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.

 

 

Medical Misadventures

On Friday, Mr Litlove fell off his bike on his journey to work. He was rounding a corner when the bike slowly slipped from under him, and it wasn’t until he was on the ground that he saw the sheet ice. A couple of builders working nearby came over to check on him, but by then Mr Litlove was back on his feet and brushing himself down and being thankful he hadn’t broken any bones. He’d bruised his ribs and his hip, though, and when he limped in on Friday evening after work, he was clearly a man who had sustained injury and wanted some sympathy. Need I say more?

‘So you won’t be going rowing in the morning, then?’ I asked him.

Mr Litlove’s eyes slid away from mine. ‘I expect I’ll be fine,’ he said.

And so of course, the stubbornness of the male being unparalleled, he was up at 6 am and off to the river. And then we went out to lunch, so it’s possible that he overdid things a tad because by Sunday he was very stiff and sore indeed.

I was expecting a skype call with our son that morning. He has an essay paper to do this year and I offered to lend a hand, given that he’s not written one in several years. The topic is science communication, which turns out to be rather fascinating. It’s a jolly good idea for the public to have some notion of what science is up to, but as with all these vague mission statements, things become tricky when we actually get down to nuts and bolts. How much information do we need to have any sort of useful judgement about current developments in science and technology? Who needs to know? And who is going to tell us in the ‘right’ way? When scientists talk about public understanding, what they often mean is public appreciation – getting the power of mass influence behind their research in order to secure more funding. Whereas what often happens is panic or aversion thanks to sensationalist and inaccurate media stories.

Let me give you a little example of some of the issues involved. Back in the 1950s a medical researcher, Alice Stewart, started to collate the figures on infant deaths by leukemia in women who had been x-rayed during pregancy. The statistics spoke for themselves; up to a child a week was dying from the disease and the mortality rate was almost 40% higher in children whose mothers had been x-rayed. Stewart published her findings in the Lancet in ’56, in the British Medical Journal in ’58 and yet the Medical Research Council absolutely refused to accept her conclusions. Stewart was a lone female voice without the backing of a large organisation. Doctors were in love with the technology, which they believed could only be useful. They were unwilling to take any one else’s word on a problem they had not identified themselves – the more authority at stake, the more unwilling people are generally to admit mistakes. And finally, they believed that as doctors they were always healing people; they simply could not hear the opposite. Too many cherished assumptions needed to be overturned and so for the next 25 YEARS doctors continued with the x-rays, and thousands of children died.

Science needs to be in the public eye, because keen public observation keeps people more honest. And the general public is a useful moral barometer, reacting strongly when science moves into territories where ethical issues are complex. But then we have to think about the scares over the MMR vaccine, which were sparked by one set of results that have since been called into question. The real problem is in the calculation of risk, which we are not encouraged by the media to do with any pragmatism. And anyhow, when our health or that of loved ones is at stake, it’s hard to be cool-headed.

I have an interesting calculation of risk of my own underway at the moment. Last week an invitation from the NHS popped through my letterbox to attend a cervical smear test. Oh joy. It’s not the test itself that bothers me, it’s the inaccuracy of the results. One in twenty women screened will register a false positive and have to go through an unpleasant medical procedure in consequence. One in twenty is a lot. On any given day, assuming a 50/50 gender split, ten women will read this blog who have been scared and treated invasively for no reason at all. I’m tending to agree with Germaine Greer on this one.

I readily confess that I am not good with medical procedures – a touch phobic, for sure. And I am terrified by the prospect of falling ill again, having so recently regained (most of) my health from the worst of chronic fatigue. Am I sensible about this? No, of course not. I had a bad viral illness and it took me 13 years to get over it. How could I possibly be sensible after that? But I know for sure that the stress and anxiety over the test and a false positive result would result in another stretch of chronic fatigue for me. More months lost to illness, when I’ve lost too many already.

Don’t worry; I am the least reckless person you’ll ever meet and I daresay I’ll go and talk it through with my nice doctor. But I have a little fable involving Mr Litlove to tell you about. When I expressed my displeasure at the arrival of the summons, Mr Litlove sighed and clearly wanted to say something he thought better of.

‘You think I should go and have it, don’t you?’ I asked.

‘Well yes, I suppose you should just get it over with,’ he replied.

‘You men should try it once in a while. Some sort of unpleasant, embarrassing test with an uncertain outcome. Something that involves shaving your balls and having them weighed or some such. How many men would do that?’

‘Oh don’t make me laugh,’ said Mr Litlove, clutching his sore ribs. ‘Please don’t. It hurts.’

‘And that reminds me. If those ribs are no better on Monday morning, you should go to the hospital and get an x-ray.’

The look on his face was transparent. It said: NO WAY.

