Wednesday 21 February 2024

How Do I Feel Now? Living with Alexithymia

Last week in Exploring Alexithymia and Emotional Blindness I described how hard I find it to communicate my emotions, and that there’s a word for that — alexithymia. I’ve looked further into the topic since then and thought it would be useful to share what I’ve learned. If you struggle to express how you feel, this is for you.

What Is Alexithymia?

Also called emotional blindness, Alexithymia (literally “no words for emotions”) is a personality trait where you have difficulty experiencing, identifying, and expressing how you feel. It’s estimated that one person in ten has alexithymia. The proportion is higher in people with certain mental and neurodevelopmental conditions. Given that I only learned the word existed a few weeks ago, it may seem premature to claim it applies to me. That said, I recognise many of its traits and score highly on alexithymia self-assessments. More on those later. The following description by UK charity Autistica resonates strongly with me.

People who have alexithymia may have have trouble identifying, understanding and describing emotions. They may also struggle to show or feel emotions that are seen as socially appropriate, such as happiness on a joyous occasion.

The inability to “feel along” with the crowd is something I’ve been aware of all my life. Whether it’s societal grief at the death of a famous actor, artist, or musician, or the collective fervour that follows the performance of local or national sports teams, communal emotion leaves me cold. I’m unable to partake or even understand why I’d want to. I’m amused, rather than confused or upset, but the failure to engage in such shared experience is undeniably isolating. The death in 2023 of Sean MacGowan was a notable exception. The outpouring of grief at his death moved and intrigued me, leading me to explore his life and legacy in The Last of the Irish Rover.

How Are You?

Fran hates to be asked how she is, but I don’t mind the question. In fact, I’m happy when someone close to me asks how I’m doing, not least because what’s going on in my life is usually far less problematic, stressful, or intense than what’s happening in theirs. That said, I’m more likely to respond with what’s happening to me rather than how I’m feeling. My situation, rather than my emotions. The latter might get a one word high-level label. Good. Chill. Tired. It’s no surprise that friends rarely enquire explicitly about my feelings. They understand I find it hard to answer with clarity or precision.

How Sad the Song?

Alexithymia isn’t a lack of emotions. It’s finding it difficult to put those emotions into words. I was eighteen when my father died. We’d been close, yet the best words I could find at the time were “How sad the song.” Did I feel sad? I felt something, but I’d struggle as much to name those feelings now as I did then. Relief was there, after his long illness. Uncertainty, too, at what his death meant for the family. But there were no tears. My mother died in 2018. The evening after her funeral, I found myself alone by the shore. It was many years since I’d written any poetry, but a handful of lines came to me and I jotted them down as I walked.

Wandering
Wondering

How do I feel
What do I feel

Release
Relief

Re birth

Stillness
Silence

Un known
Un homed

Un tethered

Still
Calm

Centred (thank you

— Liverpool, March 26, 2018

The lack of question marks in the lines “How do I feel | What do I feel” is noteworthy. Despite pondering my emotions, it’s as though I daren’t ask myself outright. What was I afraid of? (Was I afraid?) The answers? Or the shame of knowing there were none I could voice. The lines that follow these un-questions — release, relief, and so on — aren’t answers. Not really. They’re not what I was feeling. They’re more like signs along the path I was walking that evening. Each suggested something I might be feeling, but none was sufficiently accurate. Only at the end, as I headed back to the hotel, did I find something I could attach a label to. How did I feel? Still. Calm. Centred. The gratitude was real.

I’ve attempted to write about bereavement and loss before, only to run aground. The new perspective of alexithymia may allow me to pick up where I left off. Because while I didn’t experience strong emotions at the death of my parents, I have felt and do feel deeply at other times. The following is from my draft notes on the subject.

My parents’ deaths scarcely touched me, emotionally. My friend’s death [in 2005] did, but much less than I suspect I was supposed to feel. Yet a shift in one friendship maybe ten years ago brought me to my knees, and to floods of tears. Break-ups with friends, permanent or not, have devastated me for weeks, even months, yet death leaves me relatively unmoved. Why? What’s going on?

I identified two possible explanations.

The key for me is abandonment. I didn’t feel abandoned by either of my parents. My father’s was too early [I was eighteen years old] but not entirely unheralded. My mother’s was much later and long-anticipated.

And again:

The loss of a relationship, a friendship, can be harder because no matter how unlikely or unhealthy it might be, there is always the possibility of reconnection. Of recovery. Of a second (or third, or fourth) chance. Death is different.

That might seem the wrong way round. Surely, death should be more impactful, precisely because it’s final, with no opportunity to reconnect. I can only say that it doesn’t feel that way for me. It’s not only loss that I feel intensely. Jealous, angry, sad, empty, lost — I’ve known these and more. Joy too, delight, pride in myself and others, passion, love, exhilaration. But life can’t be lived in extremes all the time. What do I feel more generally? This is where I have the most trouble putting things into words. This is partly because my most commonly experienced mood is characterised by the absence of any identifiable emotion. I’ve explored this previously in Flatness and Disinclination, a post which began life as an audio recoding.

I wanted to see if I could capture a little of how I’ve been feeling since some time yesterday. It’s what I tend to call “flat.” That’s verbal shorthand for a sense of feeling fairly low. Not actively low or depressed; it’s more like the absence of any specific emotion than the presence of a negative one, if that makes sense.

It’s one of the few times I’ve spoken openly about my feelings.

The Physicality of Emotions

Something I find hard to wrap my head around is how physically other people seem to experience their emotions. The following passage at The Village Counsellor expresses this perfectly.

Feelings are fundamentally physical experiences: things happening in our bodies, in response to things happening in our environment. That claim might come as a bit of a surprise to some people, as it once did to me, because the culture I grew up in (white working class Britain in the 70s) gave me to understand that feelings were a lot less concrete, more ambiguous, than that. I’d go so far as to say they were less real than that: they were an entirely subjective, interior experience, with no real-world, observable existence.

When I read those words for the first time, especially the first sentence, my instinctive reaction was “What?? Really?? No way! Emotions aren’t like that!” At least, with rare extreme exceptions, they aren’t like that for me. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why I find it hard to express my feelings in words. If they had more of a physical component, would they be easier to label, to describe to someone else? The cultural explanation makes sense, but maybe there’s something more fundamental going on here. Am I wired differently? Is that what this label of alexithymia represents?

Self-Assessment Questionnaires

In my previous blog post about alexithymia I mentioned scoring four and a bit out of six on one self-assessment questionnaire, and 129 out of 185 on the more detailed test at Alexithymia Online. Let’s look at the latter assessment in more detail, as well as a few others I’ve tried since.

Alexithymia Online Test

On this test, 0–94 indicates no alexithymia traits, 95–112 indicates possible alexithymia, and 113–185 indicates alexithymia. As well as an overall score, the test gives a breakdown in a number of areas.

  • Overall — high alexithymia traits
  • Difficulty identifying feelings — high alexithymia traits
  • Difficulty describing feelings — high alexithymia traits
  • Externally-oriented thinking — high alexithymia traits
  • Restricted emotional processes — high alexithymia traits
  • Sexual difficulties and disinterest — high alexithymia traits
  • Problematic interpersonal relationships — no alexithymia traits
  • Vicarious interpretation of feelings — no alexithymia traits

As you can see, I scored “high” on the test as a whole and in five of the seven sub-categories.

Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20)

The next test I tried is the Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20). I scored 70 out of a possible 100, where 0–51 indicates no alexithymia, 52–60 possible alexithymia, and 61–100 alexithymia present. The results invite you to focus on whichever sub-category you score most highly in, but I scored almost equally across the three. (Difficulty Describing Feelings: 23, Difficulty Identifying Feelings: 24, Externally-Oriented Thinking: 23.)

Perth Alexithymia Questionnaire (PEQ)

The third test I tried is offered as a feature of the excellent Animi app, which I’ll describe in more detail later. According to the app, the test is based on the Perth Alexithymia Questionnaire (PEQ). Overall, I scored 137 out of a maximum of 168, which equates to “very high alexithymia.” Subscores are given in five areas. Mine varied between 36/56 (Tendency to not focus attention on one’s own positive or negative emotions) and 25/28 (Difficulty describing and communicating one’s own positive feelings). All represented high to very high alexithymia.

Toronto Empathy Questionnaire (TEQ)

Some resources suggest a link between alexithymia and a lack of empathy or understanding. To explore this, I took the Toronto Empathy Questionnaire (TEQ). I scored 53 out of a maximum of 64. According to the test site, scores of 45 or higher indicate higher than normal empathy.

Animi

Animi is advertised as “the first app dedicated to improving alexithymia, emotional awareness and emotional intelligence.” It’s free to use and available for Android and iPhone. The core of the app is a searchable encyclopedia of emotional states. Each entry (such as afraid, bitter, content, gloomy, to pick a few at random) has a short definition, associated physical symptoms, example situations where it might manifest, the physiological function the emotion performs, and a host of related concepts including analogies, similar feelings, thoughts, expressions, and needs.

As well as searching the encyclopedia directly, the app offers two novel approaches to identifying what you might be feeling. Body Sensations presents you with a mannequin image. You select which part of your body is experiencing physical sensations, and then narrow down your choices. For example, if you select head, there is a slider to categorise the sensations in your head on a scale between detached and intense.

You’re then presented with an Emotional Compass screen where you can clarify things further. This is done by dragging a marker across a square grid. The horizontal axis runs between unpleasant on the left and pleasant on the right. The vertical axis runs between low energy and high energy. Based on where you drag the marker, the app suggests four likely feelings from the encyclopedia, which you can further refine. At any time you can go into the encyclopedia to explore the suggested emotions. When you finally select the emotion that best represents your situation, you are invited to write a few words about what may have led to you feeling this way. These entries build into a personal log.

The second approach bypasses the bodily sensations part and takes you straight to the Emotional Compass screen. As I mentioned earlier, the app also invites you to take an alexithymia test, the results of which are stored in the app and can be reviewed at any time. There’s a link to a Discord forum (Animi app – alexithymia community) which at the time of writing has 218 members. I am not on Discord and haven’t tried the forum, so can’t comment on it’s relevance or value.

There’s a great YouTube video by the app’s developer which I do recommend. There are a lot of very positive comments from people who’ve found the app helpful. I’m not sure how much I’ll use it myself but it does provide a very interesting and accessible route to exploring my emotions and how they manifest for me.

How Does it Feel to Have Alexithymia?

There’s an obvious irony in attempting to describe how I feel about discovering I’ve a personality trait that makes it difficult to express my feelings. In my previous post on alixithymia I mentioned the NVC Feelings Inventory, which is intended to help identify and articulate what we’re feeling in the moment. I’ve always had difficulty with this, but turning to it now, I’d select the following.

Feelings when needs are being met
Empowered
Curious
Interested

Feelings when needs are not being met
Self-conscious
Vulnerable

It certainly feels as though something important is happening as I explore what alexithymia may mean for me. I know I’m not alone in this. Several people I’ve spoken to about alexithymia have said it resonates strongly for them, and I’ve already had some very meaningful conversations with colleagues and friends. I’ll close with something that made me smile the other day. Fran described a conversation she’d had with a mutual friend of ours who she thought would find it relevant.

Did you know, there’s a word for you and Marty. It begins with “A”.

Is it “asshole”?

I checked and “like an asshole” isn’t in the NVC Feelings Inventory. I’ll keep it in mind, however. I’m sure I’ll find a use for it one day!

Over to You

In this post I’ve explored alexithymia in some depth, with links to online self-assessment tests and a helpful app. Does any of this resonate for you? Do you struggle to identify what you’re feeling and communite your emotions to others? If so, I’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.

 

Photo by Markus Winkler at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 14 February 2024

How Do I Feel? Exploring Alexithymia and Emotional Blindness

And sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in.

— Jane Austen

This post was inspired by a conversation with Fran. She’d shared a piece of writing with me and asked how I felt reading it. Not what I thought about it or whether it could be improved, but how it made me feel. As simple as it sounds, her question brought me up sharp. I didn’t know how to answer. It wasn’t that I hadn’t felt anything. I just had no idea how to convey my feelings to her. I didn’t know where to start. In that moment I realised this is a big deal. Because it wasn’t just my feelings about this one passage of Fran’s that eluded me. I’ve been a writer most of my life, but I’ve always found it hard to communicate my emotions in words.

I remembered my discomfiture years ago when Fran and I began studying Non-Violent Communication (NVC). This technique focuses on identifying feelings and needs as a means to understanding what’s going on in our lives. To aid the process, there are two lists, a Needs Inventory and a Feelings Inventory. The latter contains well over two hundred feelings categorised into feelings when our needs are satisfied (86) and feelings when our needs are not satisfied (147). The idea is to use the list to identify our feelings in the moment, but I was overwhelmed at the number of options. Surely there weren’t that many feelings? (Incidentally, overwhelmed is in the needs not being met list, in the “tense” category alongside anxious, crank, distressed, and more.) I understood the purpose of the inventory was to help me clarify what was going on for me emotionally, but I found it incredibly hard to label how I was feeling at any particular time. Was I tired, for example, or was I exhausted, weary, worn out, or lethargic? Calm, or comfortable, mellow, quiet, or relaxed, all of which are in the peaceful category of feelings when our needs are being met.

It reminded me of working with colours in web and graphic design. It depends a bit on how we define things but around ten million colours can be seen with the naked eye. (1,000 levels of light-dark times 100 levels of red-green times 100 levels of yellow-blue.) Most phone cameras capture 8-bit colour, which means they can distinguish almost seventeen million colour values. Recent models can operate at 10-bit which equates to one billion colour values — way more than we can distinguish visually. Not all of these have distinguishing names, of course. It varies depending on specification but the HTML4 colour palette lists 140 names in total, including sixteen basic colours (aqua, black, blue, fuchsia, gray, green, lime, maroon, navy, olive, purple, red, silver, teal, white, and yellow). I get it, but ask me what colour the sky is, or the coffee in my cup, or the ink in my fountain pen, and I’ll struggle to reply in anything but the most basic terms. The sky is grey with flashes of blue. My coffee is dark brown. The inks in the pens I’m using are black, blue, and brown.

