[we’re all mad here] on the other side of now

It’s August 2014, and as I write, for the first time in my life my mental illnesses are countable as being in remission.

I’ve more or less abandoned this blog of late. It’s a shame, and I shouldn’t have, but the girl who wrote the other [we’re all mad here] entries feels like a different person. I don’t recognise her voice. I remember writing them, but six months out of the trenches and I feel like I’ve left her behind.

The past is a foreign country.

I’ve mentioned a few times, to the friends who’ve only known me as being well, that for the last five years or so I’ve felt like half a person. Clearing out my old folders last night – preparing to move cities for uni – I was struck by a powerful sadness at all the things I’ve missed; all the things I half-remember. I was so absent from my life. The first half of my twenties more or less disappeared into the fog, and the people I’ve loved and lost only got parts of me. I was so unaware of how ill I was. I was so unaware that it was even possible to live differently.

I’m not kidding myself that I am free and easy in the land of the mentally healthy. Not until recently have I dared to describe this as remission, and as for the other r-word – recovered – you won’t find me saying it any time soon. That would be invoking the Wrath of the Whatever from High Atop the Thing. It will come back. I know it will. I just feel like now, I know it can be different. I can let it wash over me, but I know that it need not necessarily consume me. For the first time I understand that the power struggle does not have to end with my concession.

It’s been awful. But I’m here. I’m alive. I’m enjoying people. I’m nervous, excited, but not petrified about starting another degree, and I’m attached enough to my life and my friends that moving is bittersweet. I need to stop starting stories with the phrase ‘so that was after my mental breakdown – well, one of them…’ – but on the other hand, it’s my history and I’ll keep talking because openness is the only way to show that it’s not shameful. Painful and at times, embarassing, but not shameful. Just one part of who I am.

Thanks-Offering for Recovery, by Robert Lowell

The airy, going house grows small
tonight, and soft enough to be crumpled up
like a handkerchief in my hand.
Here with you by this hotbed of coals,
I am the homme sensuel, free
to turn my back on the lamp, and work.
Something has been taken off,
a wooden winter shadow –
goodbye nothing. I give thanks, thanks –
thanks too for this small
Brazilian ex voto, this primitive head
sent me across the Atlantic by my friend…
a corkweight thing,
to be offered Deo gratias in church
on recovering from head-injury or migraine –
now mercifully delivered in my hands,
though shelved awhile unnoticing and unnoticed.
Free of the unshakeable terror that made me write…
I pick it up, a head holy and unholy,
tonsured or damaged,
with gross black charcoaled brows and stern eyes
frowning as if they had seen the splendor
times past counting… unspoiled,
solemn as a child is serious –
light balsa wood, the color of my skin.
It is all childcraft, especially
its shallow, chiseled ears,
crudely healed scars lumped out
to listen to itself, perhaps, not knowing
it was made to be given up.
Goodbye nothing, Blockhead,
I would take you to church,
if any church would take you…
This winter, I thought
I was created to be given away.

[2013] time to start working on a nerdy little Xmas

Long time no blog. It’s December 1st and I’m starting to think about this year’s nerdy Xmas cards. Last year’s had some very bad cartoons, such as:

curiosityfinal

and

Text: Charles wondered if Mrs. Darwin's Christmas wishlist wasn't a bit of a wind-up.

Text: Charles wondered if Mrs. Darwin’s Christmas wishlist wasn’t a bit of a wind-up.

I also made my then-bf a Higgs Boson tree ornament.

See, it's a Higgs Boson...

See, it’s a Higgs Boson…

... but sometimes he's a bit publicity-shy.

… but sometimes he’s a bit publicity-shy.

And now for some form of inspiration to strike…

through the lens

When I make a photograph, I am literally cropping out the rest of existence — its tension, its chaos, its hunger, its pain. For one small moment, I wall myself into a world of my own creation; a world where things may not make immediate narrative or logical sense, but where everything is in balance. Thin, almost pencil-drawn lines offset wide, flat spaces. The smooth hardness of glass acts as counterweight to the fine hairs of a polyester wig. I don’t have any pretensions of long-term escape. I know when I put the camera down, when I step back from the print, there will be something like an avalanche of smells and voices, car alarms and newspaper headlines, legal obligations and biological concerns.

I will be a part of things again over which I have no control. But for a moment, I have hidden long enough to take a breath.

Tim Lisko

I love this quote. He sums up the act of photography, for me. I’m not a professional, and I’m not even all that comfortable calling myself a photographer. I just love to make pictures. There’s a simplicity to viewing the world through an internal lens. There’s a real beauty to framing a scene just so; to understand the elements of a picture and work out how best to reveal that vision through my camera is a process less technical than instinctual for me.

