On experiencing myself as an unhealthy person

Or, why would I be embarrassed to tell a friend I was allergic to peanuts?

The context: an ex-girlfriend, met for coffee. And it isn’t a life threatening allergy—something worth a story—but a mild intolerance (albeit a frustrating one for a runner, when peanuts cause excess mucus, the body trying to rid itself of constituents of the peanut that do not settle well with the immune system).

We met in a café in town. A flying visit, and a quick cuppa, a neutral way to engage again, to catch up on the pathways of another person’s life with whom, for a while, you shared fantasies of traveling together. All the way there I ran through arguments in my head, regretting the idea of meeting up, realising too late that I’d been unwilling it all week. And then, when she arrived, it was fine. It was good. She was positive and energetic, as usual. I had a handful of minutes to slough off the prejudgement of how it was going to be; she spent these minutes at the counter, ordering. I lightened up, lifted by her energy. Told her about the peanuts (and the bread and beer) and moved on to other news, neutral, but also honest, her sculpting class, my book, looking to the future to nurture a soulful self, rather than the social self (as identified in Steve Thorp’s 21 Soul programme).

Why should it have been so dreaded? The last time we met, she asked me if I thought I was a healthy person. I’d just been through a month of injury and illness, an intensely painful and frustrating time that left me in tears and alone for a week over Christmas. (Although also a learning time.) Christmas dinner was half a pack of Rolos. The injuries and illness were a bodily reaction to excess: over-training, pushing myself too hard, drinking excessively at a Christmas party, trying to rush around and see too many people on a whistle-stop tour, not stopping working. I couldn’t answer ‘yes’, although it wasn’t an open question anyway. I knew what she thought.

So I was embarrassed to add a health problem to the impression she had of me (as if all she thought of me was a concern with my healthiness!); even though the peanut intolerance is a common thing, and even though such intolerances create the problems from outside, rather than it being something intrinsic, a part of ‘me’. It’s strange that we think of intolerances or allergies (or emotions or feelings) as something that are a part of us, when the very nature of those things is that they come from outside, that we perceive something or take something in, which affects us. (This is part of the problem that Teresa Brennan identifies in The Transmission of Affect: of the primacy of the idea of self-containment that suits so well Western ideologies of individualism, and ignores the fact we are collective creatures, reliant on other bodies and life-forms for our own survival and ‘happiness’.)

Anyway. I was embarrassed to be seen as ‘unhealthy’. But the messages were all around me. At the running club, after the latest injury, a friend made the comment ‘It’s always something, isn’t it?’ and it felt like my bones had been crushed by the accusation. It wasn’t meant that way, but I had no response. There was always something: another injury. Add time with friends (a holiday in the Lakes, visits to Cornwall) that always seemed to be spent ill or tired or burnt out or grumpy. Add to that the mini-depression accompanying the relationship break up through which we had gone together. Add to that… peanuts. A dry roasted last straw? Or a phantom problem, created by relying too much on the parameters of a social self to define ‘me’ or ‘my self’?

It’s a strange place to start, thinking of peanuts in responding to some of the 21 Soul questions about self, soul, and living. But it was a moment and a discomfort that, when the thread is pulled, unravels to reveal experiences that are relevant in response to the questions:

How do I experience my ‘self’? How do I describe ‘me’? What words and images come to mind when I think about the question? How do I experience my ‘self’ in my mind? How do I experience my ‘self’ in the body? And how do friends describe you?

How do I experience my ‘self’? If I were to put it in the terms of the three realms of the self, I’d say it is probably 10% Soul, 85% Social, 5% Ecological. (Some people work well with images or music. I work well with words and numbers, percentages. Tables. Graphs, even, including my famous ‘happiness’ graph that I made a few years ago and showed to my at-the-time girlfriend, who was not over-pleased that I’d put her in the ‘difficult’ quadrant. “But look at the arrow!” I said, probably quite desperately, “the direction in which you’re moving towards the good quadrant! Look, the arrow!”)

I experience myself mainly as a social self because, well, I live mostly in the social world. That is, I am responding to and keeping myself within a narrow definition of what my social world expects of me and provides for (rules at work, in public, even at home, where no one is watching…). And that, intuitively, feels very limited, not only because of the neglect of the other two selves, but also because the social self has the most limited scope. The social world is the constructed world, and is always, then limited to parameters constructed through institution, law, moral, habit and practice. Intuitively (I’m coming back to that word for a reason—it’s a word that acts to stimulate the soul) the Soul and Ecological selves feel much more expansive, much less limited spaces, with limitless interpretations—although not limitless, the ecological world is anything but, although in combination with the soul world, perhaps the permutations are much more free, in terms of ‘becoming’.

The issue of relating a peanut intolerance (not an allergy… no more exaggeration! As Adam Phillips puts it, we exaggerate to draw attention to ourselves) to someone who already considered me ‘unhealthy’ is fixed wholly in this social world, the social self of seeing myself through others’ eyes. Also, a clue that I have a problem with un-healthiness, as my family, especially my mother, have always been ill, and I have never handled their illnesses and invalidity well (when I say well, I mean with patience and compassion. I was the run-for-your-life type as a younger man.).

