The Unexpected Pleasure of a Social Fail

Last week I was invited to a publisher’s event in London and despite my terrible track record at attending such things, I decided I would go. There are plenty of reasons why I hardly ever attend, beyond my chronic fatigue. They all seem to start at 6.30 p.m., for instance, which is a dreadful time if you are a creature of habit and like to eat regularly. To arrive in good time, I need to leave my house about half past four, which is too early for tea beforehand, and then if one stays to the bitter end at 8.30, this means eating dinner at home around 10.30 p.m. which is even past my bedtime. Obviously other people find their way around this, but I admit it perplexes me.

Anyhoo, I boarded the train with my emergency supplies of a Marks & Spencer wrap, made it to London and walked to the venue which was just off Charing Cross Road. I visited the new Foyles as I had a a little time to spare, and found it very spiffy to look at, but a tad confusing in layout. Mind you, it’s definitely a step up from arranging books by publishers. Then I walked to the venue, eating half the wrap as I went (and trying not to drop lettuce into the folds of my scarf) and still arrived a bit early. I cased the joint, as the old gumshoes used to say, from the other side of the street, and saw people going in. At the door there was a young woman with a clipboard taking names, and I feared things were not going to go well when she could not find my name although I had written to rsvp. I had my invitation printed out in my bag, but it seemed she didn’t want to challenge me, just hastily added me to the bottom of her list and waved me on to coat check. The people in front were having their coats taken, and when that young woman never returned, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to keep my coat with me, which was a good decision in the end.

I sat in one of the alcoves in the bar, watching London publishing people arrive and flicking through the publicity brochure. This is when I realised I had made a mistake in not checking beforehand whether any other bloggers were going to attend. I’d been so sure somebody would be there who I knew, but as jolly partygoers poured in, I realised there was no face I recognised. They all knew each other though. They were doing that social clumping thing, where they separate into little, dense groups of furiously chatting people. When I finally saw a face that was familiar it took me a while to place it. Then I fervently hoped I hadn’t been staring. I think it was the owner of a book store who I met several years ago now, offering to create content for a website for the shop. This person was dead set against any idea of a website and we parted company less than pleased with one another. Yikes.

Well, half an hour had passed and I was very bored, and nothing seemed to be happening and I really had no desire to talk to the only person who might know me. And so I put my coat back on, slipped through the crowds in the room, and left without anyone noticing. Then I walked back to the station, got on the train and ate the other half of my wrap for dessert. It was one of those sleepy trains with the final few commuters of the evening all happy to nap in their seats or read. Across the aisle from where I was sitting an Indian gentleman slept through the first half of the journey and then when he woke up, he took a book from his bag. Inevitably I craned my neck to read the title and was intrigued when I saw it was a memoir by Michael Greenberg called Hurry Down Sunshine about a severe breakdown his daughter suffered. I’ve had it on my shelves for a couple of years without having read it yet (same old story!). Well, the gentleman saw me looking and smiled, and I smiled back at him and it was clear we both were on the brink of saying something but were a little too reserved. Ten minutes later, as the announcer said we were arriving home, and we were all shifting and leaning forward in our seats, we just started chatting (he was enjoying the memoir, though it was very sad, so maybe enjoy was not quite the right verb). And I had my bookish conversation after all.

When I told this story to Mr Litlove with the stated intention of blogging about it, he wasn’t sure I should mention it. I think this is because Mr Litlove is an alpha social animal, who would never be intimidated by a room of strangers and would find an easy, natural way to enter a conversation other people were holding. I do admire him for that. But that’s not me. I dislike parties, and travelling, and I fear being stuck in social situations I’m not enjoying. I was quite pleased that I took the decision to leave and to conserve my energy which is still in short supply and precious to me.

