…And he’s back…
Sorry for the long gap in posts. I’ll let you know in due course what’s been up with me (it’s nothing all that bad, so don’t worry), but for now, rather later than promised, this is the second (and final) instalment in the orgy of self-indulgence that has been inspired by my reaching the milestone of 6 months as a blogger. (You can read the first instalment here.)
Whereas before you found me in hunched-over-the-calculator statistical mood, today I’m in stroking-my-imaginary-beard contemplative mode. You can imagine that I look something like Gandalf having a particularly profound thought, if you like, although I would like to point out that I wouldn’t be Gandalf the White, or Gandalf the Grey. No, I would be Gandalf the Still Young Enough to Have His Original Hair Colour, Thank You Very Much…
I think I probably first saw the word ‘blog’ on the BBC website. I thought at the time that it was an ugly abbreviation (I still do, come to that), and that I couldn’t see the point of ever reading one. I think I assumed they would be like the rash of personal websites that appeared in the late 90s, and so would all be more or less identical to each other, and not particularly interesting unless you knew the people creating them.
That’s probably the way things would have stayed if, around October 2007, I hadn’t started suffering from major insomnia. In a desperate effort to occupy my increasingly addled mind, I was googling pretty much everything I could think of, and one of the things I thought of was Stephen Fry’s series, ‘The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive’. That search brought up a link to the blog now known as Mentally Interesting, and, like I suspect a lot of people, that was my first introduction both to proper blogging, and to the community of Mental Health bloggers.
Of course, as everyone who’s read that blog knows, there couldn’t really be a better place to start.
Over a couple of nights I read a huge number of posts, and realised that they were moving, and funny, and thought-provoking, and brilliantly written. After that I thought I would look around for some other blogs, and saw a link to Schizophrenia – A Carer’s Journal, which is written by the father of a man with schizophrenia. (I’ve just checked, and the blog is back on-line – I’ll have to update my blogroll.) I read every post in that blog, and in fact it’s the only blog I’ve ever taken the trouble to read in chronological order (i.e., from the oldest post to the most recent). Again, it was well-written, and incredibly moving, and spoke about things that don’t seem to get spoken about outside the MH blogosphere. At this point I was pretty much hooked on MH blogs, so I followed a link to Mental Nurse, and the rest, as they say, is history.
After a few months of reading other people’s blogs, I started to think seriously about writing one of my own. It’s quite hard to remember why I first thought that would be worth doing. Partly it was because I realised how useful it was to me to read somebody else’s description of something and recognise it in myself, and I thought I could maybe do the same thing for other people. I was also vain enough to think that, although I’m not as good a writer as the other bloggers I read, writing is one of the things I can “do”. I guess I also thought that exercising one of my few remaining scraps of mental ability might be a more productive use of my time than watching Countdown, and tracking down web links to famous people I think are cute.
Anyway, once I’d had the initial idea it took on a life of it’s own, and fairly quickly I was thinking in terms of when I would start blogging, and what I would blog about, rather than if I would. To begin with, I wasn’t sure if I would blog about my MH or not. Partly I wasn’t sure I could add anything to all the other bloggers who tend to describe things better than I can. Partly I was nervous about exposing myself to that kind of attention, even though I would be hiding behind a fairly thick layer of anonymity. I was also worried that my experiences and difficulties would seem very unremarkable in the light of the extraordinary struggles other bloggers face.
I carried on reading other people’s blogs, and it gradually occurred to me that I perhaps had a more analytical approach to some things than some of the other blogs I was reading at the time. I thought that perhaps this could be my way of trying to stand out in the crowd, particularly as my natural writing style is more suited to this kind of approach. I was also pretty clear I wanted to be upfront about being gay, and again I thought that difference of experience might help to make the blog stand out.
The final way I thought I might make my blog a little bit different was to try and widen the focus beyond just my mental health issues. In the same way that being gay, while central to what makes me me, doesn’t define the whole of my existence, I hoped to show that being “a mental” doesn’t entirely define me either. I know that pretty much every MH blogger tries to widen their focus (and they usually succeed too), but I thought my widened focus might be a bit different to some other people’s, as I have a tendency to bore people into submission with my opinions on politics and the like.
I worried obsessively about my very first post. I must have re-written it from the ground up at least 3 times, and I spent days and days tinkering around the edges, which, given that it’s only 637 words long, is pretty extraordinary. I have to say (although I probably shouldn’t) that I’m still quite proud of it, and, to my eyes anyway, it’s obvious that it’s the one I spent most time on – it has a smoother finish than most of the rest of my posts. But, on the other hand, I’m also glad that I fairly quickly learnt to let myself be more spontaneous, as it’s glib, and shallow, and doesn’t really sound like it’s written by me.
