Masonic Boom

"Crazy" "Oversensitive" "Feminazi" "Bitch" bloggin' bout pop music, linguistics and mental health issues

Friday, August 14, 2015

Silver Metal Lover

So oh jeez, I have a new obsession. Well, it's not a new obsession, it's a very old obsession, that has just kind of bubbled up and overblown all of the other obsessions to become the dominating obsession of my life.

Mother, I'm in love with a robot.
No. It's not like that.
Mother, I'm in love with The Robots.

The first time I heard Kraftwerk, I wasn't even aware I was hearing Kraftwerk. In my early teens, I used to watch a programme called Newton's Apple, partly because it was an entertaining Science For Kids kind of thing that appealed to a geeky young person like me, partly because it was often on just before Doctor Who, which formed an important backbone in my family's homesickness for the Britain we had recently left. It was a crucial moment in household television, when the Who theme (Ron Grainer / Delia Derbyshire) supplanted the Newton's Apple theme, with its jaunty flute, its chaotic organ-churn and its shuffling motorik drumbeat. It took me years and years to find out what that theme song really was: Kraftwerk's Ruckzuck.

I have to admit: I was too young for them during the 70s, and not into them at all during the 80s. Homesickness lead me to prefer the British synth groups of the time, whether that was Duran Duran or New Order. A friend's boyfriend (Randall, who, looking back on it, with his haircut, his clothes and his spectacles, was a bit of a Ralf casualty) made a deliberate effort to try to turn me on to Kraftwerk, most notably by lending me Computer World - I can still remember the bright yellow cassette case against my computer workstation at the DCJS. I was a data entry operator, working on digitising New York State's fingerprint records, scanning and analysing thousands of whirls, arches and loops. The themes of Computer World, computerisation and surveillance, well, Randall told me, "this is your world, you should love it." To be honest, this was my job. I hated it. And Kraftwerk as well.

My early 20s brought art school, and playing in bands. I was very into spacerock and dronerock, and noticed that a lot of the bands I loved (the JAMC playing Mushroom, Loop playing Mother Sky) kept covering this freaky German music. Eventually, an erstwhile bandmate (known as Frank Düül; I don't think I've ever adequately thanked him) decided to introduce me to Krautrock - yr Faust, yr Can, yr NEU! etc. Back in the 90s, it was still hard as hell to even find those records, so I survived on taping endless C90s off him and any other friends that might turn up with a scratchy bootleg. The great thing about C90s was the way that most vinyl LPs would not quite take up a full side, so you'd end up with odd bits tacked onto the end. I think Ruckzuck and Tanzmusic must have ended up taped on the end of a NEU! album - oddly fitting, given the bands' relationship. That stuff, I liked, in a way I'd been left cold by Computer World.

But the early 00s, I was back living in London. I can remember the moment that my mind changed, about Kraftwerk. My band were rehearsing at a space in Hackney, and as my bassist booked the next few weeks' sessions, I found myself utterly captivated, to the point of being unable to even speak, by the music that the studio's office was playing to drown out the sound of half a dozen bands rehearsing at once. What was this strange, futuristic synth-driven spacerock that sounded like a stripped-down minimalist version of (ha!) Stereolab charting a motorik course through the outer solar system? The lad at the counter looked at me as if I was an idiot. "It's the 22 minute album version of Kraftwerk's Autobahn."

The Autobahn? Noooo. It could not be. (I have been on the Autobahn only once in my life. My father took a wrong turn in Belgium on a family holiday, trying to drive from France to Holland, and ended up in Germany. ("I did think their Dutch accent was unusual when they stamped our passports" he said - my father is native Afrikaans speaker, so his Dutch is... unusual.) So there we were. On the Autobahn. In a rickety old Deux-chevaux which could manage maybe 100kmph downhill, with the wind behind it. And massive Mercedes Benzes the size of mountainsides overtaking us amidst much hooting, derision and terror. It traumatised me so much I have never been back to Germany since.)

When that band broke up, I formed Shimura Curves with a laptop and three girls to sing and act out the songs. I had still never bothered exploring much of Kraftwerk beyond the first four albums, but it started to annoy me perhaps even more than being compared to the Pipettes (who we sounded nothing like, but unfortunately shared a gender and the idea of a band uniform) when people in the blogosphere or the press would call us "The Female Kraftwerk". "We're nothing like Kraftwerk," I would fume to my bandmates, while stroking my oscilloscopes and quietly arranging plans to replace one female-music-worker with another. "If you don't want people to compare you to Kraftwerk, stop writing songs about Bicycles, Videogames and Data Analysis" teased Miss AMP. (Humph! I did not write the lyrics to the song about videogames; she did! And also she nixed my song about Data Analysis, so it never happened. We did a single about Set Theory as metaphor for romantic relationships instead.) I started listening to Kraftwerk, and realised those reviewers had a point. I believe it was around this period that one of my bandmates very pointedly loaned me a review copy of  I Was A Robot, with the advice "this reminds me of you!" to complain about my overbearing control-freak behaviour. I did not get the message. (Having re-read it recently, I can only cringe. I am so, so sorry.)

