When things fall apart: Finding well-being in the world of Brexit

Politics and Well-being

Society is our extended mind and body.

Alan Watts

Throughout philosophy, we find an inextricable link between ourselves and the society of which we are a part of. Many thinkers have expounded upon the theory that, society is not merely the room in which we find ourselves – an external force that interacts with us – but an extension of our very internal being.

This is seen throughout philosophy and psychology. Alan Watts posits that society is an extension of our mind, whilst Lacan went into great depth exploring how our unconscious psyche is formed within a broader societal network.

Such thoughts can be seen as extensions of John Locke’s theory of the self as a “tabula rasa” which is shaped by our ongoing experiences. This disregards the notion of any true, or pure self. It instead poses the idea that we are shaped, or created by the external society around us.

To use a metaphor, like the true English graduate I am, we can be seen as the products of erosion. Us – as we find ourselves today – started as unshaped, unthinking stone. Then, through the ebbs and flows of societal currents, this stone is crafted into the beings we find before us today.

So this is what brings me to the question of today’s blog post…

If our sense of self and well-being is contingent on the society around us, what effect do events such as Brexit have upon us? When politics becomes so violently polemic, can we maintain a healthy mental health, and if so, how?

To use my initial metaphor to expand upon these questions: if we need societal currents to help shape us from stone, what happens when there aren’t steady currents, but multiple, warring currents smashing against each other? What becomes of us?

Is it just me… Or are we a little bit fucked?

Brexit: A broken society

After just a few minutes searching, it is easy to see the anger that has been stirred up surrounding Brexit. It doesn’t take long to find articles such as:

Or tweets such as:

Wherever you look, at whatever side of the political spectrum, you are greeted by feelings of anger and anxiety. Something reflected in articles such as the Mental Health Foundation’s,

“I feel frightened of the angry world outside my door” – the impact of Brexit anxiety “

Mental Health Foundation

The article states how, in a recent survey:

  • Millions across the nation have felt powerless, angry or worried over the last year.
  • Over one in 10 people reported that Brexit had caused them problems with sleeping in the last year.
  • Almost two in 10 said it had caused them ‘high levels of stress’.

Mental Health Foundation

It is interesting to think, what exactly is it about Brexit in particular that is having such an effect on the population?

I lived through 9/11, the war on terror and the 2008 financial crash. None of these seem to have had the same effect on the general population as Brexit. This is interesting when one puts the situations into context. We saw an entire city – nay, nation – brought to its knees, we saw a global financial fallout, but it’s Brexit

Something we voted for that has posed such a threat to our population’s well-being.

So why?

In trying to come to a conclusion, I can’t help but think the reason hinges on the polemic nature of this issue. Brexit has caused an undeniable schism within our society. Our very political system has been turned on its head. The simple left, right dynamic of our government has been torn apart. The major parties are seen to be tearing themselves apart, and even within our own families we find vocal disagreements on the correct course of action.

Compare this to 9/11 or the war on terror. I think, for the most part, the majority of British society was in agreement that Osama bin Ladin was a bit of a prick.

Or how about the financial crash? Whilst there was some disagreement over the causes and means through which it should be dealt with, it did very little to mess with the status quo. The dialogue was still within the well tread dynamic of Labour vs Conservative, left vs right.

If anything, these events helped to solidify our understanding of our society. It only went to emphasise the narrative on which our understanding of politics had been built for years. Those on the left like spending. Don’t trust them with your credit card. Those guys on the right: they hate the poor, the NHS, the railways and basically anyone that didn’t go to Eton.

It was a simpler time.

You could always understand the narrative that played out before you, and for the most part, politics remained pretty separate to your day to day life. For the most part, it was all pretty academic in nature and never so much a thing of any real emotional heft.

But then shit got real…

The entire Brexit campaign has revolved around playing with our emotions. It has been framed as an issue that transcends simple political discourse. This has caused considerable issues, as it brings a lot of what we have come to know into question.

Ideas that weren’t often spoken about in open discourse have been hurtled into the mainstream. The conversation has been changed and as a result, we find ourselves within a very different society.

To return to my earlier metaphor, the tides have changed. Gone are the gentle currents, interrupted by a sudden, unpredictable riptide. This has changed the landscape in which we have long made sense of ourselves.

It has upset the narratives we have long found ourselves a part of. No wonder we’re anxious!

It is as Suzanne Moore says:

“Every self-help book and every act of self-love is a way for individuals to try to cope in a world that is deeply dysfunctional.”

We can talk about self-care, but this mental health crisis is political , Suzanne Moore

So how can we better cope?

So if the issue is societal, how can we better cope with what is happening?

For me, I can’t help but think, we need to try and shift the narrative we tell ourselves about society. A large part of the issue is we don’t know what to expect. The way politics is supposed to work, the illusion of control has been pulled from beneath us.

The steering wheel has been snatched from us, and for many, we appear to be careening for a cliff edge.

