A bit about grief

Note: I have lost family members (and pets) in the past, but the freshest grief in my mind as I write this is over the death of my cat George. If that makes what follows mean less to you, feel free to stop reading now. Obviously there are many aspects of grief over a pet which are different to grief over a human, but in this case the intensity of feeling is very much there. I hope that, even if you can’t relate to that, you can at least respect it.

I was going to write a blog post specifically about George, and I got most of the way there before deciding it felt too personal to share right now. It will most likely be a document I return to and add memories when they come to me. So, in this post, I’m mostly going to talk about grief in general – my experience of it and some of the conclusions I’ve come to about it. I’m posting this on the offchance that my thoughts could help somebody, or at least be interesting. I’m sure other people’s thoughts on grief may be very different, and that’s okay.

It’s also okay if you want to stop reading now, because I can’t talk about grief without talking about death a bit, and sometimes you just want to have a nice day and eat some chocolate pudding and not think about death at all. I understand. You may leave and perhaps even listen to my fun new podcast, Rainy Day Adventure Club, instead!!! … Did that feel inappropriate? Sorry, I’m trying to keep this light where I can.

First off, it is definitely true that a lot of the emotion you feel when grieving is natural and valid sadness. The feeling of missing someone, of empathising with what they went through towards the end, and of getting used to life without them – these are understandable things that it is healthy and positive to work through, even if it doesn’t always feel like it at the time.

I have come to the conclusion, however, that SOME of the awfulness you feel is purely destructive, illogical and self-pitying. I’ve caught myself several times getting very upset in ways which I don’t think are justifiable. Grief can start a chain reaction in your head, and not all of the emotional fireworks it sets off are constructive, or even all that relevant to the person (or animal) you’ve lost.

Six fun horrendous ways to grieve:

1. Think about what YOU went through – all the worrying you did, all the ways you tried to help, all the things you never got to do or say. Replay choice scenes over and over in your head, with an emphasis on the most minute but upsetting details. (This one is particularly sneaky because it can disguise itself as empathy for the person you’ve lost. You think you’re thinking about what THEY went through, but then you realise “Hey, wait a minute. That detail was something I fixated on, it was probably irrelevant to their experience.” And hopefully you can start separating out some of the things you’re feeling into little piles of sadness – actual grief over here, self-pity over there. It’s hard to stop feeling self-pity entirely, but I’ve found it helpful to recognise it for what it is.)

2. Bargain with higher powers you don’t believe in. (Yep, I have discovered I’m a fairweather atheist at best. Still, I usually snap out of this fairly quickly, reasoning that any higher powers worthy of the title would not need me to grovel before them in order to save an innocent life.)

3. Blame yourself, even though the intellectual side of you knows perfectly well it’s not your fault. (I’ve mentioned this before, but if anyone knows how to get the intellectual and emotional sides of your brain talking to each other, please do let me know.)

4. Snuff out any moments of joy that try to sneak into your life, worried in case the person you’ve lost is watching you from somewhere and would feel hurt that you are momentarily happy. (This one is especially insane, since if they loved you they would obviously, OBVIOUSLY want you to be happy. Also, if they ARE watching you from somewhere, guess what? That means there’s an afterlife of some sort, which is probably good enough news to make up for any temporarily hurt feelings. Seriously, worrying about this is like worrying in case you win the lottery and then stub your toe on one of your massive wads of cash.)

5. Brood about how everything ends in death. (May be true, but there is no logical reason to dwell on the endings of things – endings do not invalidate what came before. In the case of George’s life, there is so much more happy stuff to choose from than there is of the sad stuff that came along in the last few weeks. If I remember the sad stuff, which is now just as firmly and definitively in the past as the happy stuff, the mass of happy stuff ought, by rights, to pile on top of it, dwarfing it into near insignificance. He got to live a happy life. I got to know him. Those should be the headlines.)

6. Start crying, cry for a while, keep crying, cry for a bit longer, then eventually realise this has turned into a self-perpetuating cry, where you’re crying about how much you’re crying and how sad it is that you’re this sad. (And we’re back to self-pity again. That has been an unwelcome theme for me lately, but I think I’m edging slowly closer to realising that sobbing into the bathroom sink isn’t necessarily the best way to honour the memory of someone I love.)

