Will, AI, get depressed?

I’ve just finished reading James Lovelock’s book, Novacene. He wrote it about 2 years ago and he’s only recently reached his 100th birthday. So as a thinker and author, I don’t think he’s doing too badly really.

The book is about what he sees as the coming age of hyper intelligent machines. These will be created by us mere humans when we have finally cracked the mysteries of AI, or artificial intelligence to you and me.

He seems to firmly believe that AI will take us, the world and the Cosmos into a new age. From the Anthropocene, which he considers began with the invention of the steam engine, to what he has christened the Novacene. He also considers that, once the first intelligent machine is activated, it’s first act will be to reproduce itself and as it does so, the speed and intelligence of each replication will increase exponentially. Until it gets to the point of being so far in advance of its creators that it considers them to be no more intelligent than, say, plants.

Now, all the time I was reading this something was nagging me in the back of my mind. I was reminded of Marvin the android in Douglas Adams book, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Marvin had a brain the size of a planet but was always deeply depressed. So I began to think about artificial intelligence a bit differently. In all the information I have come across about AI, it all seems to be a bit one dimensional. In that the focus seems to be on thought and thinking in isolation. It all seems to be about rationality and logic. The goal seems to be a machine that can think for itself, independent of human intervention.

I’ve always thought that logic is only part of intelligence, and I’m wondering if alongside AI we also need to be thinking about EI, and by that I mean Emotional Intelligence. It’s not something that I’ve ever come across in anything about autonomous thinking machines.

Human emotions are part of the experiential learning curve of life. As we grow up we need to not only feel but also to express things like joy, anger, grief and fear in appropriate ways. We also need to feel the opposites of these feelings so that we may learn the difference. So for example, how will we know we’re happy if we don’t also feel sad?

I may be waxing philosophical here, but is pure logical thought enough on its own for any sentient creature? Is it possible to create EI alongside AI before this hyper intelligent machine is switched on? Or might it be the case that EI can only be developed experientially through the living of a life? Not just brought into existence at the flick of a switch.

Men 1994

Way back in 1994 I had been unemployed for about 3 years. I didn’t blame anyone for this, as it was largely my choice. The system however, requires that everyone of age has to be gainfully employed. Even if there are 20 people chasing one job; which was pretty much the case in Liverpool at that time.

As I was now classed as long term unemployed, the department of employment had to up it’s game. So I was regularly called in and offered one of a number of alternatives to just sitting on my butt week after week; which was the assumed position of the jobless in many people’s eyes. To keep them happy, and off my back, I signed up to everything they offered me. It was a real education, honestly.

I have to thank them tho’, because one of those alternatives proved to be quite useful to me. It was a course in supervisory management. The qualifications at the end of it were bloody useless, but the whole experience was quite formative for me.

The tutors loved me. I was attentive and asked pertinent, sometimes challenging questions. I generally got good marks and comments on my weekly assignments. One thing that did annoy them tho’, was that I did persist with my own style of doing things; I’ve never been a sheep follower.

As part of the course they found everyone an “unpaid” position with an employer as close to the desired career path of the student as possible. However, with me there was a collective shaking of heads and sucking through teeth. I was someone with a carpentry background and I was asking to be placed with a counselling agency. Well, I thought, I might as well make them work for their taxpayers money.

As it turned out the placement officer struck lucky on his first inquiry. It seemed the manager of Barnardos family therapy unit in Liverpool remembered me from a course I did many years before and he asked if I had any qualifications. Of course I didn’t but what I did have was my mental health memoir, which I popped into a plain brown envelope and dropped off personally. It got me in.

The next scene is worth describing as it’s slightly surreal. I’m sitting in a, not unpleasant, room that has a huge mirror set into one wall. I can’t see through it but I’m confident that whoever is on the other side has a clear view of the interior of the room. In the room with me are a male and female therapist, a woman I later learned was their administrator and, looking rather uncomfortable and fish out of water as he was the only one in a suit and tie, my placement officer.