I get asked sometimes whether photographing an event distracts me from what’s happening at the time. I don’t think it does – I actually think, sometimes, that a camera makes me more mindful of what’s going on in front of me. I recall events not as two-dimensional tableaux, but as dynamic, fired with movement, full of all the senses. A sidelong grin, a hand gesture, the colours of lights. I seal the moment in its entirely into my mind; I access it again through my images. Is it work shooting events? Sure it is. Is it a disadvantage to my overall experience? Absolutely not.

Getting that one great shot is a constant challenge. I take many more frames than I’ll ever need to use, but that one, that perfect one, is elusive. Iconic photos stay in the mind like constant zeitgeistish scenery, and you aim for one. Of course you do. You feel that Corbijn or Cartier-Bresson or Leibovitz looked at their most famous shots and thought, yep, that’s one for the record books. You can’t know either way. Do images stay iconic because they have a higher intrinsic quality than their peers, or do we self-perpetuate images as iconic?

I will probably never know that an image is the one, the most important, the absolute best it could be. Most of us will never be Carter in Rwanda; most of us will never see something that absolutely needs recording, needs to be seen. We just work on and hope that we stumble over that wily quarry at some point in our lives.

I love taking photos. I have that love that Lisko enthuses over in his artist’s statement – grabbing a moment’s peace out of chaos, finding at least one rectangle of world that is your vision and only yours. I love the instinct and the certainty of framing an image. With words, I self-edit and second-guess. With a photo, I’ll only try to change it for the better. It’s a freedom of expression granted by control – I can give of myself in photographs more than in words, because photos are, at the same time, intensely personal and entirely objective. It’s a beautiful contradiction, a beautiful balance. It’s just beautiful.

My photos live here. I’m definitely no Annie Leibovitz.

pulling a boat over a mountain

About nine months ago I did something very foolish, and now I’m just waiting for results.

Unprotected optimism, kids. Not even once.

In recent years, I’ve had a lot of health problems. I’ve suffered from depression for a long time, but about four or five years ago it ramped up from occasionally awful to totally debilitating for long periods. I got through some bits of uni with the help of deadline extensions, accommodating lecturers, and the best counsellor I could have had. In fourth year I started having real problems. I signed up to do a dissertation, then totally cracked up not long before the hand-in date and had to pull out of the year. I tried fourth year again the following academic year but had another breakdown in the spring.

I went on medical leave not long after, and tried to do the work in my own time to be ready to sit the exams.

You can guess how well that one went.

The past year or so has been better. My doctor switched around my meds to the most helpful combination I’ve had yet; I put in serious mental-health-related work; I applied for and was granted disability benefit, allowing me stop worrying about finding and being unable to do full-time work. And I decided to finish this degree for once and for all.

I did warn that this probably included too much optimism.

So in September I confirmed to college that I was going to sit the goddamn exams in May and breakdowns be damned. I don’t think I swore in the emails to my tutor, but I wouldn’t blame him if he did on receiving them. He is seriously great, but I’ve been the most annoying tutee I can imagine. I contacted all my lecturers and got the reading lists, then I bought textbooks. Any resurgence in the Irish economy last autumn was down to me and my dealings in Hodges Figgis. I could build a small house with the stacks of books, paper, and folders in my room – and they’ve probably cost me about as much as that small house would.

Then I looked at the calendar, saw that May was a long way off, and applied myself sort of patchily to work.

Autumn was fine; winter less so. I fell into a bad depression from about the middle of January until the start of March, and woke up out of it to find that I had two months until exams and quite a lot of stuff to do.

The rest is unfortunate history, and anyone who’s had me on Twitter over the last few months has seen the process. Insomnia, blasphemy, the odd midnight anxiety attack, far too big a reliance on tea and Diet Coke to substitute for sleep, and having to find and stream all of this season’s Doctor Who because I kept reading too long and missing it.

I’m being light-hearted, but teaching myself final-year law is probably the craziest thing I’ve ever undertaken. I keep forgetting that it’s a pretty exceptional thing to do and giving out to myself for not reaching the standard that my pre-mental illness self would have wanted. I’m not going to get a 1.1. I’d be happy with any honour, to be honest, but at this point I’ll take what I get. I’m just glad it’s over.

I don’t really know what baseline anxiety is for people without anxiety disorders. My friends say I’m knurd – so far past sober that I need two drinks just to be normal. Even so, I don’t recommend taking on a large and mostly unsupervised project like this. In general, too! Getting through this with my small claim to my sanity intact has required an iron grip on my brain. I did mindfulness therapy last year and, while at the time I thought it was a bit of a waste of time, I think some bits of it stuck. A grounding exercise, reminding myself that I only have to take care of this point in time and not all of the other, dreadfully intimidating, points, was useful.

