The rise of academic ill-health

Over on WonkHE I’ve just had a piece published on academic ill-health, which touches on some issues I have raised previously about anxiety, the University as an anxiety machine, overwork and alienation. It complements these things I have previously written about academic labour:

on the University as anxiety machine

on academic labour and performance anxiety

Notes on the University as anxiety machine

on academic hopelessness

on world-weariness

notes on academic overwork

notes on desire, anxiety and academic luddism

Re-engineering Higher Education: The Subsumption of Academic Labour and the Exploitation of Anxiety (with Kate Bowles)


on the (im)possibility of speaking

Do you want to be afraid?
Do you want to be afraid?
For life in the cage where courage’s mate runs deep in the wake
For the scariest things are not half as enslaved

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.

I came off mirtazapine on May 28th. After almost six years of pouring chemicals into my soul to stay in the game I was so bored. And so ready. There is no moment in which this shift in readiness became apparent. Four years on from a second breakdown and from my Mom’s death, it is just time to get well, and to do so clean. To finish therapy clean. To try to exist a little more on my own terms. To try to excavate and own my life. Because being ill and covered-up and false is so fucking dull.

<NOTE: my mirtazapine journal features 1 year on 15mg, 1 year on 30mg, 2 years on 45mg, 1 year on 30mg, 6 months on 15mg, 2 months on 10mg, 1 month on 7.5mg, 1 month on 5mg. All of this in close dialogue with my GP. How I loathe it for the weight-gain. How I miss its ability to help me sleep.>

Increasingly the black cloud is less depression, because I am able to recognise the shades of sadness, grief, mourning and loss, rather than locking onto melancholia. There is something so humanising about sadness, grief, mourning and loss, rather than locking onto a dehumanising melancholia. However, what has been left is an acute awareness, or perhaps an acute reawakening, of levels of chronic anxiety in spaces where I should feel safe.

I have described elsewhere how, in the face of my second breakdown in 13 years “the very thought of travelling and being away and presenting and being alone was too much. Too unsafe. Overwhelming. Unliveable.” I went on:

Given what had been unlocked, living my life felt overwhelming.

And in wondering whether living my life was self-harm or self-care, all that was left was confusion.

And now I remember the on-going, missed opportunities to stay and engage with people. Because on one warm April day, it became the fight of my life simply to agree to speak, and then to get on a train and to stay on a train. And what was normally normal was lost. And the disorder of my anxiety became the order of the day.

This inner trauma of being out of control, and of being in harm’s way, and of potentially losing my mind, and of not being able to perform, and of the world simply not being safe. Of normality not being safe. Because, when the only thing that feels normal is anxiety, what is normal? And unfortunately I am really good at re-producing really fucking epic levels of anxiety.

And I was in some mutually-reinforcing shit-storm of anxiety about travelling and anxiety about speaking. About being out-of-control. About being unsafe. So that travelling became a problem because getting on trains and sitting on them waiting for the doors to close was too painful. Not that I ever failed to get on one and to stay on it. But still, with cortisol flooding into your marrow, it wears your soul thin.

Always looking for exits.

Praying that my mind would just reboot.

And wanting to be asked to speak, because it’s the only way to reboot myself. And because people ask you when they want to listen to you, and that is lovely and hopeful, and needs respecting. And there is hope wrapped around finding some faith and some courage in myself. To find some peace, if I can find my voice. Is this self-care?

And dreading being asked to speak. Because I’m a Professor and it’s expected, and this reframes the relationship between pressure and anxiety. And because what if I can’t do it and have to run? And what if I let people down? And what if I fail? Is this self-harm?

Stuck in an apparently unresolvable quantum position. Voice/silenced. Self-care/self-harm.

Schrödinger’s academic: neither dead nor alive; both dead and alive.

Oh, I know it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t safe to breathe at all
Oh, I know it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t safe to speak at all

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.


Since 2013 I have spoken at 59 academic events, and yet each one was a trial. Lost sleep. Panic attacks. Occasionally on the phone to my therapist 90 seconds before I was due to speak. A test of faith and courage. A test of survival. Each one an act of defiance. Each one a refusal. Each one a moment of excavating my soul. In retrospect.

Excavating my soul from the compacted layers of trauma.

A few months ago I was asked to keynote the Oxford Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference. A few weeks later a second request came in to keynote the University of Worcester Learning, Teaching and Student Experience Conference. Both conferences were slated for this week. Back-to-back. Amazing to be asked. A privilege. Having to say yes. Wanting to say yes. Fearing saying yes.

Trying to forget them and hoping that I would be well in time.

Trying not to voice the fear in my head that was trying to make my perceived failure concrete.

Ignoring that they might in themselves be healing.

Unclear that they might in themselves be healing.

Lacking the ability to comprehend that they might in themselves be healing.

Forgetting to live in the present, to be present, rather than to be entombed by future fears.

In retrospect the pattern of hope/self-care plus dread/self-harm was different. Being awake at 3am the night before was different, because whilst the anxiety felt the same my mind was also fixated on what I was going to say. Visualising what needed to be said; what wanted to be said; what I had to say. Now this is exhausting, this duality of chronic anxiety gripping the chest and also rehearsing the act of living. But the anxiety wasn’t in my stomach, and so hadn’t reproduced itself as panic. An alternative possibility. A normal possibility: to be normally anxious. Because I always remember Mike Atherton stating that the day you aren’t nervous walking out to bat for England is the day to quit, because it doesn’t matter enough.

And speaking really matters. And I spoke. With a normal level of anxiety. A normal act of solidarity. My speaking is always an act of solidarity.

And I remembered that years ago I wrote:

As Maggie Turp argues in Hidden Self-Harm, the issue pivots around enabling voice, and voices in association, to be found and heard and respected. Respected in faith and with courage. And this is a spiritual reckoning, and one that is less about outsourcing the power-to create our lives so that living becomes survival, and more about taking ownership for the decisions and realities of our own self-care.

And as I sat on platform 2 at Worcester Foregate Street yesterday, I processed why I was so close to tears after I speak. Why speaking and its aftermath enabled so much of my life to be processed and mourned, and as a result to be liberated. During the afternoon I had written:

emotion // anxiety // exhaustion // soul // projection // give everything // all played out // being heard // solidarity // worn thin // weeping // do I matter? // do I have a voice? // will it be okay? // mourning // liberation

And I texted a friend to say:

My urge to weep after I speak has really affected me this week. Something about being heard/solidarity, and something about how I’m all-in emotionally when I present. How much of myself I need to give.

How much of myself I need to give, in order to recover myself.


And there are a set of timelines that converged these past few weeks. Feeling physically stronger, as I remember that it took me 4 years to recover my strength from my first breakdown, and from chronic fatigue, and to trust my body. And kicking the chemicals because qualitatively, in my soul, something had shifted. And now travelling first to Inverness, and then to Oxford and to Worcester, and speaking. Telling out my soul.

And the tears are for finding my voice. For persevering whilst the trauma was unpicked, and the scabs formed, and then the scars. For knowing, in my soul, that it won’t always be like this.

And there will always be an opening in my soul for Inverness and Oxford and Worcester.

Boy, we can do much more together it’s not so impossible
It’s not so impossible

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.


