When sweetness lightly dilutes the night’s intensity

OK, you get it. I’m depressed. Not clinically, but I do not really see many differences in the symptoms. When a long relationship in which you had invested everything is murdered suddenly, there is NO WAY to “just cherish the time [I] had with her, and let go” as a guy who is now (very) close to her told me pointedly yesterday in a post on FB about one of my blogs. Tell that to the core that has been shattered, sir! Tell that to the thousands of pieces life has been broken into, as I try to pick them up one by one and very very slowly glue them back together again. Tell that to the annihilated heart and soul, sir! And it has nothing to do with self-pity, and all to do with basic survival, because when your very soul has been ripped from your body, and your mind has been devastated, looking even remotely at the time with her (which was then the most magical time of my life) with any glee is beyond conceivable. That time in my life is a body with its head hacked off. And just as dead to me. The gentleman’s agenda is of course transparent, but his suggestion is so far from doable that it would be risible, where it not so absolutely tragic.

But this is not another blog in which I slowly and, hopefully, somewhat healingly, pick apart the darkness inside me. This one was instigated by the very opposite of that gentleman’s comment. It was inspired by an extremely sweet message sent to me by an ex-student, and a large part of this blog is actually that comment itself.

Let me begin by saying that zillions of friends and colleagues have been absolute troopers so far throughout this saga. Some with just a single, sympathetic line, others with long conversations, tears and hugs. And I was also incredibly touched by students, tentatively reaching out to their heartsick professor, with no agenda at all, but just because they can’t stand me being so incredibly sad.

I have picked a couple at random to give you an idea of the sort of simple, yet totally philosophical personal messages some of my students and ex-students sent me. Here is a very sweet one, for example, from a girl I taught a few years ago:

Hey Sir 😊 I have been thinking about messaging you since i saw your post and not sure if what I’m doing is ethical, since you were my lecturer, but I believe that everyone needs some motivational words sometimes. Life can be hard sometimes, but I have always seen you as a great, happy, cheerful, wise man! Don’t let anything stop you or change you! And keep your head up ‘cause you have a million reasons to do so! Hope you’re getting better and if there’s anything I can do to help you let me know. […] Kuraġġ! You are loved by many people 😊 Take care Sir!

And one more, from a girl that I taught much longer ago than the previous one:

I’m not going to ask how you’re doing because I know heartbreak is the absolute worst, especially when you love with all your heart. The healing process is tough, but you’re strong and you’ll get through it, even though it may not feel like it right now. I hope you find some solace in your art. It will not remove the cracks, but perhaps it can help you put pieces back together. Please don’t forget that you’re totally awesome and so many of us will always look up to you!

How heart-warmingly sweet are my students! 

But the one that took the cake was one I got today from a student who left university not too long ago… a happy, smiley, talented girl whom I’ve never seen without a radiant smile on her face. What she wrote touched me on a day when the lows were beyond low, and a very deep ravine would have had a problem keeping up. Here is what she wrote to me, reproduced here with her permission: 

Hi Ġorġ, I know this is going to be really random, but when I saw you today it reminded me to send you this message. I realise that you’ve been passing through a very difficult time recently and it always makes me sad when deeply emphatic people have to pass through a challenging period, because I know they feel things three times over. I just hope you understand what an impact you make on people’s lives, and as my lecturer you truly were inspiring with your love and passion for illustration and just creativity and expression in general. Life is hard, but there’s always beauty in everyday things, like the sun rising in the morning and the wonderful colours it paints the sky in, or the life that blossoms all around us, in the form of plants, trees, vegetation, insects… Don’t let hard times break your spirit or your soul, because people are external to you and you should always be your number one pride and joy. And you have so many things you should be proud of! All your experiences, the stories you can tell, your talents, the way you impact people’s lives — they’ve all made you into the person you are today. And maybe my inexperience in life fuels a sense of naivety within me, but I still believe the world is beautiful and I hope you find the strength within you to keep seeing the beauty in everyday things. I think the world has lost a sense of connectivity, but I hope you realise that even when you feel alone, you’re not alone, and you’ve made a difference in people’s lives more than you realise, and people do care. Take care, Ġorġ, and keep being you please! Keep inspiring others with your art and writing and keep hold of the light within the darkness 😊

I think you can all see why it hit me right where the hurt was most bitter. It was a gentle (even if, unfortunately, temporary) balm on my savagely slashed and profusely bleeding wound. And I realised that there are not just selfish people in the world, ready to tear your world apart at the drop of a hat… push you from the top of a high cliff and watch you spatter all over the hard ground below… that there are also sweet ones who see in me what I do not see in myself. And for her pointing that out to me, I am extremely grateful.

