Trauma Recovery

Last year, the cat in our household had two very unpleasant experiences with loose dogs. One of those has left my son with a scar, the second resulted in the cat hiding in a tree for four hours. My Anderson only goes out on a lead, so it was evident after the first incident that he’d become really fearful of all dogs. The tree incident was an overreaction to a situation that had too much in common with the first event.

Being a lively young cat, he really does need to go out for some exercise when he can. So, we started doing things to try and reduce the stress of dealing with dogs. Tom would pick him up when there was any dog around and I’d put myself between him and the dog. We talked to him, trying to sound reassuring. It wasn’t long before he was treating dogs on leads as much less of a threat and at this point he doesn’t simply panic when he sees a loose dog. He’s still very cautious, but he’s learned that the traumatic incident wasn’t normal and he’s recovering.

When it comes to humans, it’s often the case that recovery is tied up with getting to feel that the trauma is not the new normal. That of course has implications for anyone trapped in a traumatic situation. You can’t heal until you’re out of it. For a while, all dogs looked like a threat to Mr Anderson, and being a small cat, there wasn’t much he could do to change that. What’s helped him recover is that we’ve done things he could make sense of that have helped him feel safer and from there he’s been able to gather evidence that not all dogs are going to try and attack him.

In humans, we tend to treat recovery from trauma as the job of the individual. A therapist might hold safe space for you to think about things, but the odds are you’ll have to deal with the unsafe situations and try to overcome what happens to you. That’s really hard. It’s much easier to feel safe when you have people around you who are actively helping you to feel safer.

Mr Anderson has gone from reacting like he was afraid all dogs were going to try and kill him, to reacting as though he thinks some dogs might be friendly. He didn’t do that on his own.


How long should we live?

We need to be ok with the fact that humans die. It’s a key part of being alive and there is a point at which trying to delay death becomes cruel, painful and unjustifiable. 

I’m very much in favour of preventing disease, preventing accidents and enabling people to live peacefully and well. I’d like to see far more investment in both research and education to support health and wellbeing. 

I feel strongly that anyone who is alive should have the right to a decent amount of life in as good a state of health as possible. In reality, your quality of life and healthcare will most likely have everything to do with your economic wealth. So when we’re talking about interventions that ‘save’ lives we’re often talking about extending the lives of privileged people who already have better than average life expectancies. Unhoused people have far lower life expectancies than housed people in the same societies but this seldom comes up around conversations about saving lives.

I don’t have any definitive answers here, not least because I think what’s really needed is to ask questions. We need to each ask ourselves about the lives and deaths we want for ourselves and for other people. 

How long do we expect to live? For much of human history, life expectancy was about thirty.

What conditions are we prepared to live in? We may not know the answer to that until we get into difficulty, but we should keep asking anyway.

Why do we treat some lives as disposable, yet are willing to go to great lengths to keep other people alive for as long as possible?

In what circumstances would we consider death a kindness?

How do we feel about life before death? How do we consider or contribute to quality of life for those around us and those we impact on?


Have you tried taking painkillers?

Last week I was talking to a friend about some of the things I am wrangling with. Said friend came back and acknowledged that they had no idea what they’d do in that situation. It was, in many ways, a really good moment.

I tend to be fairly focused on problem solving, and failing that on figuring out how to keep going and how to get through things. Some of the things I’m dealing with cannot be fixed, only managed and lived with. So on one hand, advice for how to fix things is great and I actively seek that, but people simply acknowledging that they don’t know is also great and saves me a lot of time and energy.

Like most people struggling with various long term issues, I get offered advice from people who have little or no experience of the problems in question. People who think everything can be fixed with mindfulness, yoga, time in nature, a bit of time off… and while that’s undoubtedly well meant it’s also not even slightly helpful. If you aren’t dealing with the same issues as someone, what you can think of in five minutes is really unlikely to be something we haven’t thought of. We’ve probably already tried. If it was as easy to fix as these fixes suggest, we wouldn’t even be in that much trouble in the first place.

What’s even worse than the suggestions from people who don’t know, is when they insist on doubling down on their solutions and not taking no for an answer. One of the most commonly occurring examples of this is being asked to consider antidepressants if you are talking about being depressed. Now, I guarantee you anyone who has got as far as knowing they are depressed has already considered antidepressants. They may have tried it and found that either it didn’t help, or that the side effects were unbearable. They may not fancy the risk around an intervention that can actually increase your suicidal feelings. Antidepressants really help some people, but not everyone. For the person who isn’t a doctor and has no experience of serious depression, they can seem like a magic bullet, but they aren’t.

Similar things happen around diet, exercise, supplements… part of this comes from the toxic idea that illness is basically the consequence of not trying hard enough and if you tried harder you’d get better. This is nasty stuff, fundamentally untrue for many conditions, and can be harmful. I think part of it comes from wanting to believe that if they try hard enough, they won’t get sick themselves.