This is the playlist I made along the way.


on academia and life

(It might be over soon, two two)
Where you gonna look for confirmation?
And if it’s ever gonna happen
So as I’m standing at the station
It might be over soon

Bon Iver. 2016. 22 (OVER S∞∞N)

Academia can be a weird mix of empowerment/inferiority, engagement/burnout, enlightenment/isolation. You’re not alone. #WorldMentalHealthDay

Shit Academics Say

This is for my Nan and Granddad.


It’s complicated.

A while back I wrote about depression and alienation, and a boy who spent a lifetime trying to recover.

And a while after, after we had cared for and lost my Mom, I wrote about being Inside. Through. Beyond. Me., and about searching for an alternative Self or for the fix because the inside is too broken to be mended on its own.

And a while after I wrote about chronic fatigue and being increasingly anxiety hardened, and how I swore to myself that I would never drive myself to a breakdown again. Until I did.

And a while after I wrote about the impossibility of getting on trains and of speaking, and the rupture that was my unbearable anxiety.

And if you know me, then it’s no surprise that I have written about alienation, and the university as an anxiety machine, and capitalism, academic labour and ill-health. And that I wrote about the way that our work compresses what is valued and valuable, until it is either stolen or neglected (for Kate). In an abstract way, grounded by my ill-health.


And all the time multiple tracks are playing out. Track one is the history of a boy locked in a room suffering loss after loss, and trying to survive (although he never knew it). And track two is a boy trying to acclimatise to outside, and trying to understand how the world worked. So that he wouldn’t be left again. And so that he would never feel the same amount of loss. Because the loss was is everything. And track three is the man collecting all the badges, every last one, in order to feel something positive, rather than the unremitting, bleak, sherry-stained loss. And track four is the pain of remembering all this, and especially the room and the loss, in every moment of every day. And track five is the details of every day; of living. So that each track is compacted, one on top of the other. Compacted and compounded. The compound interest of a dysfunctional past represented in the present.

So the man sits in meetings and speaks at events and attends concerts and eats curry and reads books and walks and mentors, and has to do these things whilst analysing these things and working on not analysing these things. And it is exhausting. No wonder I had a second breakdown. For the lulz.

And this is where the weird mix of academia kicks in. With its empowerment/inferiority, engagement/burnout, enlightenment/isolation. You are in the academic peloton, with its cultures of omertà, or the silence of those who know that they are being forced to compete, and that to do so they must co-operate. And with its culture both of dietrologia, or the desperate search for hidden dimensions to surface reality. And when you grasp some meaning, some enlightenment, or some hoped for engagement, or when you speak and gain some sense of empowerment, you feel lifted. Like life might be possible.

You do it to yourself, you do. And that’s what really hurts.

And it becomes difficult to separate out academia as an anxiety machine, whose perpetual motion risks wearing you (r soul) through, and the past that has compounded that issue. So that your past plays and replays itself out in a space that feeds off the constant doubts, and the constant need to perform, and the constant need to re-produce yourself as someone more productive.

What it is to be anxious inside the anxiety machine.

And this is why I have spoken and joked that what I want is to abolish myself. Politically, it is why I am pointed towards concepts like mass intellectuality, or the dissolution of the academic at the level of society, in order to become something more. Someone more. Someone less concerned with the status and intellectual capital that gives academia its motive power. Because when academics are only concerned with shoring-up status, for whatever reason, rather than abolishing it, our collective work for liberation is lost. The refusal to become anonymous is where we are lost.


And I wrote about the fear of performing. That just as I received the badge I wanted the most, my Mom died, and the wheels came off. And of a sudden my universe contracted so that the singularity was my home and the road to my work, and maybe the road to Walsall. But it was very little else. And I described my panic on trains, and my panic when speaking, and my panic when travelling. A panic that had much earlier origins, an echo of a long-lost and apparently never-lost past. A panic that had origins in a first, previous breakdown. A panic that had never been healed so that after her death came a second breakdown.

All five tracks working in unison. Compounded in unison. Their singing in unison was is the tinnitus that walks with me.

And I decided that maybe all I could do was write. That I would become mute, unable to speak, to present, to have a voice. Ever again. That I would not be able to travel unless we drove places. That I wouldn’t be able to go to away games or take trains or accept speaker invites or go to the workshops in Lincoln that I so desperately wanted to attend.

And all the while I wrote. And all the while I did accept speaker invites. And all along I made myself speak in university committees. And all the while I did get on trains.

Because of the boy in the room, who kept a candle alight.

“You have to carry the fire.”

“I don’t know how to.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Is the fire real? The fire?”

“Yes it is.”

“Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”

“Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”

Cormac McCarthy. 2006. The Road.


And once upon a time I wrote about how, in the aftermath of my first breakdown, it took five years to recover myself, to a position where I had some trust in my body and my mind (for what that was worth). And the moment I knew, was on the Saturday of the Edgbaston test in the 2005 Ashes. A walk on Moel Siabod. Falling into a peat bog up to my middle; then going in up to my neck (a proper, full-on panic-inducing moment); then being pulled out by Wheelist Wheels and Jane and Jo; then refusing to turn around but climbing the mountain. Fuck you. And the next day being able to get up and watch England draw level with Australia; with no ill-effects.

No.

Ill.

Effects.

Just patched-up enough to go on my way. Although maybe I thought this was less a puncture repair than a full service and ready-to-go.

Only it was a puncture repair. A pretty good one, as the Lyke Wake Walk will attest. But a repair that began to fail in the Fall of 2008 and was blown by 2011. A repair that was fucked by 2013.

And all the time, work. A safe space. A perpetual motion machine. Trying to manage a team and manage the projects and produce the reports and plan the programmes of work and support the Ph.D. students and publish the journal articles and edit the book and think about the next grant and plan the new job and survive in networks and engage with communities of practice and speak at conferences and laugh with friends and console friends and be.

The space between work and Self. The space between work and Self and the past. The space between work and Self and the past and the everyday. The tinnitus.


And this is a story that recognises the self-care and the self-harm in keeping the fire burning. So that the boy lit the way for the man. By cherishing a role as an independent visitor for a looked-after child. And loving being asked to become a trustee of the open library of humanities. By accepting invitations to speak, in spite of myself. Of doing what I can, whilst fighting the panic. Of setting up a new institute. Of submitting the next book proposal.

Self-harm and self-care. Self-harm or self-care. It’s complicated.

And then there was a new Moel Siabod moment. Because the boy had lain the groundwork, in keeping the man going, and in being productive as well as keeping up appearances. And the moment that the shape of recovery became discernible was on being invited to speak in Bradford. Of the reduced anxiety about travelling so far from home. On a therapy day. And the anxiety about speaking being utterly forgotten in a wonderful workshop about embodiment and trust in conflict arenas. So that by the time I came to speak an amazing calm had descended.

And the result was sitting at Derby Station at 9pm, waiting for the connection from Sheffield, and remembering how it used to be. How it was all those previous times I had travelled and looked at the world and spoken with a nervous excitement. And to travel home tired but feeling like the day had been worth something. A productive day. A day in which a voice was heard. A day that justified reflection with four tracks turned off, so that I could just focus on the day itself. The content of the day itself.


It’s imperceptible, knowing that being well and recovery and well enough not to be in therapy and well enough to have turned the tracks off and well enough to have distilled the anxiety and to want to purge it, are possible. And the feeling is almost impossible to describe. The shape of it being impossible to describe, but forming inside me nonetheless. I have no compass for being well. I have never been well, which is why the puncture repairs have always failed. I can describe the old anxieties and fears and panics and self-loathing. I can still feel them. But they feel disconnected, sitting there in my gut. Dissociated. A remnant of a past life, still real and painful, and yet so dissociated from the everyday.

