Dream Meanings

I wonder how many have blogged about this. It’s the first blog to which I would really like to receive answers – from my current follower-base of two (it’s doubled!).

I cannot remember when last my dreams did not have a very specific context; that of leaving a temporary place in the company of others who are leaving too. That temporary place is usually a retreat of some sort, a place of buildings and physical structures. We’re not talking camping here (well, we were once I think). This is leaving a house we’ve borrowed or an hotel room or a conference retreat type venue.

There is always a rush and I am pretty sure I have always been the cause of making that rush worse – leaving something behind or forgetting something is common. There are other recurring themes from earlier in my dream life; I am almost always in or near the city of my birth, which is a long way away from where I have lived for nearly twenty years now. I will regularly find myself driving the vehicle in which we leave in an impossible way – from the back seat or from a position three stories above the road.

It is this new (ish) theme or leaving a temporary place I want to delve into further. The implication – although not one that is directly stated in any dream that I remember – is one of going home. There is difficulty in doing it, usually, and one which leads to a certain level of anxiety. I cannot miss the train, but I must find my coat. I am holding up the people who want to leave in the mini-bus, but my other suitcase is missing, or has been swapped for one that isn’t mine.

So here are my thoughts on dreams. I have no belief in the spiritual, so any idea that dreams are somehow prophetic or hold any knowledge we do not already possess is not an option. I am not Pharaoh needing Joseph to explain seven fat and seven thin calves or sheaves of wheat. I think of dreams as the mind processing sensory data and moving it into long-term storage. I definitely experience memory of today and memory of all my life before I last slept in different ways. My memories of today are vivid and detailed, like playing back a movie. Previous memories become associated with other, similar ones, they get imbued with smells and emotions and tastes, they get confused with related memories or forgotten entirely.

I do have mental health issues, which must surely inform my dreams. I have close and loving relationships with my children, my partner and my friends. My relationship with my partner is not what it should be – it is failing in a sense; has already failed in others. We love each other and are great friends, but the intimacy and sexuality are completely gone. I have another romantic interest – a soulmate who has been in and out of my life since my teens – although that is not a full-blown affair. Yet. These things must inform my dreams too.

The temptation is to see my subconscious as already leaving my partner to be with my soulmate. That seems a tad obvious, but then perhaps that is what my mind is processing: the things at its very forefront.

But I am also an atheist who used to be a fundamentalist Christian. There’s a journey there – a leaving something temporary (I was a Christian for about ten years) and returning to something; before faith, we are all atheists (or non-theists if you prefer – I consider the terms synonymous). This journey has dominated my life and continues to be at the front of my thought life.

I am also a parent whose children are growing up, returning me to the role I have before that of parent. I am a senior manager, returning to management from an unhappy encounter with executive leadership. In fact, my entire life, and hopefully those of most people living theirs properly, is a journey from somewhere to somewhere else. So why should my dreams have this theme now, when it was not always thus?

Answers on a postcard.

Where the Dead Ships Dwell

My friend asks me how I am feeling.

Not, “How are you?” “Fine,” will not do as a reply.

My friend has asked a few times before. I am not avoiding her. The genuine answer is, “I have no idea.”

But that will not do either.

And so I sit in an armchair, pretending to watch television. I reach inside. Two things occur to me instantly.

The first is that I have not done this in a while. Quite a long while. I don’t know how long, but then this is about feelings. It feels long.

The second is a reminder of why I stopped doing this. The first feeling I encounter is sadness.

It’s always been there. At least as long as I can remember emotionally. When I reach inside, I find sad. Black sad. A darkness made of sadness.

And this is where I start to falter. I’m good with words, alright? Words have always been what I do. But instantly words start to fail me. “A man is not sad, he is morose,” said Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society. “Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavour, laziness will not do.” But I deliberately choose the lazy word “sad”.

It’s like “nice”. It is a mediocre, beige kind of a word. Weak. Expressionless. This dark sadness is not depression, it is not intense. I am not about to burst out crying or slit my wrists. It is just ever there.

I can guess at why it is there, but that is not what my friend asked me. She did not ask, “Why are you?” She asked, “How are you?” In fact, she has deliberately asked me to bypass all the logic I normally apply in these circumstances.

It is why I have chosen to write in the present tense – to pull myself into the present and not analyse. That’s not what this is for.