I did, however, start to have an appreciation for Kraftwerk. We planned to cover one of their songs to thumb our noses at the comparison, though we could never agree on which song. (I can recall quite strongly, rehearsing in Frances' bedroom in Hackney Wick, with her playing Computer Love on her laptop while I tried to work out the chords.) Slowly, I worked my way forward, chronologically, pushing my appreciation envelope further from spacerock motorik, to train-based metal-on-metal schaffel, to pure techno. And as I had been trying to write songs about my very boring life of data analysis and computer programming and equations, here were other musicians writing songs about the very same things! I fell in love with the music.

I knew, however, nothing about the people. Even though I knew their names - who didn't? Since they were always written in neon in front of them (a tactic Shimura Curves wanted to nick, except we couldn't afford to get neon done, and had "Anna, Marianna, Anne-Marie and K8" in gold print on the front of our bottles of pink wine instead) - I probably could not have told you which one was which. What changed this past year? That I could not tell you. Maybe I dug the record out when I wrote a novel in which the band who formed the arc of the story was named Metropolis, after the song. And then, in my spate of reading rock biographies in order to inspire my own fake rock biography, I took out a copy of Kraftwerk Publikation from the local library. And suddenly there it all was. Photos. Stories. The constant tensions between the two halves of the band, which now read so poignantly to me. Even as I was endlessly amused by the charismatic Schneider, and thought Hütter was a bit of an arsehole for the way he treated his bandmates (Ouch! Did the other Curves really think I was like this?) I found myself constantly sympathising with his relentless singularity of mind.

And then, one day, after reading all of the biographies, and looking at all the photos, and scouring the internet for interviews, and engaging in the sort of repetitive fan-behaviour that occurs on Tumblr, one finds oneself in love. I love Kraftwerk.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

In With The Out Crowd


I've been meaning to blog about this gig all week, but not until Dickon published his own account. When he messaged me to ask if I wanted to be his +1 for the Jesus and Mary Chain playing Psycho Candy in full at the Roundhouse, can you believe my first impulse was to say no? I hate full-album shows; lazy bad slices of pre-packaged nostalgia for the wealthy wrinklies with the cash to control culture and dominate cultural discourses, and fake historical reenactments for the foetuses, slouching round in T-shirts of bands who died before they were born. What would the slouching, petulant Reid brothers of my teenage years have said to that offer? "Get tae fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, jesus fuck."

I sleep on it. I think about it. Dickon Edwards. The Jesus and Mary Chain. The Roundhouse. Psycho Candy. The specific resonance that all of these people and places and things hold in my emotional landscape. I think about the last time I foolishly turned up my nose at a nostalgia gig: the Stooges invited me to tag along to ATP. I said no, I couldn't get the time off work. Ron told me to quit my job. I demurred. I was sacked from the job shortly after, and within a year or two, Ron was dead. In the previous week and a half, I have barely survived a near-sacking, a disciplinary action and an employment tribunal at my current job. Jobs come and go. Music is forever. I message Dickon and ask him where and when he wants to meet.

The Roundhouse is beautiful as ever, the white-hot peak of Victorian technological innovation, turned to a decaying lump of Camden's musical past. I may hate the Heritage Industrial Complex with a passion, but it's faced a far better fate than The Stables. The cavernous, echoey space especially suits bands of a shoegaze or dronerock persuasion. We're both of an age where we're relieved not disappointed to be seated upstairs in the balcony. And so we perch, high above the elaborate iron tracery of the stage, drinking pink wine as we cackle and gossip and rustle our fans with approval or disapproval. (Pink Wine? The Shimuras trademark. I haven't touched the stuff since the band broke up. Not bad memories, just memories too painful to stir. I don't even drink any more - well, no, my thing is that I do not drink in any circumstances that make me feel even remotely socially anxious. It's not until later that I realise how quickly and how completely Dickon has put me at ease enough to get drunk with him.)

The lights dim, the band appears. I'm slightly shocked that they are all so visibly old now. I suppose we all are. But music has a way of collapsing time. Because music is the single most potent path to memory. (Well, scientists claim it's actually scent, but my sense of smell is very poor.) When one listens to a piece of music repeatedly, letting it carve the groove of long use into your mind, it becomes a kind of emotional muscle memory. Automatic memory. (Procedural memory, I think is the scientific term.) I can never remember the names of JAMC songs (I can hear my friend Kaliflwr shouting "Blues From A Gun - that's the one you mean!" at me) but every note, every bubblegum-soft "ba ba ba", every spasm of white noise, every reverb-distressed drum hit... my muscle memory knows every second, anticipates every note, every beat. (I think I irritate Dickon by playing air drums with my fan. It is my way of touching the music.)