Back in the days when I counted myself a poet (blame Ezra Pound’s “And Thus In Nineveh” for such pretentions) I was acutely aware of how hard it was to label my feelings. No single word could accomplish the task. It was only in the mesh of words, creatively and poetically woven together, that I could capture anything of the shape and nature of my emotions. Imagine an opaque sheet draped over objects on a table. We don’t know their precise nature but we can sense their shape and texture, and their relation to one another. A further example of how hard I find it to express my feelings in writing is my use of “dot words.” This started years ago but I still do it in my journal and other personal writing. I place a dot (period) at the start of a word to indicate I’m using it in a deliberately non-precise way. It’s not so much an approximation, more a place-holder for something I can’t adequately describe or convey. I might write “I’m feeling .low today” as shorthand for “I’m feeling something I can’t really express that’s not exactly low or depressed or flat but something like that.” It saves a lot of time. I’d no idea there was a word for this difficulty in expressing my emotions but there is.

Alexithymia, also called emotional blindness, is a neuropsychological phenomenon characterized by significant challenges in recognizing, expressing, and describing one’s own emotions.

There’s an excellent overview on its presentation and overlap with other conditions including depression, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and trauma in Alexithymia: When You Have No Words To Describe How You’re Feeling. The article includes a downloadable guide to describing your emotions (similar to the NVC Feelings Inventory) and the following self-assessment checklist.

True/False Self-Assessment

Ask yourself if any of the statements are true to you.

1. I generally don’t know how I feel.

2. I typically don’t have words to describe what I’m feeling, and resort to simply saying statements such as “I’m fine,” or “I don’t know.”

3. I usually have difficulty expressing how I feel about other people.

4. When relating to others, it’s hard for me to imagine how they could be feeling.

5. It’s easier for me to talk about situations/events rather than feelings.

6. I get confused or have a hard time understanding the physical manifestations of my emotions.

I’d answer true to four of those six statements (1, 2, 3, and 5). I don’t find it hard to imagine how someone is feeling, although I’d struggle to express it to them or someone else. Regarding statement 6, I have occasionally been surprised at my emotional response to situations and events. I never cried through most of my adult life. Then one day the dam broke and I ugly cried for two hours over something that, objectively, warranted no such response. More generally, though, I’m not confused by my emotions or how they manifest. I feel a wide range of emotions. I just find it really hard to label or communicate them.

I used the word label there deliberately. To me, words are labels we attach to things. Communication requires that we attach the same labels to the same things. This is straightforward enough with physical objects. I’m happy to accept that you and I label the same things with the word tree, for example. When it comes to emotional states, though, I struggle to find the right label because I don’t know what you use it for. If I tell you I’m distressed or delighted, how do you know what I’m labeling with those words? I tend to stick to generic labels like good, sad, tired, or okay. In doing so I sacrifice fine discrimination between emotions for an improved chance you’ll get the gist.

The same applies to my use (some might say over-use) of emojis when I’m chatting online with friends. My phone keyboard supports some ninety emotion (face) emojis. I use eight with any frequency: thinking face, wink, kiss, laughing with tears, crying face, smiling face, sad face, and red heart. Limiting myself in this way, I can be reasonably sure the other person will understand what I mean. I use the smiley face and heart most of all. They convey genuine but non-specific humour, love, affection, and care. At least, I hope they do.

I mentioned my former self-identification as a poet. Published in 2008, Collected Poems: 1977–1984 is an anthology of my poetry between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three. Four decades later, they evoke the feelings and emotions of those distant times, sometimes down to the day, even the moment of the day. What do they convey to others, though? I shared them with people I was close to at the time. I published a book of them. I’ve read several of them at open mic events. They’ve moved some to tears. At least one to kisses. I shared a link to my poetry book recently on social media. Someone very dear to me from those days, who knew me as well as anyone had at that point in my life, who knew all my poems and had inspired the best of them, responded with “They were rather good.” I’m glad others are not as stricken with alexithymia as I am. Those four words conveyed as much feeling as all the poetry in my book combined. (Thank you.) When I mentioned to a different friend that I’d been reading some of my old poetry and she asked how it felt to do so, all I could say was “It feels good.” Was that it? Is that really the best I could do?

I’m reminded me of the song How Do I Feel by English singer-songwriter Judie Tzuke.

How do I feel when you’re gone?
The days and nights go on and on.
How do I feel when you’re here?
The days and nights just disappear.

The song evokes personal and very specific memories of one night in the 80s at a Judie Tzuke concert. I’d seen her perform live before, but hearing — and feeling — this song for the first time with someone I cared for yet never knew how to talk or relate to, was an experience that has never left me. Our difficulties weren’t solely due to my inability to express my feelings, but it didn’t help.

How do I feel? What do you want?

Forty years on, the same questions haunt me and I’m no closer to putting the answers into words. Maybe that’s okay, though. There are other ways of expressing emotions. I couldn’t describe to Fran how I felt reading her words, but she reassured me. “Your heart leaks over everything you do.”

It’s reassuring to know I’m not alone in this, as the quotation I opened with attests. If Jane Austen struggled at times to describe her feelings, I can be at ease with my own difficulties. This poem of mine was written four decades ago, but still has something to say.

Once
I should have thought it IMPOSSIBLE
(before I realised the meaninglessness
of the word) to find myself
in the midst of
yOUR dream:

perhaps
it is only in sharing something
this BEAUTIFUL that
we can realise the
MEANINGLESSNESS
of the words.

I may struggle to express how I’m feeling, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel. Perhaps I experience my emotions all the more intensely because I understand there’s no way to put them into words. I’m going to close with a line from the 2022 movie Tár starring Cate Blanchett which captures the essence of alexithymia perfectly.

We can’t always name the things we feel. We have feelings that are so deep and so special that we have no words for them.

 

Further Reading

If you’re interested in learning more, the free online questionnaire at Alexithymia Online is a good place to start. I scored 129 out of 185, where 0–94 indicates no alexithymia traits, 95–112 indicates possible alexithymia, and 113–185 indicates alexithymia.

Alexithymia Online recommend Animi, “the first app dedicated to improving alexithymia, emotional awareness and emotional intelligence” but I’ve not had chance to try it myself.

 

Photo by Denis Cherkashin at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 7 February 2024

Top Ten Misconceptions about Bloggers and Blogging

Wife to husband on his return from the office: “What do you mean, ‘How was my day?’ Didn’t you read my blog?”

Cartoon by Denise Dorrance

Fran and I began our blog Gum on My Shoe in August 2013. In ten and a half years we’ve published 650 posts covering a wide range of topics, primarily focusing on mental health and supportive friendships. I thought it would be interesting to draw on our experience and address some common misconceptions about blogging and bloggers.

1. We Enjoy Writing

It might seem obvious that bloggers enjoy writing. Why else would we do it? In my case, it’s not that I especially enjoy writing. It’s more that I feel moved, even compelled, to write. It’s always been an important part of who I am and how I process and share my experiences. I’ve kept a personal journal for almost half a century. I’ve written poetry, short stories, articles and essays in the fantasy genre, and books. These days writing and publishing a new blog post each week is my primary focus. The schedule gives structure to my week and the motivation to keep exploring and sharing. But that doesnt mean I necessarily enjoy the process. As I’ve said previously, I write mostly because I’m scared to stop.

2. We Live Exotic Fun Lives

I’m sure it’s true of some bloggers, but the idea that I live a fun and exotic lifestyle is highly amusing to me! Like other social media platforms, blogging allows us to express ourselves in any way we choose. There are travel bloggers, fashion bloggers, and lifestyle bloggers. There are bloggers sharing content relating to the creative arts; writers in all genres, artists, musicians, dancers and more. Others, like me and Fran, blog in the health and mental health arenas.