The sadness feels like a layer. I doesn’t feel like there is sadness all the way down. It’s not a mask above other feelings, but rather a kind of go-to emotion. The first thing I encounter on the way down. As I go down, the darkness becomes thicker, the sadness more profound, but… well, does it sound crazy to say that, as the sadness becomes denser, so hope seems to shine brighter in the distance? Distance is the wrong word. Through the ever-thickening mist.

I stop and re-emerge. Up through the sadness and back into the world of senses. The TV is still going, my partner sits next to me, oblivious to what I am trying to do.

Beneath the sadness is hope. I know it is there. It is what comes through when asked how I feel about people. My first response will be something cynical about sheeple and how average IQ descends the bigger the sample, but for those prepared to call me on my bullshit there lies a layer of genuine hope. I love people. I believe in them. In us. We are capable of… well, we can do things like Christmas. Not overweight saints in red pyjamas or saviours in mangers… not even giving of gifts and the celebration of renewal that lies at the heart of midwinter… I mean smiling at perfect strangers walking towards you and genuinely wishing them a merry Christmas. For that one day, you mean it! And so do they! Hope. Hope in who I am because of who we are.

The sadness inspires inaction, anxiety, depression and drinking. Beneath it lies the hope that spurs me to action and smiling and the will to excel. I think there is also a little fear of failure down there, which may account for the layer of sadness above it, but now I’m starting to analyse again.

I can only do this at certain times. Often – more often than not at the moment – there is a layer of anxiety that simply will not allow me to internalise, to look within, at all.

The sadness is complex, deep, dark and multi-faceted. There is an honesty to it too that means I don’t necessarily want to be rid of it, nor do I necessarily see it as a bad thing. It is just there, an integral part of who I am. It is made of regret, of failure, of missed opportunities and unmet expectations.

I chose the title of this piece from the the song by In Flames. The sadness is where the dead ships dwell, where voyages ended sunk beneath waves of failure, where ships that never left the harbour rock gently, chained to the quay because I was too scared to set sail. The spines of sunken dreadnoughts, tattered sails flapping listlessly in the dank, stinking breeze; haunted, rotten skeletons loll in cages that swing from yard-arms; the black see swells and subsides with the rhythm of the slow, hypnotic heartbeat of Cthulhu below, dead but dreaming. This is a watery graveyard, the crescent moon shedding weak light through clouds like shredded sails to reflect lifeless and cold on dark and fathomless waves.

But I belong here. Yes, the obvious metaphor of failure in the wreckage, of the layer that keeps me from hope. It’s laughable it’s so fucking corny. But here I stand and here I belong and here I feel at home and even at peace among the rotten wood, long-dead pirates and half-submerged, keeled-over hulls. I am out of the world of my senses, and that is rarely a bad thing when I am alone. Senses are boring. No poetry.

So, my friend, here I am. Where the dead ships dwell. That’s as far as I got this time.

Will you hold my hand if I can find a seaworthy vessel, board it with me? Can you? Is this a journey we must all travel alone? We once sailed together. Shipmates. From the listing decks of that dreadnought with the tattered sails and the rotten corpses we dove and swam for different shores so long ago. Think we could try again for hope? Is that even really what exists beyond this?

I’m waxing lyrical, which means I’m finished.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

For my anxiety, I have been through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – CBT. Twice. Once in 2014 and once again in 2017.

It is not my intention to critique CBT here. I found the first time I attended therapy more effective than the second, which I suppose should be expected. Neither was a silver bullet, but both gave me coping mechanisms substantially healthier and more effective than those I have built outside of CBT. What I am going to do here is use my blog to share what I learnt – mainly with myself, to be honest. This blog is another form of therapy after all.

The idea of CBT is not at all dissimilar from the practise I learnt as an evangelical Christian of questioning thoughts. As a Christian I was taught that thoughts came from three sources: God, Satan and me. It was my responsibility to discern the source of a thought and disallow entry to my brain to thoughts which were not edifying. It’s actually a rather useful practice.

So effectively I re-learnt to “cast down imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bring into captivity every thought.” 2 Corinthians 10:5, if you’re interested, and of course the verse does not end there but finishes, “to the obedience of Christ.”

We’ve established that I am an atheist, but babies and bathwater; there is much about religion that should not be abandoned along with faith. This concept of questioning how edifying a thought is is definitely worth hanging on to.

Just as a Christian might use Biblical morality to challenge thought, CBT offers its own helpful yard-sticks for whether or not thoughts are going to help or hinder the anxious mind. It is also helpful to realise that thoughts are not simply ideas that enter the mind – they include established thought patterns, learnt mental behaviours and that general sense of how we see the world.

