Friday, July 31, 2015

Black Dog Down - July

Little things please little minds.

Not that my mind is especially little, but it does tend to get quite crowded so that’s suggestive of some pretty cramped headspace. Or maybe there’s ample space but there’s too many foreign thoughts coming over here, taking up too much room and living off the system.

Whatever the case, some days it’s like a cover of a favourite book of mine by Harry Harrison, which depicts loads of weird characters crammed into a sardine can as the title above proclaims, Make Room! Make Room!

Emotionally, this month has been as changeable as July weather. And this time of year the ice gets pretty thin as I skate around my various projects, plans and daily routine. As with previous months, I’ve had to take some care to identify what is depression and what is merely the downward mood shift brought on by the pressure of all those foreign thoughts.

Over the years, I’ve had plenty of experience in identifying the Black Dog, but even now there are times when external sources trespass and blur the tracks. And inevitably there are occasions when a single upsetting news story can fuel the depression. You can’t prevent the thoughts from entering, but perhaps I should wear a sign on my forehead: DO NOT FEED THE ANIMAL.

For me, this month was all about a new chapter in life. A solo spin-off, as I described it. In those terms, I wouldn’t call it a resounding success, but like a lot of pilot episodes it has the makings of something promising, just needs more work and maybe even a whole season before it properly finds its feet.

In terms of my writing, it’s been more a case of working towards things than working on anything specifically. The first half of the month was nevertheless very busy – with various admin and practicalities to attend to (changes of domestic status translates into a surprising amount of paperwork and so on). Busy-ness is definitely a decent defence against the Black Dog, but you have to be wary of the quiet spells between. Because busy-ness can also be a lot like pretending nothing’s amiss.

Quite often, a successful, productive and creative morning would be followed by a mini meltdown at home. And there was the one evening I was out to celebrate my sister’s birthday, having a grand time, loads of laughs and then – whoosh, out of nowhere, breaking down in tears and seriously diluting my pint. Luckily, friends and family don’t judge nearly as much as I do myself. Phew.

I think in the first week of separation, I’d sort of convinced myself my wife was only ‘away for a bit’ and might be back at the weekend. Amid my efforts to notify the local council and others of my change of circumstances, I forgot to properly notify myself. That old river, denial, she keeps rolling on.

Anyway, that was a bit of a turning point, because with my own birthday impending I awarded myself a break. Still juggling one or two creative endeavours along the way, but nowhere near as busy. A lovely micro-holiday away, change of scenery in the company of a very dear friend. World of good.

Sharp-eyed followers of my serialised short fiction blog will have noticed an interrupted schedule – my disciplined one-episode-a-week approach has faltered, but we’re still in the game and normal service will be resumed. Some days it’s just been beyond me to write even a paltry 500 words, other days it’s been well within my capabilities but it’s been more important just to switch off and do something more practical instead.

One facet of solo life that strikes immediately is a sudden lengthening of the days that has nothing to do with the summer. There’s way more time to fill. Unfortunately, that came accompanied with a loss of interest in all manner of entertainments – films, music, TV, video games, reading – a lot of my usual comforts lost appeal for a while. I’ve trained myself out of that particular slump, thankfully, sometimes forcing myself to watch a movie, for example, even a rubbish one. Because there’s some therapeutic value, I guess, in generating negative thoughts about something other than yourself.

Well, I’m no psychologist, so can’t guess how that works, but it helped. And I’m rediscovering my enthusiasm for all those things I previously enjoyed without any effort. I have some fun rewatches and marathons planned.

And all of that will have the added benefit of helping me to cut down on my news intake.

Quite apart from the direct and personal stuff that affects me, I’m aware of the degree of damage that can be done just by keeping up to date with national and global events.
Interestingly, a Facebook friend of mine only recently professed to a measure of guilt he felt at isolating himself from the daily diet of news stories to which most of us subject ourselves. No man is an island, after all, and we all like to feel a sense of connection to the world around us.

All too easy to identify with his situation. I have to allow myself periods of news deprivation. Self-protection can feel selfish and, yes, you may experience some guilt as a side-effect. But in a world where not a day goes by without someone preying on something or someone – be it beautiful wildlife, the environment, the poor  and socially disadvantaged, racial and ethnic groups, the list goes on – it’s tough to endure that constant assault on your compassion.

Care too much and exposing yourself to that becomes a slow kind of self-harm. You can’t stop caring like you can stop smoking, and if you feel a need to retreat into your shell and enter a sort of waking hibernation, safe from the harsh cold of current affairs, then give yourself that. And ignore any guilt that might come pawing at the door. It’s likely to be a friend of the Black Dog.

Meanwhile, as I said at the outset, little things please little minds.

Today, for example, I’m feeling reasonably upbeat. The aftereffects of a good night out at the weekly pub quiz, topped off by a tidy little jackpot win. Money can’t buy you happiness, but a modest windfall like that can at least ease a bit of financial anxiety. And in any case a win feels good.

I’ve learned the value of celebrating the small triumphs, the little victories. So while the effects of external negatives can be disproportionate, I can also make more of external positives. The trick, I suppose, is learning not to depend on them – because, let’s face it, they don’t always crop up as often as the negatives – but there’s something to be said for milking them for all their worth.

When I give my cats kitty treats they scoff them like little furry vacuum cleaners, bless. When I give myself treats or life happens to throw one my way, I owe it to myself to savour them a bit.

It’s a lesson I’ve learned repeatedly. Because although my mind is probably not in fact little, it has a tendency to misplace important things like that. So it’s a lesson I need to hold onto as we head on into August.

No matter how much progress you feel you’re making or perhaps feel you’re not making, there’s one thing that’s always worth bearing in mind.

Every day is training day.

SAF 2015