Thoughts on social distancing and isolation

I’m so sorry I haven’t written in so long; I took the blog offline for a while because I got a bit paranoid about people reading it and became completely convinced people I knew were reading it even though I hadn’t shared it with them.  I’ve since changed the domain name and *hopefully* if anyone was, then they won’t be able to find it now but I don’t know how they would have found it anyway and tbh, it was probably just me being over-paranoid anyway!

SO…back to blogging.  I’ve really missed it; it’s one of the only ways I can try to actually make sense of my brain in a way that other people can understand and maybe relate to, and I miss that connection.  Which is especially true now we’re in the middle of social distancing and self isolation!  It’s a weird and disconcerting time for everyone and I’m swinging between being kind of relieved that for once it’s not just me feeling lonely, anxious and guilty all the time but then feeling really guilty for thinking that and just generally overwhelmed by the whole situation- again, like most of the world!

It’s weird that in one sense, not much has really changed- I was signed off work for two weeks before lockdown started anyway and it’s not like I had a particularly active social life (or even one at all).  But I had school and it was the hope of going back to school that had kept me going while I was signed off, and the idea of schools closing before I could go back felt really horrible and disorientating.  I know that a massive proportion of the country are feeling similar with schools closed and exams cancelled, teachers are feeling disorientated and kids are stuck without the structure of school, and for many Year 11s and Year 13s, they didn’t even get a chance to ‘leave’ school properly.  So in the context of that, how I’m feeling really doesn’t even compare to how a lot of people will be feeling at the moment but for me, it was the loss of hope and possibility of structure, purpose and social contact that really got to me the most.  And it’s still so, so hard to deal with.  I’ve set up a website of fun activities, quizzes and puzzles for kids off school to try to keep them entertained and I’m updating it every day but it still doesn’t feel ‘real’ or like there’s any actual point to it.  Trying to focus on it as a distraction and purpose but it’s hard when I don’t know if any kids are actually using it!  It’s Purple Jedi Activities if anyone’s interested 🙂

It’s hard to work out what’s going on at the moment because before coronavirus took over the news and lockdown started, I was already having issues with medication, mood swings, anxiety and paranoia and the current situation really hasn’t helped.  It’s been going on for months- I started to feel rubbish again just before Christmas and it got progressively worse up till February when I kind of hit a massive low and just felt horrible, guilty and lonely all the time but so much that it hurt.  I had a couple of overdose attempts (which I’m rubbish at anyway- both times I panicked afterwards, tried to throw up, felt ill later and went to A+E) and have been having a lot of issues with mental health services recently because I “make people anxious” and it’s a “barrier to treatment” but I honestly don’t mean to and it’s making me feel so shit and trapped.  Long story; I ended up increasing medication to the point when I felt genuinely stoned and spun out all the time which wasn’t safe, was signed off work and have been trying to get the right balance of medication since then.  Currently on a mix of vortioxetine, quetiapine, pregabalin, lorazepam and zopiclone and trying to find the right amounts of each one so that I’m not too hyped, panicky or suicidal but can also function relatively OK day-to-day.  Really tough!!

But anyway, that’s just background :/ I think even without the Covid-19 situation, I’d be a bit all over the place atm but now it’s like the world has honestly gone nuts.  And for once it’s not just me!  It’s crazy to realise it’s a global issue and that the majority of the world is feeling scared, overwhelmed and anxious atm which is weirdly reassuring as well as a bit scary in itself.  For me, the hardest parts are the lack of structure which leads to feeling chaotic, ‘vertigo-y’ and like there’s no point, and the isolation which leads to intense loneliness and feeling cut off from everything.

One of the things I really struggle with is the idea that people will totally forget I exist if they don’t see me, and it’s so so hard not to keep contacting people I care about all the time to check.  And it’s SO BLOODY LONELY isolating on your own and not knowing when you can see a real person again.  I’m not a physical contact-type person but right now, I could really, really use a hug and I need it so much it actually hurts- my whole body is physically aching and tingling with anxiety and loneliness. And that must be a million times harder for people who are used to physical affection!

I realised recently that one of the main criteria for diagnosis of BPD is ‘fear of abandonment’ and being isolated on your own feeds into it- it really does feel like you’ve been abandoned by everyone and everything and I’m having to keep reminding myself that it’s a global situation and not just ‘me’- support groups stopped because they had to with social isolation not because they didn’t want me in the group, I’m not on the school rota v often because they’re limiting staff in school not because they don’t want me in, people aren’t messaging back because they’re overwhelmed and scared like everyone atm or busy with other things not because they hate me, social distancing was not introduced because I’m too intense and people need a break from me! I know it sounds over-dramatic, self-centred and ridiculous (which it is) and I know that rationally but it feeds into the main idea that people just don’t want you around which still really hurts and makes you feel rubbish.

One of the other criteria for BPD is ‘chronic feelings of emptiness’ which I’ve always referred to as ‘vertigo’ and it’s so, so intense at the moment without any real purpose or connection.  For me, that’s the part that leads to pretty much constant suicidal thoughts because there really is no point and I’m so scared people I’m close to will forget about me, and it’s so hard to manage.  But I can’t act on any of it atm anyway because I don’t want to put any extra pressure on the NHS by having to go to A+E so feeling really trapped and rubbish.  Which I’m trying to channel into more positive distraction but is leading to a lot of negative behaviours which I hate but tbh if it means I’m not overdosing or ending up in A+E then it’s not the end of the world.

The other overwhelming feeling atm is guilt.  Which tbh isn’t just atm- I feel guilty A LOT of the time anyway but it’s constant now and literally taking over most other feelings.  Part of it is justified- I know I can be too intense and needy and although I really try to manage it and not keep contacting people, I am still ‘too much’ when I talk to people because I honestly am feeling so horrible so much of the time and it’s hard not to let that show.  But I keep apologising and trying to let people have the choice if they let me contact them or not, but I still feel shit for being like this in the first place.  I really am trying to change it- I’m doing a lot of online courses in Food and Nutrition, Health and Social Care and some self-help courses for BPD which challenge viewpoints and behaviours but it seems to be taking a really long time to see any change at all which is frustrating and I just wanted to be a nicer, less draining person.  But at least one positive to social distancing is that people don’t have to put up with me in person any more!

One of the other issues I’m finding hard (and links to guilt) is feeling like everything is my fault.  This is something I’m challenging a lot atm- I know rationally that I am not all-powerful and I definitely didn’t start coronavirus or create the crisis that the world is in at the moment, but I still feel really, really guilty that people are dying all over the world and it feels like I should be doing more to stop it.  I’ve signed up for NHS volunteers and for social care volunteering but haven’t heard back yet, and I’m aware I’m a drain on NHS resources even without Covid-19 pressure which makes me feel really guilty.  I’ve been in touch with CMHT, ED services and the crisis team a lot over the last few weeks because I genuinely don’t feel safe in the house on my own, partly because of intense suicidal thoughts pretty much every night, partly because of medications making me feel stoned or spun out and partly because I’m still getting occasional extreme mood swings which can make me really impulsive.  But they can’t do much atm- they’re not admitting any new inpatients because of the pandemic and all they can really suggest is to keep a mood diary, have a crisis plan and take lorazepam which I’m doing but it still doesn’t feel safe a lot of the time.  But I’m still trying!!

The last issue I’m going to talk about here is the idea of feeling chaotic, out of control and scared which for me, is a big trigger for eating disordered behaviour which I’m trying SO HARD not to fall back into atm.  It’s taken 20 years and some v direct honesty from a couple of friends to get into a ‘healthy’ eating routine and I really, really don’t want to lose that.  So I’ve literally made a timetable to structure the day around a ‘school day’ with set mealtimes which I have to stick to.  And it feels so much safer because it’s not my ‘choice’ and apart from a couple of really horrible, chaotic days, I’ve pretty much managed to stick to it.  Will share it here in case anyone else finds it useful 🙂

 

But even though the world is chaos and scary, there have weirdly been some positive effects!  Which I’m trying to focus on and see as proof that things can change…

  1. Thanks to necessity for medical appointments, helplines and crisis calls, I can actually make and receive phone calls now without getting panicky!  Which is a HUGE thing for me.
  2. I have several friends who are amazing and some of whom put up with sometimes ridiculous texts or calls.  Several being a BIG change because before I’ve only managed to keep one or two friends at a time and now I have a few!  And I’m really trying to believe they won’t forget I exist just because I haven’t contacted them in a few days…
  3. Social media is not all paranoia and anxiety and with only close friends, can be an absolute lifeline.
  4. I can go to the supermarket only twice a week, buy more food at once without being convinced everyone will think I’m a greedy, lazy bitch and actually keep the food in the house without bingeing on all of it!!  Which, as someone who used to only be able to buy a day’s food at once, is a BIG change.  Mostly helped by my equally intense fear of germs meaning that I’m genuinely scared to go to the supermarket but I’m still taking it as a positive!
  5. I now wash my hands in a normalish way.  Which again is a big thing- I used to have to use 2-4 pumps of handwash and sometimes 2-4 more depending on if they ‘count’, and careful not to accidentally hit 13 overall so sometimes even more but now, thanks to restrictions on how much handwash you can buy, it’s 2 pumps ONLY and they both necessarily count.  And it’s amazing how much less anxiety I have now about washing my hands!
  6. I bought a weighted blanket to help with anxiety and needing a physical ‘hug’, and I’ve never slept so deeply in my life.  OK, it’s still not for very long and not always at night but it’s seriously amazing!
  7. Focussing on Jedi living is actually a lifesaver atm.  I won’t go into it too much now because I’m planning a whole post on it later on but there’s something really grounding about connecting with a Force greater than yourself and trying to really focus on quieting your mind and letting go of attachments and fear.  I know it might sound a bit weird but it honestly does really help.
  8. I have never spoken to my little cousins on FaceTime so much in my life (or ever, in fact)!  They’re all off school and bored atm and it’s so nice to connect with them, watch them play lego/do crafts/just hang out.  Living in England while they’re in Scotland means that sometimes I miss out on my little cousins growing up and it’s so nice to connect with them properly now.  Feels like I’m actually in Scotland with them!

