Thursday, January 08, 2015

Ten Years : Ten : This Is The Day

It is the morning of Thursday January the 8th 2015.
Exactly a decade ago, on Saturday January the 8th 2005, I woke up feeling awful. My last memory of the previous night was sitting next to Helen on the sofa in front of the television, and her having to dive to catch the tumbler of gin and tonic that had just dropped from my hand. This was not a remarkable occurrence.
Later that following morning, I loaded Helen’s car with some recycling to take to the depot and in so doing, allowed our cat Poppy to leave the house from the front door on to the busy street. There was no sign of her. My temper became frayed and a row escalated between Helen and me, before I drove off to the depot. My thoughts and feelings were of remorse and anxiety. I didn’t want to feel like this. I wanted to do something, take a decisive action, that would stop me from feeling like this so much of the time.
When I got home, Poppy had returned unharmed and Helen and I were reconciled. That felt like life’s acknowledgement of my offer to do something decisive.
So prompted, I decided there and then that the previous night’s tumbling tumbler was to have been my last drink, ever.
We went to a party on the other side of Scotland that night, surrounded by people who’d got there by walking, all merrily carousing. It was the right thing to do. I managed to hide my resolution from our hosts and even from Helen by being the driver.
What kept me going through the first few days and weeks was that sense of reclaimed control. I’d made a decision and it was mine to enact, conceal, and selectively reveal as I chose. I gradually mentioned to smaller and larger groups that I was having a dry month, and when they’d got used to that idea, a dry life. As I passed a week, a month, and then wonderfully, a year, I became very attached to marking off the time.
Asperger’s, or possibly just being a Doctor Who fan, draws me powerfully to the habit of marking anniversaries. The only way to measure not doing something is to count the elapsed time you have not done it. I can’t tell you how many units of alcohol I have not drunk, how many brain cells I have not destroyed, how many stares have not lingered inappropriately, how many productive hours have not been lost, how many working days not abandoned, how many times I have not pissed myself in public, how many domestic or family arguments I have not started, how many hotel and restaurant toilets I have not vomited in, or how many times I have not been asked to leave or not refused entry to licensed establishments.
But I can tell you how many days I have not drunk for. Three thousand six hundred and fifty-two.
I can also tell you how many times I have regretted stopping drinking. Zero.
This fixation with anniversaries has meant that I have wanted it to be today for a very long time indeed. One year ago, my mind was dominated by the thought that there was just another year to go before I could tell people that I had reached this milestone. That remaining year between then and now somehow felt more important than the previous nine. To reach today, it seems, is very very important indeed to me.
Today, I feel a sense of euphoric relief, even though there hasn’t been any jeopardy, ever really, that I’d falter. That’s partly down to Asperger’s – I’d have felt utterly uncomfortable diverging from any sort of plan, or compromising the new identity I chose in 2005.
I don’t think I’m unique in celebrating anniversaries. Perhaps, like birthdays, they’re a hangover from a less predictable time when reaching another year was something that could not so readily be relied upon. They’re not about celebrating what has happened, but that unspoken fears have not come to pass.
But today, I celebrate more than just the absence of negatives. Having considered and observed what the last ten years have brought me, I can see growth, maturity and kindness, to others and to myself. I no longer feel the remorse of ten years ago.
I have reached the point on the horizon towards which I have been walking.
Today, I give myself permission to smile.


Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Ten Years : Nine : Not Going It Alone

As I write this, I’ve flourished without drinking for nine years and three hundred and sixty-four days. In that time I’ve run eight marathons, and I’ve lost over three stone in weight. I’ve become politically active and I’ve rebuilt my relationship with my family. I will allow myself to feel some self-satisfaction at all this. I’m only human.
But I mention these just because they are mere trifles compared to the thing from which I derive more comfort than anything else: I have been married to Helen for nearly eleven years. Yes, I derive comfort, but also a significant and separate sense of accomplishment.
A respected friend recently commented that he couldn’t see any distinction between what I’ve been calling sobriety and what he sees as simply growing up. I agree with him. My growing up has enabled and itself been further enabled by my removing alcohol, but they practically amount to the same thing.
I’m usually an introvert, often a loner, and seldom a partner or a joiner-in. As soon as it was financially viable I lived alone, and in my entire bachelor working life, I spent fewer than six months living in multiple occupation. I never countenanced living with a romantic partner, and in any case tenancy agreements were seldom short enough to serve those mayfly dalliances.
After Helen and I had been partners for a few years, she came to meet me for lunch near work one day. By the end of the al fresco meal, we had somehow agreed that we’d cohabit as soon as possible, and marry as well. I’d never partaken in such a momentous undertaking.
It felt completely right yet also paralysingly scary.
When I lived alone I was described several times as “selfish”, a barb that stuck and wounded. What I think I was sensitive about was that by staying in my own space I was failing to develop the ability to share anything – not just space - with other people. As an Aspie I find most other people quite hard work most of the time. Even if you are someone I like, I will need to take you in small doses and go away and recharge by myself even if we’ve had the most convivial of encounters. My home was a refuge. If I let anyone else into it, it would be on my own terms.
Marriage has involved deliberately giving up that autonomy. I think it’s the most courageous change I’ve ever made. And deliberately letting go and trusting someone else is undoubtedly the most grown-up thing I’ve ever done.
When we started to share a home I was excited and happy that a new phase was beginning, but also felt that this was optimistic, a long shot. There was a significant chance it might not work. There were sparks, teething problems, and (to finally settle on an appropriate rehousing metaphor), snagging issues to resolve. All because of me, I stress. I’m the hermit crab, and Helen’s the mother hen. But we muddled through it, married in May 2004, and having yoked our fortunes started to find adversity less sharp when shared.
I threw a spanner in the works in January 2005 by suddenly, unexpectedly and unilaterally ceasing drinking. We immediately stopped being a couple who both drank and instead became one containing an alcoholic in recovery. Helen’s birthday a few days later was not one of the most conspicuously carefree she’d had, as I struggled to feign jollity and learned how to do that thing where you put your hand over the wine glass in a restaurant. Mineral water flowed freely, but conversation did not. I felt, undoubtedly that I was doing the right thing for my own wellbeing, and by extension ours, but it felt sinister that by owning up to having a real, grown-up proper problem, I had pathologised the condition, and formally declared to Helen that her husband was damaged goods.
And in the longer term, what then? My alcohol intake had moved from lots to zero and therefore nearer to Helen’s modest consumption, but the difference between some and none is an infinite ratio. We would settle down to a new dynamic equilibrium, but would it be one which preserved our established intimacy?
In some ways, we had to repeat the process of moving in together, and broker a new set of bargains and interfaces.
We’ve healed together. I’ve thrown away my crutch and we proceed as though in a three-legged race now, and I think I would fall over without her. Modest husbands sometimes say “I don’t know what she sees in me”. This husband thinks “What can she possibly have seen in me then?”, so hard is it to reconcile the way were with the way we are now.
Against my pessimistic self’s expectations, we are still, after nearly fifteen years, a couple. We’re still together because we’ve acknowledged that the grown-up thing to do is to let go. To let go of comforts, of preferences, of habits, of superstitions. These attachments inhibit growth and change.
I now accept that change happens, and that it might not be the change that I would initiate if I weren’t part of this couple.
That doesn’t scare me any more.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Ten Years : Eight : Coming Home To The Present