Whatever the subjects we choose to write about, the best bloggers are those who write with honesty about their lives, experiences, and values. If we write from the heart, telling our stories openly and honestly, then our content can be a positive influence in the world, whether our readers consider our lives fun and exotic compared to their own, or not. Personally, I love living vicariously through the content my friends and others share online. It brings me closer to them, and allows me to experience things I never would otherwise.

3. We Live off Freebies

I wish! I know bloggers who do occasionally receive discounts, freebies, or samples of products and services as part, but in my experience this is much less common than people assume. I’ve received free copies of books in return for a review, but that’s about it. I’m sure I could find more opportunities for free or discounted items, but these are rarely completely free and it takes me a lot of time and energy to review books or other content and I only do so if I’m committed to the topic or creator involved.

4. We Spend all Our Time in Coffee Shops

Okay, this one is true, for me at least! I chose the photo for this article deliberately, because it reflects the fact that most of my blogging is done sitting at my favourite table in my favourite coffee shop near where I live. This has been a feature of my writing over the years. You can read about my top ten writing venues, all of them cafés and coffee shops. I’m grateful that Costa allow me to sit here for hours at a time, with my traveling set-up of phone, tablet, and Bluetooth keyboard. You can read more about my EDC (every day carry) here. Not all bloggers write in coffee shops, of course, but each of us will have our preferred time and place for writing, and for all the other activities that go towards publishing a blog post. I’ve shared my blogging workflow previously.

5. We Make Loads of Money

It’s clear that some bloggers and social media creators are very successful at monetising their content. In researching this post I came across a list of the Top 22 Successful Blogs and Hightest Paid Bloggers in 2024. I’ve no way of independently verifying the numbers but the bloggers in that article reportedly make between $40k and $1M per month. It’s fair to say that Fran and I don’t make anything like that from Gum on My Shoe! In fact, we make nothing at all, beyond royalties from sales of our books.

I’m not averse to making money as such and support anyone who manages to get a financial return on their investment in time, energy, knowledge, and creativity. Creating quality content isn’t easy and deserves to be rewarded financially as well as in other ways. Thus far, though, Fran and I haven’t explored any of the main ways of monetising our blog, such as affiliate marketing, advertising, sponsored posts, or selling content such as courses or other programs. Maybe one day.

6. We Never Run Out of Ideas

Not all bloggers post every week as we do, or to a specific schedule at all. In the early days of Gum on My Shoe, Fran and I posted as and when we had something worth sharing. At some point, I found that having a weekly schedule helped me organise my time and effort, and I’ve continued with that ever since. But whatever the frequency and regularity, by definition bloggers must have ideas to write about.

Despite how it might seem, this isn’t something that comes naturally to me. There are still times times I struggle to find a suitable topic for my next blog post. That said, I’ve come to trust the process and keep myself open to ideas and suggestions, no matter where they might present themselves. With this in mind, I’ve posted a collection of our articles on blogging, including two specifically related to blog topics and prompts. One is a list of 40 mental health blog topics from the caring friend’s perspective. The other is a collection of 21 image prompts for the mental health blogger.

7. Blogging Is Easy

There’s a misconception that blogging is “just writing,” but there’s much more to it than that. In addition to writing, blogging involves a range of skills and activities. Depending on topic and blogging style these may include idea generation, research, collaboration, editing, proofreading, image selection, layout and formatting, scheduling, keywords, search engine optimization (SEO), technical aspects of your chosen blogging platform (Blogger, WordPress etc), marketing and promotion, and responding to reader comments and engagement. I’ve described my blogging workflow previously, as well as how to choose the perfect image to accompany your blog post without breaching copyright or licencing laws.

8. Success Happens Overnight

Success means different things to different people, and that’s as true of bloggers as anyone else. For some, it might mean meeting targets such as the number of followers, readers, or page views. Others might be more focused on advertising revenue, sales, or other income from their blog. For some, it might be the number or prestige of collaborations, blog awards and recognition, or engagement with readers. Whatever success means to you, it’s important to celebrate your wins, no matter how big or small they might seem to others.

With all that said, the idea that blogging success happens easily or overnight overlooks both the very significant work involved in growing an online platform, and the gradual growth most bloggers experience. Blogging isn’t an activity for the impatient! No matter your aims, it requires a long-term commitment and a lot of effort. In my experience, most bloggers are highly dedicated to what they do, and approach their blogs seriously and professionally.

9. All We Care About Are the Numbers

Numbers are undoubtedly important, whether it’s the number of followers, sessions, readers/users, pageviews, or comments. (For the difference between sessions, users, and pageviews check out this article.) Statistics such as these can help you chart how your blog grows over time, which types of post or themes are most popular with your readers, and which promotional avenues are most effective. If you monetise your blog, it’s useful to know which strategies are working best for you, whether it’s advertising, affiliate marketing, sponsorships, or product sales.

I’m happy when the stats suggest our writing is reaching a wider audience. I’m also fascinated to see which older posts appearance in our monthly most viewed rankings. That said, numbers can only take you so far. Neither Fran or I, nor any of the bloggers we know treat stats as more important than they are, or mistake them for what really matters, which is engaging meaningfully with our readers.

10. We Never Talk About Anything Else

Okay, let’s be honest, there’s definitely an element of truth in this one! With a weekly publishing schedule, my current blog topic is never far from my mind, and I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. I’m often inspired by conversations with friends and colleagues, as well as things I see online. This article is a great example. It was inspired by a semi-humorous meme that listed ten misconceptions about musicians.

As well as Fran, I’m grateful to friends who are interested in my writing and happy to explore ideas with me. A special shout out to Jen and Aimee. It’s perhaps no coincidence that they are each creatives in their own right. Jen is a mental health public speaker who’s guested with us at Gum on My Shoe several times. Aimee has a highly successful mental health blog called I’m NOT Disordered.

The importance of blogging in my life is expressed perfectly by two of my favourite personal items. Last year, I treated myself to a t-shirt boldly emblazoned with the legend LIFE IS SHORT. BLOG MORE. The second item is a coffee mug Aimee gifted me last Christmas. It reads:

I MIGHT LOOK LIKE
I’M LISTENING TO YOU
but in my head
I’M THINKING ABOUT
BLOGGING

If all this seems a little self-important, it’s worth remembering that blogging and social media can make a real difference to people’s lives. In the words of English media personality, entrepreneur, and author Zoë Sugg, also known by her online name Zoella, “Every time you post something online, you have a choice. You can either make it something that adds to the happiness levels in the world — or you can make it something that takes away.”

Or, paraphrasing words often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “Blog the change you wish to see in the world.”

 

Photo by Bonnie Kittle at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 31 January 2024

Listen Very Carefully (But I'll Say It More than Once)

Falling this year on February 1, Time to Talk Day is dedicated to countering the stigma surrounding mental health. Last year, I discussed some of the reasons we might not want to talk about how we’re feeling. This time, I want to explore something that’s rarely discussed in the context of conversations about mental health: repetition. UK readers of a certain age may recall a catchphrase from the sitcom ’Allo ’Allo!, which ran from 1982 to 1992: “Listen very carefully. I shall say this only once.” Sometimes, though, our message isn’t fully received at the first attempt. Being prepared to say things more than once can make all the difference.

