Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 - The Year I Overcame OCD

The year’s end is a pertinent time for reflection, and such personal reflections belong more in a personal journal than a self-indulgent blog post. I don’t intend to run through highlights, lowlights, top-10s or any of that shit, but it was a significant year as far as my OCD and anxiety goes. And a primary purpose of this blog is to document my recovery from those afflictions.

Indeed, 2011 was the year I beat down my OCD, from a menacing beast to a humble, quiet dog. A little black dog that still lets out a yelp or two, but sits, largely restrained, in the corner. It may return – almost certainly will threaten to – but I now have the tools to manage it. Mild anxiety still lingers at times, and probably always will, but I continue to pursue a calm, happy life, knowing now that I can. The dog's days are over.

Most important was the understanding that recovery was not a fight (as depression so often is) but rather the ability to accept and let go, rather than waste tense energy fighting, which merely gave strength to my demons.

I’m now almost eight years into my ‘recovery’ so the progress made this year has been a long time coming. Where did it come from? I can’t fully know. Partly from the natural desire to change as time passes and the implications of resisting change become more uncomfortable.

It’s fair to say the acceleration in recovery was kick-started by a girl I became close friends with late in 2010. She understood me like few, if any, other people I have ever known and demonstrated the required tough lover to unashamedly and relentlessly push me in the right direction.

In January this year she walked away. So 2011 started amidst a fog of heartache and confusion; yet through it I could sense a newfound notion of clarity, and was equipped with a determination to pursue it now that I knew in which direction to head.

I started yoga in November 2010, at her behest, but moved to a new studio early this year. Yoga was something I’d long considered, and quickly saw the benefits. Some of those first classes taught and forced me to let go of my OCD/anxiety safety net (my mental compulsions) and were emotionally challenging to say the least.

Once I settled into my new studio in Hawthorn, which is a fantastic place run by friendly instructors, I gradually got into a routine habit. I came to crave the peacefulness it provides and sought to translate it into everyday life. Compared to this time last year I have a clearer mind, sharper focus, better health and fitness, and calmer thought through (finally) successfully practicing of mindfulness and being better able to let go of irrational, obsessive and unwanted thoughts. I have changed long-ingrained thought processes, something that takes time and effort but it enormously rewarding.

Yoga didn’t necessarily teach me anything I didn’t know about my OCD and anxiety or how to combat it, it just helped me (enormously) to put the pieces together, and forced me to let go of those damn compulsive thoughts, thus minimising the obsessive part.

2011 was also the year of my grand ‘coming out’. After telling all to this blog, in April I was featured on a Hungry Beast story on OCD. Other telling immediate family and a few select friends, I didn’t make a big deal about it being on, but the response from people who saw it was amazing. Even in the last couple of weeks I’ve had a former colleague tell me she saw it but wasn’t sure what to say at the time (when we worked together). With the secret out, a massive burden lifted from my shoulders and my perspective shifted. No longer was this in any way something I battled alone and bottled up. People, friends and strangers, actually contacted me for advice. I felt in a very good place and wondered why I’d been so secretive about my depression in the first place; but really I know – there are millions of people still out there, including people I know, no doubt, battling on in silence, unaware that there is far more help and understanding waiting for them than they realise.

Unfortunately, my TV appearance did not lead to stardom…

As a result of all of this, 2011 has been the best year of my life. I have achieved more than any other year so far. I’ve written more, read more, exercised more and played (even recorded!) more music. I got a great new job. I’m the fittest I’ve been in my adult life. I am surrounded by beautiful and inspirational people.

And I can only expect 2012 will be even better. I have much more growth and progress left in me, and some exciting challenges for the coming year. I don’t ever want to be a ‘grown up’, it implies no room left to grow – growth and learning are what life is about. I’ve learnt so much from my experience with OCD and anxiety; I never want to live through the worst of it again, but I wouldn’t remove it from my past.

I’m not going to go into goals and resolutions for 2012. I have a few things I’m focusing on – better and more regular writing, being more assertive, continuing my mental health improvement, maybe drinking less…

But I don’t believe in resolutions as such. The end of the year is an opportune time to reflect, and 1 January is a milestone date, but not one to be used as motivation for change. If you have identified necessary change, now is the time, not on New Year’s Day. I don’t know, I just feel like those milestones just provide excuses to put things off, and demand sustained change, where it often takes a few tries.

Anyway, happy New Years to anyone reading this. Thanks for dropping by during the year, I’ve enjoyed it. There’ll be more to come in 2012.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas!

Not Season's Greetings, Merry Christmas.

I'm not religious (anymore) but it will always be 'Christmas' for me. That is what it is, and what it has become is an all-inclusive holiday anyway; consumerism has done more to take Jesus out of Christmas than any leftist school or council looking to appease non-Christians. Whether or not he had an almighty Dad, Jesus seems to have been a pretty cool guy, so he can keep the naming rights for mine.

That rant behind me, I think I've become much less 'scroogey' in recent years. Not only because of the fact my niece and nephew are reaching the age where they actually know - and remember - if I bought them something (and something they actually like). I'm kinda tired of just railing against what I don't like about what Christmas has become. Yes the focus on shopping makes me sick, our love of the white-Christmas American carols from the 1950's makes me cringe a little and I will battle through another Christmas Day with people I'm obliged to spend time with rather than those I'd most like to.

But there is a lot to make you smile in these chaotic weeks leading up to the big day. I love the way it brings people together. I've been lucky enough to spend some time with almost everyone that's important to me in recent weeks. I've imbibed too much, but laughed, hugged, cheers'd and shared smiles with people more than any other month of the year. That's pretty special. You can't wrap that.

Since moving out of home five years ago I haven't had the decorations around at home. This year was the first that I found myself pining for it a bit. The Christmas rebellion in me is fading. Maybe I'm subconsciously preparing for a family in coming years...

Tomorrow I will enjoy hearing some of those old classic carols and thinking about the differently exciting Christmas' of my childhood. Then I will tire of them as they reach their third rotation and Bing Crosby's voice turns from suave to savage on my brain, and I'll attempt to put on some Dirty Three late in the afternoon when everyone is getting sleepy from the big lunch and booze.

I will be embarrassed handing over the presents I bought my family, especially the kids, not fearing my attempts at something special backfired famously. I will try to avoid watching the kids open theirs, as only one has learnt the importance of polite thanks. But I will burn off many Christmas lunch calories playing with them and enjoy watching them enjoy whatever toy is their new favourite - temporarily letting their smiles and excitement push aside my nagging social conscience and the humbug fact they already have many more toys than they'll ever need... It's not their fault after all!

And, of course, I'll eat like a pig - especially the pig, savouring the sweet crackling my mum does so well! - and make a hypocrit of that supposed social conscience anyway.

I'll cherish the time with my immediate family, and make the best of the other obligatory conversations. These people are part of me after all. Throughout the day I'll send text messages to the close friends and compare our days, and no doubt check Facebook and Twitter too much. I'll think of others I'd like to see on the day. I will desperately miss my brother in America - the old drinking buddy who helped me through the day in years past - and hope his young family are with us in the next year or two.

It is not my favourite day of the year. Not by a long way. But it is still pretty special.

And why be a humbug when there's so much to enjoy?

Merry Christmas

Mien famillie


Human Rights in Asia

First few paragraphs of another piece for Right Now, full article on their website.

"In a time of rapid change, human rights continue to be a central concern in Asia.

On 7 December, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, Elaine Pearson, and SBS’s Dateline presenter, Mark Davis, discussed human rights issues in the region – focusing on Sri Lanka, Burma, the Philippines and West Papua – and Australia’s response, at a session entitled “Human Rights in Asia – Situations of Concern”.

Opening the discussion, Davis noted that the governments of Australia, America and Europe have lost “their moral authority on key issues like torture, unlawful imprisonment and the torment of refugees” in recent years, and he now holds greater faith in lawyers as defenders of human rights internationally."

The rest ...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Travelling with anxiety, and why I'm at it again

Here I am again.

When I started writing this, 'here' was the international departure lounge at Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport. Three dollars only got me so long. The way my mind operates, I need much longer than 'only so long' to filter my thoughts and feelings into a somewhat comprehendible blog post.