Every time I’ve spoken to a mental health professional, a counselor, and therapist, or a yoga teacher, the word “mindfulness” has come up. In the past decade I formed a nebulous idea that this is a state I ought to aspire to, but why was a drawn to it? Everything I’d heard said that this was a path to peace and stillness, and away from worry and anxiety. Sobriety had edged my taste away from orally-administered calm, so I was predisposed to the aurally-administered alternative.
At first found the concept hard to grasp. It’s easier to summarise what it isn’t. It means not frantically doing lots of things at once, on autopilot, not being taken over by thoughts that steal your attention away from the here and now, and not becoming harmfully attached to things you judge as good and averse to those you judge as bad.
That’s me on a bad day, when my mind and my body are a long way apart. I forget I need to eat and get tired and ratty, or don’t notice that I’m already full and carry on eating. I worry about things that are a long way or a long time away. I find myself replaying bad scenarios, some of them worst-case imaginary ones. In the shower in the morning, I might find myself arguing out aloud with my late father or an old boss. I am allowing my mind to take me away from the here and now and punish me.
Mindfulness is an acquired discipline. You can gradually teach yourself to deliberately attend to what your senses are telling you in the current moment, to be present and aware. You can form the habits of kindness, to others and yourself, and of accepting things as they are, without judgement. It confers an ease of being.
It emerged as an independent discipline when research indicated that Buddhists who meditated were less anxious and stressed than others. Having read about it, early in 2014, I took an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, based on a programme devised by several academics. At the time, I told the group “I’m here because I want to spend less time reading about mindfulness and more time practicing it. I want to develop some good habits.”
The course more or less followed the content of Mindfulness: Finding Peace In A Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. I could have just read the book, but the chance to interact with other learners and with our teachers, Avinash Bansode and Anne Williams made a world of difference. There was homework, so this wasn’t something to do for a couple of hours once a week, but rather something that took a sustained commitment.
To an observer, much of the homework would have looked very undemanding. You’d have seen me sitting in a chair or lying on a mat with my MP3 player, eyes closed, silently doing nothing for up to an hour at a time, six days a week. I was practicing meditation. Meditation is another word beginning with M that is easier to describe in terms of what it isn’t.
Mindfulness meditation isn’t concentrating on one thing, or entering a trance, or escaping from the present, or trying to actually do anything. Instead, it involves being deliberately, yet non-judgementally attentive to what you are feeling here and now. In a body scan meditation, for example, I slowly and deliberately pay attention to each part of my body in sequence, without trying to change anything. I observe what sensations I feel, and am sometimes astonished that parts of me are crying out in ways that I had not noticed, and conversely that I feel nothing whatsoever from parts of me I know to be present. I’m not trying or striving to do anything. There is no objective to be achieved now. This is simply a practice. I am getting into the habit of noticing things. My mind will wander, away from the guidance prompts I am listening to, or even away from my body entirely. I don’t berate myself for this, but just gently guide it back, because another habit I am getting into is noticing without judging. (I observe that I keep slipping into the present continuous tense in describing this. That seems utterly apt.)
The eight-week course brought me into the habit of meditating every day, and I’ve kept this up whenever possible, and I go to drop-in group sessions and day retreats. But, you ask, if you’re not even trying to do anything, what’s the point?
I think there are two benefits worth describing. The first is apparent as soon as I open my eyes and stand up. Before I start meditating I can be like an underpowered computer with too many programs open, thrashing away, and competing for resources. After I meditate, I am like a computer that has been defragmented and rebooted. New programs launch effortlessly, and run without contention, seemingly having the full computer at their disposal. There’s even a specific quick-reboot meditation I use several times a day, called the Three Minute Breathing Space.
The other benefit is more cumulative. The habits form and stick. You become persistently more mindful. You notice things. It becomes unmistakable. You are living in a continuous present, acknowledging what is around you. I now find myself emptying the dishwasher without having to find a radio programme to listen to at the same time, going for a run with just the sound of birdsong to accompany me, and sometimes not merely single-tasking, but zero-tasking. Simply being rather than doing.
Without exaggeration, I now live in a different world. The summer of 2014 saw me dramatically noticing what was around me and I drank in nature, sunsets, birdsong and architecture in a way that made me feel as though I must have had a bag over my head beforehand.
Equally, I am now a changed person. I’m not free of anxiety and I still experience stress, but I’ve learned to notice what’s going on inside as much as outside. It’s a continuous process of exploration rather than a step change.
The discipline of mindfulness seems to draw together all the changes I’ve experienced since I stopped drinking. Drinking to excess was both an attachment, to booze, and an aversion, to everything else. The very language of it, “Out of it”, “Getting out of your head”, speaks of its disconnection.
I don’t want to be out of it. I want to be in it. In my head. Here. Now. Present.


