Tag Archives: meaning

Anxiety – a monster under the bed?

We can’t escape it. The worrying thoughts. Sometimes a pounding heart or sweaty palms. At times the sense of unease. Anxiety in its various forms can be present in all of us at different times. It is called many names. Fear, panic, phobia, stress, freaking out, concern, etc. At times it arrives because of a specific event (like an examination or doctor’s appointment). For others it may be the sight of an unwanted visitor. Good morning Incy Wincy Spider!

None of us escape the experience of anxiety. It is in essence hotwired into us. Hotwired neurologically and like electricity runs through our central nervous system. But why do we have anxiety? This uncomfortable and even disabling experience. Why is it often part of our daily lives? Not everyone will agree on “daily “, but I find that the majority of clients presents with a higher or lower degree of anxiety. This is very often the case when anxiety was not their initial complaint or concern. I am thus not surprised when a referral to me is due to depression or other challenges , but it becomes clear that anxiety is part of the package.

When it comes to emotional obstacles, a major challenge can be fighting against what we can not see or what we believe “is part of whom I am”. In essence the fight can then turn against one self. Me versus I. Instead of me against anxiety. To see anxiety as the enemy is not beneficial and can be visualised (imaginative or symbolised by a real object) as the problem the requires management. And the starting point? At the beginning. Understanding how anxiety operates and why we experience it.

Step 1. Feelings of anxiety start with a trigger or catalyst. This may be a smell, seeing an external object or by internal feelings . The amygdala jumps into action by preparing us physically and mentally into a fight or flight mode. This response is triggered by the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream via the kidneys. As a result our blood pressure and blood sugar rises, muscles are fueled with energy and we focus on what may be the potential danger. This may stifle some into a passive state; others are thrown into chaotic action, while others become extremely focussed and structured.

The Shadow ManStep 2. To identify the threat or potential danger. The importance of this that we may be (1) confronted by a real danger or problem, (2) that we responded incorrectly to an external or internal stimulus or (3) that when nothing happens, uncertainty may be appear to be a threat. This step is within the context of anxiety being a survival mechanism. If not for anxiety, we would not have survived as a human beings over centuries. However, when exposed to anxiety on a regular basis or growing up in an environment where anxiety flourished, it might have become behavioural patterns and even part daily routines.

Step 3. Ask yourself, “What purpose does anxiety serve in my life?” Does anxiety enhance my experiences of love, beauty, creativeness and (importantly) logical thoughts. Does it impede in the pleasure I may gain from a loving relationship, my sleep or even my ability to complete my studies or a piece of art? What does anxiety steal from me?

Step 4. Finding ammunition to manage anxiety. Before you fire away, know we cannot rid ourselves of anxiety . We all have times when anxiety visits and times when it serves an important function. However, consider the following:

  • How many of your worries become true? If you write down your weekly worries. Say you start at the floor, write them down one for one till you reach the ceiling. How many did repeat? Then tick each one that became true. How many ticks? Interesting.
  • Stay in the here and now, the present. Anxiety often let us dwell on decisions we made (“Did I do the right thing?”, “What did they think …?”) or focus on the uncertainties of the future (so many “What if?” questions).
  • Know that your experience of anxiety does not imply something is wrong with you. Anxiety visit people from all ages, religions, cultural backgrounds. You are one of us if you experience anxiety. You are not alone. You are not the problem. Anxiety is.
  • Do you ever worry that someone will knock on your door and say, “Congratulations, you have won a wonderful holiday!” No, anxiety does not focus on possible positive outcomes. It tells us the potential bad stuff, what may go wrong and the worst possible scenarios.
  • Know that physical sensations are anxiety gearing you up for action. Your dry mouth, hairs on the back of your neck rising up, having cold feet and pins and needled in your fingers, butterflies on your stomach, shallow breathing and increased heart rate are all part of the fight or flight package. You can use it if you are under threat. But if all is fine, know that it is just anxiety being unpleasant. Know YOU WILL NOT DIE FROM THIS.
  • Breath in. Breath out. Slowly and deeply. Give your body and your brain oxygen. Breath in. Breath out.

Step 5. If you find anxiety overwhelming, find someone to talk to. This may be a friend, a family member, someone you trust (e.g. religious affiliation) or professional. So often anxiety grows on us as we keep it private. But bottling it up just let the temperature rise. Let it out, let it go. The monster under your bed is not real. It is anxiety trying to scare you.

