Posts Tagged ‘prozac’

mazda night journey HDR

When I came across the writings of the Swiss Psychoanalyst Carl Jung, some fifteen years ago, they caused a radical shift in my world-view. Or perhaps my world-view was changing anyway, and his ideas provided a safety net, or a supporting structure that allowed me to explore the irrational byways of the world and the psyche without the normal concerns that I was going insane questioning what I had been conditioned to accept as the true nature of reality. But plenty of others had trod this path, said Jung, many via his consulting room. You’re not losing it, the anxiety you feel is not pathological, it is more a part of the natural process to grow and develop – not physically, but psychologically, and spiritually. You’re just searching for something. You are a pilgrim on the way of the psyche. You are on the night journey of the way of the soul.

I had plenty of reasons for going off the rails, for descending into mental illness – a strongly introverted type with a track record of social maladjustment, of anxiety, and depression, stretching back to my first days at school, and the fitting of a yoke that chafed badly, and still does. And in later years there were circumstances, both professional and personal, that provided ample excuse for a return to the existential darkness I had known as a youth, and from which this time there might not have been any safe return.

My problem was not one of being unable to fit in with the world. Being passive by nature I have always been very good at that, so long as I am prepared to accept and acquiesce to the world view, and inevitably also to the will of others. But behind the mask I wear, mostly what I see in the world I do not like, or I secretly resent its demands that I change in me those things that are not negotiable. And now, knowing I can do nothing about the way I am, I come to accept myself and seek always to disconnect myself from those things that would mould me into a shape contrary to what my instinct tells me nature has intended.

The rational world holds few answers for people like me, though, like an archaeologist, I have studied its traces through many layers, and in great detail now. Yet all my life it has cold shouldered the more important questions, and it has failed even to see, let alone alleviate my underlying ills.

Around the age of thirty I consulted an overworked village doctor. I was showing clear symptoms of burn-out, of anxiety of, ugh,.. depression, and, after a consultation lasting all of two minutes, came out with a prescription for the wonder-drug of the 90’s: Prozac. But the Prozac made me ill, made me more anxious and irritable to the point of despair. I was not suited to it, clearly, but my telling the doctor so made him cross. This surprised me. I was not for ever pestering him with my ills. I had seen him twice in my life. Perhaps he was on Prozac too?

It was the first and only time I have sought pharmaceutical redress for such things. I did not blame the doctor – doctors are not gods, they are only men, and as prone to weakness as the rest of us. It’s sobering though, the realisation there are few true healers in the world, so it is as well not to rely upon one of them being around when you have need – better to seek ways of healing yourself. It’s only sensible.

Healing came first from Yoga, from which I gleaned sufficient knowledge of meditation to pass my fourth decade in a state of at least superficially high-functioning normality. But there was always something loose about me, something rebellious and suspicious of the cock-sure confidence and the de-facto authority of the rational world. Behind the mask, I still resented its stupidity writ large, ruining lives and tearing up the planet. It might be circumspect to respect authority, but it is also wise never to trust it. Indeed, it seemed to me the rational world was a fragile thing, sick at its roots, and irredeemable. The rational world of course is just an idea. It does not actually exist beyond thought, though we like to believe it does in case all else falls away, and at any rate it’s better than believing in fairies.

The path to Jung was gradual, it involved first perhaps a dangerous erosion of the rational sense, the thing that normally protects one from all manner of strange and harmful ideas; it involved an arrogant tearing at the fabric of the known world, and an equally arrogant probing at the structure of the unknown with the help of a five thousand year old oracular device, bequeathed to me by Jung, called the I Ching.

It was he who introduced the fledgling methods of studying the unconscious traces, Jung who opened a curtain onto the nature of processes hitherto unsuspected, but it was not a pretty picture. He poked about in the midst of a turd-smeared madness, like a witch doctor probing at a chicken’s giblets, for clues to the archetypal forces that underlie the world. No, madness is not a pretty thing; it is not Keira Knightley in comely distress as Jung pursues his “Dangerous Method”. Madness is uncompromising in its daemonic ugliness and its rejection of reality, and it is a thing we seek to escape, to lock away at all costs for fear of it overwhelming us. And if we really must tread that way then we had better tread lightly.

Jung’s was a world in which the dream was to be read with as much seriousness as the events of the day, and in which the events of the day were to be interpreted with the same looseness and symbolic radar as the dream, for what it might teach us of the reality underlying what we think of as reality. It was a world that spoke of the idea that reality was to be read in a non-literal way if we were to properly understand it, that if a woman were to say she lived on the moon, we could not dismiss the idea as absurd, that instead we should accept it might be true, at least in a non-literal sense, that if we accepted the validity of the psyche, as we must, then at the level of the psyche all things become potentially true, and the boundaries between what is accepted as sane and insane blur into a bewildering non-existence.