The thing is… We never really had much control. When it came to politics at least. There was very little we could ever really do. Yes, of course we could vote and that is important. But did we make much difference? For the most part…

No. Bugger all.

I am a Labour voter in a safe conservative seat. Whoop, whoop! Got to love the power to create real change my vote gives m… Oh wait. FUCK!

You need to try and lessen the weight you place upon your own political self worth. Because well, yeah, you could never do that much to begin with.

I know, I know. I began this blog by saying how our sense of self and society are inseparable. And yes, this is in many ways true. But still, it is up to us how we choose to interact with this society, and with which bits we focus upon.

Sometimes you need to step back from the discourse and realign your values. Focus on what you can. Don’t place your identity in the hands of an uncontrollable force. Shrink your gaze from the broader world, to something smaller, something more manageable.

Can I effect real nationwide change? Probably not.

Can I make a difference in my direct relationships? My day to day life? Whether I go to the gym or eat a big ass burger? Yes. So that is where my focus should be.

Is this to say you should become totally apolitical and uncaring? If you want to… go for! If politics is doing nothing but wearing you down and damaging your well-being? Sure thing. All the power to you.

But I’m not saying you have to. What I am saying is this… there is only so much worth you can afford to place upon any one thing. And just because it is on the news everyday, or in the papers, doesn’t mean it has to be central to your life.

You have the power to turn off the phone, or the TV. To close your eyes and listen to your own thoughts and your own feelings.

You can choose what is central to you.

And for me, one thing is for sure…

Brexit is a fucking omnishambles.

And I ain’t got no time for that!

All the best,

Shaun.

x

When The Clowns Are Silent: It And The Horrors of Unspoken Trauma

Mental Health in Cinema

Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.

Stephen King

Anybody that knows me well will be aware that I am a great lover of horror fiction. In fact, so much so, my degree dissertation was on Gothic literature specifically. It is hard to say where this love came from exactly. Definitely not my childhood, I was an absolute wimp. But if I had to guess, it would be the obvious links between what we fear, and our unconscious.

You see, horror fiction is incredible in that it completely bypasses reason. It is fiction, we know it is, but it is still able to conjure powerful feelings within us. It interacts with us on a deeper level.

Beneath the vampires, werewolves, poltergeists and witches there is something else. Something far more personal. It is not the surface level imagery in horror that scares us. No. It is our anxieties reflected beneath.

This is reflected in Freud’s term, the uncanny. If one looks up the more basic definition, it seems pretty simple:

“strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way.”

Freud’s original usage of the term however, was something far more layered. Whilst he tells us,

” It undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror; it is equally certain, too, that the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with whatever excites dread”

Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny

he goes on to carefully differentiate it from something we may merely consider “fearful”. Like so much in psychoanalysis, it is far more nuanced. He concludes that,

“the “uncanny” is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”

Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny

This is the crux of what makes something uncanny. It is at once, both familiar and uncomfortable.

And this is what makes horror great. Not the monsters, gore and spectacle, although they do play a role, but that all to familiar unease it places upon us. Take one of my favourite horror films of the modern era: Jennifer Kent’s, The Babadook.

This film left me feeling so uncomfortable. It is a film that affected me so much much at the time of watching it, it may get a blog post of its own one day.

But to quickly highlight my point. Babadook does not use gore or incredibly realistic monsters to bestow fear upon the viewer. No. Instead, it uses the normality of its setting and the pervasive feelings of grief felt by its protagonists to create a lingering sense of dread, and near palpable unease.

The fear is not of the monster, the Babadook, but of feelings long repressed.

The feeling of the uncanny is further heightened by the design of the monster. It looks like any shadows one might find in their bedroom late at night. Something perfectly normal, if it weren’t for the games played by our own mind. It doesn’t need to elicit fear. It lets our unconscious do the work.

The monster is not supernatural, but a re-figuring of the lead character’s complex feelings surrounding the death of her partner, and the unresolved issues buried beneath the surface. Something beautifully portrayed by the role of the basement throughout.

So now, enough setting the scene, it’s time for It: Chapter 2.

I recently watched this in cinema, and have to say, I really enjoyed it. Did I find it particularly scary? Well…

No. But did it get me thinking?

HELL YES!


Before I go on – For those unacquainted with Stephen King’s It that may still wish to watch the film – here is your warning: this will contain spoilers.


In watching this film, I was taken back by just how much it had to say about mental health and the act of growing up.

This is in large part due to the structure of It’s narrative. The plot is divided into two halves: one based around the protagonists’ experiences with the monster clown Pennywise as children, and a second based around their return home to face their tormentor as adults.

This narrative, with its concept of returning to beginnings just screams out for psychoanalysis.

It’s not particularly subtle or clever in its depiction of mental health, especially in comparison to The Babadook, but that makes it no less interesting to discuss. Especially when this is a huge mainstream horror watched by millions.

So to begin, I am going to start by explaining the significance of It: Chapter 1 in its overall exploration of these themes.