Approximately 45 hours later I now sit alone in the swank, empty house of a friend, somewhere in New Delhi. After 33 hours or so in transit - including a 14 hour stopover in Doha, having flown past India only to fly back - I arrived in Delhi at about 4am. In the darkness and utter chaos of the early morning Delhi streets - I mean, why have lanes, indicators, speed limits, or rules at all if they're widely ignored! - it was impossible to get any sense of bearings. With my friend away until tomorrow on business I had about ten hours to myself before heading to Varanasi, leaving this little cocoon and finally get a true taste, smell, feel of India. I am excited and cautious.

As always Mum and Dad dropped me at the airport. This is one of the most excruciating parts my overseas journeys. It's convenient, but the goodbye lingers so long and their undisguised anxiety - particularly my mother's, who unintentionally bestowed upon me my own natural anxiety but - makes me tense. After checking in I graciously allowed them to buy me a 'coffee' (hot chocolate) and we held stunted conversation. I do love them dearly, I just wanted the goodbyes out of the way so I could relax for the long flight. As we hugged and I turned towards the doors through to customs, Mum said, 'We love you Sam' in that in case anything happens kind of way. Well intentioned as it was, this made me feel neither assured or additionally loved. Just tense and reactive. I told her I didn't want her stressing - firstly its making her unwell, thirdly I'm away for a total of three weeks in India and the USA and they're more likely to be in an car accident while I'm away than I am to be seriously harmed, and most importantly I didn't want to be worrying about their worrying and at such times almost callously refuse to encourage it.

Truth is I am carrying a mild anxiety - one that wasn't aided on Sunday night before I flew out by my four year old nephew presenting me with a drawing that was an early birthday present (next week). 'It's a bee called Sam,' he said, 'and it's dead'.

'It's a bee?' I asked graciously.
'Yeah a bee called Sam. And it's dead,' he said without a smile but with genuine love, unaware that this had the potential to freak me the fuck out.

This is my first overseas trip in a little over two years. By the end of the last one, a five week trip to Canada and the USA, I was a mental wreck and not sure I would leave Australian shores by myself again.

I should really have known. I remember sitting in the departure lounge at Tullamarine writing in my journal that I wasn't really sure why I was undertaking the journey. Yes, it was to visit my brother for the second time in three years, as well as a Canadian friend that I had previously quite fancied, carrying on with plans made between her, myself and a mutual friend from England who had earlier pulled out without much explanation. I also had a few days planned in Vegas with a friend from home that were so much fun we missed our flight out. And I genuinely wanted to see the Canadian Rockies.

However, I spent much of that trip alone. Solitude was something I had looked forward to, especially in such beautiful and cultural places as Vancouver, Quebec and the Canadian Rockies.

I was aware of the possible impact of prolonged isolation after my month-long trip to Britain a year earlier had brought me emotionally unstuck. But I believed there were other issues at play there. The first week was spend with the same English and Canadian friends and it was here I confessed to the Canadian I quite liked her. She rejected me in the soft and super friendly way that only Canadians know how. But I was now alone for the best part of three weeks and my melancholic, irrational mind had already bolted. And I hadn't the tools to reign it in, especially without the distraction of familiar connections.

By 2009 I was back in regular touch with my shrink and making progress. I was also off medication. It was decided the one I had been on wasn't working and we gave 'going clean' a brief trial. A sufferer of anxiety possibly shouldn't have exposed myself to the harsh mental terrain of prolonged solidarity in this circumstance. But, as I said, I was doing relatively well (for the time) and both myself and my psychologist thought it would be good for me. Still, while I was excited for all the fun, beautiful and adventurous things, I still wasn't aware of a true reason for going. Did I really need one though? Travel is what everyone does when they get the opportunity.

It was a disaster. The first few days, with my brother in San Francisco and friend in Vegas, were good - at times highly enjoyable. I flew with my friend, on a newly arranged flight, to Vancouver where we spent a day or so together and went our separate ways. I felt like I needed space anyway, as I always tend to when travelling with people, so I wasn't concerned at the time. But the wheels quickly started to shake. All sorts of doubts and irrational thoughts entered my mind, chipping away at my confidence, bringing back old methods of reassurance that served only to feed the beast and push my anxiety to levels not experienced for some time. When this starts there are only two ways for it to end: you find a way to let the thoughts go, or you battle them until they break you and slam you to your rock bottom where you finally find the exhaustion to no longer care and move on. The latter is the easy option in the moment, but obviously can be extremely painful mentally and eat up a lot of valuable time. Unfortunately I'd yet to fully understand the importance of letting go of thoughts, let alone the tools for doing so.

I started counting the days until I could get home, and anxiously waited for hours to pass when I should have been relaxing or enjoying the adventure of a foreign city. Even staying with my friend near Toronto for a few days didn't offer any mental relief. I think escape was still too far away.

About a week before the end of the trip I emailed my psychologist telling him I wasn't sure I could last the next seven days. I made plans in my head to abruptly head home if it got to that point. He reassured me. From thousands of kilometres away, it provided only mild comfort.

A few days later I returned to Vancouver (as planned) and joined a Moose Tour of the Canadian Rockies. I had been off medication for my own anxiety and OCD for a few months and seemed to be doing alright but it all fell apart early in the trip. The resumption of real, meaningful interaction with people and some amazingly beautiful natural surroundings offered the genuine distraction from my thoughts and circuit breaker I needed to move on a little. My mood improved mildly, but I was still keen to get home. When I did, I questioned the value of such travel by myself and realised I will never do the extended tour of Europe that is a pre-requisite for many young Australians. That doesn't bother me, I'm too old now anyway, but I do want to see the world.

Two years on and here I am, temporarily alone and in India of all places to test myself. A challenge, yes, but with the connections and accommodation I have it is far from doing it rough or unsupported. In the past two years I have also made the most significant progress of my life in terms of my mental health. Firstly, I started in new medication when I got home from that trip in 2009, which seems to be the best so far. And twelve months ago I discovered yoga, mindfulness and meditation which has calmed my racing, anxious mind and given me the tools to let go of unwanted, unnecessary and - most importantly - irrational thoughts. Though I'm still learning how to use those tools properly.

I've also learnt through experiences on a road trip last year and, more pertinently, in Perth this year that I need to look after myself to stay on top of it all. That primarily means ensuring I'm well rested, healthy and take my meds.

The next three weeks while undoubtedly throw up various challenges, particularly in periods of isolation, which are no longer than two days this time, but there will be plenty to enjoy about the wonderful and wild adventure (especially over the next six days in India) if I can maintain the right frame of mind. I'm in a far better state of mind and mental health than I was one, two, three and more years ago, and I intend to maintain it! I am thoroughly looking forward to seeing my friends and family: here in India, the (same) English gal and another Canadian friend in New York and Washington, and my brother yet again in San Francisco.

And I am looking forward to the inevitable challenges. It begins now.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Wondering about weddings

People marry for all sorts of reasons: to celebrate love; express a lifelong commitment; fulfil a perceived moral or religious obligation; lose virginity; monetary, legal or tax benefits; national residency; as a splendid, expensive excuse for a piss up with (or rather, for) friends; or because it’s just what couples after a certain time.

Pardon the mild cynicism. Truth is, I’m a hopeless romantic; truly, truly hopeless.

Many young girls dream about their wedding day, and I was often no different ... just a boy. Amid torturous crushes I'd sometimes imagine the girl, looking absolutely gorgeous, walking down the aisle towards me in a grand old church.

A church. Loads of people have walked away from practising religion, yet go back to it for marriage (a legal more than religious instituion these days), making vows they aren't necessarily even likely to attempt such as "accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church". No! They will choose to have children, and hopefully bring them up in accordance to the laws of love, respect, empathy and integrity. These may be the laws of Christ, but why not fspell them out, because many people have a funny idea of how Christ wanted us to act.
Even after strolling away from the Church and its ordinary old men in my teens [NB. there are some awesome people in the church - they just don't seem to have/want/need high positions], the presumption of a wedding in a church stuck with me unquestioned until a long-term girlfriend, who was headstrong and agnostic, challenged this ingrained thought. 
The doors flung wide open a couple of years later upon seeing a photos of a beach wedding that a Canadian friend attended in the Dominican Republic. It looked amazing, perfect. So wonderfully simple and beautiful, everyone happy, naked sun shining on the lovely couple.

