Boarding Up the Soul

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To those unfamiliar with the concept, sending ones children to boarding school is a shockingly weird thing to do.

Imagine you had never heard of a boarding school before, and I explained to you that parents would not only choose, but spend huge amounts of money (the equivalent of the average UK wage after tax), to remove children from their families and instead hand them over to a large, loveless institution where these youngsters would be tended by adults in a ration of ~1:20, far from home, with far less comfort. You would assume I was preaching a kind of dystopian nightmare. A ‘Brave New World’ of education.

Yet because boarding school is so familiar to us in the UK – synonymous with cricket, stiff upper lips and the class system – we are immune to its freakishness.

Unfortunately, there is no control experiment for a child who went to boarding school. Which means determining its impact is a problem. Certainly there are patterns, but the combination of nature and nurture ensures that there are almost infinite permutations. As with other aspects of growing up, no-one knows its impact on the specific individual and with that views diverge wildly.

Plus education is so important that we must make considerable sacrifices, right?

To many, boarding is highly beneficial, resulting in a world-class education and ‘preparation’ for the world (hence a ‘prep’ school). Or at least it is benign – a sacrifice worth making. To others, it is mildly or deeply harmful – the source of immensely damaging and lasting trauma.

For many years, I’d not given a huge amount of thought to the process or impacts of boarding on me or others. It seemed to me in context, as it is to most of those who participated, normal.

Yet through therapy, reading and exploring, one looks at the ingredients that make up the recipe of ourselves and try to determine the effects of significant past events and circumstances. At dinner the other night, I was reminded that I’ve been banging on about boarding school for some time. It has become ‘a theme’ and in the spirit of only really understanding something when I have written about it, I want if I can, to shift from ‘banging on’, to a more thoughtful, considered perspective.

To be objective, it is first important to eradicate any guilt: let’s forget about the perceived ‘privilege’, for a while. Complaining about boarding school can be seen as deeply ungrateful or unfair, considering the opportunity and that privilege. I don’t give a monkeys. To sweep impactful experiences away because we ‘should’ feel something drives us toward too many emotional follies. To ignore these problems because of some perceived luck only serves to perpetuate and amplify these issues.

I don’t feel guilty about going to boarding school. I would also hope that I can eradicate any guilt if I conclude that boarding school is, as I fear it was/might be, extraordinarily harmful. I don’t want to shy away from it just because it might offend or upset people – especially my parents. I fear that much isn’t talked about because of guilt, avoidance and, of course, some of the perceived positives that come from the system, such as creating those that are stiff-upper lipped, tough and unemotional. Character traits that are in fact a source of pride to some British. Boarding schools teach survival, so those who’ve been through its process tend not to complain, or rock the boat because it was instilled in us that such behaviour was weak and disappointing. In addition, there is a danger that for those who feel the effects of the human condition more keenly, especially those who had an unhappy schooling, it becomes an easy scapegoat, something to blame or use as an excuse.

Plus, my experience is of course, only that.

I first went away to school at 8 or 9. Whilst I don’t want to write an extensive memoire, it is worth exploring some of the feelings it provoked… When I think back, I remember many things – although much I had/have forgotten (deliberately?).

There was a marked transition on arrival from my happy, tactile home life into a cold, austere high-ceilinged dormitory (that looked very like the below, although we were lucky enough to be allowed to see in colour) with squeaking beds, itchy nylon blankets, fierce matrons, and twelve other children. I remember rows of sinks, a perpetual clinical smell, shorts in winter, frozen mud-caked fields, fear and missing. The opposite of a home.

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In addition to becoming a boarder, I simultaneously started as a Chorister – singing seven services in a Cathedral a week and staying at school long into the holidays to ensure we were there for Easter, Christmas and Summer services. A Chorister’s life is extreme, cramming 2-3 hours of music into an already full day, most ending in a service dressed in a cassock, ruff(!) and surplice. Essentially embarking on a serious, adult and intensive job, alongside my schooling. Performing in an huge, ancient building each day with all of the strange ceremony that accompanies a religion. My childhood was murdered in that in that Cathedral.