And it’s very intriguing why I should have found it easy to talk to the stranger on the train and impossible to talk to the strangers at the party. All I can say is that the train felt like a level playing field, socially. At the party, the people there knew each other already and I was at a disadvantage. And on the train, we had made a connection over the book; it was a tiny thing, barely perceptible, but it made all the difference. Something real had occurred, and the real is always simple to capitalise upon. When the connection is artificial, you have to work so much harder.

In case you’re interested, I had a bowl of cereal when I got home, to round off my nutritionally impoverished evening and I still managed to come down with a chronic fatigue relapse a few days later, which goes to show that evenings in London are probably still beyond me physically as well as socially.* But the experiment was interesting in all kinds of unexpected ways.

 

* And yes, Dark Puss, you are top of my list for when I am able to spend a bit more time in London!

The Faithful Couple

faithful coupleOne of the bits I really like in the film of Bridget Jones’ Diary is the fight scene between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. What makes me laugh every time is how real they manage to make it look – all clumsy grappling and uncoordinated lashing out, the impetus to hurt the other person kept in check by the much stronger desire not to be hurt oneself. They are two boys having a scrap in the playground, not Hollywood actors in a polished and well-choreographed routine and it’s very endearing.

It was the same sense of scrappy realness, a bit clumsy, a bit awkward, often mortified, that kept me engaged and enjoying The Faithful Couple, A. D. Miller’s bromance about long-term friendship between men. Adam Tayler and Neil Collins meet in California while travelling, Adam as part of a gap-year after his degree at Durham, Neil as a treat after he jacks in a pharmaceutical sales job. There’s a distinct, nuanced difference in class. Neil, though he also has a degree, will be trapped on his return into working at his widowed father’s dreary stationary shop in a dull, grubby part of London. His mother died when he was 14, and his older brother has gone off the rails. Adam comes from an entitled family, a jolly, confident bunch, his father in shipping insurance, his mother helping charities. Adam has the money behind him to be idealistic, and is intending to work in television.

But first: California. The young men fall into an easy, feckless friendship, their comfort with one another spiked at the edges by an undercurrent of rivalry. Travelling up the West coast of America, they urge each other on to bad behaviour, running out of a bar without paying. It’s nothing really, they are good boys at heart. But on a camping trip in Yosemite, the competitiveness gets a little out of hand over a young woman named Rose. Adam is aware of her age, and does not pass this information on to Neil. There is an ugly incident, but one that eventually passes over without any dire consequence. Back in England, Adam and Neil cement their friendship, the secret sin that lurks between them exerts a uniting effect, not least in their desire to cover it over.

But as the years slip by and things do not fall out as expected – Adam’s career repeatedly stagnates, his ambition lost to the daily grind of family life, whilst Neil moves from dotcom to property to financial management, making money all the way – the California incident begins to fester. It’s Adam who lets himself become needled with guilt. Partly the birth of his daughter affects him with superstitious karmic fear, but there’s also an unarticulated disappointment to deal with, that on paper, Neil is doing better than he is. In the unwritten laws of his upbringing, Adam realises that this inability to let an old, half-forgotten incident go is as verboten as any other form of weakness:

To moon over a girl was gay. To worry over exams was nerdy. Everyone was supposed permanently to be on good form, as if they were well-conditioned, moodless racehorses… They were all or nothing people, Adam realised, his family, his breed. Their only game plan was to get all the way through, right to the end, thinking as little as possible, in the hope that they could outrun it – whatever it was that they were frantically eschewing, the neglect or abuse or adultery.’

Adam can’t quite leave it alone; he has to use the incident in California as a stick to beat himself with, except of course he keeps missing and hitting Neil instead. The underlying preoccupation of the story is whether the men will allow it to destroy their friendship – something we come to understand is meaningful and important to them – or if they’ll find a way to neutralise their growing resentment.

