Thursday, October 27, 2016

Black Dog Rising - October

You win, 2016. I give up.

The difference between defeat and a tactical withdrawal lies in how its perceived. And, I guess, whether you decided to retreat or were driven from the field.

Today, I can’t tell the difference. I hope it’s a tactical – or strategic – withdrawal, because I have come to some hard decisions. At the same time, I’m aware I was pushed. Trouble is, when you run from the Black Dog, it comes with you. And that does colour your perceptions.

Here’s the thing: I’d been doing quite well to build myself back up after a crushing August. What felt like this year’s final straw failed to completely finish me and I got back in the fight. I give myself a lot of credit for the progress I made. Although I couldn’t claim to have been winning, I was doing pretty well in the wake of where I’d been.

October was, on the surface, a good month. Seasoned with plenty of reasons to celebrate and/or feel good. A project came back to me with a big thumbs up from the editor and minimal edits requested. So that was both welcome news and a pleasure to work on, its completion one of the few achievements I can be proud of this year. Worth a yay! for sure. Had a great time at a local beer festival, a comedy gig the very next day, enjoyed some good films and TV, quality time with friends – you know, normal healthy functioning life type stuff. Also worth a yay!


Amid the highs, there were distinct lows and a number of real struggles. Even when I was doing okay, there was an undercurrent of a lack of confidence, perhaps worse -  the sense of moving forward on shaky ground...

Recently, I saw in my Facebook feed that a friend was having a hard time in their fight with the Black Dog. And I was set to write words of encouragement and support in the comments. But the words kind of stopped in my virtual throat. I choked. So I ended up just leaving a heart emoticon as a show of empathy and understanding. On the face of it, that may appear a feeble and empty gesture, but I can tell you that the 100 or so words I might’ve written were wrapped up, embedded, in that trite little icon and they were sincere, well-meant and heartfelt. For my friend.

For me, the words stopped because I seemed to run out of energy before I’d written them. What actually exhausted was belief. Whatever I said, however I phrased it, it was a message I no longer believed for myself.

It was a little after that moment that I properly appreciated how far from winning I’d been. And it was a little after that point that I carefully looked at what I wanted to do before year’s end and examined that next to what I knew I was capable of doing in the next two months. And it comes right back down to something I’ve realised – and mentioned here – before.

Whatever you consider realistic and achievable has to be re-eveluated and measured again in the light of your health. Just as if you’d broken a leg, you’d probably scale back on the number of marathons you’d planned to run in that twelve-month period.
So here I am, scaling back once more.

Which leaves me with just the short story, which even I can manage – because it’s for someone else and when others are depending on me I don’t let them down. It’s only when I’m depending on me that letting down is even permissible.

Two months shy of the end of this crappy year, I had only one other project on the cards in any case. The novel, fifth in my Evil UnLtd series, was already delayed. Now it’s struck from the To Do list. On the plus side, for various reasons I think it will benefit from further postponement, even if right now I mostly see the disappointment of another shelved project and another thing not achieved.

Back in January, I was in a much better state and the year was full of promise. Since then, so many projects, whether on the to-be-written list or even potential publications, have been diminished, reduced, tainted, disintegrated, sunk without trace, shelved or postponed. That’s hard to bear. I take responsibility for some of the shelving and postponing, of course, since I decided to scale back some of my aims and goals. Because I had to, quite simply. In the face of everything else that was falling apart one way or another.

So this latest step, likewise, amounts to cutting myself some slack. It probably reads like defeatism. And it’s meant to. Because, like I said, defeat and retreat are so hard to tell apart. I’m not sure I can trust a hundred percent which this is, but I know which I mean it to be.

I’m not going to sit at the water’s edge like King Cnut, denying the incoming tide. I’m going to go relocate up to the lonely clifftop. Where the next two months will be all about rebuilding, reorganising, preparing and laying a more solid foundation for next year.

In order for the writing to be any good, I have to focus on the writer for a while.

The difference between a defeat and a strategic withdrawal is in how it’s perceived. What feels and looks like defeat from one perspective might actually be the smartest, wisest move to make.

You win, Black Dog. I give up.

Except, you don’t. And I won’t.

SAF 2016

Friday, September 30, 2016

Black Dog Dead - September

I’ve spent more of this year broken than I would have liked. Much more.

