Category Archives: unpsychology

traveling beyond on the bipolar express

In Tristimania Jay Griffiths tells the story of her struggle with a year-long episode of mental disturbance caused by bipolar disorder. Struggle indeed: the entire narrative bristles with her tension, bitten-down fingernails of reason digging down to keep a thin grip on sanity. She writes beautifully, skillfully, documenting every subtle aspect of her plight with clarity and astute detail, and the confidence of a master wordsmith. Griffiths claims to be sharing her story altruistically, “because what is individual can speak to the general, and if this book can befriend just one person in that terrifying loneliness, it will be worth writing.” Yet the fierce energy driving every page belies a desperation deeper than any community-mindedness: this woman writes to exorcise her demons.

I read the book with the particular critical insight of a fellow adventurer in bipolar lands, and I share my thoughts here through the lens of unpsychology, which Steve Thorp describes as ‘post-civilised neurodiversity and wild mind.’ Similarly, the Icarus Project has positioned neurodiversity within the spectrum of civilised and wild states, and more specifically as an issue of oppression whereby ‘normality’ can be viewed as the colonisation of one’s mental space. Rhiana Anthony of the Icarus Project teaches that authoring our own stories allows us to claim that mental space as our own territory, by deconstructing the labels that have been assigned to us by our families and communities.

Griffiths is familiar with the tension between the civilised and the wild. She earned her chops with a book entitled Wild, in which she traveled world to report on the impact of so-called civilisation on indigenous cultures and natural habitats. But where Wild goes on a freedom ride, Tristimania creeps along buzzing with anxiety. If the entire book could be condensed into a single idea it would be: don’t let go. She stands at the brink, stares down into the abyss, shivers with awe, goes so far as to stretch an arm out into the void – but she never takes the final step, over the edge. She never lets go. She never learns the secret of letting go: that she will be held, that she can fly.

My own experience of mental unraveling put me in a similar situation to the one described in Tristimania. For well over a year I held my shit together with increasing strain and exhaustion, avoiding crowds and phone calls like the plague, shaking with anxiety and panic in any shop I set foot into, talking and laughing to myself as I walked along the pavement. I managed somehow to keep up with a job and with parenting, but the pressure was building steadily and the steam beginning to push through the cracks. My distress at the state of the world turned inward, because our civilised society insists that the state of the world is the benchmark of normality. But unlike Griffiths, I didn’t reach the other side of my experience with my grip still on that precarious wooden-slat bridge of sanity. The pressure within me imploded, and I let go, into full-blown psychosis. I let go. First I plummeted; then I flew.

I don’t mean to romanticise something that is ugly and traumatic. The crippling undertow of depressive anxiety turns the most basic steps of living into an ordeal. Crossing a room becomes as complicated a challenge as crossing a desert. One wakes each morning to bone-deep weariness and fearful misery. Breath comes short, tears well up, hands shake. The world closes in upon you, leaving your lifetime of experience to feel as empty as a cardboard carton crumpled up and tossed into a bin. For many people, the pain digs in so relentlessly and horrifically that suicide beckons as bittersweet relief, an oblivion that can be bargained for. Is this the same as letting go? Or is it the ultimate expression of clinging on, one’s fists clenched upon the steering wheel of existence, crashing into a wall of despair?

Griffiths has written honestly in Tristimania about the energy-sucking negativity of the bipolar downswing. For her honesty, and her courage in opening herself up to scrutiny, I respect her. Yet I can’t help but surmise that she wouldn’t respect me in return. Her judgment upon me crops up in the myriad ways that she holds herself apart from the other crazy people – the really crazy people, the ones who do let go. Her doctor shores up this invisible line: “I never lost my insight, according to my doctor; never lost the overseeing part of the mind which charts the craziness of the other parts…. He said later that he thought hospitalisation would make me worse, and that the other patients, in particular, would affect me badly.”

Griffiths comes across as an apologist for the status quo, framing her annus horribilis as a breach and an offense to her narrative voice. Embarrassment and shame nip at her constantly, even prudishness as when she sniffs in distaste at an impulse to run “barefoot and naked” through the streets of London. (“Dangerous stupidity?” Bless you, Jay – it’s really not as bad as all that. There’s been far more harm done in the name of clothing than actual “trouble” caused by the odd naked rambler. Think sweatshops, illegal trade in endangered skins and furs, the psychological torture popularised by the fashion and modelling industry, the carbon cost of landfilled textiles… shall I go on?)

