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Monthly Archives: May 2017

‘You’re OK. You’re alright. You’re loved.’

On Wednesday afternoon I was walking up the Holloway Road in the pouring rain when I saw a body lying in a heap beneath the bus shelter. Two Japanese tourists were staring at it. I crouched down next to the body. It was a girl, maybe 18. Her jumper was covered in mud and she was sobbing.
‘Are you OK?’
She ignored me, and carried on sobbing. She was a mess, snot dribbling down her nose, eyes squeezed shut behind her thick glasses.
‘Are you OK love?’
‘I want Zoe!’ she sobbed, not looking at me. ‘Does Zoe care about me?’
My first thought was she was a teenager having a breakdown. Maybe her first psychotic episode, her reality suddenly crumpling like a screwed-up newspaper.
‘Can we call your parents?’
‘No! I don’t want to be sectioned. I want Zoe!’
She pulled out a packet of cigarettes, sending them spinning across the wet pavement.
Another passer-by came up, a middle-aged lady. ‘Is she alright? Is she drunk?’
‘I think she’s having some sort of psychotic episode’, I said quietly.
‘Should we call am ambulance?’
‘We could…although then she might be sectioned, it might make it worse. Let’s try and call her family.’
Friends were calling her on the phone. I saw one text flash up: ‘Just tell me that you’re OK.’
She answered one call. Her voice went from wheedling to screaming. ‘Jessie, it’s Chrissy. Do you care about me? Do you? WELL WHY DON”T YOU? I WANT ZOE!’
We tried to persuade her to call her family but she ignored us. The middle-aged lady hunched down and tried to speak into her phone to tell the friend where Chrissy was. ‘Hello? Can you come to the bus stop outside Sainsbury’s on Holloway Road and help your friend?’
Chrissy leaned over to be sick.
‘Do you think she might have taken an overdose?’
‘Maybe. We should call an ambulance.’
At this the girl got to her feet and staggered down the road. She veered into the Edward Lear pub.
I called an ambulance. ‘It’s a girl, maybe 18, she’s really drunk, and I think she has mental health problems. She may have taken an overdose.’
‘And she’s in the pub now?’
‘Yes…she’s gone into the toilet.’
The emergency services said an ambulance would take around 45 minutes.
Chrissy lurched out of the pub, propped up by the bar-maid, a small resilient-looking lady who couldn’t have been more than 20 herself. I thought she might be throwing Chrissy out but she was trying to prevent her from leaving.
‘I want to go!’
‘You can’t go love, just stay here.’
Chrissy tried to light another cigarette. She looked like a distressed mole, her eyes screwed up, oblivious of the world around her, in a tunnel of her own misery.
‘She can’t go’, the barmaid said to us. ‘She says she wants to kill herself. She’s got marks all over her arms. Just sit down here Chrissy.’
‘I’ve called an ambulance, they’ll be here in 45 minutes.’
There were now four of us sitting round Chrissy as she sat on the pub bench, chain-smoking. The bar-maid brought her a hot chocolate. Chrissy tried repeatedly to call a crisis help line that was saved on her phone, but she was too drunk to communicate.
‘Are you sure you don’t want to call your parents Chrissy?’
‘They don’t love me. My dad doesn’t love me and my step-mom hates me.’
‘Im sure they don’t’, I said hopefully.
A man was sitting at another of the pub’s outdoor tables with a pint. He was maybe 40, in a white polo shirt, and looked semi-neanderthal. ‘What’s going on?’ he said. He pointed a finger at me and narrowed his eyes. ‘You should know better.’
‘What?’
‘Getting a young girl drunk.’
‘I was just walking past, I don’t know her!’
‘What’s wrong with her?’ he said. He crouched down next to her and put a hand on her knee. ‘Here, Chrissy, Chrissy…listen to this song.’ He clapped his hands and started to wiggle his hips. ‘Fogggy daaaay in London toooown!’
‘Don’t touch me!’ said Chrissy.
He fixed me with a look of pure stupidity. ‘You should know better. You wanna watch it. I hurt people for a living.’
The rain dripped down our faces. It was a miserable moment. Chrissy was trying to light another cigarette. The bar maid lit one too. So did the middle-aged lady. I thought about asking one of them for a cigarette but it didn’t feel appropriate.
‘What’s wrong with her?’ asked the man. ‘Let’s get her inside. Come on.’ He more or less grabbed Chrissy.
‘I think just leave her here’, I said. ‘So she can smoke.’
He gave me an evil look. ‘You’re not a big man’, he said. ‘I’m a big man. Watch it.’
‘Shall we call the police?’ asked the bar-maid. ‘They might get here quicker.’
I know what she meant. I was worried the man was going to kick off. He was worse than Chrissy.
‘Call the police’, said Chrissy. ‘I want the police!’
A police car drove past. ‘There’s the police, flag them down!’
The man wandered out into the middle of the Holloway Road, waving his arms. The police car drove on. He stayed in the middle of the road, like a swimmer adrift in a river.
‘He’s doing my head in’, said the bar-maid. Me too. He was trying to help, sort of.
Chrissy tried to leave, but we shepherded her back to the bench. Finally the ambulance arrived. The bar-maid explained the situation, told them that Chrissy was apparently known to the crisis helpline in Highgate. They helped her into the ambulance.
‘It’s so sad’, said the bar-maid. ‘She’s just a young girl.’
It was another transcendent moment on the Holloway Road, that boulevard of unremitting joy. Outside that very pub a year earlier, I’d seen a man get his head kicked in. On evenings, you went to sleep serenaded by police helicopters buzzing overhead.
Holloway Road can make you feel what a mess, what a total fucking mess humans are.
But at least four people stopped and spent an hour trying to help Chrissy.