Anyway, this post is a lot longer than I’d intended so will leave it here 🙂 REALLY hope everyone is managing OK and sending lots of hugs to anyone else self isolating on their own.  It really is hard and can feel like it’s never going to end but IT WILL and reach out to as many people as you can ❤

Comfortableness and Chaos

This is a bit of a weird post but it’s something that a few people have mentioned to me recently and I’ve been thinking about it a lot.  It’s not a particularly easy topic to write about so sorry in advance if this post makes even less sense than my recent blog posts have done but I think it’s important to address and try to process properly.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend brought up the idea of ‘enjoying’ having mental health issues.  My first thought was ‘no fucking way!’- it’s bloody horrible having part of your brain that constantly criticises you and tells you what you should/shouldn’t be thinking or doing to the point where it’s so confusing and exhausting that you have no idea what ‘you’ think or feel any more, and I really hate feeling ‘too much’, intense and obsessive all the time.  But there is a (really guilty) part of me that does feel sort of ‘comfortable’ with rules and criticisms which are often easier to follow than trying to work out what’s expected in ‘real life’ and it definitely feels safer with something keeping you in line, limiting greed or selfishness and (to an extent) you know where you stand with it even if the parameters and rules keep shifting.

Around the same time, another friend asked me if I ‘liked’ the chaos of intense emotions and relationships which is something I really struggle with but is ironically something I seem to be drawn to as well- I do become obsessive about pretty much anything I’m interested in and I know I have to regulate myself a lot with any sort of social relationship because I can become too clingy or intense without realising it, and often it’s with similar types of people which can lead to very intense and volatile friendships which usually don’t last very long.  But I think the two things kind of link- to an extent (and I hate admitting this), the ‘chaos’ is also kind of comfortable because once it’s at that point, you know it won’t get any more intense and you know what you’re dealing with whereas ‘normal’ friendships are a lot more confusing and hard to manage because you’re constantly scared of becoming too intense or annoying without realising it and the other person not wanting to be friends any more.  This is something I’ve been working on A LOT over the last few years and *touch wood* I seem to be a lot more able to make actual friendships (rather than one-way annoyingness) than I used to be although it’s still pretty new and I’m still really nervous about messing it up.

I think I can say for certain that I definitely don’t ‘enjoy’ having mental health issues- yes, there are aspects that are ‘safer’ or feel more comfortable but overall there are way more negative aspects that I’d do basically anything to change or get rid of. I don’t like diagnoses because I think they’re limited and limiting but if I could wake up tomorrow and not have autism or personality disorder traits, I’d be willing to change anything to achieve it and I really am trying even if it doesn’t seem like it. I know everyone has aspects of life that are difficult and that life is never perfect but it’s the intensity of it that I hate and how it impacts on other people as well as just me.

Of Mice and Men- thoughts and reflections

Sorry for not keeping up with massively regular blog posts 😦 been feeling v negative and rubbish over the last couple of weeks and haven’t had anything particularly positive to write about, and since this is meant to be a constructive (and honest) recovery blog there didn’t seem much point in writing about feeling horrible and down.  It’s nothing major, just end of term rubbishness and a build up of feeling lonely and negative which I’m definitely working on but taking more time than I’d hoped.

I know this is going to seem like a bit of a random blog post but we’ve been reading Of Mice and Men with Year 9 at school over the last couple of months and I’ve found it really hard to read and talk about with the kids, and it’s got to the point where I feel rubbish for the rest of the day every time I’m in Year 9 English so I wanted to try to think more about it and process it so that next time we do it in class (this time next year), it hopefully won’t be as much of an issue.  Plus I think it’s been adding to the general feeling rubbish recently which I really don’t like so want to try to work out why and how I can manage that better given that it really is just a fictional book!  Quick disclaimer: I am going to talk about the whole book so spoiler alert if you haven’t read it and MASSIVE trigger alert for anyone affected by learning difficulties, autism or emotion regulation issues.

I read it for the first time last year when we studied it in class with the kids.  It’s an easyish story to follow- set in 1930s America, there are two main characters called George and Lennie who work on a ranch to try to save enough money to get their own farm.  George is a sharp, smart man whose ultimate goal is to own his own farm and live off the land and his friend/travelling companion Lennie who has a type of learning disability (it’s never really explained) and who is absolutely, 100% loyal and devoted to George.  George protects Lennie; Lennie would do anything for George.  But Lennie also finds it hard to recognise, manage and control his own emotions which is ultimately what gets him into trouble even though he doesn’t recognise it at the time.  At the end of the book, Lennie gets into so much trouble that he is going to be lynched by the men on the ranch so George shoots him in the back of the head (without him realising) as an act of kindness and to save him from a much more painful death.

When we read it last year, there were lots of bits of the book that got to me- Lennie accidentally killing small animals by petting them too hard (made me feel really guilty), Candy’s dog getting shot because he was old, Lennie being left out because he didn’t have the same ‘urges’ as the other men (they go into town to play cards, drink and pick up women leaving Lennie behind), Lennie hurting Curley without meaning to because Curley provoked him and building up to the end of the book which is genuinely traumatic to read and makes me feel like someone’s physically punched me in the stomach and is twisting my insides into vertigo.  Even though I know what’s coming, it’s still a visceral feeling and makes me shake and my eyes sting, and it’s hard not to cry even though I know I can’t in front of a class of 14 year olds.

In the last couple of scenes, Lennie is approached by Curley’s wife who is a seductive, lonely woman and who invites Lennie to stroke her hair.  Lennie likes soft things and strokes it.  I can’t remember all the details because I avoid reading this part of the book as much as possible (one teacher I work with is amazing and always warns me when we’re reading this part of the book so I can do work somewhere else for that lesson) but basically she shouts at him to stop, Lennie panics and holds tighter, he tries to stop her shouting but she’s trying to get away and he accidentally breaks her neck.  Then he runs and hides in the brush (near the river) because that’s where George told him to hide and wait if he got into trouble.  George hears about what has happened and goes to find Lennie.  He knows that if the men on the ranch find him first, they will rip him to pieces so he makes the decision to shoot Lennie himself in a humane way so that Lennie won’t suffer or even know anything about it.

Last year, the bit that got to me the most was Lennie accidentally killing Curley’s wife- he genuinely didn’t mean to and he was actually trying to AVOID trouble at the time.  He told her repeatedly to leave him alone and that he wasn’t meant to be talking to her but she kept on talking to him, and finally he lost control completely which really, really wasn’t his fault.  It’s hard when you know that a situation isn’t safe and you need to escape but you can’t- it’s a horrible feeling and the more trapped you feel, the worse it gets and something builds up inside you until eventually you ‘snap’ and can’t control it any more, and it really is like an ‘animal’ urge takes over.  I used to get like that a lot when I had more regular meltdowns and it really is horrible- you don’t really remember much about the actual experience but it’s horrible and exhausting.  All I know is that I’m suddenly screaming, sweating massively, crying, pulling my hair out, banging my head against the door/cupboard/floor, biting or scratching myself or ANYTHING to try to get rid of the crazy intense emotion that seems to have taken over completely.

The only way to get rid of it is for the other person to leave you alone completely but that hardly ever happens and it’s genuinely horrible because you can’t speak or express anything coherently, and you know you’re acting totally irrationally but nothing seems to make sense.  Thankfully I don’t experience it much any more but it still happens occasionally and I really, really hate it.  That’s how I’m guessing Lennie felt at the time when he accidentally killed Curley’s wife, and the really horrible thing is that I can imagine how easily it could happen- I’m a 5 foot 4 relatively small woman who’s not that strong but Lennie in the book is described as massive and very strong, so I can see completely how easy it would have been for that to happen if he felt trapped and panicky.  And I also know how horrible and guilty I feel after having a meltdown and that must have been multiplied a million times for Lennie, especially as he’s worried he’s going to lose his only friend who means more to him than absolutely anything else.  So it’s a really, really horrible part of the book to read.

Weirdly when we read it this time, it was actually the next scene that got to me the most. When Lennie’s waiting in the brush, he starts to hallucinate and the visions he sees and hears are horrible, negative and critical.  It’s like his version of the ‘bitch in my head’ and some of the things they say are almost word for word what the bitch in my head says (and is saying on a pretty much hourly basis atm), and that was really surreal and hard to read.  The line that gets to me the most and that I can’t get out of my head atm is when the giant rabbit that Lennie hallucinates keeps telling him that George is going to leave him.  This is the quote from the book:

“Well, he’s sick of you,” said the rabbit. “He’s gonna beat hell outa you an’ then go away an’ leave you.”

“He won’t,” Lennie cried frantically. “He won’t do nothing like that. I know George. Me an’ him travels together.”

But the rabbit repeated softly over and over, “He gonna leave you, ya crazy bastard. He gonna leave ya all alone. He gonna leave ya, crazy bastard.”

Just typing it makes me cry and I’ve got mega vertigo even thinking about it.  Because it’s so bloody true, and I know it’s not just people with learning disabilities who can relate to that.  I know I’m not the easiest person in the world to be friends with- I’m too intense, clingy, overly sensitive and even though I try not to act on it, people always get fed up with me and I hardly ever manage to keep close friends because of being too ‘much’.  I lost my closest friend a couple of years ago (wrote a few blog posts about it last year- see Friendships and mindfulness and TOO MUCH EMOTION especially) and since then I’ve realised that it’s pretty much impossible to form and keep close friendships because I’m always going to lose them, which is horrible and hard to accept but it’s definitely safer to recognise and try to accept it than keep losing friendships that I’ve accidentally got too attached to.  But even though I can recognise that, it doesn’t stop it hurting and definitely doesn’t stop the paranoia about it which is particularly intense atm because of losing another close relationship a few months ago, and reading Lennie’s hallucinations which basically mirror my own ‘voices’ and paranoia was a bit too intense and surreal, especially as I’m already feeling more vertigo-y and rubbish than I was this time last year.

The other part of the ending of the novel that really got to my both last year and this year is George shooting Lennie.  Last year, it got to me because of the more obvious reason- however ‘kind’ the action is, Lennie is being killed because he is ‘too much’ and can’t manage his own emotions, and I could identify with that way too much.  When I read it for the first time last year, it made me feel rubbish and horrible because of feeling like I wasn’t good enough, people were fed up with me and it would be better for everyone if I didn’t exist and I still had those feelings this year but it was lot more intensified and with the added complexity that reading it a year on, I actually felt almost envious of Lennie and then felt massively guilty and horrible for feeling that.  It’s really hard to explain and I feel really weird and guilty for trying to put it into words, but I do feel very, very jealous that Lennie has a friend as close as George is and who is willing to put his (Lennie’s) needs above his own feelings.  I hadn’t really thought about George’s perspective on it before but we had to discuss it in class and he must have felt massively conflicted and guilty for effectively having to kill his best friend and probably the only genuine human connection he has.  In class, the kids had to come up with what they thought would happen next (George gets his own ranch, George meets a girl and settles with a family, George continues to work at the ranch etc) but my main thought was that George would now be totally alone and probably wouldn’t be able to deal with the guilt and loneliness, and I honestly think he’d probably use the gun on himself.  Which makes the ending of the book doubly sad and horrible to process.