Indeed, as we explore the path of the psyche, seeking structure in non-structure, we approach a point when we realise there is actually nothing there at all, that the chaotic forces of the psychic collective and the daemonic underworld are a pullulating layer of fledgling cognition spread pitifully thin upon the eternal void, that what we are is a universe moving from that void in search of itself, that the void, being nothing, posits its own existence as a certainty, and its nothingness as an impossibility, though both sides of this equation be, on the surface at least, a self cancelling paradox.

Madness is to languish in the collective of the archetypes, sanity is to pay them homage while rising above them into the sunshine of the material world, at the same time accepting that deep down lies the great stillness that underpins reality. Jung is not for the faint of heart, and most of his writings lose me at the first paragraph because I do not have the latin, nor yet the looseness of mind to slip into the cracks of the underworld where he fears not to go.

Popular reinterpretations of his works are always lacking, while those following him with the same intellectual rigour risk inaccessibility, at least to the interested layman. And at twelve hundred words or so, I know I’ve left most of you behind me now. So I pull over to the side of road and note how the way wends for ever on.

It gives me pause, and I wonder if perhaps I’ve reached my limit too. Even a brief dip into the ideas of Jung is enough to fill several of the lives of lesser minds. But one thing I have noticed is that to explore the unconscious is also to swim against the tide of a universe of ideas all swimming the other way, that our redemption is not to seek escape inside an inner world of our own making when the will of everything that’s inside of us is to make itself conscious, to emerge wide eyed and blinking into the sunshine of a world many of us would reject as too imperfect for the perfect interpretations of our selves.

In truth we are all insane, some of us more highly functioning than others and better able to fit in with the touch-stone patterns we have collectively constructed that pass as the rational world view. But we are all subject to the ideas, the archetypes, the thought forms that seek passage into the world through us, and it is a milestone along the way to be accepting of that. Another milestone perhaps is when we no longer ask of them what they can do for us, but what we can do for them, and in so doing circle back to the beginning of things, but with a good deal less existential angst than before.

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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!


Thanks Gandalf.

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leaving darwen tower

I talked last night about letting go of our anxieties and I’m conscious now of  making it sound easier than it really is. If we are born with a personality that is prone to anxiety, depression, or any other form of psychological turbulence, ” letting go” is more of a lifetime’s work than something that can be taught in a one off session – it’s part of who we are, and we’ll never be described as “normal” in the clinical sense, but then who is normal? On the upside, with hindsight, for a writer, it gives us a lot of interesting material to work with – though it might not feel like it at the time.

Of course, we can be brought quickly back onto the straight and narrow with the aid of drugs like SSRI’s. These alter the way we experience emotion, and can be quite powerful, but speaking as a layman, they also have their downsides. If your depression is so deep you’re literally at risk of razor blades in the bathroom, then SSRI’s can save your life, so we shouldn’t be too squeamish about taking them. Equally though, I know people who are stuck on them and for no reason I can see, other than they’re not aware of  any other option.

I spent a short time on SSRI’s myself, following a stressful transition in both my work and personal life, back in the nineties. This was a decade when they seemed to be handing them out like sweets. Prozac in particular was hailed as the new wonder drug – a substance that would render things like depression and anxiety a thing of the past. Well, Prozac’s still with us, but so are things like depression and anxiety.

Before taking Prozac, I was jumping at shadows, I was anxious about things stretching way into the future, things that might never happen. I’d break out sweating for no reason, I’d get dizzy behind the wheel of a car, mainly because my neck was so tightly screwed up I was shutting off the circulation to my brain – and I’d only to be trapped in a room full of people before I was imagining I was going to faint – probably for the same reason.

On reflection I recognize the root cause of my anxieties was not wanting to be where I was. But my societal duties and my apparent life’s path – including the basic need to go out and earn a living – insisted I endure situations I found absurd, not only that, but situations in which I was obliged to act and speak as if I thought everything was “normal”, that I’d somehow bought-in to the collective delusion. You can only do that for so long before your unconscious erupts on a volcanic scale, laying waste to your life, prompting you to rise phoenix-like from the ashes, hopefully on a more psychically sincere path. If you can’t do that, there’s a chance it’ll simply pull the plug on you and find a more willing companion next time around.

On Prozac, however, fitting in was no longer a problem. I also discovered astonishing levels of self confidence. A bomb could have gone off and I would not have moved, except to brush the dust from my shoulders. If the boss had shouted at me, I would have felt confident enough to tell him what I thought, then wee on his desk. A wonder-drug? Yes, and with good reason; my early days on Prozac were a revelation!