 

 

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Once I was 41 years old

In a wink of an eye. It truly is remarkable. It was the seasonal changes that reminded me. Four years ago, May 2012, the nights were getting darker and longer, the days more misty and gloomy in the autumn light. Working hard, probably too hard. WorkingIMG_1535 hours were stretched into the night and my commute home most often passed family homes where supper was served. And then it stopped. Out of the blue, out of the dark.

My brain tumour’s surprised arrival followed my first ever half marathon (a good one) and a second half marathon (a struggle) two weeks later. I was fit, healthy and our family was settling back into a routine following our return from England 18 months before. Life treated us well, with only run of the mill challenges. Nothing dramatic. Kids at school carving their own marks in discovering their identities in a South African lifestyle. Anneén and I  finding ways to integrate our learning curves from abroad back into systems familiar from long term memory. IMG_1604

And still with the good and the lovely came the unexpected. Loss of consciousness whilst driving on the highway. Waking up under hospital lights. First sight was Anneén’s tears. Comprehending her words, but it did not make sense. Seizure? Brought here by ambulance? Really? But it was true, despite my IMG_1582amnesia. And so the journey started. MRI Brain Scans, differential diagnosis. New differential diagnosis. MRI Brain Scan and craniotomy aka brain surgery. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

And in between I ran. Not away. Not in flight, even though at times in tears. But I found running as a way in between chemo sessions to find open spaces, open mind space. I ran to feel my heart beat, blood in muscles and a sense of moving forward, moving on. It was life affirming. Death denying. Even though “mortality” was suddenly written on a white wall.

When I was 41 years old, the seasons changed in our Wine-lands. The vines lost their green coats, changed into golden, red and brown outfits and were then blown apart by autumn winds. The bare vineyard fingers were exposed, like skeletons. Winter was coming, but so the knowledge that the seasons change. New life will return to the brown vines, crooked in in the morning light. New red and black fruit will return, plucked into baskets and transformed into wine. A new life, a different life. IMG_1436

I am turning 46 soon. The seasonal changes includes us, make us aware of life’s ongoing journey and routines. What will follow around the next corner, over the next hill or within the mountain forest. I am not able to tell – a true blessing.  But I can stand still on my way. Take a deep breath, close my eyes. Hear the wind in the pine trees, smell the dusty roads between the vineyards, see the excitement in our dogs eyes. Breath out. And run.

 

 

 

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MRI Brain Scan: a crash-bang-bang course

It’s the 23rd. It is a positive start”, I think when the receptionist said the date. 23 is my lucky number. I completed most of the paperwork the previous week when I dropped off my oncologist’s referral letter. A few more dotted lines call for my signature. I don’t know how many MRI scans I have had; today’s might be 6th. However, the last one in March was the most important. The one labelled, “all clear”.

How do I approach a brain scan? Like everyone, I suppose I my own ways. Each person will bring specific fears, unique routine and mental preparation before facing the tunnel. Earlier today my rituals consisted of the things under my control. Having a shave, dressing in my favourite light orange and white shirt, wearing comfortable jeans, putting on my trial running shoes that make me feel grounded, a call to confirm the appointment time and leaving enough time to arrive early. Nothing out of the ordinary, but it is the ordinary and familiarity that bring comfort.

I arrive at the hospital 15 minutes early. I don’t carry anxious thoughts with me, never been a great advocate of worry. But I sense the tension in my back and shoulders. It’s not possible to ditch all the anxiety. It tends to sneak in when you are not looking. Anneén arrives before I reach the main entrance. I told her she did not have to come, but it is a great comfort to have her with me. Knowing she will wait in the reception area when it’s all done. It is oddly quiet when we slowly criss-cross through the hospital passages. Most of it was renovated recently and signs warning of wet paint still serve as decorations. “They could have done with a bit of colour” we agree. No one else waits in the reception area. The school and university holidays provide a nice change from the usual hustle and bustle.

When called, I know the drill. I leave my outer layers of safety behind and emerge from the change locker in a faded peach colour garment. A further breakdown of any aesthetic possibility comes in the form of my long black running socks sticking out from underneath. Comfort? Yes. Sexy? Definitely not! I wait for a few minutes underneath signs and arrows that directs towards different scan options. A cleaner slowly sweeps the floor area surrounding me. I feel a need to focus on something. Unfortunately the small Beavers and Butthead cartoon on the notice board is too small to make out the writing.

