Under the rocks and stones
Waking up in psychiatric hospital on New Year’s Day is a sobering experience. To quote the post-punk classic Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads, ‘You may ask yourself: “Well, how did I get here?”’
So 2011 began for me. ‘It’s all the rest of them who’re off their heads,’ I muttered defiantly to myself. But yes, although the world’s a crazy place, that one was was starting to wear a wee bit thin. Through the sedative-induced fuzz in my head, I recalled torrents of swearing and ranting, chucking biscuits (infuriated by the 50% extra free message emblazoned across the packet) and trying to fight off several staff members who had thwarted a determined escape bid. Hmm.
New Year is traditionally the time for resolutions. I got up, showered and dressed, pulled out a notebook and wrote a list of all the things I’d like to do that year. As usual, there were loads. Getting fit, studying, playing music, losing weight, packing the fags in for once and for all. Blah, blah, blah. It was all getting a bit much. I sought sanctuary in the camaraderie of the smoking room.
Allowed an afternoon pass, I enjoyed time with my family and a walk round a snowy loch. Back in my hospital room that evening I got the notebook out again, chucked the list in the bin and wrote one word. Health. Then three separate arrows pointing to the words ‘mind, body and spirit.’ That looked like plenty to be going on with.
The label given to my illness is bipolar disorder, in part it may be hereditary they say. It doesn't matter. The bottom line is I need to find ways to keep myself from wavering across that somewhat vague border of sanity.
What's relevant here is that stress plays a massive part. One major source of tension is the conflict between my own perception of what’s going on in the world and what I see and hear around me, particularly in the mainstream media and political circles I worked in for many years.
Add relentless adverts, mind melting arrays of ‘choice’, three for the price of two offers, messages screaming from supermarket aisles, too much time on computers; all these all pervasive features of today’s society drive me - and no doubt countless others - round the bend.
One in four of us will suffer from a mental health problem in any one year. That figure is rising fast. Mental health circles abound with talk of a rapidly worsening situation, creaking resources, savage cuts, stressed out staff. Growing inequality makes matters worse. People trapped in poverty suffer more than ever and there are increasing reports of ‘executive stress’, high fliers not ‘tough enough’ to take the pace.
So, where does this fit with Transition? For me much of 2011 has been a year of reflection, about finding ways to calm down and cope; to build personal resilience.
Something proving to be a rich resource in this quest is Nonviolent Communication (NVC) which I first heard about in a workshop by Verene Nicolas at the Transition conference in Edinburgh last year. Inspired by that taster, I signed up for a week in NVC and meditation led by Live Connection. In essence this method is all about connection, being aware and taking account of universal needs, both others' and our own. Sounds like this would be very familiar territory for the Haudenosaunee from Sophy’s blog. Although still very much a novice, I am astounded by the potency and potential of such ways of working, and by tangible benefits already becoming evident in my own life.
A terrible toll has been exacted on mental health by our insane pace of life, individualism, disempowerment at local level and fragmentation of communities.
I recently came across a prophetic letter my parents saved from the 1982 New Year edition of the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald, talking about Nethy Bridge, the small village I grew up in. Over a nostalgic dram Alec Grant, one of the local ‘old boys’, laments green space formerly used for football and picnics being swallowed up by housing and the demise of village businesses employing dozens of people . 'Gone is the smithy with its forge and clanging anvil where the natives dropped in for a smoke and news while a horse was being shod or a pick sharpened,' he writes. 'So too is the garage, where one always received a cheery greeting and where, on a cold winter's day, men warmed their posteriors at a blazing stove while marking time for the pub to open.'
He talks of the village becoming a refuge of the retired and elderly under ‘an economic strategy slowly bleeding the Highlands under the sacred name of tourism.’
‘While this is not a criticism or condemnation of any group or section of the community, merely a reflection of modern trends, nevertheless one wonders whether in the next 25 years, when the oil boom is exhausted, will the Highlands return to the old traditional ways of earning a living - forestry, agriculture and fishing. Or will the powers that be persist in creating monsters which grow up quickly, leaving a trail of grief and devastation in their wake?’ Alec concludes.
When I go back to Nethy these days some depressingly common threads runs through conversations with the few folk I still know there. There's just not the same life about the place, they say. The popular Heatherbrae hotel and pub has closed, sold on for a fortune as 'a luxury and exceptionally desirable home.' People don’t know each other any more, land and houses are way out of reach of the pockets of locals. Work is hard to find; you might be able to get a job 37 miles away in Inverness or at Tesco in Aviemore, 10 miles to the south, but it’s well nigh impossible to find steady employment in the village.
If peace means living a life that’s deeply connected to self, others and nature, it follows that much of the grief and devastation wreaking havoc on health today stems from the severing of these connections. I wonder what mental health statistics would look like in the localised, more gently paced, connected communities Transition aspires to.
Back in the 80s, I loved the edgy pop of Talking Heads but didn’t give much thought to what David Byrne was on about in the lyrics of Once in a Lifetime. Something about some grown up guy waking up to his life.
Listening again, it dawns on me that the great thing about cryptic lines is you can make of them what you like. I think of connection being the ‘water underground’ referred to in the song. As it emerges from under the rocks and stones troubled souls might finally find a bit of peace.
Pictures: Baffled by choice - supermarkets are bad for your health.
Moon and Matterhorn reflected at dawn. Copyright Bruce Percy photography.