Sewing the seeds in Derry: Chapter 1

The first film, upon an initial watching, never seemed too harrowing. In fact, it shared many tonal similarities to Netflix’ hit series Stranger Things. It had some cool frights, but was mainly an enjoyable, nostalgia fuelled romp!

It had jokes, lovable characters and there never seemed any true danger to the lives of the protagonists.

(#JusticeForGeorgie)

This however, for me at least, is intentional, and makes the horrors that much more harrowing. The nostalgia of it all, the perceived childlike innocence, adds that necessary relatability for a discomforting uncanniness when things do go dark.

Besides Pennywise, the children each deal with their own personal issues outside of the supernatural. Whilst some aren’t as clear cut, we get the more obvious ordeals such as Beverly and her abusive father, or B.. B.. stuttering Bill Denborough and the loss of his brother Georgie.

Interestingly, these traumas take a back seat for the children to the unknowable horrors of the clown Pennywise. In fact, the film ends with no real catharsis in regards to the more human issues.

They have conquered the supernatural threat but are left with the feeling things aren’t over. They end up cutting into their hands as a physical reminder of their promise to return and face Pennywise should he ever come back. This physical scarring, only highlighting the psychological scars that are still to be faced up to.

This initial defeat of the monster, has no catharsis, as it isn’t an end of the horrors, but a repression as each of the children move away from Derry after the film’s close.

This leads well into It: Chapter 2 and its exploration of mental health.

The trauma that grows: Chapter 2

The second film instantly opens with an incredibly shocking scene. Something unlike anything from the first. I have seen many even stating that there should be warnings shared in case viewers are triggered by the movie’s opening sequence.

We are shown a brutal example of homophobia and physical abuse. The first horror of the film isn’t supernatural. No. It’s gritty, real and far too close to home for many. This then invites are first view of the supernatural clown Pennywise.

He returns as a result of a very real trauma.

I believe this is an important statement. It is telling us, the viewer, this film isn’t about a clown. The horrors of Pennywise are a sublimation of something far more “real”. This is a film about real world trauma.

We are then introduced to the children from the first film, now adults. They are each shown with their own struggles: Eddie is shown in a marriage reminiscent of his problematic relationship with his mother (oh so Freudian), Beverly is repeating the abuses of her past with a new man etc.

They are each, in someway, damaged. The main conceit of the film isn’t revealed however until the protagonists return to Derry to face the newly resurrected Pennywise. They meet for dinner and something terrible is revealed to them.

One of them, Stanley, hasn’t returned. In fact, he took his own life. Here, we are shown the terrifying endpoint of undealt with trauma. What can happen if one ignores reaching out for help, or dealing with their mental health. This is highlighted by Beverley who, having rather conveniently gained the ability of foresight, has foreseen that left alone they each would have reached the same fate.

Their traumas left to grow, undealt with, would lead to them all taking their own lives. Repression is shown as the most dangerous course of action.

It is at this stage, when they are ready to face up to things, Pennywise explodes before them in full force.

Normal reality is shattered by the unknowable horrors of neurosis.

And to make sense of them, to defeat the “monster”, they must each face their pasts.

The film then goes through each of the protagonists going through scenarios where they face up to the traumas of their past, collecting symbols of them, whilst dealing with the eldritch horrors of the inter-dimensional Pennywise.

So there you have it. The film explores how, in adulthood, we are able to deal with past traumas.

But I know what you’re thinking…

What about answers?

How do we win over the horrors from our past?

Interestingly, the method proposed by Mike to defeat Pennywise is shown as nothing more than a placebo. They have to burn the symbols of their past and repeat a few lines.

Unsurprisingly, when fighting an otherworldly, unknowable evil (or depression)… This doesn’t quite cut it.

The film finds that facing up to our past isn’t so easy, there isn’t a quick, or easy fix. Instead they are left submerged in the horrors of Pennywise with one of the protagonists even losing their life.

As… many fighting poor mental health unfortunately do.

But, together, through changing their mindsets and relationships to the horrors around them, they are able to overcome Pennywise.

Pennywise… One of the most powerful monsters in fiction… Is overcome by affirmations.

Obviously, what this is saying about mental health and how we cope is very much up to individual interpretation. Some may find its portrayal troubling, others enlightening.

I, for example, am on the fence. I am troubled by the metaphor of the protagonists’ scars disappearing at the end of the film. I don’t like the idea that past scars can ever be fully removed and think it undermines part of the narrative’s function. There is also the half-hearted portrayal of Richie’s closeted sexuality which never gets the same deep dive as the other losers’ issues.

That said, there are parts I loved and found truly heartbreaking. One such being Stanley’s speech at the end of the film and letter he left for the others. We are left with the heart-wrenching truth that he took his life as he doubted his ability to fight the horrors of Pennywise, and felt guilty that he would cause his friends to fail.

This for me was poignant. Feelings of guilt, of failing those around us often play a role in an individual’s decision to take their own lives. We see the way he made sense of his decision, and after seeing how it is only together the rest of the losers were able to pull through, it is made all the worse.