But what IS the best way to honour the memory of someone you love? That’s a big question. At the moment I’m leaning towards two ways:

1. Be happy. If they loved you, they would want you to be happy. That’s more or less the definition of love.

2. Think about what you learned from them, the ways in which they made you a better person, and inscribe those lessons on your soul. George, for example, was an antidote to cynicism – any time I was down, and felt tempted to care a little less about the world, five minutes of cuddling him would stop those thoughts in their tracks, and convince me that love is about the only thing that matters, and that it is worth any amount of pain to experience it. It’s a lesson I think he will teach me again and again as I look back on the years we had together. His death does not erase or diminish one second of those years, years for which I will always be inexpressibly grateful.

I am sure I will continue to have good days and bad days, but writing this has definitely made me feel better. So, I guess if I have one piece of advice for anyone grieving, it is that you should find a way to process what you are feeling – whether it’s by writing it down, talking to someone, listening to music – whatever works for you. And as hard as it is, try to only feel sad about the things that are worth feeling sad about, and let all the miscellaneous crappy feelings and self-pity fall by the wayside. They have nothing to do with who you’ve lost, and you don’t need them.

New year’s blues

Warning: self-pity ahead! But also a lovely flower. So … it balances out, right?

January is definitely in the running for my least favourite month of the twelve. This is odd, since it comes after the always-stressful December, and many people treat it as a welcome chance to finally relax a bit and/or make a fresh start, pretending all the mistakes they made last year don’t count because the last digit of the year has ticked around. But I’ve found it rarely works that way for me. Instead I end up unable to shake off December’s exhaustion, while at the same time yearning for the sense of purpose and excitement I had in the lead-up to Christmas. So I slump around for a while, unable to muster up the motivation to do anything useful, until shame gets all up in my face and forces me to make a set of late resolutions and get myself semi-organised for a while.

This year (well, last year, I suppose) I thought up a way to transform this post-new-year slump into a more exciting and invigorating time: I promised all the people closest to me that I would give them my novel on the 1st of January. For context, this is the novel I’ve written about here before under the codename Project Snails, the massive fantasy novel I’ve been working on for – yep, I think it’s officially been more than half my life now.

So that happened. I half expected it not to. I’d been pushing back the deadline for the handover for a long time, and until recently I couldn’t imagine living in a world where people other than me had access to the stories and places and characters in my head. But now a select few other people have seen that stuff – they’ve experienced the stories, met the characters, frolicked through the places I created. Some have even finished the novel and given me feedback. None of this process turned out to be as scary as I’d expected. I’d expected to be so terrified at the prospect of people reading my precious words that I would run away screaming the moment any of them tried to bring it up in conversation. But in the end it all felt a bit low-key. Pleasant, but low-key – as I should have expected from my pleasant, low-key family and friends.

I don’t know what massive changes I was expecting in my life upon showing the novel to other people. I suppose the most delusional part of me thought that maybe my family and friends would be so hypnotised by mere contact with such a masterpiece that they’d take it upon themselves to break down the doors of every major publisher in the land, demanding that it be read, and after the first page the publishers’ eyes would light up and they would say “Wow, this is amazing – totally fresh and unique! Not even remotely a rip-off of Terry Pratchett or Philip Pullman or George R. R. Martin! This must be read by the world! We’ll publish in every known language, from Klingon to Welsh! And by the way, I also own HBO, do you mind if we make a series out of this?”

But really it’s not a sense of anticlimax that’s got to me. It’s the fact that the thing I’ve been pouring myself into for years is – well, not quite finished, since I still have to do some rewrites based on feedback, but – it’s out there. It’s no longer in my head. It’s no longer my big secret, the thing that made me different from other people, the double life that made me feel somewhat special, special enough not to mind that my actual, single life, measured against other people’s, is something of a disaster. What I’ve been doing throughout most of my adult years (with the possible exception of my time at university) is the equivalent of carrying armfuls of chips (the casino kind – I haven’t quite lost my mind that much yet) to a roulette table and stacking them all on red, awaiting a single spin that will take place at some ill-defined point in the future. Thanks to this singular and risky focus, I have no real employable skills. Or any other kind of skills, really – social skills being a key example.

This is all getting a bit depressing, isn't it? Here's a picture of a flower to make up for it.
Is this getting too self-pitying now? Okay, here’s that lovely flower I promised.

All I have is this novel. And I’ve been quite openly fooling myself into believing that that’s all I need, that all the other ingredients for a full and happy life will spring forth from it some day. “Hmm, I feel crushingly lonely today. Should I take some risks and go out and try to meet new people? Nooo, that’s scary and I’m rubbish at it, and besides, when I get my book published I’ll get to meet lots of new people, and they’ll be so impressed by my writing skill that they’ll want to be friends with me straight away, and I won’t end up getting rejected.” I’m aware that this isn’t how relationships work, but if I’m honest with myself, it’s the sort of twisted logic that’s been behind a lot of my decision-making over the past ten years.