The trick in Psycho Candy is so simple, and yet so devastatingly perfectly executed. Those jaunty, poppy, groovy, melodies, so innocent, so girl-group, so AM Radio - almost completely subsumed under a blanket of noise, of filth, of thick, viscous self-loathing and religious guilt.  ("Why is it?" I hiss between songs, "That a man standing on stage, miserably howling 'I wanna die' makes me so, so happy?") We argue about whether it was Catholicism or Calvinism that fucked the Reid Brothers up. Dickon insists it has to be Catholicism; I'm not so sure. It's the extreme branch of Protestantism, so popular in the Scots culture my parents were raised in, that preaches Double Predestination - some people are born Saved, already chosen for heaven; others are born Damned, born bad, destined for hell from before their birth. To me, this is the place the JAMC are speaking from, with their trifecta of sex, drugs and Jesus Christ, all fixes that promise escape, tempt transcendence, but never quite achieve redemption. Whether one needs redemption from being damned, from being bored, from that deep level of loneliness that's something like hypothermia. Like being 'chilled to the bone', once one has experienced *that* kind of loneliness, one will never really be warm again, even in a crowd, even onstage, being loved and adored by an audience as devoted as the Roundhouse.

See, the loneliness the JAMC capture so acutely is not the loneliness of actual solitude. It's the loneliness of being trapped in a single room with someone you loathe, someone who will never understand you, with no escape, forever. "Hell is Other People" is a common theme in so many of their songs. It's not the sad, fey, winsome loneliness of indie and twee, it's a spikey, angry, sullen loneliness. The kind of loneliness that snarls and bites back. The kind of loneliness that grows on you like moss, like an accretion of awkwardness, that eats away like acid at anyone who dares to come close. I read a piece in Aeon Magazine a few years back, about the physical effects of long-term loneliness, how it warps and changes one both psychologically and physiologically (possibly as an evolutionary trait, because avoiding hostile strangers is a life-preserving precaution in hunter-gatherer societies). That kind of loneliness has an almost tangible, physical quality, the calcified, crystalised spikiness which consumes the blasted maze-wanderers in Barbarella - the exact sound of that howling, whining, spiky gale of feedback and fuzz gale in which the JAMC wrap their bittersweet little melodies.

When Dickon talks about "art for the lonely" as we head for the backstage bar to replenish our pink wine (the wrong bar, as it turns out - the left is the artists' bar; the right is the members' bar) I almost want to laugh at the irony. Dickon is such a social butterfly he can't get from one end of a tiny bar to the other without stopping to say hello to at least 5 people. I know there will have been people at the concert that I know - or at least knew - but I can't face them. I don't want to have to tell them where I've been the past 5 years, don't want to have to apologise for the wreck my body has become, explain the psychological upheavals - Disruption may be great for business plans, but terrible for personalities - and How I Became A Recluse and all that. Too boring for words.

The band play Psycho Candy in its entirety. It is too emotionally intense for words. There are too many memories tied up in this music to talk about it without mythologising it. It sounds just like the record, except it doesn't; it sounds spikier, rougher, more punk, less soft and fuzzy and indistinct. It sounds like memory. It sounds like being 15. I feel suddenly like Dickon was right and I am churlish to try to ringfence my own youth and deny today's 15 year olds the same expression, even through their parents' music. Hell, weren't the Velvet Underground and the Stooges my own parents' generation's music?

After the gig, I miss the last train because - and this is embarrassing - the queue for the ladies' loo is too long. Dickon and I have been dancing coyly around the subject of Gender all night (well, no, actually that is a lie. Within 30 seconds of meeting up, Dickon was doing the Lambada with the subject of Gender, asking with refreshing bluntness "Are you Trans?" and leaving me sputtering to express something it's taken me 40 years to puzzle out. (Is there a third option that is neither here, nor there, but somewhere inbetween? That is where I am.)) You can argue all night about whether gender is a feeling, or whether it's innate, how much is socially constructed, how much hormonal... And here we are. Dickon, the campest boy in London, with his hair dye and his mascara and his pearls, waltzes in and out of the pissoir, breezes off to find the Aftershow (it turns out of course there is one, though they've told the band there isn't, because the JAMC don't *do* Aftershows) runs downstairs and back, greets half of London, and still returns before I, a girl, suited and booted, with a necktie and a shorn head, have even got *inside* the door of the female loos. There are aspects of gender that are about that long use of experience, that come down not to how one *feels*, but how one is *treated*. And at that moment I'd stab my Scottish grandmother for a cock, and still never know the confidence of that default male expectation that there will ~always~ be adequate urinary provision for my needs, but there we are.

Relieved, we find the aftershow, and to my great relief, Dickon plumps for the protection of a booth. Maybe he's ashamed to be seen with me; I don't care. I'm still experiencing the strange dissociative jangle of having your first Proper Conversation with someone you have known for 15 years, yet never really spoken to at any length. Dickon has, I must admit, a real gift for conversation. He has that charisma, that charm, that art of constructing his own personality, painting a world of Self one *wants* to enter, wants to inhabit and walk around like an art gallery. But he is also gifted with that conversational ability to pull people out of themselves, and I find myself pulled, extracted like a mussel from a shell, engaged, debated, prodded, poked into sociability. It's been a long time since someone was simply *kind* to me, acted interested in what I had to say. For someone who is as lonely as I am, this is a powerful drug. I forget myself. We chat. We gossip. We rant and debate and Set The World To Rights. We drink until we're thrown out of the aftershow, and go on to sit on the canal like a pair of teenagers. Yes, I know this could look well dodgy, and in another lifetime, I might have taken terrible advantage - a canal, an Iron Bridge, a Smiths reference waiting to be made - but that's not what this is, is it? We're too old for that nonsense, the orientations are all misaligned, and somehow I'm more delighted by that flash of two minds aligning over a Foucault quip. (For once, the other person's, not mine! I swoon...)