Perhaps the most interesting and helpful technique for examining thoughts confronted what my therapist called “rules”. A rule is a statement which my mind believes to be true. Most often, rules are established by experience. Rules equate to the computer-programmer’s IF… THEN… ELSE logic: IF something happens THEN the result will be this ELSE the result will be that. And it is that binary aspect of a rule which requires challenging.

In my case, I have a rule which states, “I must be liked to be successful.” Experience has taught me that if people like me, I do well, be that in business or in a social situation or anything else. This rule is stated as an absolute, and it also has the negative equivalent: if I am not liked, I will fail.

It is the binary way in which the rule is stated that is dangerous and, also, quite illogical. It uses the same illogic as, “all generalisations are wrong.” The idea is to soften the way the statement is put. Because it is simply not true that I will fail if I am not liked, the rule should be re-stated as, “Being liked is useful to success.” This allows me to be disliked without being anxious that I will fail as a result. Rules need to be flexible.

Then we come to the concept of failure itself. I also see failure as binary when it simply isn’t. It’s not like there are just two options: failure and success. There is a sliding scale with success at one end and failure at the other. Unless the outcome is actual death, failure is not complete, surely? Any situation can be repaired, no matter how desperate. And most of the time, “failure” is a lot tamer than that.

Which dovetails into the third concept: worst case / best case / most likely outcome. The anxious mind will fixate on failure. The idea that failure is not absolute can be challenged when examining the actual worst-case scenario. What is it? And then, most importantly, how likely is it? Does it represent complete failure? No, simply because there is no such thing. And it is usually quite unlikely as an outcome anyway, since it is worst case. Also, is the best-case the only success? Would the most likely outcome not qualify as on the success side of the sliding scale?

Fourthly there is “worry management”. Some scenarios are likely to have a negative outcome. Okay then: is this a practical scenario? Is it real? Will this thing I am worrying about ever actually happen? Comes back to worst-case / best case / most likely outcome. If I am anxious about a hypothetical scenario – losing my job, for example – how helpful is it to worry about it? Am I in any real danger of losing my job?

If the worry is practical, then can I deal with it? If yes, do so. If no, accept that life has risks, do what you can to mitigate them, and then move on. If the worry is hypothetical, acknowledge that and treat the thought with the derision it deserves. This is almost like the Harry Potter spell ridiculus. Turn your fear into something laughable whenever you can, and this is most easily done for the hypotheticals.

Another way of looking at all of this is “what if?” What if a thing happened? Well: flexible rules mean the thing can happen without necessarily causing a negative outcome, a negative outcome is almost never the end of the world anyway, the scenario may be pretty unlikely and it may even be completely hypothetical. See?

Well, it helps me.

The Powers That Be

Britain has been described as a country that has succeeded in spite of its leaders. Ever felt you are working for an organisation like that?

I am.

I won’t let my blog turn into a whinge. That is one of the (very few) constraints I have placed upon myself. If you don’t like your job, go find another one. For the record, when left alone to do it, I absolutely love my job. Not all of it, obviously, but there are certainly large parts of it I would do as a hobby.

This is more about corporate structure. Leadership comes in many forms – charismatic, administrative, inspirational. I’m not about to attempt a discourse on leadership: there are many far better qualified than I for that. My observation, however, is that there comes a level in every organisation I have worked for – corporate, amateur, charity, vocational – above which it seems necessary to be an arsehole as well as, or often as opposed to, a leader.

Is it necessary for senior leaders to be arseholes?

I kind of want to leave it there, to be honest. Obviously the question is posed to answer itself in the affirmative. Are all those at Board-, Director- and C-level arseholes? Probably not. I worked at that level for a while. Does the fact that I found it unbelievably contrary to every part of my nature – most especially ethically – save me from being an arsehole? Or does that just make me a wuss?

Watching interaction at that level – especially in a B-to-B context – brings me to the conclusion that being an arsehole is, at least, an advantage, if not an outright requirement. Decent human beings don’t seem to succeed at this level.

I am going to have to define “arsehole” in this context, am I not?

One characteristic is being passive-aggressive to those below you on the old slippery ladder. “Do you think it is acceptable to do that?” implying it isn’t. “Who instructed you to do that?” with the full knowledge that you were expected to act independently. That wonderful turn of phrase that implies you fucked up while ostensibly asking a perfectly ordinary question. Being unavailable and then asking, “Why didn’t you run this past me first?” falls into this category. Especially when you’re on a deadline.

