Seeing in the dark


Had an unexpected wobble earlier this week. I’ve been sailing along quite well after the storms a couple of months ago, then I hit turbulence again. In hindsight, it’s perfectly clear why, but at the time, in the middle of it and trying to stay afloat, it’s not so clear.

I wrote about how a friend here had likened me to a character on TV whose life was all fucked up. Normally I would have shrugged it off. I’ve got skin as thick as a crocodile. Normally I would have seen it for what it was, a light-hearted but ultimately complimentary analogue. This time all I could see were the negative aspects of it, and it hurt.

What made it abnormal was the conjunction of events that had left me more sensitive than usual. Having re-visited some of my bleak past over the weekend I was left a little frail. I was in a condition where it wouldn’t take much to tip me over the edge – and so it proved. What it really triggered in me was my absolute rejection of sympathy.

I did contact my friend that night. I pointed out to her that while there have been tough times my life as a whole has been interesting and rewarding and replete with fantastic moments. It sounds like an exercise in justification, but it’s true. I’ve copped some shit, some hard times, but I’ve had a full and interesting life too. I’ve been a participant, not a spectator. I wish some things were different, but on balance I’ll cop it.

Of course, this missed the point entirely, as our conversation over the next hour or so made clear.

I didn’t blame her or anything like that, but she picked up that she had offended me. After some initial confusion, she discerned the cause of it. She was apologetic but pointed out she was always teasing and jesting and this was in the nature of that. She was right. She made it clear that far from pitying me she had the utmost respect for me. The point she had tried to make was though I’ve suffered hardship I’m always smiling, always positive, always helping others. I had her admiration for that. I was a winner in her books. Plus I was cute.

At some point in this, it dawned on me. You see, I’m getting closer to things. I’m learning all the time.

What I really struggle with is being vulnerable. When someone points out the obvious I feel exposed. The very fact of being frail and struggling is to some extent unmanly in my books – I should be above it. This is why I reject so vociferously any hint of it. I can’t believe that anyone can like or respect that me – frankly, I feel pathetic, and part of that is because I have no control. There’s H in control, which includes my emotions – and there’s H, allegedly, out of control, embarrassed, and subject to prevailing winds. I don’t like myself then and don’t believe anyone else can either.

I think I’ve always known this about me but never wanted to own up to it. It goes to the nub of this issue too, and it’s resolution.

This is the path I’ve set myself on – to be vulnerable, to expose myself, to learn from it and come to accept it as valid and reasonable. It’s bloody hard though and goes against my nature.

I understood that as I spoke to her and apologised. I explained the problem and said I had a tendency to push people away when I suffer from this. This is the very thing I have to stick out though.

In the past I would’ve rebounded from this in my belligerent way, refusing to be frail, refusing to be intimidated. That was my hard shell. That’s what made me survive the tough times, a native combativeness that refused to submit. I’m like a boxer taking a beating but getting up from the canvas each time refusing to accept the other man is a better fighter than me. Somehow I managed to survive the big fight, but after it now I realise there are other ways, better ways, to deal with it.

This is what I’m trying to learn. The easy thing is to get belligerent again, but that solves nothing. The very hard thing is to remain vulnerable, but that’s how I heal and, ultimately, become a better, stronger man.

I have to remember that. I’m standing out in the dark alone. I could turn and return to shelter and to light, but then I’ll never accustom myself to the darkness. This time I must refuse to be tough. I have to submit myself to the darkness until I can see.

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To be


I had a woman during the week tell me I was a good man. When I answered that I try to be she said that I was good without having to try. It’s funny, but I can’t hope for a better compliment than that.

I had a bunch of women tell me the other week how handsome I was. Isn’t he handsome? Don’t you think? Yes, of course, very handsome. And recently I’ve been told repeatedly how charming I am – though I reckon there’s an equal number who mutter under their breath about my lack of charm. These compliments flirt with the ego, but they don’t speak to character. I can’t hope to more than being a good man, and it’s lovely to have someone tell you so.

For most of my life, I’ve been conscious of being this or that. I’ve strived to be a good man because I believed in it, but I also strived to charm (sometimes) because I wanted to – and so on, across the board. I’m very ‘conscious’, very self-aware, so this was natural to me.

