On Loneliness

You know you are in trouble when you find yourself welling up after a friendly encounter with the phlebotomist.

She inserted the needle, asked me how my weekend had gone. I was lost for words – I couldn’t even remember when the weekend was let alone how it had gone. She made a commiserating sound, a little ‘Ah’. And then, don’t ask me how, we found ourselves talking about how we hated cleaning. I told her of a long-ago job as a house-cleaner, how I was very good at making a house look tidy, books patted into place, vases placed just so, a chair shifted slightly… but dust and grime remained in great swathes if you looked close enough. ‘So,’ she said, ‘You were one of those cleaners,’ and we laughed.

I left the office, and that’s when my eyes welled up. It had been days since I had a conversation with someone that wasn’t via text or Skype or cell phone.

I’ve lived a remarkably solitary life for the past nine years. Almost an extended silent retreat, but one I didn’t consciously plan.

For some of those years my partner and I lived in the countryside and, when he was away for work (which he is for 4-6 months of the year) two weeks or more could go by where the only direct contact I had with another person was the postman. We are now living in a town, on a busy street lined with little shops, but nevertheless when my partner is away, other than Skype and phone calls with friends in other countries, I have very little meaningful interaction with others.

A number of things contributed to this situation – travelling the world and living in several different countries in the past 15 years – wonderful, but not conducive to setting down roots or building a local community. Not having children. My 25+ year long chronic illness (M.E./ CFIDS/ late-stage Lyme type). In fact my health has deteriorated to the point where it’s a rare day I can go out and be engaged in activities with other people.

And, there is the fact I’m a writer, a necessarily solitary occupation for the most part.

In the first years I tried to use the time alone to my advantage. Dozens of short stories fled my fingertips, I began my novel. I developed my online community. I even started a Facebook Bosnian stray dog and cat rescue group. I wasn’t lonely. It wasn’t a problem. Perhaps I had a natural inclination towards solitude: my mother used to tell me that as a child she’d often find me in my room happily ‘contemplating my navel’. I’ve often described myself as an “anti-social social” person.

But I have become increasingly aware that I am not just frequently alone, I am lonely. Perhaps I have always been lonely, but due to the ‘well-developed coping mechanisms’ a therapist once told me I had, I have avoided this realisation.

When my mother died two years ago, sadness was so all-encompassing it was almost a friend. Over time the sadness receded, always there yes, but in the background, no longer filling my every moment.

I focused on finishing my novel. I finished my novel. What was I left with? Myself, shorn thin of coping mechanisms.

Writing can be a lonely business. Having a chronic illness is a lonely business, especially an ‘invisible’ one. Life is a lonely business. Dying is certainly a lonely business. And yet, and yet. We are together in our alone-ness and we are surely together in our desire to connect deeply with others, to feel ‘met’ and seen and understood.

So, what to do? Perhaps it begins by acknowledging what is. I started writing this blog some weeks ago, and since then there has been a delicate, tentative shift, something I can’t quite put my finger on, but it feels like a beginning. Sometimes simply letting others know how I am feeling, rather than just soldiering on, changes things. Letting people see the dust hiding behind the furniture, letting them know that while things may look OK on the surface, they are not so OK underneath. And in doing so, in taking this risk, I feel not quite so alone.

There are many articles on the “epidemic” of loneliness, so in fact I am not alone in my experience.

Here, for example, is an interview with John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience: Chronic Loneliness Is a Modern-Day Epidemic

And another in the New York Times, which is mostly about the loneliness that affects the elderly: Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness which quotes Emily Dickinson on loneliness: “the Horror not to be surveyed.”

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Glistening Particles… finding deep connection on the internet

A few days ago I was interviewed by Jane for her wonderful Glistening Particles Podcast series “Conversations with inspiring random acquaintances”. The podcast went live today and you can listen to it here. We talk about writing, spirituality, dog rescue, and a gazillion other things. Jane has a unique ability as a podcaster. We hadn’t talked or met until the moment of the interview – which occurred virtually, via Skype – but right from the start I felt I’d known her all my life and she created a very safe, wide open space to have the conversation. She asked challenging and inspiring questions, and I’m honoured to be amongst her ‘random acquaintances.’

Actually, it doesn’t feel random at all, her brother Mike suggested she talk to me, I met Mike when I was once part of an extraordinary social network called Zaadz (Dutch for “seed”). Zaadz was a not-for-profit, conscious online community created with a commitment to helping people create a better world. It was my first experience of social networking and online communities – I had avoided Facebook and MySpace, but this was different. And it *was* different. Ask anyone who was a part of it.

Zaadz was a place for authentic conversation, a place where I not only met like-minded people but those who were able to help me see my blind spots. We didn’t share pictures of food or family, we asked each other who we were, who we really were, and in the clear space that Zaadz created, it was possible to show up as our best selves and to ask each other, what can we do to nurture the world and all that is in it?