I think there’s also an issue of people who have had mild run-ins with a condition and don’t realise they had a mild dose. I see this a lot around depression. If you can cure your depression with a bit of mindfulness and a nice bath, then you weren’t seriously depressed to begin with and your interventions won’t fix the person whose mind is being crushed into dysfunction by a much more dangerous form of the condition.

It’s ok not to know what to do. It’s ok not to have answers. It can be helpful just to listen and express care for the person who is suffering, or to offer to be there if they figure out anything that would help. Often it’s relevant to offer practical interventions. The friend in question who was so helpful last week didn’t suggest I should go for a walk, but took me for a walk somewhere I could not otherwise go, listened to me, encouraged me, and was kind. That was genuinely helpful.


Do what thou wilt

It’s probably the most famous Crowley quote – Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. I’m good at will. I’ve spent much of my life doing things more by willpower than anything else, but it has a price.

Recently, my quest for improved health and my desire for healing has had me looking at brain chemistry. There are a number of things I don’t really experience, and never have – feelings of reward are one of those. I gather that part of what impacts on ADHD brain is a shortage of dopamine, leading to a latching on to anything that gives the person that kind of reward. Short term rewards are thus more tempting than long term goals. That isn’t me. I just use my will to get the needful things done and accept that I never feel anything much around achievement or success. This likely contributes to my ongoing issues with depression.

There’s no way of testing for any of this medically. However, as I poked around in what people have figured out about dopamine, I learned that it is also the chemistry of learning, attention, willpower and concentration. That started me thinking. Dopamine can fairly be assumed to be a finite supply in any given body. Am I simply using all of mine for willpower and attention?

If there was a time in my life when  I didn’t have to push to get things done, I don’t remember it. This hypermobile body has always been challenging, and making my body move, and even trying to keep up physically has always been demanding. Growing up, there was always shame around not being busy, useful, productive. I push through the fatigue. I push through pain. I get up and work when the depression makes me want to just lie there. I push.

At the moment I’m trying to become more aware of when that pushing happens and what it feels like. I’m trying to stop rather than just pushing all the time. More breaks, more rest, more things to lean on, maybe some better planning around how I use my time and resources. It will be interesting to see what happens, and whether cutting back on the willpower frees up some chemical resources for feeling good, or rewarded. If anything interesting emerges, I’ll write about it.

Doing everything by will is certainly stressful. Maybe willing things isn’t that great. Maybe pushing all the time to make things happen isn’t ideal. Maybe trying to will myself into things is no more sensible than trying to force my will onto the rest of the world and maybe I would be more comfortable if I could let go of all that and learn to be a bit softer in myself.


Emi – fiction review and offer!

Book Composite Emi

Emi is a beautiful, troubling, haunting sort of book. Set after the apocalypse, the two main characters – Christopher and Emi are dead people who are somehow still moving. Christopher is missing most of his innards and doesn’t remember much about who he was or why he feels compelled to walk. Emi is a very small dead girl, cute, endearing, heartbreaking and monstrous all at the same time. Their journey takes them through a world that is greatly changed and from which humans have largely vanished even though their influence remains. Those who were here before the humans are returning, in all their wonder and horror.

This is a remarkable, poetic, uneasy sort of book. I can heartily recommend it. 

There is only one way you can get a copy at the moment, and that’s direct from Craig. However, you may be pleased to hear that Craig has set up an awesome thing and it goes like this…

Saunter over to Craig’s Patreon page – https://www.patreon.com/craighallam

Sign up at any level.

Tell Craig that Nimue sent you, and he will give you an Emi pdf.

Which is pretty damn cool. You’d also be doing yourself a massive favour, Craig is a really interesting author with quite a lot of fiction to his name at this point, so there’s lots of good stuff to be had on his Patreon.


The spiral nature of humans

We tend to think of cause and effect as linear. A thing happens (or fails to happen) and this has consequences, which in turn can create other consequences. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking doesn’t help much when it comes to human minds and bodies.

A lot of what goes on with us has a spiral quality to it. Many of our body systems – perhaps all of them, I’m no expert – involve feedback loops. The more I read about hormones and body chemistry, the more I appreciate not only that those loops exist, but that we don’t really know enough about them. Have a look at serotonin in the body if you want to poke about in a good example of this.

It means that looking for a root cause doesn’t always make sense. We ask what causes mental health problems, or diabetes, or obesity, as though we could deal with the cause and that would sort things out. Bodies get into habits – we have habitual pathways in our brain, and habitual responses to stimuli. Hypervigilance is what happens when your body is in the habit of being afraid all the time. It may have been caused by a specific experience, but you can’t uncause it in a simple way. Being stressed because of hyper-vigilance will keep you locked into the stress that is fueling the hyper-vigilance.

When things are cyclical, that can mean that changing any point in the cycle will change the cycle as a whole. So sometimes it’s not about finding the root cause, but finding the point in the process that you can do something about. This in turn means getting to know the system, the cycle, the feedback loops because if you don’t know what’s going on, you won’t find a place you can change things.

