Notes from the midst of a bi-polar slump

I normally write these things and either throw them away (when done with pen and paper) or archive them in a digital folder I never look in, but this time I’m going to experiment with broadcast

Every bit of advice – professional or otherwise – I’ve ever had about depression has revolved around the idea that talking about it is supposed to help, but there’s a deep paradox in that approach, at least for me; a large part of the problem is a feeling – no, not a feeling, a knowledge – that in almost every way imaginable, I have nothing to complain about. In every objective sense, my life is pretty good, and vastly more packed with privilege and good fortune than that of the majority of people on the face of the planet. As such, pity and sympathy – which, to be clear, is very easily obtained, as I also have an abundance of good friends and caring family to whom I could turn – feel unearned, undeserved. Depression is a software problem, as far as I’m concerned; I do not subscribe to the ‘dysfunctional brainmeat/causative chemical imbalance’ model of bi-polarity, because it is part of a diagnostic framework wherein there is a singular model for the ‘right’ brain and a plethora of models for the ‘wrong’ brain. This is a function of the deeply conformist-capitalist understructure of psychology, which has always been focussed on the correction of dysfunction (the Worker must be fixed!) rather than the uncovering of dysfunction’s causes (why is the Worker broken?); it’s all about making the symptoms go away, and little about understanding the actual vector(s) of the ‘disease’.

Rather like politics, come to think of it.

So let me be clear: this is not a cry for help, nor a plea for pity. Think of it instead as a form of the talking cure where I can feel confident that those to whom I am talking are listening voluntarily. With hindsight, I realise that this is why I started writing (and, with further hindsight, that I actually started writing a lot earlier than I used to believe I had); writing, for me, is like a therapist’s couch without the therapist. After all, therapy and counselling are – supposedly, at least – meant not to be didactic; the therapist is not supposed to give you the answers, but help you find them yourself. Which is all very good and noble, but sidesteps the issue that the therapist or counsellor is (quite unavoidably, if unintentionally) observing your narrative from within the framework of their own, which is formed at least in part by their indoctrination into their profession. Which isn’t to say I mistrust the motivations or world-views of therapists on principle – though I’d readily admit to a deep unease around the psychiatric and diagnostic end of the system, as mentioned above – so much as I’m vain enough to assume that my own familiarity with the history and circumstance of my own life is sufficient for me to cut out the middle-man, so to speak. By way of analogy: when I visit a new city, I shun the guided tours in favour of a map, a guidebook and a few days to myself in which to wander, wonder and look.

I probably shouldn’t speak with such scathing certainty about therapy, as I’ve never experienced it except second-hand through its portrayal in popular media. (Sudden thought: the Eighties in particular seemed replete with films and television wherein angsty white middle-class people with no real problems other than their own way of looking at their lives spent a lot of time whining at therapists; this may have influenced my outlook considerably.) Counselling, however, I’ve had quite a few times – and it was actually quite enjoyable for me, because I knew that the counsellor was being compensated for taking the time to listen, and so I could just chunter on without any shame at all. It’s the difference between getting your friends to help you move house and paying a removals firm to take care of it, in a way; it’s not that your friends are unwilling to help – far from it, in fact – or that you’re unwilling to repay the favour. It’s that it’s a job; it’s work. Maybe my rather warped inculcation of the Protestant work ethic is to blame: if there’s work to be done, one should either get on and do it oneself (assuming one is capable), or compensate someone fairly for doing it on one’s behalf. One doesn’t want to feel like a charity case or a freeloader, y’know?

(To return briefly to the influence of media, I spent two nights this week bingewatching To The Manor Born, which was a constant televisual companion to me while living out in Saudi Arabia with my family in the mid-Eighties; it was quite scary to see how many of my attitudes and arrogances echo those of Audrey fforbes-Hamilton. Who was, incidentally – or perhaps not so incidentally – my first childhood media crush of any significance. Selah.)

