Sunday 3 December 2023
Monday 27 November 2023
Sunday 26 November 2023
When I was little, my parents warned me
about The Bogeyman. If I wasn’t good, they said,
The Bogeyman would come and get me.
They never said what The Bogeyman
would do. They never even told me who
The Bogeyman was, or what he looked like.
I’d go to bed imagining a figure in a long coat,
with limbs that clanked like metal and a barrowful
of bones. Perhaps these were the bones of children
who weren’t good, who wouldn’t brush their teeth
or do their homework. The Bogeyman grinned
as he ghosted through my dreams.
As I got older, I learnt The Bogeyman wasn’t real –
he was just a creature cooked up by grown ups
to scare children. I also discovered that the world
was scary enough; there was really no need
for The Bogeyman. Look! There he is now,
his barrow empy, his limbs rusting in the rain.
Tuesday 21 November 2023
What have we done
to deserve dogs?
We, who poison the world with greed;
who chisel our neighbours
for a few extra dollars;
who maim, cheat and burn –
what right have we to a dog’s gifts?
All that warmth, affection
and even forgiveness –
we don’t deserve any of it
and yet this, to them,
simply doesn’t come into it.
A dog’s love is not transactional.
We’ve done nothing to deserve dogs.
And they (poor things)
have done nothing to deserve us.
Monday 13 November 2023
Wednesday 8 November 2023
There’s an anchor in my heart,
buried deep within my chest,
and I haul it across the seabed
of my life. From moment to moment,
from place to place, I lug this thing
which weighs me down. It keeps me
wedded to the dirt and grime that lurks
down there, reminding me I’m not
so far above it all. It makes me ache
with the effort of it all, for love
is a burden, a heavy beast to bear.
I get pulled down, come up for air.
Monday 6 November 2023
On Disorder and Suffering
When someone is having a rough time mentally, well-meaning people will often draw an analogy between mental and physical illness. “It’s just like having a broken leg”, someone might say. “You wouldn’t beat yourself up over having a broken leg, so you needn’t beat yourself up over having such-and-such mental condition.” This is always meant in a spirit of helpfulness, and it can sometimes be helpful. It can help de-stigmatise mental illness, and it can give the sufferer a potentially useful framework through which to view their predicament.
However, I sometimes find the analogy (or even the identification) between mental and physical health to be problematic. I have in the past been diagnosed with numerous acronyms, some of which involve the letter D, which stands for ‘disorder’. As highlighted above, viewing mental illness as a disorder might be extremely helpful for some people. It allows them to feel that it is not their ‘fault’, just as having a broken leg or some other physical disorder might not be their fault. To me, however, ‘disorder’ suggests that my mind is broken, and this can make me feel even worse. Walking around feeling like I have a disorder, or disorders, makes me feel like my mind isn’t working properly. It makes me feel like a machine that’s missing some mechanisms that are essential to its correct functioning.
Calling something a ‘disorder’ might be useful inasmuch as it directs someone towards an appropriate course of treatment. It is useful to label a leg ‘broken’ because this points us towards something we might do to ‘fix’ it. The advocated course of treatment for the disorder might work very well for some people. However, I want to suggest that the mind is disanalogous to a leg in the sense that each mind works in its own unique way. We are each made up of a constellation of mental attributes that is entirely our own. To label something a ‘disorder’ implicitly suggests a similarity between everyone to whom the label is applied. This does a disservice to the fact that we are all entirely idiosyncratic individuals with our own mental universes.
If we don’t use the word ‘disorder’, what should we use instead? I’d like to propose the word ‘suffering’. Regardless of what someone’s diagnosis is, when we talk of ‘illness’ or ‘disorder’ we are saying that a person is suffering. Some people suffer in ways which are indeed similar to other people, and the taxonimically-minded among us might lump these people together under the heading ‘disorder’, but I think each person’s suffering is unique, just as each person’s mind is unique. As the psychoanalyst Lionel Corbett states, “ [w]e cannot objectify or measure suffering; suffering is best viewed from within the individual’s perspective, because people with the same diagnosis can suffer in unique ways.” A broken leg might be much the same as another broken leg, but no two people’s suffering is exactly the same.