This is a thoughtful, touching novel that feels unusual in its male-driven perspective. The question of whether men can still love one another as friends in a typical new millenium middle-class life that is far too bothered about money and success and advancement is not one that often gets asked – or at least, not one that gets asked to the exclusion of all else. The prose is supple and clever, though occasionally Miller does ask it to do too much, to fit in too many thoughts – there are sentences that require the reader to put on her wader’s wellies to get across. And I fear women might not care much for the way women are seen through the eyes of the main protagonists. There’s nothing sexist here. It’s just that women aren’t seen very much; the male gaze still tracks other, more self-regarding prizes than the happiness of those who love them. But I fear that may just be realistic. Other than that, Miller is particularly good on class, and on the changing face of life in London, and on bringing up children, and on the relentless, indefatigable competition between men and just about everyone and everything else. It’s that detailed attention to authenticity that makes this novel a pleasure to read.

Stress, Creativity and Dancing Kittens

I didn’t mean to take a break from the blogworld – I was overtaken by events, a busy week which culminated in Mr Litlove coming home early from London one day (unheard of) and going straight to bed (even more unusual) with the flu, and he’s there still. Every time he speaks he coughs – well, it’s not so much a cough as the heaving bark of a walrus with a fifty-fags-a-day habit – so it’s been an exceptionally quiet weekend during which I seem to have been auditioning for the role of under-housemaid in the next series of Downton Abbey, endlessly up and down stairs with trays of food. I’m trying to view this positively, as my own little step workout which will have untold benefits to my thighs.

In the times when the bell to the master’s bedroom hasn’t been ringing, I’ve been reading some interesting books. All too appropriately, I was sent one called Stress Control by Susan Balfour, and whilst I’m still in the early stages of it, it seems to me a lot better so far than the average self-help guide as Balfour tries to go deeper and think harder about what causes stress and how we can tackle it. I was interested in the way she talks about holding onto both personal truths and received wisdom in times of trouble. We have to work hard to hang onto a mental equilibrium and soothe our minds, she argues, and I think that’s true. It really is hard work to prevent the mind rushing off into disaster scenarios, or disappearing down the wurmholes of self-pity, resentment or hopelessness. Whereas of course we do have a store of strengthening realisations that have usually been hard-won from other battles with fate. It’s impossible to say what mantra or truth or acknowledgement will work the trick as it’s such a personal thing. But Balfour suggests that such ‘truths need to be polished up and put on display in our lives…we must be proud of displaying our spiritual wealth.’ And that struck home with me as I know I am often indifferent in stressful situations to the wisdom I’ve gained elsewhere. Or perhaps not indifferent exactly, but too distracted to bother with it.

Naturally there are pieces of advice that also strike me as unhelpful, such as the suggestion that one way to rise above the muddle of an argument is to throw in some observation from outside it, for instance: ‘Just look at that beautiful sky’, which sounds to me like a good way to vex the other person beyond all reason. Balfour says this is effective with tantruming children, though in my experience a tantrum occurs when you go beyond the point of ordinary distraction being enough to divert escalating trouble. But what do I know? Maybe I’ll try it next time Mr Litlove has a coughing fit.

The mind in all its magnificent trickery was also centrestage in Christopher Bollas’s book, Cracking Up. Bollas is examining the constant freeflow of ideas, images and thoughts that race through the mind mostly unobserved. Like rush hour traffic, these mental elements congregate around experiences that have a particularly intense emotional resonance, though often they may be simple things, scarcely worth the charge they give us on first appearances. So for instance, Bollas describes one of these intense moments when, passing a record shop he notices an advertisement for Philip Glass’s opera, Akhenaten. He isn’t going to go in, but somehow finds that he does after all, his mind swimming in the memories of the evening when he saw the opera and all that happened then. At the same time, the mention of Akhenaten makes him think of his son who became interested in Egyptian history when he was about five, how the two of them talked about the school project he was working on, and this takes him on a chain of thought back to his own Greek ancestors and Bollas’s conflicted feelings about that part of the world. All sorts of lines of thought are generated by this chance encounter with the memory of a piece of music and when he has finally bought the record and carried on with his day he discovers in the library that he has momentarily misplaced his glasses. Of course he has: glasses, Philip Glass, the glass of the shop window, the slippery glass of the surface of his thoughts. He finds his glasses again.