No, unfortunately, the beauty in everyday things has lost an enormous amount of its lustre to me right now, and I have not yet learnt to appreciate it alone… because (as my ironic last post on FB with her in it said) the best things in life are shared. And I had learned only to share and never to appreciate alone. So that is something new to me that I need to learn among the many pains and sorrows that overwhelm it. But I will, hopefully not too far in the future, until, at some point in my life, someone will teach me how to share again… and, yes, I will try to “keep hold of the light” until that happens.

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To sleep or not to sleep

In the past couple of months, I have been having problems with sleep. It is a well known fact, that satisfactory sleep is tied firmly to a feeling of security. That is why two compatible people together sleep better, most of the time, than one person alone. But of course, in my particular case, the whole problem is much deeper than that. There is no doubt that the loss of the other in my bed has affected my sleep through the lack of the physical reassurance of touch, but much more vividly, the change has been brought about by the acuteness of the darkness the irrevocable absence has brought into my mind and heart. So the overwhelming insecurity is a permanent fixture, waylaid at times, but persistently there, ready to pounce the second I am caught unawares.

I have always slept lightly, and because of a number of health issues, have had interrupted nights forever. But my mental and emotional conditions right now have aggravated that to the extreme. I hardly ever go to bed before midnight… but, like clockwork, my mental four o’clock alarm chimes and I am fully awake, with very tiny chances of drifting off again.

Because that is when the mind is smothered by uncontrollable thoughts. They are an avalanche, indomitable and catastrophic. They lull at first, making sure there is no defence possible, calmly sliding into position at the edges of consciousness… slinking in like silent snakes, noiselessly skirting the edges of my thoughts. And then the thoughts attack… full on, with trumpets blaring and horses in full gallop, with guns blazing and a kettledrum bang-banging for rhythmic marching in overwhelming, totally dominating invasion, defeating all resistance, sweeping away defiance with the sudden destructiveness of a gigantic tsunami.

And with it come the really nasty, daily headaches, compounded by the fact that I’ve been partaking of the soothing forgetfulness poison of whisky a bit too much of late, albeit during a controlled, limited time in the evenings. But … much much worse than that… everything is aggravated by the palpitating snare-drum devastation of heartache.

I try all the tricks. For example, I repeat the phrase “blank it out” to the point of nausea, trying to push back the dark, gigantic tanks of war that, however, just roll over all attempts at camouflage, sowing fire-breathing dragons and gristle-gnawing crocodiles into my thumping brain. And the tanks take the form of doubts, of unanswered questions, of regrets, of sorrow, of grief (intense, heart-stopping, stomach-crunching grief!)… of terror of the present and horror of the future. And they all manage to crunch themselves into the hours of tossing and turning, with eyes shut (but really wide open).

I usually give up the ghost around six, switching off the alarm optimistically set for two hours later, and try to obliterate the waves with activity, which only partly works because of a number of things. The dark abyss slashed open by the annihilating thoughts remains very much inside me, with my stomach dropping into it often, with the jolt of a sky-rocketing lift. And then there is the effect on my health. And trust me, after one such non-night, to put on the BBC (as is my wont in the mornings) and get Claudia Hammond’s programme Health Check discussing the incontrovertible findings of new research that shows just how impossibly amplified the risk of heart attack is by… yeah… lack of sleep. That there is a very direct co-relation. They said we need eight to nine hours. I’ve slept between three to four hours maximum every night for two and a half months, with very rare exceptions in which I might have got six!