As Adam Phillips puts it in his fourth talk of five on the subject of excess: “We are too much for ourselves – in our hungers and our desires, in our griefs and our commitments, in our loves and our hates – because we are unable to include so much of what we feel in the picture we have of ourselves” (quoted from On Balance).

And is that because other selves within us are disallowed? It seems to tally up with the idea of defining a social self in certain ways, within certain parameters. So is it the case that people who do not feel this way, that are perhaps considered excessive or outrageous in our society, have either a) expanded the definitions of what a social self is, for themselves, or b) see the social parameters for what they are: false experiences serving a civilisation that benefits fewer and fewer each year and destroys the planet along with it, or c) found a way to integrate the different realms of the self, bringing the soul and ecological selves into the social realm. Or, of course d) they have found ways to create new realms, new vision of society, for themselves and others, that does not have a name (or not in this practice). Is this unpsychology?

So how do I experience my self? What is my personality?

Simply asking the question, and settling down to write some morning pages on the matter (and meditating, and sleeping well, and breathing with mindfulness) makes it clear how socially constructed the ‘personality’ is. When you think about what you project and show people and what you don’t, what they come to see of you, this is your personality, it is a wholly social word, very different, for example, from intuition, which is something that is a word in language but often a very private experience, often ineffable (as is the soul).

This comes back to the understanding of the restrictions between personal/private and public, and strangely, through these hidden repetitions, repetitions that can only work when they are hidden from us, the word ‘personality’ makes us think that our personal (private) person is on show to the public, but it isn’t, really, at all. A ‘personality’ is merely the publicly acceptable face of us, of ourselves, whereas what is truly our person, as it were, often remains hidden. Lots of things left out, kept back in the person, in the ‘individual,’ which is another word of repetition which hides the fact that we are not ‘individual’ really but we rely for life and survival on our parents, so much so that we are actually parasitic and feed off them for the first few years of our lives, and then, in adulthood, we are supported and bound to communities for survival, and not just human communities, but the bacteria in our gut, the living crops we cultivate, the bees who pollinate them, the flowers they feed off, the soil that feeds the flowers. These are all living things, all things that grow from a seed (as we do, from seed and egg), except soil, which is more elemental, made up of elements, but without which there would be no life at all, nothing for food to grow in and from. And we are also, of course, reliant on animals, particularly in this industrial world. Animals are the ghosts in our machine, as the new film is called (The Ghosts in our Machine).

But these things are hidden from us, as are their repetition in our social structures. This is how civilisation works, Judith Butler tells us, “it is through the repetition of norms that worlds materialise, and that ‘boundary, fixity and surface’ are produced” (quoted in Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotions).

We repeat words, practices, emotional attachments, and through these repetitions we form worlds, we form habits which grow to become societies. That we operate cruel and inhumane animal agriculture structures for intelligent, sentient, emotional and social creatures called pigs, and call their meat pork and bacon and gammon and scratching, hiding the reality of the practice. That we become attached to ‘nations’ and ‘systems’ (such as ‘democracy’) through sentimental attachment to home, security, dominance, not realising that these attachments are simply repetitions that we have forgotten, no longer recognise as something we could choose not to accept.

Our job, as aware beings in constant necessary interrelationship with other beings, is to create new forms or to utilize existing beneficial forms (such as mindfulness, or equanimity, or compassion) and repeat them so they become a social form, not an outlier or odd or quirky or queer marginal practice, that then become a norm, strong and able to resist and restrain and, in the end, dissolve the harmful repetitions of Western society. The critical thing, though, is not to forget they are repetitions. Not to try and hide them, for fear they too become dogmatic, destructive, inerrant scripture to be defended, to kill for (what, for example, are the Buddhists doing attacking the Muslims in Nepal?).

So, back to the subject at hand: ‘me’! 😉 The use of the word ‘individual’ is a repetition that suits the model of self-containment in Western societies in their targeting and development of profitable, selfish beings that feed the comfort and satiety of the rich, who want more of being rich, who themselves believe they are self-contained and successful individuals.

The question, still, though, is why the models of Western society, the individual capitalist consumer, works so well for some and works so badly for others, not in terms of goods, but psychologically, in terms of their happiness? That is, why am I and millions like me so suffering of the destructive and wrong mechanisms of this system that identifies the individual, the self-contained individual, as the rightful construction; and the one that brings most happiness? That is because, perhaps, happiness is a socially defined construction, and one that fits within certain boundaries and parameters to which we adjust because we believe if we do then we will achieve ‘the good life’ – which is where it comes to, that is, following Butler and Berlant and others, we are affectively attached to certain things such as security, home, comfort, recognition from the group, these are the things we are trained to want and need, and so we become affectively attached, in a very limited range of forms and practices, so that we value them, in fact will even die for them, in fact we are dying for them, and taking the planet with us. As Berlant says, faith in this ‘happiness’ is a stupid, or rather ‘cruel optimism’ which she defines as “the faith that adjustment to certain forms or practices of living and thinking will secure one’s happiness”.