I’ve had my tribulations in recent times and lately, it hit hard. It’s a lot better now as I have consciously dealt with it. For a man such as me, life often feels like a series of trials designed to test and potentially mould you. How you deal with these trials and what you learn from them feed into who you are, but it’s a constant feedback loop, ever adjusting, ever assessing. I think this blog attests to that very well.

I am what I am, I’ll always be a thoughtful, analytical type, I don’t know any other way. I process things. That’s what makes me good at my job because I get to the bottom of everything in a very rational way.

I hesitate to proclaim what I’ve learnt from this latest episode, but I have come to some provisional understanding – and the first may seem surprising.

I think part of my problem, and probably common to most people, is that I am striving to be something. That’s a complex thing wrapped up in identity and personal history, expectation and ego. I set myself and even when I go some way towards achieving whatever it is it’s never enough. I don’t think anything of this is surprising, except that the answer as I see it is simply to ‘be’.

That will be hard for me because my mind is always engaged and I’ve got a hand on the gearstick. I’m not about to disengage my mind, even if I could – but it means that I might be inclined to let things take their natural course rather than trying to intervene. I’m always searching for ‘ways’. I get stuck in one of these fugues like lately and I’m right on it trying to figure things out and make a difference. That’s fine – here I am, after all – but I might not be in this fugue in the first place if I was less consciously trying. I am a lot of things and many of them pretty good – why not let them take me where they will?

This means not making rules – won’t do this, can’t do that, and so on. If I just let it happen then I’ll find the way that is natural and right for me. Don’t worry, be happy.

This will take some adjusting to and I’m bound to get it wrong probably more often than not, but it’s no more than an adjunct to the philosophy I embraced earlier this year to open up and let go, to accept.

Part of all this is to accept who I am. I think some of the troubles I’ve had comes from the conflict between what I feel and what I want, but such are the complexities of human nature that sometimes they reverse. That leads to much confusion.

Let me give you an example. I feel a general reluctance to take on too much these days. That may pass, it may not, but it’s true for now. It rubs up sometimes against notions of self. To be honest, it embarrasses me sometimes, it feels unmanly even – but really, it’s only against the arbitrary standards I set myself before. At the same time, I still feel often that surge of adrenalin and competitive fervour. How do I reconcile these things? I don’t.

I’ve always been someone eager to take things on. I’ve always been bullish and aggressive. Over time that’s manifested itself in self-image so that I’ve strived to be that man, rather than just being that man. He’s still in me, but I don’t have to be him if it doesn’t feel right. There’ll be times when that assertive character will take it to the ring and it will feel perfectly right; and times when I’m happy to bystand. They don’t have to be incompatible. I don’t have to be one or the other. They can be simply different elements that abide in harmonious balance. This is what I have to get my head around. Everything is true, everything is right if I just be.

Shedding my skin


Once upon a time I just got the job done. I was very direct and efficient and drawn to achieve the best and most effective outcome. Some of that was reflective of a competitive nature, matched to a good brain I enjoyed giving a run. I was confident and ambitious and though challenged sometimes, never really doubted that I would find a way. And I did, every time. I was, as I was apt to think back then, full of good male juice.

Superficially the juice could be viewed as pure motivation and drive, but in actual fact there’s a lot of attitude in it too, and maybe a little swagger. Though it was effective in the office, I also carried a lot of it out into the street. There was a time I believed I could do anything, and every dream was bold. For many years I had more juice than just about anyone, and it was no secret. Outer H writ large.

That’s what I don’t have now. For a while now I’ve tried to act as if it was still there. In fact I probably believed it, not because I felt it, but because I was unfamiliar with a time when it wasn’t. I acted then from long standing behaviours and learned routines. The instincts remained, but they didn’t spark anymore. I think some of the frustration and abrasion I’ve experienced have been prompted by the absence of the thing I could so reliably count on before. In its absence, I’ve tried to force it, and act out a role that came naturally before. I’m all out of juice.

