Monday, December 07, 2015

Bark: A difficult topic

Sorry if you were expecting the next chapter in the Aemon Roche trilogy, but it's not quite ready yet, and there's something more pressing that I need to write about.

Today I had a rather unusual conversation with my line manager at work. "Unusual in what sense?" I hear you ask. Well, it's not every day you start the week replying to the standard, professionally courteous question of "Hi Iain, how are you today?" with "I think I might be mentally ill." Not in those exact words, of course, but words to that effect.

As anyone who's known me for the last few years will know (or anyone who's a follower on my G+ feed will also know), I've been a fundraiser for Movember for the last six years, ever since a friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer (and died a year later at the age of just 34) and for the last couple of years, I've been in charge of the fundraising effort at my school, which means that I get the dubious honour of putting together the publicity assemblies and delivering them every day for over a week to a hall packed full with nearly 300 people (I work in a big school).

Over the last couple of years, Movember hasn't just been trying to raise awareness about the risks of prostate and testicular cancer, but also mental health issues and (new for this year) physical inactivity. The statistics are stark and profoundly shocking. One in eight men in the UK will be diagnosed with a mental health issue at some point during their lifetime. (I use the analogy that in a standard class of 30 students, that's 2 of the boys) Worse, that suicide is the biggest killer in men under the age of 45 in the UK, and that 75% of suicide deaths in the UK are men, when they only make up 50% of the population. So as I'm giving these assemblies to the 1700+ students and members of staff in the school a couple of weeks ago, there's something at the back of my mind nagging me. I'm in that one in eight men.

As they say in sports or in policing, I have form in this area. I'm acutely aware that there's a big difference between being a bit down or feeling low to being clinically depressed. In fact, I went though several years in the early Noughties where I was almost exclusively known as "Mad Iain" in the online communities I used to frequent (and with some justification - just read some of my oldest blog posts circa 2003-2006) - certainly not what I'd consider to be my proudest moments online. In my previous career as an IT Specialist with IBM I had to take time off work twice due to depression and work-related stress - my neurologist actually said that the stress was due to being unchallenged at work (i.e. the work I was doing was too samey and not taxing enough) and also being socially isolated by working from home three or four days per week. So I was standing there, delivering these assemblies about the need for men to be honest about their mental health and seeking help when they needed it, and there's this nagging thought at the back of my mind saying "Iain, you fucking hypocrite. You've been ignoring warning signs for months. You're overworked, overstressed, anxious, not sleeping properly, not getting enough exercise, not eating and drinking properly... your job is killing you slowly, but because you've got 'responsibilities' and because it inconveniences your colleagues and your students to take time off, you're sticking your head in the sand and hoping the problem will eventually go away..."

But it doesn't go away.

It just gets worse. Because I have one big problem. Not the insomnia, not the over-reliance on alcohol or crappy food to relax, or the escapist impulse to retreat into virtual worlds. No, my problem is that I'm a Physicist. And we don't see the world like normal humans do. It's due to the way that we've been educated and trained. Anyone that's watched The Big Bang Theory possibly has a slight insight into what it's like being a Physicist. You know the scene in The Matrix where Neo has just been extracted and he's having a chat with Cypher on Morpheus's ship? ("I don't even see the code. All I see is blonde, brunette, redhead...")

I see the code. And I see the whole construct it makes. I see the universe as a colossal jigsaw puzzle, where I understand the way that it should fit together, and I understand the workings of the individual pieces. And I see that some fucking numpty is trying to assemble it all back to front.

Global warming? The science has been clear to anyone who was paying attention since I was in High School and fuck all meaningful has been done in over 20 years - instead, we're going backwards. In a hundred years we might not even have a world worth squabbling over if governments keep the status quo because they're so petrified of pissing off the big energy companies and losing their tax revenues. GOP21 will end up with a meaningless, non-legally binding fudge, as these conferences have done for the last two decades.

Global terrorism? With enough political will and the gumption to actually fight for the values that we say that we (the West) stand for, ISIS/Isil/Fucking Fundamentalist Assholes could be wiped out in months, not decades. Less than 100,000 anti-civilisation, medievally-minded, death-cultist idiots versus a global population in the billions, yet we let them set the agenda, simply because they've got better video editors on social media... and goodness forbid that we fight a "war" where people actually die. It's ludicrous. And spineless. And we will get what we deserve. Warfare was more honest in Alexander's time when you just got 50,000 of your best warriors to carve each other to pieces in a field and let whoever was still standing at the end to take the spoils.

And then I think that I could do a much better job. Give me the world for a year, and I'd put the pieces together in the right order, for once. Is that a delusion of grandeur? Or just plain common-or-garden craziness?