Last Friday, I found myself in a suburban church tuning in and out of a sermon being delivered by a priest – who has vowed not to have intimate relations with another human – on the meaning of union (under God (and the law)). He meant well and had some valid lines, but it was so generic and detached I couldn’t help wondering who would think it was a good idea for him to preach at us about this occasion for two people he clearly didn't know.

For God's sake, was this primarily a celebration of the bride and groom or Christianity? I knew all the lines and gestures that were expected of the us, but stood silent and still. It seemed too artificial now. So different from the wonderful ceremony I’d enjoyed a week earlier.

We knew that one would be 'different' - this was a couple not tied down by convention and the wedding reflected their down-to-earth, genuine and loving nature superbly. Possibly the best wedding I've attended, and felt like the closest to something I'd like.

We gathered at a chapel on a small winery before a mini-celebrity celebrant, Mr Jon Von Goes (of Melbourne’s RRR radio). He was funny, entertaining and, of course, mildly theatrical and self-indulgent. For some it may have seemed more borderline novelty than unconventional, perhaps even disrespectful to the pure sensibility and sanctity of a marriage ceremony.

Bullshit. He was engaging, genuine, and talked all about the love between my two friends, having gathered a background from a couple of catch-ups over a beer. He is a performer, but he commanded the congregations attention and imagination, and deflected it to the lovely couple. I’ve never seen a priest who could do that so well. It was a genuine ceremony.

Yes, it was a little different - but we've all seen videos of some wildly odd, usually American, novelty weddings - and wasn't for everyone. For some the religious aspect is important, others just the tradition, and that's fine.

Both of my brothers acknowledged their upbringing by marrying in a church, despite neither (or their wives) being practising Catholics. Both were beautiful ceremonies, and a nice church is still to my mind a lovely place for such an occasion; just not some of the bullshit often spoken inside (yes many celebrants talk shit too). I just can’t help feeling they somewhat accepted the idea of a church wedding rather than embraced it.

Wedding dress, rainbow socks and Volleys
Although my middle brother and his Californian bride displayed some awesome subversive quirkiness that probably pushed the boundaries of comfort for a few of the more conservative (my folks) in the congregation. For instance, the bride wore rainbow socks and Dunlop Volleys (who sees her shoes anyway?); the foreboding tune of Hall of the Mountain King echoed through the church, building to its dramatic climax as they signed the certificate stirring an urge to run to the altar screaming "NOOO!"; and and a groomsman (me) followed them out of the sacred place arm in arm with one of the male 'bridesmaids' for a bit of attention and fun. This is what I remember about that day three years ago; I have no idea what the priest said (or even looked like). I may disappoint my mother if I don't marry in a church, but hell, it's my (future, yet unmet wife's) day.

And if I am lucky enough to get hitched, I know what I want the focus to be on - love, not God. Whether or not there are religious or spiritual overtones, the best weddings are primarily a celebration of love.

Maybe with greater focus on love – and, on this basis, perhaps letting same sex couple join the celebration and grow the love [*GASP!*] – we'd look a little differently at marriage and have less broken ones? Quite possibly a long bow. But my friends, the ‘unconventional’ couple with the ‘unconventional’ wedding, are possibly the most genuine couple I know and most likely to go the distance.  

So I don't know where I want to get married, but I don't think it will be in a church and by a priest.

Unless that’s what my fiancĂ© wants.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Movie - 'murundak: songs of freedom'

A couple of weeks ago I popped along to the Melbourne Festival and caught the doco murundak: songs of freedom as part of the Give Peace a Chance program for Right Now. The full review, and reviews of the other films as well as a bunch of great human rights-related reading is available at the Right Now website.

First couple of paragraphs here, but it's only fair to head to their website for the full thing.

"Since the height of the Aboriginal rights protest movement in the 1970s, Indigenous Australian music has developed a strong voice of resistance and identity; and it’s only getting stronger.

Feature documentary Murundak: Songs of Freedom (2011) explores the cultural and political significance of this music via the Black Arm Band (featuring Aboriginal artists Archie Roach, Bart Willoughby, Dan Sultan, the late Ruby Hunter and several others) who travel from big cities to remote communities performing Murundak, a celebration of songs that have captured an essential and often elusive element of Australia’s Indigenous history."

The rest...

Monday, October 31, 2011

Death and dancing on Halloween ... and a birth (that's life)

Amidst an eight-foot corn field stands an evil scarecrow, jack-o-lantern for a head with one of those 360 smiles - where madness takes a smile of happiness beyond the grimace of pain and back into the truly demented realms where a smile is scarier than any expression of anger. He hangs rather than stands, breathing smoke through a glowing mouth and watching over a group of country horror folk musicians, all dressed and face-painted for the occasion. It is Halloween at Melbourne's grand Forum Theatre. This is the one and only Graveyard Train.

The audience is packed with mummies, zombies, murderers, murder victims, witches, ghosts, ghouls and a hipster. On stage a man smashes a chain with a mallet to the beat of a song about werewolves. In some ways, they might seem like a novelty band - and this was their night to play it up - but they are one of the best Melbourne bands going around.

The night finishes with the most sensationally, enjoyably odd of climaxes - a couple of thousand people singing, dancing, stomping, screaming, smiling and celebrating the fact we are all going to die while the band played their unreleased but seminal crowd (and personal absolute) favourite song 'All Will Be Gone'.

Last night was the fourth time I've seen them play this year - with number five lined up at the Meredith Music Festival next month - but that, that, was something else. Ok, the venue was bigger and better than Fitzroy's lovely, cosy Old Bar and certainly the Williamstown RSL, and perfectly suited a Halloween gig with the outdoor ampitheatre feel and gargoyles and roman statues watching you sing and dance. Still, being part of such a raucous celebration of our mortality and general insignificance was just so much goddamn fun and so liberating.

We're not here long. Enjoy it, even (especially!) the dark, scary stuff because then there's really nothing to fear ... and without fear life is so fucking free!

We're all going to die. You, me, everyone you know. And everything you ever saw or conceived of will one day be gone. That's either terrifying or liberating. How does a guy who suffers anxiety enjoy that though? Sometimes I don't. But sometimes you realise life is just so amazing and everything you love is here now, so let go of that fear and damn well enjoy it. What a waste otherwise.

One day Graveyard Train will be gone too. See them.

While I was singing and dancing about death (and therey celebrating life) in Melbourne, just across the Pacific Ocean my sister-in-law was giving birth. My new nephew's name is Dexter. Awesome. Just awesome. What a night.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Psychopath Test

I knew before reading The Psychopath Test that I wasn’t one.

Actually I’m practically an anti-psychopath. I saw author, Jon Ronson speaking at the Wheeler Centre before I read the book. Firstly he said that if you’re worried about being a psychopath, then you’re not one. It wasn’t something that particularly worried me, especially the more I read about it, but the question did cross my mind. The more pertinent comment for me was the one I was tempted to have him write inside the cover of the copy I bought 20 minutes later - “anxiety disorder is indicative of moral goodness … OCD sufferers are good people”.

In the seven years since I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder it was the first time they actually felt like badges of honour!

Where psychopaths apparently have stunted emotional response or connection – most importantly when it comes to empathy – thanks to an impaired amygdala, I have it in spades!

I’m constantly, at times obsessively, concerned with other people’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions. Although its important to note the difference between empathy and the need for personal validation; my anxiety has been driven by both. It's the anxiety about other people’s feelings that often has me avoiding confrontation and holding me back from potential romantic dalliances where the other person may want more out of it than I do and I'd eventually hurt them. How pathetic!

So, like Ronson, it’s fair to assume my amygdala works in overdrive, the engine of much of my anxiety. The good news is that it seems it’s easier to shift an over-active amygdala closer to normal than one than activate an impaired one. ‘Possible’ might be a better word than ‘easier’. The book has some fascinating tales of ill-fated attempts to cure psychopaths.
While it had me reflecting somewhat on my own psychology and starting to make unqualified judgements about those around me, the book’s greater effect was scaring the pants off me by shifting the way I view the society.

One in every hundred people qualify as psychopathic. Mostly they are not physically dangerous. The really interesting thing is though, that we have seem to have created an economic model that provide just the environment for non-violent psychopaths to thrive, one that seeks out and rewards their ruthless nature. It seems psychopaths are great to bring in when a company needs someone to make the ‘tough’ decisions.