Whilst the change was extreme, there was also a continual reminder of privilege, of excitement. It wasn’t all bad. As an eight-year old I felt grown up, I felt ready. There was the camaraderie of being part of something, of embarking in an adventure. I wasn’t ‘sent away’ – my parents are loving, kind, caring people – they just thought it was was the best thing for me. They thought the trade was worth it. They hadn’t boarded themselves, so they did not have first hand experience – although those that do often believe it was ‘the making of them’. I wonder if those people know themselves very well?

Yet there are some things that I have begun to see, with 25 years perspective, that are just plain abnormal. The unrelenting missing of those that you love. As hurtful as it might be for any parent to hear, there is a huge pain and misunderstanding associated with, essentially, becoming an orphan 6.5 days a week, even if it was a mutual decision to go away, a child isn’t capable of anticipating the pain.

A deeply intense hatred of the singing I had to do burned within me – so much so that I used to scream into a pillow to lose my voice. Strangely, the only respite that gave me was turning pages in an organ loft at the very same service that I was hoping to avoid – but it was enough of a rebellion and a change from the routine that it somehow helped and so I screamed and screamed. I longed to and loved to get sick, to stay in bed for a few days. I broke rules wherever I could, somewhat pathologically, my youthful spirit deemed harmful and dangerous.

When I look back, I simply didn’t know that the strength of the emotions I felt – the rage, anger, apathy, boredom, annoyance, missing, desperation – were caused by something external to me, or that they were abnormal. At that age, I had no tools to deal with or understand them, nor anyone save for remote, unemotional masters to model myself on or to seek solace from. There was no soft respite from school in the evenings or even when other normal children were on holiday. I thought the feelings I felt meant I was failing, a disappointment, that I was the problem, and because everyone else was hiding theirs, it was just me. So I just swallowed those emotions and learned to ignore them, to bury them away.

As a 9-year old you don’t have a clue what emotions are coming from where or how to stem those that are most painful. I didn’t know that the outside environment might be the problem. I thought I was alone in them. So much so that it took me many years to recognise that this wasn’t normal. The weakness associated with homesickness, in turn led to ignoring emotions because they were a noose that tightened as you struggled. Instead, I simply learned to survive, as best as I could… and the easiest way was to cauterise the pain.

As is mentioned in the documentary ‘The Making of Them’, there is simply no love in a boarding school, which means that for the majority of boarders lives, there is no love. Think about that. Go to a boarding school from aged 8 until 18 and you’ve essentially had a decade of surviving without love, with stunted emotions because you don’t want to feel the various pains associated with being in a non-loving environment, all whilst going through one of the most difficult times of life – puberty. 25-years later, I’m somewhat astonished that this is considered a good thing. Yet it’s so tied into the fabric of our society that even those who were subjected to it haven’t realised the impact or they have subsumed the feelings.

It’s unsurprising that a child shuts down. In my case, those years as a Chorister at prep school where followed by going on to a different school where for 3 years (out of 5), I was both unpopular and bullied. Bullying is unpleasant at any school, but at boarding school there is quite literally no escape. You sleep, eat, work and live with your aggressors and you cannot get away. You are trapped. That’s torture – to be reminded of your worthlessness every minute of every day without respite and, of course, without love or the sanctuary of home or just somewhere else to get away to. I think I’d rather go to prison than relive the 12-person dormitory situation aged 13, living amongst people that hate you and you hate. But I never really told anyone, I just lumped it because admitting you were struggling was a sign of weakness. My parents were no longer a support structure because they couldn’t help (save for extracting me from a school that they reminded me they were paying huge sums of money to keep me in). They would have, I guess, if they’d known, but I never told them. I kept quiet, as most are conditioned to do. So quiet that I haven’t even recognised it myself.

To this day, I think I have almost nightly dreams of rejection and of being cast out of a group. I say I think, because strangely, I’ve only recently become aware of these dreams, despite how regularly they occur. You might think that is an extraordinary oversight, to literally ignore something that happens every night. Yet remember, I have been schooled – for a decade – to carefully ignore these feelings.

I have spent much of my adult life feeling tired and never fully feeling rested, despite getting on average 8 hours sleep per night. I wonder whether this is because each morning my psyche has to painstakingly sweep an emotional basement of cobwebs under the carpet, and continues to do so subconsciously during the day? This might seem extreme, fanciful or just a neat scapegoat for the fact that I’m just not as sprightly as I used to be. Perhaps this is normal. Again, it’s hard to separate out the root causes or contributing factors to a infinitely complex emotional state. But I wonder. Are there scars that are still trying to heal all these years on?