She relates her story with a constant grinding disappointment for falling short of normality: “When I was flailing around trying to force myself into recovery, impatient and angry with myself for all I could not do, [my doctor] gave me wiser counsel, permission to be ill, repeatedly saying that if I’d broken my leg, I’d have no problem accepting that I couldn’t use it properly.” Since when is propriety a benchmark for health? Are we really well-served by placing mental health within the medical model – casting mental irregularity as pathology? The mental landscape is more diverse than all our earthly ecosystems put together – so why do we try to pin it down into binary categories of normal vs abnormal?

Griffiths too expresses a vein of doubt about the medical model: “He seemed to think of psychiatric illness purely as a brain malfunction, a mechanical problem. To me, the psyche is also a matter of the soul.” She goes on, “Where does self end and illness begin?” Where indeed? The devil in me advocates: define self, define illness, define soul, define mind. Take your precision to its illogical conclusion and see it for what it is: an arbitrary boundary upon the essentially boundless. Let’s open up that can of worms, and let them all go, to wriggle back out into the mud and the grass.

However much we try to map out the terrain of our mysterious minds, we reside mainly in the precarious chasm of a many-coloured, shape-shifting, uncanny unknown – and it evokes fear and trepidation in most people. Griffiths herself acknowledges this in Wild: “I was taught – as we all are – to be scared of the prowling Unknown, of the wild deserts of Beyond.”

Yes, I was taught that too – but I am so very, very thankful that insanity took me by the hand into the wildest of wild places: my wild mind. Tristimania, for all its eloquence about the manic depressive experience, paints a view from the threshold but never ventures Beyond.

You can read more about my travels Beyond in the Climate Minds Anthology of Unpsychology Magazine.

environ-mental health

Today marks the launch of Unpsychology Magazine Issue 4: the Climate Minds Anthology.

When Unpsychology founder Steve Thorp invited me to co-edit this issue, I was delighted with the opportunity to get involved in a project with so much heart and soul behind it. It touched me especially to help address the elephant in the room that sits with almost every relationship in my life. I think of myself as Cassandra, Pandora and perhaps a bit of Antigone, in my quest to unravel and face up to the twisted logic of the culture I was born into.

I have known all my life that despite the wealth and prosperity of the techno-industrial west, our way of life is essentially corrosive. And not just to communities all around the world and to the environment of our planet Earth, but likewise corrosive to our inner sense of wellbeing and ecological belonging. Exploitation disturbs the mental health of the perpetrator as much as the victim, and a system which thrives on exploitation is a sick one indeed. Even the spoils of systemic, invisible aggression such as the kind found in industrial-scale agriculture, privatisation of the commons and mass advertising to manipulate the values and behaviour of millions of people: these are forms of violence which we tolerate all too easily.

Now those of us living in the 21st century face the spectre of entrenched global warming and increasingly extreme impacts of climate change and ‘natural resource’ depletion. It is not unusual to turn from bad news – far easier to (try to) ignore it, deny it and avoid it – but this isn’t going to go away. It’s fucking scary, for all of us. Our environs have become so weighed down with the effects of so-called progress that we face a collective environ-mental breakdown.

Unpsychology Magazine was founded by Steve as a response to the emotional journey that we undergo when we face our fears and our demons, whatever they may be. It invites writing and artwork that cultivate wild mind, and that tell “stories to challenge assumptions of culture, psychology and therapy, and to make soul.” This Climate Minds Anthology is Issue 4 in the Unpsychology series, and in it we invite you to consider the questions what is? what might be? and what can be done?

This beautiful digital publication is available to download for free – we want it to be as far-reaching as possible, in the hope that it may be used as a starting point for opening up that most difficult conversation: how do you feel about climate change?

Climate Minds Anthology is part of a campaign to open up a conversational movement, which we are hoping to facilitate with the help of crowdfunding. You can connect to the funding drive here.

We invite you to join Climate Mind Conversations in any of the following ways:

There will be a launch event on Thursday 5 April as part of the Alchemy programme at Oriel y Parc in St Davids, Wales where Steve is currently writer-in-residence.

Steve and I both hope that you enjoy Unpsychology Issue 4 and will join us in the Climate Mind Conversation.

xxx Julia

climate minds

I grew up in a midwestern American suburb, with neat rows of houses each on their own patch of tidy lawn. It was still a fairly young housing development, perhaps twenty years old. The trees of the neighbourhood were beyond the sapling stage but not yet grown to their full height or strength. Ornamental bushes and beds of flowering plants decorated the edges of front porches and backyard decks. Residential streets and long driveways crisscrossed the groundscape, establishing car traffic as the dominant species in this constructed environment.