The hardest thoughts I have about the end of the book though are definitely the horrible jealousy about Lennie and George’s relationship, and particularly Lennie’s death.  Because at the moment, I’m totally aware that I’m constantly ‘too much’ for people and the only way that seems to work to manage that (the over-emotion, mood swings and obsessiveness) is through food and weight which annoyingly also seems to end up affecting other people and there genuinely doesn’t seem to be a ‘safe’ solution.  I’m not saying I’d ‘do’ anything about it because that would also be ‘too much’ and affect other people (especially given that I work with kids) but Lennie is lucky in that he has a friend who is able to see the bigger picture and act in a way that is probably the safest and most humane way for him in the long term, and saves him future suffering.  Obviously I know that that isn’t a practical solution but I really hate how it feeds into negative thought spirals that are so hard to manage.

I can rationalise the thoughts and I know it’s not a practical or helpful way to think but it’s been HORRIBLE recently trying to manage this amount and this intensity of negative thoughts about it while we’ve been reading the novel and especially having to watch the film (the ending twice).  There was one lesson where I was feeling particularly rubbish already and genuinely couldn’t hold in crying which was really horrible and embarrassing, but luckily only one student noticed and he didn’t make a big deal out of it.  It’s still really getting to me though and I can’t get the ‘rabbit voice’ out of my head.  It’s pretty much how I feel about relationships in general- I know they’re fluid and not permanent but it’s so hard to actually accept that, and sometimes it seems easier not to get close to people at all because you know they’re going to get fed up with you, but at the same time it’s horrible and lonely when you don’t have any ‘real’ people contact outside of working with kids.  But also better than losing close friendships which is the worst feeling in the world so a bit of a no-win situation!  Which is maybe the point of the book?

Trying to end on a positive: even though I know that friendships often don’t last, it’s something I’m trying really, really hard to work on and awareness definitely a big step towards that. DBT skills are also really, really helpful in managing interpersonal relationships and wrote about that last year in a blog post called Celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare with DBT skills– please read for more info! And will include a list of things I learned from that here because it’s definitely something I need to revisit:

1 Take every friendship at face value.  Don’t overthink it, make assumptions, have unrealistic or idealistic expectations, or make any judgements at all.  Try to take the friendship as it comes and use mindfulness or grounding techniques to manage anxiety.

2 Friendships are fluid and changing.  There is no such thing as a ‘best friend’ or ‘forever friendship’, however amazing that would be.  Enjoy the relationship when you can but don’t have any expectations that it will last forever.  Practise ‘beginner’s mind’ (seeing every experience as the first time you’ve experienced it, without any preconceptions or judgements) and don’t overthink it.

3 People change and that’s part of life.  If a friendship ends, it might not have anything to do with you whatsoever- the other person might have changed or moved on and THAT’S OK.  Growth is part of life and people move on at different rates.  That doesn’t make it any painful, but taking away the guilt or self-criticism will help you move on from it a lot more easily.

4 Be open with people.  Honesty and openness in relationships is the most important part of a healthy relationship and will reduce anxiety more than almost anything else.  Anxiety and particularly paranoia come from uncertainty and thrive in self-doubt or assumptions.  If you’ve got a gut reaction to something- check it out.  Don’t let it spiral into full-on paranoia or depression because then everything’s skewed through a fog of thoughts and judgements and you’re likely to damage the relationship without realising it.  Sounds cliched but if the other person’s worth being friends with, they’ll be honest with you.

5 TRUST.  This is one of the hardest ones for me and there’s different ways it’s relevant to friendships but the some of the key points are to trust that the friendship will still exist even if you’re not constantly contacting the other person, trust that the other person will be honest with you, and trust that the other person really does want to stay friends with you.  I find all of these really hard, especially the last one, but they’re so important and I think they get easier the more you do them…  It really relates back to the mindfulness idea and I’m trying really, really hard to use that in my current friendships.

Either way, I’m really, really glad we’ve finished reading it for this year and I don’t need to think about it for another ten months!  Definitely not my favourite book but need to keep reminding myself that it was written in the 1930s and things have changed and improved A LOT since then thankfully…

Reflecting back over the last decade :/

Really sorry I haven’t posted in so long; had lots going on and not been feeling massively motivated recently.  Had a bit of a weird realisation the other day though- 21st May this year will be ten years exactly since I was last inpatient.  TEN YEARS?!?!  Really, really doesn’t feel like that long ago.  So I’ve decided to revisit my diaries from that time and I’m going to do some blog posts trying to work out what’s changed, what still needs to change and what I could do differently.  Going to be very, very weird but hopefully productive!

SO…  Starting right at the beginning of admission #3 on Saturday 24th February 2007.  Straightaway I’m noticing that it’s my ex-ex best friend from primary school’s 20th birthday which I’m guessing I didn’t even realise at the time which feels a bit sad and selfish (both of those feelings are going to be a recurring theme throughout these blog posts!) although according to the diary, the actual admission was on the Thursday of that week which would have been 22nd February (also a very close friend’s birthday).

I remember that Thursday really, really clearly- I was at college and had been waiting for a call for a couple of days by then.  Then my phone rang in the middle of a philosophy lecture and I had to take it, and it was the ED service calling to say there was a bed available and I had to go in straightaway.  My philosophy teacher was amazing and really supportive, and I felt so weird and guilty telling her I had to leave.  It really, really doesn’t feel like ten years ago and I still cringe remembering it.  Makes me feel so so guilty and horrible!  The decision to go in that time was one of the hardest ‘decisions’ I’ve had to make- it wasn’t really a decision in one sense because I knew if I refused, I’d be sectioned and have to go in anyway but I still had to agree to go in ‘voluntarily’ and take responsibility for it which was really, really  horrible.

It’s the (perceived) impact on other people that’s the hardest part.  I was embarrassed to tell anyone and felt so guilty whenever anyone found out.  I still feel like that now to an extent although I’m a lot more accepting of ‘me’ and how I function now than I was ten years ago when I thought that I was a total failure and that there was something ‘missing’ or ‘wrong’ with my personality which would explain why I couldn’t seem to manage basic adult skills like making and keeping friends, sexual/romantic attraction, going to uni, keeping a job, not getting overloaded or overly intense, not being obsessive etc.  Also ten years ago, I’d never even heard ofAsperger’s and my perspective of OCD was continual hand washing or tidiness which really didn’t fit me so I thought I was just a weird obsessive freak.  Wish I’d been a bit more mental health aware!

Anyway, that’s a brief post about going in for my final (*touch wood*) admission- will be posting more right up till 21st May…

Reality and consciousness in the Harry Potter series: another academic-type essay!

J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series hinges around the final chapters of the seventh book, ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’- ‘The Forest Again’ and ‘King’s Cross’.   At the end of his conversation with Dumbledore in King’s Cross, Harry says to him, “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”, to which Dumbledore replies, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, p.579). This exchange seems to epitomize the series as a whole and bring up one of the main questions- that of what is ‘real’ and what is illusory or imagined. In this essay, I am going to look at ideas around what ‘reality’ means in the world of J.K. Rowling’s novels, how that affects the identity of the characters and the series as a whole, and focus finally on the ‘King’s Cross’ chapter of the final book. I have included a brief synopsis of the series and characters as an endnote.

The most obvious aspect of the Harry Potter series relating to the concept of reality is the presentation of different ‘worlds’ throughout the series, which should be clarified before analyzing the series itself. This has been interpreted in various ways by different critics, and I am going to examine the different viewpoints and attempt to find examples to support the view that J.K. Rowling has created a ‘fantasy’ world which contains various sub-worlds representing different key themes and ideas in the novels.

The first, most obvious distinction is the difference between the world of the reader and the world of the novels. The world of the reader is experienced by the reader outside of the books and which shapes the concepts of reality and identity. For the purposes of the essay, I am going to assume an objective, external world, the experiences of which create a person’s unique perception and identity, and imagination which allows a person to ‘transcend’ the world they live in. The world of the novel is a creation in itself, and functions through the writing to form a world separate from the experiences of the external world.

The Harry Potter series is different to many other ‘fantasy’ (the word ‘fantasy’ is used loosely as J.K. Rowling does not consider her books to be ‘fantasy literature’ and they do not adhere to traditional fantasy guidelines) series as it portrays two worlds, magical and non-magical within the same global space. In the ‘Lord of the Rings’ series, Middle Earth is a new world in its own right, and in the Narnia series, Narnia is a separate world accessible only through ‘gateways’ from our world, whereas in the Harry Potter books, both worlds exist side by side. This leads to different problems relating to the ‘reality’ of the novels than other series as it requires a total suspension of disbelief. Because of this, I think it is important to distinguish between the world of the reader and world of the novels before looking at the novels themselves and their own concepts of reality.

In an essay called ‘Three Worlds’, Suman Gupta examines the idea of different worlds with the Harry Potter series. In a similar way to that which I have described, he writes that “The Harry Potter books play deliberately and self-consciously with three worlds: the Magic World, the Muggle world, and…our world”. His interpretation is slightly different, as he says in the next paragraph that “our world in implied through both these worlds”. I would argue that ‘our world’ is not “implied”- the fact that J.K. Rowling was a British novelist writing on Earth influenced her choice to set her ‘fantasy’ world in the U.K. rather than a conscious choice to imply aspects of ‘our world’, and the world of the novels he creates is separate from any implications. Rather than three ‘equal’ worlds, I think “our world” is equal to the world of the novels, and within that are the two sub-divisions of the “Magic world” and the “Muggle world” as it would be difficult to make a parallel from an external world to a fictional world without qualifying how it was created.

Gupta then discusses the “Muggle world” represented in the novels, and compares the Dursley household to “microcosm” of the Muggle world as a whole, saying that they are “bound to represent something general”. This is not necessarily true, as we see other Muggles in the novels such as Hermione’s parents who do not “shun” magic, even though they, like the Dursleys and most other Muggles, “desire to live in a causally explicable world” (Gupta, ‘Three Worlds’). Gupta describes the magic and Muggle worlds as “mutually definitive” as he writes that “The Muggle world that is presented exists as complementing the Magic world”. This is again not necessarily true- the reason we do not see as much of the Muggle world as the wizarding world is that we see events through Harry’s eyes, who is a wizard, which supports the view that J.K. Rowling is advocating the idea of reality existing from a ‘personal’ perspective, and that a person’s perceptions create their own identity and reality, which is linked to the idea of free will which I will explore in another section. The Muggle world is not “presented as though to draw the reader away from it and into the Magic world”; they are two separate but co-existing worlds within the world of the novel which necessarily interact as people inhabit both but have separate laws and customs, in a similar way to the way in which countries exist in the same ‘global space’ but are separate entities in themselves. Gupta’s point that the Muggle world acts as a “focalizing device” could be true in terms of the literary writing, but in terms of the worlds within the novel, they are not interdependent. Because they inhabit the same global space, they two worlds necessarily interact. An example of this is the chapter ‘The Other Minister’ in ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ where the Minster for Magic, Cornelius Fudge, has a meeting with the Muggle Prime Minister because events happening in the wizarding world are affecting Muggles such as Dementors causing fog and mist in July and murders. This scene also shows the reaction of Muggles towards wizards- the Prime Minister says that “For a time he had tried to convince himself that Fudge had indeed been a hallucination”.