Dickon, Dickon, Dickon, History. Of course I knew who Dickon was long before I ever interacted with him - hell, I knew who Dickon was before I was thrown out of the States and moved back to London, as did anyone who read the Melody Maker as fervently as I did. Not Celebrity so much as a form of Notoriety. Yet I know from personal experience how much of a double-edged sword being Known can be. This is the problem with Personality As Art, when you carefully construct and perform a highly mediated and perhaps exaggerated performance of Self, online or onstage or in the theatre of the music press or a Scene. It takes over your life. People feel they know everything about you and have already made up their minds about who and what you are (not what you represent - as art - but what they suppose you *are*, which is the problem) before they've even met you. People interact, not with you, but with some bizarre projection, and carry on entire conversations with some figment of their own imagination, about three feet over your left shoulder. It's more exaggerated, the smaller the stage, and the London Indie scene was always about as big as a bathtub, the exact size of an L-shaped room.

I listened to Dickon's second band, Fosca, a lot, in a similarly tiny L-shaped room in an attic in Tooting. This is where it gets painful, my lost years. I was living with - engaged to, if memory serves - being half of a London Indie super-couple with a man whose controlling behaviour was starting to turn seriously abusive. He was a compulsive liar I now call DJ Munchausen. He isolated me from my friends and support system, he pressured me into quitting my job so I'd be financially dependent on him, and moved me into his flat way too fast, less than 6 months after I'd met him. He clipped my wings and did his best to confine me to that tiny L-shaped attic flat. And in that flat, I used to listen to that first Fosca record, a lot, while I was washing the dishes, in that tiny kitchen that was my refuge because two people could not fit into it. That had become my life - domesticated by force, pregnant, washing dishes, taking delivery of fridges and that CD was always in the kitchen boom-box. I was rubbish enough at Being A Girl, and now I found myself trying, unsuccessfully, to be A Wife. An utter failure. I lost the baby. My drinking, always heavy, became insane. The abuse escalated, and of course it was my fault, for being so drunk all of the time. It was the only way I could cope.

That record played, reprovingly, in the kitchen, in the background of our kitchen sink drama, telling me of another life, the life I was supposed to be living, bon-mots dropped at parties and indie clubs, with fey boys and gamin girls like androgynous librarians. DJ Munchausen loved that sort of thing, worshipped at the altar of fey, hair-dyed, mascara-smeared, bisexual English camp. They were a band he courted, and was courted by, for his club. I swear, sometimes I thought he'd leave me for Dickon Edwards if he could. (It wouldn't be the first time. For a long time, I was the last stop in hetero for bisexual boys on the fast train to full-time gay. The first man I ever lived with left me for Quentin Crisp. (I did get a signed copy of the Naked Civil Servant out of it, mind you.)) I was torn. I loved the music, part New Order, part C86, with a heavy dash of Girl Group. I *hated* the band with an irrational passion born not just of sexual jealousy of my boyfriend's crush, but of envy. At the time, it all sounded so arch, so studied, this bon vivant, this stylish flaneur, this beautiful boy, singing about loneliness, social awkwardness and exclusion? Puh-LEASE. You've got a thousand friends. Give me a break. 

And 15 years later, here I am, changed my name, dropped completely out of the music scene, vanished from my own life - not even as so many of my friends did, into hetero breeding couples (I proved myself incapable of that, on all counts) - here I am, drinking pink wine on Camden Lock with Dickon Edwards. *That* Dickon Edwards. Who still looks exactly the same - if anything, he's aged into his beauty, that dramatic white hair, architectural cheekbones, craggy jaw - a face as hard and perfect as Cornish granite and weathering as beautifully. But his life has changed to be unrecognisable, he quit his band to go back to University, now has a degree in Anglo-Saxon literature and is launching into the life of a career academic, the cloister that always protected English men who could not perform the masculinity demanded by their class. So here are Dickon and I, sitting by the side of the canal, drinking pink wine and discussing Socialism.

Nostalgia is a powerful drug. So is pink wine. As he turns his head and the light off the canal catches his perfect profile, something twists in me. I'm staggered by his kindness. ("I invited you to this show, because you just seemed like you'd had a rough time of it lately...") His sheer gentleness. We get lost, Camden has changed so much, but I have this strange ability, especially when drunk, to see multiple timelines all happening at once, Camden as it is now, all developed into luxury flats, Camden as it was in the Britpop backwash dog-end of the 90s when I lived and gigged here, Camden as accretions of layers of London history and architecture. All of these different pasts colliding. All of my own pasts colliding. Teenage JAMC fan, failed woman/failed wife, hot mess in a band, just plain mess. It's been a brilliant night, a perfect night. It's been the kind of night so good it wipes away months of badness. The whole damn business with my job. Oh, and the whole stalker mess I've been trying not to talk about any more. (Dickon says he's never had a stalker. I find that hard to believe; he seems like the kind of person that would attract that kind of obsession.) But it's all been washed clean by that music, and the simple act of kindness that brought it to me. The warm, fuzzy glow of nostalgia. The throwback to a happier life. "You, The Night, and The Music" as the refrain goes in the film adaptation of I Capture The Castle. The night bus comes before I can even adequately thank him.

