became a lone survivalist, hunkered down in my flimsy home-made refuge with a handful of improvised weapons to keep the demons at bay. But they they bought me time, and time and effort is what it takes. There’s a lot we can do to help ourselves, and a lot of free information online these days to demystify those demons.

So ask yourself this: do I want to get better? The answer might seem obvious, but some of us are so benighted and so closely identified with our illness, we lack the mental focus to even understand the question. Once we accept the need for healing though, then proper healing can take place, but it won’t come solely through the intervention of a healthcare professional, or from out of a blister-pack. These are merely some of the tools at our disposal, to be used wisely and mindfully – mindful of the fact that even a doctorate in psychology does not give the other person a clear window into your head.

Mental illness is different to other illnesses; it does not attack the body directly, it attacks the soul and its methods are as unique as we are. Indeed it uses us to attack ourselves. It confuses us into thinking we are nothing more than the pain we feel. Unfortunately the defences we can deploy will seem as bizarre as the illness, indeed they will require the adoption of a frame of mind as irrational as the malaise under which we labour. Therefore, again, we encounter an internal resistance, because the possession of even the knowledge of such techniques is a tacit admission of the need to deploy them in the first place.

Such is the bind we find ourselves in! But anyway,…

As a first step we must dis-identify with our illness. The pain, the fear, the debilitating isolation, the strange compulsions, the damaging thoughts. These things are not who we are, they are just thoughts. Even if they threaten to kill us, they are still merely the things we suffer from. If we can find the space within ourselves to step back and say: no, I am not that, then we’re already moving in the right direction.

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