Thursday, September 14, 2017


Is That It?

Or, my mind robber.

On this day in 1968, The Mind Robber was first broadcast – one of Doctor Who’s most gorgeous, weird, brilliant adventures. Once upon a time, that’s how I might have opened a review of a favourite story. It’s been a long while since I’ve been able to write reviews; now it’s hard even to watch the stories.

This is the story of why I’ve turned my blog back on, but won’t be posting anything else to it. Because my mind robber isn’t fun and, to borrow from another great Troughton, this is the final end (…?).

I’ve loved writing for almost as long as I can remember, though for exactly as long, I’ve never written anything like as much as I wish to. Whether through laziness or distraction or the ever-present gnawing fear that what I write isn’t any good backed up by the procrastination of infinite note-making, I’ve always been a painstakingly slow writer and never got on with deadlines. From blogging series that I never completed, back through a failed academic career than zig-zagged between high marks for the essays I completed and zeroes for the ones I never quite started, all the way back to remembering ‘the first sentence I ever wrote’, at primary school – and that I didn’t finish it.

That’s the tension my writing had always lived with. But it was still a joy and always something to look forward to – even as ‘forward’ for any one piece of writing might always be moving ahead into a hypothetical future I could never bring myself to catch up with. My blogging’s never been prolific, but I did write some pieces along the way that out of that tension finished up pretty well.

It’s now four or five years since I last managed to complete and publish the sort of in-depth review I really want to, while even the blogging I’m not really satisfied with has trickled away to nothing, and that’s not just down to procrastination.

My physical health has been poor and getting worse since my mid-twenties. That is, I was often sickly when I was younger, too, but then I’d get better. For the last twenty years or so, nothing ever goes away once I’ve got it, and ‘better’ is at best a relative term. I carry impairments like cabbages on Crackerjack; I carry photos of four pages of regular prescriptions on my phone and can reel off the bits of me that don’t work literally from head to toe (usually worst in the middle) in what’s almost a ritual chant whenever a specialist asks if I have any other medical history they should know about.

My mental health has been on a similar downward trajectory for many years. Clinical depression and chronic physical ill health are not good for each other. Or, rather, they’re great for feeding each other but no good for me. Both mean in different ways that on many days I can’t get out, or wish that I hadn’t if I try. Both are humiliating. And both make me so bloody tired all the time, but so unable to rest (and of all my many pills, it’s always a choice whether to take the antidepressants, because one of the side effects is that they knock me out so heavily I’m going to sleep about twelve hours a day, let alone the muzziness when I’m ‘awake’).

Spending rather too much of every day either asleep or aiming at sleep and missing, I tend to dwell on things in a swamp of fear and loathing. Whether it’s all my many failures or that life is ticking by without anything in it. The worst of the past haunts me, even thinking about some of it can paralyse me into wreckage for a day, and I can’t remember the last time I was able to look into the future. I’ve mostly lost the ability to make small talk; how do you answer ‘How are you?’ when you’re like this, or ‘What have you been up to?’ when you’ve not worked and can’t think of anything you’ve achieved for more than a decade? And that makes it harder – though I do sometimes try, and it even sometimes works – to talk to people I actually care about. They’re so much worse. Because I can’t just wing it with them and I’m just ashamed. It’s difficult to explain how although in theory I have endless stretches of time, my functional time each day is vanishingly small. And the days when I do make the effort and put on a front and get through some sort of sociability and even maybe enjoy spending time with someone – the total collapse for days afterwards. Or the days when something else loads on that I have to cope with and I go from just ‘not coping’ into gibbering catastrophe. Last couple of weeks every other day it’s end-to-end panic attacks.

I hit perhaps my worst crisis about two months ago. That was when I simply turned off this blog because I couldn’t bear it any more.

How do you find joy in writing when you’ve lost the knack of finding joy in anything?

And so it all came tumbling down.