But anyway, the thing that pushed me away from counselling was the repeated use of a certain aphorism. Every time I explained that I didn’t like talking about being depressed because it felt like dialling all the nines and asking for the existential waaaaahmbulance, I’d be told:

“No one’s life is up for comparison.”

Well, um, yes it is? I mean, sure, I have this issue where my mind flip-flops into a state where I struggle to care about anything, and it can really get in the way of doing things that I want or need to do, and that sucks. But here’s the thing: I have the luxury of circumstance where I can take the time to wallow in that misery. I am, by dint of being born white, male and middle-class in Britain, able to indulge my depression, and counselling encourages that indulgence. But what of someone with a similar dysfunction who was born black in the poor parts of Atlanta, Georgia, or born brown to a low caste in Mumbai, or born in the backstreets of Jakarta, Mexico City, Tangier, Jo’burg? What of someone born female in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, born gay in Uganda, born with an untreatable disease or physical defect? What of someone just like me in all respects, but born to a council-house couple on the outskirts of Havant rather than to my more fortunate and upwardly mobile parents? What of someone, anyone, who didn’t have a Privilege Hat so capacious they could caulk it with tar and use it as a fucking battleship?

Every time I hear “no one’s life is up for comparison”, I see all those people and more in my mind, and imagine explaining to them how awful it is for me to be depressed, explaining what a barrier it is getting anything done, explaining how my life of comparative ease and privilege is marred by this terrible affliction.

Everyone‘s life is up for comparison, especially mine. And I am, by any even slightly objective assessment, far less in need of help and support than 99% of the population of the planet. If anything, I should be doing the helping and supporting.

Which is a very long and roundabout way of explaining to the world (and, by extension, to myself), why I don’t like to seek sympathy: it’s too scarce a commodity already. Save it for them as really needs and deserves it, instead of wasting it on someone who in every other respect has – and has always had – all the cards stacked in his favour.

So there’s my own personal version of the talking cure: a rejoinder to myself, a reminder of which side my bread is buttered. It is based on the belief that bipolarity and/or depression cannot be cured, only managed, coped with, come to terms with.

But the real kicker, of course, is the knowledge that it is only my privilege that enables me to be so blasé and self-sacrificial about being depressed; that other people with the same symptoms are at far greater risk of disruption, disaster or poverty as a result of them.

Which means that, rather than somehow shrugging off my privilege by writing this piece, I have in fact been indulging it.

And thus the loop begins again.

Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

Gun Machine by Warren EllisIf Warren Ellis is to be believed – and why wouldn’t you believe a grumpy and grizzled man wielding a cane who looks like he eats dogs just for the fun of it, and whose legions of followers refer to him, at his command, as Internet Jesus? – the first three chapters of Crooked Little Vein were written with the intent of permanently scaring away the agent who kept hassling him to write his first prose novel.

It’s easier still to believe if you’ve actually read CLV, which is a gleefully disgusting narrative collage comprising the collected horrors of a decade spent trawling the internet’s seediest subcultural ghettoes, and introduced such delights as saline injection ballbag modification and the (hopefully at least partly fabricated) concept of godzilla bukkake to an audience who, had they done even the slightest bit of research, should have known exactly what they were in for. CLV is a short sharp slap of gross-out fun, but belongs more to a pulpy subgenre of its very own than any recognisable (or, for that matter, marketable) publishing category.

If Ellis really wanted to put off the publishers, either he or CLV‘s Bookscan figures failed spectacularly: New Year’s Day 2013 sees the release of Gun Machine, his second novel, and it’s a very different animal indeed. Oh, it’s pure Ellis, don’t worry about that – but it’s also much more recognisably a novel, and a pretty damned decent one as well. Talk of “that difficult second [album / book / cloned mutant love-servant]” all you want, but Gun Machine is a serious bit of game-raising, an order of magnitude deeper, wider and just plain better than what went before it.

