Thoughts

Maybe I need interaction after all?

This is weird. This… Everything. Nothing is normal now. I thought I was doing OK with that but now I’m not so sure.

Last week I beat the lockdown by a day and started self-isolating with my family after I developed a persistent cough. By the middle of the week I was shivery (though had no fever) and felt quite ill, then a few days later I needed two or three naps just to get through the day due to fatigue. Was it COVID-19? Who knows? I might never find out.

I started feeling a little better over the weekend and even had enough energy to record a bit of mandolin for my own contribution to the #COVIDCeilidh hashtag on Twitter:

I told myself I’d try and pick up music and writing again to help me get through this and so far I’ve been pretty good at finding time here and there to pick up my mandolin or a guitar. I’ve loved getting to know pieces of music again that I’ve not played for years and even started working on a few new tunes. But to be honest it’s a thumb in the dyke of my anxiety just now.

The biggest problem I have is working from home. I thought I would really enjoy it, getting to look into my garden all day and watch the birds (and that has been great), go for a run around Stonehaven at lunchtimes, get to see more of the kids. The surprise to me though, as someone who is very much an introvert, is how much I miss the office environment. There’s a constant level of interaction which I find completely lacking now and no amount of Skype texts is making up for it.

For two days now I’ve been sat on my own in our spare room listening to my kids playing and arguing elsewhere in the house while I pick up tickets from my team’s queue, email users and fix problems. All without actually speaking to anyone. Suddenly I feel really distant and it’s hitting my anxiety hard.

Hopefully it passes. This is all new for everyone and I think it will take time for us to adapt. I have an online games session arranged with some friends over the weekend which might help. Plus, now I’m over my illness I should be able to get out running again and that should calm my mind down a lot as well. Failing that I’ll try more music or maybe I’ll start talking to the birds in the garden as though they’re my office colleagues.

Thoughts

Strange and Scary Times

It’s been a year since I posted anything on this blog. It’s probably been more than a year since I finished a piece of creative writing. I started studying with the Open University for a degree in Environmental Science last year and between that, work and my family responsibilities I haven’t had much time for being creative.

But I have really missed that outlet over the last few weeks. I sat watching the COVID-19 pandemic spiral out of control, encompassing Asia, then Italy and now most of the world. At first I felt OK. My thinking was we just have to follow the advice and the rest is out of our hands (personally speaking at least). I was able to detach myself from it and it didn’t affect me.

That’s not the case now.

My day job is in IT and as the department started to move from our normal day to day work towards enabling the business to work remotely in its entirety, a familiar old feeling started to return. I suffered from general anxiety disorder for a prolonged period some years ago but had felt like I was getting a lot of my old confidence back in the last 6-12 months. Then this week, as I was packing up my stuff to take home so I could work from my spare room for the foreseeable future, as I contemplated that my kids wouldn’t be going to nursery for the next few months and my eldest might miss the start of her primary school journey after the summer, as businesses both local and national suffered the sudden loss of most of their custom, I started feeling scared again.

Now to be honest it’s an understandable response and I imagine lots of us are scared at the moment. I’m hopeful that this isn’t a full blown return of my anxiety problems and just a natural reaction to an unprecedented situation, but only time will tell.

But it has highlighted to me that I spent too much time doing things which are unhelpful for my mental health. I can keep informed on the pandemic without constantly monitoring the BBC and Guardian’s live updates pages. I don’t need to sit on twitter all night watching everyone react in horror at the raving inadequacies of our government and Prime Minister. I can do something else instead.

I still need to spend a large chunk of my free time studying, though my current module will finish soon and I’ll be free for the summer. But I don’t have to fill the rest of my time battering my mental health when I’ve got enough on my plate with work, the kids and my degree. So I’m going to try and start switching off the laptop and getting back into some writing and playing music.

Hopefully I can get back into the mindset to write some poetry again, but to start with I think I’ll start keeping this blog updated some more and dig out my to do list of songs and tunes that I was working on before other commitments took hold. If I feel like sharing I’ll post some of it on here.

In the meantime everyone needs to look after themselves, their families and their community.

Stay healthy in body and mind.

Health and fitness, Tech, Thoughts

Enjoying a Twitter break.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Twitter for a while now. Long gone are the days when it was a place of curiosity where we would marvel at celebrities tweeting while stuck in a lift or when the most serious tweets revolved around what to have for tea.

Now the site feels like a hotbed of trolls, racists, and racist trolls (or the US President as he’s commonly known).