This is the message the film portrayed to me.

We all struggle, and at some point must face up to our pasts alone. But when push comes to shove… Even in the darkest times. We’re not alone. In sharing in our struggles we’re stronger.

We’re in it together.

We’re all losers.

And losers stick together.

Thanks for reading. If anybody was at all affected by the contents of this blog and needs somebody to talk to, those in the UK can call Samaritans on 116 123.

If you are struggling, there is no need to suffer in silence. Whether a friend, family member, or medical professional, you can always reach out to somebody. We seriously are, all in it together.

All the best,

Shaun.

x

#MenAreTrash and the shackles of gender

Opening a can of worms.

Sexual difference is probably the issue in our time which could be our ‘salvation’ if we thought it through.

Luce Irigaray

As I sit down to write this blog post for what is now the second time I can’t help but hesitate. It might just be the lingering pain of having had my 1600 word blog post fail to save that’s got me hesitating to put word to page. It’s true, after losing over two hours of work I wasn’t overly excited to start over.

But no. There is something far deeper keeping me from putting my thoughts out there.

You see, of all the topics out there, few court controversy in the same way debates over gender differences and feminism do. Quite rightly, this is an extremely important topic to many, and lots hold very strong beliefs in regards to what “feminism” should be.

To make matters worse, there is a relative stigma held against individuals such as myself having a say. You see, not so surprisingly, women don’t tend to like having men tell them how they should feel! Who’d have thought…

For the most part, I can understand this. A large part of the feminist movement is about taking control. This control isn’t merely practical in nature. No. It’s academic as well. It’s discursive. A large part of the feminist movement looks to providing a voice to the voiceless. Men have been the authors of our societal discourse for a long time, and through feminism we aim to see this status quo relinquished.

It is as Luce Irigaray states,

If we continue to speak this sameness, if we speak together as men have spoken for centuries, as they taught us to speak, we will fail each other.

Luce Irigaray, When Our Lips Speak Together

A large part of feminism is replacing our masculine language, with a new feminine tongue. For too long, the female identity has been trapped within a damaging male discourse. You may be wondering…

Why the sudden talk of politics? Isn’t this blog about mental health? Can’t you get off that soap box?

Well, since its origins, the role of the unconscious has been entangled within our conceptions of gender. Many of the symptoms that plague us in later life, can emerge from struggles of gender and identity. So feminism, a movement driven by these very things has a significant impact on the mental health of us all. In fact, any movements that shift the way things are discussed within society will have a knock on effect upon our wellbeing.

Don’t believe me? Look back to the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

For Lacan, an individual’s psyche is formed in a delicate dance between our desires, physical reality and the symbolic order of our language.

The symbolic order, for those not cool enough to stay up late flicking through Lacan’s Ecrits, is the system of linguistics and societal relations in which we find ourselves. It is the rules of society. It is language.

This can be seen as a growth from Sigmund Freud who coined the super-ego: the part of our unconscious in which ethics and moral understanding take shape. Lacan expanded upon this by linking it explicitly to those around us. Our subjectivity, is formed within the inter-subjectivity of those around us.

So when Luce Irigaray talks of speaking “sameness”, she is referring to the female identity being formed within a language created by men. Obviously, this isn’t great, and has had some less than desirable outcomes.

So up to this point, you can probably imagine I am very pro-feminism and would support most feminist movements. But well…

The flip-side:

There have been numerous movements in recent years railing against what has been dubbed, toxic masculinity.

For example, the #metoo movement. This, according to Wikipedia, is “a movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault“. It involved numerous women sharing the hashtag “#metoo” alongside descriptions of their experiences. There are obvious benefits to this.

It fights the stigma around women’s perceived weakness over their victim-hood and allows them to feel safe in opening up about their experiences. As a result, issues long hidden within our society were brought to the surface and can now be dealt with accordingly.

Another such movement, is the #menaretrash movement. Similar to the #metoo movement, this one sees its origins in South Africa. It was a rallying cry for the female victims of domestic violence within the country. Again, it brought to light a huge issue and has opened the door to change.

This has spread from South Africa – thanks in large part to twitter – and has grown into a global movement. Whilst often focused on violence specifically, it has now been expanded in many cases to look at all forms of toxic masculinity in society. Basically, it’s a big old arrow pointing at all the ways us men continue to be shit.

And believe me… There are a lot!

So again! What’s my issue?

This is the part where many similar arguments would simply state that such a movement relies on sweeping generalisations. That millions of good men can’t be held accountable for the bad ones out there. I could even make oversimplified, straw-man arguments, such as saying how saying #menaretrash, would be no different to creating a #muslimsaretrash in response to the treatment of women within Sharia law, or to terrorism. It would ignore the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are fantastic, loving individuals and blame the many, for the sickening actions of the few.