Luckily the bad joke requires little time as it is 8:45 and the MRI scanner waits. Lying down on the flat surface is the easy part and fairly comfortable. The radiographer knows about my previous scan experiences, so she shiftily hands me the earplugs (to reduce the noise) and place two sheets of white foamy stuff both sides of my face. She moves my head slightly to the left and gently pressed down on my chin to position my head correctly. The small rubber bubble is placed into my hand, in case I need to call for help. It provides some security, as I used it on a previous occasion when the claustrophobia got to me. Finally she covers me with a blanket for both physical and emotional warmth. All I need is music to relax, but it is not available as I am not allowed any metal (not the musical type) or earphones in the tunnel due to the strong magnetic fields.

You can open your eyes if you want to”, she says as I slide into the tunnel. “There is no way”, I replied louder in my head than in words. I made that mistake once before. I don’t like narrow spaces. I admit that I don’t like being out of control either – especially about my physical space. I can feel my elbows being slightly pushed inwards by the sides of the MRI’s tunnel. For a moment I am aware that the blanket is slightly pulled back on the sides due to inwards movement. “I am covered like corpse”. I don’t know where the thought came from, but I was ready for it. “I am here because I am alive”, I counter-argue. “I am here being I want to remain healthy and value life”. And so my process in my head starts to manage the crowded space and mechanical noise.

  • I start with thoughts. Focussing on being alive. The people who matters for me. I am doing this for them and me. What I know. For example, I had no symptoms or strange behaviour (as far as I know at least!). What is important (staying healthy)
  • Visualise memories and beautiful images. Seeing my daughters jump on the “bungee trampolines” the previous day. Looking out over the sun covered vineyards with snow covered mountain peaks behind.
  • Letting go of these images and thoughts and let them flow away like thick honey.
  • Slowing down my breathing. Being aware of my breath, rather than the lack of space around me.
  • Comparing the mechanical noises with sounds I know. I hear a large mechanical bee, a dentist drill, an electrical mosquito, a loud air-pressured drill. A hammer against a water pipe.
  • Physical sensation (such as an itch that I can scratch) indicates to me that I am alive.

20130922_122050_resized

It does not feel like “about 25 minutes”, but after a short silence the radiographer returns and injects my arm with contrast dye. This makes certain tissues and blood vessels show up with greater detail on the scan. I move back inside with less tension for the last 15 minutes. I allow my senses more freedom to explore the experience. Mumford and Sons are still playing “After the Storm” in my mind when I exit the scanner’s tunnel. I am set free.

2013-09-23 12.11.21_resizedIt is 3 hours later and we are sitting at the neurosurgeon’s office. I am aware of the results CD in my hand. The CD is light, but the engraved information carries a different weight. Martin greets us as he walked passed. He needs to quickly go to the ward, but will be with us on time. On his return, Martin opens the scan result on his computer. There two brains, both mine, on display. One from the March scan. The other from this morning. They look similar. Martin shows the left frontal area where the operation took place. I dark area indicates where the tumour and some brain tissue were removed. Nothing else shows up. The scan is almost identical to that done in March. I am clean. No cancer growth or tumour cells are visible.

Once more I am set free.

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The Tough Going

I love those moments when creative thoughts awake in the cortex and streams like golden liquid down neuro-pathways onto the white screen. Words that splatter out ideas, experiences and events into a synchronised line of meaningful thought. Or when the artist’s imagination draws a vision that flows in charcoal and paint onto a canvass to bring beauty into life.

But occasionally dark skies cloud the psyche and dwarf the imagination into submission. Troubled times arrive in the form of external events and dries the magic and steals the funny bones. And no, not all of these shadow times relate to brain tumours or cancer treatment. At times it is just life. Waves of “it happens” that saps the juice and suck the marrow from my fruit. Not so much Carpé Diem, more crap and damn.

It has been a rough 4 weeks. In between my car breaking down (twice), a broken tooth and attempts to replace it with a temporary implant (3 times and still not right), a drawn out winter the soaks Spring into a foggy memory and aiming to take that big grown-up jump again into the dark (called house hunting), the good times have been sidelined. Over the same period work slowed downed, adding pressure on responsibilities such as paying the tax master. It felt like sinking, drowning in the smoky skies.

