A little empathy goes a long way

July 27, 2010

I just got a comment from a blogging friend to the extent that he resents the fact that I have to go on deployment to such a dangerous place. That comment meant a lot to me, perhaps because when I posted a status update on Facebook about going to Darfur, only two people commented. Now I’m almost never on Facebook and I don’t blame people for not responding since I almost never comment on other people’s status updates either. But it did make me think about the kind of support I’m getting (and not getting) as I struggle with anxiety about preparing to go to Darfur.

One Colonel suggested that my official passport application will take another six months and won’t be ready by the end of the month as I was told. A major told me that I probably won’t be home for Christmas since a replacement is unlikely to arrive in December and the OC of the base there has to give his approval before you can get on the plane. A staff officer was telling me about SA soldiers who were ambushed and robbed of their equipment, their vehicles and their wallets by Sudanese rebels. And then there are the comments about the unbearable heat. 45C to 50C in summer apparently according to one Colonel (although he was making that estimation on the basis of his daughter’s experience in UAE). My sister sent me a very helpful two-page list of everything that I should remember to take with me, which also had the unfortunate side-effect of making me more anxious.

And so what I’m left with is anxiety that rises and subsides again but generally appears to be on an upwards trajectory. The effect is almost paralysing. I sit in my office and worry and worry. I make a few phone calls and I’m told that I have to wait another month. And then I worry some more and feel a mix of powerlessness, resentment, anxiety and dread.

My social work colleague suggested that I plan a wedding for December, which will necessitate being back in South Africa. Now that’s not a bad idea and not very far away from being a reality. Watch this space. But I don’t want to put off this deployment for any longer than I can. If L and I schedule a wedding for December there’s a chance that they won’t send me until next year, which is really not going to work for us.

In the meantime I have other work to attend to and I find that my ability to read and write is deteriorating. It’s not that I can’t read and write. It’s just that I don’t have the sustained calmness and attention to do so. I’m on high alert here. Loud noises make me jump. And loud voices (which are quite common here) make me jump even more. I know that if I was a dog I would probably be cowering in the corner of my office and shaking almost uncontrollably. Or perhaps not. Perhaps I would just bite the next person who steps on my already fragile sensibilities.

But I’m going to have to address this anxiety one way or another. Some more therapy perhaps. Whatever it takes.


Destination Darfur

July 8, 2010

I’m waiting for the signal for my deployment to Darfur for three months. If all goes to plan, I’ll be in Pretoria on the 2nd of August and in Sudan on the 5th until the beginning of November, working as a psychologist with the South African peacekeepers.

“How are you feeling about going?” my supervisor asked yesterday.

“Mixed feelings” was my response. There’s excitement about the opportunity to work in a place which I’ve heard of in the news but which I actually know very little about. Anxiety about my safety. Sadness at being separated from L and my family for three months. And then a lot of little anxieties about whether I will cope there. What if it’s unbearably hot? How will I cope with the dust storms? Will I remember to pack everything I need? What if I get sick or depressed? Will L be OK in my absence? What about my bills back home? What if I need to do lots of trauma debriefing? Who will debrief me? I’m guessing there won’t be good internet access, which gives me a headache just thinking about it.

I’ve started doing some research on Sudan and Darfur and I’m hoping that the more information I have, the easier it will be to manage. I probably don’t want to read too much about the genocide before I get there. But I’ve ordered The Devil Came on Horseback by Brian Steidle and Gretchen Steidle Wallace. And then I looked for some personal blogs on Darfur and found that there were almost none. Two interesting-looking blogs which have subsequently gone quiet (I was going to say dead but that’s an unfortunate word-choice in the circumstances) are Sudanese Knights and the Notorious Echo-Victor-Echo, which I realised spells Eve.

I’ll post more on this in the days to come. For now, you will understand if I don’t make my usual rounds of blog-reading and if I don’t post some reviews here for a while. Life happens, I tell myself, and I need to deal with it the best I can. I just hope this headache doesn’t last for the full 12 weeks.

I’ve also been looking at images to give myself a mental picture of what it might be like. The first is of South African peacekeepers attending a funeral for fallen colleagues in July 2008 (taken from the UN). The second is taken from Sudanese Knights. (I hope she doesn’t mind.)