Introductions out of the way, I was advised that there was no way I would be allowed to meet their clients. Which was something I figured anyway. What they wanted was for me to conduct a small research project into the reasons that so few men presented for counselling. Their biggest client base being women and children. If men presented at all, they didn’t stay around for long and invariably dropped out after a couple of sessions. I have to admit I was a little bit flummoxed that people with their background and experience hadn’t figured this out for themselves; the answer seemed obvious to me as I said, “I don’t need to do any research as I know the answer, it’s because men are terrified. In particular men are terrified of risking being vulnerable.” Nevertheless they still wanted me to do the project and I was happy to commit to doing it for them. My placement officer was pleased we’d got a good outcome and couldn’t get out of there quick enough. I don’t think I saw him again after that.

There was one teensy flaw in the whole thing though. The research had to be completed in ten weeks and with almost zero funding or resources at my disposal. Oh, and the only financial reward I got was my unemployment benefit. I went home and after doing some serious thinking over the weekend, I came up with a plan.

I realised that without the time and resources to complete a serious research project, I was going to have to find some way of turning the whole thing to our advantage. It seemed clear to me that what they wanted to achieve at the end was more male clients coming through their door. So I began to think about whether similar agencies were having more success in other parts of the country, and if so might they be willing to share how they were doing things.

They managed to set me up with a small desk in the corner of their staff rest room, where I set up my own home computer and I was away. They already had a database of contacts and agencies up and down the country and enough petty cash to fund a small mailout. So my first task was to draft a short questionnaire. I advised that just four short open questions might get the best response. So we put our heads together to come up with the best options tailored towards obtaining the information we wanted, and posted them off.

There followed a nervous wait for the results to come in, and I was initially disappointed that I only achieved a forty percent return. Until somebody reassured me that it was actually a pretty good result as ten percent was nearer the average for a postal questionnaire that was entirely voluntary. I then spent quite a bit of time reading through every returned questionnaire, with the aim of extrapolating the key points we were looking for.

I think it’s fair to say that because we had allowed respondents to answer the questions in their own way, I hadn’t made life easy for myself. Every answer was different in some way. So the whole process was more like forensic detective work than straightforward analysis of data. To make things even more tricky, some of the responses had been hand written. Probably during a coffee break.

The draft report, which was accepted by the team, was tidied up and a copy was sent out to all of the agencies who had been good enough to take the time to respond. I also kept a copy back to submit as my final piece of work at the training agency. A couple of days later I was called in to a meeting with one of my tutors, where I was told that my report was not a suitable submission as an academic document, as it was not written in the correct style. I was stunned and angry. As far as I was concerned I should have been awarded an A+. I had intended the whole thing to be a marketing tool for men’s mental health services, as there was precious little going on in that field at that time. I had written it in a style that I hoped would draw the reader in and make them want to read more. These people were looking for a dry academic document that at best would have been given a cursory glance or at worst quietly slid into the waste basket. They had completely missed the point. I bid them goodbye and went back to signing on and waiting for the next client review at the job centre. Needless to say, I didn’t get my qualification for supervisory management.

The spin offs for me were worthwhile though. I made a number of new friends and contacts, my social network became larger, I gained confidence in subtle ways that I wasn’t even aware of, and with the support of the male therapist from the unit I set up a men’s support group that ran for nearly three years.

Cult

When is a cult not a cult? A quick trawl of the internet reveals quite a bit of information about them, and to read some of the definitions they could be applied to pretty well any political movement, religion or business model. There does seem to be some agreement though, as to the key things that are needed to build a cult. The first requirement is a charismatic leader. This leader needs to have some form of programme of change as the bait for their potential followers to latch on to. The said followers need to be in a place where they feel there is something missing or lacking in their lives; as perfectly happy well adjusted individuals won’t necessarily take the bait.

Okay, so that definition is a bit of an oversimplification, and the whole subject is far more complex. However, it is something that has fascinated me for a long time because I’ve often wondered if I might have been, or maybe still am, a follower of a cult. So let’s see if I can throw some light on the subject from a personal perspective.