I have a tendency to over-think things and get fixated on topics. Which makes it really easy for me to get sucked down rabbit-holes of Twitter hashtags full of abuse, conspiracy theories, and total fuckwits. I also developed a habit of just sitting on Twitter as my default position, either on my phone on the train or sat on the sofa at work. All that exposure to the extremes of human opinion is not good for my mental health.

Two weeks ago I deleted the app from my phone and got rid of any Twitter and Tweetdeck bookmarks in my browsers. I could still go to the site, but it means I have to type the address in manually. A small, but critical step in preventing me just auto-piloting on to Twitter when my brain goes into neutral. So far it’s worked. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve dipped my toe back in and that was just for a few minutes or to read a specific tweet.

Has it helped? Has going cold turkey from Twitter improved my mood? Absolutely.

Aside from the obvious benefit, not being exposed to a whole lot of idiots and their opinions which make me feel angry, I’ve found myself making much more constructive use of my spare time at home. Picking up projects and hobbies I didn’t have time for recently and being a lot more available for interactions with the kids and my wife. In fact it’s not until doing an exercise like this that I realised just how bad I was for shutting everyone out while I sat idly scrolling through Twitter.

That’s not to say that quitting Twitter has cured me of any of my mental ailments, it hasn’t, but it does stop me from actively seeking out content online which is only going to make me sad, depressed, and angry. Which can only be self-destructive in the long-term.

Am I finished with Twitter completely? Well probably not. There are good people on Twitter and some genuinely good content to be found. At it’s very best it can be used to spread positive messages and wonderful frivolous fun moments. Lately though those pearls are much harder to find.

For now I’m staying clear but when I do return I’m going to have to do some heavy pruning of my followers list to change the kind of content I see on my feed. Until then I’m going to enjoy spending my time away from the gathering of the internet’s worst people and spend more time being creative, engaging with real people, and doing the things that actually make me happy.

I might even manage to start writing again.

Thoughts

Positivity In A Sickening Online World

It’s pretty bleak out there just now. The news is depressing and scary, between Brexit, Trump, Russia and the everlasting effects of austerity. Often it feels like using social media or browsing the internet is an exercise in endurance as you read one argument after another involving people with unrelentingly aggressive, entrenched viewpoints.

To be honest it’s really starting to wear me down. To the point where part of me just wants to switch off the internet and go back to the 90s, before I was permanently connected to news (especially this last week with the horrible images of young children being taken from their parents at the US border) and other people’s horrible opinions.

Sadly I work in IT, so that’s not really an option. Where does that leave me? Crippled by my impotence as I’m unable to do anything to change the depressing reality of today’s world? That’s not going to do me any good in the long run is it?

If I can’t do anything to stop Brexit, prevent a new cold war, or impeach Trump what can I do to make myself and the world a better place?

In day-to-day life I try not to let things get to me. Often urging others not to worry about things they can’t change or control. So maybe I should start doing the same for the big scary things as well. The first problem though is how to stop worrying about them in the first place?

Use Social Media for Good instead of Evil

I’ve started purging my Twitter of negativity. It’s become a broken tap, leaking a never-ending drip feed of bad shit on¬†my phone, laptop and PC screen. I look at my phone to get a light distraction for a moment and end up being angry and sad for the rest of the day instead. No more. The bad shit must be controlled.

Unfollow media accounts or users who only ever post bad news or retweet conspiracy theories (even if you believe them). Once the drip has slowed down then start filling your feed instead with the things you want to read about and that make you happy. I’ve filled my twitter with tweets from comedians, musicians, artists, DIY makers and other creative and entertainment content creators.

Use social media to find things that inspire you, amuse you and refill your joy tank.

Also follow real people who you actually know. People you’d have a conversation with. Use Twitter for two-way communication.

Now when I go on Twitter it’s a much more enjoyable experience. Some of the bad shit still leaks through (yuck) but it’s much, much more manageable.

Don’t accept every invite to an argument

The other big rule I have now is not to get involved in arguments. There’s absolutely no point to it. Everyone’s opinions on social media are so entrenched that there’s no room for grey areas or rational thought. It’s a terrible platform for reasonable discourse. Abandon the concept and throw it to the wolves. Block and move on instead.

Make Time For Your Own Wellbeing

Clear some time out of your day and do something to improve your health or make you happy. Spend your lunch hour fuming over a sandwich while browsing BBC news? Go for a jog instead, or take a walk to nearby river and sit outside to eat your sandwich. Even just move away from your desk with a good book for the hour.