We live in this soup of dynamic, ever-shifting mental elements that become dense and meaningful when we are brought into chance contact with vivid parts of the external world, and which then disperse in all directions, often simultaneously, as they spawn various emotionally-charged trains of thought. Bollas talks about ‘psychic bangs, which create small but complex universes of thought.’ This is effectively the work of free association that goes on all the time inside our minds; its effects are felt in how we react, experience and respond to everything around us, for every encounter is caught in a sticky web of associations. It’s impossible to experience in the moment – or at least the closest we come, I think, is when we are still ‘reading’ only the book is face down on our laps and we are staring into the middle distance – but parts of it can be reconstructed in retrospect. And because this is the source of all creativity, I think the more aware we are of the existence of these deep layers of thought, the more sensitive and creative we are as individuals.

Susan Balfour talks about how essential daydreaming is to keep our minds free and limber, and for Bollas, too, the freedom of the mind to pursue its endless avalanches of unexpected signification is an important part of mental health. I think this is also why the internet exerts such a power of fascination. When we begin with quite a respectable and justifiable reading of an online review of a book that looks interesting, which leads us on to author interviews in the Paris Review, and then the lyrics of a song we’ve been meaning to look up and then before we know what’s happening, we’re watching videos of synchronised dancing kittens, it’s like we’re just following the normal patterns of the mind, so normal that at some point the process becomes unconscious. Which is how you wake up, faintly alarmed, to find those kittens bobbing their heads to MC Hammer. The internet is just a vast externalised daydreaming mind. But ultimately it’s a time wasting distraction, the video equivalent of looking at the beautiful sky outside the window, because it’s not your own associations that are freewheeling in space, but the borrowed associations of other people.

Thinking about this brought me (via my own rhizomatic byways) to the conclusion that while freedom of mind and pleasure is a beneficial thing, stress plus a freewheeling mind often ends up in catastrophising. We’re back to that difficult place where it’s hard to prevent our thoughts from delivering us into dark alleyways where we’ll likely get beaten up. The mind needs strongholds, places of solidity which we can cling to while the turbulent stream of thought tugs at our legs. And maybe, the more as a culture we permit ourselves all sorts of freedoms, the less able we are, paradoxically, to make sensible calculations about the risks we run, the fears we suffer. Perhaps stress – in the moment we are experiencing it – is the place where we have to limit our creativity and value self-discipline instead.

Chronic Fatigue Gets A New Name

So, The New York Times reports that the Institute of Medicine has suggested a new name for chronic fatigue syndrome. The proposal is that it should be called ‘systemic exertion intolerance disease’, which is quite a mouthful. But maybe an almost-unsayable name is appropriate for an almost-intolerable illness. Basically, the name is designed to reflect a significant symptom of the condition: ‘a sustained depletion of energy after minimal activity, called postexertional malaise.’

I used to describe the experience of the illness as akin to having a leaky car battery. You could charge and charge that battery, but as soon as you started doing anything you could feel the energy draining away. Quicker than seemed possible you’d be reaching the point of exhaustion. Sleep makes no difference. So during term at the university, I’d be struggling by about the second week in, watching my symptoms come earlier every day in the third, and running dangerously on empty from the fifth onwards, knowing I was just going to feel sicker and sicker and trying to manage the panic about that.

The harder you try to push through the fatigue and the illness and keep going, the worse it will all be when you finally stop. In fact the worse it is day in day out. I always thought that if it was only tiredness I felt, that really wouldn’t be a problem. The difficult part is that you feel extremely ill. There’ll be symptoms – nausea, headaches, general aches and pains, sore throats, dizziness, all that sort of thing – but the hard part to deal with is a kind of essence of all illness. You lose control of your temperature, your heart rate, your blood pressure. All of these experiences are invisible. The habitual words do not convey the reality of the feelings. No one will understand.