For years I’ve made long lists of things to do and pieces to write to give myself the impression of having some control over my life or some illusion that one day I will write the things I wish to write. Even as some of those lists have had dates for the most appropriate publication that have simply had the year changed over and over rather than being written. Something finally just turned over in my head in early July. I was updating the lists at the start of the month, as I’d done for so long, and suddenly it no longer made any kind of sense. There was just so much that I’d been turning over for so long, and it was all gibberish. Like a flicked switch, they all became accusations rather than comfort blankets. Just as seeing my threadbare blog staring back at me became an oppressive record of failure and I couldn’t face anyone being able to look at it.

I hoped that by switching it off for a while it would take some of the pressure off and give me respite to recover some mojo. It hasn’t. But a couple of people have asked me to make what I’ve previously written available again. Tonight I’ve returned the settings to public, but I can only cope with this by facing up to and sealing it as an historical document. If I put an end to it then it’s no longer a burden.

At least, that’s the hope. It’s unlikely to work, but I have to try and cut off this particular gnawing despair somehow.

I can recognise that I’ve written some really good stuff in the past. There are articles I’ve written on all manner of things where I’d be happy with the turn of phrase, the insight or the argument. I would be happy – but that I can’t do it any more makes it that much worse. I can get briefly animated by something and type in reams of notes, but try to assemble it into something someone else can read? I don’t know how to make any of it make sense any more. I don’t know how to construct an article. And most of all, I just don’t know how to enjoy it.

A few people had asked me in the last couple of years to write for them. With some I foolishly said yes, because I’d love to, it’s what I’ve dreamed of. But could I? Two struck lucky: with their final deadlines looming they pressed me that either I write or they had to ask someone else, and somehow that galvanised me and I delivered. It’s a mark of how unable I am to focus that you can buy something I’ve written in a book, but I’ve been completely unable even to write an introductory paragraph to publish it on this blog. Others I’ve failed completely by telling myself and them that yes, just give me a little longer, it’ll pass, I can do it, just another month, or year, but it’s only postponing the inevitable letting people down. One article that should be the easiest thing in the world for me: I made the pitch and knew exactly what it should be; I’d known and loved what it was about for decades; the file I was working in for a two-thousand-word article had over eighty thousand words of notes in it. Easy. But impossible. A year and a half after the first deadline I admitted to the editor that, absurd as it seemed, I just would never be able to write it.

It’s not just lists of things to write. It’s lists of things to watch, or read. I can’t even do that. I end up with deliberate distractions: half-watching and skim-reading things that I wouldn’t choose to but actually because I don’t enjoy them much. Because there are few things more depressing than experiencing something that you should enjoy and it no longer giving you any pleasure, or can’t concentrate on it or even look at it. So Twitter, rubbish telly, comfort eating, any way of trying to find a micro-stimulus that I can get through the day with rather than risk something good that’s turned to ash. It’s not that there are never flaring sparks of fun – but the downer of disappointment is worse than the unexpected joy. I can remember trying to write one of my ‘Ten Reasons to Watch’ lists early in the year on one of my very favourite Doctor Who stories, the one I’ve long thought of as the most entertaining piece of TV ever made. I had to stop even watching it because the deadness was spoiling everything about it. I tried again a few months later and found it was the first thing I’d really enjoyed watching in ages. I didn’t write about it; I burst into tears.

While not being able to take pleasure in things depresses me, politics just tends to send me into angry despair. Brexit, Trump, my countries spiralling into fascism and my party into irrelevance. Some articles I’ve started to write and broken off because they fall into the category of ‘not helpful’ (goodbye Tim, hello Vince); others I’ve written practically all the way through but are just too splenetic to put out there. And when I’ve tried to look on the bright side – well, those articles make me look fondly on tooth extractions, which at least were briefer experiences and had an end to them.