Especially a large, long part of August that seemed to drag on forever. Now, the fact is, in the scheme of a 365-day year, maybe it doesn’t add up to all that much. But once again the extent to which I was broken skews my ability to measure such things. It takes a conscious effort to adjust the scale.

Generally when it comes to beating ourselves up, we’re straight in there with the boot. But it takes an effort to be kind to ourselves. To stop and judge ourselves more favourably.

Here we are now at the end of September and I am recovering from my broken August, day by day, but part of this month’s recovery process involved constant reminders of how far behind I’d fallen with my planned work. Tough to escape that when you’re getting yourself back on track and you’re coming face to face with how much you have to do daily if you want to meet that deadline you’d set yourself.

As discussed last month, some of that can be countered and remedied by paring back on your ambitions. In my case, that has amounted to narrowing my focus down to the single main project. Postponing other aims is hard and feels like failure, but we just have to remember that we can protect ourselves to some degree by separating what happens from how we react.

As always it’s a matter of control and while we can’t always control how we respond to anything, we stand a much better chance of controlling that than we do of controlling the things people do or say to us, or to just random shit chucked our way as part of life’s rich tapestry.

It’s up to me to be satisfied with achieving what I achieve, instead of feeling disappointed with what I’ve not managed. I’m not there yet, by any means, but I’m conscious of it and I’m trying to catch the self-critical thoughts before they sink their teeth in too deep. The best argument I can offer them will be what I do achieve when I meet that self-imposed deadline for the much narrower scope of ambition. If I can point to that by early November, then all that I didn’t achieve in August will no longer matter in the slightest.

That’s my theory anyway.

It amounts to mental filing, really. With that (sort of) dealt with my principal challenge for September was just handling the day to day. And I’m not sure where the idea came from exactly, but I recall thinking about how much better I’d been doing in January, despite the year starting so miserably for so many, with a number of celebrity heroes dying on us, and I guess it occurred to me that I’d quite like to celebrate those of my heroes who are still, thank goodness, in the realm of the living.

We’ve seen too many photos in 2016 with the letters R.I.P. attached, after all.
So I made it a daily practice to post a pic per day on Facebook of a personal hero of mine. It’s a small, trivial exercise but it helped. Just reflecting on these figures – in music, movies, TV, writing, whatever – and how they inspired me supplied a spot of daily inspiration. Like a snack for fuel for the soul.

There’s a risk, of course, in sharing your heroes – or anything you like – online. Some danger of trolls, people too quick to attack those things you treasure. And I say that as a caution to more sensitive souls than me. I’m lucky, I have a great collection of online friends and acquaintances, respecters of different tastes and opinions.

A sum total of one idiot trolled in with an abusive remark about one of my heroes. But he’d been on thin ice anyway, so that was his ticket to Blockland. If you’re plagued by the Black Dog and you feel like trying something similar, just be aware that these are your heroes, they’re for you and your own inspiration. They’re like flags on your Facebook page or wherever, to wave you on for that day.

And if even with that in mind you’re a little wary of sharing, then just make a note of them, or have a picture of them for your background on your PC for that day. If they’re musicians/singers, play one of their albums or a video they’ve done. Actors, watch a movie or TV episode or scene from such. Youtube is your friend.

Might not do anything for you. But it was a useful exercise for me throughout September. And it was fun, thinking of 30 muses.

What was not fun was the old insomnia pattern. Which was just getting worse, to be honest.

Short of knocking myself out every night, I have tried everything.

Or thought I had.

Often, I’d have such a crappy night I would get to about 3pm and feel a nap dragging at me like quicksand. And I would generally try to resist because, for one, I would usually wake from an afternoon nap feeling worse than when I’d zonked out, and for two, it would only make the subsequent night worse.

But one day I thought sod it and gave in to the nap urge. And on that occasion I woke feeling a bit better, a bit more alive anyway. And it occurred to me, why don’t I split my days into two mini days.

If I’m only going to sleep half a night, I may as well have a shorter night and shorter days.

It’s still relatively new, so I’m adjusting to this new cycle, but it has been showing some benefits thus far. Packing myself off to bed around 1am, reading for a short while, sleep – or time set aside for sleep anyway – until 6am, early breakfast (aka first breakfast), so begins the first day of that day. Then a scheduled sleeptime between 2pm-4pmish is followed by a second breakfast and the beginning of a second mini-day.