They are a dissociation which mirrors that I felt in a previous moment of this life. That I needed in a previous moment. A mirrored dissociation which now makes possible a purging of anxiety. So that arguments and disagreements and failings don’t self-harm so much. And I sense these feelings being purged, so that the scars of the self-harm are simply birthmarks. So that my potential for self-harm is slipping away. Forgiveness.

And it feels so fucking weird. Letting go of the past and reframing the present, and letting sleights go, because there is too much in the bank. We’ve been through too much. We’ve self-harmed enough.

Maybe I have just decided to get well. Maybe I have walked far enough to be able to discern wellness ahead of me. And I laugh out loud about being well, out of a feeling that I cannot describe because it feels incredible to me. Indescribable because it’s not in my DNA. Faintly ridiculous, but I’m going to do it anyway.

And I discuss with a friend the relationship between our labour and our pasts and our mental health. And how Academia/life can be a weird mix of empowerment/inferiority, engagement/burnout, enlightenment/isolation. How academia/life can be a weird mix.

About how it’s complicated.

About how realising the shape of my/your life depends on the courage and the faith that emerge from our collective work and solidarity, in labour and life. And especially in our bearing witness for each other.

Courage is love’s miraculous face. It achieves its miracles through transformation. It allows the impossible to become possible; the unendurable to be endured; trust to be renewed; and the unexpected to become the inevitability that opens you to unprecedented insights about who you are, about what life is. When courage stirs, it delivers the strengths you need but didn’t know you had

Stephanie Dowrick. Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love. London: Viking, p. 24.


writing about academic labour

I have three things recently published or forthcoming that are about academic labour and its relationship to society. These pick-up on two themes that have been increasingly important to me: first, academic alienation and anxiety, or the idea that the University is an anxiety machine; and second, the potential for mass intellectuality as a form of liberatory praxis.

The first piece focuses on the processes of subsumption that are reshaping academic labour, and the resultant impact on individual’s subjectivity and health. Co-written with Kate Bowles, this takes the idea of the University as an anxiety machine, and is called Re-engineering Higher Education: The Subsumption of Academic Labour and the Exploitation of Anxiety. The abstract is as follows:

This article analyses the political economy of higher education, in terms of Marx and Engels’ conception of subsumption. It addresses the twin processes of formal and real subsumption, in terms of the re-engineering of the governance of higher education and the re-production of academic labour in the name of value. It argues that through the imposition of architectures of subsumption, academic labour becomes a source of both overwork and anxiety. The article employs Marx and Engels’ categorizations of formal and real subsumption, in order to work towards a fuller understanding of abstract academic labour, alongside its psychological impacts. The article closes by examining whether narratives of solidarity, in particular from marginalised voices, might help academics and students to analyse and then move beyond their alienated labour.

The article is published in a special issue of Workplace: A journal for Academic Labor, edited by Karen Gregory and Joss Winn, on Marx, Engels and the Critique of Academic Labor.

The second is a book chapter in a collection entitled The Philosophy of Open Learning: Peer Learning and the Intellectual Commons, edited by Markus Deimann and Michael A. Peters. My chapter is called Another World is Possible: The Relationship between Open Education and Mass Intellectuality.

This piece critiques the promise of open education through the concept of mass intellectuality that I have discussed elsewhere, and which is becoming increasingly important to me as a way of analysing the idea of higher education in an age of crises. In the chapter I connect open education to the proletarianisation of higher education, and go on to ask the following.

  1. How is it possible to re-imagine open education, in order to overcome proletarianisation through technologised, self-exploiting entrepreneurial activity?
  2. How might open education broaden the horizon of political possibility inside-and-beyond HE, as a pedagogic project?

My response is rooted in sharing and grounding collective practices for open and co-operative education through democratic pedagogy and organising principles.

The third is the book Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education, which I have co-edited with Joss Winn. The summary, description and chapter/author list is given here. It’s good to see this work moving towards fruition, precisely because it’s a discussion of the potential for actually existing liberation.

Central to Marx’s conception of the overcoming of capitalism is his notion of people’s reappropriation of the socially general knowledge and capacities that had been constituted historically as capital. We have seen that, according to Marx, such knowledge and capacities, as capital, dominate people; such re-appropriation, then, entails overcoming the mode of domination characteristic of capitalist society, which ultimately is grounded in labor’s historically specific role as a socially mediating activity. Thus, at the core of his vision of a postcapitalist society is the historically generated possibility that people might begin to control what they create rather than being controlled by it.

(Postone, M. 1996. Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 373)


Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety

With Kate Bowles, I have an article coming out in volume 28 of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, entitled:

Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety

The article looks at the psychological impacts on academics and students of the re-engineering of HE, and of concomitant academic overwork. It undertakes this from a transnational perspective, with a focus both on anxiety amongst academic workers including students, and on the idea of the University as an anxiety machine. The article is in a special issue that employs Marx and Engels’ critical categories of labor, value, the commodity, capital, etc. in reflexive ways which illuminate the role and character of academic labor today and how its existing form might be, according to Marx, abolished, transcended and overcome (aufheben). Our focus is on the concept of subsumption.

The abstract is appended herewith.

This article analyses the political economy of higher education, in terms of Marx and Engels’ conception of subsumption. It addresses the twin processes of formal and real subsumption, in terms of the re-engineering of the governance of higher education and there-production of academic labour in the name of value. It argues that through the imposition of architectures of subsumption, academic labour becomes a source of both overwork and anxiety. The article employs Marx and Engels’ categorizations of formal and real subsumption, in order to work towards a fuller understanding of abstract academic labour, alongside its psychological impacts. The article closes by examining whether narratives of solidarity, in particular from marginalised voices, might help academics and students to analyse and then move beyond their alienated labour.


on disorder and faith

Tied up in disgrace/How can we keep a man so long/Waiting for a fate/Stripped of all our hearts/Never dreamed we would belong/In a world, a world that’s just gone wrong

And if we try to stand alone/We’ll be playing with a force beyond control/Our faces pressed against the glass/In the knowledge you belong to us

Hot Chip. 2015. Need You Now.

You don’t have to stay in this game.

Mardy Fish, the former World Top 10 ranked tennis player, recently disclosed how anxiety had erupted inside his life. He went on to describe his debilitation as it subsequently disordered him. It begins at the US Open in 2012.

I am hours away from playing in the biggest tennis match of my life: the fourth round of the U.S. Open … on Labor Day … on my dad’s birthday … on Arthur Ashe … on CBS … against Roger Federer. I am hours away from playing the greatest player of all time, for a chance at my best-ever result, in my favorite tournament in the world. I am hours away from playing the match that you work for, that you sacrifice for, for an entire career.

And I can’t do it.

I literally can’t do it.

It’s early afternoon; I’m in the transportation car on my way to the courts.

And I am having an anxiety attack.

Actually, I’m having several anxiety attacks — at first, one every 15 minutes or so, but pretty soon every 10. My mind starts spiraling. I’m just freaking out.

My wife is asking me, “What can we do? What can we do? How can we make this better?”

And I tell her the truth: “The only thing that makes me feel better right now … is the idea of not playing this match.”

She hesitates, and looks at me for a second, to make sure I’m serious. I am serious. This isn’t me thinking — this me reacting, feeling, trying to survive. She answers plainly. “Well, then, you shouldn’t play. You don’t have to play. Just… don’t play.”