These thoughts were inspired by a recent video call with my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson, who blogs at I’m NOT Disordered. We were talking about her experiences with the crisis team, specifically the initial conversation with the person who answers the phone. At times, these conversations have not gone well and we discussed how this might put people off seeking help. We talked about the training call handlers and crisis line staff receive and how important it is that they don’t exacerbate the distress someone’s in when they’ve mustered the courage to reach out. Aimee has generally had very good support from the nurses and other staff once they call her back. I suggested that if she needs their services again, she tells herself she just needs to get through the five minutes it will take for that initial conversation with the call handler, because once her details are logged and someone phones back, she’s very likely to get the care and support she needs. Aimee seemed to agree, and we continued talking about other things.

As we neared the end of our call, I wanted to remind Aimee about my suggestion, but I didn’t want to annoy her by implying she’d not been paying attention. I said something to that effect, and Aimee replied it was fine, go ahead. I repeated my idea and was glad I did. Although she’d heard me the first time, Aimee had thought I was talking generally and hadn’t realised how useful it could be to her personally. Thinking about our conversation afterwards, I realised there’s a more general point to be made about communicating effectively.

When you think about it, it’s amazing we manage to communicate anything to anyone, when all we have are the sounds we utter or the marks we make on paper or screen. Not only that, but each of us has our own set of values, hang-ups, and experiences. We’re scarcely aware of these in ourselves, let alone the people we’re talking to. We nevertheless assume our message has been received accurately by the person we’re communicating with, and that we’ve understood what they meant. In practice, there may be many reasons why this doesn’t happen.

We or the other person might have difficulty hearing, either because of a hearing impairment, or background noise. We might not be equally familiar with the language we’re using. There could be social or cultural differences, or problems understanding each other’s accent or dialect. We may be distracted by other things that are happening in our lives, or by what’s going on around us at the time. A funny example of distraction happened on a later video call with Aimee. At one point she didn’t seen to be paying attention to what I was saying. It turned out her adorable cat Ruby was just off camera, trying to steal food from Aimee’s bowl! We might find it hard to focus due to tiredness, pain, or issues such as depression, dissociation, or brain fog. We may process words and ideas differently. We might simply lose track of what’s being said, get bored, or find ourselves daydreaming. Text-based conversations such as online chat, text (SMS) messages, or emails have their own issues. For example, can be difficult to convey the feelings behind our words when all we have is text on a screen. For all these reasons and more, what we want to say may not make the journey unchanged, or at all.

It’s equally useful to confirm we’ve understood the other person correctly, especially if what they’re sharing is outside our personal experience. Not getting the message first time isn’t a problem, but continuing in error might be. Checking in allows you both to explore any areas of misunderstanding. Something as simple as “Can I just check I understand what you mean?” or “What I’m hearing is ...” allows you to confirm you’re on the same page.

A degree of common sense is important. It would be tedious to repeat everything that’s said just to be certain nothing was missed or misinterpreted. Nor does anyone like to feel they might not be paying attention or are unable to follow along. We can reasonably assume that most of what we say is being received more or less as we intended. But where there’s a hint of doubt or where the message is especially important, take a moment to clarify. Proceeding on the basis of a misunderstanding can cause more trouble further down the line.

Another aspect of repetition is highlighted by the “Ask Twice” campaign. As Molly Tanners reports in this blog post for the charity Step One, “Research released by Time to Change reveals that, when asked, over three quarters (78%) of us would tell friends and family we are ‘fine’ even if struggling with a mental health problem.” Asking again, and not just taking that “fine” at face value shows we’re genuinely interested. It also gives the other person permission to be more honest about what’s going on for them, if they wish to be. I know this from personal experience, as someone who’s much more likely to reply “fine” or “not too bad” first time round. I’m reminded of a brilliant stand-up routine by comedian and actor Bill Bailey, in which he relates the particularly British relationship to happiness.

Our happiness is based on this premise. Things could have been a lot worse. That’s as good as it gets in Britain. That’s why the standard greeting in Britain is:

“How are you?”

“Not too bad.”

That’s as good as it gets in old Blighty. Not too bad. Things are clearly bad, but not quite as bad as we thought they were going to be. We’ve dialled down our expectation to an acceptable level of disappointment.

My outlook isn’t quite that bleak, but I am mistrustful of happiness. Okay. Fine. Not too bad. That’s what you’ll probably get from me if you ask how I am. Ask again, though, and I might open up a little more.

In this post I’ve discussed some of the reasons we might not always get what someone’ saying first time around. Keeping this in mind allows us to be more patient if we don’t understand straightaway, or if our message doesn’t seem to be getting across. Taking a moment to check in can go a long way towards resolving any doubt or misunderstanding. Remember also not to take someone’s words at face value if there might be more going on beneath the surface. Sensitively repeating what we’ve said, or asking again, can make all the difference.

 

Photo by Sandy Millar at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 24 January 2024

Lessons of the Night

By Fran Houston

Sometimes I wake up. Sometimes not. I hold onto the bed for dear life. I am familiar with the night and its darkness. As a child I lived in the basement of our house as a mole does in his tunnel and could navigate through the narrow path of jagged, stacked boxes to the bathroom in the dark. The lights didn’t work.

Wrapped in my blanket of night, I am safe and warm. In the night are dreams. Dreams of all the things that can’t be done in my body because of its restrictions of fatigue and pain. I indulge my soul’s longing to fly.

The day hurts my eyes with its stinging brightness. Music hurts my ears with its loudness and overstimulation. I like the quiet of night.

I have chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and bipolar disorder. They operate as independent sine waves. At any time, I can be exhausted and manic, energized and depressed. Every combination imaginable. The cycles can last for days or months or even years. It’s an odd assortment.

I had a mate. I had a family. I had a home. I had a career. I had a dog. I lost them all.

I made $14,000 in the last week I worked in the real world as an electrical engineer. Now I barely make that in a year. Fifteen years ago, I paid tens of thousands of dollars to get my health back, conventionally and alternatively. It took ten years to get an accurate diagnosis. Treating bipolar with antidepressants makes it much worse. So not fun to have cfs and fibro creep in alongside.

I finally went to the backwoods of Maine for a year and lived in a camp on 189 acres with no running water and no electricity — an attempt to find my baseline, fight my demons and find the night, or die. No TV, no radio, no books, no writing, no nothing. Just me and myself, grapes and garlic. I danced naked in the woods in the pouring rain. I shoveled snow thirty feet out to the outhouse to go to the bathroom. I made snow angels under the full moon. I watched frost form on the windows. I gazed for hours at the cherry wallpaper. I slept twenty hours a day. I dropped each thought as though dropping a hot coal. I’d think the same thought again; drop the thought again, over and over. I would not get up until I felt the internal impulse to do so. I fasted. I had a sauna each week — the only excursion besides getting water from a spring. And successfully navigated men who were intrigued and unsavory. I reached the edge of madness. I waited for the Jesus experience. There is no god; there is just life that flows. There is no hope. That was the beginning. Stop the search. For god. For healing. Just stop. The maple tree doesn’t want to be an oak. They are what they are.