(The bit of me that thinks it’s codswallop kept pointing out that that current moment was pretty hopeless too, but I mostly managed to keep her mouth shut.)

I sat the exams in the past few weeks, and did mostly okay. There’s only one I’m worried about, but I think that just about hit ‘okay’ too. I’ll know in a few weeks. I had one bit of coursework, which I handed in on time and pretty okay also. I came home from the last exam on Monday, drank a lot of wine, and have been as much asleep as awake ever since. It’s bloody lovely. I’d forgotten how nice books were when I don’t have to memorise them.

I think I’m going to be prouder of this when I know the results. I find it hard to see just getting there as an accomplishment (as I said to a frustrated parent, passing is the point – I could walk into my boyfriend’s college, sit his quantum mechanics exam, and fail it). Still, learning six subjects in a generally self-directed manner, fighting off several mental illnesses, and still having a partner, friends, and family speaking to me at the end of it is pretty good.

I can see that much.

A quick thank-you: you bunch of lovable [space] oddities on the internet have been a wonderful source of support. My Twitter friends and acquaintances have done more than they know to keep me sane(-ish) over this year. The 24-hour revolving pub door of Twitter is a support system and a distraction mechanism all at once. Twitter friends, you are bloody brilliant.

2013: Year of Getting Shit Done. And how.

[2013] exams and a total placeholder of a post

For reasons I’m not going into until the blasted things are over, I’m currently sitting final-year exams. I’m trying not to talk about them all the time, because there’s probably not much more boring than post-mortems of somebody else’s exam papers, or pre-game monologuing about subjects you have never sat**.

I have one down, five to go, and I’ll be done on the 20th of the month. I may be able to persuade myself to write something non-work-related on here before then. If not, this blog will be back properly in about two weeks’ time.

Well, two weeks plus about seventy-two consecutive hours that I’m reserving for sleep.

** because you’re a sensible person and I’m a masochistic idiot.

[2013] (I think)

2013: Year of Getting Shit Done.

This week I accomplished one of the bigger items on my Shit To Get Done list. I wrote a college essay – 4000-ish words, footnoted and referenced and all that jazz – ahead of time, sans panic attacks, and reasonably well.

This doesn’t sound like a massive deal if you don’t know that I’ve been on various forms of medical leave from uni for several years, and that in that time I have neither been able to finish an assignment or sit an exam. I love learning, I love reading, and I love writing, but my anxiety disorder has taken those pleasures away from me, of late. I am as surprised as I am pleased that I seem to have regained at least some of that ability.

I don’t know my exam dates yet (I have to sit my final exams this May) and I am terrified already, but behind the fear there’s a core of feeling that I’d forgotten I ever had. The tiny centre of resolve that sits somewhere in your chest and says, yes, I know it’s awful, but you can see it through.

I won’t do spectacularly well, but I’ll see it through. I won’t be pleased with the results, but I’ll be pleased that I did it.

And then I’m going to stand under the Campanile and dance a bloody jig.

(I can’t speak to the veracity of the third bit of that post. However, there is another one that says if you climb to the top of the Campanile, you get a guaranteed 1.1 for the year, but the Provost is allowed try to shoot you out of it with a crossbow. The older the academic institution, the weirder the legends get.)

These days, the piece of jewellery I wear most is this pendant. It’s a copy of the page from Darwin’s notebook where he first doodled a tree of evolution, and added over it, ‘I think’.

I wear it because I find it increasingly important to remember that even the biggest of ideas started off as a scratch on the corner of a piece of paper.

questions on a grand scale

It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.

— Carl Sagan

There is certainly something to be said for perspective.

I am not a scientist. I read and watch a lot of popular science because it fascinates me. I want to learn and understand everything I can about the world in which I live and the laws by which it functions. I am aware that this knowledge only just about allows me know how very little I will ever know, but science is a heady drug. And I’ve definitely gained a lot of perspective.

Being reminded every so often that you are the result of millions of years of evolution – a mid-stage example of your species, by all accounts – and that you reside on a rock hurtling around one of an unfathomably large number of stars in an ever-expanding universe will do that to you.

Oh, did you mean perspective in the ‘expect the mundane’ sense? Sorry. I heard it in the Douglas Adams sense.

Coming to hobbyist science reading as an adult is a strange experience. I studied general science up until Junior Cert level (that’s GCSE equivalent). Then I looked at my overall aptitudes and decided that, although I’m sure I would’ve made an adequate scientist, I would rather be an excellent humanities student. I ditched science, hopped into the modern languages driving seat, and left behind me only dust.