You don’t have to stay in this game.


look at what they make us give

Friday 5 April 2013. A year after my Mom’s death. I’m increasingly exhausted. And when I get off the bus and see my parents’ house, I’m lost. Maybe PTSD. Maybe dissociation. Definitely trauma unlocked. And the worst set of panic attacks. Way worse than 7 December 2000, in the middle of my first breakdown. Because this time I was supposed to be getting well, right? And there I was, frying my synapses.

And with nowhere to run, and with my mind on fire, I got drunk so that I could survive. And I put living on hold. And next day I went to Stafford and then to Burslam to watch some meaningless football. And then I fled to my friends in the vain hope of staying sane; of finding safety. Because after 24 hours at DefCon1, and with cortisol pouring into my marrow, I was fucked.

It was relentless. And I was fucked.

And three days later I did what was normally normal. I got on a train to London. To speak at a conference with my friend Joss. On a non-stopping train that would deposit me in London in one hour and six minutes.

A breeze.

No time at all.

Forever.

And by Market Harborough I was barely holding it together. Wondering if I could get the guard to sit with me whilst I went insane. Wondering who in the carriage would sit with me so I could survive. Texting my wife to ask if she could pick me up because, if I could face it, I was getting straight back on the next train home. Texting my therapist to ask for an extra session. And the realisation that I had 50 minutes left to survive. And seriously doubtigthat I would?

Because the very thought of travelling and being away and presenting and being alone was too much. Too unsafe. Overwhelming. Unliveable.

Given what had been unlocked, living my life felt overwhelming.

And in wondering whether living my life was self-harm or self-care, all that was left was confusion.

And now I remember the on-going, missed opportunities to stay and engage with people. Because on one warm April day, it became the fight of my life simply to agree to speak, and then to get on a train and to stay on a train. And what was normally normal was lost. And the disorder of my anxiety became the order of the day.

And is this disordered life normal for me now? How did I live in India for six months in 1993? How did I get on a plane to Syria in 1998? Or travel to New York in 2010? How did I defend my Ph.D.? How did I manage to teach and to present so often? How did I travel to the ends of the country on my own to support Walsall away? How did I trust myself? How did I have faith in the core of me?

This inner trauma of being out of control, and of being in harm’s way, and of potentially losing my mind, and of not being able to perform, and of the world simply not being safe. Of normality not being safe. Because, when the only thing that feels normal is anxiety, what is normal? And unfortunately I am really good at re-producing really fucking epic levels of anxiety.


the disorder of performance anxiety

And Mardy Fish connects his anxiety to specific forms of performance and heightened expectations, which shattered his Self-perception.

[M]y expectations changed, both externally and internally, along with my ranking. Looking back, this wasn’t necessarily the healthiest thing. My dissatisfaction with the status quo — that had been so helpful when there were 20 players ranked in front of me — crossed over into something more stressful, and then destructive, I think, when that number became reduced to seven.

The idea that I wasn’t good enough was a powerful one — it drove me, at an age when many players’ careers are winding down, to these amazing heights. But it also became a difficult switch to turn off. I was, objectively, doing great. And looking back, I wish I had been able to tell myself that. But doing great wasn’t something that my frame of mind back then had time to process. All I could focus on was doing better. It was a double-edged sword.

And then it infected everything. Work, life, Self, everything. Infected.

when I returned to the court that summer, around Wimbledon … that’s when I began to get these really weird, new thoughts. Uncomfortable, anxious thoughts. Like I was nervous about something that was going to happen — even though it kept not happening.

I was a guy who loved being on my own. I loved traveling on my own, that solitude. That feeling of shutting off your phone and heading on a long flight … that used to bring me peace. But I couldn’t travel on my own anymore. My parents had to come out to Wimbledon. I needed people around me at all times, period.

And through it all, I just kept having these … thoughts. This anxiety. I became consumed by this exhausting, confusing dread.

And the attacks just kept… getting… worse.

It was only away from the court that this problem existed, and compounded. That these thoughts kept creeping in. And they were becoming more and more frequent: from once or twice a day, to a handful of times a day, to eventually — when it got really bad, by the end of the summer — every 10-to-15 minutes. Anxious, overwhelming attacks of thought. When I’m back at the hotel, I’m googling “anxiety disorder,” “panic disorder,” “depression,” “mental health” … but really I knew nothing about any of it. I didn’t know what to do. I just had no idea.

At least, I told myself, it wasn’t happening on the court.

And then it happened on the court.

Everything infected.


hoping for scabs; praying for scars

I used to think that the depression was the worst thing. But as it passes I see that it isn’t/wasn’t.

And in the great unbundling of therapy, this is the result: two years of anxiety and dread, because we have revealed the core of me, and all I have left is to persevere in reordering my disorder. Finding faith in myself.

And I remember the meltdown before my inaugural. That in front of 200 friends I would have to run. Or be so overwhelmed that performance would be impossible and hatred (mine and others) would follow. And my mate Johnny texted me to ask “how badly are you shitting yourself?”, and I smiled and normalised it and held it together.

And I remember getting on a train to London to see my buddy Martin, only the train was non-stop so I had to get off as the doors closed. Because otherwise there would be no safety valves for an hour. And so I waited for the slower train that stopped everywhere. Because you to have an escape route.

But escape from what?

And I remember a meltdown in Nuneaton waiting for a train to Coventry to examine a Ph.D.. That it was too much responsibility. And having to call my therapist for reassurance that staying in this game was enough. And in persevering, the collection of positives was added to and remembered.

Whilst the trauma was unpicked, so that the scabs could form, and then the scars.

And I remember the panic of a night away from home in Brighton. And the terror of speaking the next morning. The most nervous I have ever been before speaking. So that the exquisite irrationality made me want to run. And I spoke and then I left, because staying would have shredded me alive.

Home. Safely. Safety.

Because staying and speaking, and answering questions and then leaving, was everything. And at the time I felt I gave nothing. And now I know that I gave everything. All played out.

And there were visits to Crewe (a 1-1 draw); and to Wembley (a 2-0 defeat); and to the Globe (for Richard II); and to the Oval (in the sun). Each a trial. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Just stay in the game.

I remember that this inner trauma of being out of control, and of being in harm’s way, and of potentially losing my mind, and of not being able to perform, and of the world simply not being safe, has a longer lineage. That once I wrote that:

The reality was that I would be sitting in meetings wondering what excuse I could use for leaving: sickness, headache, whatever. Only if I did leave, then what? Go insane? Self-harm? Run until I dropped? So, as I sat in an interview with a PVC, another Professor and a member of senior management, I survived the rage in-between my temples. They would not have known how close I was to screaming.

Persevering whilst the trauma is unpicked, and the scabs form, and then the scars.

It won’t always be like this.

Do you wanna know how far you’ve gone?/Do you have any idea?

Everything Everything. 2015. The Wheel (Is Turning Now).


against persistent undoing

And I am reminded by a friend that Keguro Macharia writes that she has battled a dual reality. Trying to face trauma inside/against/beyond work, and trying to understand how narratives about trauma reinforce or undermine identity and Self, and our relationships to work/not work. She tells friends that

I’m wrestling with my own disorganization. My own “persistent undoing” given the occasion of the social. I am “undone” when I leave the house, walk down the street, encounter an absenting normality.