It would be easy and fun to label several politicians, business leaders and disgustingly prominent political and social commentators, especially given the current toxicity of public debate while people suicide in detention centres, our environment suffers, people sleep out on the streets, etc, etc, but as Ronson gracefully did on QandA when asked about one of our political leaders (the wrong one anyway, I thought), I shall refrain.

The whole thing actually triggered my irrational anxiety to spark up with a bunch of concerns as the book shone a new light on our society. There are psychopaths – many thousands of them – legitimately driving on the roads (a particularly scary thought for a new cyclist), they do hold positions of political influence and power, they work for pharmaceutical companies, and in America (where I'm headed shortly) they legally carry guns for 'protection'. But I've been to America twice before and know I can feel pretty safe.

Thing is, I've generally clutched on this naive, idealistic thought that with all but the least sane people you can reason with them and help them feel things from a different perspective (empathise) if you engage them in the right way. But it seems that's just not the case with a lot – a LOT – of people. And there is no cure. So if some of these people are destined to wreak havoc on people's lives in whatever way, what do you do? Lock them up for good once you have a diagnosis? Even if they've yet to do anything wrong? And what if they're behaving legally, they're just an arsehole for reasons that you could contend are beyond their control? Hmmm. Can't do that, obviously.

I couldn't help but be saddened by the thought of an existence that was so emotionally stunted (look, I'm empathising!). To me, emotional connection with other humans is one of the things that makes life so beautiful, meaningful and worthwhile and it's through empathy in particular that we reach out and actually make that connection. How do you enjoy shared experiences without empathy? How do you truly love?

Of course, there are degrees of psychopathy, and not all psychopaths are inherently dangerous people, indeed the majority probably aren’t. And while 1-in-100 is a lot of psychopaths, that still leaves 99 non-psychopaths for every one of them. As sad as it is for someone to be born with a dodgy amygdala, we can surely overpower them when it comes to fucking with our world. We just have to ensure that our own self-indulgent and selfish desires don’t create a culture that allows us to step back and reap rewards from letting - indeed encouraging - people like Al Dunlap (featured in the book) to run amok in the corporate world just because it's good for share prices, while we wash our hands just a step or two back. That's our responsibility as the 99 per cent non-psychopaths - now go out and be a good world citizen!
So … do I have at least some psychopathic tendencies? Let’s take the test!

1. Glib and Superficial Charm - I don't know how to be charming well enough to fake it. No.

2. Grandiose Self-Worth - well I am  writing a public blog and scoring my myself here, hoping it's of interest to people that might read. Perhaps not 'grandiose' but I am a quiet attention junkie. No.

3. Need for Stimulation or Proneness to Boredom - Absolutely. I'm already bored with this test.

4. Pathological Lying - well either way I'm going to say 'no'. You'll just have to trust me or judge for yourself on that one.

5. Cunning and Manipulativeness - We all engage in some (at least passive) manipulation of others, but not to the psychopath level. No

6. Lack of Remorse or Guilt - It depends what I've done and how much of an arsehole the person is. 'Occasional misplaced passion' perhaps, but not 'lack of remorse or guilt'.

7. Shallow Affect - uh-uh. I find emotional connection between to be of critical importance in life; I love deep and meaningful conversations over a beer, though usually I'll talk mostly about myself ...
8. Callousness and Lack of Empathy - again, not blowing smoke up my arse by completely ruling this out. If anything, I could be a little more callous, obsess a little less about what others thoughts and feelings might be.

9. Parasitic Lifestyle - I don't intentionally have an 'exploitative financial dependence' ... but do have a reasonable parental debt, payback of which sits on the back burner while I do some more travel...

10. Poor Behavioral Controls - nope. Once more, often too nice if anything. Paradoxically, The Shins may have been correct in their song Caring is Creepy. Just ask my ex.

11. Promiscuous Sexual Behavior - bahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaahaha. Yeah, no. If only.

12. Early Behavior Problems - the worst thing I did before I was 13 was steal porn ... from my brother.
13. Lack of Realistic, Long-Term Goals - hmmmm, maybe. We'll see.

14. Impulsivity - Hell no, even my reckless behaviour is thought through.

15. Irresponsibility - sometimes, but it wasn't my fault.

16. Failure to Accept Responsibility for Own Actions  - Would anyone ever own up to this one? Maybe at a relatively low level on occasion. Nobodies perfect, but I accept it's shit behaviour. 

17. Many Short-Term Marital Relationships - I'll be happy to marry once, if that doesn't work out I won't be holding out to be lucky enough for a second shot! A six-year relationship and no relationships lasting mere weeks (that I was aware of at the time anyway) has to rule me out of this one.

18. Juvenile Delinquency - Nothing illegal. Well no more than any other kid. Though the high school years were shared with a group guys sharing my lack of popularity and disinterest in it, engaged in our own shadowy mischeif and (sometimes political) railing against the trends of the masses.

19. Revocation of Condition Release - Yet to have the opportunity!

20. Criminal Versatility - I'd like to think that if I were a criminal, I'd at least be versatile.

So my score has got to be somewhere between 0 and 4 (For each item: 0 if it does not apply, 1 if it applies partially and 2 if it is a perfect match). In conclusion, I am awesome.

Obviously, just like a diagnosis of psychopathy itself, most of those items are subjective and vary in degree for different individuals, it's not necessarily as easy as just 'yes' or 'no'. It's interesting to reading in the book how it (I think the actual test is a bit longer) is used in diagnosing certain individuals.

Still, I may be many things, but I'm satisfied that I'm far from a psychopath. I'm more concerned about the diagnosis of modern society and, in particular, our economic system.

As Ronson reassures the reader, if you're worried you may be one, you're probably not. But maybe have a friendly chat to somebody anyway...

Fascinating and fantastic book.

The usual mental health links follow, and a fascinating blog I found about Raising a Psychopath.

Black Dog Institute
beyond blue

And: Jon Ronson at the Wheeler Centre. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Talkin' 'bout your mental health

Happy Mental Health Day!

No, not one of those days off work to re-energise - although I am, ironically, home sick. Today is the World Health Organisation's World Mental Health Day, an important opportunity to think about the mental health of ourselves and those around us, whether we have clinical depression or are just stressed, and how we could be genuinely happier.

Of course, the primary aim of the day is to promote discussion on serious mental health issues.

Some people might find that, well, depressing; there are some pretty dark and sad facts around mental health and its easier to just watch Two and a Half Men and forget about it. 

It's not always an easy thing to discuss, but the simple fact that 2000 Australians take their lives every year (thankfully this is on the slide, but still about 2000 too many) is enough to warrant serious discussion that seeks to engage every single person. Every person will suffer or know someone who suffers mental health problems. That doesn't mean the discussion has to be entirely dour and gloomy though. Talking about mental health is a chance to talk about acheiving happiness, and how to find hope in what is for a lot of people at any given moment a hopeless world.

Since I 'came out' about my struggles with anxiety disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder a few months ago I've felt a massive weight lifted from my shoulders. I wish I'd had the courage to do it earlier when I was in real pain because I'm sure it would have sped up my recovery. As far as I'm aware (and concerned) no one judged me harshly or made misguided assumptions about what was going on in my head or my rationality, as I'd long feared they would.

A number of people revealed their own past or present anxiety issues to me. I was glad they felt comfortable confiding in me, but saddened it wasn't something many of them were able to openly deal with.

In August the Australian Press Council released new guidelines for the reporting of suicide in the media. It was a welcome move after a long tradition of silence on suicide reporting for fear of copycat incidents. The fact is, silence simply feeds the stigma surrounding various mental health issues, placing greater pressure on sufferers who are trying to make sense of their own minds in a world that seems to have isolated them. It's time to embrace them and let them know we're all here to help each other.

Reporting of mental health and suicide needs to be sensitive, but it is absolutely vital to improving not just awareness, but understanding. Understanding within the broader community so we can reduce harmful stigma, but, more importantly, understanding among sufferers who don't know why they feel the way they do. They need to know that what they are feeling is common - tragically common - and there are people to speak to and highly successful ways of dealing with it. They need hope, which doesn't come from silence.

I'm marking this Mental Health Day by reflecting on my own journey. Today I am pretty happy (though battling through man flu), manage my anxiety quite well most of the time and have all but left behind noticeable traits of my OCD. One year ago I was finding ways to improve (yoga, mindfulness) and feeling good about the prospects. Two years ago I was stalled and uncertain. Five years ago I was depressed but being treated. Seven years ago I was as close to suicidal as I'd ever like to be. Prior to that I didn't know anything much about depression, anxiety or OCD other than the misguided stigma. I felt 'crazy', different and alone, which left me feeling I had to fight it in secret, wiithout having any real idea what it was I was fighting, let alone what tools to use. Clearly, this strategy didn't work - in fact it made things worse.