Playing House

August 24, 2009

house 5 I’m moving house this morning. Those six words are enough to put knots into my stomach and I’m trying to keep the anxiety at bay by reframing this as “playing house” rather than “moving house”. There’s no escaping the fact that moving is very stressful — some stress guides put it up there just below losing a parent or a spouse. Part of me is deeply unsettled by the prospect but I’m also quite excited. There’s good stress and bad stress all jumbled together and when you most need to retreat to your favourite place to regroup, well, it’s gone, hasn’t it? And then you can’t find anything that you need, despite the meticulous labelling on all the boxes.

There are many ways to approach a move and possibly the most sensible is to tackle it like a formidable military campaign. Preparation is everything and you need to-do lists, time schedules, contingency plans and good supply lines. I’m all for making the move as comfortable as possible but I’m trying not to get caught up in too much list-writing. It also helps that my new house is only five minutes drive from my parents’ place, where I’ve been staying for going on two years. So in terms of stressful life events, this really shouldn’t be a crippling, curl-up-into-a-ball-and-start-rocking move.

Last time I moved it was the end of 2007 and one image stands out for me from that time. It was the end of a long, gruelling year and I was having to go back to my parents while I finished my thesis and waited to start my community service as a psychologist in the military. I’d just packed up my entire house into two separate storage areas and I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I remember sitting in the bath in an otherwise largely-deserted house and trying to cry and feeling utterly wretched. It was a miserable feeling but it did feel like a turning point and I could start going up again.

Today’s move seems like child’s play in comparison. For a start, the packing has largely been done. All the finding and gathering and ordering and throwing away and labelling and storing and all that. This is the fun part where I get to open boxes like presents and remember all the things that I used to have and will now have again. Books and CDs and coffee-tables and paintings and a whole assortment of unnecessary papers. I’m leaving the parental home for the last time (hopefully) at the ripe age of 39. Hallelujah! I’ve come of age! P and I are moving in together and will get a chance to play house.

Yesterday P and I got access to the house and it was such a relief to see that the keys worked, the alarm turned off and that the tenants had left it in good shape. They even left some wood in the fireplaces, which was a nice touch, although I was less thrilled to see that my new study has lilac-coloured walls and their daughter’s name on the door. In fairness to them, they did offer to paint the walls white again but I thought the lavender colour would be charming and also serve to remind us that if we ever decide to have a child, this room could easily be turned into a nursery once again. The child-like letters on the door, which now spell out “Milla” in different colours, will probably have to go but if you take away the “A” you have “mill”, which is quite a fitting name for a study. After all, it’s Freud who talks about everything being “grist for the mill”.

Apart from my hacking cough and P’s dripping nose, which are the inevitable hangers-on from a cold and wet Cape winter, we’re in pretty good shape for the move. My boxes are all packed and I’m meeting the movers at the storage park where they’ll transfer the contents of Unit 451 into a truck rather than a bakkie (fingers crossed here) and driving us to the “slum”. That rather charming image comes courtesy of my mom whose serious words of advice to me were not to let “Joschka [the dog] turn your house into a slum”. Thanks, ma, I really needed that image right now, just as I’m showing P the peeling paint and the window-frames that need replacing and the floorboards that need sanding and varnishing and who-knows-what-else.

Some words of advice from Martha Beck, the life coaching guru. I read an interesting column from Helena Dolny in this week’s Mail & Guardian in which she quotes Martha Beck’s advice on being steered by your own “body compass”:

Beck leads us through constructing our own body compass. It’s quite simple, really. Firstly, think of a time you consider to be one of your best moments ever, of feeling loved, feeling safe. … That’s you’re ‘plus-10’ reference point. Next, think of a time that was the worst of your life. … That’s your “minus 10”. … The next thing Martha asks you to do is to write down your “to do” list for the following week. … Then take your list, consider your own body compass you just set up and score the list. … Identifying the area of most dissatisfaction is the entry point into a possible conversation with yourself, or with someone you can think things through with.