Some similar ideas are discussed in ‘Harry Potter and Imagination’, by Travis Prinzi. In Chapter Two, he quotes J.K. Rowling as saying that the wizarding world is “a world within a world that you can see if you happen to belong”, which shows the idea that the wizarding world is a part of the world created within the novel, and is separate from the Muggle world (which is another aspect of that world) as you can only be a part of the wizarding world if you belong to it by having magical powers. Prinzi describes this as an “ontological break between the Wizarding and Muggle words” (Ch.2 ), which is true as “witches and wizards will never be Muggles, and Muggles will never be witches and wizards”. This view seems to fit the series better than Gupta’s argument, as the two worlds are portrayed as separate but parallel in the novels as opposed to interdependent. The concept of reality is complex because within the fictional world of the novel, it is important to distinguish between the Muggle and wizarding worlds which are equally ‘real’ and then it is possible to explore the issues of reality, illusion, imagination and identity within that world. Platform Nine and Three Quarters at King’s Cross station in London acts as a ‘way into’ the magical world, as only wizarding people know how to access the train that takes them from Muggle London to Hogwarts. Rubeus Hagrid’s answer to Harry’s question about finding wizarding place is London of “If yeh know where to go” (‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, p.53) illustrates the parallel worlds of Muggle and magical.

Another important theme to consider when looking at problems of reality and consciousness in the Harry Potter series is the link between consciousness and reality. For John Locke, the ‘self’ comes directly from consciousness and this forms the basis of his concept of personal identity, which is that a person’s thoughts and actions constitute the identity of that person. He distinguishes personal identity as different from identity in general as he sees ’humans’ (or physical bodies) as separate to ‘people’ as he thinks that the term ‘human’ refers to another biological animal whereas a ‘person’ has an identity of their own different to the identity of animals and plants, which is defined in physical terms. He does not, as Aristotle and Descartes state, think that personal identity is the same as the soul because for him, a soul is another substance. Instead, he concentrates on the question of how the idea of personal identity can relate to being a human. He defines person as distinct to simply human as it encompasses the idea of reason and the power to be conscious of itself through time, which is different to simply being able to think. He also seems to link this idea with memory as he says “memory or consciousness of past actions”, and equates this with the idea of the ‘self’ as that of which a person is conscious which persists through time.

As a contrast, David Hume thought that there could be no innate personal identity. Being an empiricist, he agreed with Locke that a person sees themselves as the same person they experienced at a time in their memory, but instead of drawing the conclusion that there is an intrinsic personal identity, he says that the sense of personal identity is caused by the memory rather than depending on it. He argued in a similar way to Heraclitus that everything changes, and so do people. For him, the idea that a person is the same as they were in a time that they remember is caused by the fact that they remember, not an identity proved by memory. His argument has been called the “bundle theory”, because he sees people as ‘bundles’ of properties. Unlike Locke’s concept of ‘properties’, for Hume this encompasses everything about a human, including their thoughts, feelings and experiences, which are not necessarily linked, and therefore cannot constitute a personal identity. What we perceive to be a ‘self’ is really just a collection of experiences and ideas which make up a human being; there is no intrinsic ‘I’.

This is interesting to explore in the context of the Harry Potter novels because of the relation between Harry and Voldemort’s identities. In ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’, Harry has a series of dreams and visions in which he ‘sees’ places he has never been to and feels emotions unrelated to how he is feeling at the time which he realizes are linked to Voldemort. From Locke’s view, the fact that he is having the same consciousness as Voldemort would mean that he has Voldemort’s identity at those times since his feelings, experiences and consciousnesses are those of Voldemort. This view does not fit the novels, since J.K. Rowling writes explicitly about souls and their importance to personal identity, which I will examine in another section. Locke’s view is interesting in looking at the way in which Voldemort uses the connection between his and Harry’s minds to control and influence his thoughts. Near the end of the book, he plants a vision in Harry’s mind that his godfather, Sirius, is being tortured in the Department of Mysteries. Harry takes this to be true and according to Locke’s view this would be true for him at the time because he is conscious of ‘seeing’ and experiencing that at the time even though it is not happening in the reality of the novel.

In an essay called ‘Why Won’t Voldemort Just Die Already: What Wizards can teach us About Personal Identity’, Jason T. Eberl writes about the concept of Harry and Voldemort sharing consciousnesses. He observes that “At the time of each experience, they share the same consciousness and will have the same memory of the event…Thus, since for Locke and Hume consciousness and memory are the foundation of personal identity, the conclusion apparently follows that Harry and Voldemort are one and the same person when they share these experiences” (‘Harry Potter and Philosophy’, Ch.15). This raises several problems, both in the context of the novels and in the context of personal identity. Eberl goes on to argue that since they only share their consciousnesses at certain moments in time, they are not truly identical because, according to Leibniz, “for any two things to be identical, they must share all and only the same properties”, whereas Harry and Voldemort have different memories and experiences of other events.

J.K. Rowling uses the idea of illusion in her writing. Since the novels are (mainly) written from Harry’s perspective, the reader sees events from Harry’s point of view which can be flawed and since we do not see all the events in the novel, we are often given a false impression. The main example of this is the portrayal of Severus Snape. In the first book, Harry (and the reader) believes that Snape is trying to kill him whereas in reality it was another wizard. This is a microcosm of the series as a whole, where the reader is presented scenes in which Snape would appear to be working for Lord Voldemort. In the fourth and fifth books, we see Snape working for Dumbledore in the Order of the Phoenix, but Harry (and the readers through Harry’s eyes) does not trust him. At the beginning of the sixth book, we see what appears to be Snape showing his “true allegiance” when he makes an Unbreakable Vow to help fulfil Lord Voldemort’s orders. Bellatrix voices the reader’s doubts when she says “Oh, he’ll try, I’m sure…the usual empty words, the usual slithering out of action” (‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, Chapter Two) but the final paragraph of the chapter seems to convince both her and the reader: “Bellatrix’s astounded face glowed red in the blaze of a third tongue of flame, which shot out of the wand, twisted with the other, and bound itself thickly around their clasped hands, like a rope, like a fiery snake.” Through the novel, we see Snape working both for Dumbledore and for Voldemort which increases the ambiguity of where his allegiance is but the scene near the end of the novel seems to confirm the suspicions from the beginning where Snape kills Dumbledore. The ambiguity is extended through Rowling’s writing as Snape and other Death Eaters face Dumbledore, and then the line “Snape gazed for a moment at Dumbledore, and there was revulsion and hatred etched in the harsh lines of his face” (HBP, Ch.27) sets up the killing of Dumbledore. In the end, the reader discovers that Dumbledore had planned his death at the hands of Snape to fulfil part of a ‘greater plan’, which introduces one of the main (but unknown until the final chapters) themes of the series- that nothing happens independently and everything is part of a larger plan. This implies that there is a greater ‘reality’ than the external world Harry lives in, which will be explored in the King’s Cross chapter.

A subject closely related to ideas about consciousness and identity is that of dreams linked to desires. After Harry has discovered the Mirror of Erised, which shows “what is the deepest, most desperate desires of our hearts” (‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, Ch.12), Dumbledore reminds him that “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live”, which is another common theme in the books. The symbolism of mirrors in significant in the series because they represent more than just reflecting appearances and reflect aspects of characters.

The Mirror of Erised is a good example of this. Dumbledore tells Harry that the Mirror reflects “neither knowledge nor truth” and that “men have wasted away before it…not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible”(‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, p.157). The mirror represents an illusion which confuses the perception of reality and allows human greed and ambition to overtake reason. An essay called ‘”Interpret Your Findings Correctly” Harry’s Magical Self-Discovery’ by David Jones from the book ‘Hog’s Head Conversations’ edited by Travis Prinzi examines this idea further. He describes the mirror as a “means for manipulating the senses” (‘Hog’s Head Conversations’, p.193) which is interesting because it brings up both the idea that mirrors do not represent truth and the idea that the senses are not totally reliable, which is relevant in the context of this essay because questioning the validity of the senses is linked to how we perceive the external world. Although Harry knows that what he sees in the mirror cannot be ‘real’, it becomes an obsession for him and he returns several times before he is stopped by Dumbledore. The idea of desire overtaking reason or possibility can also be seen in his (and others’) obsessive thoughts about the pursuit of the Deathly Hallows in Book 7, where the search for the three objects that ‘conquer death’ consumes all his thoughts and has consumed the thoughts of Dumbledore, Voldemort and others before them. It again brings up the question of whether ‘death’ is an inevitable part of human life which is questioned throughout the series or whether, as Dumbledore says in King’s Cross, “Of course this is happening inside your head” (‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, p.579) and all that exists is illusory. Jones writes that “The mirror distorts reality by reflecting fantasy back to its subject” (p.194) and the mirror can be seen as a symbol that hints towards the idea that reality is not necessarily ‘real’ and what is seen through the senses can be ‘distorted’.

The concept of imagination is very important when thinking about reality and illusion. In an article called ‘Kant and Coleridge on Imagination’, Robert D. Hume outlines Kant’s concepts of reality and the cognitive process. He writes that “’Reality’ Kant defines as a category of the Understanding” which implies that ‘reality’ for an individual is related to the way in which the external world is perceived or interpreted subjectively. This would seem to fit with Dumbledore’s reply in King’s Cross that “Of course it is happening inside your head” if everything we experience is interpreted subjectively, and “why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” reflects the idea that reality comes from our ‘Understanding’.

Later on in the article, Robert D. Hume says that “Imagination…is then the very ground of our having a world of experience at all, for without its mediation between Sensibility and Intellect there could be no applications of categories to possible objects of experience”, which shows how important the imagination is in the formation of our experience of the external world. J.K. Rowling creates a fantasy world which engages the imagination in a way similar to that of Kant’s “free-play” of the imagination (‘Critique of Judgement’), which in turn allows a reader to reflect on the events within a created world objectively.