It’s a bit of psychological trickery, I guess, but I have found I do get a few hours sleep at night and 1-2 hours during that daytime kip. So while you’re out there having your Mondays and Tuesdays and so on, I’m just having my Monday As and Monday Bs, Tuesday As and Tuesday Bs etc. It also enables me to break down the day’s goals into smaller bite-size portions. And – so far – because I have embraced the idea of those afternoon sleeps I’ve found I don’t wake so groggy and worse for wear as when I fought it.

The days aren’t equal halves, but I seem to be getting about 6 hours of sleep – or rest anyway – per 24 hours, as opposed to my previous 4 if I was lucky.

So a combination of tricks has assisted me through the month of September and, assuming I make the adjustment, I’ll keep going with the new sleep schedule onwards into October.

Which reminds me, it’s coming up to 2pm now.

My second bedtime.

Goodnight. See you tomorrow morning later today.

SAF 2016

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Stranger Things...

It’s rare you’ll find me in church, let alone on a Monday. But Stranger Things Have Happened.

That’s how I kicked off my week, at a concert in St-Giles-in-the-Fields, London. There to see – and hear – Clare Maguire.

Back in the days when my parents used to force me and my sisters to go to church, if they’d told us there was going to be a show like that on instead of some dry priestly sermon we wouldn’t have kicked up such a stink. I’m still an irreligious soul at heart, but concerts of this calibre would confirm me as a regular churchgoer.

The support act, identifying herself as Klara from Sweden (check her out on Facebook) warmed us up with some hauntingly beautiful numbers, one or two that would not have been out of place as themes for some of the Nordic Noir crime dramas I’ve been watching lately, and then the main act was something else.

Solely on the strength of her Light After Dark album, I knew Clare was an incredible singer – it’s why I travelled up to London to hear her. But performing live, pared of production, turns out she’s even better than I knew. There’s an almost gospel quality to her voice that sells every song with power and emotion. Right at home, while bringing the roof down.

This was the start of her tour to promote Stranger Things Have Happened and due to circumstances beyond my control I hadn’t heard anything of the new album. At other concerts where I’ve heard artists’ tracks for the first time, the lack of familiarity has been known to create a degree of distance or detachment, but something definitely resonated on this occasion because every one of the new songs connected. Hit home – like bullets through my bones, you might say.

Put it down to that rare conjunction of talent, performance and a beautiful setting. This was my first visit to St Giles and it made for an amazing venue, accommodating a modest but enthusiastic crowd. Especially when Clare sent out for beer for the audience. Which maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned, because people might expect that at every show. But it’s a good illustration of the great sense of humour that seasoned the gig between songs and added to the all round entertainment.

Me, I didn’t avail myself of the beer – I had another train to catch after the show and who needs an alcohol buzz when the music buzz is that good – but I did stick around to say hello. And Clare took the time out for a chat and sign a CD which were pretty much the icing on the cake of a very worthwhile trip up from the remote reaches of Cornwall.

All in all, a brilliant night and as I headed back home, Clare was on her way to tour dates elsewhere, so if you happen to spot a poster saying she’s appearing at a venue anywhere near you, I seriously recommend you go treat yourself.

Might not be in a church. But it will be special.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Black Dog Dead - August

You know you’ve had a bad month when you find it a struggle to face your blog post on the battle versus the Black Dog.

It’s not the admission of defeat, so much – and after all, I’m here, I’m writing it, so it’s not a defeat. It’s not a victory, either. But it’s not a defeat. It’s just that so much of how we evaluate these things lies in how we feel. Even if that is some distance from the truth.

One truth is that I feel defeated.

It doesn’t help that the subject header is staring back at me, taunting me. Because back in January I made the rash decision to title this, Black Dog Dead. My main aim this year being in essence to bury the Black Dog. See, I’d made such good progress last year that I felt I had moved on from the battle versus the Dog to the issue of where to go from there, how to maintain the peace, so to speak, after the war.

Mind you, I didn’t kid myself it was actually over. But there was a sense of leaving the worst behind and the will to rebuild.

And in January of this year, I was – if not on a high – at my best. My biggest problem that month was a series of strange confrontations with loneliness, born of the unusual circumstances of having a lot of really good days and nobody to share the good news with. Aside from those tearful spells (as much a result of a still-too-recent separation as anything else) I was on a creative roll, achieving loads and feeling good about myself.