I’m tired all the time, my body is sore and stiff. If all I do is rest – which is all I want to do, I lose further muscle strength and stamina. If I move too much I will become even more exhausted, sore and stiff which maintains the problems, not solving them. To change things I have to spot the points where I can take small actions that won’t simply create bigger problems. I’ve found that tackling problems in my thinking, trying to change my emotional landscape, and dealing with other health issues all works in roughly the same way. There aren’t any simple answers that break the cycles without potentially causing other problems. It’s a delicate process, but sometimes there are options. Those options aren’t always obvious, and are less so if you’re taking a linear cause and effect approach to looking for them.


Voices from Hopeless

On the 22nd of January, there will be an online Hopeless Maine festival, which is an exciting prospect. I’ve already got some brilliant content in from people involved in the project, with more to come. One of the things I love about Hopeless is that it has always been a community thing and that’s very much part of what it’s for.

I had a number of reasons for wanting to do this. One is that everyone being online during the pandemic opened up a great many things for disabled people, and now those things are going away again, which isn’t ok. I wanted to offer something. I also know that in the UK January tends to be a miserable month with not much happening, unpredictable weather and post-festive crapness. So I thought it would be nice to do something fun where no-one has to travel.

The third reason is that it’s a good way to promote the Hopeless Maine project as a whole. This is a project that started life as a graphic novel series, but now also has prose books, poetry, a role play game, a tarot deck, songs and live performance and a film in the offing. This event is a chance for me to showcase all the people who have come in to make those various things happen.

You can find out more about Hopeless, Maine over here – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/

Join in with the online festival over here – https://fb.me/e/19hFkPKC1

Videos are also likely to show up on Youtube after the event and I’ll post about that once I have links.


Coming home in winter light

At what point do you notice the days starting to get longer again? It certainly isn’t straight after the solstice, and I suspect it changes for me year by year depending in part on what I’m doing around dawn and sunset. I’m now at the point of registering the difference and feeling the lengthening of the days.

One factor in this is definitely the weather. When the sky is cloudy and overcast, it gets darker earlier in the evening. On clear, sharp days, the mornings especially are a lot brighter, and I also notice the sunsets more because there’s more colour. It probably isn’t a coincidence that we’ve had some cold, sharp days this week and that’s made me more aware of the light.

There’s a rather lovely song about winter light, 

Which you can get on this lovely album – http://www.johnnycoppin.co.uk/ab-westcountryxmas.htm


Tentacles and dead things

I’ve been crafting again. This is the salvageable fabric from two otherwise dead pairs of jeans. The embroidery is inspired by Japanese boro and sashiko. Some of it draws directly from that tradition, but for this project I’ve been messing about with sealife and tentacles because I was making it for my son and thought he would like it (he did).


Learning how to read

Most of us are taught early on how to extract basic meaning from these little symbols on the page. We learn the fundamental mechanics of reading. Studying literature, we’ll likely also learn a few things about how language gets things done – tone and mood and characterisation and whatnot. If you also study history as a young human  you’ll learn something about biases, and assessing sources for reliability. That’s as much as most of us get.

Many, perhaps most adults don’t read that widely, focusing on a genre or two, an area of interest, or maybe just a few authors. Moving between genres, authors, styles and subjects can actually be hard to the point of off-putting, and not everyone picks up on their own how to approach that.

I’ve always ranged widely with the fiction. Thanks to the kind of work I do, I’ve ended up reading all kinds of things alongside that. Technical content, legal content, political content… it all has its own forms, language and assumptions and engaging with anything unfamiliar also requires you to learn how it works. The first few encounters with anything unknown can be confusing and off-putting. A great deal of writing is intentionally or unconsciously manipulative and seeing how that works depends on understanding how a community uses language in the first place. The differences between persuasive writing from scientists and persuasive writing from pseudo-scientists are considerable, for example.

Much as I love literature, I wish I’d had a lot more time at school being shown how to read more diverse kinds of writing. How to read a newspaper article and pick out what’s opinion and what is hard fact. How to read a house of commons white paper, a legal contract, a scientific paper and so forth. In my experience what makes this even harder is that often the biggest issue is what’s missing, and you need to know quite a lot to have any clue what to be looking for on that score.

Reading, like so many things we do, is considered basic and widely available. The actual skills required are many, and complicated and we’re not actually taught them. If you haven’t done science beyond A level the odds are you’ve never read a scientific paper. If you’ve not tried to work in politics, you’ve probably never read the kinds of documents that are created when policies are being developed. These are barriers to participation and understanding.

You can be incredibly skilled and informed reading in one area and have no idea how to approach another kind of writing. 

These last few years have really shown us how problematic it is when people don’t know how to scrutinise different kinds of writing and how well we need to be able to read if we are to effectively inform ourselves.