So the clamping I feel in my chest at times might not be psychosomatic after all, as I keep on telling myself. It might not be my mistreated oesophagus in the after-throes of reflux. It might actually be the real thing.

And this is when the really worrying thought came into my mind… and I wish it hadn’t. This is when I realised that I was not worried. That death no longer mattered much to me. It was not preferable to life, no… but, unlike before, when I aspired to prolong life in ways that were almost frantic… the reasons for living have almost entirely disappeared. Yes, I have my somewhat successful career… yes, I have my creativity and my mind (that some consider to be a fine one) and my art and way with words, yes I have a lot of friends who were real troopers in the worst darkness ever of my life, yes, I have my kids, mum, siblings… yes… I suppose my demise will be a loss of sorts to lots of people, not least my students, and the country would lose my creative productivity…. but what would I lose?

Not much, really. 

No, I’m not suicidal. That’s not the way I do things. But I suppose not really caring much if I live or die is a version of that. I’ll make no particular effort to die before my time has come, but I very much doubt I’ll make any massive effort to the opposite, either.

This might very well be the lack of sleep itself speaking, but I think what that does is compound the thoughts, not create them, in much the same way that the vicious circle of waking letting in the hoards of dark ruminations stops sleep, and goes round and round and round, revisiting in detail each nook and cranny of negativity. And I know this might be a phase of thought that will pass with time and a change in conditions of life, but at the moment of writing, there is no indication whatsoever that it is temporary.

Hey, maybe my many waking hours are anticipatory compensation for when total darkness takes over and waking will not be an option. And there will be no tormenting thoughts invading the mind then. They’ll be left outside in the cold, hammering on a door that will never open to them ever again.

Now there’s a thought I have not had at night!

The thought-enhancing silence

The silence in the middle of the small town of Köyceğiz, in Southwestern Turkey, is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, though right now a cicada is trying to break it, or break its little heart trying.

Walking by the huge lake here, also called Köyceğiz, you can’t even hear the lapping of the waters, as they are becalmed a lot of the time, almost as if there is no organic beating heart within that huge expanse of water, when in fact there are, among many other sea creatures, a lot of massively huge turles that one can see swimming just below the surface. But their heartbeats aren’t enough to break the mirror that looks back at me as I peer into its depths.

There are very few people around, since the peak of the Turkish summer season is gone, but the heat is still oppressive to the extreme and it sears the soles of your feet and the inside of your mind, almost toasting you alive as you walk, very slowly, along the lake’s very well curated banks, as sweat pours out of pores you didn’t even know you had.

The place is absolutely gorgeous. The lake itself, of course, is idyllic and the mountains that border its horizon rise and fall, having different levels and different shades, almost as if they were shot by a Disney Multiplane Camera. And there are trees everywhere, and every few steps water pouring out of pipes that compensates for the heat-driven dryness. And it’s almost as if I’m alone in this world so beautiful it was gifted to me by well-wishing friends, who, knowing how darkness has engulfed my world right now, cared enough about my well being to do something about it, trying to push a bit of light to dilute, even if very very briefly, the density of the black.

The beauty is just amazing and unique, but it’s the silence that predominates. It’s a solid wall that wraps you round in abstract cast concrete. And of course, thoughts just reverberate in it. Loud and harsh and clanging, like the inside of a bell-tower during the feast of the village patron saint. And thoughts aren’t exactly lacking right now. They keep me awake at night, they share my down time as I try to work, they fight back against my life-giving creativity, they punch me in the stomach and my heart and my mind, they engulf my very soul. Because, as I have already said in preceeding blogs, my world has been turned upside down by a sudden, intransigent decision I was helpless to overturn, but which in turn overturned me and all that I am and can be and will be. Demolishing the past, destroying the present, and annihilating the future.