Since new year’s day, my mind has had little to do other than reflect on all this. (Can you tell?) And that has led me into one of the deepest depressions of my life. I’m questioning everything, primarily my writing skill, upon which a large chunk of “everything” directly depends. I don’t know if my first proper novel is any good, and if it is I don’t know if I’m capable of writing anything that good ever again. I’ve been trying to come up with an idea for a short novel to churn out in the next few months to reassure myself, but rather than reassuring me this process has only deepened my depression, as I run up against various walls – mostly an alarming lack of life experience which prevents me from having anything meaningful to say about the majority of potential subjects. I’m still trying to come up with something that really sparks my interest, but trying to spark your interest when you’re depressed is like trying to light a campfire built with damp wood.

It’s February now, and it’s dispiriting that the gloom has lasted so far into the new year. Today was particularly bad, in a crying on the bathroom floor sort of way. I’m grateful to say my depression very rarely gets as extreme as that, and I’m already feeling significantly better (partly for having written this post). Hopefully today was just an odd anomaly rather than a harbinger of my mind’s future trajectory as all the dreams are stripped away and I see the reality of where I am. If reality always feels like today, I’d rather find a way to sustain the dreams. It can’t be that hard – after all, I’ve been doing it for most of my life.

Despite the fact that this post was mostly written for my own benefit, I will say to anyone else who may have made it this far … I hope, if you have the new year’s blues, or any other kind of blues, that they clear up soon. Everyone deserves to be happy, so if you have any choice in the matter, let yourself. Thanks for reading.

Diiiieeee…t

I’ve been overweight for as long as I can remember. Like most traits that are with you from early childhood, it felt inherent to me and I didn’t think about it. I didn’t really think much about myself as a person at all, but that’s a story for a much longer and stranger blog post. So I was into my 20s before I even thought about trying to change.

In early 2010, after some highly unscientific and often medically inadvisable attempts at losing weight, I finally decided to try a more sensible route and signed up to the online version of Weight Watchers. I followed their plan to the letter, adding up the points information for everything I ate and refusing to go over my daily allowance. Over the course of the year I lost 6 stone, also known as 38 kg or 84 lb. I still wasn’t quite at my target weight, but I was tantalisingly close. I felt healthier than I think I’d ever felt before, and I even started to feel a bit more confident in myself.

Not like my life
Not like my life
Then Weight Watchers made the switch to the new ProPoints system. This was enough to upset the rhythm I had fallen into. Enough, at least, that I got lazy and didn’t bother counting points for a few days.

If this had been an episode of a heartwarming teen sitcom I would have been too scared to look at the scales at my next weigh-in, so I would have made one of my witty and attractive friends look at them instead, and they would have gasped “I can’t believe it” and I would have said “Oh god, how much have I gained” and they would have said “You’ve LOST 2 pounds” and we would have hugged and I would have learned that it was never Weight Watchers that was making me lose weight – it was me all along.

Like my life
Like my life
But if my life is any sort of sitcom it’s one of those modern, slightly depressing ones with Ricky Gervais and without a laugh track, so that didn’t happen. In real life, I (ironically) didn’t have the guts to weigh myself that week, or for several weeks after. And the only lesson I learned was that the system I had been forcing myself to live by for the better part of the year was in fact optional! The need to point everything I ate was just a lie I had been telling myself! If I felt like eating a teensy bit more than my points allowance, er, allowed, I could do so, and the world would not explode!

This dangerous knowledge sent my weight spiralling back upwards like a confused young muggle-born wizard on a helter skelter. In classic pre-2010 Alex style I persisted in eating way too much on a regular basis, each time clinging to some Zeno’s paradox-esque notion that no one mouthful of food can ever be the one that sends you over the edge into morbid obesity. I rediscovered over-eating with all its highs (yay, I get to eat this whole massive bag of sour Skittles!) and lows (aw no, I just ate that whole massive bag of sour Skittles).

Since then I’ve been trying absolutely everything I can think of to get back on the diet and stay on it, but the longest this has lasted is a couple of months. This puts me in the uniquely annoying position of envying the Alex I was in late 2010, an Alex who felt relatively happy about himself, who could go outside in summer without immediately sweating from every conceivable corner of his body, who received the occasional compliment, who actually had days of feeling slightly like a real person.