I don't find it deflating to talk to friends about my own or their anxieties or depression. We talk about how to live better and be happier, and it helps me focus on that. I'd like for everyone to engage in positive, constructive discussion about mental health today and this week so we can knock stigma on its ugly head and put a swift end to the misunderstanding and lack of information that leads too many people to think their situation is hopeless.

If we talked about mental health as openly and regularly as physical health I think we'd be a much happier society. So do have a happy Mental Health Day (and Week)


Black Dog Institute
beyond blue

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Lazy people buy exercise bikes

Ok, that's a cheap generalisation.

My new housemate, also an actual mate, brought in his belnogings across from Doncaster to Richmond last week, and bought a new exercise bike along the way. I was horrified.

Why, having just moved from the car dependent Doncaster to the sweet streets of Richmond, would you choose to get a goddamn exercise bike when there's so much just out the door, bike paths, the Tan track and more.

He is a good mate so I'll stop being an arse and criticising him; to his credit he did go for a run around the Tan the other day and I haven't actually seen the wretched thing anywhere since... (?). Anyway, his purchase was just the pretext for this post.

I've just seen plenty of those things bought with good intentions only to gather dust. My brother had an exercise bike one when we both still lived at Mum and Dad's, occasionally used by each of us after purchase but not touched in years.

After he left the country, I would have brought it here if I'd been able to fit it in the car. With the time and effort I put into thinking about transporting it I could have run a few kilometres. I have no doubt it wouldn't have gotten much use. If I can't step out the door and go for an easy run or ride around interesting streets, along the yarra or around the scenic Tan (for free!!), why would I jump on a bike to nowhere in my house? Because it's 'convenient'? Because I can watch TV while doing it? I think those are the selling points...

For me personally, TV watching is time to relax and going for a run or a ride is time for switching off my mind as much as exercising my body - although it took a while to get to that attitude/appreciation where I actually found a way to enjoy any exercise that didn't involve chasing a ball around.

The evidence of the futility of home gym equipment is probably in the way it's marketed - on late night and mid-morning weekday TV shooting for people in bad habits with good intentions through a quick fix. Another cheap generalisation. But there a sense of achievement from buying one of these things without actually doing anything - when you could have spent the time the adfomercial lasted doing some sit ups or jogging around the block - and then you can celebrate with a bag of chips.

Then there's the sales people on treadmills in shopping centres. I just look at them and say (ok, 'think') 'Hey look, we're both walking - except I'm actually going somewhere'. Seriously, how do they make sales to people doing for free what they're trying to sell?

I'm no fitness fanatic and could definitely stand to lose a few kilo's right now (I'm tryyyyyinnngggg). With a new job four kilometres from home I have actually dusted off the bike and put the leg over for the first time in three years (but yes, it took a few weeks) and I'm loving it. The only thing I miss about driving is not being able to start the day by exeercising the lungs with a good singalong in the car. I don't miss anything about the crowded 70 tram.

So I think home gym equipment (exercise bikes and treadmills anyway) are bullshit that make people feel superficially good before they've actually done anything - and I personally just prefer getting outside among people and the world anyway.

As I said, a generalisation, but ... is that because its generally true?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rain, happiness and The Wheeler Centre

What an evening Melbourne offered last night for a discussion on being happy.

Blanketed by a foreboding thunderstorm and teaming rain, I walked from work in one end of the city to the the Wheeler Centre in the other, thinking that Sigur Ros got it wrong in their song Hoppipolla - the lyrics of which apparently translate to beautifully innocent childhood moment like jumping in puddles. Then I corrected myself - jumping in puddles is fun; just not while wearing a suit. If I were wearing shorts and thongs I'd be happy. Instead I was in a damp suit with uncomfortably wet socks.

I adore the Wheeler Centre. It's like going back to a study Arts again, but without the exams and it's usually free. God bless Melbourne. But this weather?

Yesterday I finally hauled myself out of bed to get to the 6.00am yoga class. A sucker for a sleep in (or lie in), it also gave me a rare opportunity to take my time getting ready for work and stroll through the city in the morning sunshine feeling relaxed and happy. It set the scene for a good day.

Last night's session was the third night of the Sad/Angry/Happy series. On Tuesday night, I left the Angry session energised and inspired, and having made the unexpected purchase of Brendan Cowell's book. Arriving at the Happy session feeling like something the cat had dragged in backwards through a series of puddles, I hoped to be uplifted by it, though I'll admit to being skeptical about the choice of Catherine Deveny as a panellist. She's someone I've thought in the past to be overly cynical and judgemental but I held judgement (and tweets).

Sitting shoeless in an attempt to dry my socks out while I listened, I was pleasantly surprised. She was genuine and positive - even disagreeing with a cynical question/comment from the audience about the obligatory check-out chick's insincere "Have a nice day" - as were all the panel, despite the recurring theme of depression, which is seemingly closely (even inextricably) tied to happiness, as hate is to love.

It delved into dark, uncomfortable places: is a distorted reality a necessity for happiness? Is the active pursuit of happiness futile, and even a cause of disappointment? What is the difference between happiness and joy? Does happiness only really exist in hindsight? Convener, Sean Dooley, cited novelist Jonathan Franzen's claim that he was happiest in the process of writing his books, but left with a certain emptiness upon achieving his goal.

These are thoughts are some of the types that have troubled me in the past, triggering anxiety that demands resolution but also grows as you seek attainable certainty, becoming more susceptible to irrational, troubling thoughts until you either let go or wear yourself out.

Luckily I've learnt to let go and accept uncertainty much better, which actually gives me a greater sense of certainty.

Afterwards, the walk from the Wheeler Centre to the Flinders Street tram stop was a contemplative one. The proposition that it takes a certain level of depression to get a true picture of reality sat a little uncomfortably did demanded some thought and resolution: How can I be happy if happiness requires a level of delusion? I thinking about it in an anxious, fearful way was counter-productive though. The only way for me to manage such uncomfortable uncertainties is to accept them, and often they resolve themselves.

Perhaps people that explore the darker sides of life and reality are be more susceptible to bouts of sadness or depression. That doesn't make happiness unrealistic, just many of the ways we people pursue it maybe?

My conclusion was that happiness is an underlying state of mind that can withstand hits and set backs, while joy is something that comes in bursts and fleeting moments that can be either meaningful or superficial - the birth of a niece or nephew (I don't have my own kids..) or watching Essendon win a game of footy (AnZaharakis Day anyone?).

I've found the best way to be truly happy is to live in, and appreciate, the moment - even if I'm still mastering that approach.

So, now soaked wet, I gave up zipping through the rain from one point of shelter to another - it became ridiculous after I sought shelter under a traffic light - and I embraced it, strolling through the city smiling at those who walked past huddled under umbrellas. Even when, standing at the corner of Russell and Flinders Streets trying to get across to the tram stop before the tram did, a car drove through a deep puddle and splashed water over my legs I soaked it up (badoom-chh). I was just glad the tram seemed to slow to catch the red light so I'd be able to cross in time.

A businessman boarded a few stops later, shaking out his umbrella and cursing, 'Fucking rain'. His suit only only half-soaked, he clearly hadn't reached the liberating point of nonchalance.

Now sheltered, I still wasn't entirely comfortable in my saturated suit, dripping hair and wet socks; but really I'd only feel uncomfortable by dwelling on how I could be more comfortable.

Noting this, and with a childish abandon, I disembarked at my stop and walked the few hundred metres home, stepping in every puddle I could, letting rushing water wash over my shoes. I wouldn't stand in the rain all night, but I wasn't cold and the dampness of my clothes was just a sensation, and therefore sensational, right?

And besides, how good the feeling of arriving home and changing into dry clothes!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The day your favourite band breaks up

Do you remember the day your favourite band broke up?

I do - it was today.

REM have been together longer than I've been alive.  From the day I first heard them as a ten year old in 1993 they seemed 'old' to me, and the end always just around the corner.

The possibility of longevity with integrity was one of many things I learnt from these outstanding artists.

I feel like I've always been just catching up to them.