Wet Winter

While holding up this grim picture, I am not bursting into sing and dance. I am actually not a great believer in positive thinking, or when the dark cloud comes rolling over the hills that you should start searching for the silver lining. When the dark clouds appear, find shelter. The storm while pass, but while it sweeping down and pouring gallons of water on the earth, curl up under a warm blanket. Stay dry, stay warm. It’s OK to cuddle up.

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Brain Surgery – 1 year on

6 August 2013

Special occasions don’t start with fireworks or with an extraordinary sunrise and awakening. Today was a grey, rainy day in the Western Cape and Boland’s wine region. Anneén left yesterday for Namibia for work, so I had to get the girls ready for school, sort the dogs out and tick-off my mental checklist of lunchboxes, reading-bags, vitamins (for them), Epilim (for me), dog food (for the 4 legged ones), umbrellas and signing the form for the nurses’ visit to school. Quite ordinary for an anniversary.

The trip to school was filled with playing “I spy” and “asking daddy hard questions”. Today’s clincher: “Why can only mommies have babies in their tummies?” (Do boys ask similar questions?), while filling the traffic cues to the local primary and secondary schools. Several cars with University students shot past, making the most of the current free parking situation in Stellenbosch. Dropping the girls off as the school bell announces the start of another day of learning. Close, but in time. All quite rushed, but precious moments as they turn around to throw themselves into a goodbye hug and run into the crowd of blue uniforms and playfulness. Ordinary does not rule our being touched by these moments.

Driving 45 minutes to work is more or less the norm. As is the case on my Monday and Tuesday journeys, my iPod playing the latest Kermode and Mayo’s film review podcast from BBC Radio 5 live (something I can recommend to any lovers of movies or talk about movies if, as with us, it is difficult to actually get to the cinema!). Nothing out of the norm, but the routine providing a sense of familiarity and security. Stopping at the first clinic to complete a memory assessment. Then to the hospital for a psychotherapy session at the heart unit, before arriving at our practice for two more consultations. Awareness of my anniversary is left in the car, while my focus shifts to the clinical and therapeutic tasks at hand. I am appreciating the privilege to be able to work and to be productive.

Lunch time I am rushing back home to look after our girls given that mum is doing a bit of jet-setting. My iPod’s shuffle kick-start Alanis Morrison’s “Thank You”. I am thankful that it is a year on. Should I say thank you for the brain tumour that dropped into my life in 2012? Alanis’ words resonate with me:

Alanisthank you terror
thank you disillusionment
thank you frailty
thank you consequence
thank you thank you silence

 

But no, I am not thankful that I had a brain tumour. But I know that I don’t have to fight against it (for now anyway there is nothing to fight against). Anneén and I had all of the above and I can find ways to be thankful for having these daunting experiences and what it taught us. But I am not trapped by them. I don’t have to fight. I can just take responsibility. I can look after my immune system, I can stay healthy (without overdoing it), I can run and can live life. I can love my family and friends and look after my emotional well-being. I can set challenges and we can have celebrations. Bob Dylan steps on stage after Alanis – my iPod is the coolest DJ!

In between doing the dad’s taxi service I stop off at Martin’s office. I feel a bit embarrassed about the “Thank you” – card. The options at the SPAR were limited to “field of flowers” or “laughing baby”. Flowers it was to accompany the bottle of red Tamboerskloof Syrah (no embarrassment about that choice though!). I am pretty sure he won’t allow the enjoyment to interfere with his next craniotomy, but hope he will raise a glass of the peppery and berry crimson nectar to celebrate my extraordinary-ordinary anniversary of life a year post-operation.

the moment I let go of it was the moment
I got more than I could handle
the moment I jumped off of it
was the moment I touched down

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The last chemo tablet standing

And there it was. One out of the last 4 Temadol tablets to go. Even though my mind knew the relief to have reached this point, my body was not at the point where it felt it. The milestone can be celebrated on another day. But after the initial 30 days of chemo and radiotherapy and now, with one tablet to go, the past 6 months have been about picking myself up and then going into survival mode for 5 to 7 days, picking myself up again. Only one of today’s 4 left to go.

