A safe place

I was shocked at the depth of my feeling yesterday. For the first time in my life, I felt despairing.

Sometimes you don’t always feel the full force of things until you name them. I think it’s great that people can be so more open about the state of their mental health these days, but I sometimes wonder if by saying it that you open yourself up to all its consequences. I’ve observed this a lot.

You see it in infants and kids who have minor mishaps and look to their parents. Generally, they’ll start bawling when a parent makes a fuss over them, almost as if they’ve been excused to feel sorry for themselves. Then some parents spare them a glance and play it down, “you’re alright mate”, and distress then is invariably muted. I’m sure we become conditioned by these experiences, and it informs our behaviour.

By nature, I was and remain very much in the stoic camp. That’s a very Australian way, or at least it used to be. There’s a lot of risks that comes with that – bottling up emotions, losing touch with the inner self, being closed off to others. The danger is by never expressing distress, or even owning up to it, that it causes critical damage. We’ve come a long way, though.

The other side of it is to feel victimised. I think it’s healthy to voice how you feel, but equally, I think there are times when you have to make a stand against it. The danger is losing the sense of agency in your own life. By putting your emotions in the spotlight, there’s the risk of magnifying them.

Look, I’m no expert so take what I say with a grain of salt. I know there have been occasions over the last 18 months when I’ve struggled and felt as if I couldn’t face the world. There were occasions I opted out, and that was good because it took the pressure off me. Sometimes you know putting yourself in that spot is going to make things worse and it’s sensible to take a step back.

There have been other occasions though when I’ve felt just as bad but knew I had to front up. Sometimes you need to do it to prove it to yourself. You know that if you step away now, then it’ll be harder the next time not to. Sometimes you need to make a stand. It’s not always possible, but sometimes – I think – you have to grind through it. And though it’s hard afterwards, you find your depths. Sometimes you have to fight it, not give way.

This is what I believe, and it’s true of me, but I’m sure everyone is different. All of us are made differently and have different experiences. In my case, it’s years of conditioning and a bloody-minded attitude that makes me think twice – but today I’m able to admit to frailty I would’ve been too ashamed to only a few years ago. I think that’s the healthy balance – a pragmatic acceptance of what it is.

Up till recently, I believed my ‘issues’ were personal, and so I had to address them at a personal level. It’s only in the last few weeks that I came to think that a large part of my issues was symptomatic of the times. I’m disaffected and alienated from the world about me in many attributes, and while there’s a personal element to it, it’s also becoming quite common. What I feel is felt by many others.

Knowing that changed a lot. Writing it out as I attempted to yesterday (very inarticulately) made it very real. As I wrote, I felt the sentiment infect me. The more I wrote the worse I felt. Afterwards, I felt morose. Here was true existential anxiety.

The problem is that I feel powerless in the face of these forces. I will analyse and resist and set out plans of action to address the issues that impact upon my intimate self. I’m diligent with that, driven even, unwilling to concede. But what can I do about climate change? How can I overcome corruption and apathy?

What upsets me most is not the cause of these things, most of which I can do nothing about – it’s the symptoms of it, which I feel with equal powerlessness.

The world is in the grip of a series of catastrophic trends. In a healthy society, you would expect there would be the force and will to combat them – and maybe once upon a time there was. But not now. That’s what demoralises me. To my disgust and sorrow, I’ve come to believe that nothing will happen. Why would it? What’s going to change? Who is it to drive change? Who?

In any case, I fear it’s too late now. There’s a sense of hopelessness mixed in with disgust. It’s undone me.

As I reflect, the critical moment came after the federal election in May. I approached it with such anticipation. Here was the moment I was waiting for, an enlightened government. There was reason to believe that things would improve. Instead, the same shonky politicians were returned, and it was not just disappointment I felt, but a bitter betrayal. The betrayal was as much by my fellow Australians as it was by the politicians. I lost belief at that point, and it’s all been downhill since then.

I’m fine today. You get through. These are the facts, after all. I have to deal with them. But I understand now why people turn to drink – to drown out the disappointment. I’m not about to do that, but I need something to comfort me to endure this.

I’ve always been wary of such distractions. I wanted to know the truth and confront it. I felt like a warrior. I would look upon my friends with families and be happy for them, but I also observed how it turned them inward. That’s natural, after all, your prime concern and priority are your loved ones. Single people like me could afford to be cultural warriors.

But then there’s lifestyle with a capital L. Lifestyle is the opium of our times. I’ve succumbed to it myself. We’re a society that consumes things at a rate never seen before – consumer goods and gadgets, social media, big occasion TV, and so on. We set out schedules by what we can consume and enjoy.

It’s very seductive, but the Game of Thrones isn’t real life. Lifestyle insulates us from reality, and maybe that’s a big reason the world is as it is now. Everything got too easy and comfortable.

That’s what I need, though: ease and comfort. Indulgence even. I don’t think I can ever give away the cultural warrior stuff, and don’t think I want to – it’s a kind of brain death. I’m strung out and exhausted, though. I need to be loved and supported. I need to re-integrate myself into the community. And I need to heal inside and start to hope again. I need something, somewhere, someone I can go to and feel safe, and I haven’t had that for a long, long time.

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