Monday, January 05, 2015

Ten Years : Seven : Twenty Percent Off

My GP and I considered AA as an option when I stopped drinking in January 2005, but decided to hold it in reserve should my resolve start to waver. I didn’t need it, but did read a lot about the movement over the following months, and one thing which prompted a smile of recognition was learning that there’s always a plentiful supply of biscuits on hand at meetings.
At the time I stopped, we lived opposite an incredibly-handy late-night deli-cum-convenience store that stocked plenty of flapjacks, yoghurt coated fruit and nuts, and two-for-one offers on giant bars of chocolate. That spring, I became a familiar face at the counter, often following my evening meal with a spontaneous street dessert. I’d be taking a mug of drinking chocolate to bed with me later as well. I reasoned that I deserved to spoil myself - I’d stepped away from the most harmful indulgence, after all, and I actually put on weight. This is quite common in recent ex-drinkers. Having spent a lifetime of evenings chucking down booze, our bodies are used to a very quick fix of easy-to-digest carbohydrate, and the accompanying elevated blood sugar is part of the habit-forming reward.
For much of the next decade, I had a pluralistic relationship with being overweight. Part of me was attached to it – here was a vice, an imperfection, that I was allowing myself to maintain, and my self-satisfaction at sobering up had bought me an all-you-can-eat pass.
Another part of me was sensitive about it, though. Somewhere within me, I knew that I was making marathon running a lot harder by carrying excess weight with me. When a podiatrist, assessing me for yet another set of orthotic insoles to prevent damage to my joints, boldly described my problem as inevitable because I was overweight, I felt stung and humiliated. However, the comment that eventually spurred me to action came from my mother, as adherents to Doctor Freud will not be surprised to hear. She sat on this for an entire weekend when I was visiting her, and only as she kissed me goodbye on the doorstep, finally got off her chest that she thought I had a bit of, you know, a pot belly. Ouch.
I already knew intellectually what I had to do. I’d read enough to know that “eat less and exercise more” is an unhelpful oversimplification. If you haven’t read enough to know this, then read The Diet Trap by Doctor John Briffa, and if you have a job, read his A Great Day At The Office, and if you’re a man, read Waist Disposal.
What I’ve learned from Doctor Briffa is that eating fat doesn’t make you fat. What makes you fat is elevated blood sugar. This raises your insulin levels, and that in turn makes the mobile fat that would otherwise pass out of you get fixed in your fat cells making you fatter. And that’s it.
The way to lose weight is to stop disrupting your blood sugar, so that you keep insulin at bay. And it really is just as simple as that.
How do you avoid disrupting your blood sugar? Eat smaller meals (but more of them, if you feel like it), and don’t eat food with a high glycemic load. If you eat natural, unprocessed, unrefined food, you will be fine. It's the processed foods with unnaturally high glycemic loafs that are the problem.
I did it in stages, hitting the high priority problems first. So, no more sugary fizzy drinks, and no more fruit juice either (these require almost no digestion and smack up your blood sugar horrifically). And no more sweeties, chocolate, cake, or biscuits, either. I noticed the difference at once and started to lose weight immediately. I can date the starting point of my shrinking to when I read Iain Banks’ final, posthumous novel, The Quarry, because his protagonist, like me, had a terrible relationship with his father, Asperger’s Syndrome, and weighed over 100kg, a figure he found mathematically pleasing. I was 102.5kg at the time, and on dipping below 100kg vowed never to return.
I noticed that dropping the refined sugar stopped me from craving it any more. I genuinely don’t miss these foods or feel deprived. That broken circle sounded very familiar indeed to me.
I wanted to lose even more weight so I followed more of Doctor Briffa’s advice. It was here here that my ingrained beliefs about healthy eating were turned on their head. I had been brought up to believe that fried and fatty food was bad for you and that bread, wholegrain cereals, pasta and rice were holy, untouchable, middle-class manna. Nothing exemplifies my shift more than breakfast. I moved from sugary granola with low-fat (this almost always means “with added sugar”) fruit yoghurt, to muesli with skimmed milk, to porridge, and then to bacon and eggs. The bacon and eggs disrupts my blood sugar least. It stops me feeling hungry for longest. It might contain more calories than the cereals, but it makes me less fat, because my body has no interest whatsoever in the calorific value of what I eat. It is only interested in the glycemic load.
I no longer eat any kind of cereal. (That’s the crops in the fields, by the way, not just the products in boxes in the kitchen cupboard.) So that’s bread, pasta and rice out, and I don’t eat potatoes either. I have taught myself to cook and eat fish and eggs which barely featured in my diet before. I don’t feel I’m excluding anything I miss. I have a rich and varied diet and can eat out almost anywhere. Well, almost anywhere – there is virtually nothing solid on sale in Starbucks, say, that does not violate the consumer’s blood glucose.
I’ve now lost over 20kg. (That’s over three stone in people units.) At the gym recently, I picked up 20kg in weights and found it hard to believe that I’d run seven marathons carrying this. No wonder I got faster in 2014.
I’m not telling this story to solicit congratulation, or to create a narrative that having beaten the booze I have mastered abstinence as a non-specific relocatable skill. Really, I’m not. No, really.
No, I’m telling it because my experience has taught me that there’s an unavoidable similarity between many people’s inability to cope with alcohol and their problems with modern food. Neither occurs in anything like their processed potency in nature, but both are widely available and heavily marketed to us. They offer an instant hit of habit-forming reward. Not all of us can cope with this and we become addicted. Lots in modern life is like this – alcohol, processed food and even porn all offer consumers highly-concentrated hits that stimulate the reward centres which evolved to keep us alive and healthy and pass on our genes, but returning to these highly-concentrated extracts instead of their natural sources has the exact opposite effect.
I think there is a general problem that industrializing what we put into ourselves can take the human animal to an environment it can’t reliably adapt to. Alcoholism, obesity, and even anxiety could be viewed as just specific cases of this broader, and growing effect.
That’s what it feels like to me, anyway. It would seem that I’m just an old-fashioned kind of guy.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Ten Years : Six : Cracking The Vicious Circle