Make time when you can. Swap sitting on the sofa with your laptop for digging out that guitar you’ve not played for weeks/months/years.

My downtime is important and though it’s difficult to carve out all the time I want with two young kids and a full-time job, I try to make sure I get out for a run or bike ride a few times a week to keep everything on an even keel.

Embrace What You Love

If you like doing something – painting, drawing, writing, making music, board games, video games, bird watching, stamp collecting, crochet, ballroom dancing, making voodoo dolls from the stray hairs of your enemies – then do it (except maybe that last one). Don’t let anyone say you can’t, slag you off, or tell you it’s wrong to enjoy something that’s not harming anyone else. Double down on it if you can. Love what you like.

For a long time in my late twenties and thirties I shied away from some of my geekier hobbies and interests. Now I’ve recently started playing board games and roleplaying again, fiddling with electronics and hobby computing, as well as wearing shamelessly geeky t-shirts in the office. I’m a nerd. These things make me happy. Why should I be bothered if someone else doesn’t like those things?

Take The Pressure Off You

Give yourself permission to make mistakes, not get involved, and to leave it to someone else. The news is horrific just now. It often feels like there’s a lot of pressure to DO SOMETHING. To enlist in the forces of good against evil. It’s overwhelming but fear not! It’s OK. You don’t have to join every fight. Look after yourself first, make sure you’re safe and healthy, then, if you’ve got energy to spare, feel around for what you can do to help others.

When you do jump in, you don’t have to go big. Do what you can, where you can. Donate to charity, local or global. Pick something you care about. It doesn’t matter if it’s the big topic of the day. Make the world better one monthly direct debit at a time. Volunteer to help with a local event you like. Give something back on your terms when you’re able to.

Be Kind, Be Helpful, Understand Others

I’m often amazed by the lack of simple empathy shown on social media. Much of this will stem from the top down, from politicians and the media, who fill us with negative stereotypes and othering of large sections of society. That stuff rubs off, contempt is contagious and it’s no wonder social media is so toxic when minority groups, the sick, disabled, foreign, and the poor become¬†scapegoats for every problem in the country.

Here’s something we can change. I can’t fix the predominantly right-wing media or our populist politicians, but I can make sure that I show the values I want to see represented online. Interact with kindness, don’t post knee-jerk assumptions about people, think the best of others and forgive their mistakes.

Boost the signal when others are being positive. Retweet the voices who are constructive and helpful of others. Ignore the people who are being dicks, make sure good people get heard.

Engage On Your Terms

Look I can write a thousand words telling people what they should do. In reality everyone has to find a way to manage this stuff themselves. Hopefully some of these ideas are useful, they sound obvious when you write it down but the pressure to stay engaged with all the bullshit that’s happening can blind you to the fact that you don’t really have to. Find your own route through the forest fire that is world news and toxic social media, just make sure it works for you and if it doesn’t you can always walk away. I know lots of people that, shocking as it is, aren’t on Facebook or Twitter and they are perfectly functional human beings. It’s always an option.

Music, News, Video, Writing

This week I have mostly been…

I’ve thrown myself down a few creative holes recently and had quite a busy week for putting work online in some form or another.

I recently began publishing articles on Medium to try out that platform and give myself another outlet for some writing which I think would be unsuitable to host here. I think I would like this site to become very informal and just be personal reflections rather than anything too serious or professional.

At the end of last week I posted an article there about how I try and maintain self-belief in the face of anxiety, depression and the mental issues which these conditions inflict on me

Then at the weekend I presented my parents with the gift I’d made for them to congratulate them on their ruby wedding anniversary. It’s a drawing of the family tree which they planted the seeds for forty years ago, along with a short poem I wrote for them
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I’m pretty proud of it as someone who is really, really bad at drawing!

After that it was back to music and a project I’m working on throughout 2017 – recording 50 tunes throughout the year in a mix of video and sound recordings. This is an effort to get me learning and writing new music as well as building confidence in myself as a musician again. On Tuesday I posted a video of two tunes played on mandolin – Road to Banff and The Spey In Spate.

Once I’d recorded the mandolin set I left the camera set up and decided to do an impromptu poetry reading. I entered some poems into a major competition towards the end of last year and received confirmation that they’d not made the shortlist this week. Which, while disappointing, does mean they are now free to be entered elsewhere and shared with the world again. One of those poems is Leaving The Woods, which I wrote around the idea of leaving your childhood behind and based on some memories I had of the woods we played in as children.

I also published it via Medium with a bit of background on the poem itself and the stories told within it