An essay called ‘The Well-Ordered Mind: How Imagination Can Make Us More Human’ by Travis Prinzi from ‘Hog’s Head Conversations’ examines different ideas about imagination in relation to the Harry Potter novels. He begins the essay by describing the moral imagination of Russell Kirk, which he explains as the idea that “the imagination has the power to change ourselves and the world around us for the better” (‘Hog’s Head Conversations’, p.103) which again brings up the idea that imagination of different for each person and, in this context, can influence people’s individual worlds. He quotes J.K. Rowling’s usage of a Plutarch quotation in a speech: “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality” and this seems to be another motivation for the events of the Harry Potter novels- Harry’s choice to sacrifice himself and, as Prinzi points out, purify his soul leads to his ‘reincarnation’ and Voldemort’s downfall. Morality is an important part of the Harry Potter series and can be epitomized in Minerva McGonagall’s reply to a Death Eater that her priority is “the difference between truth and lie, courage and cowardice” (‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, p.477). The emphasis on morality again seems to point to a ‘greater reality’, which is implied throughout the novels.

In ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, Dumbledore refers to “the murky marshes of memory into thickets of wild guesswork” (p.187) which seems to illustrate the way in which memory is depicted in the novels. Memory is an important idea in all seven books, and we are first introduced to it in ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ where we are told that Harry’s first memory is a flash of green light which we later discover was the curse the Lord Voldemort used on him as a baby. The idea of memory becomes more significant in ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’. The diary of Tom Riddle contains memories “recorded…in a more lasting way than ink” (‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’, p.179). When Riddle comes out of the diary, he describes himself as “A memory…Preserved in a diary for fifty years.” (p.227). Unlike a ghost, he is a “tall, black-haired boy…strangely blurred around the edges…not a day older than sixteen”(p.227) whose existence depends on the diary; when Harry destroys it, Riddle’s ‘memory’ is also destroyed. Later in the series, we discover that the diary was a Horcrux where Lord Voldemort (Tom Riddle) had hidden a part of his soul which took the form of memory when it came out of the diary’s pages. By linking the ideas of soul and memory, Rowling is implying that a person’s soul or identity depends at least partly on their memories which is consistent with John Locke’s view of personal identity.

The main way in which memories occur in the novels is through the use of the Pensieve. Dumbledore explains to Harry that “One simply siphons off the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links”. Harry is able to experience these memories firsthand by going into the Pensieve, which makes Locke’s view problematic because he is experiencing and having consciousness of something from Dumbledore’s mind and following Locke’s argument, this would mean that he has taken on Dumbledore’s identity. This seems to contradict the link between memory and soul made in the second book, unless memories do not necessarily entail the idea of souls. Voldemort’s Horcruxes are unusual (Dumbledore describes them as ‘beyond the usual evil’ in ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), and most memories might not be linked directly to the soul of the person they belong to, which could account for examples such as memory loss or unreliable memories.

An example of unreliable memory comes from ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’. Harry witnesses a memory from Horace Slughorn in which Tom Riddle asked about Horcruxes and Slughorn refused to answer. Dumbledore tells Harry that is has been edited, because “He has tried to rework the memory to show himself in a better light” (p.348) and when Harry manages to get the true memory out of Slughorn, he realizes that the actual conversation was much longer and more complex than the first memory had shown. This example illustrates how memories do not necessarily reflect reality, and the consequences of their subjectivity.

In his essay, Jason Eberl discusses Hume’s concept of memory forming the basis of personal identity. He writes that “Hume would caution Harry to remain skeptical of the story that others had relayed to him since he has no perception of it that he can link by memory to his present perceptions” (‘Harry Potter and Philosophy’, p.204) since Hume, unlike Locke, relies on memory rather than present consciousness to form the concept of ‘self’.

One of the fundamental ideas of the Harry Potter series is the idea of souls and the relation between souls and identity. The first book to explore this idea in detail is the sixth book in the series, ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, although there are allusions to the concept throughout the novels. The first detailed reference is when Harry witnesses Slughorn’s memory of Riddle asking about Horcruxes and the concept of splitting the soul is introduced. Slughorn describes Horcruxes as “the word used for an object in which a person has concealed part of their soul” (p.464) which would prevent a person from dying because “even if one’s body is attacked or destroyed, one cannot die, for the part of the soul remains earthbound and undamaged”. This raises interesting questions about identity and whether is it linked to the soul or to consciousness. In ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Remus Lupin explains to Harry that “You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you’ll have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no….anything. There’s no chance at all of recovery. You’ll just exist. As an empty shell” which illustrates the importance of the soul in the context of the Harry Potter novels.

When Dumbledore explains his theory about Voldemort’s Horcruxes to Harry, he says that “Lord Voldemort had seemed to grow less human with the passing years, and the transformation he had undergone seemed to me to be only explicable if his soul was mutilated beyond the realms of what we might call usual evil…” (p.475), and this seems to suggest that Voldemort’s identity as a human being had been damaged with each Horcrux, which implies that personal identity is linked to the soul. Another example of this idea in shown in ‘The Tale of Three Brothers’ from ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, the use of the Resurrection Stone caused the person to return “separated…as by a veil” (p.332). The idea of a veil separating life and death is illustrated in the chapter ‘Beyond the Veil’ in ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” where Harry can hear voices coming from behind a veil in an archway in the Department of Mysteries but cannot reach them, and when Sirius is killed, his body falls through the veil. In the Harry Potter series, life and death are separate worlds and once the soul passes “through the veil”, it cannot return. This again supports the idea that personal identity come from the soul, although this idea is flawed in that it relies on the existence of the soul. This is partly because the Harry Potter series, like the Narnia series, uses Christian allegories and ideas which is seen particularly in the end of the seventh book in the ‘King’s Cross’ chapter, and suggests the idea of a greater ‘reality’ past the external world.

Near the end of the seventh book, we discover that Harry himself is a Horcrux and that part of Voldemort’s soul “lodged itself” in his body when Voldemort tried to kill him as a baby. This again raises questions about Harry’s identity and whether the traits he shares with Voldemort by virtue of having part of his soul (such as speaking Parseltongue and being able to see events literally from Voldemort’s perspective) would mean that he really does share a part of Voldemort’s identity. I think that main aspect to look at with this question is not whether Harry has taken on Voldemort’s identity, but where Voldemort’s true identity is. If, as Dumbledore says, Voldemort has become so far from human that he cannot be called a human any longer (in first chapter of ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’, he says “I am much, much more than a man”) then the concept of personal identity might not apply to him in the same way. If he has ‘damaged his soul’ so much that it is so ‘unstable’ that it no longer has a true identity, then his ‘identity’ would be with his consciousness but it would not be the same as true personal identity.

In his chapter ‘Dehumanization: Defining Evil in Harry Potter’ from ‘Harry Potter and Imagination’, Travis Prinzi writes that “The “soul” points to an origin and identity beyond ourselves, beyond this present life” whereas Voldemort “believes precisely the opposite: that his goal in life is to remain alive eternally and never to face death”(p.75). This again alludes to the Christian elements in the Harry Potter series and implies that there is another world after this one- as Dumbledore says “To the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure (‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, p.215). Prinzi uses some interesting quotations from ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ to illustrate his argument. “A Horcrux is the complete opposite of a human being” again shows the idea that Voldemort has become so far from human that he no longer exists as a man and “If I picked up a sword right now…I wouldn’t damage your soul at all…whatever happens to your body, your soul will survive, untouched” which shows the metaphysical nature of the soul and how it can survive beyond the external world. Ironically, in trying to create an eternal identity for himself, Voldemort has destroyed his ‘self’, both literally and metaphorically. When Dumbledore first met him as Tom Riddle at ten years old, he did not like the name ‘Tom’ because “There are a lot of Toms” (‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, p.257) and he later re-creates himself as Lord Voldemort, showing how he wants to be unique and ‘extraordinary’, but in the Harry Potter universe, there appears to be a ‘greater reality’ hinted at which makes this impossible. In ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, Dumbledore explains to Harry that “Of house elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing…That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped” (p.568) which shows partly the true nature of the ‘greater reality’, although not its whole nature.

The concept of time in the Harry Potter series is different to that of the Narnia chronicles because of the fact that the wizarding world occupies the same global space as the Muggle world. Narnian time is totally different to the human world, whereas the wizarding and Muggle worlds interact and function in the same space and time, although there are parts of the wizarding world that Muggles cannot access. This shows that the ‘reality’ of the world within the novels encompasses both the magical and Muggle worlds. Dumbledore’s remark “Time is making fools of us again” from ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ unconsciously points to a theory of time separate from the external world. The use of the time-turner in ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ introduces the concept of time-travel. In an essay called ‘Space, Time, and Magic’, Michael Silberstein uses scientific explanations of time and the possibility of time travel to show how it can be possible, and how it works in the context of the Harry Potter novels. He explains the difference between a ‘tensed’ and ‘tenseless’ view of time, and demonstrates that only a tenseless view of time, where “past, present and future are all equally real” in a four-dimensional universe allows the possibility of time travel, and this is the current scientific view of the universe. Time is relative, just as ‘place’ is relative. He uses the idea of a ‘block’ to describe this concept, and writes that “The events of your birth and death, just like Paris and Hong Kong, are equally real, the just exist at different space-time points”. In this way, use of the time turner in ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ is scientifically ‘valid’, although Rowling creates a ‘causal loop’ because, although Harry and Hermione do not change events that have already happened, the outcome depends on the start and vice versa- explained by Silberstein as “(A) Harry was saved from the Dementors because he travelled back in time and saved himself and (B) Harry was able to travel back in time because he saved himself”.

Silberstein’s essay was written before the sixth and seventh books were published, and it is interesting to look at the events in ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ alongside this view of time to try to determine the nature of the Harry Potter universe. When Harry enters the forest to be killed by Voldemort, he knows that “Of course there had been a bigger plan” (p.555) and the Dumbledore had ‘planned’ his life to defeat Voldemort. The question of prophecy and determinism has already been shown in the series by the prophecy made seventeen years ago that a baby born that summer would be the person to defeat Voldemort, and Voldemort “marked” Harry as a baby which fulfilled part of the prophecy and in that way affected Harry’s fate. Because Voldemort chose to believe the prophecy, he created his own fate while believing that it was determined, in a similar way to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is illustrated when Dumbledore explains to Harry that “Voldemort singled you out as the person who would be most dangerous to him- and in doing so, he made you the person most dangerous to him!” (‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, p.476). As a contrast, Harry chooses to sacrifice himself whereas he could have chosen to abandon Dumbledore’s plan. In ‘The Deathly Hallows Lectures’, John Granger writes that “He embraces the necessary conformity to the Divine Will” (p.113), which implies that Harry has no choice over what Dumbledore has planned, but this is not necessarily true although the reader cannot know whether Harry could choose not to sacrifice himself even though he seems to choose to.