I got into REM just as they were hitting the peak of their commercial success, not that I knew it at the time. I was in Grade 5 and my oldest brother had just acquired three albums - the newly released Automatic For The People after hearing a few of the songs on the radio and a schoolmate put Murmur and Document onto either side of a casette for him. Those three albums captivated us both. It was my first real experience of albums rather than chart singles. I'd never heard anything like Murmur and Document in particular before.

He later picked up Life's Rich Pageant, Green and Out of Time and I felt like I had all the music I'd ever need access to.

Despite them being one of the biggest bands on the planet, few of my primary school friends seemed to know anything much about them so I had noone else to share the love with.

That is until Year 7 when an REM lyric - "What noisy cats are we?" - on a pencil case was the basis for the first conversation with one of my first, and now one of my best, friends at school. And, incidentally, the biggest influence on my music collection.

After Monster and New Adventures in Hi Fi their commercial popularity was waning, but my enthusiasm for their music only gathered more steam.

In the six months leading up to the release of Up in October 1998 I listened to nothing but REM. Nothing-but-REM. My mate and I made a small festival of it to the bemusement of our friends, me moreso, and I anticipated the release of that album like no other before or since.

With my brother overseas though, I had to buy it myself. I caught the bus from Lower Templestowe to Heidelberg on the day it was released to buy it at JB Hi Fi. I got there about 11am; it wasn't arriving until about noon. So I wandered the streets listening to one of those earlier albums on my walkman. On the bus on the way home I looked at the CD and wondered how many more these guys would put out - they were 40 now, surely they must be just about done!

Up proved to be the definitive album in shaping my music taste, and how I listen to music. I played it for the first time in my bedroom that day, hoping for the 'return to form' (ie. a replica of Automatic For The People) that critics were talking about - and would for the next 13 years. Instead, as I hit play on my CD player in my bedroom, I got Airportman, and a bunch of relatively weird, radio unfriendly tunes. It was far from what I expected. I hated it.

At school on the Monday, my REM buddy was surprised by my reaction and urged me to give it another try. I'd never really considered music as something that grew on you as you listen more, picking up on the nuances and subtleties of the art, as the need for hooks and catchy melodies faded. Heck, I still listened to Fox FM and largely chart pop-music that was easy to digest. A couple of weeks later, away for Melbourne Cup weekend with my parents, I spend the weekend listening to Up and letting it grow on me. From that time on I began seeing music differently.

The albums since Up haven't set my world on fire. They're good, have some great songs, but none of them really stack up against the first 10 or so albums for me. But, while I always felt an anxiety for REM to redeem their commercial standing, it never really mattered.

They made the music they wanted to make. And unlike the Liam Gallaghers and Anton Newcombes, they seem to be a bunch of genuine, decent guys. They believe in something beautiful and shared it through their music. And I respect them as people (from what I have read/heard) not just musicians, making my attachment to the band that little bit more genuine.

As much as I'd have loved another album from them, it's almost a strange relief that they've given it away. Now I can finally catch up and can look at them for their 31 years of greatness, not just what they are 'now' or will be 'tomorrow'. Murmur isn't what REM used to be, it is as much what REM is/was as Around The Sun.

Over the last ten years many other bands captured my imagination more than they did with the new music, but the REM section of my music collection - all 15 albums plus the extras - is the most significant part of it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

We should be proud to shag beneath our flag

Ooh! Let it burn!
So now we can't be intimate with a loved one beneath the Australian flag? I'm outraged!

If I was getting any at the moment it would be an honour to be covered by our national symbol; and I'm not even that fond of its design, if I may say so without being offensive.

If the real Julia Gillard - whichever one is real - was to drape herself in the flag in her intimate moments with the first bloke, I'd think that shows excessive patriotism, rather than disrespect - but that's the joke right? Was tonight's episode of At Home With Julia any worse than wearing an Australian flag bikini, which risks getting the wrong kind of salute on a summer’s day?

Well we can't joke about the flag it seems, according to certain members of parliament and the RSL. These pouty conservatives! First they seek to put the brakes on (same sex) love, now they decry (flagged) intimacy! How bleak their hearts?

What's in a flag anyway?

Is it really something sacrosanct that soldiers fight and die for - symbolic of a world divided? Well, no. I'd like to think it's more positive than that. It's meant to represent the people - as well as perhaps the character and values of those people - that soldiers sometimes fight and die for. Values like freedom, characteristics like poking fun at ourselves with good nature. Let's not insist on defining it by war and conflict, please.

John Forrest even called for tonight's episode of  At Home With Julia to be pulled... what was that about fighting to protect our freedoms?

Where was Mr Forrest during the Cronulla riots when the flag was being proudly brandished as to reaffirm an anglo vision of Australia while chants of "Fuck off, we're full" rang out? Thing is, as disgusting as that display was and as much as I await the inevitable day when the union jack is removed from our flag, those bogans had as much claim on the flag as any other Australian. It represents us all ... even if it does a fucking poor job.

People who invoke dead soldiers to back up their own opinions are being a little disrespectful, not to mention presumptuous, I'd think. Who's to say what any soldier's point of view is on the design of our colonial flag, let alone the use of it in a sitcom. Not me, not John Forrest, and I dare the the views are as varied as they are in the community.

So why do people get so precious about the flag? Sometimes moreso than the treatment of real, actual people?!

I haven't found At Home With Julia particularly funny, but far from offensive. It can't be pulled from air, just as we can't ban bogans from wearing the flag as a cape. And more offensive to the office of Prime Minister than a sitcom is the carry on by both sides of politics every day in Parliament.

I’m not gonna lie, I don’t much care for our current flag. I respect it as our flag, but it makes me cringe a little seeing that it carries the symbol of a colonial history that is now dwarfed not only by our significant indigenous history before it but the impact of the multiculturalism we've embraced since. And while I do I love singing along with Peter Garrett in Truganini – “I see the Union Jack in flames; LET IT BURN!” – but I’d never actually burn the flag that represents my country (right or wrong), flawed as it may be.

Of course, a new design is a massive ask of a designer. But I reckon, keep it simple; don't try to include everyone, just focus on something simple that can unite people of varying cultures who live together (ideally in harmony!) on the same land. Like Canada's!

A flag we can all be proud of. So proud we want to roll around naked in it!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Meds or meditation - what's killing my anxiety?

At my last appointment, after signing off on another prescription for relatively high doses of the two medications I've been on for almost two years now, my psychiatrist asked me what I though was behind the improvement in my thinking and reduction anxiety in the last twelve months.

I rattled off a few factors, mainly yoga and regular exercise. He was intrigued by my response, insisting that it was the drugs taking effect. They take about 12 months for them to really kick in, he told me, explaining the apparent lack of correlation they had to my significant shift, unlike yoga, which made an impact almost immediately.

He said that the only way to really know for sure how much the medication was at play was to see how I went on a lower dosage, but the doubtful way in which this experimental notion was put forward left me hesitant. "Let's stick with what I'm on," I said, disappointed but comfortable.
He's a well respected man, and rightly so, but I personally think a little off the mark on this one. He's a psychiatrist, it's his job to fix problems with medication, so in a way I guess he would say that or see that as the major contributing factor, but it was a little disappointing that he was so dismissive of the natural and cognitive factors. I think I have a good idea as well about what's been working for me.

Then I read and related to this article in The Age, looking at the preferred methods of treatment of mental illness in Victoria.

No doubt the medication has served to take the edge of my anxiety, allowing me to address the underlying issues and - I would like to think - eventually reduce and come off the medication. That seems less likely or a prospect further away following last week's discussion unless I really push for it.

Perhaps without the drugs I could not have pulled myself up from the rut I lived much of my life in. Being drug-free for a few months in 2009 (after five years on, firstly, Zoloft and then Movox) seemed to be going well until an overseas trip triggered a nasty, lasting increase in anxiety and the current prescriptions were set in place, and did make a difference.

It was discovering yoga 12 months ago, however, that really had an impact on the way I think. I'd read about the cognitive therapies and tried to practice the techniques, but it wasn't until a few sessions of yoga that I actually learnt how to let go of thoughts. Simply because I had to. I had to bring all my attention to the mat and let those niggling, unneccessary, irrational, anxious thoughts float past.

I want to be able to write about what it does for me mentally, but I just don't have the words just yet without rambling on and sounding like a wanker. It's been amazing for me, that's all.

