Letter for the new year

Dear all,

Let me start this post, and this new year, by apologising for not writing anything in December. I have been rather busy, thoughtful and confused. Today, I shall honour my original quest to share reflections starting from my own experience and to record my progress in this year in which I have ‘taken time off’ to look after myself.

I started this adventure by testing out a life of routine: work, family, yoga, therapy, reading, writing, no travelling, no household and financial responsibilities, not much going out. In fact, not much of anything that could hinder the quiet balance of my (I now realise) overly-structured daily pattern. In doing so, I succeeded in not losing myself in the depths of deep depression or mania.

However, three months into this new lifestyle, I started getting irritable. Familiar faces started to annoy me terribly and my disgust in humanity increased: the old woman who shooed the dog, the people who wouldn’t let me pass on the zebra crossing, the people walking about aimlessly in shopping centres, getting in my way and stamping on my feet, the people who complained about bombings in Paris, and did nothing in their lives to make the world a better place, those who moaned about a corrupt government and were masters of fiscal evasion. Badly dressed people, people speaking loudly, people saying stupid things, people frowning… everything was painful to my eyes and ears.

And then I started getting anxious: why was I so irritable? I needed to control myself, not seem strange at work or at home. They’d start to think I was manic! My hands started shaking and my insides bubbling, when I was alone with myself I didn’t feel very well. Towards the end of November a woman sped through a red light and very nearly crashed into me and my friend. A series of ‘what if’s’ instilled themselves into my mind. What if my friend hadn’t been so quick on the brakes? What if we’d been a couple of inches further down the road? What if my friend had died and I’d been left with the guilt of having asked her to drive my car cause I was tired?

And finally the fear crept in: I spent ages in my car, how many times had I evaded death? I started seeing ambulances on the road, every day for a week. Cars speeding in the rain, water on my wind shield. I started flashing images of myself dead and bloody, a road kill. My hand clutched the steering wheel and my ears pounded. Nightmares started haunting my sleep: I killed my loved ones cause I didn’t drive carefully, I lost complete control, became insane.

What was happening?

The structured balance which had worked so well in keeping the craziness out was somehow giving in. I wasn’t, of course, spiralling out of control or losing touch with reality: my anxiety seemed to be limited to car journeys and I could control my irritation. Most importantly I was aware that something was going wrong. I talked to my therapist about it, who suggested it may have to do with the fact that I had been ‘living the life of a cloistered nun’, as she put it.

That woke me up. I realised all at once, that the routine I had mistaken for balance, was far from it. I had gone from being all over the place, full of ups, downs, interests, enthusiasms and responsibilities, to a life deprived of anything that could trigger an emotional response of sorts. I wasn’t learning how to deal, and live, with bipolar disorder: I was avoiding it. Of course I felt balanced: my mum made me coffee in the morning, I had no responsibilities other than work and I avoided nights out, alcohol, drugs, people, situations were I could spend money, PEOPLE. I wasn’t crazy and spiralling out of control, but I also wasn’t ME.

Maria Popova, author at brainpickings.org writes: ‘the structure of routine comforts us, and the specialness of ritual vitalises us. A full life calls for both — too much control, and we become mummified; too little excitement and pleasurable discombobulation, and we become numb. After all, to be overly discombobulated is to be dead inside — to doom oneself to a life devoid of the glorious and ennobling messiness of the human experience.’

So I decided to test myself: I brought a plane ticket to visit old friends and started going out more often. I spent time with people, old friends and new ones, had a few drinks, listened to some great music and had a good time. But most of all I felt like myself again. And sure, I may still be a bit overenthusiastic when doing things (stuff like being overly affectionate towards everyone or spending 38 quid on scientific magazines while waiting for my train, oops) but I’m not bat-shit crazy and I feel real again.

And this is what I need to learn how to be, one step at a time. I realise now that what I have to do, what I need to do, is a lot harder than I had anticipated. Avoidance is boring but fairly easy, self-control and patience are a whole different matter.

So here’s to a year in which my top priority is learning to live with myself: a year of patience but not avoidance, of adventure and spontaneity, but not recklessness and carelessness. Here’s to savouring the things and people that make me happy, and not skimming past them in a frenzy for more.

Keep an eye out in the coming week for a more technical account of self-control and willpower and what it really means to implement them in real life.

Happy New Year to all,

Alisha:-)

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Post # 8 Dissertation Blues, Psychosis and Capitalism

‘The university system, I realised in that moment, is nothing more than a capitalist panopticon, aimed at discreetly making me, and everyone else, fit smoothly into this sickly world order. (…) As a place of intellectual stimulation, it is a complete failure.’