I’ve suffered from recurring anxiety and depression for much of my life. From my early twenties to my mid-forties, I’d been bouncing between psychiatric therapy and prescription antidepressants. The therapy had become ever more specific, and the drugs had become stronger and the regimes longer, most notably a sustained five years on Fluoxetine (Prozac). I was a high-maintenance kind of bloke.
Antidepressants aren’t very pleasant for me. They make me fat, sleepless and impotent. But that’s better than opening my wrists or jumping off a viaduct.
They’re also an after-the-fact medication, for treating symptoms. Within a few weeks, one can become functional again. That’s great – life-saving in many cases – and it can be all some people need to bump out of a rut and achieve lasting mental health.
Not so in my case. Every time I came off the drugs I’d feel clear-headed and efficient for a few months and then, always, one day, without fail, I’d notice that my reactions to events were wrong, out of proportion, unhealthy. I became very attuned to this – it was sometimes almost as literal as finding myself crying over split milk.
There was an underlying cause to my depression. Therapy and reading indicated that it was anxiety, but I didn’t understand why I was so prone to it.
I think that stopping drinking in 2005 brought a clarity which helped me towards the answers. We recovering alcoholics talk of clarity a lot, and it’s easy to interpret the word as simply being the opposite of blurring and slurring. For me, this clarity means consciously noticing things and being honest about them.
As a result of this clarity, two really vital things happened. The next time I detected the return of depression, I asked my GP not for another prescription but for a referral for counseling. I mentioned that I’d already undergone CBT (Cognitive Based Therapy) and found it helpful and applicable, but wanted to try something else. He referred me to a voluntary counseling organization, which assigned a mindfulness-based therapist to me. So began a productive partnership.
We began tuning in to what my thoughts and feelings actually were, stripping away the layers of interpretation the higher mind places on them. The mindfulness part of the discipline involves, amongst other things, stepping back from your thoughts in order to consciously become aware of them happening. It’s like using the Task Manager on your computer to see all the processes running, with the perspective of a supervisor, instead of letting each one fill the whole screen as though it were the only show in town.
What a family, an orchestra, a circus I found going on in there. All these thoughts clamouring for attention. All these aspects of my personality needing to take the stage for enough of the time. All the arguments between them. I needed to treat it less as a war zone and more as an ecosystem.
After a year of regular sessions, I’d discovered, returning to the computer metaphor, how to bring up Task Manager or Control Panel and see what was going on. 
This new internal insight led to the second really important development. Spouse and I moved house. I had always been a bit obsessive, sometimes a bit emotionally disconnected, always pedantic. I’d thought I might have OCPD or similar. But in our new house, I found that the sounds of the building really bothered me. The acoustics of the dining room made it hard for me to follow what anyone else was saying, and my anxiety levels were rocketing just from the sounds of traffic outside. It didn’t bother her at all, and she didn’t seem to even notice any of it.
I did some reading, and it dawned on me over a couple of days that this hypersensitivity (and I get it with light, smells and touch as well as sound) together with the aforementioned personality traits and of course my sustained anxiety levels indicated that I had Asperger’s Syndrome.
I’m autistic. This was swiftly confirmed by an expert consulting psychiatrist, following another GP referral.
I had somehow reached the age of forty-six with this significant developmental disorder completely undiagnosed. You can read my initial reaction here.
How could this have lain undiscovered all my life? Predictably, the answer is alcohol. Take a hypersensitive, socially introverted pedant and put him in a social situation. It’s terrifying for him, until he has a few drinks, when not only does the terror recede, but he loosens up enough to pass for normal, not only with others, but to himself. And the following morning, when the sun burns like an atomic bomb, and every newspaper page turned on the bus sounds like a mainsail in a hurricane? The sensations of Asperger’s hypersensitivity and a well-fuelled hangover are astonishingly similar.
I believe that my Asperger’s is the root cause of all of this. It sustained an anxiety level that pushed me to abuse alcohol as soon as I was old enough. And that alcohol abuse meant that when I was with other people I passed as neurotypical. The cruel cycle is that my Asperger’s used alcohol to hide itself behind, helping it stay undiagnosed, and therefore continue to promote my drinking.
Only when I stopped drinking and broke the circle did the Asperger’s become exposed and unmistakable.
My diagnosis in 2012 was a turning point. I came off antidepressants for the last time shortly afterwards, and I’ve only had one significant depressive episode since. I have semi-regular therapy sessions, which I regard as preventative mental keep-fit.
Not only is there still a stigma about mental illness, but there’s a kind of stiff-upper-lip British attitude that talking, even thinking, about oneself on such terms is not proper, not for a chap. We leave that sort of thing to the Viennese and the New Yorkers.
Bollocks, I say. Look under your bonnet. Find out how your head-engine runs. Talk to a mechanic. Learn how to service it yourself, or at least identify the squeaks it makes when it needs looking at. 
You’d be mental not to.
 