Whilst this can be argued – you can argue anything – it is overly defensive, childish, and you may simply retort that it ignores the obvious, unspoken acceptance that not all men are in fact trash.

My issue goes far deeper. My issue is that, such a dialogue creates an unhealthy atmosphere for men and women alike. We have already concluded that the dialogues around us have an important role in the formation of our identity. Well, what effect does a discourse in which #menaretrash, and repeatedly shown as the enemy, have on their wellbeing?

There seems to be a growing identity of the woman as a victim, and of men as having it easy. In her article, What Women Mean When We Say ‘Men Are Trash’ Salma El-Wardany declares that,

By that I mean, women have been playing with ideas and constructs of womanhood and girlhood since we popped out of the womb and were shoved in a pink blanket. We have constantly grappled with our gender […] On the other side of the spectrum, boys were never asked, ‘what type of man will you be?’ 

Salma El-Wardany

Such a statement shows a staggering lack of empathy. Men suffer greatly from toxic masculinity, just as women do. Whilst it may not be in the physical sense, they do internally. The ONS found that three quarters of all suicides in 2018 were from men.

There is a mental health epidemic when it comes to men.

Not only have they grown in a society trying to match up to some unobtainable idea of masculinity, and live up to the pressures that all that entails, they are now being attacked for being what society has told them they should be.

Talk about psychological whiplash. Fucking hell!

You think I’m exaggerating, El-Wardany even says,

masculinity is in transition and it’s not moving f**king fast enough

Salma El-Wardany

I’m sorry if we haven’t been unpicking decades of cultural reinforcement fast enough, if we haven’t re-calibrated our very conceptions of our identities as soon as you would like. It is no wonder men are lost.

They are not being guided, not being given a new discourse. They are merely told that everything they thought they should be is rubbish.

For men to truly change in a healthy manner, they need a discourse – an identity to latch onto. They need more than an attack on what has come before. It is for this reason I believe #menaretrash is counterproductive. If you attack them, and they feel lost, they are more likely to double down on what they know. They may lash out more, or, in some cases fall into mental illness.

Healthy identities cannot be formed in a discourse of battle. Of us and them. For men to truly become better, we need to change the conversation. We need a dialogue built upon empathy between the sexes.

It is for this the reason I strongly believe successful feminism cannot be the domain of women only. We need a new feminism. A union between the genders, a language from both sides.

Before I finish, I would like to share a speech I have long found inspiring:

I understand some may disagree with me and that is fine. I am not trying to make excuses for men, or say that there isn’t lots for us still to do. Far from it. We have so much left to do.

I just believe that….

Telling us off might not be the answer.

But instead that talking. Really talking. Might just be a start.

All the best,

Shaun.

x

Expectations: A barrier to progress?

My Journey to becoming a counsellor.

Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.

Alexander Pope

In taking the steps I have towards training as a counsellor and therapist, there is one thing that almost stopped me in my tracks. The biggest hurdle I have had to pass in reaching this point is nothing more than my own expectations.

It’s true. Of everything that has held me back, I can think of nothing greater than the crippling choke hold of expectations.

Allow me to explain. After coming out of university, I entered into a long term relationship before training as a teacher. Eventually, I did as is expected at any such a juncture in your life: I proposed. In terms of one’s expectations for where they should be in life, I was doing great!

Career? Sorted!

Wedding bells? Sorted!

Not to blow one’s own trumpet, but I had things fucking made. I was exactly where I had always expected to be at this stage in my life. Then why was it that I was struggling so much? Despite being exactly where I thought I should be: I was wracked with anxiety, suffering with near constant migraines.

It would appear, that meeting one’s expectations of where they should be, doesn’t necessarily lead to them feeling happy or fulfilled. It took me a lot of soul searching, time to myself, and a bit of counselling to realise that the reason I had fallen to such lows was a disconnect between my expectations and desires.

It is easy to confuse expectations for desires. To assume they work in tandem. The issue arises when you realise that expectations are learnt. There is a social component. These expectations as are what you’re taught to believe you should have. I believed at 25 I should be in a career, looking to get married. I should be setting roots!

These expectations grew from the world around me. My friends were all in long term relationships either getting married or engaged. My brother had married at a young age and I came from your traditional household with parents who had long been happily married.

As a result, the road map was clear to me. I should be getting married, pursuing my career and preparing for a family. Anything but this would be tantamount to failure. The issue of these expectations was that they amounted to a form of psychological mutilation at the time. I didn’t want this, I just believed I should. So I was forcing myself into a life into which I wasn’t ready to fit.

The anxiety… The migraines….

These were my unconscious desires acting out. They had been cast aside for the false desires created for me by society. Fuck what you want innermost feelings! This is how things are supposed to go. What do you know?

So yes, as you can probably see, expectations can certainly take a negative toll on one’s psyche. As Loretta Breuning Ph.D writes,


“a pothole in the road causes huge anxiety if you drive right into it, but if you see it in advance it’s manageable. So anxiety is caused by the expectation of a flat road when that fails to fit the facts.”