Anyone who has read any amount of my blog will have picked up that I occasionally refer to peer to peer counselling. Simply put, this is a practice where one person gives attention to another for a set amount of time, and then the roles are reversed for the same amount of time. This is something I got into in the early 1970s at a time when I was really struggling with my life. Now by the previously outlined definition, the organisation I got involved with could have been viewed as a cult. It had a charismatic leader and many of the other followers were either needy or simply wanting to experiment with a different way of tackling mental health issues. At the time I even got quite evangelical about it myself, but quickly realised that other people weren’t that interested. I count myself lucky that this period was short lived for me. I somehow managed to separate out the thinking behind the practice from what was going on with the personalities and the organisation. Since that time I’ve been quite comfortable with the knowledge that I’ve managed to stay grounded, and not get caught up in some of the things that didn’t seem right for me.

Some years down the line, I effectively dropped out for a number of reasons. Partly I wanted to test out whether or not I had developed some kind of psychological dependency and thankfully discovered that wasn’t the case. I’d also begun to question some of the ethics in the methodology, and I’ve gradually come to terms with or changed some things in my own thinking.

So why did I find it necessary to reconnect with the network I had effectively dropped out of? Well a few years ago I found myself struggling again, only this time round I decided to seek some professional help. The British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapists has a website with a national directory of accredited practitioners. So I checked out a few and settled on one who seemed to be well qualified and experienced. Things went reasonably well and after a number of sessions I was able to move on. Over about four years I saw a couple of other counsellors for short periods. Each individual counsellor had their different ways of working and they do say you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Prince or Princess. However, it seemed to me that the quality of the attention I was receiving was little different to the standard within the peer network I had previously been a part of. In fact the main difference was that I was paying close to £50 an hour for one way attention. So I took the decision to track down and reconnect with my original network and signed up for a refresher course. I was pleasantly surprised at how much information came back to me and how quickly I was able to get up and running again. Equally I’m not at all surprised that, people being people, a lot of the same problems still exist within the organisation itself. To me, it still has an image problem. For one thing, it still gets accused and attacked as being a cult and to be honest, for a variety of reasons that doesn’t surprise me.

I’ve got to the stage where if one of my peers in the network expresses despair that we’re viewed as a cult; I just turn to them and suggest that if they want to know why people do that, they should take a step back and look at us from a lay person’s perspective. What we do appears to be so outside the frame of what many people see as normal behaviour that, personally, I’m freaked out by it; even after all my years of experience.

The word “cult” carries quite a bit of baggage with it; some good and some bad. In the arts for example, many films, music genres and fashion trends have what is often referred to as a cult following; these are considered fairly benign. However, the term also has its dark side in that it’s also associated with mind control or brainwashing. Usually, this mind control is to the benefit of an individual and or an organisation that has less than the best interests of its followers at heart. Sadly, it’s this darker use of the word that seems to be more prevalent.

For me the word “cult” is simply shorthand for, I don’t understand what I’m being presented with here. It doesn’t look like normal behaviour. It looks weird/creepy/funny/peculiar. Or even, sad/evil/dangerous/bonkers. The briefest of conversations with someone who expresses these viewpoints reveals, for me at least, a quite deep rooted fear. Now fear of what depends on the individual. It may be fear of difference or fear of losing one’s will or any number of reasons depending on the person.

Referring back to mind control and brainwashing; if one thinks about it, isn’t that something that we are all subjected to constantly from the moment of birth? We are raised within a particular framework that is meant to make us secure, functioning members of the society we grow up in. We grow up learning to accept as normal some quite irrational concepts and beliefs. To question any of these is a scary thing for us.  Historically, brutal wars have been fought between societies that considered each other dangerous, because they held different views and values from one another. Religions also have a long history of conflicts with each other.

Currently, the established peer to peer network in the USA is coming under attack and being subjected to a certain amount of Cult Baiting from one particular newspaper over there. I don’t really know the details, it being quite some distance away from life on this side of the pond. I do though, have some thinking about the whole issue of attacks of this kind and how they should be dealt with.

My first thought is that this attack is coming from a newspaper and the media generally don’t necessarily go in for truth or even facts. Their role is to manipulate people into buying their brand of news. Their main interest is in making money. So if a story doesn’t persuade enough buyers to buy their brand of news, it will very quickly get dropped. Given this, my second thought is, do not engage with the attacker. This only adds grist to their mill, as you will be helping them to keep the story rolling and thus making more money at your expense.