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Ten Years : Five : From Body to Mind

The changes and new habits that come with a decade’s sobriety are interrelated in indirect but observable ways. I can’t say that drying out led immediately to my embracing yoga, but the chain of events is unavoidable upon even cursory inspection.
Having seized on running with the fervour of the reborn, yet also with the considerable body weight of a carbohydrate lover, the sudden cumulative impact on my lower joints was traumatic. In the late Spring of 2005, I started to develop a limp, and one Sunday morning, found that I couldn’t put any weight at all on my left leg without feeling so much pain that I fell over. After improvising a crutch from a broom, descending the stairs on my bum, and being borne to A&E by spouse, a houseman told me I should probably not run again, and referred me for physiotherapy.
The physiotherapist was more measured. I was prescribed orthotic insoles, and given exercises to return myself to full mobility. I would, after all, run again.
“You might want to consider trying yoga”, she offered, as a parting piece of advice.
Yoga. Blimey. I felt a simultaneous attraction and aversion to the idea. Attraction, because it sounded a bit counter-cultural, hippyish and un-blokey. Like me. Aversion, because it would involve turning up somewhere new without a drink in my hand and attempting something that I might not necessarily be any good at. Eek.
I checked. The gym which spouse had signed me up to when we moved in together did run yoga classes. A vague resolution thus became a firm plan.
What I found when I did turn up was that not being any good at it isn’t really a problem. Yoga is about intent rather than striving; about finding out what you can do, and what it feels like, rather than competitively whipping improvement out of oneself. And for the most part, it is practiced by far more women than men. For me, this means it’s a beautiful respite from the competitive male world. I’ve been practicing regularly ever since.
Superficially, yoga answered my physiotherapist’s call by providing a regular chance to stretch seldom-moved joints and muscles, and to increase my upper body and core strength, as an antidote to both sitting at a desk all day and repetitively running in a straight line for recreation.
I soon learned that beneath the surface, yoga offers even more. Having stopped drinking, and thus withdrawn my daily self-prescribed anaesthetic, I felt at times anxious, hyperactive and troubled. Yoga has reminded me to do one thing at a time, to focus my attention on the here and now. At the risk of sounding faintly ludicrous, I will claim that before practicing yoga, I had not learned how to breathe properly. On the phone, people would ask if I had just run upstairs to pick up the call, and I used to actually hold my breath when lifting or pushing. Now, having taken the time to notice what my thoughts, breath and body were actually doing, I could learn to calm them and bring them together harmoniously.
I don’t have any religious faith. However, I do acknowledge the human hunger for observance, for ritual. I admit that I feel better, somehow, after having repeatedly followed a yoga sequence such as sun salutation, or when thinking about concepts such as prana (life force) or chakras (energy centres in the body) when practicing yoga. These ideas act as a focus for the practice and even if I don’t literally believe that they correspond to anything in nature, they contribute to the stillness and calm I come away with.
You can pick from all sorts of flavours of yoga to practice – some firmly grounded in physiotherapy, others more informed by the ancient, or the holistic. My own practice has introduced me to stillness, and focusing on the present moment, rather than frantically multi-tasking and striving for new attainments.
After nearly ten years of yoga practice I can now touch my forehead with my knees (this came in a hallelujah moment around year eight). Although of little practical application, this bodes well for my mobility when I reach my dotage.
Far more significantly, I have been learning to achieve peace without getting it out of a bottle. And this bodes well even more generally.
And yoga isn’t the end of this causal chain that began with sobriety, recreational running, and an injured ankle. It’s in turn led me to be curious about peace, stillness and the present moment.
I have embraced what is called Mindfulness. It deserves a blog post of its own.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Ten Years : Four : Standing Up To Be Counted


I believe I have been green since I was at infant school in the early seventies. My young, malleable mind was captured by the Doctor Who scripts and books of Barry Letts, Robert Sloman, and Malcolm Hulke. Their accidental mixture of Buddhism, environmentalism and communism informed my earliest values – that we must conserve the common good, prevent irrevocable damage to the environment, and promote peace and understanding.
These values took a bit of a hammering under the onslaught of alcohol and my coming of age in the free-market, home-owning eighties and early nineties. By the age of twenty-five I was an endowment-mortgaged, car-commuting business flyer, and my student political stance of “anyone but the Conservatives” had been numbed into a cynical “don’t vote for any of them – it only encourages them”.
By 2005, I’d started voting Labour again, and then stopped after Blair’s support for Bush’s foreign policy. I voted Green now, in indignant protest that the party I’d though was on my side wasn’t.
In 2001, I had had a serious car accident, in which I caused a head-on collision, and had my licence taken away until I’d passed an extended test (twice as long as the new drivers’ test, and many more times harder as hard to pass). I persevered with this until I’d regained my license, but after two years without a car had learned that private cars are almost completely unnecessary. 
Then, in 2004, the plane from Heathrow to Edinburgh I was on developed a mechanical fault and had to make an emergency landing. I only flew once again after that. I realized that, like running a car, travelling by air is almost completely unnecessary.
Those were the seeds. By 2005, when I stopped drinking, I realized that my values were distinct to most of those of the people I worked with. And significantly, different to those of the people in government and in big business. I was concerned that the people in power weren’t paying attention to the matters I regarded as most important.
Enter Doctor Who again. I’d enjoyed the original Doctor Who novels of Daniel Blythe, and, still more, his literary novels for Penguin. In 2010, he released “X Marks the Box : How To Make Politics Work For You” a guide to the UK political process for the na├»ve or formerly-apathetic. It is a work of effortless clarity. The week I read it, as a direct result, I joined the Scottish Green Party.
By a remarkable coincidence, one of the driving forces of the party lived a few streets away from me, and I found myself roped in to help canvass for the 2010 General Election. That autumn I attended the party’s annual conference, and the following year joined the Edinburgh party’s committee. I have now held an impressive-sounding list of national offices and roles.
My professional life has collapsed in the past decade. I no longer work directly for an employer, but am instead employed by a series of consultancy companies who sell my time on to their clients. I have no sense of professional identity, or of belonging to a shared endeavour. I am grateful to my employers for passing some of the money they make on to me, but that’s about it.
By contrast, the party gives me a tremendous sense of purpose, and I’m willing to put in stints of long hours and suffer high anxiety to help further our aims. I bring the zeal of the recovering alcoholic, the urge to get things right, and the sober aversion to decadence and indulgence that’s needed to sacrifice an evening in front of the telly to instead staple posters to boards in a cold garage, or stay up until the small hours redrafting election leaflets or authorising local candidates.
Looking back, it’s hard not to attribute my political awakening to sobriety. Not only does a clear head bring more usable hours for volunteering, but post-alcohol, I’m motivated to actively bring about what I want in society rather than passively turn away from what I don’t. 
I sometimes feel a bit of an old phoney in the party. I’m conspicuous by being neither a defector from Labour’s ranks or a grown-up former student activist. I’m instead someone who woke up and got involved in his mid-forties. (I wonder if I’ve ever been suspected of being a mole.) Perhaps if I hadn’t had a debilitating drink problem from the age of sixteen, I would have become politically active as a student, and have followed a more orthodox path to politics.
But I got here in the end, and I draw comfort from that. 
That’s what’s emerging as the common lesson of all my ten-years-sober accounts. 
It’s never too late.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Ten Years : Three : Home and Heart