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/your-neurochemical-self/201608/stop-anxiety-adjusting-expectations

According to Breuning, the body has a biological response to when expectations fail, leading to the onset of anxiety. This process initially serves an evolutionary purpose, allowing a young child to craft expectations to ward off danger in later life. Unfortunately, as the human mind grows evermore complex, the results of this defensive mechanism can often work against us.

As can be seen from my story, this failure to “fit the facts”, can extend from our physical reality, to our emotional reality as well. The interesting part of what happened to me, is that physically, the road was as expected, the potholes were emotional. Expectations, built from external factors, failed to account for my internal hard-wiring. Sometimes it seems you just can’t trust evolutionary biology…

The issue is, even upon realising this, going against years of expectations ain’t easy! As Breuning goes on to say,

“Realigning expectations and blazing a new trail is hard. This can inhibit positive progress.”

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/your-neurochemical-self/201608/stop-anxiety-adjusting-expectations

It is not easy to shift one’s expectations. In fact, it is far easier to fall back into them. Just think how hard it can be to travel somewhere new without a map. It’s scary! Nobody likes to feel lost, and when you’re realigning your expectations for life, you’re always going to for a time.

The thing I will say is this. It is worth it. You have to feel lost to find yourself. You are far better off going it alone, free of expectations – as scary as that may seem – and forging your own way than trying to fit to a rigid, anxiety inducing, predefined path. Try not to be led by anxieties, as much as your own values and desires.

Will you make mistakes?

FUCK YES! A SHIT TON! But mistakes are easy to live with when you make them for the right reasons. You’ll cope. You’d be amazed at how the resilient the human mind is when working through the problems it chooses. It’s when wading through other people’s shit it struggles. It’s the prescribed trauma that kills. The stuff you have no say in.

I guess that’s my conclusion after all of this. It’s all about having authority over your own journey. Not relinquishing control to societal expectations, but following your own desires, as hard and as scary as this may seem.

Thanks for taking the time to read my rambling thoughts. I hope at the very least you’ve found it interesting if not useful. I would love to hear your own stories about dealing with expectations and the conclusions you’ve come to.

All the best,

Shaun.

x

Stop the Clocks: Enter Shikari on finding grounding in modernity

MENTAL HEALTH IN MUSIC

Without music, life would be a mistake…

Friedrich Nietzsche

This morning I woke up to a beautiful surprise. Little to my knowledge, one of my favourite bands Enter Shikari had recently released a new single. Whilst this is undoubtedly great news, I can imagine you’re wondering how this has anything whatsoever to do with my blog on mental health.

Well…

Maybe it’s just that I’m obsessed with the fantastic specimen of a human being that is Rou Reynolds and will use any excuse to talk about him. I’m not going to deny this. But beyond that, in listening to this song I couldn’t help but be taken aback by the massive cultural relevance of the lyrics. Throughout the song, the band dance not only with super cool lighting, but with some very important themes about mental health within our modern society.

This is far from the first time Enter Shikari have spoken out about themes regarding mental health and well-being within their music. In fact, it was only in May of this year that Rou Reynolds opened up about his anxiety, and the position of mental health within music as a part of Mental Health Awareness week.

Download Festival interviews Rou Reynolds – Mental Health in Music

Beyond this, it has been explored explicitly in songs such as Shinrin-yoku and An Ode to Lost Jigsaw Pieces on their recent album The Spark. With very personal lyrics such as, “I was so scared of confronting the world alone, fear put me in a headlock and dragged me back from the unknown” the band shift from the politics ridden angst they’re known for, to heartfelt vulnerability. Given the band’s background and genre, this could be seen as an extremely brave shift. No longer are they shouting for a 93 year old woman to take a “good fucking swing” at war criminal ex politicians, but sharing a degree of subtle intimacy.

This might not seem like much. But for someone like Rou Reynolds, to open up in such a public way about his experiences of mental health must have been frightening.

Now, back to their new single. I simply had to stop and discuss it as I found some of the topics broached extremely interesting, and a helpful point of discussion for us in the modern day. Before I go on to discuss this, if you haven’t already seen their new music video – in which case you’re missing out – you may wish to check it out below:

Stop the Clocks by Enter Shikari – Directed by Polygon

At a first listen, the song may sound like some generic feel good electronic infused rock. The opening refrain,

Stop the clocks
Stop the clocks, I’m killing time
I don’t ever want this to end
And you say “that makes two of us”

comes across as your standard celebration of two individuals having a good time. With the energetic rhythm making you want to dance along you can’t be blamed for thinking the song is rehashing the old gimmick of wanting a fun evening’s exploits to go on forever. It is interesting that this is the chorus repeated throughout. It is the high impact heart of the song. The part that stands out most. For all intents and purposes… It’s the shiny exterior.