I don’t know if this is a temporary thing, but I know it’s a notable thing. I think I’m in the process of re-defining myself. It’s the clear that I’m not the man I was before and it’s probably not worth pretending I am. That poses the question I asked last week: who am I then? And who am I supposed to be? I don’t think that can be answered yet because I believe I’m in a state of transition. I’m in-between selves.

This is not terribly comfortable, but then it’s hard to imagine that it would be. I feel unmanned somehow, and without my familiar tools have nothing to fall back on but this, my mind. The old reflexes are gone. All that is necessary I think, but it’s not easy.

I don’t think this process will be either quick or certain. It will take a while and I expect some to-ing and fro-ing. I’ve got to hang in there through that and remain functional. I think I’ll manage, but I’ll have to deal with other people as well, including those who know only the old me.

If I were to hazard a guess I would suggest the next version of H will ultimately have many of the attributes of the previous H. I don’t know if you change so much as re-constitute. Same ingredients, different proportions. I reckon I’ll get a good measure of the old juice back, but directed differently. I hope – and I expect – that more of the inner H will be on show, and think it must be. I reckon some of the growing pains I’m experiencing relate to that very thing. I think it will be a gentler H that will emerge, less competitive, more willing to go with the flow. Bold dreams still, I hope, but in service of a more humble perspective.

Reconciliation


I’ve just returned from buying my morning coffee. Most people have their regular spots and I’m no different. There’s a place almost directly downstairs I go to around 9am every morning. Staff come and go there, but there’s a few who have been there all the way through. By now we’ve come friendly. They know me by name and we chat about the footy or what we’re doing on the weekend or movies we’ve seen while they go about making my latte. I’m almost hesitant to admit that they get the full outer H. I’m friendly and light-hearted, confident and glib. The words spill by my lips and I exude an attitude.

I think most people have inner and outer versions of themselves, and sometimes more than that simple duality. I know myself I become a slightly different person according to who I’m with. It’s one of my tells when I like someone – in my eyes at least I feel as if my best self emerges, which is a lot of different things that are hard to list, but safe to say he combines the best aspects of both the inner and outer H.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having alternate versions of yourself. Or at least, let me suggest that it is so normal that perhaps it is necessary. It might be different if our society was different but, even so, I think it’s good to keep some aspects confidential, and shared only with those closest to you. And so in this respect let me make the point that I’m not looking to transform myself (and also, make clear that the outer H is a very decent man). Rather my aim is to reconcile the two parts.

It’s an apt reminder today when I feel it a little more than I have the previous couple of days. It seems to me that I have an abiding sadness in me that goes deeper than I can clearly discern. It’s like there are huge, dark caverns within me that I can only see a little a time by the light of a torch. I can accept this by and large, and it doesn’t impact upon my ability to function or do my job. Previously though, I would tough it out. I would almost beat it into submission, all the while putting on a brave face for the world.

Today I want to accept what I feel. I’m not going to pretend otherwise. I won’t go around mopey and miserable, but I’m not going to try and gild the lily either.

It seems to me this is some way towards reconciling myself. I can be sad and still confident. I can joke and also be serious. And I can be both engaging and authentic. Of course I have to manage this in reality. Today is a test of that.

Anti-competitive


The Saturday before last I went to a 60th birthday party in Canterbury. I caught a couple of trains there knowing I would be drinking, and took an Uber home. I was not particularly in a party mood, but it was not something I could miss.

As it turned out the weather was perfect for it. There were about 70 people there fully catered with a proper bar set-up in the corner – including some top-notch red wine – and waitresses passing through the crowd offering tasty morsels.

I knew very few people there, and all but a few were older than me. It was a convivial crowd, however, couples mainly and longstanding friends, all of them well-educated and mostly well to do. The people I knew – other than the birthday boy – were people who had known mum and admired her. That was my connection, and also my entree.

I had an okay night. I had a few drinks, danced a little, I even got hit on by an attractive 60-year-old (she’d have been a knock-out at 20). I’d gone there up in the air about my own circumstances, but as I waded in and conversed with different people something of my normal self surfaced.

I found myself speaking intelligently and making valuable contributions to the conversation. That shouldn’t have surprised me, but such was my state of mind I was more inclined to be reserved. It was people who drew me out and interesting conversations. Then, about the time the woman made her interest known (culminating in a caress of my arse while I chatted to her husband next to me) my native competitiveness emerged.

