“We’re not in mainland Europe any more Toto”
Wow it’s a funny business moving on from a pilgrimage, and one you waited 40 years to do. I have found it hard finding what I want to say here in some ongoing blog.
As I’ve already said, the first 10-14 days after I arrived back were unusual. There was a hectic sequence of seeing both children, both off to other parts of the world (Glasgow & Moscow both being definitely “other parts of the world”), a family wedding, and then, last weekend (24-25/9/16) was a lovely reunion here in South London. Old friends, ex-colleagues from clinical work in Nottingham, came to stay to help me celebrate, and perhaps mourn a little, my giving up the NHS and clinical work. One of them has dubbed it “Nexit”. I pretend that Nexit is Nottingham declaring independence from the rest of the UK when President May invokes EU Article 50 but I do have to admit that it’s a neat name in current climate, for NHS exit.
Through nearly three weeks since I returned, including those great social weekends, I’ve been getting used to being a kept man and an unemployed adult. I’ve done a lot of long overdue tidying up in the house, 99% of which was throwing away huge accumulations of photocopied journal articles and other accretions from the last 30 years of being an academic as well as a clinician. That reflects the simple reality that the house is overloaded, but also a recognition that much of what I had was never going to be used. That’s partly because my interests have always been so much broader than even 24*7 week would provide for really exploring them. It also reflects that there will be a “Rexit” in time too: an end to my research and academic work. That’s not imminent but Nexit brought that into focus and helped me realise that hanging onto old stuff isn’t going to help me do what I need and want to do. That “need and want” is interesting: there is much to do that I owe to others, and much that is purely what I want to do. Most of what I want to do is work I’ve only thought about, or only dipped into so far, mostly things I’ve yet to publish about at all.
The things I owe to others and the things I want to do intersect a lot of course, arguably the former is a subset of the latter as there’s nothing that I owe to others that doesn’t interest me. These owings are all things, mostly around CORE translation work, that I got into voluntarily, and in the last five years or more, things above and beyond what I was being paid to do.
The owings and the wantings are different things though. Some of the things I owe others aren’t my highest priorities and I don’t think any of them are scary: they’re things I know I can do, things that are a matter of finding the time, energy and concentration, mostly things I’ve done before, or have done things so similar that I know I can do them. By contrast, some of the things I know I really want to address are scary. Some involve mathematical, statistical and programming work that will stretch me to my limits. (I’m not a good programmer at all sadly.) Some will stretch me intellectually just thinking the ideas through properly. Some involve coming out of the trenches and saying, with supportive arguments and/or evidence, that much of what gets done in mental health and psychotherapy practice, and in mental health and psychotherapy research seems to me to plain wrong.
J pointed out last week, when I was moaning and a bit down, that perhaps there was a challenge to hang onto quite an angry, critical voice that I’ve used a bit in some of these blog posts; harder to write or speak publicly like that now I’m back, perhaps particularly as I am on the verge of a paid academic post (we think). As so often, she’s right and I know it’s easier, less scary, to tidy the house, even to throw away things that stir up old memories and cause me pangs, and I know that it’s easier to do the things I owe people that I know I can do, than it is to try to pick up some of the other things. That’s for future posts though, posts to help me stay on that course.
Feeling the currents under the doggypaddling
Anyway, underneath this tidying, this doing, this doggypaddling, (regular readers of this blog, and a few friends, acquaintances and colleagues may have realised that I’m not very good at doing nothing) two discernible undertows are becoming clear. One is a sort of tidal cycle, the other a steady, if fluctuating current. The one is about pleasure and having it without too much guilt (and shame?) and the other is about that Nexit thing: the brute fact that I don’t do clinical work any more, direct or indirect.
I had some challenges when cycling but so much huge, huge pleasure. It was a bit tidal most days, particularly in the second half of the trip: just one cycle per day, not the lunar tide’s two. I would cycle in the morning and early afternoon, and there was much pleasure in that, but a lot of hard work. Then most later afternoons and evenings I would get to see a new place and get some food and drink into me: pure, wonderful pleasure with the guilt assuaging awareness I’d cycled hard enough (most days). I am sure that the hard work, sometimes the screams from my legs earlier in the tougher days, and all those consecutive hours breathing damn hard, were helping pay for the the sheer pleasure of the sights and experiencing. One challenge now is how not to lose that the sheer pleasure of experiencing and to get that locally, in the everyday world of my life back in London: to get the right cycles of work and pleasure. I’ll come back to that in a minute, but first I know I need to deal with the undertow, the emotional tug of “Nexit”.