Of course, it didn’t help that up until then, I had never encountered any science education that had grabbed me. Biology was a collection of sets of diagrams to label and memorise. Physics, as explained through pictures with little arrows showing vectors but no real-life examples, looked stultifying dull. Chemistry was an unending series of covalent bonds – although, no, I’m being unfair to chemistry here. It provided the only specific memory I have of that class: one day our teacher wanted to show us the reactive qualities of sodium in water. Unfortunately, she used slightly too much of the sodium, and it displayed its reactive qualities very nicely. No-one ever painted over the scorch marks, though.

There’s nothing more dulling to a child’s enthusiasm and capability for awe than a textbook that gives you the basics but leaves out the bigger picture. It’s very important to know the fundamentals, certainly – I would argue that a knowledge of basic human biology is a necessity for everyone, considering you own and live in a body, and Newtonian physics gives you the physical laws within which you work (until you take up lightspeed travel as a hobby). It is fairly soporific, though, if you don’t understand why you’re learning all of this.

If, on my first day of secondary school, someone had Total Perspective Vortex-ed me (“Hello! You are the universe understanding itself! You’re made of stuff from the hearts of stars! You’re an astonishingly complicated evolved mechanism! Now you’d better get to work on figuring out HOW!”), I’m guessing I would’ve dug in with a bit more relish.

This is the balancing act that popular science must perform, then: educate, entertain, and arouse curiosity. Good popsci should leave you, at the end of the book/programme, standing at a crossroads: do you want to leave this topic where you are and just enjoy what you have experienced, or do you want to learn more in-depth? That accessibility is the key, in my opinion. You let down your audience both by overloading them with the nitty-gritty, and by failing to render the reader able to own the topic and relate it to herself.

I started this post with Carl Sagan; there is a reason he’s known as the foremost ambassador of popular science. Reading Sagan is like being spoken to by a warm, knowledgeable friend. He understood that education is important, but that inspiration to learn only comes from the ability to retain a sense of wonder. He, and your Feynmans, Attenboroughs, Moores, and the rest, became or have become in their lifetimes the doyens of gentle guidance into science education. It’s a fine line to walk between show and tell.  Both facets should leave a little to the imagination.

Certainly no-one should think that every day in the life of a working scientist is a spot of proton collision in the morning, driving Curiosity around in the afternoon, and dinner at Stephen Hawking’s place. Every job has its day-to-day requirements and its frankly boring sides.

I just don’t know any doctors who chose their profession because of all the paperwork.

If science writing doesn’t make you feel you are in touch with something greater than yourself, it’s bad science writing.

Oh, I don’t mean God, or a god or gods. I’ve had more than enough of gods and religion to do me a lifetime. I’m talking about matter and about history. I’m talking about that which drives us to wonder about the world, which makes us the most inquisitive and self-aware of creatures. That which lies beyond our tiny, transient lives. It is a fundamental ingredient in the human condition that we feel this wonder and seek to understand it. Some people find their answers in religion. Some people find their answers in science. These are not mutally exclusive – I have friends who are empirical, logical thinkers when it comes to questions of the tangible world, but who retain their faith in God.

If you think that scientists are trying to keep people in unseeing ignorance by trying to make a religion out of science, you are either misguided or wilfully misunderstanding. This is one of the most beautiful things about communicated science: the writer isn’t a minister, isn’t imbued with special supernatural powers, isn’t infallible. They are a person with an aptitude for science who has chosen to share their work. You or I could have the same knowledge with a bit of luck and a lot of hard graft.

Think of sitting in a university lecture and fuming that the professor is trying to make him/herself seem like the possessor of esoteric knowledge by detailing the import in the world of the subject as a whole. Ludicrous.

Two childhood scenes:

1) I am about 8 and still very, fearfully Catholic. My grandmother has given me a book about guardian angels. The book assures me that my guardian angel sits at the end of my bed at night and watches over me. There is no further explanation offered. I read to the end of the book and am still without an explanation of this stranger who turns up invisibly and hangs around in my room all night. I don’t ask questions, though. If I do, God might think I’m being cheeky. I put away the book.

2) I am still about 8. I get an encyclopaedia for my birthday and start reading about the solar system. It is incredible; I am incredulous. How do they know all of this? Why can’t I see the planets and moons when I look in the sky? I turn the page. I learn about Voyager and Hubble and Mir. I think this is brilliant. I have questions and I get answers. No-one tells me I’m wrong for asking questions.

A seed is sown.

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern – of which I am a part… What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. — Richard Feynman