On this first day of 2015, if I ask myself “what do I cherish?” there are two answers that might not have occurred to me in 2005. These are my mother, Muriel, and my sister, Rachel. (Yes, since you ask, we do all have Jewish names. It’s a coincidence. I think they suit us, actually.) It isn’t that we were estranged or even remote ten years ago, but the intervening decade has granted me the clarity to value these two women, my closest living blood relatives, more than ever before.
Three events have bound us during that time. Rachel became a mum, turning our own mum into a gran and me into an uncle. My father died five years ago, after a long struggle with Motor Neuron Disease, releasing mum from her hellish task of full-time carer. And I stopped drinking.
As a result of all three, lots of the tension and distance that had been between us became history. Without my father around, I was at last able to comfortably spend time with my remaining family without the inevitable explosion between we two wounded males. With children of her own, Rachel and I finally had an agenda; as displaced adult siblings we had little in common and our contrived attempts to stay in touch had foundered badly. But around her daughters, it seems we need no more than simply be in one another’s company without having to do, or even really say anything. And that’s calm and nourishing. Without alcohol in my life, I can enjoy the peace and calm of my mother’s presence, and let conversation and silence come and go as they will, without ever wishing for one or the other.
My mum still lives in the house in which I spent my entire childhood. I seem far more comfortable being there now than I did when I drank. I believe that is because I’ve reconnected with the person I used to be before I started to drink. I have become more the person he wanted to be as an adult. When I was drinking I think I felt bad at returning to where I was before things got contaminated and complicated. Now I can look the memory of young me in the eye and say “It’s OK. You’re going to be OK. Eventually.” I feel I have regained my entitlement to think of that house in south Liverpool as my home.
I cherish Mum and Rachel because I no longer have to hide anything from them. They know the whole story. It is valuable beyond price to have people in your life you accept you for who and what you are and don’t want you to be anything else.
That is an unexpected and wholly welcome bonus to sobriety.



Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Ten Years : Two : Run For My Life


One day, at around the age of fifteen, I found myself spontaneously running a couple of miles to get to a friends’ house. It just seemed too time-consuming to walk, and I found that once I’d begun, I enjoyed the heightened heart rate and what must have been endorphins and adrenaline. I started going out for a run, always by myself, when I needed to get out of the house, and found it a reliable release and de-stresser in the year before my O-levels. I’d even run before school some mornings. I mused that I ought to run the Mersey Marathon, inspired by the fictional sexagenarian Paul Collins on Brookside.
Then, alas, came cans of lager, packets of twenty Embassy Regal, and the pursuit of the seldom-captured Liverpool female sixth-former. Running dropped out of my life to be replaced by hangovers.
Significantly, when I hit financial rock-bottom a few years later as an undergraduate, posted for some work experience to Bracknell, I stopped regularly drinking, gave up smoking for a year, and, hey presto, the urge to run returned. Alas, my future employer sponsored me for my final year and, financially recovered, addiction won again.
Addiction continued to hold its champion title for about another two decades until 2004, and a lucky alignment of events, free gym membership and a new employer who asked for volunteers from the office to participate in a 10k competitive run. I was feeling bold, and found myself, for the first time ever, safety-pinning a number to my shirt and running until someone gave me a medal. A brand new experience coming in my late thirties, it lit up seldom switched-on parts of my brain.
One interpretation of the Winter of 2004/5 is that I finally shook off the most destructive addiction I’ve ever had – alcohol. An equally valid one is that I made my final and permanent relapse into compulsive and addictive running.
I think it’s a fairly common dual diagnosis. I recently read Running Ransom Road by Caleb Daniloff in which he confesses to the same kind of switch, albeit in a far more glamorous and globetrotting way than me. (Coincidentally, we both spent the early eighties drunkenly singing the songs of prog-rock supergroup Asia. As it happens, so did Asia’s frontman, John Wetton, and I’m pleased to report that he’s dried out as well now.)
That first 10k was my gateway drug, that first free spliff at a party. Soon I was mainlining half marathons a couple of times a year and in 2008 actually ran a marathon, in four hours and nine minutes.
My nature is such that I couldn’t let those nine minutes rest, and on the third attempt, got it under four hours. I’ve now run eight marathons, and this year in Manchester, finally beat three-and-a-quarter hours, by some margin, so that for Liverpool next June I’m aiming for three-and-a-half. The route will go past the end of my Mum’s road, so I’ll be running along some of the streets I covered as a fifteen-year-old before this whole horrible business with organic chemistry hijacked my brain for decades.
If you have what simplistic terminology calls an addictive personality, then you can’t simply stop having addictions. This is why attempts to cure addiction by merely sitting around not drinking, or not smoking, or not thinking of a white bear are torture, not to say failure-prone.
I accept that I’m always going to have addictions. 
The good news from the last ten years is that I have some choice as to what they’re going to be. 
I choose that one of my addictions is running. That choice means I have an addiction I can be proud of. And I am today proud to say that at the end of my final run of 2014, just a couple of miles around Beadnell in Northumbria this morning, I had covered a thousand and two miles this year.
In 2016 I will turn fifty. To mark this I am going to run a race with at least one mile for each year of my life, the Glasgow to Edinburgh double marathon.
The me that used to drink could not conceivably achieve this.
The me that can achieve this can not conceivably drink.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ten Years : One : Back to the Piano