 

Everyone is mental. Everyone is broken. Everyone is fucked.  And everyone is OK.

That’s what I believe on a good day. That beneath our broken, battered, fucked up egos, there is something more – sparkling consciousness, depths of loving wisdom, a force more powerful than we realize, more infinite.
That’s what Christianity teaches us, and Islam, and Judaism, and Buddhism, and Hinduism, and Platonism and Stoicism. That we have an infinity of love and wisdom within us.
Within and beneath our brokenness is a shining white light, which is both ‘me’ and more than me. Our souls have the capacity to reflect and contain the infinite, like a puddle of rain reflecting the moon.
The most powerful message that all spiritual traditions have to tell us was said to me by an 80-year-old Zen master in Tamil Nadu.
You’re OK. You’re alright. Be kind to yourself.
It’s pretty much the same thing a therapist says. ‘You’re OK. You’re alright. Be kind to yourself.’
Why are you so cruel to yourself? You’re wonderful.
So much of our suffering comes from the feeling we’re not OK, we’re not lovable, nobody loves us, our parents don’t love us, Zoe doesn’t love us, we don’t love ourselves. We hate ourselves.
You’re OK. You’re alright. You’re loved. Be kind to yourself.
Loved by what? I asked the Zen master. Or who?
He was an ex-Jesuit, who’d converted to Zen but was still sort of Christian.
He spoke a lot about opening to ‘the emptiness’. But can the emptiness love us? Can the emptiness hold us when we’re lying in a heap under a bus-stop?
The emptiness is not nothingness, he said. That’s the mystery. That’s the grace.
He said the way beyond the ego is not to deny ourselves or be cruel to ourselves, but to try and love ourselves and love one another. Otherwise when we open to the infinite it terrifies us and can send us mad.
We need to love ourselves, love the broken, wounded imperfect people we are. We are finite, imperfect, paranoid, mortal beings sprawled on a pavement in Archway on a wet Wednesday afternoon. And we are the infinite, sparkling with loving wisdom like the waves on a sunlit ocean.
We are broken. We are mental. And we are OK. We are loved.
That’s what I sometimes feel, on a good day. Right now I’ve locked myself out of my flat, and I’m sitting in a cafe, looking out at the rain on the Holloway Road.

Everybody’s mental

It’s been a tough week for the UK –  mental illness went up 164%. Previously, mental health charities assured us that one in four people have been diagnosed with a mental illness in their life.  But this week, abruptly, one mental health charity suggested as many as two in three adults will suffer from some mental health problem at some point in their life, whether that’s a panic attack or a period of depression.