Certainly, I believe there are scars that still significantly effect my love life. My relationships have been few and far between and have generally imploded because I haven’t been able to let go. I tend to have my excuses and my escape plan ready from the start – a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was a single big exception, when I fell in love very deeply, but I think subconsciously I thought that the relationship might make me ‘whole again’. That this feeling of love might cure my childhood wounds of separation. She never stood a chance. I plied so much pressure on that relationship, like a drowning man clinging to another, that I sunk it, the relationship ending with a mighty crack of my broken heart.

Through this prism of analysis, I notice classic symptoms of the effects of boarding in a previous post (Burned Man). Ironically (or perhaps poignantly), I am now in a relationship with the girl/lady who scooped me up after Burning Man, someone who saw me in my raw, unarmored state. Yet it has been a struggle for us both. I am not sure where I’ve put the keys to my heart that is hidden deep beneath my armour. Strangely, whilst I felt like I survived very badly at boarding school, the armour that I needed back then finally solidified many years later in my 20s and 30s, as if wheels had been put in motion for a Frankensinian (come on spell check, that’s gotta be a word) change that in fact took significant time to crystallise and was long past its sell-by date when it materialised.

I was and am sensitive person who has learned to keep my emotional nerve-endings protected. I’ve avoided authority (I’m an entrepreneur), I’ve avoided settling (living in multiple countries/cities as a single man) and I’ve avoided being trapped, or rejected (by being defensive and avoidant). This sounds very woe is me, but I had a fantastic time at University and have many wonderful friends and a deeply loved and loving family. I’ve pulled a huge amount back, but remnants remain. They say that boarding school kids do well in the world because of this emotionlessness, confidence and ability to survive in difficult situations. But I no longer think the armour does anything but weigh me down.

I started this post feeling like it might be a balanced exploration, but instead I find myself just astonished and more exercised than ever by the extremity of such a normalised practice in our society. I never suffered extremes like sexual abuse. Surely it wasn’t that bad? Reading other people’s articles (see below) brings painful memories. Those who didn’t go just simply don’t understand – in fact many who did don’t either. Those who went at 12/13 probably had a different experience from those who went at 8. In fact, everyone had a different experience.

Who knows, my control experiment might have had me suffering more going to a day school. I recognise that suffering is universal. I am not claiming this as my own, by any stretch of the imagination. At some point you have to take responsibility for oneself (like a good boarding school kid).

But today, I’d much rather feel well than do well, be open than be tough, have a heart than a stiff upper lip…

To grow I need to recognise what boarding was for what it was. Deeply traumatic and unhealthy. Now I simply want to coax that emotional me back out again from beneath the layers of armour – to value rather than to fear vulnerability… and, by writing, perhaps I can help others prevent, or at least recognise this problem earlier. I feel like I’m only just getting started with this topic – it is so deeply complex and masked – and yet I feel like I’ve said enough, perhaps way too much. That this is just self-absorption at fever pitch. There’s my boarding school ‘strategic survivor personality’ kicking in. Don’t make a fuss. Jolly good, carry on. Chin up.

But to be clear I’m not asking for sympathy. It’s not about excuses, but about recognition and working to enliven and exercise those deadened emotions, like a physiotherapist with a wounded body.

The accident has happened and it was exactly that, an accident. It was no-one’s fault – no one is to blame. It happened. Sorry Dad, you can’t have your money back. I am a survivor and now I must try to heal as best as I can.

Some further reading:
http://printheadz.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/a-new-reflectionemotional-shutdown-and.html http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jan/16/boarding-school-bastion-cruelty
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/feb/11/boarding-school-early-age-child-abuse-video

TEDx – Behind the Schemes

My TEDx is done…

Perhaps short for ‘Tom’s Exhausting Diary’, or ‘Tom’s Extreme Dichotomy’, the latter encapsulating the hypocrisy felt giving a talk on simplicity whilst living an entirely complex life during the process.

Plus ca change.

Hopefully my outfit and, of course, the talk itself will help further explain how I feel and what I learned from the process…  this photo was taken a few buttock clenching seconds before going on stage. I look calm. I am not. That’s a pretty normal state of affairs for me. Many people have commented on how generally chilled out I appear to be…

Don’t be fooled. The last month or two have seen many sleepless nights. If I look younger than I am, my picture in the attic is heavily wrinkled.