I spend the rest of the week listening to old Jesus and Mary Chain records, feeling a warm, fuzzy sense of joy that comes from being not just known but accepted, dark parts, rough bits and all, teenage me and adult me in agreement for once that we are *not* alone, because the Reid brothers understand our pain. I idly image-google Dickon because I want to draw him, just to thank him - I think it would tickle him to be drawn - and up pops the cover of that Fosca record. In a deliberate move of facing down my own past (it was a long time before I could listen to *any* of the music that soundtracked that relationship) I dial it up on Spotify and listen to it, expecting that dark, L-shaped flat and its kitchen sink to come oozing back. Except it doesn't; what I hear is a giddy rush of joy, spilling out in beautifully produced pop. No wonder I liked doing the dishes to this, all bubbly and effervescent! And how it changes a song, to know another side of the person that created it. What once sounded 'arch', now sounds defiant. What once sounded 'studied' now sounds like the careful and precise way in which he constructs his discourse. What I heard then was my own unhappiness; what I hear now is his cleverness, tempered with that painful sensitivity of difference. I want to reach back through time and pat both of us on the heads. Is this the faint whiff of a crush or just a heady case of mentionitis? Well... I feel like enough of a used-car salesman just trying to persuade people to be friends with me. So, no. Isn't it enough to just admire someone? But for once, not for their beauty, but for their kindness.

Monday, April 06, 2015

My Side Of The Story


I need to tell my side of the story. The other party had months of telling the story their way. I stayed silent, out of respect for whatever needs they had to heal. I stayed silent because I did not wish others to feel like they had to choose sides. Did that silence have a cost to me? Of course it did. I no longer care about any moral high ground. I care about getting this out of me, told in a place deliberately removed from that world of likes and reblogs and comments.

I became intimate with someone though social media. That intoxicating rush of closeness heightened by the projection-focusing lens of the internet. Against my better judgement, against what my IRL friends warned me, we tried to turn it into some kind of relationship.

That relationship lasted three weeks. It became clear very quickly that it was untenable. The way the other person was acting, especially with regards to my social media, kept reminding me uncomfortably of relationships I have been in that had turned abusive. I am not making judgements about my ex's behaviour in relation to that abuse; I am saying that that specific behaviour made me deeply uncomfortable, for deep emotional reasons.

I tried communicating with them about it; this didn't work. This person preferred to take their imagined or projected version of my motives - assembled through picking out selected bits of my social media - to my actual statements about what I was and wasn't feeling. Faced with this impasse in communications styles, I took the painful step of ending the relationship.

I removed myself from social media for a week to try to work through my own complex reactions and needs. When I came back, I made a brief attempt at 'friendship'. This, too, proved swiftly untenable. The behaviour which made me uncomfortable was not diminishing, it was escalating. Since the direct method hadn't worked, I am not proud to admit I tried indirect methods - I decided to "give them a taste of their own medicine" and use the methods they used on me, a blog post full of subtexts and passive aggressive references to their own social media and veiled requests that they knock it off, in the hopes that seeing someone treating them the way they were treating me would instil some sense of empathy or at least shame and get them to stop. Yes, you can only imagine how this backfired.

So I cut them off. I'm very keen on an advice column called Captain Awkward, who advocate that if "trying to be friends with your ex" turns into a reprise of all the negative parts of your relationship, it's best to initiate a no-contact zone, forcibly if needed. Block them or hide them on social media. Get on with your life. It sort-of worked. But the problem is that social media is by its nature a porous medium. When you share a fandom, and one blogger with 1000 followers is constantly providing a stream of "Why did you break up with me, wwhhhyyyyy?" pity-posts about a blogger with 200 followers, there is a kind of social pressure. (I don't know. Maybe "I got the vibe that you were someone who would shit-blog a vulnerable person with mental health issues for several months solid in front of our entire community" is not a valid reason to break up with someone? I kinda think it is.)

I concentrated on my own interests; I worked on my own deep psychological issues; I did my best to make other friends. Social stuff is hard for me. I'm a spiky, difficult person, who has been made paranoid thanks to experiencing genuine stalking (I'm not talking this dumb social media creeping; I'm talking people travelling long distances by car or plane to turn up on my doorstep, or at my work, sometimes involving personal danger and destruction of property) and relationship abuse that turns people's stomachs when I talk about it. Experiences like this make it even more terrifying to try to reach out to people, and make me roll in a ball even harder when people (innocently or not) make me uncomfortable.

I did a dumb thing. I slipped up; once. I don't even remember why; I normally keep this person blocked off my dashboard. I clicked through to their Tumblr. The first thing I saw was them making a bunch of posts about someone they childishly called "My Enemy". I thought little of it; they're forever having feuds with their family, their neighbours, people online. I read a little further, and there were more posts about this "Enemy". Stuff that made it clear they were talking about me. Stuff that made it clear that they were still, months later, going through my social media feeds and picking out little details about my life - down to aspects as personal as what haircut I wanted to get - and keeping a running commentary about it on their blog, in front of hundreds of people, many of whom were mutual followers and people I thought of as my friends. (People whose likes and reblogs had, funnily enough, tapered off.)