However, I lasted only a short while before the side effects kicked in. I found myself unable to sleep. I remember I didn’t sleep for a whole week, and that put me into a darker hole than I’d been in in the first place. You can get tablets for insomnia of course, and I was offered them as a quick fix, but I decided to make a break at this point and began the long road to becoming a closet hippy instead. Twenty five years later, I still wear a conventional collar and tie to work, and I draw a salary that’s been uninterrupted by time off for “stress”. But there’s a yin-yang pendant and a tree of life next to my skin, and my wisest confidant is a book called the I Ching.

This wasn’t an easy transition.

I was 28, a self styled mathematician and a physicist, having just completed 10 years of studies. To my mind, if you couldn’t plot its trajectory, or describe its behaviour with differential equations, “it” didn’t exist. I was rational, and a materialist. Many tread that path their whole lives, carving out impressive careers for themselves. Not me. It took a while for me to realise the stuff I’d learned was already a hundred years out of date, and that while there were many aspects of life you could explore, extrapolate and interpolate with the calculus of Isaac Newton, there were others it wouldn’t touch. The mind was one of them. For that you needed to get weird. Even Newton knew this, and wasn’t afraid to get weird himself.

So I got weird.

I started on the body with Yoga, then on the mind with Jung, then on both body and mind with Tai Chi and Qigong. For the spirit, I circled Daoism, Buddhism, then came back to Jung again – it was he who taught me there can be no dichotomy between psyche and spirit. I walked, I read, and I wrote. I’ve been doing that for 25 years, and I’ve still no idea what I’m talking about, but I’ve never since felt the dark depths of despair that SSRI’s dumped me in. I’ve since faced far more stressful situations, without a serious wobble, so I must be doing something right. As for certainty though, you can forget it – about the only thing I know for sure in all of this is that what’s real is not always what you can plot on a graph.

As Jung said, what’s real is simply what works.

And it changes, all the time. What’s right for you now may not work in another year or two. You have to keep pace with your changing psyche. As Jung also said: All true things must change, and what does not change, cannot be true.

It might not sound like much of a cure – a quarter of a century of faltering steps along an essentially intangible mystical path, but reality was transformed for me once I took those first steps, and I feel the world has in all that time been coloured a more vivid shade of life than it ever would have been on SSRI’s.

A critical look at the dynamics of human interaction on a global scale reveals the disturbing fact that the world has evolved into a profoundly sick beast, that we live out daily the madness of the collective unconscious, pretty much as you can see it lived among the inmates of any institution for the seriously disturbed. And we participate in it because we have no choice – we’re all imprisoned by the essentially delusional values of money, and status, and even things like national or religious identities.

SSRI’s make us conveniently forgetful of this madness, allowing us to go on living in the world, but in ways that are making us increasingly ill. For the mystic to live in such a world, and see it as he does, does not make for comfortable viewing, but it at least grants him the ability to rise above the bullshit, to see it for what it is, and to maintain his psychical integrity rather than being negatively influenced and dragged down into the depths of hell by it.

But how do you let go? How does the office worker, the teacher, the health care professional,… all of them oppressed by organisational structures based upon delusional understandings of the human psyche, and metered by the dollar,… how do they let their anxieties go?

Well, the transcendental path is the only one I know, and your journey starts when you can deal with any negative materialistic reactions you might have to that word: Transcendental. The next step is looking that word up, understanding what it means to you, and then realising what a big word it is.

But the bottom line in all of this is it’s a personal journey. You can seek help, talk to people, read books, research the internet. But at some point you have to take charge of your own psychical destiny, and do something about it. Don’t worry that your actions might seem weird, because then you’re falling into another common trap – that of living your life through the eyes of someone else, someone always critical and questioning of your rational grip, of your right to be whomever you want to be. We’ve all done this. Recognising it, again, is one of the first steps to being free of it.

I could talk about meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi, Jungian Psychology, non literal reality, the Romantic movement, looking for meaning in our dreams, guided imagination – as I have done at at various times in this blog, and shall do so again,… but none of these things may be right for you, so just find what works, and get on with it.

Come to think of it, I haven’t talked about meditation.

I may do that next.

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Being a holistic approach to coping with a nervous disability, a rejection of therapeutic druggery, and the values of secular society that would have us believe it alone possesses the key to the meaning of our lives.

In this essay I speak as someone who has suffered from a troublesome psyche since I was a boy. My earliest encounter with it was an inexplicable feeling of dread in large social gatherings such as school assemblies or church services, a dire panic at having to stand through hymn-singing because I had become irrationally convinced I was going to faint.