(Here is an interview from 2006 with Brian Johnson who was CEO of Zaadz: A Cyber Community Making a Difference.)

But in due course Zaadz was bought up and things changed. Some of the members attempted to re-invent the community elsewhere on the internet. I tried to re-create the writing group I’d led on Zaadz, but it just wasn’t the same. I moved into the noisy world of Facebook, scrolling pictures and updates and clicking ‘like’.

And then, out of the blue, many years later, I get an email from Jane inviting me to be part of her podcast. The dialogue we had this weekend felt like a re-connection with the days of Zaadz, and reminded me it is still possible to have these kinds of meaningful conversations and connections on the internet, with people I have never met before; that it is possible to have deep listening, deep sharing, here and now.

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Tea or coffee or crack-cocaine? 

I love to read about the lives of authors. I’m not talking biography – I’m talking about articles which mention how, in fact, they manage, day to day, as a writer. What they actually do to get words down on a page. Perhaps it’s because I’ve yet to hit the big time, and I’m looking for pointers and rituals to ensure that I do. Actually I think it’s because of the solitary nature of writing, and reading how another writer’s day unfolds gives me a sense of camaraderie. I also like to find out how, in particular, they engage in hammering fingers at the keyboard (I tend to hammer forehead on desk). At author readings questions from the audience sometimes include a few along the lines of: Do you use a pen or a computer? How many words do you write before clocking off? Again, as if there is a special, secret code that will unlock the route to a best-seller or even a poor-seller. Morning writer?  Tea or coffee or crack-cocaine? Dog or cat? Anything at all, just tell me how you do it so I can do it too.

Even though I have been ‘doing it’ for some years now, every time I sit down to the computer, it feels like I’m starting all over again. Actually, it seems to get harder, not easier. So I avoid writing and instead pore over The Guardian’s ‘My Writing Day‘ articles, looking for sustenance, tips, anything at all to keep me going. Actually this series is wonderful, and I read it as much to laugh as to feel not quite so alone.

For what it’s worth, I can’t read my handwriting so I don’t use a pen. I can barely hold one, it’s been so long. I’ve been editing my novel for years and a first-draft daily word-count doesn’t really factor into my day. When it does, one single spaced page would be the minimum I’d hope for – around 500 words. On Freefall retreats I’d generally write up to 3000 in a (long) morning. Tea, usually, green or black, but coffee on those retreats (hence the 3000). But Ronan clearly prefers crack-cocaine as you can see from the photograph. When I’m not on retreat, fuelled with caffeine and forced into a sheer terror of morning activity by a mid-day deadline, I write when I’ve put off writing for many hours I know I’ll kill myself if I don’t get something down, by which time it’s usually late afternoon. Very late. Far too late. Time to make supper, in fact, and promise to do better tomorrow. Cat, of course. A dog would be too easy to distract myself with.

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Hobart Publication: The Bird


Delighted to announce that HOBART has published as a web feature my flash piece “The Bird”.

(image: Bryan Bowie)

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Things We Don’t Want To Talk About

Things We Don't Want To Talk About - Menopause

I’m sure there are many things we don’t want to talk about. But the ‘thing’ I’m referring to is menopause. It’s not exactly a sexy subject. More often than not, it’s referred to as a kind of joke (Google ‘Menopause jokes’), oh the horror of a menopausal woman. And those of us who are going through it often try to pretend it’s not really happening, an embarrassed flap of hands when a hot flash occurs, Let’s move on. I don’t want to be a bother, I don’t want to be considered ‘past it’. Old. Et cetera.

Essentially there is a culture of silence regarding menopause: a report by the British Menopause Society found that half the women going through menopause haven’t visited a doctor, as many are ‘too embarrassed’. And yet the symptoms can, literally be catastrophic. I know, because they were for me. I’m writing this blog in the hopes it’s a small step to help break this silence.

I actually started menopause about 6 years ago. I experienced mild hot flashes (or ‘flushes’) – quite pleasant for someone who is usually cold, and I put on weight, which was a blessing as I’m underweight. The most debilitating symptom was breast pain, so extreme I had difficulty sleeping. I tried bio-identical progesterone bought from the USA, but it didn’t make any difference, and then symptoms slowly improved and I’d only have the occasional, mild hot flash.

About a year and a half ago, the hot flashes began to increase in number and intensity. At the time I was working with a herbalist to treat my 22 year-long chronic immune system dysfunction (possibly as a result of contracting South African Tick Bite fever). We were not sure in fact if the hot flashes were viral in nature or hormonal, as they were not responding to herbs that commonly help. I was also working with my GP and he was taking a slew of tests. I saw an infectious diseases specialist, an ENT specialist. No tests showed anything wrong. I asked about hormones, and he told me blood tests would just show I am post-menopausal.