When Voldemort kills Harry, he seems to be transported to somewhere outside of time and space. Once he realizes he is there, he describes it as “A long time later, or maybe no time at all” (Dh, p.565) which suggests that he is outside the usual constraints of time. This can be interpreted in several way, but the two main interpretations could be that either, as explained by Silberstein, time is relative and he is in a ‘space’ where he cannot relate the ‘local time’ to time that he understands, or that he is in a timeless place, which would be consistent with a religious reading of the series (which is the ‘usual’ interpretation, although I am going to focus on the ‘time’ and reality aspect) where the space he is in represents purgatory. When “it came to him that he must exist, must be more than disembodied thought” (p.565), he looks around the place, describing it as “unformed nothingness” (p.565) which implies that it is not part of the same ‘universe’ that he had previously been in . This is confirmed by the fact that “His body appeared unscathed…He was not wearing glasses any more” (p.565) and by the appearance of Dumbledore, “whole and white and undamaged” (p.566). During their conversation, Harry begins to realize that he is not dead, although he is not in the ‘real world’, which leads to the question of the prophecy: “I live…while he lives?…I thought it was the other way round…we both had to die? Or is it the same thing?” (p.568) which seems to call into question the nature of reality, life and death in the Harry Potter novels. Dumbledore said in the first book of the series that “No spell can reawaken the dead” and so Harry cannot be ‘dead’, but he is not in the ‘real’ universe. Dumbledore’s final words to Harry, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (p.579) question this idea even more, but also seem to clarify the chapter a bit more. The concept of reality in the Harry Potter novels seems to relate directly to the concept of ‘self’, since Harry realizes in the King’s Cross chapter that “he must exist” (p.565) and ‘existence’ in that sense is defined as ‘embodiment’, and so Harry identifies ‘himself’ with his body and therefore an external world. There is also the concept of an ‘ultimate reality’ shown in King’s Cross and Dumbledore, if it is not totally ‘inside Harry’s head’.

It is interesting to compare the Harry Potter universe to the ideas of Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza was a determinist who thought that God is an integral part of the universe- God and Nature are in essence the same concept. The external world is a ‘mode’ or part of God, which led him to conclude that thought and extension must also be features of God, and men are not truly ‘free’ as they are modes of God. This could be associated to the Harry Potter series if Dumbledore is seen as God, because ultimately he has ‘preordained’ the events of Harry’s life and Voldemort’s downfall. He also ‘controlled’ his own death, although a curse from the Horcrux was already killing him. This does not totally correlate because Harry does seem to ‘choose’ his own fate which is acknowledged by Dumbledore in King’s Cross, but this view of the world makes the situation of (and in) King’s Cross a bit clearer. The existence of a ‘space’ outside of the Harry Potter universe shows that there is the possibility of something outside of the external reality. There are conflicting views of the King’s Cross chapter, but the main ideas seem to be that either King’s Cross is a religious analogy of purgatory or that King’s Cross exists only in Harry’s head and that he does not really die. Both readings are possible and it would be impossible to rule either out. In the context of the themes of the Harry Potter novels and the symbolism of the final books, the first view seems more likely although Dumbledore’s comment seems to suggest the second. Both views could be correct if ‘purgatory’ takes place inside Harry’s mind, and it would be hard to ‘place’ somewhere outside of the external universe. An argument to support the view that it only happens in Harry’s mind is posited by John Granger in ‘The Deathly Hallows Lectures’, where he writes that Dumbledore does not tell Harry anything that he does not already know, and he comes to the conclusion that the exchange could take place in Harry’s unconscious mind which does seem to be a logical conclusion. For Granger, the key to the series is the difference between relativism and materialism, which is interesting to look at in relation to Kant.

Kant’s account of intuition in ‘The Critique of Pure Reason’ is relevant in looking at the nature of ‘King’s Cross’ (it appears to Harry as King’s Cross station, which links back the motif of the station as a link between worlds shown from the first novel with ‘Platform Nine and Three Quarters’ acting as a gateway to the magical world). Kant believed that there are certain a priori intuitions that can provide a structure for our a posteriori knowledge. For him, space can be known as both synthetic and a priori because it cannot be known from outside experience because experiences reflect space rather than direct experience of space itself. He also argues that space cannot be analytic because it is not innately known as it does not solely depend on terms or concepts, and therefore it must be both synthetic and a priori, and so must also be subjective as a condition of intuition. Kant’s version of the Copernican revolution states that the world must fit our perceptions as we cannot know the nature of ‘things in themselves’, and this is interesting in the context of the ‘King’s Cross’ chapter. Since, by Kant’s definitions, space is subjective, Harry could be in a ‘space’ that exists only for him and therefore the encounter with Dumbledore could be classified as ‘real’ even though it takes place only for him. The idea that the world fits our perceptions is useful in examining this idea, because it allows that Harry has synthetic knowledge of Dumbledore and King’s Cross without having to experience it a posteriori. In comparison to Kant’s argument, the exchange between Harry and Dumbledore begins to seem more ‘real’ and it shows how a different interpretation of the chapter can allow it to have a new form of ‘reality’.

These ideas seem to suggest that, although Harry’s sense of reality is mainly subjective, the Harry Potter universe seems to follow Kant’s writings that although we interpret the world subjectively and form our own ‘ideas’, there is an objective reality that is the subject of interpretation, and an objective ‘self’ that constitutes the mind that interprets the perceptions. The ‘King’s Cross’ chapter seems to work well with a Kantian reading, and this helps to understand more clearly the nature of reality in the Harry Potter series.

Endnotes

Synopsis of the Harry Potter series:

In the 1970s, a man formerly known as Tom Riddle renames himself as Lord Voldemort and becomes the most powerful Dark wizard of all time. He gains followers known as Death Eaters and they terrorize and kill many of the wizarding community. In order to protects himself from death, he splits his soul into seven parts and hides each in an inanimate object known as a Horcrux. In 1980, a prophecy is made to Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and the only man that Voldemort fears, that a baby born will been born in July who will have powers to rival the Dark Lord. This is overheard by one of Voldemort’s spies, and Voldemort marks Harry Potter, a baby born to wizarding parents who are fighting Voldemort’s forces as his rival. After the Potters are betrayed by one of their friends, he attacks and kills Harry’s parents and tries to kill Harry as well. The curse rebounds on Voldemort, whose body is destroyed but he lives on due to the Dark powers that prevent him from being killed while his Horcruxes are intact. Harry grows up and goes to Hogwarts at 11. In his fourth year, Lord Voldemort rises again and focuses on trying to kill Harry. No-one apart from Dumbledore realizes that a part of Voldemort’s soul is now inside Harry from his attempt to kill him as a baby, and Voldemort uses this connection to control Harry’s thoughts. A former Death Eater but now a member of the Order of the Phoenix (a secret society set up to defeat Voldemort) called Severus Snape protects Harry while still at school, and acts as a double agent after Voldemort’s return to power. Voldemort continues to terrorize the magical and Muggle (non-magical) communities and Dumbledore tries to find and destroy the Horcruxes. He is cursed by one of them, and asks Snape to kill him to protect the soul of a student-turned Death Eater who Voldemort has ordered to kill Dumbledore. Before he dies, Dumbledore leaves instructions with Harry to destroy the Horcruxes and Voldemort. In the final book, Harry finds out through Snape’s memory that since he has part of Voldemort’s soul inside him, in order for Voldemort to die, he must be killed my Voldemort to destroy the Horcrux inside him. He sacrifices himself to Voldemort in a forest, but because of the nature of the sacrifice, does not die and has an encounter with Dumbledore in a timeless ‘place’ that he experiences as King’s Cross. He returns to the Forest and duels Voldemort, eventually killing him. Since all the Horcruxes are now destroyed, Voldemort finally dies and the Death Eaters flee.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Baggett, David and Klein, Shawn E. (editors). Harry Potter and Philosophy, Open Court

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero’s Journey, New World Library

Colbert, David. The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter, Penguin

Fraim, John. Symbolism of Place, http://www.symbolism.org

Granger, John. The Deathly Hallows Lectures, Zossima Press

Granger, John. Harry Potter’s Bookshelf, Penguin

Gupta, Suman. Re-Reading Harry Potter, Palgrave

Heilman, Elizabeth E. (editor). Harry Potter’s World, Routledge

Hume, David. A Treatise on Human Nature, Penguin Classics

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Reason, Penguin Classics

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgement, Penguin Classics

Lewis, C.S. The Magician’s Nephew, Harper Collins Publishers

Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Harper Collins Publishers

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Oxford World Classics

Prinzi, Travis. Harry Potter and Imagination, Zossima Press

Prinzi, Travis (editor). Hog’s Head Conversations, Zossima Press

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Bloomsbury

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Bloomsbury

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Bloomsbury

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Bloomsbury

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Bloomsbury

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Bloomsbury

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Bloomsbury

Whited, Laura (editor). The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter, University of Missouri Press

 

Week review: DBT in practice- ACCEPTS

Last week was pretty rubbish emotion-wise.  I’ve been struggling a lot with feeling overwhelmed and vertigo-y, and it’s been getting worse over the last few weeks.  I’m also coming to the end of my current job and am about to start a new one, which is making me feel really anxious too so quite a lot going on at the moment.

After the losing a close friend, I had a pretty intense emotion crash which resulted in a lot of bingeing/purging and compulsive exercise which I’ve been trying really hard to manage over the last few months (after moving into a shared house and obviously don’t want my new housemate to know about that sort of thing) and I made a conscious decision to use DBT skills at every possible opportunity, not just when I’m feeling desperate or paranoid.  I’ve also decided to focus on one DBT skill a week in a blog post every weekend so this can be my ‘skill of the week’ for last week…

One of the distress tolerance skills I’ve found really useful this week is ACCEPTS.  DBT is full of acronyms which I kind of like because it makes it easier to remember the skills, and this one’s been particularly useful because it’s mainly about managing intense feelings/thoughts even if you can’t totally identify them which has definitely been true for me this week.  A stands for Activities, or doing something you enjoy.  I’ve been posting way more blog posts than people are probably interested in this week but it really has helped as a distraction technique and to try to express or regulate how I’m feeling.  I’ve also started drawing again which I’ve been really lazy about recently and am in the process of rereading the entire Sweet Valley High series which has actually become my go-to distress tolerance technique because it’s accessible via Kindle, easy to read and I ‘know’ the characters so well thanks for obsessive reading and fanfiction as a teenager, and it kind of feels like going home which is an amazing feeling.  I’ve kind of missed some of the characters (Olivia Davidson in particular- I’m avoiding the earthquake books!!) and it’s nice to read about other characters who feel ‘weird’ or like they’re getting things wrong as well as constantly aspiring to be more like Elizabeth Wakefield.  I learned a lot of social skills from SVH and I’m relearning some now, which I might end up blogging about at some point…

C is for Contribute- helping out other people.  I volunteer at Mind which I love, and recently started helping out again.  I love it for so many reasons; partly because I learn a lot from the groups too and from listening to service users, partly because the people who run the groups are awesome and I get a lot from listening to them too, and partly because I like feeling ‘useful’ or that I’m actually doing something constructive.  I’ve been doing voluntary work for nearly 17 years and it’s part of my life that I can’t imagine not doing, and I’ve got more from that than nearly anything else.  It’s amazing for everything from learning skills, acceptance, self esteem to basically anything positive you can think of!