It’s only once one listens carefully to the verses – something that may be missed if simply going along for the ride – that you realise something far deeper is being discussed:

There’s a cinema in me
It plays counterfeit scenes
All my worries and blunders

This metaphor of an internal cinema playing out his “worries and blunders” beautifully highlights the inner voice of somebody suffering from anxiety. Interestingly, is the fact it is specified these scenes are “counterfeit”. This highlights one of the worst parts of somebody’s anxieties. Whilst those suffering often know on a surface level what is being told to them is lie, they can’t help but be plagued by it. They see their memories in the worst possible light, unable to escape the worries of even menial things that have come to pass.

The mental state of the narrator is further expanded upon as he sings,

Where’s this present you speak of?
Where’s this heavenly bliss?
I’m so sick of time travel

Here we have the idea that time is running away from us. We are shown an individual lost in his anxieties, who has lost a sense of control as if time is racing ahead without him. This is only emphasised as he declares that, “all your life, its moments missed.” There is a palpable sense of dread, or panic within the lyrics.

We are shown an individual in desperate need of grounding.

For those unaware, grounding is the concept of being rooted within the present moment. One can use various “grounding exercises” such as mindful breathing, or turning your focus to the weight of your body and physical reality of your situation. These exercises can be used as a sense of panic begins to set in to bring somebody back into the present moment, and force them out of an anxious cycle.

Basically, when the cinema of counterfeit scenes that is your thoughts becomes too much, grounding can be used to whip you out of these negatives thought patterns back into a feeling of calm. It can help slow things down when everything around you seems to be going too fast.

Whilst grounding is never explicitly stated, it is both seen within the video and spoken of within the lyrics. As he states, “Give me coordinates please, I look for a safe harbour”, one could read this as a declaration that he requires grounding. He needs to be rooted to the present moment as his feelings are slipping out of control. He needs, to quote the name of the song, “stop the clocks”.

The second place it is seen is at the 2 minutes 51 mark of the video. Rou is seen sat in a meditative stance before a TV showing himself. The music fades out until the TV screen goes blank and his eyes open. This simple visual metaphor shows a real life grounding technique literally turning off his internal cinema. It is no surprise then that it is immediately followed by the upbeat rhythm of the chorus. The clock has been stopped….

So there you have it. The means in which psychological grounding is explored within the song and music video. There is one further aspect I find interesting however, and that is how it relates to our modern society.

This section of my analysis may be a stretch, who knows, it may just be the literature graduate in me, but I feel there is a large section of the video that highlights how our modern technology helps to invoke such anxiety. Throughout the video television screens are shown, and beyond that… the colour blue.

This blue lightning is reminiscent of the digital blue light from computer screens. There has been lots of research into blue light, and its effects on our sleep patterns and overall mental health. Long story short, it ain’t great!

The opening shot of the video shows Rou, eyes closed as if attempting to sleep, in front of a static covered television emitting blue light. As it pans out we see he is within another screen, this one within another, and another etc.

My proposal, is that the video is highlighting the way in which technology is taking control of our lives. We are unable to find grounding in a world so invested with the blue light of technology.

In fact, It is only the mid point of the song in which the television is turned off, Rou is offered some sense of relief. Interestingly, the light is at this stage emitted from his eyes. Could this be a metaphor for finding salvation internally, rather than through technology?

Well, I really don’t know for sure. But I definitely find it interesting to discuss. I know there are further aspects of the video and lyrics I have missed. If you have any thoughts feel free to comment them below or message me your ideas.

I have really enjoyed writing this. Music is a fantastic form of expression, and there are so many brilliant songs exploring themes around mental health. I would definitely be interested in doing more of these in the future. If you have any ideas for songs I should look into, again, share them and I’ll see what I can do.

Thanks for sticking with me through this. If it hasn’t been helpful to you, I hope you’ve found it interesting at the very least.

All the best,

Shaun.

x

https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/blog/how-blue-light-affects-mental-health

What brought me to the “Be Better Blog”

My Journey to becoming a counsellor

I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.

— Carl Jung.

As I sit down, not only to write this blog, but to begin the long journey towards qualifying as a certified counsellor, I can’t help but consider the things that have brought me here today.

Of course there is the bigger picture: the fact that mental health is one of the biggest issues facing our society at this time. It is estimated that 1 in 6 people in the last week alone would have experienced some form of mental health problem. There is the fact that depression is thought to be the second leading cause of disability worldwide, or that in 2018 a staggering 93% of young adults polled reported having felt “overwhelmed or unable to cope within the past year”, or that suicide continues to be the most common cause of death for young men in both England and Wales.1

These are just some of the statistics that go to show how issues relating to mental health are some of the biggest facing our generation today. I could go on. It only takes a short search to see the far reaching ramifications of the mental health crisis and its effects upon us all.

But it is not only the negatives that attract me to this course of action. Not only is it a time of great struggle, but one of great hope. Whilst a large amount of the stigma around discussing mental health still remains, we are beginning to fight back against this. We now see issues surrounding topics such as suicide, anxiety, body image and depression entering into public discourse.