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A wise person I met a few weeks ago told me he never really understands something properly until he’s written about it. Too true. There’s a catharsis and comprehension that comes from taking the time to reflect on significant events, hence this post.

This talk couldn’t have come at a worse time for me – I was forced to write my ‘talk proposal’ during the only holiday I’d found time for this year. Spending precious moments on Vancouver Island holed up in cafes on my laptop rather than enjoying the place and time with my traveling companion.

I accepted the opportunity to do a TEDx for a few reasons. Firstly, I knew that like writing, it would force me to consolidate my thoughts. I’ve now been blogging for years and yet still am unsure as to where I’ve got to. I knew the TEDx would force me to crystallise some of these down to 12 minutes or 1500 words… to focus. Secondly, I’m terrified of public speaking, so this was a huge personal challenge, one that had sat on my bucket list for a few years. Why we put ridiculous, uncomfortable challenges on our bucket lists is also something I deal with in the talk – but I can summarise neatly in 4.5 words here – because we’re dumb.

Then, just in case I wasn’t cramming more shiny goals in to my magpie like mouth, I offered to live in a tent in rural Somerset for a month prior to the talk, as well as doing another talk at Bristol University in preparation. Double, triple dumb.

Which all would have been fine if I was a insomniac retiree, but I’ve also knew going into this that I was about to start fundraising for my business. Something that requires singleminded focus. Quadruple dumb, squared.

A TEDx talk takes A LOT of time. It was an intense few months grappling with ideas, cutting, editing, asking wonderful friends to look at the proposal and making further changes and so on.

Couple all of this with pitches to investors in boardrooms, negotiations, intense meetings and then finish the day with a trudge across a boggy field into a tent and you’ve got a highly chaotic, not-simple life.

So… What did I learn? What have I understood?

I don’t want this to be a spoiler, but there are a few thoughts I want to capture whilst they’re still fresh, as well as some of the 13,500 words and some that didn’t make it into the final cut… In no particular order:

– Nature, the outside and real life is only a put down screen and a front door away. My previous post, I hope, captures some of that wonder (https://simpletom.co.uk/2015/11/05/wood-you/). Adventures are easy to have, even if you’re at work in your normal life. At any time you could camp out for a night, or walk a different route home. Climb a wall, tree or hill. Sounds simple, I hardly ever do them.

– The more I immersed myself in the process of watching others’ behaviour, particularly with smart phones, the madder and madder the world seemed. 90% of a train platforms and whole cities filled with people staring into and relying on their devices, without even realising they’re doing it. Leave someone 10s alone and the majority will pick up a device. The damage this is doing to our psyches must be terrible. Almost everyone recognises this, but very few people do anything about it.

– We chase unrealistic, unreachable and unhealthy goals all the time, at the expense of our own happiness. People don’t know what makes them happy. We have no idea where we’re headed or why we do many of the things we do.

– Most people care more about the rewards of their work than the content.

What next… for me, a bit less. Some focus.

Perhaps a camper van to enable me to access the countryside more regularly. More of the same, I hope without quite so many of the rough edges and hypocrisy…

Wood You?

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Let’s be honest, Autumn is not a great time of year to embark upon an experiment to live out in the open, in rural Somerset, for a month. On explaining my plan friends have chortled and parents have barely concealed their bemusement (perhaps because of their recent contribution toward the purchase of a new house).

Fortunately Bristol is a non-judgemental place. While Londoners peer at their feet to see if my marbles might cause them an untimely fall, my Bristol friends have tended towards intrigue – perhaps even a hint of envy, amongst a select few.

As I sit and write this, I am propped up in a makeshift bed beneath a bundle of blankets, wondering if my batteries will last me long enough to finish this post before I head somewhere to ‘plug back in’. A cup of tea steams by my side and I’m listening to the gentle pattering of rain against canvas, to leaves fluttering their way to earth, to the clicks, patterings and rustles of a wet autumnal wood.

