Sunday, 8 November 2015

Who am I and why am I here?

Ah, the good old existential crisis rears its head. Suddenly the world does not make sense. The beliefs that you build your world upon are shattered and you find yourself questioning everything. This can creep up on you slowly or smack you in the face.

This can happen for many different reasons. Death touches your life, the betrayal of someone close, being let down by someone you trusted and valued, the moment where you wake up in the middle of the night and realise you cannot breathe because you are only existing and not living. It can happen because of a lie or a truth you uncover, it can be other people’s unfathomable behaviour, it can be a traumatic event or an everyday pattern.

Something bewilders us, confuses us, dumbfounds us and suddenly, the world does not make sense. The very core of our being stumbles upon a shifting surface as we flail desperately for something solid to cling to.

“Every person must choose how much truth he can stand.” Irvin D Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept

What do we do with this? The human mind and its meaning-making instinct will do a number of things with this. We can develop a seemingly robust system of cognitive dissonance where we find a deep dark chasm of our minds to launch those messy things which do not fit with what we believe and we carry on our lives as though they never existed. This tends to have the effect of ill-fitting underwear. It is slightly uncomfortable, but bearable. Over time, the chaffing can become more than an irritation or an inconvenient thought, it can become unbearable. The box we put things in begins to spill over.

We might also just develop a new set of beliefs. Ah, this is how to make sense of the world. It’s because of…if everyone would just do this…then the world would work better. And as a shortcut, we might just use the clich├ęs and banal little greeting card sayings that get plastered up on facebook or so easily drool out the mouths of the masses. After all, that’s much easier than thinking for yourself, isn’t it?

“One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”   Victor Frankl, Man’s search for Meaning.

It could be said that this place of uncertainty, not-knowing the answers, of not being able to come up with logical rational explanation for what is going on, is the most uncomfortable place a human being finds themselves. I think this is true. I also think that this is magical place of opportunity where pain and grief and hurt and anger and disbelief can be transformed into something else.

But transformation is not some nice neat comfortable process. Because sometimes things cannot co-exist. Sometimes one thing has to die for another to live. This is also true of ideas, thoughts and beliefs. When you are writing, you must choose one word over another, you have to let some go. And you always, no exceptions, begin with a stark white blank page. Somehow that gets transformed into something else.

As we, moment-by-moment, write the story of our lives, there will always be blank pages, words which have to discarded, characters who are painfully sliced away. The end product is beautiful, unique, sometimes bizarre, sometimes tragic and painful, sometimes hilarious and often, so very often, sometimes does not make sense – until the final word.

Dr Murphy - signing off

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Standing together

To mark suicide prevention day, I would like to pay tribute to the numerous individuals I have met who have dedicated their lives and their work to helping to save lives. These are also people who have touched my life in ways they will never know. They are part of my story, as are the people I have lost to suicide, and the people I have spoken to who have not been lost to suicide. 

To stand alongside someone at the edge of their abyss and help them to avert their gaze for long enough to look at the light, is both an honour and a challenge.

Anyone who has loved and cared for or worked alongside a person who tried to end their life also experiences pain, suffering and trauma. There is no relief in suicide – for anyone. This echo of pain that is left behind can often be used in an unhelpful way to guilt-trip people out of suicide. This just makes the person feel like more of a burden and gives them even more reason to not want to be here anymore.

"But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily
effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful."    Elizabeth Edwards

This seems to be a common thread for the way we interact with people in general – with threats and fear and guilt and shame. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to let each other know what we value, what we treasure, appreciate, admire in the other? So much of our lives, especially in our work, we do not feel valued and our contribution is not acknowledged. 

Those in society who do not have a traditional job are not valued for the silent, unpaid contributions that they make to society – as carers, home-makers, neighbours and generally the people who are around to help others because they are not hidden away in an office all day. In fact, why isn’t the government training all unemployed people in suicide awareness and intervention skills? Something that would show their contribution as a human being is valued.

Today, like every other day in Scotland, two people will end their own lives. This will have a ripple effect on their family, their friends, their neighbours, their colleagues and anyone who tried to help them. We need to stand alongside each other, look out for each other and value each other’s lives. Let's have hope. Because, one day, it might be us struggling to stay alive.

Dr Murphy - signing off

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The ties that bind

Many words have been written about attachment – theories related to personality, relationships, patterns of employment and even hoarding. Some of the most famous psychology experiments have used children to help us understand our attachment styles. And unsurprisingly some researchers have linked attachment style to suicide.

So what exactly do we mean by attachment? It is more than connection, which can change from moment to moment, but a connection that is time-bound – to the present, past and future. We remain attached to people, things, ideologies and places because of the memories they hold, or the future hopes they nurture.

The Future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is."  C.S. Lewis

Our whole identities can become intertwined with the things we become attached to. We can also become attached to the idea of past or the idea of future. In Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s book The Time Paradox, they play with some interesting theories about mental health, behaviour and human beings’ relationship with time. It is a fascinating exploration of how our attitude towards time affects so much of what we do.

Being away from home recently, at times I became acutely aware of my attachments – a mug I always drink out of, a pair of shoes I forgot to pack, the river that runs through my town, the people that I love. We all have to spend time being away from the things and people we are attached to and generally our attachments are secure enough to sustain some coming and going. However, we can clearly see that when a person’s mental health becomes fragile, attachment behaviour can become extreme.

People can become obsessive about not leaving the house without some object or talisman – not just because they would miss it, but because they come to develop a belief that something terrible will happen to them if they don’t have it. Those with borderline personality disorder traits can often become this way about their relationships, needing constant contact with a loved one, without which they suffer unbearable feelings of abandonment. A person experiencing high levels of anxiety might always need to know their loved ones are safe and can become attached to certain rituals which make them feel safe.

For someone considering suicide, attachments add weight to the push and pull between life and death. Excruciating loss of attachment can make life meaningless and the anticipation of loss can feel like so much of a threat that death offers peace from this constant torture. Taking this to its extreme, loss of attachment to your own life, your meaning, your purpose and your future can all lead to thoughts of suicide.

Our need to belong – to something or someone is instinctive. Some philosophies maintain that our lives would be more peaceful if we were less attached. I agree with that on some level because loss is painful and disruptive. But these attachments, the love of anything or anyone is what keeps us connected to life, to our own lives. Loss only hurts because we love the thing we lost.

“The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”      Ernest Hemmingway

A life without any attachment can become a life without love. I’d rather take the risk. I’d rather love a favourite mug, even though one day it might break. I’d rather love the people I care about, even though I have no control over when they might be taken away from me.

Part of our work, is about helping people to become attached to their own lives again. It matters. It matters how we spend our time because none of us have an infinite supply.

Dr Murphy - signing off. Oh and if you are interested in The Time Paradox you can check it out here