January 2013


I’ve been unable to write here for some time.

Infact, I’ve been feeling utterly uninclined to write, full stop, for almost four months. Words seemed to turn to dust in my brain and settle sludgy up in the wet matter. Which is a massive shift since I’ve been a wordy thing since I was little.

The slow erosion of my wordiness started in October when I was teaching up in Scotland and feeling a bit under the weather. That fluey feeling persisted and melded with an increasing amount of anxiety and uncertainty about what I was feeling or what was going on in my body. Where before I would write and journal or talk and things would settle, it was like someone had flipped a switch in my brain. I lost my bearings. I would calculate that I should eat by the time on the clock but not by the feeling in my belly. I would sleep but very fitfully, waking up with no sense of having slept at all. I would feel things under a sheet of leaded mental glass. Getting things done became very wearisome. Other people became unbearably demanding. I became very antisocial.

If one of my clients had come to me with these symptoms I might have assumed that they were depressed. But I have had experience of depression and I KNEW that I wasn’t depressed and I felt instinctively that something physical – possibly brainy – was out of kilter.

However, I lost my certainty. I wasn’t at all sure if I wasn’t just imagining things. The shift seemed gradual. So gradual that I couldn’t never quite see if things had gotten worse or better. It took a friend staying and reflecting back my very erratic behaviour to make me visit my GP. After blood tests, I was diagnosed as hypothyroidal. Unusual in a man and in someone my age.

What is astonishing in the change I feel since I started taking thyroxin (which acts like the body’s starter motor) is that an organic change – a shift in chemistry – can have such a profound effect in how we experience the world.

My confidence (in teaching, in therapy) that there is consensual reality that we can all talk about has been left wobbling like jelly. Most of my meditative ‘wisdoms’ felt like so much irritating dust and needless needling when I was unwell. They were meaningless when I was in that desert place. If I had been teaching myself back then I would be irritating the hell out of myself. I wonder now how can I ever know from which chemical / organic platform my clients or students or friends are listening to me?

I wrote in a poem 23 years ago about that imponderable gap in terms of language:

i push out a word.
it floats in the air
between us.

to me it looks blue.

but my blue is your red
& so i say:
“it’s blue.”

you nod.

But actually there is a bigger divide than just words. What I experienced in those four weeks of thyroid-desert was a different self experience. I was a different Alistair. The world felt different, my brain felt different, time flowed differently. So how can we ever know what other people are experiencing when we say something, when we reach up and touch them in some way? If I can be so different within the same body, how can we ever really know what’s going in someone else’s skin?

The one great benefit – I’m tapping around for positives as the neuronal lights come back on – is that I have HUGE empathy now when people say “I’m not sleeping well” or “I’m not feeling myself” or “I’m on meds” . I am much less likely to ASSUME what is going on across the room, which is a terrible temptation as a therapist or a teacher. I hate to turn everything into a little life lesson – but there’s also no point in tipping 120 days experience into a bin bag marked “TOXIC”.

That poem continues:

i write “flower”
but you read it “flower”
meaning something
very different.

i fall apart.

wish me joy in trying
because poems do nothing
but push a pencil
into a creepingly spastic
hand.