This has been niggling at me more since I’ve been back than it did while cycling. I know it has, though it’s fairly subconscious most of the time but it’s there: I miss the work. It is subconscious and only niggly and when I stare at it I know I miss the sense of doing something that seemed simply, and unequivocally, well intentioned; something worthwhile (when to a greater or lesser extent seemingly successful). I don’t think this is about some very deeply pathological shoring up of any shoddy self-esteem, it would probably be more unconscious than subconscious if it were. I know that my self-esteem is patchy, I can be very confident of some things but I am sure that statistically I’m below the median for confidence and self-esteem, mostly not diagnostically so. Of course, those satisfactions of doing clinical work, occasionally even feeling I could do it fairly well, have been damn useful in countering low days. Over the last decades I’ve been depressed at times, probably diagnostically so for periods, but I suspect that I’d have been so for much longer and perhaps more deeply had I not had a great job to dive into.
So I don’t think this Nexit is some particularly pathological thing, it’s just the transition that everyone who has cared about their job has to manage on stopping. It’s a price for having been lucky enough to have done something that was not only deeply interesting, challenging, and often hugely enjoyable; to have done something that seemed to have these moral aspects: well-intentioned and sometimes helpful to some people. Of course, I was also lucky that it was something that paid, and paid well in later years. (I never worked less than a 60 hour week across clinical and academic things and I mostly worked up in the 70-80 hours, like many in that line of work. That helps not feel too embarrassed about having been well paid to do things I, mostly, enjoyed.)
I am sure that for anyone immersed in work like that will find it helps plaster over some cracks and dents in one’s self-esteem. Stopping work, like putting an inspection light on any wall of an old building, raises questions. I am sure I sensed that would be the case back at 19 when I hit on the idea of the ride to Compostela. I don’t remember exactly when I hit on the idea of the later ride to Rome but by then I was either working, or well into being a clinical medical student by then, and I think that decision went with knowing that the transition wasn’t one that would be handled by one trip, that it would be a process of at least a few years.
So I find myself very aware of my wish to be “doing”, and of this stepping up now I’m home, am no longer “doing” the miles. The urge to get on with things is growing now that I have most of the tools I need for academic work (not all as being between jobs interesting cuts me off from some library and database access). I can also feel ways in which academic work is different from clinical work and how that impacts, and I know that don’t want to slip back into old ruts and channels of “doing” now I’m back from the ride.
I think it helps to write about this Nexit, and remind myself that it was time to stop. I was tired in some ways of the exposure to so much deep pain and suffering, to so much hatred of self and of others. I’m talking about others’ feelings and experiences here, not mine though the way of working I adopted, of psychotherapy and a fairly involved way of doing psychotherapy I think forces you to recognise your own feelings in those realms. Most people who come to the NHS for help with mental health problems have deep pain, with or without deep anger. I worked for a lot of my clinical years within forensic services and those who are forced into clinical services because they have so seriously hurt others, or so much raised the fear that they will hurt others that society trumps any opposition to be designated a client or patient: they too have a huge amount of pain though it may often be hidden by anger, hatred and/or rage. It is enormously satisfying to find innate and then increasingly professionally developed ways to be alongside those things, to help a little. However, it is also painful to be alongside it. It does force on many of us in this field a need to try to lead an “examined life” (no, I haven’t read the book yet: another item on the todo list!) Trying to do that is not a bed of roses (I always thought roses were damn silly things to lie on personally but there you go). I think the psychoanalytic and the family/systemic methods, my primary clinical theories, also force us into an “examined view” not just of ourselves but of how we organise our sociality, our societies; that too can be a grim task.
I was tired by that. I had failed to overthrow a deep disillusionment with the NHS in particular, and it was a good time for me to go before I did any damage (probably to myself or to services in which I work, I honestly don’t think I was likely to harm clients/patients). I wondered if my inputs to younger professionals, which I particularly loved as part of the job, were slipping toward giving them too much of my bleak view and too little help to cope and better help others.