Yet some of the most emotive memories from my childhood are connected to the natural world which insisted on existing beside and around the self-contained boxes of suburban housing:

sitting on the front porch in a heavy, pressing air watching the spring sky turn the deep grey-green of tornado weather; weird fingery flashes of lightening scratching along the cloudscape, punctuated by groans of thunder, rumbling and grumbling in sometimes alarming closeness overhead. Rain breaking through the salty tang of sulphurised air, pouring steadily down in a loud beating cadence, driving all the earthworms from the dirt out onto the slick wet black of the tarred driveway

deepening dusk on warm summer evenings, a long lingering at the threshold of darkness, and the sudden magical smears of fireflies’ golden light, appearing and disappearing in a slow blinking dance

bright yellow blobs of dandelions scattered across the grass, on a fresh summer morning, with the sun reaching its way upward behind the houses opposite

moody grey overcast autumn sky, lost in its own thoughts, and leaves turning red gold brown, dropping into crisp rustling layers and skittery scattering across the pavement

waking up to the first frost, a crisp white icing sugar coating each stiff blade of grass and each dried up, gnarled up, long gone autumn leaf – and then, weeks later, the first snowfall, thick feathery flakes drifting down in slow motion and gathering like feathers into sparkly soft contours over bushes and rails.

tulips appearing, from nothing to something, steadily green and then surprising bright pink and deep red with yellow streaks

grey squirrel leap-jumping across the lawn and scurrying up a tree, bushy tail a fluffy curl

robin landing with a thump by the kitchen window, beady black eyes peering around, taking off again in a startled flapping rush

white papery moth beating against the wire mesh of the window screen, creepy tiny rustlings of summertime night-time

Despite the best efforts of suburban town planners to build over and tame the midwestern landscape, the natural world persisted. Green weeds pushed through cracks in the pavement. Spiders explored bathrooms. Black ants invaded kitchen cupboards. Changing seasons demanded attention and the grass – oh the grass. The grass never stopped. It needed to be mowed again and again and again – my brothers’ weekly chore.

I am reminiscing for a reason. My relationship to the natural world sat uneasily beside the more pervasive lessons of my childhood, which involved bug spray and cellophane wrapping. Twentieth century American post-war suburban life gave me interstate highways and shopping malls and a two car garage. McDonalds and Wendys and KFC. Oreos and Cheerios and Cheetos and Doritos. Pacman and Walkman and synthetic clothing in neon pink and green. The culture of my upbringing worshipped the artificial, the mechanical and digital, the automotive, the commercial, the televised and the mass produced. Nature was just a messy nuisance.

Those memories of mine were collected despite, not because, and in truth I know very little about the natural environment. The names and characteristics of all but the most obvious of flora, the habits and habitats of all but the most common of fauna – I know so relatively nothing of who they all are and what they’re all like. In a wilderness challenge, I would die quickly. Foraging, protection from predators, weather patterns and terrain? Sorry, but no. No idea.

That leads me finally to the point of this post, which is to ask: how have I been prepared for the spectre of climate change? How does the average mind of modern civilisation grasp the information that is coming at us about global warming, and all the evidence we have marking the gruelling degradation of our natural ecosystems? Psychology is so commonly associated with human culture, human relationships – but what of our relationships with the natural world? What of my intense internal dialogue with those mesmerising stormclouds as I sat watching the sky from our front porch, what of my tentative, curious friendship with the worms on our rain-drenched driveway? What of my far more intimate relationships with my collection of factory-made cuddly toys, my menagerie of small plastic animals and my beloved Merlin with its battery-operated blinks and bleeps? How have I been set up, for the predicament I face as part of the human community?

Do you ever wonder the same? What are your own experiences and ideas at this unique, bewildering and many would say terrifying juncture of civilisation? Can we humans ever be forgiven for the damage and even extinction we have caused to so many other species and ecosystems in this world? Can we create a human culture that harmonises with the natural world, rather than destroying it? Can we clean up the mess we have made? Will we even survive?

These questions and others inspire the next issue of Unpsychology magazine. My friend Steve Thorp, founder and editor of Unpsychology, has invited me to co-edit this upcoming issue which takes as its theme Climate Minds. You can read the brief and the call for submissions here.

Please consider contributing to this issue, or circulating the invitation throughout your own networks. The deadline is 30 September 2017.

Allow your imagination to soar. Remember those moments of your childhood, when the natural world bewitched you. Consider how you fit into this remarkable web of life. Share your thoughts, your fears, your hopes. And above all, trust your heart, which remembers so vividly the joyful fresh air of a summer morning, lawn mowers rumbling in the distance, and those damned inevitable dandelions smiling up at you.