Exhausted and medicated. Under assault. Still performing as a form of self-harm. A cover for something else.

And the moment of self-care comes when she describes

the real story, the one I have been telling and not telling over the past many years of blogging, [] a Fanonian story about toxicity and exhaustion. It is a story about slavery’s long shadow and racism’s insistent pressing.

I was tired of performing a psychic labor that left me too exhausted to do anything except go home, crawl into bed, try to recover, and prepare for the next series of assaults.

And in holding her “real story”, I feel the concrete, on-going toxicity of past trauma reinforced in the present through culturally-acceptable self-harming activities like overwork. Reinforced and replicated through the performances we make each day, and the narratives we tell about ourselves, in order to keep going. Only the boundaries between keeping going and giving extra are blurred. Overlaying our abstracted labour on-top of our disorder. Our persistent undoing.

And I recognise that work and overwork, and the search for status and identity, are overlain on top of the fear of losing my mind, and of not being able to perform, and of the world simply not being safe. And this rationally irrational anxiety feels normal because it is rooted in time. Stitched into my DNA from way back when.

A complex of: them/me; then/now; work/unwork; doing/being; lost/found; alone/together.

So that living has been my greatest fear. A fear to be worked on.

So that my anxieties emerge from the core of my existence.

So that my performing/being is both the seat of my self-annihilation and my ultimate means of self-care. If only I would find some faith.

And in holding Keguro’s real story, I recognise that this is exhausting. These falsehoods. These false stories. This lack of faith in Self. A life lived survived this way. It is exhausting.

It won’t always be like this.

It is an uncertain business, said the old man. You must persevere. To persevere is everything.

Cormac McCarthy. 1998. Cities of the Plain.


on chronic fatigue and being increasingly anxiety-hardened

You do it to yourself, you do/And that’s what really hurts

Is that you do it to yourself/Just you and no one else

You do it to yourself

Radiohead. 1995. Just.

 

That there/That’s not me

I go/Where I please

I’m not here/This isn’t happening

I’m not here/I’m not here

Radiohead. 2000. How to Disappear Completely.

Since my Mom passed in April 2013 the tinnitus has been dreadful. The tinnitus, and the sinuses scarified. From my ears across my cheeks, and running above my eyebrows. My sinuses feeling like someone had been scraping at them with a rusty spoon. And so fucking, cripplingly full of something. Pressure. Unnaturally full and irritated. So that the something, the pressure in my sinuses and the tinnitus and the soreness merged. Merging in my sinuses with a constant ringing in my ears. And a desperate, cloying, black fatigue in my soul.

A desperate fatigue in my soul that made living and surviving a trial. Because when you are used to being a bit manic, in always moving and never sitting and never being but always doing, fatigue is the very worst thing. The inability to do and to prove myself over-and-over again. The forced labour of sitting with myself, and imagining my bodily failure, the realisation of my uselessness, rather than the joy of being still. The end of days.

And I remembered that my breakdown of September 2000 was preceded and signalled by a virus, and triggered by the fury of living and working too fast, and accompanied by an acute attack of vertigo, with terrible chronic fatigue and sinusitis following in its wake. The days spent bedridden and railing at my mortality and the weakness of my flesh. The days when walking across the bedroom to the toilet was exhausting. And the panic that followed and swarmed from December 2000 to, well, now. The insidious panic that swarmed and found the cracks in my psyche, and found a home in the cracks inside, and refused to leave. And the panic that was always there inside; until the inside cracked under the pressure of a manic life; so that the panic leached out from the cracks and into the pores; so that no amount of running could sweat it out; and no amount of scrubbing could remove the stain.

And I forgot that I spent five years recovering. That I spent five years trying to reboot my health and my life. A kind of forced recovery to be what I had been, only minus the panic and the dark thoughts and the brooding. Five years of trying to recover my fitness; by walking and t’ai chi; never knowing whether this five mile walk would leave me bedridden for days or just okay. The apparently intermittent nature of the fatigue meaning that today’s walk up five flights of stairs might leave me feeling fine tomorrow; but tomorrow’s walk up five flights of stairs might leave me unable to work or think or do or be for days on end.

Bedridden. Russian Roulette every day. Every. Desperate. Day.

And always, I now realise, the tinnitus and the scarified sinuses were a signal in amongst the noise of the fatigue. But I treated them all as separate and compartmentalised. The body and the mind compartmentalised. So I saw an acupuncturist for my sinuses. And I saw a counsellor and a therapist for my panic. And I saw a GP for my vertigo. And I did t’ai chi and I read self-help books and I walked in order to find the solution. The one thing that would reboot me; the one thing that would heal me; the solution that would help me to start over again.

And it took until the Saturday of the Edgbaston test in the 2005 Ashes before I knew I would recover and be okay. A walk on Moel Siabod. Falling into a peat bog up to my middle; then going in up to my neck; then being pulled out by Wheelist Wheels and Jane and Jo; then refusing to turn around but climbing the mountain. Fuck you. And the next day being able to get up and watch England draw level with Australia; with no ill-effects. Just patched up enough to go on my way. Although maybe I thought this was less a puncture repair than a full service and ready-to-go. Warier for sure, but back. Back.

And I swore to myself that I would never drive myself to a breakdown again. That if I broke again, I simply couldn’t, wouldn’t be able to cope with the psychological damage again. That if I broke again then I would kill myself. Because the effort it had taken to rebuild myself; to live again; had been my everything. For five long years. And frankly it was too much.

The scars were so deep so that my truth was that another breakdown equalled game over. I couldn’t face those inner daemons running feral again. I was not. I am not. Strong enough.

And in Sick and Tired, Nick Read argues that chronic fatigue, accompanied by tinnitus, irritable bowel, sinusitis and whatever else

is another personal strategy to cope with the contradictions and complexities of contemporary life… to give up the struggle altogether… a state of sheer exhaustion, apathy and inertia, like somebody has pulled the plug and drained out the very essence of life.

He argues that patient histories reveal the extraordinarily-driven nature of sufferers’ everyday lives, focused upon exacting personal standards for performance and high levels of responsibility throughout a life. The result is an overextended, overcommitted lifestyle that is breathless and manic and focused on perfection. And in that period up to September 2000 I had been running an education and technology project in 11 universities, and living in Darlington, and trying to write and to publish, and setting-up and chairing the Walsall football supporters’ trust, a six-hour round trip away, and trying to maintain an active life beyond. Too much responsibility; with everything having to be 100 per cent and perfect; or I was a failure. And my body having asked politely for a while, through increasing levels of tiredness and that inner voice that says “slow down” and the occasional bouts of dizziness, eventually shut down. Apparently out-of-the-blue. Like being hit by a bus.

Only the warning signs were there all along. But I ignored them and my inner voice and kept running. Because what else was there to do? As Read argues

Such people often sleep poorly and seem quite literally to work themselves to a standstill, but instead of being able to negotiate some help or relief in some of their roles, they let their illness do the negotiation for them.

And in the aftermath I had blood tests for the fatigue. I sat for hours with a towel over my head breathing in a steam bath to try to clear my sinuses. And I wondered why I was breathless, and never considered that it was the weight of responsibility and despair settled in my chest. And I waited for the dust to settle and my soul to recover. Just enough.

