Last night I drank a little too much and found myself wide awake at 3am, dehydrated and my mind reeling. The thoughts were rife with paranoia and yet about matters which were so utterly banal, I found myself getting ever more frustrated and therefore further unable to sleep. And rapid thoughts too. So rapid that I keep thinking how much they reminded me of someone’s voice being recorded and then sped up to resemble the sound of a cartoon chipmunk. ‘What lunacy’, I thought to myself. ‘How am I to decipher any of this? It’s just yammering nonsense in my head’. And while this ridiculous noise is playing out in my head, I also imagine my thoughts as a barrel full of eels. So many of them, crammed into such a small area, writhing frantically and gasping, while I reach my hand in to grab one only to find that it’s too slippery to catch hold of. With an internal monologue such as this, it’s no wonder I feel so arrested—emotionally, mentally, philosophically. How can one embark on deeper or more complex thought when this level of chaos abounds inside the head?
At some point, I must have fallen asleep briefly and when I awoke, it was around 6am. As I lay there, thinking how swollen my face felt, I began to consider the concept of discipline and how little of it is present in my current existence. I also began to wonder whether discipline—in all its various guises—might provide the key for unlocking the sense of overwhelming stagnation that characterises and has characterised my life for so long now.
Reading about writers and their reflections on the process of writing, one of the most salient features is the discipline that it entails. It isn’t always expressed as such, but the lesson is invariably the same: you have to do it all the time. Sontag rather famously said that her day consisted of getting up, making coffee and sitting down to write and doing so all day long and possibly into the early hours of the morning until she dropped. I recently started reading Murukami’s What I Talk about When I talk About Running and the level of discipline which he exhibits on a daily basis is sobering to say the least. Endurance and concentration he argues, these are the traits needed for both long distance running and writing; perpetually pushing oneself to the very limits and possibly beyond.
If I’m honest with myself, really honest, I don’t think I’ve ever pushed myself to my very limits. In any sense. Perhaps childbirth, though I’m not sure that counts because my body did it more or less on its own and required no concentration on my part. In my final year at high school, I remember getting a mark of 18/20 for something and being completely put out by it. In my mind, I should’ve received a full mark. And yet, I had done virtually no research or preparation and simply pulled something out of my arse and expected shining colours. The arrogance is astounding, though I’m not sure that’s ultimately what it was. Rather, it was a lack of faith—fear of trying and failing dismally.
Childhood insecurity aside, what’s emerged for me during this reading, is not just that to write one must be disciplined, but that discipline in life generally is what invigorates progress. Grit is another term for it, or perhaps even resilience; the idea that we persevere, we learn and develop by virtue of that hard work and crucially, by virtue of our failures. It’s a remarkably simple message and yet it seems so easily dismissed or set aside.
For me, there is much to be learned from this. I have discovered however that routine is absolutely critical to my wellbeing. You hear parents say this sort of thing a lot about their children, that they need routine. Without it, they often flounder or become unwieldy. I am such a child it would seem; I don’t even have the wherewithal to discipline my thoughts.
About two months ago, I’m fairly certain I experienced a kind of nervous breakdown. It was a slow, inexorable creep and yet the break itself still caught me by surprise. It was the end of the school summer break and I found that I was simply unable to cope with having both children full time and trying to work. My daughter was reaching a new phase also, a new and unpleasant one which I was completely unprepared for. And by the end of the holidays I found that I was screaming at everyone incessantly, having alarming tearful episodes daily in the bathroom and threatening to leave the Doc. Most worryingly, I began to lose hold of my ability to function in professional and social situations; if asked a question, my mind would become so wholly blank, it was as if someone had flicked my off switch. Or else my heart rate would increase rapidly, my breath would become laboured and my chest would cramp, making me feel as if I was dying. I began to feel disassociated as a result, not really present in the world.
I looked into seeing a therapist and then realised I couldn’t really afford one. ‘It’ll pass’, I thought to myself. It didn’t of course but then, routine struck. The school year started again, my second child started at nursery and I decided to take up yoga. It sounds completely trite, but the advent of having external factors shape my day made it far easier for me to establish a routine for myself. Which in turn, helped to re-establish my sanity. And with this routine, I also found that I actually sought out ways in which I could be more disciplined. I committed to a weekly and particularly grueling yoga class (I’ve never committed to one; I’ve often gone to one and then found excuses not to return), have taken up running again and miraculously, the capacity for writing and thought (however rudimentary) has re-emerged.
I was listening to Oona King on the radio yesterday, discussing her childhood as she read excerpts from her diary. She recalled being roughly eleven years old when her mother, a single woman unsurprisingly stretched by the grind of raising two children alone and trying to maintain a job, experienced a breakdown. Years later, as an MP receiving death threats and racial and anti-semitic abuse, Oona was herself on the verge of a breakdown. Her mother’s response was something along the lines of ‘Don’t have a breakdown darling, it just isn’t that helpful’.
I’m inclined to agree with mother King. (Not that I want to underplay the horror of what it is to experience such an event, nor suggest that it is necessarily something one can control.) Yet, there has been an unsought benefit to my breakdown which is that it has encouraged me to reevaluate a number of habits as well as my outlook and guided me toward making a few small, though potentially critical changes. Who knows whether the lessons will stick. I certainly hope so. Nothing momentous has changed yet of course, but I feel a sense of promise (or at least the possible glint of promise), which in itself feels rather momentous.