There’s no doubt that the lowest score for me would be moving house. But now that I’ve visited the house again and sorted through the previous memories of moving in my mind, I think this move could also be quite fun. I’m not saying that the anxiety magically goes away but there’s room to enjoy some of the move rather than feeling on edge the whole time. What’s a dropped couch here and there in the broader scheme of things?

Fear like fog

May 25, 2009

Of human emotions and affects, shame settles in like a dense fog, obscuring everything else, imposing only its own shapeless, substanceless impressions. It becomes impossible to establish bearings or orient oneself in relation to the broader landscape. Like fog, shame distorts visions and influences what is seen. But more. Shame also feels like a weight, a heaviness, a burden, pressing down often at the top of the back, forcing the body into the characteristic posture … shoulders hunched, the body curved forward, head down, and eyes averted. The burden of shame can settle into different parts of the body — the pit of the stomach, the face or eyes, or externally, an aura encasing the entire self. Shame induces a wish to become invisible, unseen, to sink into the ground or to disappear into the thick, soupy fog that we have just imagined. — Andrew Morrison

I like that quote by Morrison, not because I’m feeling shame today, but because of the way it evokes the link between fog and the emotion. These days, the view of the mountain from our house is often obscured by a dense mist-like cloud which creeps down, bringing cold and rain. Four mornings a week I leave home at 6.30am when it’s still dark and cold.

This morning I had to leave the dog outside in the laundry where she at least has her dog-bed to snuggle up in. But there’s a lot of anxiety in that simple leaving. This is the same dog that bit her way into a previous house, breaking the same window twice and cracking it the third time. She has bitten her way through a (flimsy) garage door and also bent the bars of a security gate with her teeth. So a simple act of leaving my dog alone for the day is filled with anxiety. I’m half expecting a call from my neighbours to say that the dog has escaped and is now with them. Last time she landed up at the Kirstenbosch nursery.

And then there are other hassles, including my ever-unreliable tenants in Johannesburg and another upcoming long-distance trip for work.

On the reading front, I’m mostly enjoying a friend’s The Halo and the Noose, a book on using stories in business, and also finishing Charlene Smith’s Committed to Me, which is a combination of self-help, feminism and personal anecdotes and is subtitled “making better decisions in life, love and work”. And then there’s Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, which has been languishing for too long on the bedside table.

The only other thing to report is that I’ve been watching too much sport on TV, including the Super 14 rugby and also the Indian Premier League Twenty20 cricket. The team I chose as “my team”, the Royal Challengers Bangalore, narrowly lost to the Deccan Chargers last night in the final. For me it was a struggle of brute aggression (Deccan) versus the more elegant style of Bangalore. I realise that comparison doesn’t really work but at a more visceral level I just can’t bring myself to like Herschell Gibbs or Andrew Symonds. Bangalore had a revitalised and innovative Kallis (also Boucher and van der Merwe) and included the Indian greats of Kumble and Dravid. They were cruising to victory and got muscled out by the Chargers, leaving me to reflect on why I allow myself to get so worked up about silly things like cricket.

Julian Barnes: Nothing to be Frightened Of (2008)

May 18, 2009

Awareness of death came early, when I was thirteen or fourteen. … My friend R. recently asked me how often I think about death, and in what circumstances. At least once each waking day, I replied; and then there are the intermittent nocturnal attacks. … […] One of the few comforts of death-awareness is that there is always — almost always — someone worse off than yourself. Not just R., but also our mutual friend G. He is the long-time holder of the thanatophobes’ gold medal for having been woken by le réveil mortel at the age of four (four! you bastard!). — Nothing to be Frightened Of.

I have found that four givens are particularly relevant to psychotherapy: the inevitability of death for each of us and for those we love; the freedom to make our lives as we will; our ultimate aloneness; and, finally, the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life. However grim these givens may seem, they contain the seeds of wisdom and redemption …[…] Of these facts of life, death is the most obvious, most intuitively apparent. At an early age, far earlier than is often thought, we learn that death will come, and that from it there is no escape. — Irvin Yalom, Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy (1989)

Early deprivation experiences, trauma, separation anxiety, and the corresponding development of psychological defences set the stage for an individual method of coping with death anxiety. Thereafter, people accommodate to the fear of death in varying degrees, through the withdrawal of energy and emotional investment in life-affirming activities and close, personal relationships. — Robert Firestone (Death Studies, 1993)