I’d expected cold and wet, but mostly I’ve been toasty and dry. I’d expected sleepless nights, Blair Witch style, wondering whether that snapping twig was the last sound I’d ever hear… but instead I’ve mostly been lulled into the deepest sleeps by the gentle noises of the wood. It’s not the first time I’ve chosen an odd living arrangement, last year I spent some time living in Silicon Valley in a van, and that was fun… mostly.

On November the 11th, I will give my TEDx talk in Bristol, my adopted hometown – the city where I’ve felt most at home in my life after years of traveling. I wanted, as many do, to use the TEDx platform as a way to galvanise my thoughts. For many years, I’ve been sporadically blogging about simplicity, or at least what simplicity might look like if I was good at it. One of the reasons why I write is because it helps crystallise my views. It’s a mnemonic. It enables me to take a subject, force me to think on it and draw it to some kind of resolve, or at least help find chinks of clarity.

I wanted to do the same with the talk. Although it couldn’t have come at a worse time in terms of my professional life, I decided to accept as I knew it would focus the mind and enable me to get a deeper understanding of what I actually think about these topics that I’ve been blabbering about for some time.

Given how busy I already was – couldn’t I have mused on simplicity from the confines of Bristol’s many wonderful cafes? I could have. I should have, but I wanted to see what my ‘busy’ life would look like from the perspective of a tent in the woods each evening – what I would lose and what would gain from the experience. I wanted a mini-adventure, to explore the world here as part of my everyday, rather than donning a backpack and doing it a 14-hour flight away.

I will leave the learnings and experiences to a subsequent post. I have a talk to write and no matter how many words I add, or take away, it’s a long way from perfectly expressing what I want to say. David’s post captures that frustration perfectly. Yet that is, of course, the process I signed up for. At some point I will have to draw a line under the best collection of words that I can use to express how I feel – as I do on my blog – and push it out there into the world, wondering if I could have done better with an extra week, an extra month, an extra laptop battery.

But then the title of my talk is ‘Is Ambition Killing Us’, so perhaps I should give up trying, swallow my own medicine, and just do a very mediocre talk…

Here was my view during a quick check of the venue this morning… Gulp.

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#YearofAwesome

Much of my writing feels a bit bleak. A meandering through the reflective, therapeutic corridors of my life rather than the fun and frolics. Writing offers a chance to knead internal knots, a literary massage. Yet much of my life is filled with laughter, soulfullness, adulescence and fun, and as such these e-musings might give the impression that I’m a little more morose and negative than I am. Perhaps reflection reflects badly.

However, I’m not going to change that. It’s why I write here – to explore and to unravel, not to preach or even necessarily to be read. Selfish as it might be, I write for me. Strangely though, it is when I tune into that voice that my writing seems to connect most with others.

Last year I embarked on an experiment with one of my great friends – Jim Kroft – who I’ve written about on this blog previously. The previous year his brother had decreed a ‘Year of Awesome’ and had gone on to have exactly that. Probably on account of our uncharacteristic sobriety at a New Year’s party, we decided also to embark upon our own #yearofawesome and set about planning an awesome road trip in March of that year through California together.

Waking up the next morning with man flu, I didn’t get off to a go start. But 2014 did indeed end up being a truly awesome year.

In January, I returned to San Francisco to finish our time at 500 Startups. After a January of practice and planning I pitched our company to the world at demo day (video here, in case you’re interested). In the following weeks, my co-founder Raz and I quickly raised our round from some amazing investors as I bounded into meetings bullish on awesomeness.

Shortly thereafter Jim arrived and we embarked on a two-and-a-half week odessy, chasing bears, flying drones, taking photos, lighting bonfires and recording music videos that encompassed the Sequoia National Forest, Big Sur, Las Vegas, Joshua Tree, Mojave desert and Los Angeles. One of the best two weeks I’ve had in an age, spending rare time with someone who also has so little of it.
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It’s never good to be too self-reflective

Returning home, my business partner and I built a new team in Bucharest, hiring an extraordinary team of ex-Facebook, Twitter and Dropbox stars and mapping out a new technical architecture that would enable us to index two billion profiles in six months.

In the summer I returned to San Francisco for Burning Man, which was awesome in its own unique and precious way. That humbling experience and the continued road tripping through California with friends who are still very dear to me is something that has affected me deeply.