I’ve come under attack myself quite a few times in my life. It’s a horrible feeling. There is confusion about where the attacker is coming from, and a strong sense that what is happening is unjustified and unthinking. The pull that I feel is to defend myself, to put them right. However, I’ve learned that this is rarely the correct response. I’ve occasionally been Trolled on the internet. I’ve learned that all these individuals are looking for is attention, and they’re doing it in a very nasty way. My response to them is to deprive them of their oxygen. I delete, block and do not engage. In my view the same response applies to attacks from the media. Turn around, walk away with your head held high and do not engage.

Love

I read out the first chapter of my memoir to my writers group recently. Part of which gives a basic outline of the dynamic of a romantic relationship I was in many years ago. A relationship that didn’t work out too well. I felt at the time I read it that there was an element of risk involved in opening up to a group of people, some of whom might not be able to take on board the story without being able to be nonjudgmental about it. I needn’t have been concerned, as they were quite accepting really. I’m always open to questions though, but when someone asked, “did you love her?” I have to confess I was a little taken aback, and responded, rather glibly, “define love”. I noticed one or two knowing nods from my audience and realised that I had struck a chord here, and a fairly common one at that.

Many people have written on the subject of love for millennia. It’s a subject that occupies a great deal of humanities time and attention, and I don’t think anyone has ever come close to a satisfactory definition of it. Apart from one that kind of appealed to me a very long time ago, and I’ll get to that shortly.

There have been times in my life when I have turned to other thinkers about the subject. One of these people was an artist, poet and philosopher by the name of Kahlil Gibran. He wrote a poem entitled “Love”, and three lines of this poem really hit me when I first read it. They were:

Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.

Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;

For Love is sufficient unto Love.

Now, I’d like to look at this thing we call Love from the perspective of this Blog I write. Which is sub-titled, “A mental health Blog”. I’d like to look at it as a mental health issue.

So did I love this woman I was with for ten years of my life; I believe I did. She also professed to love me, but one thing she said to me occasionally was that she wasn’t “in love with me”. At that time I wasn’t sure what she meant, and I’m not entirely clear on the matter now to be honest.

One thing I have learned over time is that we seem to feel the need to put this feeling we call love into categories. So we have something like, mother love, sexual love, puppy love, erotic love, romantic crushes and obsessive love. You name it and we could probably find room for the word love in there somewhere. We even use it to describe what could be seen by some as apparent cruelty, in the form of tough love. Throughout history it has remained an incredibly powerful word, used to excuse all manner of atrocity as much as acts of goodness.

A rock band called R.E.M., (bear with me I’m going somewhere with this honest) were very popular some years ago. One of their best loved tracks was titled, “everybody hurts”. It was aimed at people who were at their lowest ebb emotionally, and was meant to reassure them that all emotional pain had an end to it. The words urged them to hang on in there as, however sad and lonely they felt right now, these feelings would pass and that there were people out there who did care. It’s a lovely song and I would urge anyone to seek it out and give it a listen.

I have a lot of favourite quotes from a variety of sources, and one of them is still quite apt for me as, if not a definition, then certainly a kind of touchstone reminder. It goes, “love is the way anyone would naturally feel about someone, if there wasn’t any hurt in the way.” Now on one level that statement sounds incredibly trite and simplistic, as one only has to look at the current state of the human race, to realise that there’s an awful lot of pain around and precious little love.

For me however that statement goes right to the nub of the problem in regard to understanding love. It’s a feeling that we are born with. One that connects us with other beings like ourselves. Absolutely key to our health and well-being to the degree that we cannot thrive, or sadly in some cases even survive without it. Unfortunately life is not perfect for us. There are joys yes, but also plenty of painful events that lay down a lot of emotional scar tissue. Some of these events are random and there’s not a lot we can do about those. As they say, shit happens. A lot of this pain though, is laid down via a kind of social contagion. Put simply, we get hurt, and if we don’t fully recover from that hurt we risk passing it on to others.