I’d been in a quandary, feeling down, but confused also. By habit as much as nature I’m competitive, and like a bubble rising in me it emerged to the surface. There’s something powerful when it takes over, especially when you know you have the capability to achieve what your competitive self urges. I’ve spent much of my life dancing to that tune and once more on that Saturday night I was drawn to it. For a few minutes I told myself to set aside all my doubts and just do it – just be it. Be yourself 1000%, ride that wave.

It’s a mighty powerful sensation, like drugs. And for so many years I did just that. I backed myself to the hilt and went hard. It worked very well for me for a long time – it turbocharged my professional career if nothing else. But after a few minutes I told myself no, we’re not going to do it that way this time.

You see that’s a reflex. It’s innate, but it’s largely unconsidered. Throw a ball at me and I’ll catch it. Put me in this predicament and I’ll rise to it. Except, this time I don’t want to rise to it. Rising to it all these years has meant I’ve never stopped to consider what I’ve lost along the way or what it means in real life. I’ve just done it, instinctively, without stopping to weigh up what I was doing.

That’s one of the things that has led me to the position I’m in today. It’s caught up with me because all the things I’ve overlooked have been important to my soul. I want to proceed consciously from here on in, not simply from reflex or instinct or habit. It feels a bit like cheating otherwise. Anyway, I believe pretty strongly that even if I chose to do it as I use to it would soon putter out because I don’t have the same resolve as I had before. Things need to be mended first.

I’m back to work proper tomorrow. It will be interesting to see how it goes. I had to pop in on Friday for a couple of hours and it was fine. I expect it will be again, more or less, and equally that it won’t take much to upset things once more.

The plan from here on in is to keep it simple. I think humility is a big part of it – accepting things for now, including myself, instead of trying to master them. Work with what’s there, and within me, and not pushing it too much.

Part of that is accepting all that I’ve lost and the pain that I just shoved aside. It’s mine, it’s true, and I have to face up to it and own it. I can’t do anything about it now, but it’s unwise to ignore it. At the same time, I have to work to integrate the different sides of H into one, coherent self. That will take some work, but will be easier with friends. Ultimately I need to let go of what might be and even what should be, and live with what is. It doesn’t mean I don’t strive, it means I live in the moment, from one to the next. Life evolves, and so do we, and I expect what those moments present to me and the opportunities that come my way will evolve also.

I don’t know if it makes any difference, but the girl returns tomorrow from three weeks holiday. I realise I take comfort just by knowing she is in the same building as me. I think her absence added to the general dissipation I experienced. Hopefully, her return will bring changes all round.

Inner and outer H


I had a dream last night in which three women featured – Sally Rugg, a social commentator I’ve got a bit of a crush on; the girl from work I haven’t commented on for a while; and another, invented woman. Cheeseboy was also in the dream, complete with family. Then there was me, at my charismatic, larger-than-life best at the beginning of the dream, down by the beach, flirting with the girls, before toning it down later on. The first two girls interchange throughout, then are replaced by the invented woman for the last third of the dream. I’m keen on her until Cheeseboy takes me aside and tells me they had used her to babysit the kids and found her unsatisfactory. By now I’ve come down off my high and am almost apologetic about it. The last scene sees me drive away and leave the seaside behind – except I’m in the guise of Walter White. The end.

I often think dreams draw together the things in your mind, along with the sub-conscious related things, and presents them in a stylised, allegorical fashion. You can’t take them literally, but there may be some metaphorical truth hidden away in them. This dream I won’t try to interpret, though it feels to me I know what it means.

There’s an outer H, and an inner H. The outer H varies of course according to audience and circumstance, but he has some consistent attributes. In my reflective (inner H) moments I’m sometimes bemused by this outer H. In many ways he seems independent of the inner H, and often times independent of my state of mind. Outer H isn’t false, but he is a distorted version of the true H. He comes naturally, easily, but he is a projection.

Outer H makes his appearance most commonly at work and plays to his peers, and those beneath him – a harder-edged H presents to those higher in the chain, which explains why most of those junior to me think I’m a great bloke, and many senior to me think I’m a hard-arse.