Inside my skull is a 1.5 kilogram meat computer, the most sophisticated and powerful single organ to come out of over 4 billion years of evolution on the Earth. And then I realise that it's been wired up by a fucking cowboy builder...

And after that I realise that depression is a luxury for the intelligent. An indulgence. An inability to be satisfied with your lot in life. An egotistical delusion that you can, should, make a positive difference and have some kind of valedictory legacy that will survive in the world and human culture beyond your lifetime. I'm not having kids (a joint decision long ago agreed between me and my partner, though I did have a bit of a wobble earlier this year), so I don't have that existentially comforting genetic legacy most people benefit from. In fact, I'm doing something profoundly unnatural - effectively committing genetic suicide in not passing on my genes. Though what's so great about my genes? I never thought they fit terribly well to begin with... (BOOM! BOOM!)

So what is going to be my legacy? Well, at this rate it's not going to be a great work of art, literature, or scientific discovery... just the slightly pathetic epitaph of "he thought he should have been able to do more". But where do you start? This isn't like solving a problem like Maria. One does not simply fix the ills of the world any more simply than you walk into Mordor... And of course, my rational brain understands all this. "It's not your problem, Iain. It could be a lot worse... you could be one of those poor sods living in Raqqa... or your house could be under three feet of water... You have a steady income, a loving partner, a nice home and a good life."

But the irrational brain doesn't care about that. It sees a broken world and wants to put together the pieces, because our world could be so beautiful. But so many people can't or won't see it. Last week I was driving home though a tree-lined avenue at dusk. The colour of the sky from the horizon to overhead was graduated from a pale azure to a deep indigo fading to black, embraced by the grey-green foliage as the light faded. I'm not an overly emotional guy, but it stuck me so deeply that I could have cried. It was such a simple beauty that I never would have noticed or appreciated when I was a teenager. The kind of beauty that everyone takes for granted, and we really shouldn't. Likewise, the potential of our species is almost beyond imagining, but instead of embracing the diversity that has made humanity the dominant species on the planet, we use it instead to divide us, stir up hatred, fear and intolerance. Does an Isil terrrorist look at the sunset and see the majesty of nature's beauty, or does he simply feel anger that when the Sun goes down on him, it still shines in the West?

I see a world dominated by species blindly sabotaging its own long-term viability by making changes to the ecosystem it lives in without fully understanding the consequences of them. I see a world that will continue to outlast and outlive that dominant species in the same way it endured beyond the extinction of the dinosaurs. Even the environmentalists don't seem to understand the true reality and have been making the wrong argument for years: we don't need to save the planet - we need to safeguard our ability to live on it. Earth will endure and adapt for billions of years until the Sun runs of out of hydrogen and envelopes the Earth in its outer shell as a red giant. Humanity's civilisation is far more ephemeral and fragile, but our governments could never admit that... And I can't stand it. That blazé dismissal by our politicians and leaders that somehow it'll all be alright and we can continue as we are, because some miraculous scientific and technological bullet will come along (despite the fact that scientific R&D budgets that might possibly make these discoveries have been slashed year on year worldwide for over a decade) that will scrub away all that carbon dioxide and reverse the warming that's putting our ecosystem on the brink. Because God forbid that people in the First World might actually have make sacrifices! Let them eat smartphones! Let them eat iPads! Let them eat HDTV! But don't invest in the nuclear fusion technology that might let humanity generate all the energy it needs cleanly in perpetuity... no, not while there are still hydrocarbons buried in the ground that we can dig up and burn! After all, what's a little environmental damage between friends? (As a society we spend more on Smartphone apps than we do on fusion power research by several orders of magnitude - if that's not a sign of a society that has its priorities badly wrong, I don't know what is...)

And, of course, I shouldn't really say stuff like this in a public forum. It's taboo. It's career threatening. It's undignified. But it needs to be said. And free speech should not be confined to the subjects that are easy to listen to. I don't see why we should make the distinction between mental and physical illness. No-one feels guilty about getting flu or catching a cold, but the minute people start talking about mental illness, it comes with a stigma, as if the people themselves are to blame. So we don't talk about it, because we're too worried about how other people will judge us. But I'm past that - I need to be able to face myself in the mirror and know that in some tiny way that I'm going to leave this world in a better state than when I came into it.

I want to make a positive difference. I want to heal the world and help other people see how the jigsaw fits together. But before I can do that, first I need to heal myself. (I have an appointment to my GP later this week - so if you don't get the next instalment of the Aemon Roche trilogy for a couple of months, don't worry - it's just that I've been sectioned...)

I am mentally ill, but I'm not ashamed...
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