Monday, 20 January 2014

For Felix

A man I regarded as not only a friend and mentor, but a shining meteor of a man, has passed away. I cannot do justice to him in my own words, but his loss is felt keenly by many who will never forget him. Felix quoted a section of Desiderata to me via email at one time, and I can think of no more fitting poem to describe his character and gentle nature.

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann, "Desiderata"

Goodnight Felix. You lit up every room and mind with your gentle wisdom and fiery intelligence. Few people leave meteor streaks of light, you were a rare wonder. Continue soaring through the sky, we will look for you. 

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

"Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

And could you keep in your heart the miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;

And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.

And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.”

Khalil Gibran – The Prophet

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

In or out?

48 hours after adding a nine-week old puppy to the household, only one hour of sleep the first night, and doing everything I can to help her settle in and adjust to a new home while also teaching her the boundaries (chewing on the cats isn't an option!) my sleep-deprived brain has been to some strange places.

Finding myself sitting on the kitchen floor at 3 AM, very tired and envisioning a long road of lack of sleep and house-training, I can't help but imagine how I would manage should I ever have children. Getting a puppy in no way compares to the hard work that is parenthood, I don't wish to even try to draw a comparison! It's just the nearest I will be to it for a good long while, and I imagine that most people wonder how they would be as a parent. The teething, lack of sleep, constant monitoring and worrying, wondering which way is the best way, while being given very definite yet also conflicting advice seems to bring the issue of motherhood to mind for me!

Well, I'm not ready yet by any means, and I have things I need to work on before I'd even consider having a child. Finding a fella, to name just one, rather crucial thing! However, I like being single. I've had enough bad relationships that I find the whole couple thing quite stressful overall, and find it easier just to remain single.

The tiny thing that sparked this post came about while I was trying to settle the new pup, Pixie, for bed. I had the TV on low for some soothing voices, and a dating programme was on, called The Undateables. I haven't seen much of the programme itself so I can't comment on it, except to say that it featured some people with learning difficulties, tourettes, and autism meeting others through dating agencies and following them around with a camera. As if first dates aren't hard enough, without a camera pointing at you and asking you how it's going!

I wasn't paying much attention to it, but just as Pixie fell asleep and I picked up the remote to turn it off, I saw a woman sitting in her kitchen who turned to the camera and said with a wry smile: "It's hard when you're out of the game, it's hard when you're in the game!" And something about that sentence resonated with me as a fundamental truth, that applies to anything in life.

My brushes with depression have taught me a lot about my own unhealthy tendencies to avoid. When I get depressed I withdraw.. because socialising is hard when you feel worthless, dating is impossible when you feel you have nothing to offer, and ducking out seems less painful than forcing yourself to face potential rejection and embarrassment. It seems like a good way to avoid drama, to dodge pain, and staying out of the game seems as though it'll be less hard work. Dating brings up painful personal issues? Stay out of the game! But then you find yourself worrying that you'll always be single, and may never have kids or share the intimacy that a relationship brings. Those things are hard as well. Avoiding parties because you just don't feel bright enough to bring anything good to the table seems justified when depressed, but then sitting at home and missing friends is even harder.

I delayed going to university for a decade because I knew it would be hard and I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to do it, and that it would shatter my dream when I failed. It was easier to stay out of it and preserve it as The Dream I would love to fulfill... when time/money/the ecomomy (insert increasingly far-fetched excuse here) allowed; rather than take the risk and throw myself into it. It took my closest friend confronting me and making me face up to the fact that all my excuses for not going to uni yet were based on fear for me to finally take the plunge.

I don't yet know how it will pan out, but I'm absolutely convinced that leaping in and being committed to finally doing it was the right decision. It is hard, yes, and promises to get harder - but not doing it was hard as well, and in a much more profound way. Doing it means I'm in. I'm involved, I'm driven, I'm challenged and I have new and often fun experiences. Staying out of the game because the game is hard is a poor excuse, because sitting on the sidelines and watching others have fun is even harder.

So life and all it entails now boils down to "In or out?" Either can be hard, but when it comes down to which choice is rewarding and fun, it has to be in every time.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Arguing with my own brain

I'm finding that my brain has turned into a bit of a toddler. I love reading, especially about psychology and anthropology, but something in my brain seems to resent being told what to read. It avoids reading something on the set list in favour of reading a different article relating to psychology. I end up arguing with my own brain which has suddenly become a three year old. Something like this:

Brain: "But I want to read THIS instead! I'll read that later... first I want to read this psychology magazine, a bit of that novel, this 200 comment thread... THEN I'll read the homework stuff."