So where does this leave us? I think we can draw solace from the fact the we all, to some extent, suffer. Acknowledging this enables us to empathise with each other, and to feel a sense of solidarity. But the truth that we each suffer in our own way has as its corollary that a one size fits all ‘treatment’ for a so-called ‘disorder’ might work for some but not others, even if, as Corbett states, they have the same diagnosis. Instead, I think we need treatments that acknowledge that each person is an individual, and that we can’t carve off the ‘disordered’ part of a person’s mind from the rest of it – it is part of a web that constitutes their individuality. Basically, treatment should not be from a manual. We might use a manual to guide us, but we should be equally free to toss the manual aside if this is what’s necessitated by the distinctive suffering of the individual in front of us. When we treat a broken leg, we treat a leg, but when we treat suffering we need to take the whole mind, the whole person, into account.
I’m not a medic, or a psychologist, or a psychotherapist. I have no formal qualifications in the field of mental health. But I have been in therapy for a long time, and have invested huge amounts of money and energy in the effort to understand my suffering, to attenuate it where possible and to live alongside it where not. I am exasperated by the dogmatism of many in the mental health field. I am weary of the lack of open-mindedness. I am sick of people who say that only CBT works and who decry psychoanalysis. And I have also borne witness, first hand, to the crucial role of the therapeutic alliance in dealing with suffering. And this can’t come from a manual; it has to be developed over time by two committed people. ‘Disorders’ can be cured with pills and manuals; suffering must be dealt with in healthy, loving alliances.
Now I’m not saying pills and manuals can’t be part of one’s mental health journey. They have both certainly been part of mine. But I am not a broken machine. I am not a computer with a missing bit of code, or a radio that has been wired incorrectly. I suffer, yet I am whole and loveable and OK as I am. I am not disordered. I do not need to be fixed or patched up or made to work properly. I am worthy of love, and capable of giving love, just as I am. I suffer, but I am not defined by my suffering. I suffer with other people, but my suffering is not the same as other people’s. I am wholly myself, and yet at one with everything. I am running out of profound statements. Anyway, peace and love to you all, wherever you are on your journey.
Saturday 4 November 2023
My great-grandfather came over from Odessa
packed into a box in the hold of a ship,
with nothing but a hole through which to breathe.
He had a wife he hated, who hated him,
and they set up a shop in the valleys of South Wales.
Above it, they slept in separate rooms.
When he laughed he made lokshen come out of his nose.
His wife had fled the Nazis just before the war,
but her polio meant she could never catch my grandpa
or Aunty Helen when they were naughty.
Digging one day in the family archives, my dad
discovered that my great-grandfather and his wife
were also uncle and niece. Grandpa said that
should this ever get out, he’d never speak to my dad again.
He bore his shame silently, like a lump in the throat
that could not be got rid of. He’d take tots of vodka
when he thought we weren’t watching,
and although he claimed not to believe in God
he prayed fervently every night, just in case.
All the books on his shelves were about Hitler
or the Jews, and one time he swore he saw a ghost.
And like a ship the dread traverses generations,
criss-crossing the strata back and forth, from
my sister refusing to go to school to me huddled tight
in the doctor’s room; from my mum with a husband
who doesn’t understand to my brother
who vanished across the world. Here I am
in a box of my own. Here we all are, trying to breathe,
packed tight together, reaching through holes
as our ghost ship lurches on endless seas.
(published in Poetry Wales)
Friday 3 November 2023
Saturday 28 October 2023
lives, and always will live, on my finger.
Most of the time I don’t notice it as I go about
my business, but it is, and always will be, there.
It’s there for me to look at when times get tough,
its smoothness and roundness a reminder that,
underneath it all, lies an unblemished love,
without end. This ring, mostly unnoticed yet always there –
maybe I’ll take the time to look at it more often;
maybe I’ll give myself ten minutes every day to gaze
at nothing but this ring. Let all else slide away
from my vision until nothing remains but the polished
silver circle of this ring. For what else matters but love?
Let all else melt from view. Let all else fade.
Let all things crumble to nothing but dust.
For what is life but love? And what is love but this ring?
Thursday 26 October 2023
Saturday 21 October 2023
Tuesday 17 October 2023
I got in from work
and apologised to the cat.
I tickled her head,
behind her ears,
and told her I was sorry.
She wanted to play and I said I’m sorry –
I don’t have it in me today.
Some days are like that.
Some days are belly rubs
and silly songs, but others
are like this, sitting down heavily
with a head full of tears,
an overspilling inbox,
and an apology to the cat.