I moved to an island off the coast of Maine in September 2003. My dad died that Halloween night — the night when the veil between the world of the real and the unreal is thinnest. There was an aurora borealis that evening. Beauty without effort.

I lost my mind. Consumed with thoughts of jumping off the boat, a frustrated friend asked, “Why don’t you?” I panicked.

I found the psychiatrist I still see now. He doesn’t see anyone anymore, but the deal was that I agreed to be in a fishbowl where he trained six to eight other psychiatrists for twelve sessions, and then I would have him for life. He is very conservative with meds, which I am very grateful for, although at times it’s enraged me. I think that psychiatrists nowadays are too pill pushy. Meds take a long time before you can see any results. One has to courageously wade through a myriad of side effects. He also is very relationship-oriented, which few are. He is respectful of me as a human being not just as a patient. Also, making an eye-to-eye commitment to him to stay alive has been a critical component of the process.

I began intensive group therapies. I got pissed off a lot. It was a full time job. I was exhausted. I was depressed. Having to do all this work. Needing to do all this work. No hope of getting better. Homework. It was worse than Engineering school. Cognitive Behavior Therapy made sense though. Event. Feelings. Thoughts behind feelings. Change the thoughts. Huh. Seeing others who’d been stuck in their ruts changing. Me changing. Huh. Not so depressed. My mind actually thinking thoughts other than depressed ones. How refreshing.

Chronic fatigue syndrome can mean days or months bedridden. Or can be as simple as feeling like there are cotton balls behind my eyes and mud running in my veins. Pain is always present. I take Advil when it is too much, or something else. I see an osteopath, acupuncturist, and chiropractor regularly. Once when I was at dinner with a friend I fell asleep. They ushered me out of there swiftly. I’ve been propped up in lazy boys in the corner with a blanket at parties just to be able to attend. Then again friends have broken up with me because of my proclivity to say no, or act strange. As a fellow cfs-er puts it, “I feel minimally crappy today.”

Bipolar I is like mowing the lawn in the winter naked. I have bipolar II. An example of my mania is when I was out in front of my home on the phone talking wicked fast with a depressive friend, and I was frantically picking the heads off dandelions while every square inch of countertop in my home was littered with furiously ink-covered yellow stickies full of ideas and things to do and be and dreams. I am like a pit bull with a bone. Another example is when I found out about the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3. I found out that VSA (Very Special Arts) out of Washington had a video that would be shown in seventeen countries internationally. My mania launched me into a full-blown attempt to notify media and government outlets seeking coverage for this event. I sent cryptic, confusing e-mails and was very agitated. I wasn’t very successful, and thought that those who I contacted thought I was a nutcase. I felt like a mouse when a cat is playing with it and then the mouse just lies there stunned.

Depression was my best friend, the one I was most comfortable with. It’s been a lifelong companion. A favorite blankie. The one I return to for wisdom. Deep and dark. I remember the pain of trying to wash a fork amongst all the dirty dishes in my sink, wrapping myself in a blanket, wearing clothes that hadn’t been washed in a month, then opening a can of tuna and sitting on the cold floor to eat it. I told a depressed, suicidal friend once that it took more courage to make a cup of tea than to kill yourself. I still do have a stash of pills because I do feel that people should have that right, especially when you are old and everyone else is making decisions for you.

The problem/blessing with my illnesses is that they are unseen by the naked eye. “But you look fine,” is the response, as if arguing with me would help. I was going to write my behind-the-scenes story in the Island Times. I talked with a friend about it — a friend who I had “iguana-sat” for during a time of deep depression, where basically the “iguana” saved my life because I had to feed it every day and felt responsible for it, and was therefore not free to commit suicide. The friend was scared of being exposed on the island and advised me to not tell my story publicly. I didn’t. That is the kind of stigma that exists with disability.

I got to go to Hawaii because of a cat. They have quarantine rules and a friend moved there, and was delayed in bringing her cat and asked if I could escort him and stay for six weeks. I didn’t blink twice before saying yes. It was beyond my wildest expectations. Some friends gave me mad money and the deal was that I couldn’t do anything responsible with it, so when I was in Kauai I went for a helicopter ride, in the front seat, right next to the pilot, and you could look straight down. I wanted him to teach me to fly. I was so jazzed. Oh, the cliffs, the valleys, the ocean, the waterfalls, the rainbows. It was magnificent. It was absolutely the most amazing experience in my life. Even better than in my dreams.

The librarian on the island asked me to sit with an elder. So I started sitting with older islanders, and it was wonderful. They told me stories. I lived on the front of the island by the ferry boat slip, a great view. I bought a camera and took pictures of the sunsets.

I was frustrated. I wanted to somehow capture the elders’ stories and share them. I went to an exhibit of black and white photographs and storyboards. My heart lit up with a flame so intense. I had never experienced that before. I knew what to do. I spoke with our little art gallery on the island about doing an exhibit. I spoke with the Island Times about doing a column to advertise for the exhibit. At the June exhibit everyone asked, “Where’s the book?” So that began another journey. Mind you, I could only work a maximum of three hours a day. And I would have bouts of depression throughout. And bouts of freaked-out-ed-ness. I leaned on my friends and the community to help me. I busily interviewed and photographed islanders for another two years. Another gallery on the mainland offered to host the book launch/exhibit. In June of 2010 the book launched. By August it sold out. It’s now in its second printing. I never started out thinking I would write a book. If someone had told me that, I never would’ve started. I would have been too scared. Even as I write this today on Christmas Eve 2010, I have friends who are coming to help me clean my little 18 x 18 home next week because I cannot manage it on my own.

This project was such a community effort. This island has given me so much. When I first got here I was amazed at its kindness towards me. I was broken and it loved me. So I wanted to give back by doing this project. I was surprised to find that again I was the receiver. As I sat and listened to the stories of my “lovies” as I called them, they taught me. Some of them have limited lives, pain, memory loss, reliance on others for care. I learned how to live my life fuller. I learned grace, courage, and how to have a twinkle in my eye. My chronic fatigue syndrome and depression limit me, but I can choose to live as fully as I want within those windows and be thankful. One thing we all do is get old. We can be wise to learn how to live our lives now.

“What’s your next project?” I hated that question more than anything. I hadn’t been able to do anything for ten years and could hardly stand up, let alone conceive of doing anything else for the rest of my life. Nobody really knew what toll this had taken on me, but I present well. My pat answer became, “I’m going to take a lot of naps,” which I did until I went into a major depression for the beautiful month of August. I don’t have seasonal affective disorder. I can be perfectly miserable in gorgeous weather and happy as a clam in the bitter cold or damp fog or pouring rain. That’s clinical depression.

“How are you?” Another hated and seemingly innocuous question. The simple answer is F–I–N–E. F**ked up, insecure, neurotic, emotional. Most friends really don’t want the long answer. This way I can simply smile and be honest gracefully.

I still have chronic fatigue syndrome. I still have fibromyalgia. I still have bipolar. I manage them. They don’t manage me. They are a part of the package instead of who I am. I’ve learned to live alongside them, as esteemed companions, my teachers. Step by step, thought by thought, moment by moment. A little flame, follow it. Lessons of the night. I have this very simple view of life now. The good and bad come and go. Don’t hold onto anything. I love the moment. Every bit of it. That’s all I have. Heart wide open. It doesn’t matter if someone kicks you; just point yourself in the direction you want to go. As far as god, I don’t know. How can there not be?