Another would be giving incomplete instructions and then expecting specific results. This is a slippery one, because people at this level feel the need to be “strategic”. Now I agree that strategic thinking is the opposite of granular thinking. It must be. But when somebody has a specific outcome in mind but chooses not to communicate details in the name of strategic thinking, they should not expect the outcome to match every detail of their expectation.

Not mentioning a particular outcome is essential until after the deadline and then demanding to know why you “didn’t think it important”.

Just being plain rude. Arrogant. Unreasonable.

Question is: is this behaviour indicative of a person who can successfully lead an organisation? Is it like a symptom – like people who have what it takes happen to also act in this way? Somehow the positive effect they have on an organisation outweighs the obvious negative impact of their behaviour?

And would the converse then be true: would I be more successful if I behaved like an arsehole? Should I be encouraging my children to be selfish, arrogant, bullying and rude because it will bring reward?

I used the word “ethically” above quite deliberately. I’m afraid behaving like a successful senior executive is very often morally inexcusable. Not (necessarily) in a criminal sense, but definitely at the level of relationships and human decency. For that reason I won’t do it. That sort of success isn’t worth it.

Thoughts and Prayers

What happened in Las Vegas was awful. And social media went off on its usual unhelpful tangents.

My social media bubble is kinda  middle-class liberal, but because of my background I have a number of friends who are evangelical Christians. My group memberships tend to reflect my atheism and varying degrees of mockery of organised religion generally and Christianity in particular. It’s a fascinating balance to try and maintain.

So the first posts I actually saw on the massacre were from the cynics once again lambasting the religious for their “thoughts and prayers” posts. The logic is that thoughts and prayers achieve nothing practical for those who have lost loved ones or been injured.

There is no statistical evidence for the efficacy of petitionary prayer – i.e. prayers that ask for stuff (as opposed to worship, meditation and other types of prayer). If there were, Christians the world over would be publishing in science journals and ambulances would drive to churches rather than hospitals. So in real terms, the cynics are right: thoughts and prayers are of no practical use for those caught up in these terrible events.

The implication is that a person should do something or shut up; that “thoughts and prayers” are a way to convince yourself you’ve done something to help without actually doing anything to help.

I get the sentiment. But it feels vacuous. Are these cynics doing anything to help apart from criticising the religious? And are the religious really all doing nothing? And does “thoughts and prayers” really mean actual thoughts and prayers? For many, I’m sure it does. But this expression is also one of solidarity, of standing together and being on the side of those in need.

No, this isn’t the same as actually changing the ridiculous gun laws in a state where having an arsenal capable of killing dozens and injuring hundreds is a right while the medical care needed by the victims is a privilege. It is not the same as actually going there with medical supplies or sending money for those without insurance. But is this also a bad thing, expressing solidarity? America is an awfully divided nation right now – “thoughts and prayers”, even if only as an expression of empathy, go a long way to re-establishing the unity so desperately needed.

I think neither is true. I think in many cases the religious express their “thoughts and prayers” simply to identify as religious on social media and the cynics attack them for doing so for much the same reason; parading their atheist credentials. The expression “thoughts and prayers” is therefore also divisive as much as it is an expression  of solidarity.

Maybe we need to find another phrase, but then we’re off into the realms of political correctness so much-hated by the right. Personally, political correctness has always been synonymous with politeness to me. It means adjusting language so as not to cause unintended offence. The keyword there, of course, is “unintended”. If your intent is offence – and mine often is – by all means choose the language that’s up to the job.

Are there other phrases? What about changing profile photos, like the rainbow-background avatar on Facebook that implied solidarity with the LGBT community? In this case imagery went far beyond what words alone could achieve – at least few enough words for the average post. Then there are slogans. Je suis Charlie and the like. Those worked well too. But what of some universal statement of solidarity? Could there be such a thing?

Probably not.

But here’s an idea: communication is not about parsing statements to extract literal meaning. Never has been. That’s why, despite what my grammar Nazi friends insist on telling me – and I confess to being at least a grammar fascist myself – there actually is no consensus on the use of the apostrophe. When I read “thoughts and prayers”, why don’t I assume that the person is expressing positivity and solidarity with people who are suffering instead of assuming they are praying to avoid action while assuaging their conscience? And even if they are, so what? Does that make them bad people? Why don’t I go with what I know about the person and their personality, and if I don’t know them, assume the best?