Me: "Come on brain! It's only two chapters! Read this, then read the fun stuff. You'll find this piece interesting anyway, it's psychology and anthropology! You love this stuff!

Brain: "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" [stamps metaphorical foot].

Me: "Come on brain. You're even reading about psychology now, just read this other bit about psychology that we have to read first..."


Me: "[sigh] Brain, you are a pervert. If I HAD to read that post, you'd be avoiding it by reading the material we've been assigned."

Brain: [sucks thumb] "I'm an intellectual rebel."

The Myth of Mental Illness and Other Stories

I've been given a Christmas gift that may well turn my worldview upside down. A book called The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct, by Thomas Szasz. Now while the gift was a tongue in cheek jab at my chosen profession, I'm actually very grateful, because while I'm familiar with some of the arguments Szasz made, I haven't yet read any of his work.

I agree with some of Szasz' arguments - it's hard to disagree given the barbarities that have been carried out in the name of 'curing' mental health issues. While we may have (mostly) moved on from believing that epilepsy is due to demonic possession, it isn't so long ago that people were locked away for 'illnesses' such as hysteria (read: women who disobey a man) being gay, being a bit different or having a learning disability. To  this day, we still have to fight for equal treatment for many of the above groups, and there are dangers inherent in labelling a certain behaviour as a mental illness without accounting for biology, culture and social factors.

I firmly believe that there are medical and biological reasons for many, if not most mental illnesses. To take the post below about psychopathy, we can now see a difference in the brain structure of psychopaths thanks to brain imaging technology, and even isolate contributing genes. Psychopathy is not a myth. I feel confident that as our technology and understanding increases, we will discover far more about the true underpinnings of biologically based illnesses, and also about "problems with living", to borrow a term from Szasz, that may arise as a result of personal difficulties or social factors of our complex and highly social species.

I personally view the purpose of a diagnosis as an attempt to medicalise conditions that would have previously been written off simply as 'crazy'. The idea is to remove the stigma, and view problems with the brain with the same legitimacy as we do heart disease or diabetes. It becomes a tool because we can then tailor treatment and offer the right resources to help that person. This is a comfort to many, but does also carry the risk of labelling people as malfunctioning, and removing aspects of their free will, by enforcing help that they may not want, with the authority and legitimacy of experts and doctors. Even with the best of intentions, and without a conscious effort to exert social control, we could easily slip into overconfidence in our 'medical diagnosis' and 'psychological expertise', believing it to be for the persons own good. We've done it before, and it's distinctly possible that we may continue to do it.

I'm a little nervous about picking up this book, since my very expensive degree is based on going into the mental health field! However, I'm also excited about it. One reason I am driven to go into psychology professionally is that I've spent five years or so working as a support worker for adults with learning difficulties, many of whom also have autism; a neurological difference which has in its short history since the original description and classification been subjected to much pseudoscience and damaging 'treatments' aimed at 'fixing' the people diagnosed with it. While I love the work and the people involved, I see many flaws in the system that I was powerless to change while a lowly support worker. As a psychologist, I may be able to do more to fight the  inequalities within the system.

If nothing else, it's about time I read some books by Szasz, given his influence on society. Who knows, if it has a strong impact on me, I may be handing out copies to people next Christmas myself.

Mad? Bad? Or Charismatic Leaders and Bad Boys? (and Girls!)

When studying psychology, it's rather tempting to apply your newly-acquired knowledge to any and all around you, and mentally diagnose, in a very unprofessional way, any aberrant behaviour you come across. Of course this applies to ourselves also (I'm neurotic with just a dash of OCD, according to my own peculiar and non-professional mental DSM), but what about when the matters you are attempting to understand apply directly to your own life? Is there a danger of applying our unqualified opinion to a person in real life and doing more harm than  good?

Recently a very good friend of mine became romantically entangled with a man. As the months went by, the more I heard about him, the more worried I became. Being a survivor of emotionally abusive relationships myself, I felt helpless when seeing my friend emotionally abused by this man.

My usual approach when it comes to supporting anyone else is just to listen and be there for emotional support, offer the same support that I needed during my own difficulties. I've learned that throwing unsolicited advice around isn't the most helpful approach, and is often motivated more by our own desire to give the "right" answer than as support for the person we're trying to help. They likely know as much about their options as you do, and far more about themselves and what they want to do, whether you agree with their choice or not.