Much of my progress, if I can call it that, in the last decade has involved making the most of what’s already there. Ten years ago, I had long-since decided never to attempt to play a musical instrument again and already sold my collection of dust-covered synthesisers.
This changed five years ago, following a well-staged reunion of NYLON, the schooldays synth, drums and vocals ensemble that enriched my teens. The four of us (and it’s three now following the tragic early death of David Brophy earlier this year) didn’t do anything so radical as play together again that day. However, I was inspired to have a fiddle with Garageband, the miraculous digital audio workstation that comes bundled with each and every Apple Mac these days.
Perhaps it was because I’d been sober for half a decade by then, but I was gripped with possibilities, and swiftly procured a proper external music keyboard. What can be achieved with virtual synthesisers these days is astonishing, especially compared to the hacking and brute force we needed in the early eighties. If I had my teenage free time and the power of the new century’s tools I would be a contender, I like to kid myself.
I found myself plonking out Bach’s Minuet in G. This was a piece I had failed to master when undertaking six months of piano lessons around the age of ten. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if I could actually nail it and go home and play it for my mum? I could. I did. It was.
I seemed to have been possessed with the idea of going back to my childhood and righting my wrongs. I had never even progressed as far as Grade One in those days. Could I now, in my forties, actually pass a music exam? I studied the syllabus, bought the books, and entered myself for the examination.
The week before, I slipped into one of the schools at which spouse teaches, and made sure that what I’d learned would work on an actual piano. It did then, and it did a few days later in the exam.
I passed. With distinction. On to Grade Two, then. I found myself assembling electronic soundscapes less and less, and instead getting to grips with playing the piano. This had taken me over.
When we moved from our closely-neighboured colony maisonette into a detatched bungalow, I seized the opportunity to buy a well-loved second-hand upright piano. Spouse is very tolerant of me practicing scales and pieces well into the night.
I’ve now sat and passed the first five grades offered by the Associated Board, and also followed the Theory of Music syllabus. I’ve continued to do this without the services of a teacher, a decision which has earned me some admiration but no small amount caution from professional musicians as well. One only has to listen to The Shaggs to know what autodidactic musicality can sound like.
Ascending the grades has become harder and harder. It takes me months to learn a Grade Six piece, and I am finding them so complex that I cannot memorize them and have to read as I play. Reading as I play (sight-reading) is another skill that is not coming easily, and the Grade Five exam saw me offering a piss-poor effort that I only performed in order to get more than zero marks in that section. Dealing with my anxiety in the days before and after each exam is draining.
I aim to sit Grade Six in late 2016. I may engage a teacher before then if absolutely necessary, but only as a troubleshooter. I have been inspired a great deal by Alan Rusbridger’s “Play It Again”, his account of reaching his goal of playing a beast of a Chopin piece by a certain date, while holding down one of the busiest jobs in journalism.
The sobriety, mindfulness and focus of the last decade has helped me dig up this part of myself – the urge to play a musical instrument – and not only derive satisfaction from it in the present, but also to feel less bad about jacking it in in my youth. I also feel good about having hooked up with my old bandmates.
Everything that has ever happened to you will always have happened. So it seems right to acknowledge it.
It’s a great feeling to find something in your mental attic, dust it off, and realize it was always part of you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Daily Sights: Burnthrough

The back of an illuminated advertising frame at a bus shelter. On a bleak day, it seems to offer a glimpse into a hidden world of bright light.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Daily Sights: The View From Beyond

Glasgow's Necropolis. A treasure that I embarrassingly only become aware of this month. Sepulchral calm affords a flatteringly distant view across the city. This is where to go to contemplate.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Daily Sights: Estuary Sentinels

These solemn old metronomes look over everything that passes by at Cramond, by the Forth.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Daily Sights: The Doctor Is Captchad


This is a coincidence. Perhaps. It's very apt that this arbitrary text should be my favourite fictional construct and the heading above it being what people who think the Doctor's name is Doctor Who mostly think he does.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Daily Sights: Ghost Bacon


A perverse but lovely recipe I followed at the weekend had be grill streaky bacon slowly on baking paper. It left this lovely shroud mark, which would pass as a Brian Eno album cover should one be required.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Daily Sights: Massive Mushroom


I saw this on the way to work this morning in Edinburgh Park. It's the largest mushroom I've ever seen growing, anywhere, let alone in such a tidy unshaded environment.

Friday, July 13, 2012

It's Not You, It's Me. Officially.