The second C is Comparisons, or comparing where you are now to where you have been in the past.  This is a really useful one because it makes you realise that you have actually achieved stuff even if it feels like you’re constantly messing up.  A few years ago, I couldn’t keep a job and was ‘fully’ bingeing every day whereas now, I’ve had a job for over four months, I’m not living at home any more and the bingeing has reduced massively to low-level a few times a week.  I’ve also managed to be more assertive with relationships that aren’t healthy and am managing paranoid or obsessive thoughts so much better than a few years ago where they would literally take over my brain to the point where I couldn’t think about anything else.  Yes, I’m still feeling rubbish and get paranoid or obsessive on a regular basis but it’s nowhere near as intense and I’m hoping it’ll keep getting gradually less until it’s actually manageable…

E is the big one- Emotions, or more accurately OTHER emotions.  The point of this is to try to ‘displace’ the intense negative emotions with something positive that can distract from the intensity and make it more manageable.  My go-to way to do this is to watch The Big Bang Theory which is one of the only TV shows that is guaranteed to make me laugh and it really does work!  By some amazing coincidence, this week was the finale of season nine and had me in absolute hysterics which was AMAZING for temporarily getting rid of the vertigo and heart-clogging feeling I’ve had a lot over the last couple of weeks.  Won’t give it away for TBBT fans who haven’t seen it but it really is very, very funny!  Sometimes I wish I could watch TBBT several times a day to get the serotonin hit and to help to manage intense negative emotions, but playing scenes in my head does sometimes help (particularly if I pretend that I’m acting as one of the characters) and that’s something that might help other people with similar experiences?

P stand for Push away, or distracting your mind from whatever it is that you’re obsessing about or from negative emotions.  This is where I’ve been using my emotion card (see Opposite Action in action for more about that), and my rule is that I have to try at least two things from there before I can do anything potentially not-helpful.  Sometimes it works and it distracts for long enough for the urges to binge or cut to reduce to a more manageable level, sometimes it doesn’t.  But definitely worth a try!

T is for Thoughts- trying to manage the thoughts or make yourself think about something else.  This is the one I still haven’t managed to do properly so don’t really have much to add about it except that the theory is that by ‘making’ yourself think about something else, it sort of displaces the negative thoughts already there but my problem is that when I’m having obsessive or paranoid thoughts, I genuinely can’t get rid of them or think about anything else so I’m trying to find an alternative strategy…  For me, a couple of things that have helped are to ‘talk back’ to the thoughts like another person- I have a ‘bitch in my head’ who shouts at me a lot and a lot of the thoughts come from her, and I find it really useful to try to respond to her in a more compassionate or rational way, not to criticise her but to accept what she says and listen to her without actually believing her.  It sometimes helps, and the paranoid thoughts in particular are starting to reduce in intensity…

Last one is S: Sensations.  The idea of this is to use sensory stimulation to distract from the emotions, and it’s something I find especially useful because I tend to experience emotions ‘physically’ through vertigo, feeling like I’ve been punched in the stomach or chest, stinging feelings, dissociation, dizziness, feeling vacuum-y etc.  I have a few techniques I use a lot but smell is a big one- I carry smelling salts in my pocket and use them whenever I start to feel zoned out or dizzy and it really does help to ‘bring you back’ quickly and help you feel more ‘real’.  I also burn scented candles a lot to try to calm down, and play music to alter moods (I have a ‘mood stabilisers’ playlist as well as ‘happy/positive’ and ‘feeling rubbish’).  Taking a cold shower also helps if I’m feeling angry or overly hyped, or a hot bath if I’m feeling low or zoned out (careful with having a bath is you’re feeling dissociated, can make you feel worse and be dangerous- only if you’re just a bit ‘zoned’ or ‘unreal’ and not actually out of your body!).  I also use ‘soft’ things a lot and that’s really useful if I’m feeling low, vertigo-y or shaky; somethings wrapping up in a soft blanket and hugging a soft toy really helps to neutralise the vacuum or vertigo feeling.  There are obviously a lot of not-as-helpful sensation strategies which I won’t go into here, and it’s definitely best to use more constructive ones first if you can and see if that helps.  I tend to avoid taste-type ones because of ED issues but a lot of people find drinking hot chocolate good for feeling low or anxious, or eating something strong-tasting if you’re feeling zoned out.

Hopefully that makes sense and some of it is useful!  Will try to do a post like this about a different DBT skill every week…

Science

It’s past midnight; the witching hours

softly creep through the darkness.

Music muffles out of an open doorway,

shadows thump as hearts beat.

Seeing fluid bodies merge in time

I’m the wrong piece in an incomplete jigsaw,

watching chargeless as giggling electrons

attract and repel, weave an

intricate dance amongst pulsing protons.

Chemistry was never my best subject,

much less the murky peripheries

where chemistry meets biology,

the hormonal collision of chemical bonding

with fusion and reproduction.

Walking home, constellations map the sky.

The moon cycles its rhythmical shifts.

There’s safety in physics, cause and effect,

bound in formulae, logic and reason.

Autism and Creative Writing

Creative writing by people with autism is something that’s interested me for a really long time.  I’m a bit biased since I’m on the autism spectrum and happen to have done a creative writing degree but the connection came separately to even thinking about that and it’s something that, at the time, was one of those amazing ‘lightbulb’ moments when suddenly something ‘clicks’ and starts to make sense.  I was doing my undergrad degree in philosophy and was writing my dissertation about The Little Mermaid (the Andersen version, not Disney) when I came across an article online which suggested that Hans Christian Andersen may have been on the autism spectrum.  At the same time, the psychologist I was seeing in an eating disorder service had recently done an ASD assessment and concluded that she thought I had an autism spectrum disorder (Asperger’s) and my lifelong obsession has been The Little Mermaid so the whole thing kind of synced and suddenly everything seemed to make sense, and it was thanks to that that my interest in autism and creative writing developed properly.

Autism is defined by the National Autistic Society as “a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them.” It is a spectrum which ranges from severely autistic, where someone might not be able to communicate verbally at all, to high functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. People with Asperger’s Syndrome typically have difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination, and this could be shown through creative writing as stories with very little dialogue which are mostly based on fact and theory, or stories based around special interests. An autistic character in a story could also show preference for the physical, or sensory, experience rather than emotional and would demonstrate the difficulty that some people on the autism spectrum have with recognising or identifying emotions.

As part of a module at university a few years ago, I did a research-based assignment about different types of creativity and how they could relate to autism. Unfortunately, I misunderstood how to write a scale and accidentally measured the two types separately instead of comparing them so the results were not valid, but some of the research was really interesting. The report looked at two facets of creativity which are involved in creative writing: logical and emotional creativity. This is particularly relevant to autism because impairments in abstract imagination are part of the criteria for autism and Asperger Syndrome, and logical or more systematic thought is common in autistic people. I used the definition of ‘creative’ from the Oxford English Dictionary which defines it as “Relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something” (OED). In relation to creative writing, this would mean that creative writing can be defined as a piece of original writing which involves the use of the imagination. This does not exclude the use of factual information or theoretical ideas; instead, it would mean that facts or theory would be synthesised in an imaginative way such as the way in which Lewis Carroll explores ideas from mathematics and logic in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is written in a way that in very similar to the way in which an autistic person might write. The scenes appear random and disorganised, and don’t seem to follow a coherent structure but the internal rules of Wonderland and conversations with the characters themselves are very logical and literal. This would fit with autistic perception because people on the autism spectrum often have difficulties with central coherence, which is the ability to process and organise large amounts of complex material and events, and this can often lead to focus on details or distinct ideas rather than a coherent narrative.

Creative writing itself also has a variety of definitions- a short Facebook poll gave definitions from “An expression of thoughts, ideas and perceptions presented in an imaginative and original way” and “an act of writing which is directed by its author(s) for a specific purpose, towards a specific objective – the written work – in which creativity refers to problem solving efforts in the work’s construction and the author’s attempts to marry language, form, structure, and subject” to “the repeated banging your head against a wall for some mysterious purpose known only to dead, great people” (taken from a Facebook status asking for definitions of ‘creative writing’ that could be used as examples in a psychology report). The report looked at creative writing in terms of (fictional) short stories and poetry, without venturing into areas such as creative non-fiction or autobiographical writing.

The report looked at the dichotomy of two facets of creativity, which have been termed ‘logical’ and ‘emotional’ creativity. In a creative writing context, logical writing would be stories or poems which are structured, analytical or theoretical with an emphasis on information or ideas whereas emotional writing would be stories or poems which aim to provoke an emotional response in the reader. Writing is not one or the other; some writers use both approaches, but I have differentiated them in relation to autism because many people on the autism spectrum have difficulties with recognising or expressing emotions. In a study in 1999, Paul Hughes looked at how fictionalising the ‘self’ in writing can be beneficial for a person with Asperger’s syndrome in understanding their own Asperger self and how that understanding can be transferred to social situations and this is similar to a way in which the Sims computer game can be beneficial for children and adolescents on the autism spectrum because it allows them to simulate life and social interactions in a non-threatening way and to learn and practise important skills.

Ira Lightman, a conceptual poet who self-identifies as having an autism spectrum disorder, writes in an essay called ‘Untitled’ (2012) that “I will often write a poem based on a structural game, building my kind of mode around me; if I feel safe, I can discover emotion during the writing”. This exemplifies the ideas that this report is trying to explore. People on the autism spectrum often have very intense interests or obsessions and this is linked to a love of structure and routine, which can be used in creative writing as stories or poems based around a special interest. In 1998, a study by Lee and Hobson found that people with Asperger’s Syndrome tended to describe their personality in terms of their interests and often could not define personality and writing could be used as a way to explore this through the use of a special interest.