It’s interesting, I think, to look back at the predictions I made then about what my blog would be like:
Some of the entries will certainly be about depression / mental heath issues – I have some topics in mind that I’d like to write about. But there’s more to life than ill-health, and I’d like to write about other things that grab my attention too. There might even be jokes.
I think I can make a pretty good case for having stuck to what I said I would write about. To be fair, there haven’t been all that many jokes, although I think some of you have picked up on my fairly downbeat and self-deprecating sense of humour – I’d like to think that I haven’t been too po-faced about things, in any case. Also, the MH side of things has dominated more than I thought it was going to. That’s more, I think, to do with where I’ve been “at” in my real life than a failure of imagination, though – my MH problems have pretty much dominated my life over the last 6 months, and that’s why there’s so much about them in the blog.
In terms of it’s impact on my life in general, I have a slightly ambivalent attitude to blogging, although basically I do think it’s very positive. (I’ll come on to what I see as the positives in a little while.) Although it looks as though I have a fairly relaxed blogging schedule, at least compared to some other people, it does actually cost me quite a lot in personal/ emotional terms to keep plugging away at this thing.
I’m always incredibly nervous every time I put a post up. I always imagine that I’ll come back after a few hours to find an endless stream of negative comments on each new post, and that they won’t be the easy-to-dismiss, abusive kind, but really detailed critiques of what I’ve written, pointing out all the errors, and all the reasons why I shouldn’t have bothered writing in the first place.
Now, actually, I’ve been incredibly lucky with my comments. I get loads of them, and they are all, pretty much without exception, great. I’ve certainly not had any out-and-out negative ones, and, as far as I can remember, have only had to delete three or four, and then because they were spam that slipped through the filter rather than anything more serious. When I first set up the blog I thought that my intention of letting all comments appear unmoderated (provided commenters leave an email) would be a fairly short-lived experiment, and that I would have to move to pre-approval almost straight away. I have to say that I’m really pleased that I haven’t had to take that step, particularly as, although I try to avoid being controversial for controversy’s sake, I have discussed a few “hot topics” over the months. (For the record, this is really the only comment that might be hostile, although I can’t work out if the first sentence is intended ironically or not.)
There is, I think, a kind of weird logic in worrying about what people will say about something I’ve written. Even though anonymous blogging is just about the safest way of doing something like this, I am to some extent exposing myself every time I post, and am opening myself up to the (remote) possibility of being laughed at, or criticised, or just told to fuck off. Unfortunately, the other reason I get so anxious when I post is less logical.
I have a semi-constant belief that “they” have me under surveillance, and are watching me and gathering evidence and just waiting for me to slip up before they do … well … whatever it they’re going to do when they stop just watching. I have no idea who “they” are, and as you can tell, my fears about them haven’t hardened into anything particularly serious. But I still feel as though I have to vet everything I write to be sure I’m not giving away information I wouldn’t want “them” to have.
This is the reason I keep my blogging secret (nobody in real life has even the slightest suspicion I write this), and keep myself so anonymous in my blogging. Sometimes I treat my anonymity as a kind of game, deliberately dropping hints that (hopefully) read like accidentally revealed information but which are actually misdirections. I don’t actually lie about anything that’s a major focus of this blog, only minor incidental details. If something major happens and I would have to radically change the details in order to keep it anonymous, I don’t – I just don’t blog about it at all, or wait a month or two before writing. Most of the things in my life I’ve blogged about have happened at the times I’ve said they have (like, for example, my ongoing dealings with the DWP), but one or two I’ve deliberately been a bit vague about when exactly they took place.
Still, whether I treat it as a game or not, there’s no doubt that keeping this blog fits all-too-neatly with my (paranoid?) fears about surveillance, and my need to compartmentalise my life (you should see the lengths I’ve gone to so as to stop my friends and family from ever meeting, even for a couple of minutes…), and my obsessive desire to keep absolutely secret everything that possibly can be kept secret. This is actually the thing I worry most about with blogging. I’m not at all sure that’s it’s healthy for me to do something that encourages thinking that is … well … unusual, at best.
This is particularly the case with the surveillance stuff, I think. Rather than concentrating on keeping things secret, I should probably be more open – attach my real name to this blog, include a couple of photos and so on – as a way of forcing myself to confront my fears. I’ve meandered gently around the possibly-paranoid block enough times to know that the real problem isn’t what I think I’m frightened about, but the fact of my fear itself.
But, if I was open about myself, I would feel that I couldn’t mention my family, or my friends, or the professionals who’ve tried to help me at all, no matter how much I disguised them. Fair enough, I’ve taken the decision to witter on about myself in a semi-public way, but they haven’t. To be honest I feel bad about writing about real people even as I do now, when there’s pretty much zero chance of anyone recognising them – that’s why I do it so little. (Well, that and the fact that I’ve turned into a virtual recluse who basically doesn’t speak to anyone except his therapist…)
Of course, all of that might just be an excuse, a rationalisation-after-the-fact to explain my inability to give up on the comfortable familiarity of secrecy…
Sorry, this post seems to have ended up going way deeper than I was intending it to. I’ll try and drag it back to what it was supposed to be about. So, where was I? Oh, yes. Another thing that I’m a bit ambivalent about in terms of blogging is the flip-side of what I actually think is the most positive thing – the contact with other people.