I am, of course, working hard to get back on track, since this way lies total destruction of my mind and soul. It looks anything but hopeful as I write this, but I need to believe it is, because giving up leads to places I do not want to go. And Köyceğiz, that has given me so much by way of beauty, has also amplified the thoughts with its silence, though maybe, in so doing, has also helped me embrace them, and with them, the grief that is such an integral part of what has happened. Because only through embracing it will I eventually wear it out. I cannot get rid of it. I cannot ignore it. It will bore a hole in my heart and kill me. I need to hold it to me as it tortures me, grabs my stomach and twists, stops me breathing… like accepting the drill of the dentist during a root canal (but without anaesthetic!) knowing that, at some point in the future… potentially a very distant one… it will help ease the killer toothache. A psychologist friend of mine has actually told me I have to do this.

So, in a sense, thank you Köyceğiz for your thought-amplifying silence. I cannot not hurt right now… it’s like existing with half of every organ amputated, and needing to understand how to make do with half a heart, and half a liver… and, much worse, half a soul… but the pain writ large helps me put it in some sort of order. Still painful, but a tiny bit more acceptable.

If only there was just the beauty to be enjoyed in this wondrous place… shared with the only one who mattered to me to share beauty with! But therein lies the insanity in the excruciation that underlies the mess I’m in. So I will also need to learn how to appreciate the beauty alone, till sharing Köyceğiz with someone who can regrow the amputated half of my soul becomes again an option I can live with.

Happiness (and the lack of it)

Tear2

As I walked in Malmö city centre a few months ago, I noted a young girl… no more than twenty… walking on the pavement and crying. She had tears streaking down her face, her eyes were misted over, inward looking, her lips were trembling, her features distorted in a mask of misery.

I was uncertain what to do. Surely it was not my place to go ask her if she was all right? She obviously was not, so that would have been trite and out of place. In the end I decided that it was not something I could affect, and she turned the corner and was gone.

But my mind stayed with her. And I could not, for the life of me, conceptualise anything so hellish that would make that girl blubber in that way for all to see as she walked in the middle of a busy city. I mean…what could have been so impossibly bad after all? I thought.

Now, months later, I know exactly what could have been hell for her. Not what in itself, but the concepts that underlie misery and happiness.

You see, I could not conceptualise such horrors at the time because I was fundamentally happy. I was in a stable, long-term, happy relationship that had borrowed a lot more from fairy tales than reality, but held together very nicely thank you. I was doing well in my profession (was, in fact, about to be promoted), a serious health problem had been all but solved, I was working on a new children’s book that had enormous promise. My life was happy. Happiness was the overarching emotion that then coloured all other emotions. I’m not saying everything was perfect. Research is very clear about what the state of happiness is. Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and Shkade’s paper from 2005 called “Pursuing Happiness”, for example, quotes the literature in defining happiness “in terms of frequent positive affect, high life satisfaction, and infrequent negative affect. These three constructs are the three primary components of subjective well-being…” (p.115) There was no doubt, therefore that I was satisfying all three constructs, with the negative affect being my own construction of opposition to that very happiness… as I have had occasion to explain in the blog previous to this one. However, the other two constructs were by far predominating.

There was no doubt that my thoughts, feelings and inclinations were being coloured by my happiness, limiting my perception of reasons for sadness in others… and possibly, as a direct result, in myself. And this is weird, because for all intents and purposes, I’m an empath… a bit of a natural inclination in that direction enhanced by my communications training, particularly in the way I search for and collocate patterns of behaviour.

So even my empathy was being swayed by my natural happiness.

And then the main source of my happiness, my relationship, the very lynchpin of my existence, was brought crashing down overnight, and it died very fast after that, efficiently, intransigently, in spite of all my efforts to the opposite. And the overarching veneer of joy, that had coloured the world bright and found it difficult to understand the fundamental reasons for sadness, disappeared. My frequent smile went with it. My approach to life darkened. I stopped quipping, joking about everything (sometimes annoyingly… so I suppose it was a relief to some friends, at least), I stopped looking at sunsets and feeling their warmth on my face and letting their colours turn my soul to gold.

I died inside, and everything darkened.

OK… let me try to explain this as best I can. Think of an old painting that had warm, beautiful colours when first created by the master. Think of grime accumulating over centuries, in which the colours dull, the bright hues become pastel… the content remains the same and recognisable, but the verve and oomph… the pomp and circumstance, if you like… are no longer there. In my case it just took one day… less, actually, a few minutes, to do that, but the effect was undoubtedly the same.