And recently I have been thinking so much about that time of my life. As I tried to reboot. Because the aftermath of my Mom’s passing was accompanied by such awful vertigo, and such dismal tinnitus, and such pressure in my face, and the cloying fatigue that makes existing a trial and survival from day to day the only thing. So that hope was gone; run out of town by the return of chronic fatigue. And the frustration was that I had forgotten the lessons of the last time/the first breakdown.

I had forgotten that the responsibility of sorting power of attorney and end-of-life decisions for my Mom, and working our whether my Dad and sister were okay, and liaising with consultants, and communicating with a disparate family, and driving 50 miles twice a week to visit a critically ill relative, and writing project bids, and managing a team, and presenting at conferences, and preparing an application for a Chair, and being a National Teaching Fellow, and writing, and being in therapy, and living my life, and riding my bike, and being a husband, and everything else, would rub my soul until it bled. Rub my soul and the fabric of my being until they bled.

And in the bleeding the hope and meaning bled out too. As Read argues of “Jack”

He had worked all his life to compensate for the feeling that he was never good enough, but in doing so he created a false sense of self that had no real meaning. Confronted with that dreadful realisation, he suffered a physical, emotional and spiritual collapse.

The focus on spiritual is critical. My chronic fatigue was more than physical exhaustion. It was and is the exhaustion of my soul. My tinnitus is my soul ringing in my ears. My soul singing at the pain of it all. And my sinuses, inflamed, are a brutal reminder of my despair at and in the world. Forcing me in combination to ask, who am I? Do any of the things I have achieved or done or been really matter? And in the midst I lost hope. Laid bare, all that was left was the courage of an eight year-old boy to get up each day and to try to be. The courage of an eight year-old forcing the forty-three year-old to confront his lack of faith in himself. Courage and faith before hope. And maybe courage and faith before justice and hope. The hope that peace will follow.

And there have been a series of qualitative shifts. As I read Sick and Tired and realised that until my emotional and spiritual health was rebalanced I would not and could not be well. The recognition that I needed a better solution than this pill or that nasal irrigation or this nasal spray. That maybe it wasn’t about what I put into me but what I removed. And about how the forty-three year-old could ask for what he needed so that the eight year-old could be released.

So I realised that my NHS Doctor is amazing but that medication and rest were not a viable, long-term prescription. That chronic fatigue and sinusitis needed a more holistic treatment. And that I needed to stop outsourcing my health and welfare to various doctors or therapists, and to stop fetishizing the NHS or doctors or therapists in the process. That I have been ill for 14 years, or maybe for 43, and I am at one end of the bell curve, and need to own that for myself.

So here was the prescription and the thinking and the plan of action.

I need the anti-depressants (I think) and I trust my NHS Doctor, and the Flixonase seems to work, so let’s keep that for a while.

I was recommended to see another NHS Doctor who didn’t think that my sinus problems were food related. This didn’t seem to be right. My gut was telling me that this was not right. But I decided that I needed to push for an ear, nose and throat referral, so that I could get a scan of my sinuses, so that I could eliminate any physical/anatomical issues. So I pushed.

I was recommended to see a private GP about potential food intolerance. And she took a history and listened and recommended some IgG tests. And she told me about the lack of peer-reviewed double-blind research. And she told me to go away and read about it. And she told me to talk to peers. And she treated me like an intelligent man. And she told me that none of this would work if I wasn’t working on my core relationships, including with myself. And she told me that we needed to stop putting things in and consider taking things out. And the interesting thing is that my gut was telling me to stop eating wheat and dairy, and the tests told me the same, plus soya. And my gut was telling me that after 25 years as a vegetarian, I needed meat. Organic, high-quality meat. And it interests me that all along my gut told me these things, and that Joss Winn gave me the courage to back my gut, when he told me to see the GP and to get the tests done “because you’ve been ill for 14 fucking years Richard, and this way you’ll have some more information to make decisions about your life.”

And I found a new faith in my friends.

And I found a new faith in my therapist. A qualitatively new faith in my therapist.

And I found the beginnings of a new faith in myself. That I could ask for help and be assertive in asking for what I need.

And within two weeks of my wheat-free, dairy-free, soya-free, egg-free, beer-free, organic meat-and-fish loaded, fresh fruit and vegetables, oat-cake/rice-cake and hummus diet, my sinuses are 70 per cent better. And I’m riding again. And the tinnitus is so much better.

And what I am left with is the pain in my sinuses when I overdo it. And this happened this week. When I rode for the third time and then ignored the eight year-old who said “we’re tired. No more for now. Stretch and a bath.” So I did some weights and had a bath, and then walked too far the next day. And then was hit with fatigue and someone/me scraping at my sinuses and the ringing in my ears. Hit full-on by the same bus. So that I struggled to get out of bed. I ignored the voice and was made to pay. Bedridden, just for a day.

And my therapist told me that I sounded manic. To calm down. And she was right. I could feel my circuitry being overloaded, so that the wrong music on the radio threatened panic. So that the drilling outside threatened overload in my cortex. So that my own internal relations were stretched and skewed. So that I almost lost faith in myself as the daemons ran feral in my mind. Because I had never sat with my fatigue. I had never respected the inner voice of the eight year-old; to care for him; to self-care. I had always run and run and run and broken. The drive to proceed and exceed tripping an urge to be always-on.

And now, 24 hours later, the panic and the overload has subsided because I have found the courage to reassert faith in myself. To get some justice for the eight year-old by honouring his voice in the future, and to give myself some hope that even in the darkest moments there might be some peace. I had thought about what I do to myself, and how that hurts. How that is a form of self-harm. So that if I trust my gut and the inner voice I might avoid foreclosing on the future.

<breathe>Courage, faith, justice, hope, peace <breathe>.

And I realised that I am increasingly anxiety-hardened. This is my wisdom. In the midst of the renewed panic of “fuck, fuck, fuck, what if I break again?” I realised that I would survive, and that it would not be the end of my days.

This I see afresh how this recent fatigue is a form of self-harm. A witnessing of my own self-harm. The realisation of my own inability to self-care, at times. And it has shown me that I need to listen and respect my self. That I need to stop repeating my past in my present. That my fatigue and sinusitis and the fucking ringing in my ears are reminders of past trauma that I don’t have to reproduce time-and-again.

And I begin to wonder, as I am anxiety-hardened, what it means to be anxious inside a system that reproduces and actively encourages anxiety. What does it mean to be already anxious inside the anxiety-machine? What does it mean to suffer with chronic fatigue inside a system that encourages and demands and accumulates overwork and always-on and “fitter, happier and more productive”?

I feel that this is increasingly about values and humanity and our innate human usefulness and solidarity, in open and politicised opposition to the universe of value production and accumulation. And the recognition that this is itself about/a manifestation of power and powerlessness. Fatigue and sinusitis and tinnitus as a concrete manifestation of despair and powerlessness and abstraction. As Maggie Turp argues in Hidden Self-Harm, the issue pivots around enabling voice, and voices in association, to be found and heard and respected. Respected in faith and with courage. And this is a spiritual reckoning, and one that is less about outsourcing the power-to create our lives so that living becomes survival, and more about taking ownership for the decisions and realities of our own self-care.

And yet this self-care has to happen inside a system that reproduces our powerlessness over our own use or worth or value or time or activities. A system that reflects and echoes past traumas, which are rooted in our previous powerlessness. And these acts of powerlessness are repeated ad nauseam until our souls bleed. Our anxieties around our performance and our labour and our value are a symptom of our distress at being and doing inside this systemic anxiety machine.