One of the things that I really feel strongly about in counselling is that at its core, it’s not about flashy techniques or methods. More important than anything that might have been learned in some diploma course or PHD, is that sense of common humanity that exists in everyone. As a client I have felt that some of the most profound insights into my own psyche have occurred when I picked up that my counsellor genuinely felt and believed that my negativity about myself had no basis in truth at all. I’ve been lucky enough to also experience this shift from the other side of the fence too. When as a counsellor I have allowed my own common humanity, compassion and empathy to come through and witnessed the person in front of me blossom as a result.

To me this is love. It’s not possessed by special people who are trained to use it to help others. It’s there in all of us. Maybe running in the background for some; but it is there. All we need to do is to practice checking in on it as often as we can and give it the chance to be expressed and heard.

Leadership

I stand accused of being a fraud because even though I refuse to take on the designation and role of leader, my actual behaviour suggests otherwise apparently. So I’m kind of wondering what it is I am doing that is giving this impression. I’ve always had a sense of what is right or correct, a strong sense of responsibility, an interest in new ideas and a desire to communicate those ideas. I like to think I’m a good communicator of those ideas. I aim to care for and think about the people in my life and to help them when I can and when appropriate, occasionally It’s been suggested that I’m a bit charismatic!? I’m not too sure about that last one. I happen to believe that the others are perfectly normal human traits available to everyone to a greater or lesser degree.

A couple of years ago I was approached by someone, who said that they had been giving some thought to my becoming a leader within the network of peer counsellors that I had reconnected with. I was a bit taken aback by this pronouncement and my gut response was to say, “well good luck with that one”, a response which was just as much of a surprise to them. I think what irked me about it at the time was that, at no point was I given any advanced notice about this decision. My input hadn’t been sought. To me it was a thoroughly unworkable way of going about things; for someone else to decide that I was going to, “be” something.

My own past experiences in leadership have been pretty much disastrous; particularly for me. It’s not a role that I would naturally choose for myself, and I think with good reason. I’m someone who feels far more comfortable in the background, I really don’t like being the centre of attention, and as a leader being up front and centre is a key part of the territory. And yes, I do know the advice is that everyone needs to step out of their comfort zone now and then, but it still has to be my decision and my choice. Otherwise it could do more damage than good.

It seems to me that the minute someone is designated, or designates themself, as a leader, it immediately becomes open season for anyone who wants to take a pot shot at them. The shooter may not even have any grievance against the person who has taken on the role. It’s just the office of leader itself that seems to be the target.

So what is this thing called leadership? I think part of the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear definition of the role. Ask six different people to define it and you’ll probably get six different descriptions. Each leader will also have their own ideas about leading.

Thinking about it, I’m wondering who the first leader was that any of us can remember? It was probably a parent or another significant adult in our early lives. Someone we looked up to for guidance, teaching and support. Sometimes they got things right and sometimes they got things wrong. That’s the nature of being a parent; it also seems to be the nature of being a leader.

I consider myself a working class man who also, earlier in life, fell foul of the mental health system. I tend to see those two institutions, the class system and the mental health system as in cahoots. The latter as an agent of the former. I guess a psychiatrist would suggest that was just my paranoia but, as someone else has said, “just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you”.

I’m the first to admit that I have something of an issue with authority. It always seemed to me that leadership, when practised on me, was more about control than a benign form of management. From when I was a dot, bigger people than me were hell bent on trying to shape me into something. Something that was more of an image of what they wanted me to be. Starting with parents and the older siblings in my family. Then I was handed over to teachers, doctors and any other authority figure in society for them to continue the moulding and shaping of my personality. This was the path of, not just my life, but of everyone around me. Eventually I entered the world of work, where the moulding and shaping went into overdrive. Any individual thinking or innovative suggestion was frowned upon, and if I dared to question the logic of any authority, well that was usually met with a firm put down.

So given the models of authority and leadership that have been imposed on me for all of my life, is it any wonder that I’m reluctant to take on the role myself. I’ve no desire to be like any of them. Let alone put up with the flack that would inevitably come my way.