That being said, I also feel that part of the duty of being a friend is giving an honest opinion. We've all had friends who will tell you only what they think you want to hear, and while that feels pretty good, it doesn't help when you want an honest opinion. Another friend of mine is wonderfully kind and will do anything for anyone, but is also a very plain speaker. If you look like hell in a new dress, she'll tell you so. Then pick out a better one for you. She was an unfailing support when I was stumbling from bad relationship to worse relationship, but also baldly stated some harsh truths I needed to hear. While her statements sometimes stung, I also highly valued her honesty, and I resolved early on to always adopt the same approach when it comes to interpersonal relationships (rather different from professional ones).

It's a fine line to tread, will vary on a case by case basis, and I am far from finding the right blend of direct and honest opinion sharing and non-judgmental support, but, as with all things, I stumble through just trying to give my best at the time based on my current knowledge, with the disclaimer that my opinions are just that: opinions, and only one of many possible viewpoints.

Back to the first friend involved with an emotionally abusive man - the reason this particular example bought this issue up for me was the genuine fear that this man might well be a psychopath. Seeing a friend being hurt in a relationship is hard enough, but with the ever growing anecdotal evidence against him, I became convinced, and remain convinced, that he displays patterns of behaviour consistent with the Dark Triad, traits that indicate a serious personality disorder: the triad consisting of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.

Superficially charming and adept with language, yet also over a period of many months, admitted to enjoying playing mind-games, wanting total and utter loyalty and vulnerability from her but not wanting to give her the same, and demanding that she keep his loyalty and his alone, asking her to deceive everyone else in her life while being loyal only to him. Those things alone are cause for concern from anyone, displaying a level of control and selfishness that screams of an abusive partner and distinctly unhealthy patterns of relating, but there were other, even more sinister clues. His behaviour was consistent with his beliefs, demonstrating a willingness to lie to whomever he needed to, a violent temper, a keen desire to present a favourable image of himself above all other desires, unreliable and impulsive, and highly manipulative (self-reported as well as demonstrated in behaviour), and perhaps most crucially, an absolute absence of remorse or empathy.  

What to do under those circumstances? All I could do was to warn her that while I certainly am not qualified to make a diagnosis, that his behaviour was most definitely not acceptable, regardless, and that continuing to be involved with him might even be dangerous? Fortunately, she is no longer involved with him, but this brush with a suspected pathology that has so much Hollywood myth and legend surrounding it has raised more academic questions for me, now that my friends well-being is no longer under threat.

The word psychopath has us picturing serial killers in movies, or Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer. Psychopath = killer. We may refer to someone as a psychopath as a linguistic short-hand for someone who behaves in a very anti-social way, while also not really imagining that they are indeed psychopathic.While there is good reason for us to leap straight to those images since those killers do indeed exist, and are often diagnosed as psychopaths, current thought is that psychopathology is more common than we imagine, and certainly doesn't mean that all psychopaths are killers. In fact, there are theories that psychopathology has been a successful mating strategy, which would go some way to explaining why the rate of psychopathology in the general population may be as many as 1 in 100 people, and that the superficial charm and skillful manipulation employed by psychopaths makes many of them successful businessmen.

1% of the population. That sounds like a relatively small figure, but when you consider how many people you interact with on a regular basis over the course of your lifetime, it seems that all of us will have dealt with one at some time or another. Consider how many people you pass as you walk along a busy street; the statistics suggest that at least a couple of them will be psychopaths.

My personal interest in the dynamics of abusive relationships gives me a desire to understand psychopathology that goes beyond the intrigue that many of us feel when confronted with Hollywood ideas about serial killers. The danger psychopaths and sociopaths pose goes far beyond a primal fear of serial killers, because while the odds of being targeted by a serial killer are extremely low, the odds of becoming entangled in a relationship that is either physically and/or emotionally abusive are considerably higher. That psychopaths engage in manipulation without remorse while being extremely good at deception and superficial charm makes their victims even more vulnerable to exploitation.

But in general, how aware are we of the prevalence of psychopathology? Are we on guard against these types of behaviours and do we raise our children to be aware of the warning signs? Do we take the idea of these types of personality disorders seriously, or do we see them as Hollywood monsters, a very rare breed that we would spot if we ever encountered one in real life? Can psychopaths ever be treated? What do we really know about psychopathology when we separate out the reality from Hollywood scenes and our own mental pictures of what the word psychopath means?