Julian Barnes’s book-length essay which is part meditation on his own fear of death and part family memoir has been variously described as: superb, his funniest and frankest work yet, captivating, compelling, consistently interesting and entertaining, witty, poignant and allusive, scholarly and jaunty, an elegant memoir and meditation …. I could go on. I found it all of these but ultimately, from a psychological point of view, a bit shallow. Writing that description now, I find it mean-spirited and I want to acknowledge that of course Barnes is immensely entertaining and scholarly and also wise. But I wish he had gone further in his exploration of his own anxiety. Perhaps it’s inevitable that I would say that. As a psychologist I want people to work on their issues and achieve as much insight into their own dynamics as possible. Barnes, by contrast, is mistrustful of psychology. One of his characters (Geoffrey Braithwaite in Flaubert’s Parrot), quotes Flaubert on the limitations of language:

Other people think you want to talk. ‘Do you want to talk about Ellen?’ they ask, hinting that they won’t be embarrassed if you break down. Sometimes you talk, sometimes you don’t; it makes little difference. The words aren’t the right ones; or rather, the right words don’t exist. ‘Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.’ You talk, and you find the language of bereavement foolishly inadequate. You seem to be talking about other people’s griefs. I loved her; we were happy; I miss her. She didn’t love me; we were unhappy; I miss her. There is a limited choice of prayers on offer: gabble the syllables. (p.161)

Ah, isn’t that good? The beauty of language in describing how difficult it is for words to capture emotional experience. Perhaps this is what I like most about Barnes’ writing. The sections in N2BFO on his parents and his brother, for example, I found poignant and rich. There’s so much emotion and so little. The Barnes brothers grew up believing that the expressing of emotions was simply not done. Love was a four-letter word that was never spoken. And right at the start of this book, Jonathan (Julian’s older brother) says that the idea of missing God is soppy. One of the most memorable illustrations of this lack of emotion in JB’s family life comes after his first novel is published. Before his mom delivers her verdict about it being a “bombardment of filth”, Julian’s dad provides his opinion on an orchestrated car trip to the shops. Here his dad is only able to tell him that he approves and is proud of him by not looking at him directly. The scene for this awkward show of almost affection is, as with most family interactions, set up by Julian’s narcissistic, controlling and critical mom. What a family! Who wouldn’t be drawn to JB’s descriptions of such everyday family dysfunctionality?

It is these family scenes that I loved the most, and which constitute for me the emotional core of the book. For the rest there’s some philosophising about religion, a lot of fairly interesting literary allusions and a whole raft of would-you-rathers which became a bit tedious. JB acknowledges that meditating on one’s own death is solipsistic but it’s also something that he’s compulsively drawn to do. And a lot of it is entertaining. The difference between the hypothetical last reader of his books and the last visitor to his grave, for example, is pretty funny in a dark, dry kind of way. Although I couldn’t help thinking that it really shouldn’t matter in the broad scheme of things if people are reading his books in 200 years’ time.

Reflecting on my dissatisfaction with Barnes’s level of engagement, I was reminded of the depths which Yalom achieves with his existential psychology. Yalom uses death anxiety to reaffirm what’s most meaningful about life and to go deeper in his understanding about the complexity of human relationships. Barnes seems to get lost (or stuck) in his defences. I start to wonder about the effect of his emotionally unavailable mother and the link between separation anxiety and death anxiety. And I’m pleased to notice that Yalom confirms what I suspect, that existential anxiety (or fear of dying) begins in childhood. The implications of this for N2BFO are that rather than deserving the gold medal for thanatophobia, JB’s friend G is perhaps more normal than he appears. By contrast, JB seems at pains to locate this fear in adolescence whereas it seems far more likely to have a deeper source.