I was diagnosed a couple of weeks ago by a specialist psychiatrist at a mental health clinic. I’ve felt for several years that I fell some way along the autistic spectrum, but my suspicions that I had Asperger’s became firmer this year as I realized I have characteristic oversensitivity to a number of stimuli that neurotypical people barely register.
You may have preconceptions about what a person with AS is like. I know I did. You might expect that we are emotionally dead, socially inept, and obsessed with repetitive hobbies. From the outside most of the preconceptions of AS are well-founded, based on how we behave and appear, at least in the most extreme manifestations. What I think is less well appreciated is what it’s like to have AS.
For me, it means I feel anxious all the time.
I don’t just feel anxious when there are lots of people talking, when there are bright lights, intrusive sounds, strong food smells, or certain sensations against my skin (although it’s far worse when any of those conditions apply).
I feel anxious all the time.
This explains why I started drinking alcohol whenever it was available at the age of sixteen, and didn’t stop until I was thirty-eight. It explains why when I stopped drinking I found myself in such a state of anxiety and depression that I was prescribed Fluoxetine for five years. It explains why upon coming off Fluoxetine I needed professional counseling for over a year.
And it explains so much more. I’ve begun reading about the condition and keep unmistakably recognizing myself every few paragraphs. Although I tried to look at first for texts pertaining to adult diagnosis (I’m 46 now), the descriptions of AS children are just as enlightening. They explain why I don’t have a Liverpool accent (AS kids copy the authority figures on the telly rather than their peers), why I didn’t play ball games, and why my intelligence didn’t translate into academic success until I specialized during higher education.
But these are external manifestations. What does it feel like for me, today, at 46 to have Asperger Syndrome? In a word, irritating. My compulsive pedantry doesn’t just mean I will correct your grammar or usage (under my breath or more audibly on a bad day) but that common errors and vulgar neologisms continue to grate against me just like the sensory overloads mentioned earlier. “Tune it out”. “Let it go”. I can’t. I wish I could. But I can’t. If your iPod headphones are leaking near me, or you have a habit of jingling your change in your pocket while you talk to me, it will torture me, but my social awkwardness renders me incapable of diplomatically asking you to desist. I gurn and tic a bit, especially when the anxiety builds up. It wears me out. When I visit you, if you have the television or radio on, however quietly, in the background, I will be unable to listen to what you are saying without a draining mental effort.
So, I crave solitude. That’s when I can find a kind of peace. That’s why I go running for hours at a time by myself. That’s why I play the piano (yes, the same few pieces over and over, and yes, I enjoy the scales and arpeggios as much if not more than the pieces), which is a solitary pursuit when you do it like I do. And that’s why I make excuses not to come to office nights out or leaving meals.
And yet, I’m married. Helen seems to be coping with the latest design fault to have emerged in her husband of eight years as well as she has with the others. I know I am an impossible punishment to live with. Can you imagine what it’s like settling down on a cold night to watch a DVD, only to be told that the central heating’s got to go off because of the noise? Or having a meal ruined because the table’s laid wrongly? Or having to repeat the simplest request because your husband is having an anxiety attack that has scrambled his auditory processing?
I’m the same person I was few weeks ago. How does diagnosis change anything? I’m not, and never will be normal. But I now know that in a sense, I’m not unique. I’m but one example of a closely studied phenomenon and that gives me some hope that I can find some mapped paths through this.
Having been diagnosed does not feel as exciting or special as I had hoped. The boring reality of AS, for me, is that I am usually anxious and exhausted. And unlike some glittering individuals with AS or high-functioning autism who proclaim that they are not disabled, but just different, I would swap this for being normal without a moment’s hesitation.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Rest and Reflection

When you hate your job as much as I hate mine, four days away from it make for a very therapeutic break indeed. This Easter was improved further by the occasion of my 46th birthday on Saturday. What this meant was a day free from compromise, and free from living up to the expectations of, or commitments towards other people. I didn't celebrate with a gram of cocaine and brace of courtesans, but instead spent the day with Helen, who I think was bemused at my paucity of indulgent ambition.

She brought me some smashing gifts from herself and her family in bed. How well they know me. If you ever chanced upon a high visibility cycling jacker, packet of liquorice allsorts, book on mindfulness, and yoga brick, you'd have a pretty good idea I was in the vicinity. Later, instead of committing to a grand day out in our walking boots, we tried some gentle urban exploration. A great fringe benefit of Green activism is that I have a much stronger sense of personal geography, and relish filling in the gaps on my mental map of the city I live in. We took woodland paths and local streets that don't lead anywhere, and I found rewarding new vistas less than ten minutes from home.

We were back on familiar birthday territory by the evening, although I had refused to book a restaurant in advance. I hazarded the opinion that I'd be comfortable somewhere that Frasier's Dad, Martin Crane would be, so we went where the diners were interesting, the food unpretentious, and the conversation unstilted. Then home, where, folk wisdom has it, married women do what their husbands fantasise about for the rest of the year with them. In my case, this is watching a complete early Doctor Who adventure. I chose "The Daemons", which is my earliest memory of the programme, from 1971, and it went down well, despite Helen's initial horror that it comprised five episodes.

Today is the 20th anniversary of John Major's election win, and my thoughts are cast back to who I was and what I was doing in Spring 1992. On my birthday, I went to London to see Spinal Tap play a low-profile afternoon  club gig, and I was reading Iain Banks' "The Crow Road". I was just embarking on a doomed, but fleetingly morale-boosting, dalliance, and rebuilding my self-confidence after having been bullied into leaving my job the previous Autumn. I think I would quite like my 26-year-old self, but oh, how I envy him his free time, and rather wish he could have applied himself more.

20 years later, I am still reading Iain Banks, specifically, his latest, "Stonemouth". I still care enough about music to be making trips to London to see one-off shows. And Helen and I have been together for twelve years, so I'm glad I wasn't put off looking for companionship. What's changed? Well, I have almost no spare time. I am making up for the lost time of my youth and trying to catch up and achieve what I realise I should have done earlier. That's why Easter feels special. I've even got time to write a blog entry.