Here I return to the emotional dissonance in our souls, between our wish for a concrete, useful life, and the abstraction of everyday work.

The constancy of the destruction of our concrete world in the face of our enforced and enclosed abstracted lives for work, make those lives “increasingly muted”. How is it possible to become for ourselves, as opposed to being for the abstract destruction of our concrete selves in the countless self-harming activities we witness and reproduce and ignore every single day? How is it possible to end these culturally-acceptable self-harming acts, every, single day?

And Donald Winnicott writes in the Concept of the Healthy Individual that

Health here includes the idea of tingling life and the magic of intimacy. All these things go together and add up to a sense of feeling real and being, and of the experiences feeding back into the personal psychical reality, enriching it and giving it scope.

This is not my manic overload, or my medicated sinuses, or my outsourced intervention, so that I can be productive in an abstract sense. It is my concrete, humane power-to listen to my gut instinct and to stop poisoning my body with processed and refined foods. To listen to my eight year-old as my governor, and to respect and have faith in what he needs. To attempt self-care as an anxious person inside the anxiety machine, by practising being true, necessary and kind to myself. To take a more wise, anxiety-hardened path that accepts my good enough nature and my usefulness and my worth, and refuses the clamour to abstract and foreclose on my future. That seeks to produce another kind of life. Productive of values rather than value. Productive of courage and faith and justice and peace, rather than the ringing of my soul in my ears.

To stop scarifying my sinuses. As an act of self-care. A pedagogical act rooted in self-care.

To stop. As an act of self-care. A pedagogical act rooted in self-care.

To be. As an act of self-care. A pedagogical act rooted in self-care.

You can try the best you can. The best you can is good enough.

Radiohead. 2000. Optimistic.


Inside. Through. Beyond. Me.

I’m in my head. I can’t get around this. I’m driven to crucify myself in my own head. And to question my sense of self, my concrete reality, how I live and think and do. In my own head. Because I have held an abstract view of my own value. My own use. My own lack of possibility. Another view held as my own. My false consciousness.

And forever, since I broke and cracked my apparent, concrete reality in 2000 I have been trying to make sense of inside. What is going on inside? Can I inoculate myself from what I perceive to be my reality? Inside my own head? Can I be reborn as something, someone, somehow new? Inside my own head? To be rid of this apparent, hysterical and useless existence.

And forever, since I broke and cracked my apparent, concrete reality in 2000 I have been searching for the download from the matrix that will make me better. Searching for the thing that will remove the almost daily anxiety, and too frequent panic attacks, and patch-up the cracks. Walking, meditation, t’ai chi, acupuncture, therapy, drugs. The thing that will make me value myself. Make me happy. Make me content. And stop the permanent questioning of everything.

And allow me to do. To keep running. Rather than being. Because being was/is/has been too much.

And 14 years is a long time to be searching for the fix. To assume that inside is too broken to be mended on its own. That being inside is too corrosive and too damaging and too dark and too bleak to be cared for and recovered. That it has to be fixed or replaced, rather than cared for and recovered.

And in this I turned to being against. Against how I felt about myself. Because there was no outside the living death inside my head. The daily grind of existing in the things that I do and say, the conversations that I have, and the critical analysis of how I feel about those doings and whether they were right or wrong, and the ongoing critique of what that means for my being.

Who am I? All the time. Is this safe? All the time. Will you leave? All the time. Three tracks in my head. All the time. What. Why. Who. Please tell me who I am?

And always against myself. Inside myself and against myself. Not good enough. Not strong enough. A failure. Useless.

And it is only recently that I see that there is no download. No drug. No fix from outside myself. Only moving beyond myself from inside myself by accepting myself and soothing the anxieties of the child. Allowing myself the space to feel anxious without feeling that I am a failure. Or useless. Or no thing at all.

Understanding that after the trauma of the anniversary of my Mom’s death I am still functioning. That although I couldn’t make it to London to present at a conference two months ago because the dissociation and panic were too much, this wasn’t the end of the world. That It only took two weeks to recover, and in the past it took months. That although I couldn’t get to my friend’s stag weekend, I could still speak at his wedding. That in spite of my fear that I was an academic failure I have presented since. That I have been away since. That I have been to London since. That I have examined and taught and spoken and walked and written and dug and existed since.

And this is a potential beyond. This is an alternative narrative that is a potential beyond. Not to fix my deficits. To care about them and to subsume them inside my care for me.

Understanding that my overwhelming fear that my fractured identity could never be made whole doesn’t need to play out in my life. To play out in ways that I never feel it would in yours. Because I believe in you. And I never believed in me. Until recently.

Because I can have still moments when I think about what, but not why or who.

Because I have begun to reframe how I think about myself, as beyond. As the negation of my cracked identity. The negation of the past that negated me. That taught me the relentless critique of myself and tried to make me run. And that every now and then leads me to exhausted collapse. Or anxious retreat inside. So that all I could think about was being against.

But against has to be fuelled by possibility. Of a rupture against old habits and ways of thinking. Of cracking the thoughts that were once themselves held up as cracked and cracking and irreparably broken. Of old ways of thinking that were useless defences against the world. And defences against myself. That I am useless. That I have failed. That this failure to present inevitably means an ongoing failure to present. That this exhaustion inevitably means a failure to recover and exist. That this moment of anxiety inevitably means that lifetime of struggle inside-and-against myself.

And I have been thinking about this since I presented on academic activism. About my personal epistemological and pedagogic possibilities that are inside/against/beyond my own limited, historic, private anxieties. How might I rethink my limitations as possibilities? How might I rethink what my anxieties are trying to tell me? How might I try to see my individual moments of failure as potentialities for change? How might I read my exhaustion less as failure and more as moments to care for myself? How might I understand and realise a counter-narrative of my life as a positive, concrete, useful process, rather than my having to be or become a fetishised, normal, healthy, functioning thing? To become concrete rather than abstracted? To become real rather than false?

That in spite of my anxieties I made it to Nottingham to present. That in spite of my anxieties I made it to Aston to examine. That in spite of my anxieties I made it to Norfolk on holiday. That in spite of my anxieties I have reduced the hours I spend in therapy. That in spite of my anxieties I continue to teach. That I have begun to ride again. That I couldn’t stop smiling after I saw the line-up for the Governing Academic Life conference, and that I don’t feel like an imposter or fraud. That although I couldn’t make it to the Globe to watch Antony and Cleopatra I managed to write this. And to understand myself a little more.

Because it has to be different. I want to be different. That something inside is desperate to breathe and to be heard, in spite of my anxieties.

And I have begun to read about possibility and “what is to be done” in my work because I am trying to figure out what is to be done in my life.

That I feel I may be able to live for me. Co-operatively and with care and with as much unconditionality as I can muster. That I can see what I have, rather than to fear the loss of what I do not have or never had or that was never an option. That I might be able to move beyond the unconditionality that I crave(d), and that was never possible. To see what I do have. Inside me. Through me. Beyond me. To be beyond the defences and behaviours that I have held against me. Against my own emancipation from my negation. To see that what lies inside is not to be fixed but is to be embraced for what it shows me about myself. To quiet the screaming boy with love and care and attention.

To accept the possibility of beyond as recuperation. Inside and through the ways in which I have imprisoned myself. Rather than inside and against myself. To “be” (somehow) inside and through and beyond.

Liberated.


on silence

I read this by Kate Bowles about speaking words that are true, necessary and kind.