In this post I shall recount a recent psychotic experience, which has led me to a profound revaluation of how I interact and react to the world around me.


I was recently unpleasantly surprised upon receiving a negative grade on a dissertation project in ‘Philosophy of Medicine’, which focused on the diagnostic difficulties presented by paraphilic disorders and their definition in the DSM-5. If interested you can find my essay here. 

This piece of work encompassed much of my personal reflections on mental health in general, and writing it helped me out significantly in a period of great personal distress. For this reason, the bad grade represented a very personal and intimate defeat. Upon setting my eyes on the unexpected unpropitious mark, the ‘unquiet presence’ in my head, who so often criticises everyone around me, turned her disgust on me. She accused me of being useless and incompetent, worthy only of a miserable pass mark. I tried, effortlessly to push her away and regain my grasp on reality, but all it did was make my head hurt like hell, shoving me into a state of confusion and detachment which was all to familiar.

I distractedly let my friend lead me onto the woodland path that surrounds my university. My eyes went fuzzy and the leaves on the floor below me began to move and shimmer like worms. Taking further steps filled me with such dread and discomfort I couldn’t bear it, as well as the now in-comprehensive shouting in my aching head. I pushed my way through the prickly bushes and onto the main road, where the yelling abruptly stopped. I was left vacant and annoyed, at myself and the world for being such an unfamiliar and mechanical place.


In my anger, I suddenly realised that I had just had a practical lesson on the foucauldian notion of power I had been struggling with that same morning. Foucault describes a new, modern for of power, that organises society hierarchically through the means of knowledge mechanisms (determined by the discourse of a particular time – in this case the capitalist values of competition and production) which, in a world of complete transparency and observation, rank and punish individuals through praise and blame. We think in a way that makes us view certain things as normal and right and others as abnormal. About other ‘insignificant’ and unimportant things, we often do not even think.

This university system, I realised in that moment, is nothing more than a capitalist panopticon, aimed at discreetly making me, and everyone else, fit smoothly into this sickly world order. It is becoming with increasing invasiveness, an instrument for transforming individuals into pieces of paper and productive drones, in a world so ingrained in competition that there is no longer space for the creative and imaginative human spirit.


‘We are so scared of making wrong decisions, which ‘can affect our entire lives’, of momentarily stopping and deviating from these ‘essential’ activities, that our fear of being ‘left behind’ gives us no time to reflect on our feelings and wishes.’


As a place of intellectual stimulation, it is a complete failure. The majority of the students and academics I have met in my three years of undergraduate study, hardly seem to love and appreciate what they do. It may indeed be a subject of great personal interest that which they are studying, but the pressures that are impressed upon them prevent it from manifesting itself as such.

We are so actively and entirely engaged in the need to prove ourselves valid and worthy (ironically through tiny little numbers on a transcript, which seem to be our only key to self-determination) that even the things we love become an incommensurable weight. We are so scared of making wrong decisions, which ‘can affect our entire lives’, of momentarily stopping and deviating from these ‘essential’ activities, that our fear of being ‘left behind’ gives us no time to reflect on our feelings and wishes.


‘Unlike computers, people are constituted largely by determined knowledge, education, abilities and conserved memory, but also by the creative and emotional ways through which we store this information.’


I came to two life-changing realisations that day:

1. That I myself, with all my convictions and claims of independence, am entirely enslaved by this system. I am so ensnared, that a silly bad grade, given to me by someone who means nothing to me, sent me over the brink of insanity.

2. What I also realised, (being the Economics profit-weighing student that I am) is that in determining and constructing us so thoroughly and mechanically, society is not really creating a more productive world.

The reason for this is really quite straight-forward: people are not machines. Unlike computers, people are constituted largely by determined knowledge, education, abilities and conserved memory, but also by the creative and emotional ways through which we store this information. What I radically believe to be the main failure of capitalism, is that in creating its machine-like masses, it has under-estimated the full value of the raw material on which it operates. The emotive and creative spirit of man, is not as coercible and influenceable as would be required for a similar system to be effective in the long run. It is sufficient to look at widespread human behaviour to see how it constantly squirts out of the facade of perfection of our world. Alcohol and drug abuse are widely diffused (especially in nations that enforce prohibitionism); statistics on mental disorders are disturbing and, especially in the younger population which is subject to intense performance pressure, individuals struggle with depression and anxiety which decrease performance.

When people reach their limit, they explode. When the pressure of society takes too much of a toll on people’s personality, they lose their minds, commit suicide, become insane or turn into mass-murdering psychopaths. Even when they don’t reach their limit, their performance is still not as productive as it potentially could be. Their abilities are stumped by alcohol and drug abuse, demotivation, anxiety and other personality weakening conditions. Furthermore people attempt to deviate and fool the system, by cheating and hiding their activities from regulative enforcements and laws.