The medical profession call these episodes panic attacks and, since the 1990s, have controlled them with a family of drugs called SSRI’s. Two of the most common of these are known as Prozac and Seroxat. In fact they’re prescribed for a wide variety of emotional problems: anxiety, depression, or indeed anything that prevents us, emotionally, from somehow “fitting in” with the world. They work by altering the way the brain handles serotonin and essentially alter what an individual sees as stressful, like putting on dark glasses in bright sunlight. My personal experience of SSRI’s was brief and unpleasant though useful by way of being a formative experience, one that was instrumental in pushing me into a more holistic view of things.

I’ve never understood the cause of my own panic attacks, which somehow added to the feeling of helplessness when I was in the middle of one – but fortunately, their grip has slackened in recent years, and though I hate to tempt fate, I can’t remember the last time I had one – though the old defence mechanisms are still a part of my routine: when entering a room of people, say at a lecture or a music concert, I still naturally take up a position at the sides, by the aisles, and in line of sight of the exit, so I can leave with the minimum of fuss should I begin to struggle with myself later on. Even in my darkest days, I never actually had to make a desperate bolt for the exit, but reminding myself of these facts did not help struggling against the urge when the mood was upon me.

The problem morphed and splintered over the years into a number of other related manifestations. For example, at concerts of classical music, where the listening experience tends to be subtle and intense, I once developed the peculiar habit of wanting to swallow in order to ease a certain dryness of the throat which threatened to erupt into a cough. Swallowing would then become compulsive, and had to be repeated every few seconds until I lost all sense of pleasure in the music. Thus, concerts that should have lifted the spirit left me feeling only jittery and ashamed of my weakness. I would also sometimes suffer a peculiar sensation of imbalance when walking into a room full of noisy people, say at a party or in a crowded restaurant. Outside I would be fine, or if the room were empty, but in a gathering of people, my legs would become strangely tense and wobbly and the floor would become like the swaying deck of a ship. And again there was the situation of being cornered by the consummate bore, the person who told you everything about his life from birth to the present day by way of answer to even the most succinct enquiry. How often have I found myself trapped, not listening, for what seemed like hours, afraid of breaking out into a sweat, afraid of a dizzy spell coming on, and too polite, too sensitive to the bore’s feelings to break him off abruptly, stick my finger in his eye and run screaming for fresh air and freedom?

Yet another peculiar manifestation once concerned my driving. Many years ago now, I suddenly discovered that at certain key points of my daily commute I would experience the very real sensation that my forward motion had been arrested and that I was slipping backwards. This last peculiar episode was perhaps the most frightening because, unlike all the other “trigger environments” driving was not something I could easily avoid: it threatened my freedom to get about.

Somehow though, one muddles through, unable to explain to others for fear of being labelled a nutter,… and the medical profession unfortunately, I always found to be less than helpful. For all the good intentions of the British National Health system my personal experience of it is an inability to deal with any illness that does not show changes in blood and urine samples or cannot be quickly fixed up by a few stitches, a plaster cast, or a dose of antibiotics. There was a doctor, some twenty years ago, who listened to me for all of five minutes. I seemed barely to have begun explaining myself before the man was confidently writing up a prescription for what turned out to be the new cure-all wonder-drug: Prozac. For a few days this was my one and only foray into the chemically adjusted reality of the then modern age. My experience of it was short lived and, though rather distressing, I view it now with all the detachment of an impartial observer, and with the magnanimity of one who has learned his lesson.
For a time it was like putting on a warm straight jacket. A bomb could have gone off and I would not have cared, nor I suspect would I have moved, except perhaps to glance up slowly and brush the dust from my clothes. I was stoned, literally, it seemed, turned to stone. Unfortunately it also stopped me from sleeping, for sleep is a human thing and stones have no need of it. After about a week of doing pushups into the small hours, in order to wear myself out, in the vain hope of encouraging a collapse into a fatigue induced stupor, I experienced for the first and only time in my life a profound sense of drug-induced despair. The whole experience of the medication was far more emotionally disturbing than the occasional fit of the jitters I was trying to cure, so the Prozac went into the bin.

Nowadays I no longer trouble the medical profession with any ailment that I cannot point to such as a sore thumb, or a swollen eye. Of course, this probably means that if I contract a fatal disease I shall probably die from it – but the chances are I’ll die from it anyway, so I’m willing to take the risk.
My slow road to regaining control over my life began with the memory of an experience from my first year as an engineering apprentice, in the latter days of the 1970’s. While doing basic training in manufacturing processes, a colleague injured his finger on a machine. This caused him to swear and me to faint. I was seen by the work’s doctor as a precaution and he advised me to get back on that machine as soon as possible, and to consider taking up some form of transcendental meditation. The machine part made sense, but the meditation did not. I possessed a very rational mindset in those days and I rejected anything that was not grounded in material “fact”.