 

Thinking back, the running helped. In between the treatment stints, putting running shoes on and getting into running mode cleared my mind and my body felt stronger after been knocked down after every 5 day chemo round. I know that people respond differently to chemo. My experience was overwhelming fatigue. I felt the energy draining away and I had to work hard after each “day 4” to get going again. But I have been able to keep pushing myself. Going to work helped. Seeing my colleagues, meeting with clients and knowing when to take it slow helped. Grateful for the odd public holiday, like being able to stay at home yesterday on Worker’s Day to rest properly.

Most of all I am grateful to Anneén who took on so much more on her shoulders when I was down and almost out, when I could not be there for her and our girls. In those times when tiredness dragged me down, Anneén was strong for us. We celebrated when my last MRI scan came back clean and I celebrate her carrying us carrying us through tough and uncertain times. Thanks babes!

One last tablet.

Off you go.

Go do your dark magic.

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The Ides of March

It had both. The incredible high was followed by the unexpected sucker punch the next day. The cliché of an emotional rollercoaster rocked me up to the top and then ran me into the ground below. Although I know that is how stories often flow, it took me a few days to recover. But let me start with a question, “Can you become friends with someone in 2 hours?

De OewerIt was a wonderful high on hearing that my MRI Brain Scan came back without any sign of tumour. The message was clear, “Live your life”. I wrote about it and received wonderful responses from friends, family and my colleagues from all over the world who read my blog or those within reach of a phone call. It was a wave of positive energy and we rejoiced. We called up the locals and celebrated at the De Oewer restaurant next to the Eerste Rivier. There was bubbly, laughter in between conversation and a feast to enjoy. Children were running, climbing, playing and flowing with the energy of innocence. It felt like the rise of a new sun that chased away the dark shadows of fear and anxiety. I felt connected to Anneén and our girls, connected to my friends and family, connected to my colleagues who unselfishly walked this road with me. The moments were golden underneath the oak leaves and besides the cool sounds of running water.

I met Gerrit once towards the end of 2012. It followed a suggestion from a colleague who knew him. His brain tumour was removed in 2007 and has been working at the Theological Faculty in Stellenbosch – my old stomping ground from the mid 1990’s. As Gerrit stopped driving, I picked him up from home, about a kilometre from ours. A breakfast at the D’ Oude Bank Bakkerij at the bottom of Kerk Straat, while we shared our stories of diagnosis, operations, survival and reprioritising our lives. Gerrit was in hospital for his craniotomy during the 2007 Rugby World Cup, mine was during the 2012 London Olympics. His tumour was hiding in his left temporal lobe, mine left frontal. We clicked. I could relate to Gerrit and his journey that started 5 years prior to mine. He came to the Cape and was given a position at the theological faculty, even though his background was in journalism and he was open up his medical status. We met for a few hours and it felt like we have been friends for much longer.

De Oude Bank BakerijWe spoke and we realised that I am 2 days older than him. Gerrit spoke about the Argus Cycle Tour he did with his son and how grateful he was for this opportunity. He spoke about his difficulties with word finding and how students will initially laugh when he tells them about this. But then he tells them again and they believe. Gerrit spoke about friends and I realised that we have met them, drank some good wine with them. Gerrit spoke about his love for his wife and sons and how he did not want his sons to worry that “this” might happen to them. Gerrit spoke and often gaps in sentences appeared, getting stuck for a specific word. But he smiled and we know it is there somewhere; it just does not come to the surface. That brokenness contributed to the truth and the integrity of present moment. There is a crack in everything; that is where the light comes in.

The day after my mile-high moment on the 13th of March, the news that broke my heart. Gerrit died two weeks before. Our GP told Anneén. A month before I made contact via SMS and Gerrit’s wife replied that he was deteriorating by the day. I was hoping that it might be due to treatment making him ill or something non-threatening. But Gerrit died. Somehow it did not upset me at first. Maybe I had to make sense of it first; logic always being my first line of defence. I send a message to Gerrit’s wife and she kindly replied, even sending best wishes to me. It was the day after, a Friday. It felt as if a heavy hand pulled my heart into the earth. I was as down as was I was elated two days before. The message of a second chance to live was followed by the messenger that death prevented my short lived friendship with Gerrit. There would be no return for the breakfast I owed him, for our broken words to again spill out of our brokenness to find meaning and truthful reflection on being human and our mortality. And I only met Gerrit once, we spoken over the phone twice. I am not his wife, his sons or his parents. I am not his longstanding friends or those who asked about his well-being at work. I was just his friend for a brief interlude. And I felt sad and lost.

