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.)


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.

The Job Search (and some Wild Things)

January 16, 2009

wild-things2-small1Hoo boy! Where to even begin with this post? Two nights ago I woke up at 3am with a burning pain in my chest and thought I was having a heart attack. I wasn’t (thank goodness) but it did make me realise that I need to make some inroads into this job search in order to bring my anxiety levels down. I also need to exercise more, cut down on the sugar and the caffeine and study for my board exam. But you can’t study on an empty stomach, right? And the caffeine is fuel for the brain …

So I’ll keep this post brief. My superego is already telling me that I’m wasting valuable time and that I should be doing x, y and z (tidying, studying and applying for jobs). Not to mention the tax. But there are so many questions. Do I stay on in the military for another year? Work in a prison for a year or so (interesting connection)? Police? Locum at a hospital (if it’s even available)? Take the plunge into private? Start approaching anyone and everyone I know connected to Psychology? Not being in any hurry itself could be a problem. The temptation is to take things one slow step at a time rather than rush into anything. But I also need to be aware and open to any possibilities.

On the reading front, I’m almost finished with Sexing the Cherry and I’ve had very mixed feelings about it. In other words I loved it and hated it. I found myself drawn more to the Dog Woman than to Jordan. What an amazing character, and the fact that I’m reading a Vintage Classics series that twins this book with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein draws attention to her as a ‘monster’ (but one that’s quite easy to relate to). I saw the very grounded Dog Woman and Jordan as two sides of a single personality. The flighty, slightly manic, head-in-the-clouds Jordan and the earthy, massive, violent but also tender Dog Woman. Winterson provides a very unexpected take on gender and sexuality for a start. Will be interested to see what others thought.

Yesterday I also had a charming (and short) visit to my local library. The librarians there usually make me feel like a) a leper; b) a book-thief-just-waiting-to-happen or c) a very small boy who’s done something wrong. Admittedly these could all be my own projections but the woman in the children’s book section was quite different in that she was helpful, chatty and just generally nice. I was looking for kids’ books to help someone who suffers from anxiety. One of my child patients had a bad experience with a ‘evil spirit’ and has not been able to make progress in getting over it. I’m a great believer in talking things out and was looking for some well-illustrated stories to help her to start constructing her own story. Top of my list was the wonderful and brilliant Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak but I also took: In the Night Kitchen (another one by Sendak); Some Things Are Scary by Heide and Feiffer; The Tale of Rabbit and Coyote; and Catkin by Antonia Barber and PJ Lynch.

Not all of these deal with anxiety but I want her to see the progression of these kinds of stories. Basically the beginnings, middles and ends so we can start drawing up a story of her own. My supervisor might well tell me that I’m interfering in my patient’s process and that I should stick to open-ended play therapy and provide paint, playdough etc. I’m certainly not trying to prescribe what she should do, but I think the narrative approach could be a useful one.

Friday fessing: Baby steps

November 14, 2008

I need a writing project. Something that drives me to write, to revise, something that keeps me up at night. At the moment most of the writing I do is in the form of morning pages, blogs and case notes (in that order). But today I feel anxious and becalmed. It probably doesn’t help that I just had a row with my mom over the curtains.

You’re not doing it correctly. Why did you take the whole thing down? Your father does it in 10 minutes….

Mom, you’re not helping. They’re down now so just help me or go back to your room. (And so on for a good few minutes while I struggle with the intricacies of re-hanging heavy curtains.)

Sit down at my computer and the mower starts up. There’s no way that I’m going to get away with letting my 69-year old mother mow the lawn all by herself. I reluctantly walk down to help her. Gussie didn’t come in for her Whiskas … Can you download the emails? … You will remember to walk the dogs, won’t you?

No wonder I can’t write a thing. I don’t need a writing project. I need my own house again – or at least a bit more privacy. But for the next few months I’m stuck here. I keep reminding myself that it’s one step at a time.

Actually I already have a writing project. It may not be a very sexy one but I should go ahead and finish it. I’m bound to get more enthusiastic along the way. The goal was this: write 20 articles around the themes of Empathy and Violence. I keep getting distracted with thoughts of writing a short story, a poem, an op-ed piece for the papers.

But these never really materialise and today the anxiety and laziness are winning. I’m not ready to give in yet but I’m clearly not making progress. To help myself, I’m breaking it down into baby steps. 1. Buy an exercise book to plan this project. 2. Make room for it on my writing stand. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before. Having things down on paper is so much more helpful than trying to keep everything on computer. I’m going to work my way through the 20 articles. They don’t need to be fantastic, publishable (at this stage) but they need to be thought-through.

I’m also going back to gym and, on a related topic, I’m finding some writing exercises to stretch my creativity as well. One that I thought of is also an exercise in empathy:

Imagine you’re gay. Describe your day from this perspective. What would be different? What would stay the same? (Maybe I should also reassure P that this is just an exercise!)

Update: This exercise makes me uncomfortable for a number of reasons, but I think the main one is that it treats the issue of identity (more specifically sexual identity) in a simplistic way. Just the instruction itself: “Imagine you’re gay” already sets up an ‘othering’ process where gayness is considered something separate and different, something that has to be imagined. Rather than edit it out, I thought it might be helpful to confess my discomfort here (but I’ll save the rest of this discussion for another post.)