I never liked the ‘one in four’ statistic. It may have been a useful strategy to draw public attention and get funding, but it also seemed to emphasize that the mentally unwell were a minority, a separate unlucky group from the 75% who are fine and dandy.

It seems to me that everyone has mental illness. And everyone has mental health. Everyone is on a continuum from well to unwell, and moves up and down that continuum all the time. A person could move from very unwell to very well in a day.

The most popular therapeutic interventions today – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness  therapy – are deeply influenced by the ancient spiritual traditions of Stoicism and Buddhism. And both Stoicism and Buddhism insist that pretty much the entirety of humanity is mentally ill. Albert Ellis, the founder of CBT, agreed: ‘We’re all out of our fucking minds!’

I don’t know if this could be the basis for a new public health campaign, but I’ve knocked up this advert just in case:

In both Stoicism and Buddhism, 99.9999% of humans are ignorant of our true nature and lost in ego-delusions which make us suffer. Only the sage is truly sane and well. And the sage – the fully enlightened being – is a very rare creature.

How rare? The Buddha supposedly told a story – imagine the entire world was one ocean, and on that ocean was thrown a floating ring. And in that ocean is a blind turtle, who once every hundred years swims to the surface and pokes his head out at some random spot. The probability of an enlightened being coming into existence is the same as that blind turtle happening to poke his head through the ring.

The rest of us are unenlightened. We don’t know who we are, we’re lost in ego-delusions, swung from happiness to misery and back again by each passing occurrence.

We’re convinced that the aim of life is to have a secure, successful and admired ego which has amassed a pile of money and plaudits by the time we die. We spend each day trying to add to our pile of money and approval. We feel happy when the pile goes up, and sad when it goes down. That’s what we call mental health.

We are all of us dreaming. We call those who are presently having happy dreams ‘the well’, and those who are presently having scary dreams ‘the unwell’. The Buddha or Plato would say:  you’re all lost in delusions.

You really think that 75% of humans in our society are sane and well? Or even 30%? Look around you. We’re all a bit mad. We’re all blindly following ego-delusions – ambition, pride, vanity, the need for the approval of strangers, addiction, restlessness, constant dissatisfaction. Our therapists, philosophers, psychiatrists, life-coaches and mindfulness gurus are just as sick, just as self-obsessed, just as ego-deluded. Believe me, I’ve met them. They’re just as fucked up as you and me, possibly more so.

A wife sits at home with depression and alcoholism, while her husband spends all day chasing money and status in a bank. She is clinically unwell, but is he well? Is he not just as sick, just as caught in ego-delusions? He may fit in better with society, but that doesn’t mean he’s well.

Our definition of sanity is fitting in with social norms. How sane is our civilization? We’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, every reputable climate scientist tells us we’re heading for significant global warming which is likely to cause massive suffering, social disruption and death and possibly threaten our survival within the next few decades. And we’re in complete denial. If our civilization was a person, it would be sectioned.

Even our obsession with well-being is a bit mad. It’s become the rational secular replacement for religion. We become restless well-being evangelists – there’s an epidemic! Let’s fix this! Let’s talk about it! Let’s introduce a national plan to eradicate suffering! Every week is another ‘mental health week’. The more we talk about it, the bigger the ‘epidemic’ grows.

We endlessly confess to feeling unwell, and congratulate each other for our courage in speaking out. Certainly, stigma around mental illness can worsen our suffering. But what if one of our deepest sicknesses is our bottomless need for attention and approval? When Prince William and Lady Gaga get millions of hits for their online chat, are they freeing us, or deepening that addiction to attention?

I’ve campaigned for a decade for better access to therapy and better well-being education. I know that therapy and education can help free people from acute suffering, and even an article, a conversation or a book can be tremendously healing.

But the root of our suffering is the ego, and it’s a tricky bastard to shake off. If we’re serious about moving our society towards flourishing and sanity, we need to realize how unwell we all are, and how unhealthy our normal reality is.