‘Casualty won’t be too bad on Monday morning, I expect.’

‘My sister’s coming to stay on Monday,’ Mr Litlove mumbled. ‘I’ll ask her.’

Back in the day his sister was a GP and now works in academia in public health, none of which to my knowledge has gifted her with x-ray vision. But this is typical. He’ll tell me soon enough what to do, but he’d rather walk around with cracked ribs than go to a doctor. What has understanding science got to do with our behavioural choices, I wonder?

 

 

 

 

 

The New Year Approaches…

And this is how we are:

Scenario 1: The day before yesterday, I went downstairs around lunchtime to find Mr Litlove sprawled over the sofa in front of the television. I put my hand on his head.

‘I think I’m feeling a little better,’ he said, weakly.

‘Cure’s working, then?’ I asked. ‘Keep applying television directly to the eyeballs.’

‘If the pressure’s strong enough, it seems to keep the wound closed,’ he replied (and ruined the effect somewhat by laughing uproariously at his own joke).

 

Scenario 2: Yesterday I settled in the sitting room in the early afternoon with a fire going and my ipod docking station ready to deliver The Goldfinch on audiobook to me. I heard the first few paragraphs, I think. Certainly there was something about a hotel room in Amsterdam. But the next thing I really knew, Mr Litlove had come into the room to bank up the fire and draw the curtains as it was dark.

‘So how are you getting on with it?’ asked Mr Litlove who has read The Goldfinch and is keen to know what I think. ‘What bit have you got up to?’

‘Umm,’ I said. ‘I may have to start over again.’

 

Yes, we are a little bit tired over here, at the dog end of a long, hard year. What a strange and turbulent year it has been! When I look back over it, I find it unsurprising that we have a slightly ragged, chewed air about us.

On the side of the angels there was Shiny New Books, which we began planning way back in early February. I can’t quite believe that we have put out three full editions, three inbetweenies and have another full galloping towards us at the end of January. What a team we have been! I couldn’t wish for smarter, harder-working co-editors than Annabel, Harriet and Simon, not to mention the wonderful bloggers who have written reviews and features for us. After a quick tot-up, I find I have written 52 reviews and features for the magazine myself. I hope next year we can continue to refine and shape Shiny into the perfect magazine for us and for our audience.

On the side of the furies, however, it was an emotionally demanding year. My son split with his girlfriend and suffered greatly, though from August onwards, he’s been exemplary in getting his life back on track. He’s still healing and figuring things out, and you may imagine how much I hope he gets a few breaks next year. Then Mr Litlove has had quite a few battles at work, which eventually resulted in the gains he wanted, but leave him working ever more closely with his crazy boss. It’s my job to help him keep sane within an atmosphere that regularly risks toppling into hysteria. I find that, at the end of a long recitation of his boss’ latest exploits, if I throw my arms wide, gaze to the heavens and yell ‘But he’s a NARCISSIST!’ this makes Mr Litlove laugh. I might have to come up with something new in 2015, though. And you may recall as well my friend with MS who lost her husband. I have to thank you all for your wise counsel when I was feeling guilty about not being able to rush around with casseroles and practical support. In fact, my friend was rather overwhelmed by help, which has of course now evaporated, and the short emails of support that I regularly send her she has liked receiving. I do feel I’ve been able to be useful in a way I can sustain.

When I began this year, it was supposed to be dedicated to writing the book I’m working on (everything I’ve described so far came on top of that). And despite it all, I did manage to hit my target for the year. I’ve completed half the book, and the half that required the most research. And I have just about kept this blog ticking over. WordPress informed me the other day that I’ve written just shy of 100 posts this year. Which is a lot less than I would normally write, but you all know why. In fact, when I had a quick calculate across the whole year, I think I’ve written about 300,000 words, when you add in the correspondence I keep with some virtual friends. So not too shabby.

And I’ve taken up tai chi, and become a fan of the Alexander Technique. And with the support of my family, I’ve begun tackling some of my long-seated phobias about travelling and socialising (particularly when they come together). I’ve made slow but steady progress, and I’ll keep at it next year.

So it’s been a tough and busy year, but I feel I’ve had a lot of support. Mr Litlove’s been a darling. My family has been fantastic. My co-editors, a delight. And I don’t know what I would do without all my virtual blogging friends. You’ve stuck by me through the spotty blogging months when my attention was elsewhere; you’ve bolstered my confidence and optimism and just plain put up with me when I’ve been oversharing about some personal disaster or other; you’ve left intelligent, funny, witty comments on bookish matters of all kinds. A lot of you have written for SNB, too! Thank you, dear friends. I wish you all the loveliest, most peaceful, productive and happy 2015.

And now I might just stagger back to the sofa, where I think I left that book….