And I read this by Kate Bowles about how that social media joke isn’t funny anymore.

Those two posts led to me to ask the following, open questions of anyone who wishes to use mental health and/or alcoholism as an amuse bouche on their social media platform(s). They were triggered by writing here.

  1. How do we use our established social media platforms to refuse to joke about mental health and alcoholism? How do we avoid the glib use of these conditions, in order to escape our trivialising of them? How do we engage with those who have experience of them so that we can make reasoned, evidenced, and practical arguments? How do we write in ways that are true, necessary and kind?
  2. If we do not struggle with “regular bouts of clinical depression, temporary insanity and chronic alcoholism”, should we really be joking about them? Really? If we don’t then from what basis are we writing and joking about them and why? Why these conditions and not others?
  3. How do we generate a collective understanding of the damaging impact of misinformed assertions about those conditions? How do we refuse writing about conditions that can actually trigger? How do we refuse and push-back against those misinformed, poorly-evidenced, fatuous pieces of writing that risk being forms of trolling?
  4. How do we avoid making tenuous and poorly-researched connections about the association between technology use (e.g. blogging) and mental health or substance abuse? Wouldn’t it be better to try to understand the conditions first? There is plenty of academic and user-centred literature available. How does our writing help those who are campaigning for better mental health or alcohol awareness?
  5. How do we develop a collective understanding of the actual impact on families and relationships of chronic alcoholism? How do we understand the impact on families and relationships of caring for someone with Wernicke’s Encephalopathy and/or Korsakoff Syndrome? How do we understand the pain of caring for someone as they develop alcohol-induced dementia? How do we show kindness and care to those who are forced to watch the struggle in life and death of the addict?
  6. How do we develop a collective understanding of how depression and substance abuse don’t emerge from the pressure of writing? How do we develop a collective understanding of how debilitating clinical depression is? How do we write and speak in ways that increase societal understanding or care for those who suffer? How do we avoid amplifying societal misunderstandings and assertions and prejudices?
  7. How do we use our privilege to hear others, and to care about others? How do we speak and write in ways that are true, necessary and kind, so that what we say is true, necessary and kind?
  8. How do we recognise that sometimes we need to apologise rather than give poorly thought through excuses for our apparent thoughtlessness? How do we recognise that sometimes silence is the thing?

On rage (as an empowered and productive member of society)

This blog is autobiographical. But then you knew that, right? You knew that when I talk about emancipation or the struggle for communism as the negation of my negation or against my alienation or for a world beyond false consciousness, that this was deeply personal as well as political. That I am against my/your/our life’s subsumption under someone else’s rules; against my/your/our alienation inside someone else’s structuring realities. That I am for the world made concrete and useful through co-operation, rather than its restructuring for exchange and the market.

That you can trace the tropes I talk about on here to my life in-against-and-beyond therapy.

That being in-and-beyond therapy is the most deeply political act of my life because it is emancipatory.

And in this process and in this moment, one of the things that is surfacing is anger at the world. Anger at our collective subsumption under the dictates of the market, which is enforced by the disciplinary hand of an increasingly securitised State. Anger that demands that I/we say no, and push-back, and refuse, and look for alternatives that are increasingly outside of the institutionalised realities of competitive, marketised higher education.

And this is also anger at the realities of my past. Framing this present.

And a boy left alone in the corner of a room. With fear framing his ever-present.

And that is one of my critical realisations; that the cognitive and emotional and past and present are interwoven; and that I can trust to this and have faith in it. That who am I now depends on who I was then. And that I need to integrate that eight year-old boy inside my adult-self. And that I cannot understand my adult-self that is presently in-and-against Capital and capitalist social relations, unless I understand my adult/boy-self that is equally in-and-against my/his past.

And although systemically academics are restructured against feeling and for critical thinking or critical reasoning or whatever neoliberal ideal will deliver REF-able, impactful outcomes, my struggle for integration and against further alienation reveals a struggle for a life that is much more qualitative. And so every time I hear about quantified time, or outcomes, or impact, I bleed a little. And I feel the screw turn. And this feeling of bleeding or constriction or enclosure is critical because it threatens to be disciplinary. It threatens to dis-integrate the emotional from the cognitive in me/us, or to map or codify or commodify our affective existence. To put our souls to work and to quantify them.

This is why communism, or the fight for the commons, or for co-operation, becomes qualitatively meaningful, in the face of the incremental objectification of our everyday existence, through cops on campus, or precarious labour, or the privatisation of public space, or the indenturing of our young people’s futures, or whatever. This is a qualitative turn of the screw in an anti-social or inhumane direction that is to be resisted. Everywhere. In this life.

This secular crisis of capitalism reveals the inhumanity of the objectification of my/your/our time and space, or space-time. And this is why I struggle against the living death of capitalist work. It is why I struggle for faith in humanity rather than the market. Because the loss of so much of my past makes me recoil at the threat to our collective futures imposed by austerity or debt or climate change or Fukushima or whatever. And which anaesthetises academia to the external realities of this world, in the name of money/impact.

And this qualitative turn of the screw is only amplified by the reification of critical reasoning or thinking. This reification that denies our need to integrate the cognitive and the emotional (and there is a reason that Bloom wrote about the affective domain although it was almost an afterthought), and that argues that I might think myself well. That critical thinking about depression and anxiety, or some other (cognitive) behavioural stricture or neuro-linguistic re-programming or coaching manualisation, might lead to recovery. That there might be a pill that will make me better/happy. That there might be a download from the Matrix that cures me. For the market. An empowered and productive member of society.

And it has taken me over five years in therapy to learn to listen to my feelings. To know that qualitatively my gut knows, and that I should trust it. Through experience and survival it knows, and I know. So when my chest is gripped with anxiety but my gut is calm, I know there is another way. When they are both in seizure, then we have a problem.

And this feels important because I am trying to reflect on what Clementine writes, in relation to her rage at her Mom’s impending surgery:

As I sit here in my chair in dads office, crying for the first time about all this shit, I want to just sit here and scream. But I don’t want anyone to hear me. I don’t want to be what they think that I ought to be. I’m not. I’m not crying because I’m sad or I’m breaking. I’m crying because I am so fucking mad. I am so mad that there’s nothing that can calm me down. There is nothing I can’t deal with but just because I can deal with it doesn’t mean that it’s not painful as fuck holding it back.

It took me years to realise that this was/is me, in this life at work and at home, searching for something and not knowing that what I desired was an integrated self. That I spent so long holding my rage back that it consumed me as depression and anxiety, although as it happens this was also formed through shame. And that I spent forever trying to cope with the anger that spilled out as a fight against injustice or marginalisation or power-over, of students or those without homes or those with no voice, and for a different set of organising principles. And that deep-down this was a fight against my own historical and social marginalisation.

And the more I think about Clementine’s pain in holding back her fucking mad-ness, the more I wonder about the ways in which as an academic I am trying to find mechanisms to integrate my fucking mad-ness and my rage at the world as it is, inside my life as a whole. And this stands against critical thinking and against medicating my emotions. And this, I think, is where critique emerges for me as a powerful, political and therapeutic tool for the systemic analysis of the ways in which I and my self are alienated in this world. And this prefigures the emergence of my focus on sociability and on co-operative alternatives. It is the interplay between rage, courage and critique that reveals and then co-opts the fucking mad-ness. For something different. Enabling me to feel it and live it and understand it, and put it to use.

For love.