Today I don’t want to celebrate the fact that I just finished my second last course of chemo or the good news about my recovery. I want to celebrate meeting Gerrit. I want to remember the brave man who smiled at his missing words and the kindness in his eyes. The love he expressed for his family and the courage to make the most of the hand he was dealt. Salute!

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Stories in late summer

I see it as an honour. I know it is my profession, but I never take for granted that people share personal and intimate stories of their lives with me. It is often under the label or description of “depression” or “anxiety” or “loss”. But as with all labels, they reflect a limited part of the surface. And people’s lives, personalities and relationships have much more depth and texture.  The stories that are weaved between these areas are filled with even more detail, emotion, memories and unconscious material. To tell their stories bring them in touch with Imagewhat happens in their lives, but also with who they are. Often the telling of their stories is a liberating experience, to be able to unburden their load or to break a weighty secret that keeps pulling them down. As Leonard Cohen once sang, “I need to tell my story said one of them so bold. I need to tell my story before I turn into gold

Often the (conscious or unconscious) request that arrives with these stories is for pain or suffering to end. And who would not want that? Especially in our western culture where fantasies of health, wealth, wellness and youth are sold on magazine covers, labels of medicine bottles, pop culture and social media? Who wants to be forever young? Well, the advertisers and those behind the fat wallets are pushing hard to make the sell to us. And within that fantasy the enemies are pain, suffering and ageing. Even on cover of my monthly Runner’s World edition, those smiling with their white teeth and their bodies embraced by the latest running gear are all seemingly in their 20’s, white and healthy. But when I line up for a race or fun run, these front cover “athletes” appear to be in the minority. And still, on public display and in the hearts of people I see in therapy, there is a wish that all problems and those threats to a positive view of life and being human can be solved. Even in my own heart that fantasy does arise.

In part I agree. Pain in its physical form should be investigated and treated.

However, suffering is an intense discomfort that we all face on our life journeys and one without a quick fix or delete button. The death of a love one, the diagnosis of a brain tumour or a friend’s cancer, the unhappiness that crept into a marital relationship over the past 10 years or the awareness that you are not happier since you got that big promotion opens the door to internal turmoil and a collapse of the card-house of positive fantasies. This often happens after you established a family, a career and settled circle of friends. But that platform of ambition and dreams can become a distraction of the realities of life. We all grow older, we all suffer losses and we all drink at the well where the water became stagnant and bitter. It does not spare us. There is no cure for life. As Scott Fitzgerald once said, “In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning …” Tragedy is inevitability.

What then do we do with suffering when our distractions, cognitive strategies, helpful friends and intake of medication or alcohol do not bring relieve? How do we approach suffering that cannot be switched off? Maybe that is the point where you stop running, stop bargaining and stop self-medicating. The point where suffering is not the enemy, Wandererbut the door we need to pass through in order to learn about the life we are living and this person we are. Then suffering becomes more that just discomfort and an unwanted emotional experience (which it will remain). Then it might become about meaning, about purpose, about becoming the full complicated, eccentric, individual we are meant to be. This is something that several great leaders have embraced and through their suffering found ways of being that made them larger than life.

It is a relationship with suffering that can bring us to meaning. The knowledge that while suffering is real, so is my life and that whom we are can be expanded through this experience. When we find meaning, pleasure and connections in our hospital beds, while on medication and during the process of picking up the broken pieces. When it is possible to cry about the threat to our health and youth, while holding  onto new aspects of relationships with a partner and friends that open up. When the bereavement process reminds us of all the aspects that we loved about our grandparents, a friend or a brother. How precious are these moments in contrast to the fleeting moments of pop culture, the hard lines of fundamentalism or the fantasy that we can take away life’s pain and suffering.

February was a special month to me. I ran the Gino’s 10 km Night Race through the streets of Stellenbosch and survived! I wrote a piece called “Finding Sugarman” about the music and influence of Rodriquez in South Africa following the movie “Searching for Sugarman”, which appeared on the official Rodriquez website (http://sugarman.org/). My moment of international fame! But tomorrow a MRI Brain Scan is scheduled followed by appointments with my neurosurgeon and oncologist on Wednesday. I am grateful that I can have both, even though I wish the brain tumour never came into my life. But both aspects are part of where I am at present and through embracing both do I find parts of the essence of the journey that we call life.