The edges of the night are the best. Sunset, when the light slips below the horizon. That one moment taking the light over the rim of the earth, and rest comes. After which, the colors swell and dreams begin.

Fran Houston
Peaks Island, Maine
December 2010

 

Postscript

This was the first piece I ever wrote, and chronicles some of my journey of illness and how my creative endeavor helped me emerge from the hole, to know and experience a bigger life of possibility and change. Months after it was written I experienced my most delirious mania, followed by the most hellacious depression ever. Thankfully I had a hand to hold.

 

Photo by Tyler Clemmensen at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 17 January 2024

The Last of the Irish Rover: A Tribute to Shane MacGowan

Sad to say I must be on my way
So buy me beer and whiskey ’cause I’m going far away (far away)
I’d like to think of me returning when I can
To the greatest little boozer and to Sally MacLennane

— Shane MacGowan, “Sally MacLennane”

This is written as a tribute to British-born Irish singer-songwriter and musician Shane MacGowan who died November 30, 2023 at the age of 65. I have no privileged knowledge or insight into the man’s life or work, indeed I knew little about him until recently. I want to focus on the impact Shane MacGowan has had on my life. His death has given me a great deal to think about in a number of areas, including political history, national identity, resilience, mental health, and addiction. If you’re interested in more, I’ve included a list of resources at the end of this article.

Fairytale of New York

I must declare up front that I was never into punk rock, though it broke onto the music scene in the mid-70s when I was in my teens. To the extent that I considered punk at all, I found it brash and uncouth. My tastes at the time stretched to Irish singer and songwriter Dana, Neil Sedaka, and The Wombles. My musical credentials established, I’ll begin with the one song everyone knows, whether they’re a fan of MacGowan and The Pogues or not: “Fairytale of New York.” There are so many great recordings but the one I love best is this live performance from 1998 with The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. As many will know, Kirsty MacColl died under tragic circumstances in December 2000. Watching them perform together is all the more poignant since MacGowan’s death.

In the past few years the song took on some specific and personal resonances. I went so far as to learn the lyrics, should I ever be called upon to perform it in karaoke. (I wasn’t.) Singing those lines to myself until they became part of me taught me the raw brilliance of MacGowan’s writing.

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, won’t see another one
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

— Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan, “Fairytale of New York”

Writing in The Independent in 2017, Roisin O’Connor called it “a drunken hymn for people with broken dreams and abandoned hopes.” I feel that captures the song’s spirit perfectly, and reflects its significance for me personally. Singing it loudly — if not quite drunkenly — on the streets of Newcastle is a memory I treasure. O’Connor’s article was republished in December 2013 following MacGowan’s death. One of the most moving versions of “Fairytale” is this performance by Glen Hansard and Lisa O’Neil at Shane MacGowan’s funeral in St Mary of the Rosary Church in the small town of Nenagh in Co Tipperary, Ireland.

I’m rarely affected by the death of artists, actors, and celebrities. I don’t know why it was different this time, but the outpouring of love, loss, and appreciation at MacGowan’s passing caught me off guard. This man was clearly so much more than the co-writer and performer of the best Christmas song ever. I wanted to know more about him, and why his passing affected me so much.

Last year marked three decades of continuous service at my place of work. It was something of a wake-up call, leading me to consider the inevitability of my eventual demise. I’ve never given much thought to my death and funeral. I won’t be there, so why bother? I’ve come to realise that’s unfair to those I’ll leave behind, and have committed to addressing the basics at least. For certain, the event won’t be televised globally, as Shane MacGowan’s was. There’ll be no live band, dancing, or singing. No eulogies or readings by the likes of Nick Cave and Johnny Depp. No presidential attendees. My name and memory won’t be toasted in pubs and bars around the world. But what kind of legacy would I like? What do I deserve? As I wrote when considering my thirty years service, “these are questions for another day, but at least — at last — I’m asking them.” Unlikely as it might seem, Shane MacGowan is helping me ask them.

My first response to his death was to seek out other songs performed by The Pogues. (Fun fact: the band was originally called Pogue Mahone, an anglicisation of the Irish for kiss my arse.) I’ve linked a number of my favourites at the end of this piece, but I want to mention three in particular: “The Irish Rover,” “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” and “Sally MacLennane.”

The Irish Rover

I was blown away by the energy of “The Irish Rover,” as performed by The Pogues with Irish folk band The Dubliners. Credited to composer J.M. Crofts, the song tells the fantastic tale of The Irish Rover on her voyage from Ireland to America. The ship herself is magnificently if improbably equipped. It boasts thirty-seven masts and a cargo that includes “one million bags of the best Sligo rags, two million barrels of stone, three million sides of old blind horses hides, and four million barrels of bones.” Surviving calamities which at one point reduce the crew to two (“myself and the captain’s old dog”) the ship eventually founders, leaving the narrator as truly the last of The Irish Rover. The very different styles of the bands’ lead singers — Ronnie Drew for the Dubliners and MacGowan for the Pogues — complement each other perfectly. It’s a near flawless performance which deserves to be wider known.

It awakens in me a yearning only truly great folk music can inspire. Part of me wishes I could claim Irish, Welsh, or Scottish descent, because those nations seem to have more or less clearly defined national identities and sense of collective pride. That may be naive but it’s how it appears to me from outside. I’m British / English but I’ve never known that kind of rootedness. I’ve written of this before, in such posts as Like a Rootless Tree (Where Are Your Roots?), and Belonging (Longing to Be). Born in England to Irish parents, MacGowan was proud of his Irish republican ancestry. Former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams delivered a reading at his funeral, which was also attended by Irish president Michael D. Higgins. His life and music have inspired me to become better informed about world history, especially the World Wars, the Middle-East, and the long and bloody history of Anglo-Irish politics.

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

Written in 1972 by Scottish-born Australian singer-songwriter Eric Bogle, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” tells the tale of a young Australian soldier who is maimed in the Gallipoli campaign in World War I. It carries huge significance for the ANZAC veteran community, and is a powerful expression of the futility of war.

And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where my legs used to be
And thank Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity

There are many recordings of the song, including this one by Bogle himself, but for me this live version by The Pogues captures the pain and pointlessness of the conflict better than any. It inspired me to learn more about the courage of those who fell in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign.

Sally MacLennane

It’s impossible to talk about MacGowan without addressing his long-term addiction to drugs and alcohol. Both are well documented. In an obituary piece in The New York Times Matt Phillips described MacGowan as “a titanically destructive personality and a master songsmith whose lyrics painted vivid portraits of the underbelly of Irish immigrant life.”

His wife, Victoria Clarke once stated that “his whole career has revolved around [drinking] and, indeed, been both enhanced and simultaneously inhibited by it.” There’s no denying the devastating effect addiction had on his life. It led to him being dismissed from The Pogues in 1991 due to the impact of drugs and alcohol on the band’s live performances. He was arrested in 1999 in London after being reported to the emergency services by Irish singer, songwriter, and activist Sinéad O’Connor. He later credited her intervention as helping him ultimately to beat his drug addiction. He was sober from around 2016 following treatment for a fall which fractured his pelvis. In 2004, Shane MacGowan told The Guardian that he’d been given six weeks to live, “about 25 years ago.” He outlived the prediction by more than forty years.