Like I said, outer H isn’t false – everything about him is true in itself – but he is incomplete. Sometimes I think in dealing with others we shift the biases to present a more affable or acceptable face. In my case, it’s mostly to hide away my vulnerabilities, and so to many, the outer H seems a cool and attractive man, funny and confident and laid-back – and, above all, in control. It comes easily because I am those things and I simply switch my energy into those areas and am smart enough to carry it off. It’s not a conscious thing. At this stage of my life, it’s pretty automatic. What’s left out of that persona is the authentic truth.

I’d like to say the inner H is represented in these pages, but that’s not entirely correct. The outer H creeps in quite often, like an official censor making sure only the ‘official’ truth makes it to air. Thankfully he gets overruled often enough that the true H gets a run.

The inner H is much more reflective and thoughtful. He is compassionate and sometimes terribly sensitive. He feels deeply, but he’s also imaginative and creative, even whimsical sometimes. He hasn’t the hard edge of the outer H. He’s not as easy or fluent in many ways, but he’s more honest. And he’s the one who gets haunted. He doubts.

I quite like the outer H, maybe because I’m comfortable with him. He’s low risk. And maybe – and this is revealing – he reflects what I want to be. He’s the guy at the start of the dream, the guy men admire and girls fall for. He’s witty and smart and commanding. But he’s superficial, too. He’s glib, he’s ‘too cool for school’ as one woman from my past once accused me of, he’s not real, and he’s not deep. He’s an Alpha.

Inner H is real and deep, but he’s not easy. Everything is felt. He’s the wellspring of my writing. He’s the curious mind who just has to understand things. He’s the one overwhelmed by tenderness on occasion. He’s passionate about truth and justice. I like him too because he is a decent and interesting man, but I’m scared of being him out in the world.

Few people get to see the inner H – though I’ve craved the opportunity to share him with someone I could trust. Most of the world knows only variations on the outer H.

This is a big part of my problem (and it’s revealing how this permeates my creative writing) – the split between inner and outer. It’s a divide in my soul I have propagated myself out of fear and ego. It’s a conflict that has taken on volcanic proportions in recent times. For most of my adult life, it was under control until I chose to become open and honest with the world earlier this year, and the hairline fractures became fissures. I exposed myself to this, but it was the right thing to do.

I’m more vulnerable now and more fragile because I’ve attempted to add something to the outer H that by nature he rejects. Humility, sensitivity, vulnerability, don’t belong in the outer H. He’s about skating across surfaces and avoiding commitment. I’m probably doing him – and me – and injustice, because he’s a decent, caring, sincere bloke, just at arm’s length.

This is why it’s hard, because I’m trying to be better and it’s dizzying and confusing. I get offended too easily, my mind gets turned around, everything feels personal. I’m in a state of existential flux – but it must go on until the end.

Somewhere in all this is the true H. He is both inner and outer H but in harmonic balance. That’s the endpoint I need to get to, but hard work from here – but at least I know.

All that I lost


I had my best sleep for ages last night and woke this morning in a good frame of mind. I switched on the radio for the news, fed Rigby, made a coffee, and returned to bed. Rigby lay on the end of the bed as I caught up with social media from overnight, before picking up a book. In the background, the radio was sometimes on, sometimes off, as I was keen to hear the latest updates from the AFL trade. I’ve now showered and dressed and just returned from taking Rigby for a walk. It’s sunny, but with a cool breeze out.

I’m not surprised that the initial positive frame of mind has dissipated in the time since. While you do all those things, while you read and listen to the radio and walk the dog, your mind continues to tick over in the background. Thoughts develop along themes until you set aside your book to consider what’s in your head.

What’s in my head this morning are thoughts of grief. This is not something new, but nor is it something that has been resolved. I guess, technically, what I feel right now is depression, but what it really feels like is deep and abiding sadness. I think about six weeks ago I would have thought myself pretty content, though on narrow parameters. What’s happened since undermined that, but in so doing it also upset the delicate balance of emotions. From the depths have emerged grief that I had packed away, hopefully for good.