Later in the year I took my team to Sicily, won additional funding from an EU accelerator programme and bought my dream house in Bristol. Plus there were many more awesome moments… but my aim of this post is not to be a year of awesome diary, but instead to focus on the declaration and what it brought.

At University, I gave up ‘deep shit’ one Lent, which simply meant that rather than getting embroiled in thinking too much, I just lived. I didn’t let problems or issues get in my way. The #yearofawesome was similar – a simple recipe for living that enabled a lightness with focus. Whenever I found myself at a crossroads, I’d try to follow what was most ‘awesome’. It was a times trite, but mostly it fun to goad the bombastic. Anyone following mine or Jim’s Facebook feeds probably noticed the regular exclamations of #yoa. Certainly we annoyed the hell out of friends, lovers and even each other with regular exclamations to anyone who would listen with, “hashtag, year of awesome”, accompanied by our gesticulated fingers mimicking a hashtag. I know that one friend suffering from a bout of depression found the fact that we were having a #yearofawesome particularly hard. I’m sorry, it was never meant to hurt anyone. But all-in-all 2014 was indeed awesome. A reminder that willpower is indeed a power that can be switched on and off.

The point, I’m rather slowly making, is that armed with self-propulsion and an #awesome mental attitude, it’s possible to lift oneself up, to achieve great things, to enable great things to happen. No great surprise, other than perhaps the gentle reminder that we are indeed masters and mistresses of our own destiny. The extraordinarily annoying proclamations of ‘positive mental attitude’ if channelled effectively (and supported by friends) are indeed supremely powerful.

So… although I do reflect more than perhaps I should and have a penchant for being ‘in my own head’ and deep shit, particularly here… don’t be fooled (and please tell me to snap out of it if I delve too deep) much of what goes on between these ramblings is indeed #awesome. 2015 has been pretty good so far, albeit with a less bombastic flavour. Whilst writing this post, Jim called for the first time in a few months… Clearly the wonderful serendipity and power #yoa is still with us both. When I told him the post I was writing, he declared we must get back on it. Watch this space.

For now, it would seem that the #yearofawesome gets past on by brothers – in this case to my sisters’, one who got married and moved to Bristol, 10 minutes walk from me a few months ago. And to my other sister, who’s also diving into awesomeness as her music reaches more and more ears and exciting gigs fill her diary. Here’s to #awesomeness and below is a ‘one second every day’ clip of a couple of early months in the #yearofawesome. Enjoy.

Constipatience

I’ve had writers constipation.. the literary yips. So much to write and yet for a litany of reasons I haven’t put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard. A lot has happened in the last few months. I’ve started a few articles, keen to work through a problem, but slunk away. I could claim it’s because I’ve not wanted extra time at my screen, but that would be a convenient excuse. I’ve just not had it in me to write. Perhaps all this post will do is to overcome the hurdle of a few months of quiet rather than provide anything new. Ease things gently into being. A start. A spring-cleaning and cobweb removal post. Or perhaps I’ll finish here and go and do something else…

No… must… get… it… out…

A beautiful post by a friend Freddy reminds why we write. “The answer is simple. For myself.”

He goes on to say, “Like so many of us I feel scared to express that which may not be accepted. Sometimes that’s useful. Occasionally its essential – evolutionary-programming for societal survival in action! But so often I reject my own knowing in order to avoid creating imagined ripples, waves, or even wrecks! Ironically, that way, treasures that could blossom are lost, lying buried and unclaimed on the ocean floor of my unacknowledged being. I want to share my treasure, whatever that is. I am deeply grateful to anyone who’s willing to witness it. I suppose this is the curse of having my sun and moon in Leo – a great need to be “seen”! But perhaps there can be a positive outcome also, beyond my own selfish needs, to transcending the fear of authentically expressing oneself?”

An astral Leonine paw high-five to that. A sprinkle of quotation to help my writing on its way.

Also, by way of an apology for the lack of content, the first two tunes from my amazing sister’s upcoming EP.

Proud Brother Am I. Her music demonstrates how beautiful the fear of expression – as Fred mentions above – can be when manifested, explored and shared. The music speaks to her truth and feels like a expression of her voice and her being. It is like putting an ear to her chest and hearing her soul sing… in both its beauty and blackness.

Her treasures are indeed blossoming, with some sumptuously penned reviews here, here and many, many more.