MY BLOOD RAN COLD. This wasn't discomfort, this was actual palpable, cold-sweat fear. That someone I dated for three weeks had unilaterally declared me their "Enemy", launched an apparent war against me, and was picking through the online equivalent of my rubbish for little things to shit-blog about me. I do not know what their intention was in posting this stuff. I only know the result: sheer terror.

That taught me not to succumb to curiosity or nostalgia. I haven't looked at their Tumblr in the weeks since. I became more ruthless about Tumblr Saviour. But the problem is, fear works more strongly with things you can't see (monsters under the bed or in the half-dark of the closet) than things you can. This stuff that makes for such gripping storytelling or is mildly amusing when we do it to celebrities, is actually terrifying when it is happening to you somewhere you can't see.  It colours all of your online interactions with bog standard web creepers - and lord knows I have enough of them. I have creepy dudes on web forums like ILX and WATMM who like to study my Twitter and Flickr for little titbits to carry back to threads, and part of the *joy* of it for them, is knowing that I can see them doing it, and can do nothing to stop them. (Hi, Darraghmac, if you're reading this! Yes, you're precisely what I mean when I talk about a "creeper". If you don't like me naming your behaviour, I'm sure you'll take it up on ILX. Repeatedly!) This is the gross, slimey downside to existing on the internet in a body marked as female.

It started to seep into my dreams, into my paranoid-delusional thoughtworms. My mental health suffered, sometimes badly. I'm not innocent; I've done similar things to celebrities, especially crushes. That obsessive scouring of the internet for any and all details, photos, tweets, updates to their website. The way it warps your sense of consent: "Well, they wouldn't have put this on the internet if they didn't want me see it." (But how does consent play out when someone has deliberately told specifically you "This is making me uncomfortable. The internet offers me no way of forcing you to stop, but I am now asking you - I would like you to stop.") This is the supreme irony - this person started pursuing me because I wrote fan fiction about a celebrity (fan fiction whose research involved me picking through that celebrity's online waste) that addressed all of these complicated issues of obsession turned ugly. (Writing into which I poured mine own issues about being controlled, stalked, abused by IRL people, to make the situations believable.) This is the terror of intimacy; making yourself vulnerable, handing strangers a manual stating "this is how to really, deeply hurt me".

So I found myself acting compulsively, bizarrely, with relation to another celebrity, in a weird mirror of mine own fears. At first, I didn't know why. It was just somewhere between OCD and that artistic muse which compels me to draw the same subject until I've exhausted and/or perfected it. But the more uncomfortable I've been feeling with mine own behaviour towards this celebrity, the more my dreams, my thoughtworms, my fears point me back towards this situation I've been describing. This has, actually, been traumatic. And one of the most awful parts was the feeling that I literally could *not* talk about it, because to talk about it would be to invite more of that awfulness down on my head. But yes, it has been traumatic and hurtful. Pain has been caused; damage has been done. Someone I once cared about; someone I *believed* cared about me, turned into all of my nightmares.

The worst part? I've been there myself. A decade or more ago, I'd gone through those catastrophic breakups where I couldn't let go and dragged all of my friends through hell going on and on about it. The only difference between that and this is that in those days, there was no social media to endlessly rub until the wound becomes a blister, then becomes a great, bleeding open sore. I know there are many people who will believe this is some kind of rough justice, some kind of karmic rebalancing, some kind of "a taste of your own medicine" for my own inexcusably bad behaviour with my own exes, when I was in my turbulent 20s and even my early 30s. Maybe it is. I don't want to demonise my ex. I think they are a damaged person who has been badly hurt, and is lashing out because of their own emotional history and issues. I do not wish to hurt them more than they have already been hurt, but I also cannot pretend that their behaviour has been without consequences for me.

This ends here. I have now told my side of the story. I made a mistake, in entering a relationship. I made mistake after compounded mistake during the breakup. That is all there is to tell, and I have told it. Now I must be at peace. But part of that peace is refusing to carry it on, and letting go of a celebrity projection which has become unhealthy indeed. The exorcism is now concluded.

Monday, March 23, 2015

I Am Not A Myth - One Person's Story of Depression, Creativity and the SSRI Trade-off


I've done something to my shoulder and I'm not supposed to be typing but there's something rattling around my head and I need to get it out.

A minor twitter spat. A friend I know fairly well, with whom I've talked about MH issues both online and in person, was talking about her experience with SSRIs, and said that contrary to her expectations, they had not deleteriously affected her creativity. Normally, I would have been content to say "I'm glad that's working out for you" but she RT'd something from another of her followers which basically said "it's a myth that SSRIs affect people's creativity." Wow. Red Flag to a bull. Needless to say, the resulting argument with the third party didn't go well, and I excused myself from the conversation with my friend, and used the block button on the third party when they would not stop.

