Areyouokay

Every day I try to write something for ruok day. Partly because of my own experiences with depression and anxiety, and partly because I think ruok looks like the sound a crow makes.

We talk about mental illness or health like it’s an on/off button. Like there’s a clear line in the sand between mental health and mental illness or disorders. You either have depression or you don’t. And maybe there’s some diagnostic usefulness in saying yes or no to those questions. But I think to some extent it’s an illusory perception.

I think it’s more like a continuum. And not a continuum where we occupy a single spot, in relation to other people. More a continuum that we move up and down, from day to day, moment to moment, through our lives.

That’s not to deny that there are people with greater or lesser levels of suffering. But I think that all of us are at least a little bit mentally ill. By which I mean most of us will at times during our lives identify with thoughts which might be characterised as typical of mental disorders. And unless we are seriously affected, most of us move in and out of healthy and unhealthy mental states.

I think people are often reluctant to discuss mental illness or suffering because of that perception that there’s a kind of fixedness to it. “I have depression” implies a certain permanence, or self-definition. There’s a kind of reluctance to apply the tag to yourself. I feel the same way. I hate the sense that people might view me through some kind of “depressed person” lens. Whatever that even means.

I prefer the notion that we slip in and out of states of mind. That we’re visited by depressive states of mind, which then leave us. Or anxious states of mind. They’re never “us”. They’re just nesting on us, like birds, or clouds settled on mountains.

Some of us are visited more frequently. For some of us the fog descends regularly and stays for a while, or the tremors of anxiety earthquakes last longer. But they’re not us. They don’t become who we are. We’re the mountain.

Maybe other people prefer to think of it in other ways, but that’s how I like to think of it, this year at least. 

RUOK day, to me, is about encouraging people to reach out. But people don’t reach out because we tell them to. People reach out when they can see and feel that we’ve removed the stigma of mental illness from our perception, that we don’t judge them. And part of that is, I think, removing the sense of definitive, permanent labelling and allowing people to embrace the reality of their mental suffering without being afraid of having it forever define them.

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The Week of Not Reading

I’ve decided to make this week a week of Not Reading.

This may seem strange to non-readers, or to random or casual readers. Allow me to explain.

I’m not a random or casual reader. I’m what might, in the trade, be called an Obsessive Reader. I’m not sure when it began. I’ve always read a lot. I think during high school I found emotional solace in reading and music that I didn’t find in people. 

I suppose I began, like most people, reading one book at a time. I remember a time, maybe Grade 11 or Grade 12, when I was torn between reading new books and re-reading books that I loved. In particular, I was reading a lot of fat fantasy at the time, and so I had to decide between the latest Eddings, Feist, Donaldson etc, and re-reading their previous books. And I had to decide between the page-turning ephemerality of Eddings, and the more emotionally satisfying but more exhausting Donaldson. It was a quandary. So instead, I decided not to decide.

I piled up all the books I wanted to read, and started reading them all at once, chapter by chapter. It was kind of fun. I think I realised that something was lost by doing this; a cohesiveness, maybe, a momentum. But something else was gained; variety, multiplicity of voices, and a sense of comparison. I think I had about fourteen books in the stack, and I would progress through them in this way until they were done.

Anyway, that was kind of fun, but also kind of difficult, because it meant it took a lot longer to finish a book. And it made travel harder; I had to take fourteen books with me if I went away!

When I moved to Toowoomba for Uni, the book stack came with me, in a cardboard box that I kept under my bed, pulling the books out in order to read them.

Reading for fun fell away a bit during Uni, replaced by Course reading and socialising. For a few years the only real fiction I read were Doctor Who books, in between course reading.

Then as I finished my Undergrad I pulled out my book stacks and got back into them. They were a bit more massive now. My reading pile was two teetering towers of books in the study, and I would have to bring them out in groups of three or five, because otherwise they would have covered the lounge room. I started to realise this was impractical; there were times when by the time I got to the next chapter of a book I had completely forgotten what had happened the last time I was reading it, about two weeks previously.

After Uni finished I started Last Short Story with Alisa, Alex and Tansy, and set about trying to read every short story published in the calendar year. This ended up being about 3000 short stories and was pretty much physically and mentally exhausting. It was a great experience, in a lot of ways, and I don’t regret it, but it burned me out for a while, and although I continued with the LSS project for a while afterward, the burnout hit us all eventually.

When I left Last Short Story I was not in great mental shape; I think I was going through a period of bad depression, and I pretty much threw myself into reading in what, looking back, I can see was probably an unhealthy way. I was overwhelmed by how much there was to read. How many books I had collected. How many I *still* hadn’t finished. How many could I ever hope to finish? I was mad, I felt cheated, I had to read faster, dammit. I created a spreadsheet, I mapped out my current reading list, and I calculated how many pages each book contained, how much I’d read, how much remained, how many pages I needed to read per month, per week, per day, to finish them all.