Anniversary

Around about now is the anniversary of my formally joining the writers group I’m in. I’d been attending the meetings for a few months previously, so I felt like I’d had a good introduction. I was invited along there by a woman I’d got talking to in a walking group I’d been part of for a few years. She happened to mention that she was a writer of crime novels, and although it’s not a genre that I’m particularly interested in, I had been considering getting back into memoir writing for some time. I’ll be ever grateful to her for encouraging me to come along to the group.

I don’t generally have a good track record with groups of any description but I seem to have dropped lucky with this one. I’ve rarely come across a nicer bunch of people. A previous writers group I had been in seemed to have members in it who felt they had to offer critical appraisal and advice to other members; something that was unhelpful to me, for reasons I’ll go into shortly.

In my current group everyone is genuinely respectful and interested in the work of their fellow authors. Any advice or critique is only given if solicited by the writer, and everyone is careful to be constructive and not cruel. The atmosphere is such, that I’ve found it really helpful in kickstarting my writing again. I’ve even gained a little more confidence in reading my work aloud in the presence of others. However, I still struggle with many aspects of writing and I’m still quite wary of so-called constructive criticism or advice. The reasons for this go back a long way.

I’m always surprised when people are praiseworthy of their childhood experience of school. I occasionally hear them express a desire to return to those happy days. I’m pleased for them I really am, but my own experience of education and much of childhood was horrendous. Schooling, whether at home or in the class room, was brutal and critical. The adults around me seemed more inclined to point out where I’d gone wrong than dish out anything that even vaguely smacked of praise.

When I was at primary school, I remember we were issued with new, shiney, red “Silverline” exercise books. On the back of these were a lot of arithmetical formulae, including multiplication tables from 2 to 12, and we were given these times tables as our first introduction to homework. Homework that my dad decided he was going to help me with. We sat down together at the dining table to start work, but within a few minutes he lost all patience with me, scolded me and dragged me to my room and shut me in, stating that I wouldn’t be allowed out until I’d learned them off by heart. Needless to say I was in tears, and to this day I have a clear memory of lying sobbing on my bed and wishing I could climb inside a crack in the plasterwork just above my head. I wanted to curl up and hide warm and safe in there. I struggled with figures for the rest of my life after that one formative incident.

Sadly, the rest of my education was pretty similar. At primary school most of my teachers were women, but from then on around 90% were male and many of them were pretty disciplinarian. I became quite good at the more creative subjects, and come to think of it, most of those subjects were taught by women who generally had a teaching style that was less strict than their male counterparts. So I learned to enjoy art and craftwork and, curiously, essays. The latter probably because of the creative element of storytelling. Writing and composition though, were things I learned to dread. For some reason I struggled to understand punctuation and grammar. To this day I don’t really get it, so I try to keep my style pared down to basic and simple.

Handwriting was another nightmare. I grew to hate exercises and tests. My hard work always came back with negative, sarcastic comments. Usually along the lines of likening my style to that of a spider that had walked through a pool of ink. Eventually I got to the stage of developing writer’s cramp within minutes of putting pen to paper. I even gave up cursive writing in favour of block text, which took longer but was at least readable.

For many years I avoided writing anything unless I absolutely had to. Then one day something happened that set me free. It was the creation of the word processor. God bless whoever it was that first developed that machine. I’d looked at typewriters occasionally, but decided that I would waste as much paper with one of those as with my handwriting. The thing that impressed me about word processors was that everything I typed into it appeared on a full page on the screen in front of me. Not only that, but I could save the document to be recalled later for editing. It was wonderful!

So this anniversary, for me, is one that is well worth celebrating. Because it’s the anniversary of meeting a group of people, whose kindness and non judgmental attitude have contributed to boosting my confidence considerably over the last few years. Thank you to all of you.

Trilogy

I came across this poem I wrote many years ago, and thought it seemed quite appropriate to our current situation with Covid-19. It’s not exactly cheery, but the third part is, hopefully, uplifting.

ISOLATION/LONELINESS/SOLITUDE (a trilogy).

ISOLATION.

Outcast.
Constantly trying to connect,
With eyes that look past.

A taunted leper.
Forced to ring a bell,
Not to attract, oh no,
To repel.

Held back with poles.
Lest I be touched
And contaminate,
Purer souls.

LONELINESS.

Rescuing fingertips
Just out of reach.
As your feet feel the ledge,
Crumbling beneath.