When I finally came off work, the suggestion from medics was that I try ‘pacing’. I began with no more than one hour’s activity a day, and would stick to that for a week. If all went well, then the following week I could increase my activity by five minutes. And again if all went well, five minutes more the week after that, and so on and so forth. There would be relapses. I remember several years ago, Mr Litlove and I were on a beginners’ tango course. This was a big ask for me – three hour sessions every weekend. Towards the end it was becoming too much and I intended to miss a session. My mother-in-law, who had been visiting, couldn’t understand it – I didn’t want to miss out, did I? If I was tired the next day I could just sleep in. Of course healthy people think this way. For me, I knew that completing the session would mean three days or so in bed, followed by a long, slow, increase of activity afterwards. And it’s hard to enjoy things when you are aware how expensive they are going to be.

I still think of energy as money. Some activities are a lot more expensive than others – for me, socialising, travel and stress are the most costly (this differs from person to person). But everything costs a little – being excited about something is as energetically demanding as being anxious. Laughing takes energy. Engaging in an intellectual activity doesn’t come cheap. Television is more expensive than a book. I have an expensive personality – my normal demeanour is bright, cheerful, engaged. Even being myself was more than I could afford some days, and of course the sense of outrage and unacceptability is so overwhelming when you cannot even behave like your own self that you (I) tend to push through regardless, out of frustration and stubbornness, and build up a large debt that then takes forever to repay.

Doctors have long wanted to push for depression as a key part of chronic fatigue, but I think that’s putting the cart before the horses. It’s hard to stay positive sometimes when you have an illness that is like a punishment for living. And inevitably, the sort of mindset you need to get better – calculating all the time what amount of exertion you can afford, always playing it safe, shying away from anything demanding – affects your confidence over time. Doing something new, or something you haven’t done in a while, can be frightening when you have no idea how you will feel afterwards.

I write about chronic fatigue for two reasons. The first is to raise consciousness, because it is still such a misunderstood and stigmatised condition. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and I’m motivated to find ways to express the reality of living with it. The second reason is that for a long time, I felt terribly ashamed of myself. I thought it was my fault. I didn’t want to confess to all the things I couldn’t do without severe consequences. I hated not being able to live like a normal person. But you know what? Denial is a very expensive habit, and I came to realise it was far better for me to accept the condition, to understand it was part of me, like it or not. And it still is a part of me. The past eighteen months have been a very stressful time for me and my family, and for most of it I kept up a reasonable level of activity. This was encouraging – I thought I was seeing the back of chronic fatigue. But then when things finally calmed down towards the middle of November, I felt the familiar old exhaustion. In December I caught every bug going, every time I tried to raise my level of activity even a little. I resigned myself to more of the same in January. This month, I’ve felt more like myself, but I have to calculate my energy every day and make decisions accordingly (hence minimal blogging for which I apologise).

But even the experiences that take the most away, do give something valuable back despite themselves. If there’s one thing this condition has taught me, it is the resilience of the human spirit. Since 1997 I’ve been on a wild cycle of ups and downs, but no matter how low I have been brought, I have always risen back to the surface. There has always been a return of energy, a renewal of appetite, an improvement in my overall wellbeing. And each time that happens, I have felt acutely, exquisitely, how precious life is. I live a very quiet, peaceful life, but living quietly and peacefully with much time for contemplation turns out to be something I cherish and for which I am profoundly grateful. Not many people have the luxurious time and space that I do for observation and for thought. The blessings only come from accepting the truth of the situation, and that can be hard with a condition that is so poorly understood. In the absence of a cure, perhaps a new name (however awkward!) will help the healthy and the sick understand what’s at stake, and deal with it better.