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Finding Sugar Man

Unexpected questions can open up new thoughts. A new perspective can open new answers and new findings can satisfy an old thirst.

Sugar ManA question from a stranger via Facebook this morning was less existential, more specific and artistic. “How would I explain why Rodriguez’s music made such an impression in South Africa and not the rest of the world?” A nice challenging question and it reminded me of the impression that Searching for Sugar Man left on me. The documentary connected dots from earlier in my life that appeared like the unrelated songs on a mixed tape before. Until you find out who made the tape and for whom. Then you can recognise a certain theme or a hidden message.

I confess that my early life was nothing special. I cannot claim that I took a position in either the left or right growing up in a political and racially divided South Africa. I grew up without television as it only arrived in the Republic in 1976. When my parents did buy our first black and white Sony, the content was heavily regulated by the governing National Party and SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation). In addition, due to the apartheid policies at the time and within the framework of larger boycotts against South Africa (e.g. sport, for musicians to tour South Africa), the United Kingdom and Australia introduced a boycott of their programme sales to South Africa. Therefore, most kids and teenagers my age grew up in the late 1970’s and 1980’s on a diet of local TV shows and later programmes from America such as Knight Rider, Magnum PI, Miami Vice, etc.

After 5 years of limited hours broadcasting on one channel a second channel was introduced in 1981 that broadcasted in the main African languages. However, the SABC operated within a country where all aspects of life and every South African was dominated by narratives about race and subjected to a controlling bureaucracy that was pushing for control over all aspects of life. In addition, the close relation between state and church (Dutch Reformed Church) created a dictation from both politicians and pulpits on morally acceptable behaviour, choice of music, etc. and what was approved on racial grounds. For a white middle-class small town boy, what happened outside my small protected environment was a world far away and often filled by voices and news paper pictures of what seemed like very angry black people. Given that the SABC was by large state-controlled, it provided very little time to any voice that did not fit the ruling party’s agenda or to opposition politicians. Even when a subscription based TV service arrived in 1986, the state regulated that they were not allowed to broadcast news programs.

This was the context in which I grew up. Restricted, regulated and separated. Even though my recall of growing up and life up to the early nineties are filled with happiness and plenty of laughs, these wonder years were naïve times. Only with time a political consciousness grew and a realisation that my protected life was in contrast with those living with fear, poverty and limited opportunities.

A few alternative voices crept through the cracks during those times and oftenthey arrived in guises or unexpected places. Even though local religious leaders and the state expose pop music and rock and roll as from the devil as well as a threat to all that is morally good and holy, some of these voices arrived with soundtracks. A revisit to music available and broadcasted in South Africa during the 1980’s does not inspire any great political speeches. However, a few dare to challenge. The best example was the local band Bright Blue that released the beautiful “Weeping” in 1987. Even though it contained harmony parts of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and referred to the “State of the Emergency” at the time, those in power seemed blissfully unaware of this. In 1999 Weeping was voted best All Time Favourite South African song and in 2000 as (South African) Song of the Century.

South Africa was also experiencing more exposure to musicians and bands from abroad, even though boycotts did not allow them to tour and perform. Queen, Erasure, Genesis, U2, Talking Heads, Blondie, A-Ha, Paul Simon and others competed with those banning anything that appeared too sexual, liberal or had references to banned chemicals. I don’t know how much influence music had on the crumbling political situation, but it provided a voice to those disgruntled with apartheid or rebellious in the face of the dominant moral imperatives.

A few musicians however provided more poetic and intelligent lyrics that verbalised alternative narratives that resonated with the youth, due to their rebelliousness, due to the mystery of the artists and as they arrived in a void that formed where critique of the system was deemed evil. The two names that immediately come to mind are (Sixto) Rodriguez and Leonard Cohen. Their music explored themes of relationships, sexuality, power and oppression that did not fit the common commercial or repressed political lines. Where South African protest songs and artists where still few, their music provided a new discourse that challenged the establishment and raised questions about justice and equality, but also had a smack of hedonism and escapism. Their brave lyrics found a waiting consciousness that hungered for alternatives, for music that would match the awakening political mind of a young white South Africa or at least found part of the vinyl or tape collections of those that loved songs like “I Wonder”, “Sugar Man” or Cohen’s “Suzanne” and “Chelsea Hotel” as part of a rite of passage into young adulthood.