Many people on the autism spectrum find that they can express themselves more easily in writing than verbally, and creative writing can be beneficial for mental health because it can explore or articulate feelings in a way that makes them more accessible. It can also be related directly to any area of special interest such as an interest in science fiction or fantasy, or a fascination with a particular area of history. In 2009, Harbinson and Alexander’s study into students with Asperger syndrome and the English curriculum found that difficulties with the imaginative and emotional interpretation of creative writing and literature as could be a disadvantage for students with Asperger syndrome, and an exploration of a more logical and theory or fact-based style of writing could be a way to prevent this, and this would interesting to develop as part of further research into the way in which creative writing could be both adapted to an autistic population and how autistic people could use creative writing as a form of expression.

The quantitative method used to gather the data was to design an eight-level Likert scale to measure participants’ attitudes towards creative writing. There were eight questions that related to logical writing and eight questions related to emotional writing. Four of each set of eight questions were negatively weighted and the method was forced choice as there was no ‘neutral’ option. This measure was invalid because I misunderstood the instructions and accidentally designed two scales in one questionnaire and had a Cronbach’s alpha measurement of 0.267, which gave twice the amount of variables and was very difficult to interpret. Is this were to be repeated, it could be broadened to include qualitative research such as looking at transcripts of autistic people talking about creative writing, or asking neurotypical and autistic people to describe what ‘creative writing’ meant to them and how it could be used. Examples of writing from people on the autism spectrum could also be usefully examined. If the scale were administered in a practical setting, it would be used as a tool to identify ways in which creative writing could be made accessible for people on the autism spectrum. The influence for this came from Harbinson and Alexander’s 2009 study into students with Asperger syndrome and the English curriculum as they identified difficulties with the imaginative and emotional interpretation of creative writing and literature as a disadvantage for students with Asperger syndrome. The identification of this using a scale could be useful for both students and teachers as broadens the concept of what constitutes ‘creative’ writing for teachers and allows students on the autism spectrum to access creative writing in a way which engages them and allows them to develop their skills.

Another interesting and more useful comparison for future research would be to do a thematic analysis of some threads about creative writing from an autism internet message forum. In this context, qualitative methods could be more useful because the research question is open and could have multiple answers or perspectives. It would also be interesting and useful to examine different sources such as conversations, internet forums, examples of writing and focus groups. Both autistic and neurotypical samples could be used to compare various approaches with a view to looking at the spectrum of different ways in which people view and engage with creative writing. It could also be expanded to include benefits and applications of creative writing.

From analyzing a thread called ‘Link between Asperger’s and creative writing’ on the internet forum ‘Wrong Planet’, there were some key themes that several people mentioned. The main themes were a difficulty with writing imaginative fiction and problems with the original ‘idea’. These could then be split into sub-themes which included difficulties with creating and writing character, abstract concepts and finding the ‘mechanics’ of writing easier than the expression. The difficulties with imagination were linked by people in the thread to theory of mind and finding it difficult to imagine another person’s perspective and this would make sense in the context of autism. Members of the forum also suggested using pre-existing characters from fan fiction or real life, or writing semi-autobiographical fiction and creative non-fiction which are all interesting ideas for writers on the autism spectrum. A quote from the thread “Don’t approach it in a typical way, because it won’t work” seems to illustrate the way in which autistic writing can be approached differently from mainstream neurotypical fiction and in a way that could be more accessible for people on the autism spectrum.

The concept of autobiography and creative non-fiction is also interesting, and links to an article by Frith and Happe in 1999 who suggested that because of the differences in Theory of Mind between neurotypical and autistic children, they may also develop a different form of self-consciousness as theory of mind skills are learnt from experience and intelligence rather than intuition which could lead to a very reflective and explicit form of self-consciousness. Writing about this in his book ‘The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome’, Tony Attwood adds that he “would agree that there is a quasi-philosophical quality” to the autobiographies of adults with Asperger’s Syndrome. This relates back to the thread from Wrong Planet where several people suggested using real life or autobiography in writing fiction, and fictionalised autobiography is another interesting area which could be used beneficially with children or adults on the autism spectrum. It could also be useful in a similar way to a special interest, where it forms an alternate world as a form of escapism or as a way to practise or experiment with different situations.

As future research, the link between autism and creative writing could be very interesting and useful, both in terms of the actual writing and possible applications in educational or clinical practice, and it’s something I’m hoping to investigate further in the future…

Lost

Lost:

 

This book.

I can’t stop thinking;

falling

back

to those caffeine-

fuelled nights

reading, writing,

reading.

Your brain sparked

by nicotine,

loosened by alcohol.

Mine, blurred,

dull

as January sky.

 

You taught me metaphor.

A sharp short-circuit of emotion

you don’t need to understand.

 

You taught me pool

And how to skip

stones;

the world spun on vodka-

spiked

Diet Coke

and light-headed lungfuls

of tobacco.

 

I miss you.

The morning runs, the evening

pints,

the random texts and writing

checks

but more:

I miss

your bloody hugs.

Counselling

Recently, I started to see a new counsellor which has got me thinking a lot about different approaches to counselling and therapy, and how it’s so different for every person.  I’ve seen various types of therapists over the last fifteen-ish years and I’d never really thought much about different approaches but the person I’m seeing at the moment has a very specific way of working- person-centred counselling which I’d heard of but I’d never really come across before.  As anyone who’s read my blog posts before will know, I’m a massive advocate for DBT and approaches that have a direct, structured way to manage intense thoughts or emotions and the person-centred approach is about as far from that as you can get, so I’m not overly surprised I’ve found it difficult but it’s taken a few sessions to realise what it is about the approach I don’t really get on with.

In theory, person-centred counselling is a really good idea.  It works on the idea that a person’s experience is individual and that they should be in control of the sessions and what is brought up- the counsellor/therapist is a facilitator who encourages the person to talk about how they feel and their experiences while being empathetic, non-judgmental and accepting of what the person is saying.  There’s no ‘set’ format for the sessions and the idea is that the person talks about whatever they are feeling and want to discuss, and the counsellor/therapist listens to and empathises with the person so that they feel validated and can explore their feelings more openly in order to facilitate changes in themselves.  I can see how, for a lot of people, this could be a really useful approach and could effect real change in how a person is feeling in a supportive and non-threatening way, but I’ve found it really difficult to get used to and I don’t think it’s the right approach for me which is a bit frustrating because I really do want to change the way I’m thinking and feeling and learn better ways to manage it.

I found the first session particularly difficult and uncomfortable.  It was partly due to seeing someone new which is always scary and awkward, but also because of the unstructuredness of the session and the whole concept that it was up to me to decide what to talk about and I genuinely had no idea.  There were a few things that made me uncomfortable and I think the counsellor was feeling similar, and I started to feel really, really anxious which didn’t help because I’d started to fidget a lot and dig my nails into my arm without realising it which is my automatic way to manage anxiety in social situations but I don’t think the counsellor realised that.  She kept saying that I was in control of the sessions and that I should talk about how I’m feeling but part of the problem is that I don’t know how I’m feeling or what the feelings are and they’re too intense anyway, and I just want to get rid of them not talk about them!  And I really need structure, which was making me really anxious.

At first, I thought that it was the lack of structure and focus on ‘feelings’ which was making me uncomfortable and in the second session, I was totally honest with her and said that I didn’t like the approach, I needed structure to the sessions, I didn’t know how I was feeling or if I even had ‘real’ emotions and that I didn’t like the idea of life as a ‘journey’ because it doesn’t feel like that, it’s just like existing at any given moment, and to be fair to her she did try to adjust to that and wrote a list of things to talk about.  It didn’t really help though, it just felt artificial and she was still asking me to come up with the things on the list, but I know she was trying so I didn’t say anything.  I realised pretty quickly though that the lack of structure wasn’t the main thing that was making me really anxious and uncomfortable- it was the ‘connection’ between the person and the counsellor that I really didn’t like and I’m not sure if I can keep going to the sessions if that’s an intrinsic part of the approach.

A big emphasis in person-centred counselling is the relationship between the person and the counsellor, and it’s meant to be a genuine, empathetic and unconditional sort of relationship.  I really, really don’t feel comfortable with that at all- I’m not an emotional-type person, I very rarely get ‘close’ to people (even people I trust) and the whole idea makes me really anxious.  She keeps talking about ‘walking with me’ which I don’t like or want- I’m really not comfortable with anything like that and she hardly knows me, and I’d much rather have a professional-type relationship where there’s no emotional connection at all.  I can count on one hand the people I currently feel ‘close’ to and the fact that there’s more than one person terrifies me anyway, and I don’t like it.

The relationship idea makes me really anxious and I can feel my defences going up when I’m talking to her- I’m minimising everything, shutting down any emotional reaction, being very matter-of-fact about anything that makes me even remotely upset or emotional, and I don’t think it’s helpful in any way at all.  A few years ago, I saw a psychologist who used an integrative approach and sometimes veered into psychodynamic which has a similar feeling of unstructuredness and focus on ‘you’ and your experiences, and she used to comment that I “intellectualised” everything which I didn’t understand at the time but I’m more aware of now- it’s the way that I can actually feel my defences going up and I’m shutting her out without before I’ve even realised it.  She doesn’t see that (thankfully) and I think she thinks that because I’m on the autism spectrum, I don’t get upset or anything like that in the same ’emotional’ way as a lot of people do, and I’m OK with her thinking that and I’ve even found myself encouraging it by agreeing that I don’t have ‘feelings’ (whereas actually, I do have the intensely but I don’t know what they are).

The other thing I’ve realised that I really don’t like about the approach is the ‘unconditional positive regard’ aspect of it, which is one of the foundations of person-centred counselling.  The reason I think that I’m not comfortable with it is because I need boundaries and to know that the other person will tell me if I get something wrong or if I’m annoying them or anything like that.  The problem with unconditional acceptance is that it kind of takes boundaries away because there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and that doesn’t feel safe.  I know that a lot of my thoughts aren’t OK and I don’t want them to be ‘accepted’, and I need to know that she’s going to be direct about that except that I know she won’t because of the approach.  She’s said a few times that nothing’s ‘wrong’ and everything you say is ‘OK’ but some thoughts aren’t OK, and that makes me feel really uncomfortable because I need to know that she’d say that, otherwise I can’t trust anything she says because I know she’ll just say everything’s OK and acceptable even if it really obviously isn’t.  It’s like friendships- I feel much, much safer in a friendship if I know the other person will be direct and honest with me if I’m annoying or being too intense, and I need the same boundaries in counselling.

I could go on about this for ages but I think the main thing I’ve realised is that person-centred counselling really isn’t the right approach for me, which is frustrating but at least I’ve tried it.  The counsellor said that I need to get a psychiatrist appointment to try to access more structured support so that’s the next step, I think…  Would be really interested to hear from anyone else who’s had experience of person-centred counselling and hear your thoughts!  Or any tips for being able to engage with it??