I still believe that the man my friend became involved with had a serious personality disorder, consistent with the Dark Triad. Whether psychopathic, sociopathic, or neither of them, his behaviour is none the less unhealthy and dangerous to the emotional health of those he manipulates, if nothing else. I'm also confident that in my history of extremely unhealthy romantic relationships, at least one of the men I myself dated was a psychopath. It took me a long time to recover from the aftermath of that relationship, and I strongly suspect that other people with a history of engaging in emotionally unhealthy relationships will have a higher likelihood of having had a close encounter with a psychopath. However, this is very unscientific speculation on my part, and I have so far not been able to find much relevant research to support my hypothesis. In fact, despite the fact that rates of psychopaths are high in the criminal population and the fact that it's such a fascinating area of study and popular culture, there are more questions than answers in the literature.

Dr. Robert Hare is perhaps the leading expert on psychopathy, having devised the psychopathy checklist and written several books on the subject, he also has some rather alarming warnings to give based on his research. 

I do not wish to scaremonger. That's my last intention, and I do not think that sensationalism is either helpful or necessary. But I do believe that more research on the nature of these particularly dangerous personality disorders is needed, and that as a society we need to converse more about the realities of psychopathy, rather than dismiss the odd case of a serial killer as a rare and unfathomable mystery. There is much I could add about genes, nature vs. nurture and fMRI scans of individuals with a diagnosis of psychopathology, and it's fascinating stuff that I'm happy to supply links to should anyone want them, but since this is pretty long as it is, so I shall leave it at that, and say that I'd love to hear from anyone who believes that they have encountered a psychopath in their own lives or comes across any research that relates to unhealthy patterns of relationships and personality disorders.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

The shock of the new

One aspect of starting university that I have found both exciting and stressful in equal measure, was choosing and studying open units alongside the psychology material. I didn't realise just how stuck I was in one style of doing things, and in familiar subjects. Throwing yourself into new disciplines that want different things from you, have a whole new set of terminology and want different skills and a different way of thinking even, from you, is illuminating. I love having my ways of thinking challenged, but the past ten weeks have been a baptism of fire - due to my own perfectionist streak of course.

Now it's important to know firstly that psychology is actually quite a rigid discipline, "particularly in a Russell Group uni" as our lecturers keep reminding us. We have to write scientifically, we have to structure it a certain way, cite sources and critique them. Very little scope for any personal opinions in there. And while I'd read scientific papers written that way, writing in that style felt strange and unfamiliar at first.

But I got used to that style of essay writing pretty quickly, and the psych reading I've done over the last 13 years means I'm familiar with a lot of theory and famous studies, so I know where to look for things and have an idea of the arguments I'd like to make, and which studies support those arguments.
Because a lot of that familiarity has been built up gradually over so many years, I didn't even realise just how much it has helped me, until recently...

I chose anthropology as an open unit because I hadn't done any anthropology before, and I thought it would go nicely alongside psychology. So it does, but I didn't anticipate that a ten week course in a different discipline would stretch me so much!

It seems obvious, now, that it would be a huge amount of material to cover, and that I didn't have a grounding in that area to start with, but I was a bit naive about it!

The range of theories alone is staggering.  It covers all peoples, everywhere, and all aspects of human behaviour. AND has a very different academic approach.

I've found myself leaping in beyond my depth and desperately trying to cram my brain with theory and key figures.

It's all unfamiliar. I really, really want to understand and take it all in, and the only way to do that is to read A LOT, which has kinda knocked me sideways!

It's fascinating, but a lot to take in over a short space of time, even just at the introductory level. It's impossible to skim read at this stage, because of the unfamiliar terminology and key figures, and because each piece tends to be a 'case study' kind of affair.

I tried to explain to a friend how I felt about some of the new material, how I felt that I could almost grasp the concepts behind it, but that the detail was way above my head. Like viewing a room and being able to make out the shape and large pieces of furniture, but none of the detail and decor.
I'm a detail and decor kind of girl - I want to really get it, and see how it all fits together.
The reply was that getting the shape of the room was enough, at this stage, and sometimes the only thing possible! Keeping that in mind has helped.

We've reached the end of our ten week open unit, submitted our essays, and we have the exam after the holidays. My essay title was "Do language and culture provide in advance some basic categories for how people classify and experience their world?"