But always, I wondered.

Later, following the Prozac episode, I overcame my overwhelming prejudice and bought a book on Hatha Yoga. I learned a few basic postures and some breathing exercises, and much to my surprise, they seemed to work. The jitters did not entirely pass, but they were suddenly subdued, and the fact I had discovered at last some means of holding them at bay was itself crucial in changing my life. I turn to Yoga now, and other esoteric practices, whenever I feel the jitters coming on and the jitters duly pass. I’m afraid I’m not disciplined enough to practise all the time and I’ve never attended a Yoga class or anything, but even doing these exercises in a half-assed way, succeeds where the medical profession failed completely, either due to lack of time or interest. To be clear, the jitters are still there, for it seems it’s a part of my nature to incubate them, but I am no longer at their mercy, and I get by.
Perhaps after all of this I have given the impression of my being a twitchy, jumpy neurotic, the sort of person you’d easily pick out of a crowd, the one who leaps a mile whenever anyone says “boo”, but you’d be wrong. People who know Michael Graeme’s alter ego (or is he mine? I forget these days!) describe him as “laid back”, to quote the vernacular, which always makes me smile. Appearances can be deceptive you see? Next time you look into the eyes of someone you think you know remember this: you do not know them at all, though you might like to think you do. What you see is a mask. The reality lies somewhere beneath and that reality might both surprise and disturb you.

I say I don’t really understand the origins of my own particular neuroses, and this is true, at least in any detail, but in a broader sense I think I understand them well enough. Psychologists tell us a neurosis is born as the result of an event that we find uncomfortable, frightening or embarrassing. We may no longer remember what that event was because we’ve shoved it deep into our unconscious mind and we’re pretending it never happened. We hide from these things, but the unconscious is very good at remembering what we would otherwise choose to forget, and so we are never truly rid of our skeletons. They become suppressed, and therefore troublesome. Once this happens we’re stuck unless we can afford the time and the money to have someone painstakingly analyse us and expose our fears for what they are. Personally I’ve not gone this far. I probably would if I could afford it, but I’m just an ordinary Joe, and psychoanalysis is a luxury for the wealthy, for the people whose mortgages and pensions haven’t been screwed by twenty years of robber-barron economics. It’s for the ten percent of the population currently sitting at the top of the global financial food chain, rather than the rest of us who are sitting nearer to the bottom, and sliding ever closer into ruin.

So, I live with it, and for most of the time, I’m as happy as the next person. On the positive side, I have sometimes found my neuroses useful, and looking back over the years I see a definite pattern to their awakenings. These patterns correspond to changes in my life, changes of direction when I’m sailing close to the wind, when I’m involved in situations or relationships that are likely to do me harm. In a positive sense then, my neuroses can be viewed as warnings to change course, now! Or else! Unfortunately though, we are all prisoners to a way of life and to some extent also the life choices we have made, and changes of direction are not always possible, no matter what our unconscious is throwing at us.

Personally I’ve come to believe that our natural inclination as human beings is not to live in the sort of society that the secular west is becoming at all. I believe we are meant to live a much freer, more open sort of life, closer to nature perhaps, less regimented, less structured, one where people are free to engage with their spiritual or psychological sides without being exploited, brainwashed or just plain hoodwinked by either charismatic charlatans, or organised religions. Too much conformity, too much of doing what we’re told, rather than what we please is bad for us. Bad for our psyche, bad for our spirit. As Aleister Crowley once wrote [and I paraphrase]: If it harms no one, (and presumably this includes ourselves), then we should be able to do as we like.

My first brush with the pain of compulsory conformity were my school days, which I hated with a passion from beginning to end. I was taken from the meadows and woodlands around my home and placed in the stifling confines of primary school. It was to be the first of many yokes – each one telling me I could not be what I wanted to be. I could not even have the time to think about what I wanted to be. There is a system to life you see? It imposes itself upon you. You do not shape it. It shapes you. So we become, not really ourselves but a mask in the form of what we believe, or what we are taught will be acceptable to society. We measure our words, we do not say what we feel, yet at the same time try to convince ourselves that we do believe in what we say. The illusion is complete: Individual and society engaging on terms that are mutually delusional.

Then comes work and marriage and children, and mortgages and pension provisions, so you will not starve when you grow old. And all the time a part of you is thinking: I’m really not meant for this. There’s something else I was supposed to do with my life, except there’s no longer any time to remember what it was. I do not care about money or fine houses or fashionable cars – easy for me to say perhaps: I have a roof over my head, not a big house but a nice one, and I drive a seven year old car, but – I think I’m old enough now to understand the trap of our possessions. All I have ever really wanted is to be free, to think my own thoughts and simply “be”, without having to speak in a manner that I believe will be pleasing to someone else, so that I won’t get fired or be thought of as strange. And I’ve long held the belief that my own neuroses are the inevitable consequences of being entangled in a world, in a system, and to a lifetime of conformity that I was not designed for.