Those that suffer, do not always do so in silence.

I have seen individuals struggling with thoughts of suicide feeling safe enough to share their stories through social media. Whilst it is still horrible they are having to go through such struggles, it is hugely comforting to know that we are moving towards a culture in which they feel free to speak out, and their strength is something I can’t help but look up to.

As prevalent as issues surrounding poor mental health are, I can’t help but feel optimistic in regards to the direction things are going. Even if at times it seems like we’re swimming in shit, the tides are definitely changing. It’s like somebody keeps punching you in the face. It hurts. It fucking hurts. But if you look carefully enough, between the fists smashing repeatedly into your battered nostrils, you can just about make it out. You’re not alone. You’re not the only one, it’s the same for us all. And whilst it sucks that we’re all still getting punched in the face, you feel a bit better knowing you’re not the only one.

What a beautiful future it is. One where we are all being punched together. Unity in pain.

Silliness aside, I am serious. Despite society’s imperfections, I sincerely believe we’re going in the right direction. I work on a busy sales floor. The kind of place where competition and targets are king. In times gone by, any talk of feelings would be unheard of in such a place. But during my time at work I have discussed topics regarding mental health and well-being with numerous colleagues. Whilst a stigma remains, it is slipping. Communication is winning, and with it, we are better equipped to fight against issues revolving around poor mental health.

So yes, I find myself not only drawn towards this course of action by the growing necessity for change, but the shift in gears towards it. We are simultaneously living through a mental health crisis and revolution… And I simply have to play my part.

A bit about me.

My life has struggled somewhat in terms of direction. If I had to describe it in a single word, aimless comes to mind. At university I took English. Why? I likes it. Not for any specific purpose in regards to career, I simply enjoyed it. After uni I briefly considered doing a PhD, that didn’t last. I got a job at a school and before I knew it, I was training to become a teacher. Why? Why not!

For the most part, I did love teaching. One thing is certain, young people are fucking awesome! They’re hilarious, full of energy and always guaranteed to make you think, “What the fuck?” at least once a day.

The issue came with the school system itself. I find it interesting that the place we send our children for most of their time growing up, is a breeding ground for stress and anxiety. I saw pupils and teachers alike all struggling. The workloads drilling into the psyches of the teachers, which then filtered down into their classes. If I learnt one thing it’s this… Schools are toxic, and I had to get out.

After I left teaching I felt like I’d lost myself. I left my fiancée and my mental health suffered. My head was racked with migraines from the stress and anxiety. It took months of soul searching and even some counselling for me to feel anywhere close to myself. After a while I began to feel “well” again. I was able to live my life without thinking I might pass out, or die at any minute from whatever tumour I’d decided had taken root in my brain.

It is at this point I took some time to just be me. This consisted of:

  • Getting punched.
  • Jumping over some fire. (For reasons…)
  • And running further than anybody should really run…

Throughout this time I began to feel so much better. I wasn’t stressing over things and began to love what I was doing. The issue came with work. I love my hobbies and my life, but work just seems so empty. I tried to join the Navy but failed the medical due to my anxiety and ended up working in call centres. Whilst I am making money, it just seems so meaningless.

So this is where I am today. This is what has led to Be Better and my decision to train as a counsellor. In wondering where I want to take my life, I realised something. The last few years have been built around finding myself and learning to live my best possible life. From running ultras, to stepping into the boxing ring, I have focussed on pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and always reaching for new heights.

I am one of the fortunate ones. After slipping to my lowest point, I have come out the other side stronger than ever before. It is for this reason I want to work towards helping others make the most of their lives. Each day I push myself to be better. Whether that means running further, breaking new ground, or simply realising the pain I sometimes feel is a normal part of everyday life, and use this to take ownership of my struggles without ever allowing them to define me.

This has taken the help of my friends, family and an incredible support network that surrounds me. Not everybody has this, and sometimes those that do, aren’t able to realise it. By stepping into the world of counselling I hope to help others to navigate the paths that lay before them. I can’t ever offer all the answers. But hopefully, I can point others in the direction of the questions that matter.

This blog is my contract.

In writing this blog, I hope to take ownership of my future. In sharing my goals I hope to maintain the necessary accountability in seeing them through to fruition. I shall be posting updates on my training, and journey to certification. The ups and inevitable downs.

I also hope to share my own advice alongside discussing various topics in relation to mental health and well-being. Am I an expert? Fuck no!

But is anyone truly an expert in living well? Who knows.

We’re just a group of fools taking punches to the face, and maybe, just maybe…

When we share our experiences, we can all pull through this together.

Shaun.

X

For anyone struggling, who feels they may need some extra support, stay strong, here are some numbers you may wish to try:

Anxiety UK – 03444 775 774

Calm (For men aged 15-35) – 0800 58 58 58

Mind – 0300 123 3393

Samaritans – 116 123

Rethink Mental Illness – 0300 5000 927

1 https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics/mental-health-statistics-suicide (Accessed 16th August 2019)