When asked about his lack of success after his two albums released, Rodriquez suggested, “I was ready for the world but I don’t think the world was ready for me“. He was wrong, at the foot of Africa there was a readiness that responded. Only recently he found out about it.

PS: For those not knowing “Weeping”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeecXiqNzWA

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Filed under Psychology Reflections, This thing called life

How Bad News Flows

Just a ringing telephone.
Just my mother’s voice on the other side.
Just another conversation about the week with a bit of this and bits of that.
Just good to speak to her, the same spread of topics. “How is everyone?
It was fine just like that.

But bad news infiltrates the normal flow of things. Unexpectedly. Unwanted. “Did I hear that Laurie has been diagnosed with lung cancer?” Out of the blue, into the cold.

Laurie was a classmate many years ago, a good friend and never a smoker. Despite little contact over the eight years while we lived abroad, he remains a dear friend. And I hate phrases like “good friend” being allowed in the same sentence as “bad news”. Even more when the bad news shadow push towards someone who lives in service of others and support their lives towards new meanings. Like my friend Laurie.But sometimes it merges into the same linguistic stream, creating a new reality that follows the telephone’s ring. In a few seconds the past is shattered with a new present.

It reminds of what Douglas Adams wrote in Mostly Harmless:

One of the problems has to do with the speed of light and the difficulties involved in trying to exceed it. You can’t. Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws”

Bad news with its own special laws bends the rules and does not read the policy document. Like an outlaw, a deceitful prophet, or the fraudulent official. Bad news carries its own load of heartache and pop songs. Maybe a positive take on it, is that it can override the previous bad news edition. It makes the mouse we caught in our bedroom on Monday night, the power failure Wednesday and the 15 cm drop in swimming pool water on Friday appear like an eventful week, but its only humorous samples to be served at a next social event. Nothing more. But a friend’s diagnosis touches deeper. It wakes the existential me that wants good will, for good to triumph over evil, even world peace. It stirs those emotional places that I visit after dark, the memories where tears and fears frequent, and the heartaches that left scars.

British Library Gate ShadowBut the bad news shadow man can serve other functions. It waves a flag with a red question mark. Where am I? What is my focus? Who is important in my life? What am I suppose to do where I am now? It wakes us from our slumber and pokes us in the side. It raises the shadows that we have forgotten to confront. It is not the niceties of life that gets us through these times. It asks of us, like Job, what remains when I am stripped of everything?

Bad news in essence presents the question of meaning.

Bad news is not about what we have or what possession we might have lost. It does not deal with the fantasy of acquisition or our standing in the world. It takes us inwards, towards facing the mirror with our history and present portrayed in full detail and full colour. It takes us towards our relationship with all the parts of ourselves that developed throughout our journey through different times and places. It takes us towards what we love and loath about whom we are.

And it takes us outwards towards those whom we love. Those for whom we hope that they will take their cancer, their loss, their heartache, their heart attack, their unfaithful partner and that it will confront them with the totality of whom they are. Wake up the shadows that they have to confront, bring them closer to the meanings they have to find for their life. Be that psychological, spiritual, artistic, humanitarian, existential or within whatever framework you define your journeys. It requires the relinquishment of what is unnecessary, what holds us back and what allow the shadows to anchor us in a false reality. It might be status, it might be the drive for success, or it might be materialistic. Or it might be to give up the hope that the world is manageable and predictable. We run into bad news and it breaks our hearts. It takes the solid earth from under our feet and grabs the soft pillow from under our sleeping heads.

Being lucky might not mean the bad news will go away or fit into our fantasy that everything will be all right. Being lucky might mean that we meet ourselves outside the constraints placed upon us by our parents, our teachers, our culture or our fantasies about how life should be. Being lucky means becoming authentic, facing our shadows and watering our inner beauty. It might take us to showing love to ourselves and those we love. Then, to quote James Hollis*, we learn “that life is much riskier, more powerful, more mysterious than we had ever thought possible” and that the “world is more magical, less predictable, more autonomous, less controllable, more varied, less simple, more infinite, less knowable, more wonderfully troubling than we could have imagined being able to tolerate when we were young”.

*From “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life

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Filed under Psychology Reflections, This thing called life