And suddenly, the other day, I remembered the crying girl in Malmö, and my heart immediately went out to her, and OH, how I recognised her despair at whatever had instigated that bout of intense misery.

Now it was difficult for me to recognise the reason for laughter and joking… in much the same way that I had not understood what could have motivated the sadness. And none of my much vaunted academic prowess that makes me analyse everything everywhere even began to help, for the very simple reason that I could not recognise that there was actually anything to analyse when I was in the very thick of it. Because the happiness was a coating of the soul… a veneer on everything that I did and felt. That is exactly what the sadness is now, and it’s darkened the taste of good food and darkened the light streaming through cracks in the curtains early in the morning, darkened the intensity of an exciting movie, darkened the air I breathe, making it thicker and less filling (stopping in my chest, more often than not), darkened the silence and the smile on people’s lips. Darkened my whole perception of reality.

I have no clue when my next bout of happiness will come around. It’s going to need to be a doozy to clear out the misery that is weighing down my soul.

In fact, right now, it’s telling me that it is never going to happen. And no matter how I struggle, I find it hard to contradict it.

The Soul-Devouring Darkness

Robin Williams

The last couple of days I have thought a lot about Robin Williams, who died by his own hand five years ago. As is my wont these days, whenever I feel really close to someone who has died… or that person has in any way affected me and my life… I draw him. My drawings are usually just pen portraits, based on someone else’s photo (and I’m sorry I don’t always know the source, so can’t acknowledge it), but I always add my own little touch, trying to pull out of the likeness that predominant element that I see thrusting itself into my soul.

In Robin William’s case it had to be the eyes and the mouth. I increased the girth of the lips to the right to turn the smile into a sardonic one, and I put “water” in the eyes, making them liquid, inward looking, giving the lie to the character he played in public. The jovial clown there to raise a laugh, while fighting with demons inside.

And I empathise. Can’t not. I often fight with demons. I might not be a certified clinical depressive, but there are many of the symptoms that dog me… that run through my very being like soiled water, fouling my life and often ruining it.

I am known as the guy with the smile. A recent, soul-destroying, devastating breakup led me to draw myself without the smile (couldn’t put it on any more) and the reaction was massive. “This is not the Ġorġ we know”, “Go put the smile back on”, and the usual platitudes one tells someone going through a bad patch that often do more harm than good. But the smile couldn’t be there that time, because the demons had eaten it.

I’m a very moody person. I come across as an extrovert… a good communicator, a man of words. Which I suppose I also am. But I am also an artist. A poet. A writer. And those creative traits do really demand an introverted conceptualisation of life. In fact, when the inward eye darkens, when something triggers thoughts that become darker and darker and procreate like lice in a schoolgirl’s hair, I fold into myself, struggling with the inner me, letting no-one in till I push away the darkness, forcing it into as narrow a space in my psyche as possible, in order for lightness to once again allow itself into my being. But when I’m in my dark place, the darkness devours my soul, and throttles my stomach, tramples on it like a herd of demented buffaloes and kills all dreams, all hopes… all happiness.

Even those really close to me have found this difficult to take. And if there are enough of these incidences (and god knows I’ve had enough for a hundred lifetimes), then the effect on some people (even those who really should know better) is that they see the silence and the wall built around me at that moment, and take the rebuff as a rebuke… and stop trying to understand the cause and just take the (horrid) result as the outcome. This can be disruptive of even the most intimate relationships (as I have found out to my great devastation… but that’s a story for another day), with the accumulative effect of too many soul-devouring moments making people give up on me. And the irony is that, in so doing, they confirm that the darkness was right after all, and that it is the natural way of being, rather than the occasional blip in happiness.

So I empathise with the Robin Williamses of the world. I don’t think his final solution was the right one, but living with darkness as a delightful smile entertains the masses is a hell in all but flames and devils. Though, in actual fact, the flames are there too… flames of angst and hopelessness, of helpless turmoil and a shroud of gloom, demolishing dreams and killing futures… as the laughter in the street joins the feast band, and lights blaze.

Everywhere but inside me.