Sour Skittles
My 19 ProPoint nemesis
The problem now, and it’s a rather clich├ęd one I’m afraid, is that I feel as if I’m not the same person from one day to the next. One of me can be as determined as he likes that he’s not going to exceed his points allowance, but that does nothing to stop another, less disciplined me from coming along a few days later and ruining it. And once one day is ruined, my motivation drains away and it takes a while to find that determined side again.

Of course, this is all just a poor excuse for my lack of discipline. Here’s another one: judging from my family history I probably have a tendency towards addiction encoded into my genes. I’ve mostly dealt with this by never trying anything I might end up addicted to. But sadly that isn’t really an option with food. I’m sure dealing with a drug addiction is much more serious and harrowing than what I’m talking about, but it has one simplifying factor: in most cases there is the option, however hard, of cutting yourself off entirely from your drug of choice.

But if you have an eating problem (I won’t say disorder, as I don’t want to trivialise other people’s more life-threatening problems), guess what? No matter where you go, you’re going to be constantly surrounded by food. And – double guess what? You need to have some of it in order to survive. And generally, no one’s going to tell you when to stop eating. You have to decide on your own, based on numerous factors such as: 1) mmm, this is delicious, 2) eating it feels so great, 3) I have nothing much else to feel great about right now, 4) just a few more mouthfuls aren’t going to make any noticeable difference to my weight, and anyway, 5) I already screwed up yesterday, so I’m going to gain weight this week whatever I do, and 6) it’s not as if people are even going to like me any more if I drop this extra little bit of weight – yeah, they might be more willing to give me a chance, but when they do they’ll find I’m still horribly dysfunctional in all these other socially unacceptable ways, and they’ll be just as disgusted by me, and in some ways that’s even worse than just being rejected straight away for being fat, and finally, 7) mmm, that was delicious.

(Whew, this post has taken a turn for the self-pitying, hasn’t it? Yeah, I know being overweight isn’t the worst problem in the world. But how many problems are?)

If I have any advice to give – though perhaps my story suggests that I do not – it’s that losing weight requires you to know yourself. I, for example, know that I can never trust myself to “forget about” the points system for just one day – that day turns into a week, then a month, then three months – so now I no longer take days off from my diet. I also know that objectively insignificant milestones like the first day of a week or month are for some reason psychologically important to me, and that if I want to feel like I’m making a fresh start, they are the best times to do so. And finally there’s this:

100 Days Without Messing Up My Diet

I actually stole this idea from myself: the detective character in Project Bubble, my probably defunct webseries, uses a similar cardboard contraption to keep track of how many cases he’s solved. The idea taps into my determination to progress in some measurable way – the longer I go without messing up my diet, the more determined I am not to break the streak.

My current 100 day streak makes me pretty determined. The question is: will the version of me who wakes up tomorrow be just as determined?

I hope so.

Graduation

When I was 13 I dropped out of school, due to what I’ve come to interpret as a vicious circle of being bullied and being a weird child. I was home educated for a while, then did some Highers through college (though almost entirely from home). The vicious circle became less about bullying and more about finding it very hard to make friends or even meet people.

The vicious circle was already beginning to break by the time I started university, thanks to a very accepting and gradually expanding group of friends. I think acceptance may be the only thing that could have broken it. I wasn’t going to get any less weird just sitting on my own all day every day trying to write fantasy novels.

But in terms of structure and sense of forward progression through life, going to university was an important and scary step for me. I hadn’t attended an educational institution regularly since my two sporadic years at high school, which had been a horrible depressing nightmare. I honestly had no idea if I would make it through the first week of uni without having one of my old panic attacks and fleeing out the door never to return.

I graduated on Wednesday. (Thanks to my mum and brother for the following photos.)

Me standing with some people.
Me shaking hands with a man.
Me in front of a castle with a bit of paper.

The whole experience was incredibly challenging and yet reassuring. Not only did I somehow manage to fool some more nice people into being friends with me, I was able to function well enough to write essays on time, attend almost all my classes, pass exams and eventually graduate with a First Class Honours Degree. Not exactly walking on the moon, but just a few years back I would never have thought this possible.

Forgive me for building such a simplistic narrative around these cherry-picked events from my life. Not everything has changed. I’m still not exactly confident. I’m still jobless and living with my parents. I’m not much fun at parties. But progress seems possible now.

It’d be nice to think that some other insecure person might read this blog post and take some sort of lesson from it. But that’s assuming a lot, and I’m suspicious of those who dish out advice indiscriminately as if people are all the same. In truth I’m not sure there’s any broader lesson here than, if you’re me and it’s 2008, you should go to Napier and study English. Well, I guess that’s something.

If you’re me and it’s 2008, you should go to Napier and study English. Trust me on this.