It was also time to go because the ways I worked clinically were long terms ways. I love the quick fix as much as anyone, and there really are some quick fixes to be had in the mental health business, but those weren’t my forte, mine were slower methods needing months or more, often a year or two to frankly a decade for real organisational change. I was clear for all sorts of reasons that I wasn’t up for those periods at the coal face any more.
All in all, it was time to go, it was a good time to go. I knew there would never be a pain free time to go, never not be some guilt, some shame and a huge sense of loss of something that had been so good. However, it was time to go and not really for a moment in the last three months since stopping have I had any reason to disbelieve that. I’d been thinking it for about three years, and I’d decided it a good nine months before it happened, I’d worked with colleagues and clients through the shared impact of the decision for between eight and three months, often hard work to share but work we did.
It’s good to revisit all that and just mark how little I’ve really missed the work. Not once have I woken up and wanted to go to that work again, not once have I regretted stopping. I have a lot of nightmares, some of them overtly around the decision, the loss, some less so. That’s all as it should be and will grind on. You don’t make big changes without these impacts, from the niggles to the griefs.
However, moving on is also about pleasure!
I’m determined some of the space created in my life should be followed by pleasure that isn’t just about “doing”.
Practicality meant that Toto didn’t come with me last weekend as I got to my first exhibition since my return: the Hockney portraits and still life at the Royal Academy. It finishes today (and I won’t publish this until at the earliest tomorrow to be sure I want this public!) … so no spoilers in this.
I went to the exhibition with a great friend and ex-colleague on the tube, failing to completely to persuade her to borrow J’s bike: horrible! Well no, actually the tube was OK and reminded me how much I like people watching. That it’s fun just being alongside some people who are visibly having a good time in the wonders of London. I sometimes also, I confess, get a warped pleasure, or something, watching some people who either seem to me to get their own pleasure in a very warped and self-testing ways (it takes a warped eye to see a warped pleasure?) Oh dear, yes, I confess, sometimes it’s just a pleasurable relief to see some people who are visibly miserable and even making themselves and others miserable, and to know it’s not my responsibility. (It’s so rarely so bad on the tube or the streets that one has that “common law right”, i.e. a simple human responsibility, to try to do something just as another human being, not a professional.) I think we all as adults have the right to make ourselves miserable, to make some pleasures a bit hard won or frankly masochistic (as long as no animals, minors or non-consenting adults are hurt in the process) and I think that denying that people have that right is silly. That means we all have to find ways to sit alongside someone seemingly making themselves very miserable, that’s just part of any of us growing up. It can be easier to tolerate through professional training to sit alongside that but it’s something we all face when we expose ourselves to others. Oh boy, as well as people having a lot of fun on the tube, there are a fair few being miserable too.
OK. So I can still do public transport, when I have to, but hey, cycling is better!
The trip was utterly worthwhile. Hockney is so deft, so clever with his paint and now with his commitments, these tasks he sets himself in his later creative years. Here his task had been to paint (79) portraits of friends and acquaintances in California (or visiting? there were was it three fellow “Hockneys”, are they all out there?) All sat in the same chair in the same studio, all paintings took no more than three days, what he called a “24 hour exposure” with homage to my beloved photography. (I assume he works eight hour days!)
I loved way he lights upon quirks of garb and body language that feel to have been caught with accuracy: these are unique people, no clones, nothing sliding into any sort of anonymity nor merely inot any simple shared humanity. All are also human, clearly he respected them and invited them to participate not to humiliate or hurt. All are engaging with him in the three day process clearly. And that creates that lovely illusion that they’re engaging with us, or at least that we are with them. That’s the wonderful illusion of looking at portraits isn’t it? I was intrigued to see shared surnames and guess at relationships, to realise that one man got three portraits and another two.