For a start, not all brains are the same. Not all "Depression"s are the same. I strongly believe - though I am not a medical doctor and I have no proof, I've just lost a lot of my life to it, and have spoken to a lot of people who also suffer - that "Depression" is not, in itself, the disease. I speak of "Depression" like I speak of "Fever" - yes, it's a real and debilitating thing, but it is the symptom of a multitude of underlying causes, with a myriad of treatments which may or may not be effective for fevers with differing causes. If the fever is the result of an infection, antibiotics may be necessary and life-saving; if it's the result of sunstroke, they will be useless. Similarly, anti-depressants may be hugely effective in treatment of depressions with origins in biochemistry, but useless in depressions with environmental causes. Everything does not work for everyone.

This person kept insisting that it's "A Myth" that SSRIs affect creativity. A "dangerous myth" that may prevent people from seeking life-saving medication. Where. Do. I. Start. I mean, I start 1) talking about What Depression Is and 2) talking about What Creativity Is. You can't go making blanket statements like that until you've defined what you mean by those terms. For my money, denying or suppressing information about real side effects that some people experience is also an incredibly dangerous and irresponsible thing to be doing. It is not "A Myth" - it is my direct personal experience. SSRIs deleteriously affected my creativity.

You know what else deleteriously affected my creativity? DEPRESSION. I'm not talking about Melancholy, I'm not talking about Hiraeth or beautiful sadness or grieving or those other states and moods that can help or even spur creativity. I'm talking about the black hole can't-get-out-of-bed cold grey fog that kills all emotion, including creativity, stone dead. Effective, appropriate medication administered under the control of a psychiatric professional, or depression? No contest. You cannot create if you are not even alive.

However, I also have to say that it was my personal experience, with long-term (several years') use of SSRIs that they did affect my creativity. This was a side effect, for me. I usually go through about 2 sketchbooks a year; this is my normal rate of creativity. I have one sketchbook for the entire 4 year period I was on SSRIs. I tend to write at least one novel or fan fiction epic a year. I started a few but did not finish one during the meds years; I completed my first NaNoWriMo the year I came off them. I'm not going to hide that or handwave it away because it might potentially "scare someone off getting treatment." But what I am going to do is explain *how* it affected me and why, because like all depressions are not the same, not all Creativities are the same.

1) SSRIs affect your sexual response. This is so well established that I remember it being in the literature in my meds packages. My libido dribbled away to nothing. I stopped dating because without sexual attraction there was no point. At that point, I lived in a shared house with no lock on my bedroom door. The other day I was trying to remember how I ever masturbated - let alone how I had sex - in that house. The shocking answer was, for nearly 2 years, I just didn't. It was like living with a barbie-crotch. Dead downstairs. I got to the point where I started hanging out on Asexual communities, asking "is this my future now?"

This is one of the ways in which my creativity works: my libido is like an engine that fires the whole thing. Sometimes literally (hmm, I'm not even going to pretend like I haven't spent the past few weeks drawing 17 sketches of a certain person currently fuelling my erotic imagination) sometimes more as a kind of petrol which fuels other interests - architecture, music, botany - from which I get an almost erotic creative charge. No libido, no erotic charge, and the drive in that creative engine of mine just withers away.

2) SSRIs can be effective at controlling OCD thought patterns and behaviour. No shit, Sherlock! That's how they're advertised on the tin. When I say "I'm a little bit OCD" I do not mean that I like all my pencils to face the same way. I mean "Right now, I'm not actually as bad as that year I spent washing my hands so often - sometimes multiple times every hour - that all my skin crinkled up like the cracked floor of of a dried out lake and bled if I touched it." I started drawing in high school - strange, ornate, writhing patterns - as a way of diminishing anxiety and making the bad thoughtworms go away. Ditto writing - a way of transforming the anxious thoughtworms of Bad Things That Might Happen into little stories with endings worked out and little bows of logic tied on all the loose ends of the plots.

Creating, for me, is a kind of compulsion. It started out as a way of allaying fears and anxieties, and ended up as a kind of itch I had to scratch. OCD means that I got good at things I did over and over and over. Play the same riff on the guitar for 4 hours straight, you will eventually master it. Compulsively draw the same pop star 17 times in a row, you'll get good at portraits. All of my drawings, all of my stories, all of my songs, came from those strange little mental loops that would not leave me alone. Sometimes it's stupid! (17 paintings of Carlos Dengler! Why!) Sometimes it's profound. (Why would I have to chase down every last remnant of a wood that disappeared 200 years ago? I don't know, but an online nature magazine published the results of that weird compulsion.) I know it sounds nuts! But that's how it works for me. (And I was delighted to read an interview with a long-time hero, Bill Drummond, describing his own art in exactly the same way. Compulsions.)

This is the double-edged sword. Any medication that is effective enough to stop the thoughtworms and control the OCD also kills that strange urge to do a thing over and over which results in doing art enough times to make it good. No more OCD looping, no more drawing something over and over until it's perfect; no more playing a riff until I've got it; no more having to finish writing the story because I need to know how it ends. Take away the petrol of libido and the engine doesn't run. Take away the looping brain, and the engine turns over, but ignition does not catch.