There is so much about the nobility of the human spirit that gets lost on social media. It’s about reducing important concepts to memes, about stereotyping and about cheap shots at others’ expense. Social media has undoubtedly changed the nature of human relationships, and I generally view these changes as positive. But isn’t it a sad indictment that at the very point where we could express our joint humanity to greatest affect – standing shoulder-to-shoulder (another overworked phrase) with those suffering outrageous atrocity – we instead choose to nit-pick at words?

I’m an atheist, and still I offer my heartfelt thoughts and prayers for the families of the dead and those alive and suffering as a result of the awful events in Las Vegas. I stand with you. Thoughts and prayers.

Anxious to begin

Blogging anonymously is going to be tricky for any number of reasons, and there will be things I regret about choosing this cloak. One is anxiety.

I suffer from anxiety. Until recently I also suffered from panic attacks, although that seems to have faded over the past year or two. Anybody who has ever encountered a mental health issue in themselves or others will have also encountered the stigma that is so often attached. So I prefer to talk about my anxiety openly and honestly. I do this in the hope I can help others not to add to their mental health challenges by trying to hide their mental health challenges.

Anonymity doesn’t allow me to to this. However, I expect to blog about much else in my life and the lives of others. So… anonymity it is.

I am told 1 in 4 will personally suffer some mental health issue in their lifetime. I believe this number to be way too low. I can count on one hand the number of people I have spoken to about mental health who have not suddenly, and with intense relief, said something similar to, “Oh, yeah, me too!” Depression, paranoia, anxiety, panic, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia… there are probably as many mental health conditions as there are physical health conditions, we just haven’t studied them nearly enough or even come up with the vocabulary yet.

On the one hand, anxiety has been described as a chemical imbalance. For no reason, my body will start producing (well, over-producing) Adrenalin and all sorts of other mood-unenhancing hormones. On the other hand, it has been described as a cave-man response to the 21st Century. Evolution just didn’t design me to cope with the continual input and forever-increasing pressure of modern life and my mind sometimes reacts incorrectly to all the stimuli.

The reality is probably a combination of these factors – or they may well be the same influence expressed differently. This is the frustration of discussing mental health; like I said, we lack even the basic vocabulary.

So here’s the thing. I used to trust my gut. That was a very basic tenet of how I lived my life: my gut was almost always right. If I had one of Han Solo’s bad feelings about this, I’d stop doing whatever “this” was. But since anxiety, I can no longer trust my gut. I can be frightened – utterly terrified – of absolutely nothing. Literally nothing. Thinking about potentially stressful events in the immediate future doesn’t help and the anxiety tends to latch onto those and fixate, but scratch the surface and I see that the stressful event is a symptom, not a cause. That makes anxiety idiopathic. A lovely word that. Doctor-speak for “I haven’t the foggiest.” We just don’t know what causes it. Nobody does.

Losing trust in gut feelings sounds fairly benign. Who cares? Make your decisions rationally then.

And in that sentence lies the essence of what I expect to spend many happy hours blogging about. I cannot trust my inner voice because it has, on occasion, just screamed blue murder or gibbered in some dark corner of my mind, rocking backwards and forwards with a thousand-yard stare and a forgotten cigarette burning its fingers. So I look around for what I can trust, and I come up with logic because enough people have validated it to eliminate the personal spikes in the aggregated mental health seismograph.

What do we lose when we trust logic? Well, faith for a start. All that belief in stuff you cannot validate. Gone.

Now we need to be careful. Just because a thing is ethereal does not mean it does not exist. Have I lost the ability to love and be loved? Absolutely not. Love remains an unbelievably powerful influence in my life, daily making it richer and more beautiful. Trust? Friendship? And, by contrast of course, anger, sadness? Anxiety itself?

No, these things continue to be very real, for good or ill. But faith, now? Gods and spirits and devils and angels and heaven and hell? These I have lost. Utterly. And not just because of my anxiety – losing my religion was a journey I began way before I had mental health issues (or, at least, knew I did). But with that final loss of trust in the things I cannot validate because of my condition… they are gone.

And being alone in the Universe like that is a happy, liberating thought. Free of all those constraints; free to act and hold only myself responsible, free to allow empathy to inform my morality. It is certainly not a thought I associate with anxiety at all.