Friday ‘fessing

June 28, 2008

It’s not been such a good week writing-wise. I now have roughly 10 articles to do in just over three weeks, which translates into an article every two and a half days. This in addition to my day job. Something’s gotta give – and I think it will have to be the day job. I will have to take leave since the deadlines for these articles are not negotiable. Having said that, I am enjoying writing the first one. Blocking off writing time is the difficult part – since there is always the temptation to do other things. I haven’t formulated proper writing goals for the week but the general idea is to set regular targets and be disciplined about them

There’s also the anxiety aspect. It’s quite hard to remain calm in the face of very difficult deadlines but I’m not panicking just yet. The next three weeks will be tough – so not much blogging for me (unless I hit a great patch where I’m writing, blogging and reading all at the same time.) It’s possible (but a bit unlikely).

What to do when you have a “worry coming on”

June 20, 2008

I’m feeling a bit anxious today, for a variety of reasons — not least of which is that my parents are in a tizz about my mother’s bookclub and not being able to serve her guests tea since the kettle is broken. My father is dispatched to the local store to buy a new kettle and to prove my mother wrong when she says that he is “totally useless”. I hate being put in a position to have to defend my dad. “No, he’s not useless,” I say. “He’s just a bit slow sometimes.” That makes him sound like he has a learning disability or that he’s an old dog who doesn’t learn new tricks (such as springing into action the moment my mother clicks her fingers).

So I decide to turn to the Internet to soothe my anxiety. My usual strategy is to drink some tea, glance through the papers, catch up on some emails and then get down to work. But this morning, making tea would mean running the gauntlet of bookclub introductions. I can sense the trill of nervous laughter from this distance – and the joys of caffeine are not worth it.

So I turn to the Internet instead. Calling up Google, I type in the phrase, “how to soothe yourself”. I’m delighted to find that the very first site is called “” but my joy dissipates a little when I find that the trick to self-soothing is to buy various products: “Soothing Chamomile Cleanser, Soothing Apricot Toner, After Sun Soothing Milk, Skin Rescue Oil, Organic Face Cream, Acne Skin Care Remedies” and so on. Maybe there’s a gripping book on the subject. I find “The Worrywart’s Companion: Twenty-One Ways to Soothe Yourself and Worry Smart” by Dr Beverly Potter. The blurb is upbeat:

Brimming with practical ideas you can try today, The Worrywart’s Companion includes twenty-one simple things you can do when you feel a worry coming on. Instead of worrying yourself sick, The Worrywart’s Companion shows how to soothe yourself so that you can think more clearly, deal with the worry at hand, and then let it go. Positive, easy to understand, and fun to read, this revolutionary little book explores the roots of worry and explains that worry is a behaviour that is learned. The good news is that it can also be unlearned.

Of course. Good old CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy). Thanks to Amazon I can read inside the book and discover what these worry-tackling strategies might be. Here they are:

1. Evaluate the cost of the worry. 2. Take a deep breath. 3. Relax your muscles. 4. Distract yourself. 5. Take a walk. 6. Smile and laugh. 7. Say a little prayer. 8. Find the Joy. 9. Avoid drinking coffee. 10. Change should to preferences. 11. Count worry beads. 12. Eat a sweet. 13. Take a warm bath. 14. Imagine a happy ending. 15. Do a good deed. 16. Joke about the worry. 17. Rock yourself. 18. Count your blessings. 19. Make a list. 20. Practice under-reacting. 21. Watch a funny movie.

Now I don’t know about you but I feel like saying a little prayer for the joys of the Internet while counting my blessings (and my worry beads), avoiding drinking coffee and doing some smiling and laughing – not to mention some self-rocking. Actually there’s a whole string of active verbs here which are quite helpful: evaluating, breathing, relaxing, distracting, walking, smiling, laughing, praying, finding joy, drinking (and not drinking), changing thoughts, counting, eating, bathing, imagining, doing good deeds, joking, rocking, counting again, list-making, practising, under-reacting and watching.

Now I think these strategies will definitely make a difference, and they certainly made me laugh, but I find them limiting. It’s as if the answer is to try and avoid thinking too much about what caused the worry in the first place because thinking is associated with anxiety, which is pretty uncomfortable. A few weeks ago I blogged about Robet Gurzon’s take on anxiety. He distinguishes between three types of anxiety: natural anxiety, toxic anxiety and sacred anxiety. It helps to know that anxiety is a normal (and important) part of life but that the fear of anxiety itself (so-called toxic anxiety) is the problem here. Gurzon talks about unravelling the knot of anxiety, so that we can use anxiety as a tool for personal growth.

So I hope that Dr Potter won’t mind too much that one of my good deeds for the day was to share her tips (and a critique thereof) with a small corner of the blogosphere. The happy ending I’m imaging is that the bookclubbers leave enough cake for me to enjoy with my now introduction-free tea. I’ll spare you the self-analysis of the causes of anxiety. But I think the Friday fessing (or lack thereof) is reminding me that I’m a bit behind on my writing quotient for this week. Enjoy the weekend.