Tuesday, 29 October 2013

3. Somebody I know - learning to live alongside difficulties

Possible steps to a solution

One of the main lessons I learnt from my breakdown was acceptance of the many challenges of my life. If I could meet the challenge of severe depression then I can overcome anything! So, I decided to take on the challenge of scientific research, which was something I had wanted to do and a goal that had survived my breakdown. I applied for research assistant jobs and to my surprise I was offered one in Oxford. I did say I liked challenges! I moved to Oxford on my own and I was successful as a research assistant. I gained a huge amount of confidence. After 3 years I was offered the chance to do a doctorate (DPhil) at Oxford University. Of course I said yes! I like a challenge!

During this time I attended a speech course with speech therapist Dr David Ward. He taught me a technique called “the slide”. I have difficulty moving from the first sound of a word (e.g. “f” in forty) to the vowel sound (e.g. “f” to the “o” sound in forty). I would say the “f” sound but get stuck in the transition to the “o” (e.g. “fffffffffff…ffffffffff…”). The slide is designed to ease the transition (e.g. “fooooooorty”). In essence it is deliberately stammering but in a controlled manner. When I used it I could get past the block and link up with the rest of the sentence I had in my mind. Then it hit me like a cold shower that becomes warm: for the first time in my life I could hear my voice!!! I could recognise my mind within my voice! I could be me! This had a profound impact. The explosion of stammering blocks no longer deafened me to myself. When I stammer now I have a better perception of the fluent parts of my speech. I can hear me and not just the stammer.

During my DPhil I felt the pressure and expectation and worked very hard on my project and as a result fell into depression again. I went to the University counselling service where I met a brilliant therapist, Ruth, who introduced me to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and the philosopher Martin Heidegger and his book “Being and Time”. In particular, Heidegger’s idea of thrownness: we are thrown into the world in a particular state but we are not to blame for this state; we did not choose whether we are male or female, have two eyes or have a stammer… Hang on, did you say I’m not to blame for my stammer?! It was a revelation! I wasn’t to blame for my stammer! This had a huge impact!

Another idea of Heidegger that complemented this was his notion that the process of being thrown into the world had a special type of momentum. Although our specific thrownness is fixed we have the potential to use the “tools” of thrownness (the structure and varied function of our body) to do a huge array of things; and we can choose how to use the tools. We live in a world where there is always something left to do.

I then read Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”. In it Kant develops the idea that how we view the world determines what we see. We impose a structure onto the world in the way we think about the world. This gives us great power in determining the meaning of our world.

I could bring these various strands together to weave self-compassion and acceptance into my life. I could hear my voice, I wasn’t to blame for my stammer, I always had something left to do in my life and I could interpret the world how I wished. This led me to conclude that I could be my voice, there was no reason to hate myself for something I wasn’t to blame for and there was no need to be dragged around by my stammer or depression anymore; I could take control in how I reacted to difficulties.

The two mountains have been brought closer together.

Parkinson’s disease

During the last two years of my DPhil I was unknowingly suffering the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Again, through determination and fortitude (and the invaluable support of my family) I managed to finish my DPhil despite suffering from Parkinson’s (not many people who graduate from Oxford can say that!). When the Parkinson’s diagnosis came I was grateful to my stammer and depression for teaching me how to cope with a chronic, incurable disease; unknown to me, I had been in training all my life! Thanks to my equally brilliant current therapist Angela I also found space for me within Parkinson’s like I found space within my stammer and depression.

I now see the immense value of the process of life. It isn’t about the goals we have set ourselves: it’s about how we live our life. Achieving something teaches me what I already know already; the process teaches me what I didn't know. This is possible because there is always something left to do in this life...

Please read part 1 and 2...

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