And so, I get a blog post out… ending “the frustrating ricocheting quality of our internal dialogue

It’s good to be back…

Alco-hole

My name is Tom and I’m not an alcoholic.

Picture the scene…

It’s late, you’re tucked deep into an East Berlin bar with an old friend. The walls, bare and industrial, speak of deep conversation, of exploration of humanity and history. The candlelight suggest intimate conversations of art, of philosophy, of human connection.

It’s a moment where work, when pressures slip away and, once again, you can rub spirit to spirit with another human and just talk and talk in licentious splendour.

Remove alcohol and you wouldn’t even be there in the first place. The conversations over a beer, the truths shared and the languid eyes replaced instead by an early morning. Perhaps a jog? Read the paper? Some work?

Or join them but ask for a cup of tea. Yeah right. Deep in the old DDR, where fellow humans once risked lives to be with one another and you want a what? Just a tea? You mean to say that you would sit here – whilst others open up – and you’d have a tea? Come on, just have one beer. Enjoy yourself. Relax. What’s wrong?

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The very same bar’s view of tea…

…and so goes so many evenings. The insidious creep.

Alcohol has been with us for millennia. The beer soaked saw-dusted floor of a medieval tavern, a wine-filled Roman amphitheater or the whiskeys in a western tavern.

The pulling up of stools that has for generations symbolized winding down, catching up and setting the world to rights. There’s to be no more of the day’s rushing. Or a dinner party amongst friends with oodles of red wine, music and laughter. Our sex lives would likely have been less interesting if it weren’t for this elixir. Alcohol opens doors and experiences.

These are a few of my favourite things.

Plus its all OK, because I’m not an alcoholic. The odd blow out here and there, but mostly in moderation. Sure, in the run up to Christmas, with parties and catch ups, this can be a daily occurrence. But tis the season. It wouldn’t be quite right to have mince pies, mistletoe and tinsel without a glass here and a glass there.

I don’t quite know where this all started for me. Until the age of 22 or so, I didn’t like the taste of alcohol and I’d only been drunk a handful of times. The almost paralytic drunk first time, when aged 14 with freshly minted livers, we’d not known that half a bottle of vodka isn’t wise… to drinking behind bike sheds or in bushes in the rain simply because it was forbidden, and forbidden things were infinitely enticing.

Alcohol has become such a prevalent feature of my, of all of our, lives that I don’t think we question it any more. If we discovered it for the first time – this moreish liquid that can wreck families, make your head thump, but the night before loosen inhibitions in amazing ways – perhaps we’d treat it with some respect. Yet I’ve seen captains of industry acting like 4 year olds as if that’s to be expected… funny almost – “God we were wrecked last night, wasn’t it awesome, I think although I can’t quite remember”. It’s such a fixed part of our lives, so normalised do we even see if for what it is?

Alcohol is sophisticated. Wines crafted over centuries. Generations of love poured into a single taste. As you sip you instantly experience the many lives of dedication to that one flavour. The blood of that artisan and sometimes even Christ, all in one. To ignore it would be like wandering through the Louvre blindfolded.

***

For the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to gain some perspective and objectivity. Around last Christmas I mostly didn’t drink for 6 months. This year I’ve had patches on, patches off. I’ve been to weddings, gigs and festivals, perhaps the nexus of the non-alcoholic person’s blow outs, and remained sober.

Here’s what I’ve noticed. Though please remember – I love fun, naughtiness and adulescence. These are not conclusions I necessarily wanted to come to:

Moderation can be much harder than not drinking at all. Once you’ve had a pint, the second is so much easier to justify when coupled with the dopamine release. It would be so wonderful to have one, indulge and then stop but, for me at least, this is harder than not drinking at all. That makes me sound like an alcoholic, but I’m not.

Overall, I’m way healthier when I don’t drink. I sleep, on average, a half to an hour less each night if I haven’t been drinking for a few days and my quality of sleep is way better too. As a result, or perhaps in addition, my brain works better. I also feel I have much more energy during the day. I get more done and seem to have more time. For someone that has battled tiredness, this alone is a pretty compelling reason to abandon drinking altogether. I just feel better. I’m less prone to mood swings and low ebbs. I feel together, stronger and more emotionally powerful. There’s a mental and emotional sagginess that accompanies drinking that you only notice when you start to put some distance between yourself and the sauce.