With a limit of 2000 words, that's a broad topic to cover, using a field I've only just begun to learn!
When I was drafting I found myself referring to psychological sources a couple of times. The way we break up the world into categories and how language works are fascinating areas of psychology, I found it impossible to tackle the subject without briefly delving into some psychological theory as a base to leap from. So I asked my tutor whether including some psych material would be okay. She was quite enthusiastic about it, said that as long as it was relevant, then a cross-disciplinary approach would be interesting to read.

Whether or not that will be reflected in the mark, or even be detrimental if it means that I don't have enough anthropology stuff in there, I've no idea. But it's a different academic style, most of the material is new to me, and I gave it my best shot. I personally like it, and the first year is probably the best time to try something like that, I only need a pass!

Anyway, the point is this. While I felt a bit lost and unsure how this essay would turn out, I found that relating it to the material I already knew and building from there really helped me. Not only to pull it together into a coherent argument, but now able to start skimming the anthropology pieces to see what would relate, and to finally start absorbing some of the theory and purpose behind the anthropological material.

Some of it has finally fallen into place, and that particular room now has enough light that I can just about make out the colour scheme, even while the details remain in shadow.

The grade is less important now. I enjoyed making the connections. I enjoyed finding that I had an idea of the material I wanted to use and how I wanted to fit it into the argument.

I learned a lot, particularly in terms of realising that intellectual laziness is something we all need to shake ourselves out of now and then, and the most fun way I can see to do that is to step out of our comfort zones and throw ourselves into something entirely new. That's good enough for me. :-) 

Saturday, 15 December 2012

There are no words that can convey the depth of horror and grief sweeping the world as a result of the shooting in Connecticut. Thinking about what the families of those involved must be going through, and will continue to endure, is so overwhelming that many, myself included, find themselves halting their thoughts. It's too painful to even imagine, we cannot comprehend how it must feel to endure. We don't have the words to express the depth of feeling, and sending thoughts and love just feels so inadequate.

Seeing some of the shock that is reverberating around the internet, there is much anger and talk about gun control. That's a discussion that needs to happen, I have no doubt about it, but I find myself too emotional to think about it calmly, and today my focus is on the grief. We can't solve anything or be productive while reeling with horror. This article from The Onion seems to sum it up, titled: "Fuck Everything, Nation Reports". It contains more truth than any real news outlet I've seen yet today.,30743/?ref=auto

It's natural to ask how this could happen, what can we do to help, in any small way, and also to feel so overwhelmed that nothing seems possible except sadness and a sense of despair. Despair seems the only option,but despair is the most hopeless feeling possible, and the only way I can fight it is to focus on the things we can do. All the psychological theories I know don't give me even the faintest glimmer of the perpetrators motivation, It's beyond my understanding, and I almost hope that I never know.

To counter the effects of despair, and as a small step towards action, I'm breaking my own rule and actually asking people to donate to a specific cause. I don't generally do that, there are so many appeals out there and they are all such valid causes, that it can become a huge source of guilt that we can't each support all of them. I believe that people should choose the causes they feel passionate about and do what they can, and I have no right or desire to push my own charities as more worthy than another. I'm breaking this rule because in the face of such tragedy, doing something is an option. The link below is to a Huffington Post article that links to local organisations in Newtown.

The "fuck it, the world is broken beyond repair" response as described in The Onion feels true, but it isn't. There are people suffering right now, and local organisations are pouring resources into offering counselling and therapy. We can't fix the world in one leap, and individually we can feel that our own actions are so small as to be meaningless. This quote from Margaret Mead needs to be placed prominently in every public space, and held in mind whenever we feel powerless to help or cause real change:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Friday, 14 December 2012

Cheer up, Grinches!

There has been much "Christmas is too expensive/commercial/stressful/religious/not religious enough" sniping going on, and I'm sick of it. I bloody love Christmas, and the annual moan-a-thon that surrounds it ruins the best things about it. I will be writing more on this subject very soon, never fear.

In the meantime, I discovered this video today, and it's the single greatest thing I've seen this year. So I'm throwing down the challenge. I DARE you to watch this all the way through. If you can find nothing in it to make you smile, then there is something wrong with you, and it's more serious than not liking Christmas.
Put it on full screen, and check out the fun these guys are having. They really are enjoying it, and it's wonderful.

Personal highlight: 1:54, Mariah trying to do her diva bit while the guy she's sitting next to is playing a kazoo.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Here come the girls!

The European Commission recently spent over £80,000 making this deeply sexist and insulting video:
In order to "encourage more girls to get into science".

The women (and some men) of the science faculty at Bristol University responded with this:
...which becomes even more hilarious the more times you watch it, so I just had to share the joy!