About 60 pages from the end of N2BFO, I started looking around the internet to find interesting material for this review. What about his wife? I wondered. Why does she get so little mention in the book? And then I stumbled across her obituary. What? When? Like a Machiavellian twist in the plot, it then emerges that Pat Kavanagh, celebrated literary agent and JB’s beloved wife, died of a brain tumour in October 2008, seven months after the publication of N2BFO. The traumatically short passage from diagnosis to death was apparently only five weeks. Reading this I was shocked. Oh no, poor JB. I suddenly lost a lot of my appetite for this review. It’s all very well to joke and theorise about death when it’s one step removed. But here it’s particularly poignant. Maybe Barnes could do with a good dose of Yalom after all.

Driving as metaphor

May 16, 2009

It’s freezing cold here and we’re being battered by a pretty big cold front. Newlands always gets the most rain in the Cape so it’s been quite fierce. I’m shivering, my dog is shivering and she’s also trying to climb onto the bed and the couch at any opportunity. At the moment P has covered her with a big blanket and she’s breathing some heavy breaths which could indicate sleep. I hope so. The schlurping and the licking is pretty annoying when she’s not sleeping.

The cold weather tends to make me hibernate and so it’s an extra effort to get round and read all my usual blogs. Apologies on that score. I’ll get there eventually (spam problem notwithstanding).

For today I thought I’d post something I wrote on Monday after a near-miss traffic incident the day before. I’ll be back with a book review of N2BFO hopefully on Monday. Happy weekend!


I’m still a bit shaken today by a near-accident yesterday. It was just after 4pm and I was late for a walking date with P. I was barrelling along on the M3, heading for the U-turn near the hospital when out of nowhere, or more accurately from the turn-off to the forest, a woman in a grey sedan pulls out right in front of me into the fast lane. Into the fast lane, I want to stress with a little shake of my head. The flipping fast lane.

Just remembering the incident I’m going into forensic mode. The greenish-blue Toyota was going at 90 kms/hr and had 20 metres to stop. There was a loud screeching of tyres, a cloud of burning rubber and two cars narrowly missing each other. One of the drivers had a look of innocent surprise and the other was cursing and shaking his head in disbelief.

I start to rationalise: maybe she didn’t see me, maybe the light was funny – but it was clear for me – and she pulls into the fast lane going at 20 kms/hr. I realise that I was also at fault. I should have stuck to the speed-limit (cf. the nanny state). But I did well in the circumstances. I kept my wits about me. I didn’t over-steer and roll the car.

With 20 metres between you and an almost certain collision, what would you do? I tend to stay pretty calm under that kind of pressure. I can have a little cadenza over something minor but when it’s life-and-death I can be pretty steady. Brake as much as possible and steer into the slide. There’s bound to be a slide. You can’t slam on brakes at that speed in a Tazz and just stop normally. I think of the damage to my brakes, tyres, bumper, her car, hope and pray that it’s not too serious, that neither of us is hurt, that my dog doesn’t hit the windscreen. God, what if she has a baby in the backseat? What was she thinking? P is already going to be mad that I’m late. And on and on the thought-reel goes. You’re doing OK, keep it together, it’s not over yet, it might not happen.

I slam on brakes, hit the hooter, swear for all I’m worth and wait for the sickening crash. Time passes pretty slowly now that my senses are on full alert. The adrenalin is pumping and there’s not much to do except watch this play out. Turn the steering wheel hard and we’ll roll for sure. Or else: collide with her as she’s taking evasive action. I’m waiting for the wheels to lock, the screech, the skid, the crash. Fuckinell. Fuckinell. Fuckinell.

And then it doesn’t happen. As I drift pass her in our time-slowed-down moment I notice that the woman seems to be frozen with innocent surprise at this surprising development. One minute she was enjoying a mother’s day picnic with friends and family and the next she has casually pulled into the fast lane of a very busy road and narrowly averted a nasty accident. She looks a nice-enough person, well-dressed, it’s a good car (grey family car of no distinct type). She has a passenger. Perhaps they’re commenting on the lovely picnic they just had. Perhaps she had one too many drinks. At the last second she pulls over to the left-hand lane and I go skidding into the empty space where she was. The dog hits the back of the front seat with a little jolt and then we’re off again on our way. I’m wearing my seatbelt so I don’t do anything except start to shake. As I pass her, she looks like she’s smiling, half in apology, half in innocence. Just thinking about it now I get a very uncharitable thought (which I won’t share). I realise that I’m pretty surprised we managed to avoid a crash. Cars pass us and we merge into the traffic and all the while I’m looking out for a grey family car with two occupants and wondering what the hell happened.