Its very possible to have a good time, perhaps even a better time, completely sober. In fact, while alcohol gives the impression of opening people up – downed defenses decrease and tongues loosened – I’ve noticed that true connection, empathy and sensitivity actually decreases. In extreme, when people are properly drunk they, quite literally, turn into toddlers. Witnessing the scenes of normally erudite, intelligent, considerate people when inebriated is hilarious when involved but tinged with a moronic sadness when viewed from a sober perspective. I’m sure you’ve witnessed a ‘hilarious’ moment as seen by a drunken crew, that from the outside seems pathetic. That’s before that tears, fights, anger and the hormonal surges that often accompany.

Late nights don’t happen nearly as frequently. When drunk, evenings spill into the night and we roll into bed late. When sober, it’s harder to ignore pressing eyelids and the kebab, or rolling on somewhere else is much less appealing. As such you gain mornings but lose parts of the day when exciting things can happen.

Most people recognise all of this, at least semi-consciously. Tell them you’ve not drunk in a while and the reaction is usually along the lines of, “Yeah, I should too”. “Hangovers are just getting worse and worse”. Normally followed by a “But”. I haven’t even covered the horrors of the bad hangover… it’s not pretty, as evidenced:

Daybreaking Bad

Daybreaking Bad

Couple the above reasons with macro studies and the evidence becomes more damming. A Harvard study, conducted over 75 years – the largest longitudinal study in history, found that alcohol was the main cause of divorce, depression and mental disabilities. Sure, the study cites alcoholism but please don’t tell me that just because you limit your intake you suffer none of the consequences. I’m pretty confident that moderate intake results in moderate effects. Oh, and alcohol alongside cigarettes, contribute to premature/early deaths.

The slightly less scientific James Altucher points out that firstly, alcohol is a depressant, so why tempt it. It’s also a poison and damages the immune system. He concludes that he’s no puritan, just the opposite. But that he simply wants to live a long life with high quality in his later years. Fair enough.

There’s no doubt of alcohol’s damage when you visit places like coastal Kenya or backwater towns in the US, Australia etc. The cost of alcohol’s influence on our collective health systems is extraordinary. They say that 12% of the total health expenditure is for alcohol-related causes. That’s before absenteeism, and things like psychological problems if the Harvard study’s results are true – they claim 57% of divorces are due to alcohol. Woah.

So where does this leave us? Are we all living in an alco-hell? It seems pretty damming. I have a couple of friends who don’t drink. They seem more energetic, quicker to laugh, brighter. Yet some who gave up for powerful reasons, two of whom are therapists, have decided to drink a bit again after a long time without. Perhaps it’s just not possible. Perhaps the benefits of loosening up, talking, company and conviviality are so potently beneficial that we should all just enjoy ourselves.

Yet my experiments seem to lead to the same place – to giving up. The evidence seems, particularly powerful as I write it out, to be overwhelmingly in support of the abstainer. Yet that cut off feels overly restrictive. It doesn’t allow for spontaneity and fun. It’s an admission that alcohol is more powerful than I am. Surely, I’m in control of it, rather than the other way around. Yet again, writing it down it would seem that perhaps we’re not as in control as we think we are.

Plus I’m lucky, I don’t put on weight and I’m not an alcoholic and my family hasn’t been overly affected by alcohol. Those would be slam-dunk reasons for eternal sobriety.

So, where does this leave me? Tonight I’m heading out… again… into the Berlin night with a different friend.

But I think I’m on a clear path to severely limiting my intake permanently, if not stopping forever. I don’t have a problem, yet even that is a problem. If I can find the balance and have a glass or two a week without any of the negatives, I shall continue. But if the precariousness continues – this inability to walk the tightrope, I’ll give up. It’s just not worth it for now, even without the longer term health benefits. The damage that it does to our life is so huge, albeit insidiously so that it’s truly not worth it… even close to worth it when examined.

My name is SimpleTom, is society an alcoholic?

medications_treat_alcoholism

Some reference:

A year without alcohol

What you miss out on if you don’t drink

What alcohol really does to your brain “Alcohol tricks you into thinking that it’s actually making your feel great.  The effect is that you keep drinking to get more dopamine release, but at the same time you’re altering other brain chemicals that are enhancing feelings of depression.”