If this is true, then there are an awful lot of people like me, and I fear my own neuroses are as nothing compared to those endured quietly by others. If you count yourself among our number then this essay’s for you. It may not bring you much comfort beyond the reassurance that you are not alone. But also I hope I can show you that far from putting you on the outside of life, your differences actually make you all the more a part of it than the seemingly happy majority who have never experienced the power or the horror of a sudden volcanic eruption from their unconscious mind.

For a person to suffer under the pressures of our society does not mean that person is in any way weaker than others,… just more sensitive to the absurdities and, to be quite frank the sometimes outrageous indignities we have to endure. Are we the crazy ones or are we simply the only ones left with eyes to see?

It is no measure of health to be to well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

J Krishnamurti

I’m too old to have any illusions about our way of life in the west, which since about 1985 seems to have been slipping into a sort of neo-conservative, survival-of-the-fittest, free market, free for all, one in which it’s assumed we’re all out to get whatever we want regardless of the heads we must trample in order to get it. But I refuse to join in such a cynical and demeaning game, and am presently trying to see my way through to retirement in as inoffensive and inconspicuous a manner as possible. Then, I tell myself, I’ll have a couple of decades to savour my freedom and soak the neuroses out of my system, that perhaps then, in the brief decades remaining, I will finally remember what it was I was supposed to have done with my life.

But the way of life that supports us has shown itself to be founded on a philosophy that’s no longer sustainable, and it looks like the financial securities we took for granted twenty years ago simply won’t be there when we finally come to rely upon them. Indeed, our politicians are presently laying the groundwork for an argument intent on convincing us that some of us may never retire at all, and if we insist on doing so we will live in a sort of grey poverty until the end of our days.

For all my dislike of our way of life, I always had a faith in its reliability. I may not like it I thought, but the system seems to work, well not any more. In five years time the mortgage on my house will mature, and after paying my dues to the building society every month for the past twenty five years, it looks like I will still owe as much as when I started. The financial mechanism that was to provide the money needed to pay it off has simply collapsed. As an example of the utilitarian depths to which our financial institutions have now stooped, I contacted my mortgage company, trying to find the best way of sorting things out, the way that was going to be least financially crucifying, but they refused to advise me, claiming it was no longer their policy to do so. They could sell me a “product” that was of benefit to them, on their terms, but their responsibility went no further than that. I suppose I was naive for even asking. My mortgage payments have now trebled.

Also, the same financial system that was to provide a pension in old age, I discover can no longer do so unless, again, I treble the contributions I make. So it seems all the promises that were made have now been broken by the small print that basically absolves the financial vendors of any responsibility. In the 1980’s we dared to harbour dreams of retirement in our fifties in order to pursue the things we all wanted to pursue, outside of the world of mundane work, but twenty years later we are waking up to the reality of a life spent in debt and servitude, for the term of our natural lives.

My apologies for the rant, but generally what I’m trying to illustrate here is that, these past years, and especially since the turn of the century, society has shown itself to be in state of undisguised crisis. There is a climate of uncertainty, and fear. Indeed we find ourselves subjected to an apocalyptic vision in which we dare not move or even breathe for fear of armageddon – either from a terrorist outrage, or a climatic upheaval of Old Testament proportions. Both government and increasingly influential fundamentalist religions seem united in encouraging this belief.
Now, in a sense all of this comes as a relief to me because it suggests I was not wrong to have spent my whole life viewing the world with an attitude similar to one of politely enduring the irritations of an obnoxious relative. The truth is out; it wasn’t just my imagination: he was obnoxious after all!

Life goes on, but there is an appalling sense that the future will be radically different from the one we imagined. And I’m not talking about the threat from global terrorism. In spite of the terrible outrages perpetrated in recent years, you’re still about as likely to die at the hands of a terrorist as you are from being struck by lightning, and far more likely to die as a result of a drug related gun crime, or a stupid car accident. What I’m talking about here is the death of hope, the death of meaning, and the loss of any dreams of comfort by way of compensation as we enter the latter part of our lives. What need have we to sit and think, to while away our latter years in idle pleasure,… when we could be earning our keep and paying our taxes until the day we drop?

Depressing, isn’t it?

If you suffer from your own neuroses, take comfort from the fact your sufferings are not your fault. They are perhaps the result of a society imposing something upon you, asking you to accept something as being normal that your natural self, perhaps your unconscious self finds simply too outrageous to bear, but is too polite to say – so you’ve swallowed it and it’s been giving you indigestion ever since.