Hundreds – thousands? – of articles I’ve caught in my head in a plan and a line or two. Certainly hundreds that exist in part in a jigsaw of impossibly long notes. Even dozens that I’ve written and could publish with just half an hour’s polish that will never come. I’ve even got sets of photos that only need stringing onto Tumblr, yet utterly paralysed. That speech I literally typed out in full for last year’s Lib Dem Conference and declaimed to the hall – eve of a year later and can I bring myself to publish it or even put it on YouTube? No I can’t.

I’ve tried so many strategies to write almost by sidling up to it so I won’t notice I’m doing it. Blog side projects! Which just make for extra emptier blogs. Because I know I put off and overcomplicate and will write so much that I will never finish, several times I’ve set myself goals made up of easily defined short steps, only to sabotage them by bloating the idea into something overambitious enough that failure will be inevitable. That series of great Doctor Who scenes that I never finished? Just one scene at a time, how could I possibly stretch those to breaking? I found a way. Then Ten Reasons To Watch one story at a time – I planned the lot, and I could tell you the bullet points for any one of them at any given 3am while trying to sleep. Could I write them? Of course not. I even published the ones I’d written at the end of 2015 all over again in late 2016, to give myself a run-up (I can still remember the last thing I ever wrote that was any good. It was Ten Reasons To Watch Rose, and it was even better but far angrier and just, just managing not to tip over into despair in the repeat). I even struggled on with them through hospitalisation last December because I didn’t want that to beat me. Then in January there were the results that some of the damage was permanent, and whole new physical problems that I had to fight, and I just couldn’t even pretend to do it any more.

I teetered on the edge of pieces on half a dozen stories that so very nearly but so very far from getting back into writing. I watched one Who story early in the year that wasn’t on the list – The Curse of Peladon – and was so apoplectic at the Brexitty shittery of its villain that I resolved on the spot to write it as a bonus (and that before Alpha Centauri turned up again on the telly). It was almost all done! But never more than almost. I read Doctor Who: The New Adventures – Damaged Goods, I wrote reams, I annotated the entire text, I tweezered apart the Post-Its that Richard stuck on it in 1996 and transcribed those, I listened to the audio adaptation, I wrote a complete article coming at that from an oblique angle, I did so very, very much and all before the perfect day to publish. July 27th, fiftieth anniversary to the day of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England; thirtieth anniversary to the day of the main events of the novel; twenty-third anniversary to the day of the first time I saw Richard, was completely wowed by Richard, utterly bottled introducing myself to Richard. At the far end of all that effort, no actual proper writing came to party, and the Twenty-seventh of July passed. And all the while trying to deny to myself that all trying to write – or even hoping to write – was doing was making me more wretchedly miserable.

Over the last couple of months I’ve bizarrely managed two long Twitter threads that of course, of course should have been blog posts, but they absolutely never could: one was even written on the train and posted as I went along, which may have made it incomprehensible to the reader but just published before I could stop myself. You can if you like read what, on the spur of the moment, I made of Wagner’s complete Der Ring des Nibelungen having never watched an opera before (scroll up), or why you can’t fight crime by making certain groups of people ‘illegal’ (scroll down). So it’s possible there will be such random times when writing will spew out too quickly for the terror to pull it back.

I am so fucking tired and even being so tired is such hard bloody work.

I feel more alienated, useless, powerless, more of a bobbing spare part than ever now that I’ve accepted the end of writing. I have no direction over my life. But the hope was just torment. I can’t do it any more, and wanting to made it worse, and when it came to a crisis I just couldn’t keep doing that. This is defeat. So this is trying to cut off fantasies of the future and hope that’s less unbearable.

I realise this is not a jolly read. There are things that get me through the days. Well, one thing, mainly, and that is Richard, who somehow copes with me while doing a gazillion things and more of those than ever before, and supporting me in every way, and to whom I’m pathetically grateful and very much love. I have no idea how he does it and he still completely wows me. But I wish – not least for his sake, because it’s a bit of a weight on him – that I could find my way back to more. It can’t be this.


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