I can’t really speak to Gun Machine‘s credentials as a ‘proper’ crime novel, because that’s a genre I only know at one or more removes. One could probably make an argument for Gun Machine as sf, as it’s set in one of those Gibsonian very-near-futures: recognisably not too far from the here-and-now, but with a few all too plausible technological extrapolations. But given sf’s ongoing generic toxicity to anyone who doesn’t already identify as an sf reader, I’d not bother; no one who keeps an eye on even just the topmost jags of the technology news-berg is going to get sunk by this novel. So let’s call it a psychogeographical psycho-thriller; there are so many damned genres around now, another one won’t hurt. (And I like psychogeography, so there.)

So, yeah: John Tallow is a detective with the NYPD, and in the opening chapters he sees the brain matter of his partner spattered across a tenement stairwell (and his suit jacket) courtesy of a naked man with a shotgun who’s working his way through a psychotic break. Pretty standard start for a crime novel, right? But in pretty short order – and in brief and highly visual chapters – Tallow discovers the tenement contains an apartment full of guns. Hundreds of the things, and not just stashed away in a cubby-hole, either; they’re laid out on the floor and walls in an intricate, cryptic and, worst of all, incomplete gunmetal mandala.

It’s the sort of clusterfuck case that no sane detective would ever want to be saddled with, let alone one trying to deal with having seen his partner zeroed right in front of him earlier that day… which is exactly why Tallow’s boss dumps it straight into his lap, hoping it’ll sink quickly into the ocean of unsolved Noo Yoik murder cases and take Tallow with it. And that’s before the forensics evidence starts flooding in, revealing that each of the guns is connected to an unsolved murder, a collection of cold cases stretching back decades.

This is no straight-forward serial killer caper, though, and technique is a part of that. Instead of sticking to Tallow as he – assisted by the two profoundly (and, quite often, amusingly) dysfunctional CSU sidekicks he acquires – collects plot tokens to trade in for the final revelation, Ellis gives us chapters from the killer’s POV as well. This takes deft handling; revealing the killer to the reader early on robs a crime writer of a major source of tension, but the plot here is far wider than one man and his very serious case of psychopathy, which lets Ellis pull us into both the deep and recent histories of New York as a city of trade, uncovering webs of deceit, greed and and corruption as contemporary as they are timeless. And somehow, despite Tallow being almost a textbook cipher of a detective, a man with no life beyond the job he’s been indifferent to for years and his apartment piled full of pre-digital media, Ellis makes you root for the guy; it started out as pity, but became something more than that, at least for me.

Perhaps it’s a matter of contrast: the hollow Tallow against the vision-filled and profoundly schizophrenic killer, against his madcap sidekicks, against the callow careerists of the NYPD. Character depth isn’t Gun Machine‘s strong point – it’s very much a novel of types – but Ellis has the knack of communicating what, for want of a better term, we might call the universality of fucked-upness. Despite the comic excess, Ellis’s white-hats are big-hearted behind their overamped peccadilloes; it’s the black-hats who wear the sharp suits, the veneers of respectability and conformity. Ellis knows his audience of freaks and outcasts. He’s always been proud to be one of them, after all.

And there are some genuinely funny moments in Gun Machine, a necessary and welcome counterbalance to the clinically gruesome descriptions of slaughter. It’s dark humour, of course, but delivered with a humanity that you might not expect after reading CLV… though if you’ve read Transmetropolitan, arguably the comic that made his rep, you’ll know that Ellis has a big heart hidden somewhere behind that scouring-pad beard, and that his spiky character is a sort of defence mechanism against a world that can stomp on hearts all too easily.

(Having written that publicly, of course, I fully suspect Ellis will now despatch a drug-crazed fan-minion to shit in my eyesockets while I sleep. Man’s gotta rep to protect, y’know.)

But enough detail. Gun Machine isn’t going to take any literary prizes, but it’ll take you on a blood-soaked ride around the scabrous underbelly of a world we still think of as modern, but which is really a whole lot older and simpler – and nastier – than we care to acknowledge. And while there’s no happy-ever-after – or even just desserts – in Ellis’s world, it is all the more human for that; it rings with the bittersweet chime of the truth, and that’s a sound I don’t hear enough, no matter the medium.