Some sessions felt fairly emotional, as if I'd opened feelings suppressed for 15 years. It was liberating and exhilerating. And realising I actually could let go of those junk thoughts, with a platform for how to do it too, gave me hope and a way of doing so in daily life. It's something I still need to work on but that was the single biggest revelation or progression in my battle with and understanding of this condition I live with.

Could I be where I am now without the medication? It would be possible, but much harder and I'm not sure I had the strength. Could I have progressed as far as I have without yoga (or at least something similar)? I doubt it. The drugs eased my anxiety, yoga has taught me how to manage the thoughts that cause it. Even though I knew and attempted strategies for doing so before I started yoga, such as mindfulness, it wasn't until I began practising that I was able to properly implement them.

I go a day or two without medication and I seriously feel it, most notably with nausea and disorientation. I've recently missed yoga for about 10 days and noticed and (possibly coincidental) serious decline in my ability to manage my anxiety. I dragged my sorry arse back there and after one session felt the best I had in days.

As always when talking about mental health, it's important for me to say this is just how things are working for me as I see it right now. Obviously doctors - of varying Degrees - are the best ones to give personal advice, and I am not one! I think it's an important part of the mental health discussion though - what's causing us so much stress and anxiety and are there natural lifestyle choices that can improve our mental health?

Both my GP and psychologist (the one I actually chat to about how things are going) tend to agree with me that there are a variety of factors at play, each important and interrelated.

I'd love to be off medication completely as soon as possible, but I'll take it as long as I'm advised to. Yoga I'll keep doing for as long as I'm physically able.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Public transport, communal isolation

The tram is packed, 50 people or more. All silent. Societies most anti-social space is one of its most confined. We are together alone, plugged into iPods, scrolling through Facebook or Twitter or playing games on iPhones.

Welcome to the digital society - technology that brings together people from opposite sides of the world, yet pushes apart people sharing a seat on public transport.

Together alone, commuters sit and stand in silence. Put these same people into the MCG after a match-winning goal and it wouldn't be unusual to high-five or embrace one another, yet here to engage in conversation could be deemed creepy and weird.

A man on the footpath along Flinders Street is singing, maybe he's drunk, maybe not. People glare without daring to engage him; shocked, amused and amazed. Initially, I fall in line judging the crazy man before realising, no, good on him! More of this I say! It's public space. We all sing and dance - admit it - so why not in the street if you're feeling it?

Sad, depressing tram ride. I look at people, all within ourselves; the attractive, the forlorn, the exhausted, the caffeinated, the attractive again. Isn't this public transport? At least car drivers interact with each other - with the wave of a hand, toot of a horn, flick of the finger or projection of an expletive.

I've sat in pubs with five people that had much more discussion. Perhaps if this tram had a bar we might be a little more social? After all, none of us are behind the wheel.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


I was about six when I told my mother, with subdued distress, that I didn't want to die but neither did I want to live forever.

It's my earliest memory of anxiety. Having become aware of the implications of an unstoppable clock, the struggle between holding on and moving on played out for the first time in a mind that wasn't prepared for it.

Seven years later, when my parents bought me the dog I'd been promised for my eighth birthday, my excitement quickly turned to anxiety. Where any ordinary kid would have been straight out into the backyard playing with and getting to know their new pet, I was consumed with thoughts about how I was that I was going to get attached to this dog and someday it was going to die, which would hurt me.

The only certainty when something begins is that it will end.

Yesterday was the end of an era, finishing up at a job and with people who have been at the centre of my life for five and a half years; yet a job I've been trying to get away from for almost two years. Through a long and frustrating job search the thought of moving on was a dream that felt like it would never be realised. Now the time has come it is, of course, a little sad. That's life.

Carrying a healthy dose of narcissism, I always liked the idea of watching my own funeral. The ultimate celebration of you - where everyone dwells on the nice things and says the words they never did while you were around.

I found this farewell flattering but a little over-the-top and drawn-out. In hindsight, I'd prefer to have said a few quick, quiet goodbyes to the important people and sneaking off stage would have been nice, as opposed to many farewell conversations with people I'm unlikely to ever see again. It's imperative to have the future potential of contact to make a goodbye easier; it's difficult to say to someone you like 'So, all the best with the rest of your life'.

So vague plans are made with the people that matter, and illusionary plans alluded to to others as you say 'Seeya 'round' (i.e. it's been great, but...). And, of course, there are those with whom it's just easier to avoid and move on altogether.

After five and a half years it was almost a bit of a shock that it's now over, and a stark reminder of the ever-changing nature of life. I was a little melancholy during the week, not helped by reading about Albert Camus, but while it's the end of an era it's not as dramatic as all that.

Sure, everything ends. The only certainty with a beginning is the unavoidable ending. Everything you do will come to an end, every person you ever know you will someday say goodbye to, or miss the opportunity. This past week has made me think how horrible it must be to know you're dying and having to say real goodbyes.

It's easy to be nihilistic and question the meaning of things in this state of mind, but whether you believe in fate, reincarnation, an afterlife or a dead-end road, it's the moment that matters. Even Camus was a big football fan, a superficial interest that really has little meaning but can bring great joy.

Everything passes, one day all will be gone, in the end life is a lonely, individual experience; but why get caught up in all that when it just distracts from the beauty of the moment. Memories, experiences and relationships maketh the man (and woman). The moment is all there ever is - enjoy it, be immersed in it, and allow yourself to let go when the time comes.

The dog is fifteen now, a little less energetic but still running around. I'll keep in touch, at least for a while, with a few people from the job who are worth having in my life. I will take many learnings and good experiences with me, and move on to a new, exciting phase of life.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The perks of volunteering

Today is my last rostered day off - a fortnightly luxury that I'm about to lose as I embark on a new job next week. Not one to squander a good thing when I've got it, I awoke to my final RDO nursing a very mild hangover thanks to last night's perfectly scheduled 'Volunteers Party' for those of us who gave some time over the last week and a half to help out at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

I was one of the last to leave the party, enjoying the free wine - no beer, damn Melbourne high-brow arty types - until the bar closed.

For me the experience was enormously fulfilling and inspiring. The festival that is, not (just) the party. I even walked away from the bar having made a few new friends.

The tasks were menial - collect tickets, set up tables and chairs, shop for fruit to feed 50 people, hand out programs, light candles and attempt to drop them into jars without the flame going out, scatter random and anonymous written apologies around the floor of a performance space; the usual sort of thing. But the people I met, performer and ordinary volunteer alike, were a wonderful breed of human, almost without exception enthusiastic, positive people keen to discuss their passions, discuss common interests and expose each other to new ideas.

There were perks ('payoffs'): free admission to most events (provided there was space), discounts on books and drinks at Fed Square, a t-shirt (!) and free wine last night. Of course there were people who didn't show or were disinterested and unhelpful - maybe expecting more engaging duties - and others who just saw it as an opportunity to get close to industry people. It's a great thing for budding writers to be involved in, but if that's the sole reason you're there its probably best not to bother.

Just about everyone I met was involved for the experience and to be part of something they were passionate about. The mood was almost always positive and energetic. In a week where I've felt increasingly disillusioned by the cynicism and superficial nature of another area of interest - politics - it was amazingly refreshing to be surrounded by such great energy. It sounds like a total wank but it was uplifting to be involved in such a communal, positive experience.

One lady told me she volunteered to meet like-minded people. It was true of both of us in a sense, but we both also wanted to step outside our normal circles and meet people from varying places, backgrounds and demographics who shared a simple passion. I mixed with people a few years younger and many years older - and not much inbetween - taking in everything from reading suggestions to analysis of the Dr Who phenomenon (I'm yet to see an episode, though I think I'll start with the ones featuring Billie Piper).

Previously, I hadn't even attended the festival since going with a school group 11 years ago. I think it was the fruitful experience of an old friend who volunteered at a small art festival last year that inspired me, and deciding I wanted to broaden my own experiences in an area of personal interest. I highly recommend it, and I'll be back in 2012.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Time for the labels to be left right out of politics

There's mutual love and respect there somewhere...
The coverage and commentary following the High Court decision that the government's Malaysia Solution was unlawful this week drew a clear line between those interested in the social outcomes of public policy and those frenzied by the sporting contest that is politics. Sadly, most of what I read fell into the second category.