Forever falling through space.
The constant apprehension of impact,
Without its blessed release.

SOLITUDE.

Silver blue reflection fingers,
Smooth out creases
In a moonlit lake.

A crisp fresh wilderness dawn,
Pierced by the song
Of one small bird.

The gentlest collision with self.
Finding, at last,
Love at first sight.

19-04-92. 7am.

????

Warning….if you’re looking for an uplifting read, then this one isn’t for you. Just give it a miss.

I am not in the best of places right now. Like everyone else, I guess, this whole thing just gets to me. Early on I went through the Dunkirk spirit bit of the lockdown. That all for one, one for all thing that gripped the whole country. And that was fine for awhile, but now it’s starting to wear a bit thin, and I’m noticing that many are beginning to be quicker to anger or at least irritability.

I guess that’s the normal way of these things. When people’s lives are turned upside down there is bound to be a reaction. I just feel I’m surrounded by a quietly simmering rage…with a smile on the surface of it. Everybody is pretending to be okay…really.

My personal issue is that a few years ago I took the decision to pull myself out of the rut that I felt I was stuck in. I had moved to another part of the country, leaving behind all of the contacts and social outlets I had. I don’t make new relationships easily. So for quite awhile I became isolated and shutdown. I had to make a conscious effort to build a new social network. It took me several years to build it, but slowly and surely I got there. My weekly diary began to fill up to the point where it became difficult to fit everything in. As a result, my general mood lifted. I realised that I needed other people, (that is, people other than my immediate family) and the activities that go with those relationships.

Then came lockdown, and everything that I’d worked hard to build up was suddenly knocked down. Okay, things are slowly beginning to open up again, but it’s not the same. Meeting up with people while having to be mindful of staying clear of them, holding conversations while wearing masks, cleaning everything down after it’s been handled. No one considers that to be even close to normal life.

I don’t want to sound self pitying, but I feel I’m drifting into an institutionalised state of being. It’s getting harder to motivate myself into doing anything. I’m sure many people feel the same way. Even this blog post is the first one I’ve done in weeks.

I’m sure I’ll climb out of this at some point; something will shift, hopefully. It usually does.

Lockdown (or, I love you dearly……but)

Well there’s a thing. Those who know me are aware that a lot of my time working as a client, in my counselling, has been spent trying to recover from a deeply ingrained sense of isolation. It seems that I now have that in common with many others.

However, while many are literally stuck home alone, I am locked down with my wife, my stepson and his four year old daughter. This is an entirely new learning curve for all of us. I can’t speak for the other three, (although I’m quite good at observation so maybe more of them later), but I can try to lay down what I’m going through at the moment.

I lived on my own for quite a few years, and being a practical person I managed very well. But the one thing I found myself craving was human contact. Curiously, it wasn’t a need for physical contact. No, it was a need to be in the middle of a crowd. They didn’t need to be people I knew. I just needed the comfort of people milling around me going about their daily business. There was a time when I would walk regularly from my home into the city centre. Not because I had anything to shop for but just because I knew it would be a hive of activity. I would sit for ages in a cafe nursing a tea or coffee and just soak up what was going on around me. Believe me, if there is such a thing as forest bathing, then there’s also such a thing as crowd bathing.

Fast forward to today and lockdown Britain. What a contrast, empty streets, empty shops, cafes closed. Even when people do go out there is no hustle bustle, just a purposeful focused trip to the supermarket, grab what’s needed and straight back home. Most people are friendly enough, but a polite nod and a smile from a couple of metres away is all we allow each other. Then it’s move on quickly to the next item on the list. We’re all learning to be afraid of each other. It’s a bit like some bizarre form of Russian Roulette; is this the shopping trip when I catch the Covid 19 bullet?

I’m not sure how much longer this voluntary distancing from others of our species can be maintained; before it begins to badly affect people’s mental stability. That we are a social species is written into our DNA. Yes we have our hermits, but they are quite rare, and the sanity of many of them is questionable. Even our closest relatives, the great apes, monkeys and lemurs, live in clans or troupes. To take one individual out of their group causes that individual great distress. They don’t just need to be around each other either. They have a strong drive to touch, hug and groom each other. All of this activity reinforces their sense of security and belonging.