Now, there’s not much I can do about the slow demise of western society, the breakdown of the family, the flood tide of drugs that lay waste to entire communities, the philosophy of slash and burn economics, or the rise of meaningless terrorism against which there appears to be little defence other than a knee-jerk leap into the Orwellian nightmare of a techno-totalitarian state. The social exterminations wrought by the utilitarian swings of the global economy are equally quite beyond my influence. I’m just an ordinary man tapping words into an old computer. I cannot save your mortgages, nor your pensions, and if the retirement age is jacked up to seventy five, or even abandoned altogether, there’s not much I can do about that either.

What I can do however is reassure you that it’s not your fault, that the jitters you feel are the natural consequences of enduring something that is alien to the nature God gave you. What you can do, however, is accept yourself for what you are. The jitters, the neuroses,… these are differences in you that serve only to affirm your humanity. They do not separate you from anything other than the false idea of conformity to some rosy image of what a normal human being is supposed to be like.

My own neuroses over the years have carried messages for me that I was too deaf to heed at the time. You’re going the wrong way, Mike, they said. Pull back, stop, turn the car around! Meanwhile poor Mike couldn’t imagine what was going on. He didn’t have a stressful lifestyle, he wasn’t some ruthless, corporate go-getter, and his marriage wasn’t on the rocks. So what was it that got under his skin so much that at times he wanted to scream?

In this sense, my neuroses seem to have had the same intent as bad dreams, not just the expression of an anxiety, but a clue also regarding their cause, and cure. The agoraphobic is perhaps the most illustrative of the meaningful malaise. I’ve known a few agoraphobics over the years, and this condition for the sufferer, and their loved ones is no joke. A normal, attractive, healthy person becomes by degrees less confident in dealing with the world until a state is reached where the whole world is viewed with such anxiety that the person withdraws completely, feeling safe nowhere outside the bounds of their own home. They get by, day to day, but survive in a sort of prison of their own making. It is a total disengagement from a reality they have come to abhor. In order to be cured the agoraphobic has to lose their dread of society, or at least become more accepting of it.

But what if it’s society that’s at fault?

What if it really is better to withdraw than to sup with the devil himself?

For me, it was the school assembly and the church service, a lack of comprehension and a total reluctance to be away from the things that meant most to me in my childhood. Conformance was demanded, but as a result I have always been stubbornly elusive when it comes to committing myself to anything I do not wholeheartedly believe in. The trouble is, there seems to be so little worth believing in, so I slip through life unconnected and uncommitted to anyone or anything outside of my own close family. The only exception seem to be my writings which bear witness to life through these, my own eyes.
I did not rationalise it this way at the time. I only knew I was afraid of something, afraid of the inexplicable physical manifestations, the tension, the dizziness, the increased pulse. So the physical symptom, the sense of strangeness, became the thing to be feared, and for many years the root cause was overlooked.

The medical books tell us that our flesh and blood bodies have developed a physical response to things that frightens us. Our heart-rate goes up, we become tense, poised ready either to fight for our lives or run like hell. But how can you run from a reluctance to conform? How can we run from the demands of our society, from the responsibilities we all have and which inevitably involve facing up to things we’d really rather not do? Indeed we’re conditioned to accept this as a normal part of our lives. But equally we hate it.

It’s easy to stand up and begin whining on behalf of everyone who’s experience of life has left them jaded and jittery, but that’s not really my aim here. My aim is more to look at society and ask the question, what is it that we are afraid of? We have no control over the life we are born into and therefore it seems cruel that we should come up against circumstances over which we have no control but which nevertheless are sure to drive us mad – not all of us perhaps – just those unable to adapt or to cope well enough with the reality of the world as we see it.

In my own case, it has always been a fear of emptiness, that our lives mean nothing. It has always been my desire to explore life in a way that was most meaningful to me. This seems to be a thing that gains the approval of my unconscious because time spent in focussed introspection is time rewarded with a sense of calm, while time spent dealing with the day to day chaotic scatter of a workaday life is punishable by tiresome neurosis – at least it was until I came to believe that there was indeed nothing more to society than a chaotic scattering of half-bakedness.

To be sure, it’s a closely guarded secret that “society” is not actually the purpose of our lives at all. It’s more the stage on which we play our life out. It’s when we come to believe that somewhere in society might lie the secret of our purpose that the problems begin. Society itself holds no meaning whatsoever. If we want to experience any sort of genuine fulfilment, then we have to provide that meaning for ourselves as individuals. True purpose is the indefinable belief in something “other”, something outside of society, like the guiding hand of a beloved parent. When we let go of our parent’s hand as children, we suffer the bewildering crowds as they swirl around us, careless and oblivious to our need. We fear the loss of ourselves, the inability ever again to feel the warmth and the sure guidance of those we love. We fear losing our centre, losing our self.