This is, of course, only one side of the story. During the SSRI years, I finally got and held down a stable, full-time, permanent job. Having stable employment meant I  could buy a home of my own, and got out of the endless flatmate roulette. These environmental factors vastly diminished stress - the diminishing of stress ameliorated my mental health. But it was a trade-off. The benefits outweighed the side effects at that point. But it does not erase the fact that I experienced those side effects.

This is my story! This does not have to be your story. Everybody's brain is different. Different people's depressions are caused by and cured by different things. Different people's creativity works in different ways, and manifests itself in different ways. (Sorry I didn't do this in the form of a cute comic! That's not how my depression manifested itself either.) If your creativity is fuelled by a different source than this weird combination of OCD and lust, SSRIs may do nothing at all to it! If you are in a point where you are so depressed you cannot even create (where I had got to when I went on SSRIs) you have nothing to lose by taking medication which may turn out to be life-saving! But do not PRESUME to tell me that my experiences are "A Myth" because they do not conform to your experiences. That is the most dangerous bullshit of all.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Twitter, OCD and "Subtweeting"


It's true; I subtweet everything.

There are varying degrees of subtweeting, from "wow, this post office queue is really annoying and the guy at the front is a total douche" to "god my upstairs neighbour is so loud!" to "argh, this person on an internet messageboard is really fucking doing my wick in."

I've been called out for subtweeting many, many times, with endless clusterfucks of defences and accusations, but I am not going to stop. For me, it comes down to this: you have the option to block me. You have the option not to look, and not to engage. To my mind, it is fucking *weird* to watch and read the twitter of someone you don't even like, just to check that they are not talking about ~someone who might be you~.

But why do I do it and why I will not stop just to make you happy, is another question entirely.

I suffer, really badly, from OCD. I mean, interfered with the ability to perform my job, impacted my life in a debilitating way, spent a year washing my hands so frequently (like, hundreds of times a day frequently) that I had no skin left on the back of them, they were just raw and chapped and red. And that's just the C part; the O part is much, much worse.

There's another aspect to OCD which is sometimes more debilitating than the repetitive-action thing, and that's what I call the "Thoughtworms." Thoughtworms are ideas which enter your mind as if they are a thought, so you think them, but they are not a thought, they are repeating loop-things which enter your mind, and spiral round and round until they take over all space available for conscious thought. They can escalate until the original impulse is so distorted as to be unrecognisable, and becomes confused or even frightening.

I had the pleasure of talking to a trainee neuroscientist about what causes these "thoughtworms" - current medical theory is that the brain is trying to complete a task, and file that thought away as "complete". If the brain is unable to complete the task, and mark it complete, the brain cycles back to the beginning of the routine and tries to start the process again. And again. If it is unable to tick something as complete, it whirrs round and round.

An example, exaggerated to highlight the absurdity of the way these things work, would be: "This post office queue is really long and the guy at the front is really annoying" becomes "OMG post offices are always full of assholes and weirdoes and long lines are so intolerable, I don't want to go there ever again" becomes "OMG, even the thought of the post office produces stress and anxiety and holy fucking shit, my heartrate just quickened, is this a panic attack, oh god let this not be a panic attack..." etc.

What does any of this have to do with subtweeting?

These thoughts enter the brain with stimuli - my neighbour is being really loud; that guy on that messageboard is irritating me; post office queues are annoying. Twitter becomes the place where I can just stow that thought, write it down, externalise it, and my brain has now done something which allows it to mark that task as "complete" and move on. That simple action marks the box "done", and my brain stops whirring and moves on to the next thing.

In effect, that act of typing and posting "Wow my neighbour is really loud tonight" completes the loop and stops the thought from spiralling into "my neighbour is deliberately doing it to be annoying" into "there's a noise in my yard, shit my neighbour is going to murder me in my sleep". I often have a marked increase in tweets just before I go to bed: because lying in bed waiting for sleep is one of those times that I am tortured by this kind of OCD. (The only place that is worse for me is the shower. This is why I sometimes don't bathe for days at a time when I'm having a Bad Mental Health Time.)

Sometimes tweeting "argh a person on the internet said this annoying thing" is the difference between getting a normal night's sleep, coming back refreshed and ready to have a normal conversation about books or music or even UK politics - and an all-night frenzied clusterfuck of spiralling steadily into more and more extreme arguments. I don't enjoy the latter. If doing the former is what enables me to avoid the latter (and maybe even actually enjoy the experience of messageboards and possibly even post offices again) I am not going to give it up. Not for anyone. My tweets, even the subtweets, are not about you. They are about stopping a process in mine own head.

You have the choice not to read my twitter. You *really* have the choice to read my twitter and not interpret every single tweet (which might be about you, or might be about my upstairs neighbour or the dude in the post office or some random on another messageboard you don't even read) as being Specifically All About You.

It is also true that freedom of speech gives you the *right* to carp and complain and follow me from thread to thread sniping at my heels and making digs about "twitter" and mocking "safe spaces" because you know that is something which is almost guaranteed to get a reaction out of me. But if you do engage in these behaviours then, I am going to draw the conclusion that *this* is ALL. ABOUT. YOU, and is actually nothing to do with me at all.

(And with writing this blog post, I am now ticking the box as "complete" and now I am going to attempt to go to the Post Office. Wish me luck.)