And often, as she has shown in her book Cruel Optimism, the pain of separating ourselves from these fantasies of the ‘good life’, from the practices we believe will bring us a good life (working hard, not rocking the boat, consuming new products, living in nuclear marriages) are too much for us to bear; and so we would rather keep the fantasy, even though it is crumbling around us, even though we can feel the world dissolving (in Alice Walker’s phrase), we would rather keep the fantasy because it would cost us too much to break free of that fantasy (of the ‘good life’) even though fewer and fewer people each day have access to security and modes of living that allow them to flourish. The media, the government, advertising, schools, education, they all continue to invest in the fantasy of the ‘good life’ and sell it to us; and we keep on buying, because the fantasy that we are ‘self-contained consumer individuals’ is, for many, ‘the only show in town’. Because it would be too painful for us to realised we are not self-contained, and that there is no good life for us. Not in the way it is currently defined. Not with ecological catastrophe and human aggression taking over.

And I realise, all through writing this, three things about my self:

  • I am holding back my feelings so that I can fit a social model of academic argument, of intellectual understanding, of calm control, of expressing ‘my self’ to others well, as a solid and coherent person, when all I really want to do is shout STOP EATING THE FUCKING PIGS.
  • That in doing this, in wanting to intellectually respond, I haven’t answered the questions. That I haven’t said anything about how I experience myself—that my hamstrings always hurt because I commit to some of the practices of running but not all of them (the stretching, the rubbing in magnesium oil, the slow and steady changes to biomechanics rather than plumping for a new pair of minimal shoes and going and belting out a fast lap), that I fight my posture each moment and it makes me hate this job, even writing; that I am always hungry (for what?); that I can know when I am being a little bit manic in my care and attention to others because I move around without consideration and feeling and, bang, there goes another block of chocolate. That it is this division between body and mind I have to address, not Butler or Berlant or books (as wonderful as they are, and as much as I’d recommend we all read Judith Butler and especially Lauren Berlant; I was miserable for two weeks after reading Cruel Optimism, but that’s because Lauren Berlant tears down the veil and is uncompromising in asking you to fully face the fantasy you are still invested in, liberal academic and all).
  • I’ve ignored the most painful thing to explore here; a small moment, when my closest friend keeps saying to me ‘you’re too much for me, Alex’ meant in jest or a comment about my jests, meant lovingly and light-heartedly, but also a clue, it feels to me, that she is moving away from me, this incredible three years of closeness and intimacy and support that is coming to an end; that she needs to move away, rely on me less, not lose the friendship but have it become less intense, so that she can move on, find love in her life, a true intimacy, one that I could not give her when we had a relationship.

Anyway. Maybe I needed to get through the intellectual stuff to get at the emotional. So, why not, begin with peanuts, and end with the peanut.

The peanut allergy was at one and the same time too much (“there’s always something”) and not enough (“nothing serious”), causing an excessive reaction in both body (the mucus) and mind (embarrassment). But as Adam Phillips in his book On Balance suggests, it is impossible to overreact. It is only seen as excessive in relation to some form of judgment on what is ‘enough’—this is what I saw or feared in my friend. That she would form some judgment on me based on my body’s reaction to the peanut. That I am unhealthy because of this reaction.

But what is enough? Enough is a concept this civilisation no longer needs to recognise.

Although I wonder if what Phillips says is true. Bodily, the peanut is clearly too much for my body—it wants rid of it. And perhaps then my mind wants rid of the feeling of overreaction too, of feeling embarrassed about myself. I’m fed up of there being ‘always something’ wrong. If, as my meditation practice suggests, we need to stop resisting our own experience of life and begin trusting that experience, perhaps I am right to see the ‘embarrassment’ I felt in fearing to tell as a message on which to act? Perhaps we need to listen to these messages a little more. A lot more.


One comment

  1. Steve Thorp (@SteveThorp1)

    Hi Alex – a little while ago (not so long ago as I would like), my wife Mary used to say “you’re fit, but you’re not healthy”, and although I used to get a bit pissed off when she said it, I know that she was right. It was food related, stress related, everything-related really, and I experienced shame when it was pointed out. I’m not saying that I’m “better”, but I’m better! What made the difference? Well, it has been incremental and the last little shift happened when I realised that I didn’t need to feel shame for anything. Not about not being a writer, not about being ill, not about not being in a certain type of social relationship, not about even feeling a bit of shame from time to time (if it comes it comes, and it is transient). I also know two other things: that I have a way of drifting back in relation to some of my habits around health, and that the transmission of affect is such a powerful force – almost to the point that seems to be behind almost every manifestation of sadness, madness or badness! And it keeps us locked so tightly into the restrictions of the social self that the other two can seem nebulous and unreal in comparison! These realisations may help me to be a good (I hope) (un)psychotherapist.

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