Wind the clock on eight months and I find it hard to fathom how I sank so low. But more than that, it’s tough to figure out how or why I remained so low for so long. Because one thing I had learned – and learned pretty darned well – was how to cope with the setbacks, how to keep them in perspective, feel them, then bounce back and move on. Damnit, I thought I had myself well-trained by now.

But – and I take no pride in confessing this – all it took this month was a single disappointment. Sure it related to something close to my heart, and it hurt, but – and here’s the weird thing – it struck in amongst some good news on other fronts. But while the good news was a hearty morale boost it proved only temporary, while the Black Dog sensed weakness around the wound and sank its teeth in deeper.

My usual coping mechanisms failed me. Worst of all, the most common NAT (Negative Automatic Thought) known to plague me so much in the past – that dread question that echoes up from the empty spaces inside, “What’s the point?”- became the much more destructive and emphatic answer:

“There is no point.”

For 10-14 days I wrestled with that. Lost bout after bout.

After all my talk the previous month of returns to Square One and knowing what to do, something inside went AWOL.

I knew the steps involved in fighting back. I knew what I needed to do. But I could not motivate myself to do them. And I don’t know why. Sleep by and large abandoned me altogether, which just added crushing fatigue to the mix. I was down to existing and going through the motions of each day. All the while wondering why I was bothering.

The best I could manage was to sit down once or twice and plan out a carefully thought-out programme for recovery. Only to watch that fall by the wayside day by day as I failed to do any of the things planned.

I resorted to social media a lot. Not to broadcast what was going on. Rather to maintain a ‘normal’ front. Engage in discussions, have a laugh, get angry at political goings on, the suffering in the world et cetera. And people will warn you some of that isn’t good for your health and sometimes they’d be right. But to be honest, I think most of it was a useful diversion at least. Toys in the pram when you’re not capable of doing much else.

Occasionally they were more than a distraction. They acted as fuel. Anger at social injustices or and the like could, of course, further compound despair, but at least it ignited some energy within me. And jokes and conversations about trivial crap like Doctor Who or some other TV I was watching by way of retreat, well, beyond being fun they were a lifeline. Not exactly rocket fuel, but a spur. Driving me, nudge by nudge, back to normalish health.

If nothing else, it amounted to something I could engage in. Better to feel a part of a virtual world, if you can’t function especially well in the real one.

From there, I broke my days down into bite-size pieces. Things to do between social media interactions. And yes, I fully appreciate how sad and pathetic that sounds. But that’s why I’m confessing it here. Because I have to be okay with admitting to sad and patheticness as a means of forgiving myself for sinking quite so low. And arriving, ultimately, at the point where I know it is not in fact sad and pathetic, but merely a necessary survival technique at the time.

(It’s also worth adding that I set myself a deadline of sorts: i.e. that I hadn’t lifted myself out of the slump to some degree by the end of this month, then I would go back to the doctor and seek help. And it was useful having that safety net in mind. It emboldened me to at least try to turn things around myself.)

A drowning man grasping at straws may appear sad and pathetic to you and probably to him. It’s desperation in action. But more important than anything else, it is strength. 

At least he’s grasping.

Which brings me around to the point I made at the beginning of this post.

One truth is that I feel defeated.

The other truth is that this, writing this post here on a sunny Monday in my local café, is a victory.

To those who hop out of bed and enjoy breakfast and look forward to whatever the day has in store, it may be measured as a feeble sort of triumph. But on the scale that some of us have to gauge by – which sometimes has to be measured minute to minute, hour to hour – it’s a huge win.

Where I am now – I’d estimate somewhere around Square Two – means more feeble/huge wins will be required. But the fact that I set myself this task, wrote this post – and if you’re reading it, I will have managed to post it online too – is a surefire indicator that I have regained the will to take the steps required.

That ‘There’s no point’ NAT has reverted to a nigglesome question at the back of my brain.

“What’s the point?”

No idea. I don’t have an answer ready for it. So I’m choosing to ignore it. Telling it to to go away and, hopefully, not come back while I try to figure out an answer.

For now, I have a clear goal in mind. I’ve had to pare down my short-term ambitions considerably and focus on a select handful of projects. And the terrible August has put me behind schedule so I will have to be busier than I had planned for the next couple of months.

What I’m hoping is that the busy-ness will help with the focus and drive. And for the immediate future fend off that NAT with an answer.

The point, for right now, is to get this, this and this done. Anything after that, come back and ask me then and I’ll see if I have another answer for you.

And of course, by ‘you’ I mean myself.

SAF 2016