We express our malaise and anguish, using our constructed statuses of superiority over others, treating people who think differently from us with viciousness, contempt, bullying them to feel better about ourselves and failing because human emotions are not a zero-sum game.

Perhaps, precisely how this teacher acted in my case.

Post # 3 On Patience – The Arrogant Pilot

‘I used to think I was clever, those days and weeks when the world rolled under me.’


Patience. I used to think of it as something an honest and creative person can hardly commit to. There are so, so, so many things to do and see and eat and learn, that there literally is not enough time to even think them all, let alone plan them. If you’ve never experienced the watery mouth of a pre-meal Christmas morning, the anxious quivers before an impossible exam, or the eager anticipation before a holiday, date, album release, season, election day, new movie sequel, or silly soap opera new season, you’re either boring, bored or alien. In the first of these cases, I suggest you stop right here – I hardly would expect you to make any sense of this gibberish distortion and you’re probably too down to earth to even try. As for the other two: I don’t flatter myself enough to believe I can wake you from your torpor, or give you an accurate perspective of how complex and weird it is to be so very human. I suggest you humour me in my thoughts.

If, on the other hand, you are human and curious, I believe I can safely say that you must be, to some extent, impatient. If you really fancy something, you’d quite rather have it (or have it happen) now, rather the in a couple of decades. Sure, you might qualm your desires with anecdotes such as ‘it’s worth the wait’ or ‘good things take time’, but let’s be fair to ourselves: if they could put their hands on their object of desire then and there, I sincerely doubt any semi-sane individual would respond with ‘maybe later’.


‘You could be an excellent pilot, but if you don’t take any flight lessons to keep up with your potential, all you’re gonna see is the big ass tree at the end of the runway, before you smash your nose right into it.’


I used to think I was clever, those days and weeks when the world rolled under me. When I was so full of ideas and thoughts and plans that I could do anything and be anything. When my heart raced constantly at the prospect of encountering a new interest, a new person, a new place. When my thoughts were speed of light fast and no-one could keep up. I could learn French, watch three movies, listen to the entirety of Beethoven’s Symphonies, serve drinks in my college bar, go for a walk, climb a tree, eat three meals, go to lectures, talk to people, have a late night chat with someone till the wee hours of the morning and feel the despair of how twenty four hours are such a tiny amount of time to call a day and that sleep is the stupidest human weakness in the world. I could do so, so many things, work and live at a pace that could keep up with a taking off Jumbo, and I was obviously impatient to do them all.

The problem was, I never took off. It was as if I’d stolen someones worn out Champ and tried to keep up with that Boeing 747. You could be an excellent pilot, but if you don’t take any flight lessons to keep up with your potential, all you’re gonna see is the big ass tree at the end of the runway, before you smash your nose right into it. If you don’t train your actions to keep up with your thoughts, you crash. And I’ve crashed. Many a times I crashed, and hard, before I realised that maybe I ought to try something else before getting on the plane again, before I broke my neck and it became to late. Before I was stuck on crutches, or lithium, for the rest of my life.


‘Those thoughts that others couldn’t keep up with? Well, it turns out I couldn’t keep up with them myself.’


I remember what it feels like, that moment of elation when the wheels just barely leave the floor. When beauty fills your hearth with its joyful melody and you feel infinite, like a supernova that’s about to burst into a million shards of light and happiness, and you’re so afraid to lose it all. Sometimes it even last for a few blissful moments or weeks. And then it’s gone. Gone without explosions or spectacular combustion. And you are numb, empty and plain, and you don’t know what happened or how it happened. You’re just there, victim of a crash, incapable of looking after yourself. And it takes time to heal, just like it takes the arrogant pilot time to fix his broken leg and smashed up plane.

Those thoughts that others couldn’t keep up with? Well, it turns out I couldn’t keep up with them myself. They were so fast and confusing that they’d meddled with my brain, with my ability to reason and learn. They were so constant, annoying and invasive that they consumed me and my time, and never left me alone to feel. In all these years, I never once stopped to listen to myself and feel. How can anyone expect to survive a breathtaking sunset from a beach in Ilha Grande, without having learned how to understand and listen to ones emotions? I’m not saying I was a completely emotionless and dead. You can appreciate the aesthetics of a piece of art and even be fascinated by it, without it actually speaking to you. That is precisely how I see my life before I became aware. I lived aesthetically and over enthusiastically, jumping from one idea and affection to the next, and never allowing myself to stop and absorb the intensity of it all.