Alcohol and drink culture run through much of The Pogues’ repertoire. Another of my favourite songs, “Sally MacLennane,” was allegedly inspired by drinking sessions MacGowan had with friends in London before boarding the boat train home to Ireland. The title refers to a dry Irish stout brewed by Redlight Redlight Beer Parlour & Brewery. My favourite version is this live performance from 1985.

We walked him to the station in the rain
We kissed him as we put him on the train
And we sang him a song of times long gone
Though we knew that we’d be seeing him again

Sad to say I must be on my way
So buy me beer and whiskey ’cause I’m going far away (far away)
I’d like to think of me returning when I can
To the greatest little boozer and to Sally MacLennane

The lyrics evoke the kind of drunken camaraderie I’ve scarcely experienced. (One session at the end of my final year at university is a possible exception.) I’ve never smoked, nor taken recreational drugs of any kind. That’s not to claim any moral superiority or willpower on my part. No one in my family smoked or drank more than occasionally. None of my school or university friends smoked. At university, I drank beer at the pub and white wine at parties. I occasionally got drunk but never considered it something to be proud of. I’ve been offered drugs once in my life, by a stranger within minutes of arriving with a friend at the Glastonbury Festival site in 1983. It was probably marijuana but neither of us were tempted or interested enough to ask. We declined, politely.

In more recent years, I’ve known a few people who smoke. Fran has occasionally self-medicated with alcohol and cigarettes. Our book recalls is a chat conversation from 2013, while Fran was on a very stressful three month road trip in Europe.

Martin: Tell me three things you want to accomplish today.

Fran: Charge my phone, smoke, breakfast, rest.. I will quit smoking on the boat home.. For now it helps take the edge off my stress..

Martin: The cigarettes are self-medication for stress? Like drink is for mania and depression?

Fran: Yeah.. I’m using them now to make it through hell..

Fran stopped smoking on her return home and reduced her drinking to social levels. She’s recently given up alcohol altogether. I consider myself fortunate never to have taken up smoking or drugs, or drinking excessively. I’m aware enough to recognise I might easily have become dependent if I’d been exposed to them. Fran was able to stop smoking and drinking without too much trouble but I’ve known other friends for whom smoking and other addictions have been far harder to address. I applaud and support anyone battling addiction and other compulsive behaviours, however they manifest.

I’m reminded of other artists I admire whose lives have been affected by addiction. The first to come to mind is Amy Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011. Performing as RØRY, Roxanne Emery is another. I wrote of my love of her music last year in a post which also discussed German band AnnenMayKantereit. In an interview for Underground Emery said, “I got sober in 2018, and then a load of therapy in 2020 when I realised being sober was HARD. I processed a lot of trauma, from the death of my mother at 22, to the dysfunctional dynamics and addictions in my family.”

Shane MacGowan, the Absurd Man

I recently explored my response to the philosophy of Albert Camus. Specifically, his approach to the existential absurdity of seeking meaning and purpose in a universe that offers neither. For me, MacGowan exemplifies Camus’ Absurd Man better than anyone I can think of. This may seem presumptuous, if not ridiculous, but it’s not the first time parallels have been drawn between punk and existentialism. In Existentialism as Punk Philosophy Stuart Hanscomb identifies a common spirit of rebellion. “Punk is music that is anti-music,” he declares. “Existentialism is a philosophy that is anti-philosophy.”

Rebellion is a central theme in Camus’ work. In The Myth of Sisyphus he asserts “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” It’s hard not to think of MacGowan when you read those words. The following is from a tribute piece in The Guardian by Sean O’Hagan titled “Chaos? This is natural living!” The genius of Shane MacGowan.

More than anyone else I have ever met, he lived entirely in the moment, the eternal present as he understood it, inextricably linked to an altered state of consciousness: alcoholic, chemical or hallucinogenic.

O’Hagan recalls a conversation with MacGowan which is especially pertinent to Camus.

“I believe in the dignity of the human soul,” [Shane] once told me, when asked about his spirituality. “People who can put up with incredible hardship and still not be depressed, still enjoy themselves.”

This is the essence of the Absurd Man. Condemned by the gods to forever push a boulder to the top of a mountain, only for it to roll down again, Sisyphus finds a way to escape the futility and hopelessness of his situation. Camus writes:

Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

We must likewise imagine Shane MacGowan happy. Certainly he drank deeply of life. I’m reminded of the poem “And Thus in Nineveh” by Ezra Pound.

“It is not, Raana, that my song rings highest
Or more sweet in tone than any, but that I
Am here a Poet, that doth drink of life
As lesser men drink wine.”

I’ve no idea if MacGowan knew of Pound’s work, but it’s an epitaph of which he might have approved. There’s a wonderful YouTube video on Camus titled Absurdism. How to Party at the End of Meaning. Its irreverent and engaging narration ends as follows:

Absurdism isn’t an answer to the mysteries of life, why bad things happen, where the universe came from or how to survive this shit. It’s just asking the question, oh god what if we never achieve final explanations, what if we never see the big picture, what if we go our whole lives without ever having known what it was all about, and replying to oneself — oh look, it’s a puffin! It’s a nice puffin. It’s a nice day. Oh, we’re alive. That’s unprecedentedly weird and cool, whether it’s fully explained or not. Let’s go for a beer.

In this piece I’ve explored aspects of Shane MacGowan’s life and work as they resonate for me. I hope I’ve brought an awareness of his genius — and flaws — to others who, like me until very recently, knew him only as the front man in a punk band who sang that song about Christmas. I hope I’ve shown there was much much more to the man, his music, and his life. At the end of that life, he was and remains loved and feted by millions. Absurd or not, that’s a life well-lived.

I’ll close with a quotation from author Neil Gaiman’s charge to artists everywhere (which is to say, all of us) in his commencement address at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.

Now go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.

Shane MacGowan more than met that charge. The onus is on us to do the same.

 

Further Reading and Listening

The following links are provided for anyone wanting to further explore the life and works of Shane McGowan.

Books

A Drink with Shane MacGowan by Shane MacGowan and Victoria Mary Clarke

A Furious Devotion: The Life of Shane MacGowan by Richard Balls

Articles

Shane MacGowan (Wikipedia)

Victoria Mary Clarke on her husband Shane MacGowan

“Chaos? This is natural living!” The genius of Shane MacGowan

Fairytale of New York

Fairytale of New York (Wikipedia)

Fairytale of New York lyrics

Fairytale of New York Official video

Fairytale of New York with Kirsty MacColl 1998

Fairytale of New York The Pogues and Ella Finer

Fairytale of New York played at Shane MacGowan’s funeral (Glen Hansard and Lisa O’Neill)

Other Songs and Performances

Spancil Hill (Shane MacGowan and Christy Moore)

The Rare Old Mountain Dew (The Dubliners and The Pogues)

The Irish Rover (The Dubliners and The Pogues) The Late Show 1987

Sally MacLennane (album version)

Sally MacLennane (Live)

And the Band Played Walzing Matilda (Live)

And the Band Played Walzing Matilda (Eric Bogle)

A Rainy Night in Soho (Live)

A Pair of Brown Eyes (Live)

 

Photo 185240628 | Shane MacGowan in concert. Milan, Italy. June 2009. © Fabio Diena | Dreamstime.com