By March of 2016, my symptoms had rendered me almost completely housebound. I’d have 8 – 14 hot flashes a day, a few at night. They did not last more than a few minutes, but for those minutes I was incapable of doing anything at all. Generally I’d have to lie down. Hot flashes were not just ‘sweats’, they were like having sudden onset jet lag, being dunked in far too hot bath and having a panic attack (racing heart rate, dizzy, pressure in my abdomen) — all at once. Sometimes I couldn’t even talk, or open my eyes. In between hot flashes I was OK. I’d begin to do a little work on my computer, and then, wham, another one would hit and I’d have to lie down on my office floor. Or I’d think , it would be nice to go out for a walk, and ten minutes into the walk, I’d have to hunker down on the sidewalk until the flash was over. I felt ambushed by my body, unable to function for any length of time.

I stopped going out. I stopped exercising. I got very depressed. I didn’t know what was going on. I tried other herbs. I tried cold packs. I tried to ‘think’ myself cool. I did deep breathing exercises. The hot flashes were worse after eating and so I thought perhaps I had histamine intolerance, and I radically changed my diet. I did experience an initial improvement, I think simply because I was eating better. And then the flashes just got worse, and worse.

I thought about trying bio-identical hormones again. I found a private doctor who would prescribe these. I mentioned it to my GP and he agreed it might be worth a shot. Neither of us mentioned “HRT”. I didn’t know much about this other than the muffled but clanging alarm bells. Didn’t it increase the risk of cancer? Although I had not researched the facts, it seemed clear HRT was NOT something to even consider. And clearly my GP thought the same thing.

So, in February this year, I booked an (expensive) appointment with the private doctor. Blood tests showed I had rock bottom levels of oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and DHEA. I had expected the doctor to prescribe perhaps one or two transdermal creams, instead I she sent me away with 2 transdermal gels (testosterone and oestrogen), a vaginal suppository of estradiol and a micronized progesterone pill to take at night. I felt a little overwhelmed.

I felt even more overwhelmed when, after doing the research I should have done before making the appointment, I discovered bio-identical (or ‘body-identical’’ hormone therapy (BHRT) is actually not that different to taking HRT. There are still risks associated. I worried: was I doing a terrible thing to myself? I worried even more when after two weeks things just seemed to be getting worse. And then at the three-week mark, there was a sudden change. Instead of 14 hot flashes, I had 3 or 4. At the four-week mark, I had none.

Was I celebrating? Yes I was. And, what if I’d received treatment last March?

In the process of getting my blood tests I discovered there was a nurse at my GP practice who specialised in menopausal issues. The female NHS doctor who ordered the blood tests the private doctor needed – my regular GP was not available – who told me this, also told me in the past HRT was overprescribed, but now, due to the cancer scares, it’s under-prescribed. She told me there are now different kinds of HRT available on the NHS, better tolerated kinds. She told me that in fact in addition to alleviating symptoms, there are health benefits to HRT: it can increase bone density and some say it can protect one from  Alzheimer’s.

I had already booked – and paid for – my appointment with the private doctor so I didn’t pursue getting treated at my GP practice.

Actually, once my catastrophic symptoms stopped, the first thing I felt was rage. Rage that I had not been given adequate information or care by my GP. I changed practices, and now have a female GP on the NHS who is prescribing BHRT (all available on the NHS…) and who is monitoring my progress and symptoms, so I don’t need to fork out buckets of money to a private doctor. I have also learned that starting BHRT or HRT earlier rather than later is safer, and increases the benefits to bone-density. It might have been better if I had started a year ago. Or even 6 years ago.

Perhaps if I had been more vocal about what was going on (I thought I had been), perhaps if I didn’t ‘present’ with a complex case, perhaps then my now ex-GP would have said, Have you thought of HRT? and talked me through the options. I don’t know. What I do know is that what I went through was entirely preventable, and that after a year of near total inactivity, I’m still very debilitated.

If you are a woman ‘of a certain age’ please don’t suffer in silence. If you are a man (or woman) who loves a woman ‘of a certain age’, help her find support. This is an excellent online forum on menopause and all things HRT / BHRT: Menopause Matters.

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We All Need Good News…

It’s been a challenging time for me recently, so it was lovely to receive two bits of good news this week. I was awarded a travel grant to help towards some of the costs of travelling to Crete for research on a new work this year, and I heard that a story of mine will be published in Hobart, a literary journal in the US (http://www.hobartpulp.com/).

(The image is a photograph of a photograph – of Chania port when I lived there in 1969.)

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Fish Listing

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 22.55.40
It’s a long short list, but nice to know my piece ‘The Bird’ was on it: Fish Flash Fiction Prize 2016, judged by Nuala O’Connor. And, another piece was on the long list for the Fish Short Memoir prize 2016, judged by Carlo Gebler.

Thank you Fish!

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