Does that sound like taking all the fun out of reading? Well yes, it was. But this isn’t about fun, dammit! This was about finishing lots of books! And I did. I finished a whole bunch of books, and even enjoyed some of them. I read Les Mis that year, which I adored, so it wasn’t like reading became something horrible. But it was definitely becoming a bit of a monster.

I set up a spreadsheet for the year following before sitting myself down and having an honesty session with myself. Ben, I said, you are turning reading from something relaxing and enjoyable to something like a job. I listened; I really did. I knew I was right. And yet, and yet, and yet…. so much to read!

I tried to read just one book at a time and…. God, it was *hard*. All those other books, just sitting there. Some days I wouldn’t feel like reading the current book, and what then? Huh? What then?? Was I supposed to just read nothing? What a waste! When I could be multi-tasking! Of course, these days we know that multi-tasking isn’t that great a thing. But this was before, and it was still something admirable! 

So I would go through phases, of weighing myself down beneath endless reams of to-be-read piles, and trying to plough through them mercilessly, and then realising I was feeling claustrophobic, and taking a break, only to throw myself into other things; another round of Last Short Story, or obsessively reading back-catalogues of comic books, trying to “catch up”. And all the while still buying, more and more books, even though they were starting to become not something I loved being surrounded by, but something I feared, an endless, unfinishable task, set by some cruel purgatorial demigod. 

Reader, I’m not cured, although I have come so far. Every so often I slip back. I obsessively read short stories for a couple of months, and then realise that nobody cares whether I have read every last story in the May issue of (insert magazine name), and that I am leaving myself no space to think. I ration my comic book reading to strict weekly amounts, then binge in crazed midnight reading marathons. Every so often I even create a new spreadsheet of my TBR pile, and even get as far as tabulating my daily reading goal. Perhaps I even go along with it for a couple of days. And then, the voice of (relative) sanity kicks in, and asks: really, Ben? Do you want to do this? Is this really going to make you happy?

And these days I usually realise, no, it won’t. And so I go back to reading one book, just one book, though the itch to pick up another is like a junkie craving scratching at the back of my brain. I have become merciless in culling my TBR stack. I have reduced my stack from hundreds of books to 58, and then to 29. And still it feels like the weight of all the reading to be done is like a millstone around my neck, weighting me down. 

Recently, after emerging from a period of depression that lasted a little while, I sat down to reassess my life, to think about, as I do, from time to time, what really matters to me. Who do I want to be? What are the values I want to bring to my life? What are the standards by which I assess the happiness of my life? What makes a worthwhile life?

You will be as surprised as I was to learn that, actually, none of the answers to these questions was “To read as many books as I can”. When asking myself “how do I want to be remembered?” not once did I think “As somebody who finished reading a lot of novels.” And yet, that was where I was putting most of my life’s energies (aside from work, but that’s another issue).

I’m not knocking reading here. I *love* books. I think reading is exceptionally valuable as an activity and helps create empathy and understanding. But… *but*… for me, it needs to be kept in its place. Like anything. It’s about finding the right balance.

And I realised I don’t know who I am without reading. Maybe that’s a strange way of putting it. I want to explore the space of not having to be reading. I want to find the clarity of mind that comes from letting go of the obsessive need to *keep up*, for whatever value of keeping up we set.

So I’ve set myself a goal: To not read for one week.

That sounds ridiculously easy. One week! How hard can that be? Lots of people don’t read *at all*! Ever. How hard can one week be?

And I can still read the net, as long as I’m not looking up novels or short stories. I can still read social media. It’s not like I’m banned from words.

And yet… and yet…. already I find myself sitting, disoriented, at a loss, trying to work out how to spend my time. TV? That doesn’t sound very positive. Cleaning? Bwahahaa. Don’t be ridiculous! *twiddles thumbs*. *twitches*

So I thought writing this blog post would kill a half hour or so. Only… six days to go?

Gah.

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Poetry: Day 31

Do you listen for you
In every word
Of mine
Like I listen for me
In every word
You say
Do you look for signs of you
In my eyes
Do you listen for the sound of you
Buried deep in my voice
When you touch my hand
Do you feel it stretching, yearning
For your touch
Or do you just feel
A hand
Just hear
a voice
Just see
Eyes
Do these poems just sound like
Poems?

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Poetry: Day Thirty

Deploy
The mizzen mast
Belay
The yardarms
Ahoy
The crows are nesting
Trim
The bosun
Treasure
Treasure
Treasure
Hand me that map again
I think
We know which way the wind blows
Cast off
Your vote
Counts in the long run

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Poetry: Day 29

After the rain stops
The cows raise their heads
The grass is damp
Drops of water dot the barbed wire fence
I walk across the paddock
And breathe in
The smell of rain flows deep into my nostrils, into my lungs
I hang on tight to the sights, to the smell, to the feeling
For a moment, no more
I forget you

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Poetry: Day 28

Rain forms a pattern on the windows
Outside, I step slowly across puddles
In my pocket
The note you left behind
The downpour makes a noise like static

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Poetry: Day 27

When I am walking around
I have to look at
All the people
Who aren’t you
But every time I blink
You are there
Stamped
Just behind my eyelid
Always running through my mind

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