As I drive on, I realise that I was partly to blame. I shouldn’t have been driving at 90 kms/hr in an 80 km/hr zone. “Everyone does it on that stretch” is the automatic response and I counter that with a stern “it doesn’t make it right”.

This morning I passed the spot and noticed the distinct trail of burning rubber. That stretch of road looks so innocent. In my memory we were further on than this, and the lane was on the opposite side of the road. And then the recrimination starts. What the f…ing hell do you think you were doing? You’re a psychologist for … sake. Have a good look at the metaphor. Driving too fast. What does that tell you?

And then I’m off on a thought-trail that encompasses co-construction, defensive driving, treating everyone as potential idiots, being more careful, going back to therapy and waking the hell up. I’m still a bit shaken as I write this. Crash as metaphor. Driving as metaphor.


This week I’ve been thinking a lot about this incident and realising that I need to slow down. Metaphorically and in my driving. Take my time to think things out rather than rushing in with interpretations, to-do lists and my usual anxiety. Slowing down doesn’t lessen the anxiety but it gives me more time to consider the options, and of course more time to react to nasty surprises such as irresponsible drivers.

Snows of measured seriousness (aka Board Exam Blues)

February 4, 2009

Today I wrote my board exam and it was, on the most optimistic of assessments, only so-so. When I walked out of the University building in Parow, I was confident that I’d got the sub-minimum of 70% required to pass. But of course when I got home, I got out one of the Acts and checked the relevant provisions. Ouch. That’s one question on which I clearly didn’t get the sub-minimum. I’ll have to wait three whole weeks before I learn whether I’ll be doing this all again in June.

In the meantime, this is what happens when I’m supposed to be studying but end up watching Sky News instead.

Snows of measured seriousness

If you went down to South Wales yesterday, the hills were alive with tones of measured seriousness. For two days Sky News reporter Katie Stallard has been reporting on snow-covered roads in the South. Yesterday she was at Abelare in South Wales where her coverage had a sense of quiet melodrama.
Now I’m quite prepared to accept that with all the studying and avoiding of studying I’ve been doing that I’ve lost some perspective on the issue but I’ve never seen a snow-covered road in South Wales or elsewhere for look so, well, moving.

On Monday she helped to rescue a man who had been stuck in his old Mercedez Benz on the hard shoulder of an icy road with no mobile phone and five coats which he wore at the same time to keep warm.
“Jamie MacDonald has been sitting in his car since 8 o’ clock this morning,” said Katie earnestly, fixing her eyes intently at a point behind the camera. She added that he had fallen asleep at one point but had finally been towed to safety.

Watching this quiet melodrama, I couldn’t help wondering about the love that the British have for a crisis. Preferably a crisis in which the whole of Britain is at risk of being swamped by danger (in this case snow or the cold) and everyone has to rally round and do their bit.

Was it being trivial to think that we weren’t a million miles away from this:

we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender …

Probably. But the cadence of we-will-survive-against-the-odds is possibly similar.

And then I changed channels. Oprah was interviewing the cast of The Secret Life of Bees and I was hooked. The talent, the drama, the sheer stamina of that national institution that is Oprah. British actress Sophie Okemodo looks brilliant in this too by the way.

And then it was back to Sky in case I’d missed some more of the drama in Abelare before flicking back to South African TV. The Joburg police were on strike and there was political intimidation in KwaZulu-Natal. It was all a bit humdrum and anti-climactic and I couldn’t help thinking that Katie would have done better. Which then got me thinking about what would happen if our daily lives were small soundbites on satellite news.

Katie: I’m here in South Africa where blogger Pete has been holed up in his bedroom for THREE days trying to cram for his Board exam. How do you feel?
Pete: Aaargh, I think I’m losing my mind.
Katie: He says that tomorrow he’s writing his porfessional board exam and that if it goes badly, he could well lose his mind.
Pete: Aaargh, I’m losing my mind.
Katie: This is Katie Stallard for Sky News, South Africa.