I really do think that there’s a community of MH bloggers. It feels like a community to me, in that we read what each other write, and comment when we have something to add. It’s friendly, and supportive, and good-humoured – given that I mainly read blogs by people with MH problems, which you might expect to be pretty downbeat, it’s amazing how often I laugh out loud at something I read. I feel like I have good friendships with at least a couple of bloggers, which is a little weird given how little it’s based on. A good example is how touched and helped I’ve been by all the friendly and supportive comments that have been left over the last couple of weeks or so.
But there’s no question that, particularly when I’m not in the best of places mentally speaking, I find even the incredibly low-level social pressure of blogging hard to manage. It’s not just when it comes to writing either. There are times when I feel like I can’t even read what people have posted on their blogs. And then I feel guilty, because I feel as though the very least I can do to fulfil my side of the blogging bargain is to at least read what they’ve written. Even if I don’t comment, I can be a mute witness to whatever it is they feel they have to say, or want to say.
So much of what so many people have to face seems unfair, and sometimes it breaks my heart just to read about it. Quite often I find myself worrying about people, too, which in a way is a good thing. If I’m worried about someone else then that means I’m not so wrapped up in myself I can’t see anything else.
Probably the person I’ve worried about most since I started hanging around in the blogosphere is this person. Not so much because she chose to stop blogging – it won’t be a comfortable fit for everyone – but because of the circumstances of her decision. I’m worried that her partner not only didn’t seem to understand MH problems, but didn’t seem willing to try and understand, and seemed to be in a kind of denial, as if refusing to accept the seriousness of his partner’s problems would make them just disappear. I also worry that the relationship itself wasn’t all that healthy – should somebody’s partner try and control what they do in their own time? (My answer is a big, fat “no”, in case you were wondering.)
I’m also a bit concerned about the person who writes this blog – he went suddenly silent at a time when things might not have been going great for him. But, judging by his archives he’s a kind of on-again, off-again blogger anyway, so I’m not too concerned. Just this week I’ve been worrying about DeeDee Ramona, who’s been nice enough to comment on my blog from time to time. I know from her blog that she works in IT at Canary Warf, for a company in the financial services sector, and when I saw the pictures of the Lehman Brothers staff carrying their possessions away from their offices, I feared the worst. Actually, while I’ve been writing this paragraph I’ve plucked up the courage to check her blog, and it doesn’t seem like she’s been directly affected, which is good. It would be the absolute height of unfairness if someone who has worked so hard to get so far had it all taken away by something as impersonal as the credit crunch.
Really, this concern for other people is a good thing. It’s part of what being a fully-rounded human being is all about – feeling concern for other people, sharing in their happinesses and sadnesses. That’s why, even when I don’t feel on top form, I don’t allow myself to completely disconnect from the blogosphere for more than a couple of days, even if all I do is read. I know I have an incredible capacity for isolating myself from everyone in the world, and the possible long-term consequences of that scare me far more than the ‘pressure’ I sometimes feel when I think I ‘ought’ to check out someone’s blog.
But then again the reason I became a virtual recluse in the first place is that I felt I couldn’t cope with the pressure of worrying about other people or, even worse, knowing that they were worried about me. I still find it difficult, and that’s why even something so simple (and wonderful) as a comment on my blog saying ‘hope you’re feeling better soon’ sometimes feels like more than I can bear.
But, please, don’t stop commenting, if you feel you want to, or start worrying that you have to censor what you say. Despite everything I say about the ‘pressure’, I do enjoy the contact. And it’s helping me to gradually come to terms with the fact that when somebody says ‘hope you’re feeling better soon’ they mean what they say. Although I understand that intellectually, at some more basic level I still have a tendency to interpret it as for god’s sake, stop that messing around and pull yourself together, man. Like I say, I already know that’s not what people mean, it’s just that now I have to work on convincing myself of the fact.
Anyway, to sum all this up (finally!), keeping a blog has been a very positive experience for me. When I first started, it took quite a lot of courage to get going. I thought I would be met with indifference, and hostility, and derision, but actually what I’ve experienced is kindness, and understanding, and compassion. That’s not, ultimately, something I’ve done for myself, it’s a gift that you – the people reading this – have given me, whether by commenting, or just by reading along quietly in the background and showing up in my stats. That gift has been incredibly useful to me, and I want, genuinely, to say thank you for that.
So, thank you.
Now, if you feel like popping in, I’ll see you back here in a couple of days for the first post of the next six months…