In the mainstream media, David Marr provided one of the few articles that actually discussed the real implications of the decision - that is for asylum seekers, not politicians. Politics really does seem to be turning more into a topic of discussion where people can pretend to care about issues while really just arguing about the players in the game; a 'sideshow' as someone might say.

'Tweeps' from both sides showed their true colours, however what disturbed me most was seeing usually progressive people instinctively go into shock or try to defend a policy that their usually progressive opinions would suggest they wouldn't otherwise support. After all, if you criticise your own side it looks, and feels, like your supporting the opposition. Meanwhile, Shadow Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, took the opportunity to slam the government and claim the policy high ground, even though the policies of both major parties are morally - and potentially legally - unacceptable. But I expect it from him, I know he's an arsehole.

This is one of the hottest political footballs, a proven points scorer, and as usual most of the discussion, debate and analysis was directed towards the political contest - or worse, direct involvemnet in it - while the people affected remained abstract scraps of data. As most mainstream commentators and journalists scurry to predict the fate of the government, and indeed the parliament, they are providing us with largely useless information - telling us what we think of the major parties - and dehumanising one of the biggest humanitarian issues in this country.

Politicians from both major parties are just as bad as the people smugglers they rail against. They all exploit asylum seekers for personal/party gain, but at least people smugglers are attempting to deliver them to safer shores. I want to know how we can break the politicians business model.

To me this issues hasn't put another nail in the coffin of the Gillard government, but the coffin of intelligent political discourse.

Initially I was angry about all this, but this morning I attended a discussion at the Melbourne Writers Festival where Robert Manne, Marieke Hardy and Richard Flanagan discussed in front of a large and engaged audience, the place of writing (essays in particular) in politics and how we can turn this mess around. I gave me a little hope and inspiration - a much better platform from which to express yourself than anger.

So this is what I want in my utopian political environment:

I want positive and engaging debate, not bitter and divisive 'team'-orientated feuding.

I want a parliament that is an arena for the contest of ideas, not a colloseum for the battle for power between the Coalition and Labor, left and right or progressives and conservatives.

I want politicians who are not afraid to be vulnerable; to say "I don't know the answer" but be genuinely dedicated to the cause, rather than pretending to know the unknowable and avoiding the discussion.

I want a political system that allows Peter Garrett and Malcolm Turnbull to once again publicly display their passion for social issues and truly inspire people.

I want Peter Garrett and Malcolm Turnbull to start speaking their mind publicly and accept whatever consequences the party deals them. Party stability may trump personal opinion, but shifting towards a society that can handle debate trumps the superficial appearance of party stability and debate does not equal disunity.

I want media reporting to return to the public interest accepts the complexity of issues, not trash journalism that pursues conflict to make money.

I want a mainstream media that can handle complexity without needing to boil issues down to the simplistic framing of the sporting contest, where substance gets evaporated. That judges parties on policy not polls.

I want more episodes of QandA without party politicians until they can freely and openly engage in the political discourse without party lines and points scoring; and panels that aren't judged by how many there are from each side but the quality of ideas and discussion.

I want an Opposition with policy that adds value to parliament rather than attempting to bring it down. An opposition that won't use critical and sensitive issues like climate change and asylum seekers to advance in the polls, but rather is interested in the advancement of our nation.

I want politicians to be able to genuinely shift their opinions - as any thinking person does - and adapt to changing cirumstances without being endlessly labelled a 'liar'.

I want more parliamentarians like the late, great Peter Andren - people of courage, conviction, honesty and humility - to show the way.

You may say I'm a dreamer, but the discussion at today's Melbourne Writers Festival event showed I'm not the only one. At least it's positive, and I'll happily accept incremental progress.

In the meantime, I'll seek my information out from people that I trust; not those I necessarily agree with but those I respect, even - especially - if it means they challenge my way of seeing the world.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The online dating game

If you're a woman who has perused the single male talent of Melbourne on one of those online dating sites in the past few years, you may have come across me. Yes, I'm out 'there'. Funnily, in the last year or so a lot more people I know - male and female - have either joined up, or owned up, as well.

It's been mostly fruitless but over the weekend I had my first 'date' or face-to-face meeting... who knows what it really was.

She saw my profile on a site I hadn't visited for a while and sent me a message. Looking at hers I was pleasantly shocked - why was such a gorgeous girl contacting me (finally)?! Of course similar interests are also important ... that was covered too to I felt the urge to immediately reply. Of course, you can't appear too desperate, so I waited an hour or so.

Emails flew back and forth over the next few days and we really seemed to click so arranged to catch up for coffee. Although neither of us actually drink coffee. I was sure we'd be bursting with things to talk about - and said as much - from music to travel to footy.

On the day I was nervous as hell. Showered and shaved, but with an acne outburst that had me worried about a US pre-emptive strike on my face to secure its oil, I tried to scrub up well and wandered down to the cafe. I was fashionably five minutes late, but fashion isn't my strong point and she was later. Sitting outside on Swan Street, trying to look suave, or at least occupied, I wondered whether she'd recognise me given the photos on my profile were a few years old when I had much shorter hair.

When she arrived I knew it was her - a young women alone poking her head uncertainly into the cafe - but pretended I hadn't seen her and looked back at the traffic as I sipped my water. So cool. When I turned back she faced me and we examined each other's face and quizzically said each other's name. Yup, we were each other.

I can be a hopeless romantic. I'll admit to daydreaming and romanticising this a litte; it's been several years and a few disastrous experiences since I've had a good, settled, mutual love-interest. I probably over-imagined how it would all play out. My instinctive reaction was mild disappointment. We didn't hit it off the way I'd imagined we might, her personality didn't quite meet the one I had created in my mind and she didn't even seem to look exactly like the photos!! Clearly, this was a harsh, superficial reaction, so it was pushed aside as much as possible.

Not to mention that she was probably thinking the same thing as I sat there awkwardly, with my hair tucked behind my ears, revealing the minor growth on my forehead.

There were a few awkward silences, but the mood seemed to relax with even a few laughs. After 90 minutes the cafe was closing so we had to call it a date. I paid and refused the offer of reimbursement, she insisted and I took graciously, attempting to successfully navigate the line between old-fashioned chivalry and respectful equality.

Meeting someone for the first time in that setting - where you're measuring them up for potential romance and know they're doing the same - is a little odd; you're strangers yet you know bits and pieces about each other. Yet it feels creepy to go on about things on their profile for fear of coming across like you've been up all night studying it.

We walked out of the cafe, being adorably naive as I am I wasn't sure if a kiss on the cheek was appropriate but she leant in so I went with it. I walked away, saying 'Catchya later,' with genuine intention. She just smiled and said 'I'll see ya around'.

That was that.

There wasn't really much spark, I knew it and it seems she felt the same. I decided it was worth catching up again if she was keen so texted her a day later and suggested lunch in a week or two. After a couple of hours passed without response - given the rapid responses to all previous messages - I knew the message coming, I just hoped it would come. She did reply a day later saying thanks but she wanted to do the right thing and let me know she didn't think I was her type. It was the right thing to do, and I appreciated it. And I wasn't bitterly disappointed. In fact, I was a little relieved. But the little questions still pop up as to why she changed her mind ... what was it about me in person? Even though I wasn't especially keen either, it's still not fun to have an attractive girl say you're not her type after she was quite keen to meet you!

Obviously, its not always easy to gauge a person's real personality from a profile and a few nice photos. And obviously we all put up our best photos. I'm still suprised she contacted me in the first place - friends say I sell myself short but they haven't seen my profiles, I don't think they're particularly good. You have to sell yourself, and one of my major assets is my extraordinary modesty so it's tough to know how to stand out without looking like a cock.

Despite the security of browsing a list of photos and contacting potential dates from a shopping list, I still prefer to meet someone in 'real life'. Where you can start by just chatting without the prospect of evaluation hanging so obviously over your head, and where you maybe move into that realm having established a real connection. Where you meet through some mutual friend, situation or interest, rather than having been randomly placed in a list. But my profiles stay and who knows what's around the corner.

Although, of the 'first dates' or 'meet ups' I've had, the most relaxed have been over a couple of drinks rather than 'coffee' (I don't drink coffee, which might be the first issue). So maybe I should stick to the bars!

Anyway. Nothing ventured, nothing gained; it was an interesting experience.

But if you're an attractive, single twenty-something female well, um ... hi!