We’re really not much different from them. We might like to think of ourselves as independent and self sufficient and we strive towards that apparent ideal. At our core though, we need other people. So what about people who are locked down and isolating together, so to speak. Well, talk to any two people who have been living together as married partners for any length of time and I’m willing to bet that, as much as they still (hopefully) love each other, they have learned of certain aspects of each other’s personality and behaviour that they cannot stand.

There’s a good reason that married couples urge their offspring not to rush into marriage. Experience has taught them that the first flush of romance, that being in love stage, eventually mellows down. Then the real time consuming bit of getting to know each other begins. Hopefully, much of this is positive. But with the best will in the world, no two people can be everything to each other. As the quote goes, “you are never one, you are always two”.

We know that, if we’ve been with our partners for any length of time, that there are areas where even angels fear to tread. We’ve learned that we just don’t go there. That this person is never going to see things our way. That they are never going to see how irritating that little habit or mannerism is, that they just don’t appear to even notice in themselves. So we adapt and learn to accommodate each other’s peculiarities.

We are all individuals, and we all want and need different things. No two people can be everything to each other. So we all need to find the fulfilment of some of our needs outside of our familial group. And let’s get this straight right now, I’m not talking about anything carnal here; that’s for another writing. No, I’m talking about the things that we have learned over time that our nearest and dearest just don’t get about us. But we know that outside of this small familial circle are other people who do get us. This group of people are going to be more important than ever during lockdown.

Pandemic

If anyone had used the phrase, “mean streets of Market Bosworth” twelve months ago, Billy would have laughed in their face. This was just a sleepy old market town wasn’t it, nothing ever happened here. Oh, but how quickly things changed when that bug kicked in. So here he was defying the curfew, shuffling down back entries and trying to avoid the street lights; he was thankful there were very few of them now. He was heading to meet a dealer. Not his usual one, as he’d been taken out by a rival gang. By all accounts this new guy drove a hard bargain. Billy stepped out onto Shenton Lane, scanning up and down as he did so. Police weren’t too much of a worry, he usually fobbed them off with some sob story about his grandma being ill with the bug. No, it was the vigilante groups that were of more concern to him. More often they were made up of local gang members, and they wouldn’t take kindly to him meeting up with a rival dealer.

He slipped into the shadow of the local cemetery entrance, and there he was. A short stocky bloke who looked like he could take care of himself. Although Billy knew he wouldn’t be on his own. No, not too far away there would be a couple of heavies hidden in the shadows. These two would be checking up and down the road for police or vigilantes, but also to be on hand in case of ‘difficult’ customers.

From a respectable distance – nobody got close anymore – Billy introduced himself. The guy said nothing, but stepped over and popped the boot on his black BMW. Yes, billy thought to himself, these guys were doing pretty well out of this dark market. The trick for them was staying alive long enough to enjoy their ill gotten wealth. Cautiously billy peered over into the boot, and his heart skipped a beat. There, nestling in a sports bag, was what he had come for. He moved a little closer, oh my, he thought. Now, he knew enough to know that some of this stuff was coloured. Just a little trick to attract the punters. However, there was no trace of dye here. He looked a little closer, and there they were. The tell tale criss cross markings. These were the real McCoy. For a split second he entertained the notion of grabbing the bag and legging it, but he knew the minders would be on him in a heartbeat.

So he opened up with an offer and the haggling started. Billy was banking on the fact of this being such quality stuff, that the dealer would want to shift it quickly. He would not want to get caught with a boot full of this. He managed to get him down 50% from his starting price and handed over fifteen quid. Then he slipped his prize into the plain shopping bag he hoped would be enough of a disguise and set off for home. Secretly he hated himself for this. He should be stronger willed for god’s sake. He’d tried to go cold turkey, but the inevitable abdominal cramps just proved too much.

Safely indoors, he opened his bag and peered into its depths. He caught his breath. Oh, what bliss, what ecstasy he was going to experience, for there almost glowing in the half light at the bottom of the bag, were two pure white, quilted, luxury, toilet rolls.