I think one of the reasons I write is a fascination with both human complexity and human frailty. I’m well aware we develop narratives to describe who we are and what we’re about. They make life easier because they’re arranged in such a way that what’s unpleasant is hidden away. In many ways, they’re necessary. We can’t go about mired in regret and past distress when we can do nothing about it. At the same time, there’s something artificial about that construct. These things happened after all, and they have a formative effect on the person you are today. And, if not properly dealt with, they can come back and haunt you.

This is where I am today. As a writer, I’m a master of narrative. I’m strong-willed and stubborn on top of that. It means that I’ve been very effective in locking things away. You could argue that it’s been necessary given the journey I’ve endured. When things were at their most dire I couldn’t stop to dwell on how miserable things were, I had to keep ploughing forward. I managed that. I survived. I’m grateful, but I lost something along the way.

Right now it feels like one of those movies where miners or archaeologists inadvertently pierce through to a chamber, thus releasing a monster. This monster, for me, is unresolved grief.

I’ve touched on this before. How when mum died I was too busy dealing with the fall-out from it to properly grieve what I had lost as a son. I never got the chance later when I was struggling to survive from one day to the next, nor did I ever grieve for, or even acknowledge, what I lost in that time either. To my way of thinking I had about five lost years but, by and large, I just put them behind me and got on with things.

Now they come back to me and now I must deal with them properly. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t even know how you’re meant to grieve, except that I think it’s a process that till now I’ve skipped through.

It’s true – and very reasonable – that I’ve chosen not to dwell on all that I lost. There was no point to it, I thought. It couldn’t be undone, forge ahead. And, I knew, it was much too painful. I think the time has come when I must face it.

When I lost my mum I lost a lot more than a loving and supportive person in my life. I lost a whole way of life. Her death fractured the family. Up until then, the family had been a warm and predictable thing. We were close-knit and social. We weren’t all close, but some of us were very close – and then she died and outside the funeral, I haven’t seen them since. Six years on the only family connection I have is with my nephews and niece, and that haphazard. For me, personally, it means I don’t have the support network I once had, I don’t have the easy affection that comes from long-established bonds, and I’m isolated – and never more so than on the big occasions. My life is much less for all of this, and the wound is deep.

My life was precarious before mum died, but afterwards, it became catastrophic. Much of that has been documented – the homelessness, the near bankruptcy, the despair. I survived all that, but I lost things that couldn’t be retrieved – opportunity and time.

I estimated a while back that I was a million dollars worse off now than I would’ve been had none of this happened. That probably errs on the conservative side. I was comfortable, had a good life, and had every reason to think it would continue to improve. Even if it hadn’t, I had a great foundation. I’ve not thought about this a lot because it hurts too much. I look at my friends with their nice homes and good lifestyles and that’s all I don’t have. It means that unless I do something drastic my senior years will be a struggle too. I went from having a life (and destiny) of ease and comfort, to struggling to get by, now and into the future.

I had a metaphorical gold pass. I was in the upper echelons professionally. All that was trashed by becoming homeless. Now, I am invisible. I strive to be heard but am overlooked. The roles I would have been a shoo-in for previously I’m not even considered for now. I have become tarnished. Damaged goods. And, I have changed because of it.

I don’t know if I’m being wise in retrospect, but what seems the hardest thing for me is that I was set back then to step into the next stage of my life. In my mind, that’s to become a husband and father. I always wanted that, but I was restless and there were other things I wanted to do first. I’d got a lot of that out of my system and had established a foundation on which I hoped to embark on the next phase of my journey. Then, shit happened, and for all those years I set that aside. It’s what makes me ache most – what could have been.

I hope this doesn’t come across as a litany of complaints. I’m trying not to be self-pitying. All these things have been so painful that I pushed them aside, out of sight, and constructed a narrative around them. This is all about tearing that narrative up and facing up to the ugly facts. These are the things I have to acknowledge, feel, grieve for. Maybe I need to feel that pain, and maybe I need some healthy sorrow.

It’s true, I can’t go back and change things. I’ve always been bullish and positive, by instinct and intention. That’s admirable, but it’s not enough by itself. It’s time to set that aside and accept these harsh truths and get them out of my system. It’s a further development on the plan to be more open and honest, except this time it’s about being open and honest with myself.