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?