Now and then, when I’m feeling particularly tired and jittery I will experience a moment of complete disengagement. It can be anywhere – in a meeting at work, in a restaurant, or when chatting with others. It comes suddenly – a sense of shifting outside of myself and of leaving behind only a disorientated shell, a shell momentarily paralysed and fearful for its existence, alone in these strange surroundings without a guiding psyche. It is unlike a daydream, for in daydreaming the action always takes place inside one’s head. What I call the disengagement of my soul is quite different. In disengagement of the soul,… the soul seems to momentarily slip out of the host.

I might be fearful for my sanity, prone as I am to such episodes, but I’ve experienced them since childhood and they seem to have done me no harm. They are not, then, a symptom of advancing madness, but more perhaps a looseness of grip. The feeling is one of bearing witness to a dream, a feeling things are not real and that I need to wake up and find my true self, my true reality, except of course the self that is dreaming protests that it is the real self and I’d better hang on to the dream because it’s all there is!

Well,… such are the storms that periodically sweep this particular mind. The worst thing is the suspicion that I am alone in these experiences, that only the inmates of an asylum can experience anything worse, but of course I am far from alone, and my storms are as nothing compared to some – rendered sluggish perhaps by the chemical quagmire of Prozac or Seroxat, but there all the same.

Now, it might seem a little childish, harking back to pre-school days as being the happiest of my life, or later, the temporary freedom of those delicious six week summer holidays when the time stretched out each morning, an infinity of choice, and when each day was a pleasure sipped like fine wine. But you can’t live like that, can you? You have to make a living. You have to contribute to your society by paying your way, and paying your taxes. Of course you do, but what you must not do is look to society, nor even to the people around you, to provide the meaning in your own life.

As Margaret Thatcher once famously said: “there is no such thing as society”. Now, I’m not sure in what context this was meant to be taken, but from one particular angle at least, I find myself in agreement with the Iron Lady. Society is an abstract concept of varying parameters that are entirely dependent upon an individual’s perception. Society does not feel anything. It does not look down upon individuals with either compassion or contempt. It owes us nothing, as we owe it nothing beyond our legal dues. It is simply an organisational structure, and I’m afraid to say that in modern secular terms this boils down to people who are either customers or salesmen. How many times a day does your telephone ring with someone trying to sell you something? In short, there is no meaning to the secular society beyond a system of financial transactions.

The only practical advice I can offer, if you don’t do it already, is to do as that old medical officer told me, mysteriously, so long ago, and that’s meditate, which is really no more than sitting quietly and alone from time to time. Some people buy books and tapes and learn to do it in the way of the great meditative traditions, while some go to classes, and this is fine if you can make the time, because the deeper you go the better. Do it every day if you can. If not, if like me the kids burst in, or start to whine every time you sit down, then just do it whenever you can, even if it’s only for a moment. And when you’ve done it, remember that the way we live our lives does not provide the meaning to our lives. Meaning is what we carry in our hearts. It is personal, meaningful in a way specific only to ourselves. Others need not share our vision, or indeed know anything about it at all. Our vision, our sense of meaning is ours alone.
In meditating, we cut back to the centre of ourselves, we reach out for the hand we let go of at the moment of our birth, the only thing connecting us to something safe and sure in a world that is otherwise completely bewildering. That hand is there for each of us and it has nothing to do with this world at all,… it is completely beyond it. We have only to touch it in our minds, for a kind of enlightenment to ensue.

And it goes something like this:

If contemporary society truly possessed the meaning of our lives, it would not offer it back to us for free. We would have to pay for it, and the price would be so high that only a few elite individuals would ever be able to possess it. Or, it would be owned by a mega-corporation that might allow us to pay for it in instalments over a lifetime, with the promise that, like our homes, it would eventually be ours. However, there would probably be something in the small print that absolved the mega-corp from any responsibility when at the end of our term it presented us with a dog eared piece of paper with the number 42 written upon it.

[if unsure Google 42 “meaning of life”]

But the meaning of life is not a thing, not a number, not an equation, nor is it an explanation of any kind, for there is not a question that can be adequately framed to solicit anything approaching a satisfactory answer. It is much simpler than all of that. It is a state of being, a state of grace, and I’m sorry but that costs nothing at all, and it is the birthright of every one of us. What is it? You know what it is. Just sit still for a moment, close your eyes and listen to the sound of it coming from that space between your ears, and no, I don’t mean the tinnitus! Maybe you can even see it with your mind’s eye, but rest assured, if you sit there often enough, pretty soon,…

…. you’ll begin to feel it.

Michael Graeme

April 2007

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