Another ex-colleague and good friend joined us and we went round again and it abundantly repaid that second look. As I wandered round the second time I recognised two laughs sharing something in a different corner of one room: my friends having fun! I don’t know if we were the only people laughing out loud, but I’m sure we were the loudest. Pretty much no-one there, and it was popular, had that grim “I’m deadly serious about my art and you’d better respect it” on their faces and I’m sure there really were other outright laughs and giggles. We played “spot the psychotherapist” with what I suspect was statistically significant concordance, but also great amusement and interest too in those about whom we disagreed. Then A (which might or might not be an initial of first friend) added the brilliant game of “oooh, imagine them as the first meeting of a large psychotherapy group”. Genius! We agreed on those who looked like real allies who would help the group through tough moments, all agreed on one who looked very unlikely to come back for a second group; picked up some who would be “tricky” or even “challenging” (and worse). Hockney really is that good that we all three felt we were picking up enough about these people to support these fantasies.
Of course, like anyone else who sees them (surely?) we wondered what the protagonists had thought on seeing their depictions. We thought some might have winced to see the end result. I’d love to know, but I’m sure that, a bit like facing yourself after retirement, or through the acknowledged change in his powers with age, as Hockney is overtly facing, it’s not a simple thing to see yourself in his painting. These are portraits that I suspect touch things the sitters know about her or himself, but I suspect the depictions also dig that bit deeper, into the undercurrents that we try not to see too often. I’d love to know. What’s not to love about living in a city where I can get this sort of experience, multiple such experiences, any day I want?
Then there’s the theatre. J and I cycled to the National Theatre Friday night for “3penny opera” and agreed the cycling had been good (and we were lucky that it only rained while we were inside) but disagreed about the play/opera. J loved it, I was pretty underwhelmed but glad to have seen it. We often disagree a little, say about one part, one actress/actor, one aspect of the staging, but it’s pretty rare that we really have such different overall experiences and that too is good. No point in going if everything is good, or if we only ever agree, no reality in that. I ponder now how much my poor hearing (age and/or too many rock concerts) contributed to my lack of real engagement and enthusiasm. I got to ponder the complexity of my relationship with Brecht (and Weill). Mostly Brecht (and B&W) are up there in my pantheon of gods, but sometimes I just get left outside the experience, I seem not to be able to get on the bus. When it’s one of those, I watch and I am watching the performance, the show, I’m not having the complex, two layered watch-and-be-involved that Brecht was so clear he wanted to create, and that I think he so often got on the nail for me when I go to good performances of his works. (I don’t think he’s easy to do well, not at all.) Discussing it afterwards, we realised how much good Brecht we’ve seen, and remembered some that was not so good and it was all good experiencing again (and Toto had had his supporting rôle)
Then Sunday night: “Glasgow Girls” at the Stratford East Theatre (a first for both of us). Genius. J didn’t like it quite as much as she’d liked “3penny opera” (I think) but for me this was everthing that that had lacked: energy, political passion not lost or mangled in delivery, lyrics so well delivered I only missed the ones that were in thick enough Glaswegian I’d probably have missed them spoken straight at my ear through a loudhailer. Brilliant. The play/musical is bittersweet. The central theme is human horror: about deportation of families with young children from temporary accommodation in Glasgow, accommodation that hadn’t been all that “temporary”: a number of the children in the very real life stories behind the play had been born there. The mitigating bit is that play is about how the schoolchildren, and their school and the communities around them, had fought the deportation orders and the message about the need to come together, and to fight, felt so vital, so topical. How do we hold onto hope and motivate ourselves even when some fights are lost: a young Celtic supporter and his mother put on the plane back to Afghanistan and danger and the loss of everything he’d known from birth.
Cycling in London was truly horrible with pouring rain at the start and I was soaked for most of the way there, and the ride back was dark and threatening all the way back, for all the welcome protected cycle lanes. Hey ho. J had a pretty tough time getting there by public transport from elsewhere in London (it had been a work day for her) but we both got rich reward from the performance, and from lovely Thai food from the “Pie Crust”, a walkable distance from the theatre. Friendly Thai staff and what looked as if it had been a 60s pie and mash style cafe before that: decor unchanged. Lovely. Can’t give you a web site because they don’t waste time and money on that but this is link in Google maps, my old succubus.
Funny old world but London is full of such wonderful opportunities and experiences and frank pleasures, so, so much to celebrate. Having said that, we cycle wisely in a state of significant alert for incoming danger not able to ponder as I had been for all those weeks on the way to Compostela. We’re not in mainland Europe any more Toto!